Mercurius Maghrebensis

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

The Jew of Carlisle again


After writing last week about William Mountsey’s Persian inscription at the Dwarfie Stane on Hoy, I came across a short and interesting booklet about him by Charlie Emett, called William Mounsey and the ‘Jew’ Stone (Giggleswick, 1990). It adds something to the story of Mounsey’s life, gives a little context for his family, and tells the story of the re-erection of the Jew Stone at Outhgill in 1989. (I assume in fact that most of the information in other sources comes from Mr Emett’s essay, so ‘add’ is simply a matter of the order in which I happened on them.)

Captain Mounsey (the author doesn’t bother with the assumed ‘Major’) was an intriguing man. His family was a prosperous one, its fortunes made in ecclesiastical law (for the diocese of Carlisle), legal work for several of the great landowners of Cumberland, political agency and the calico-printing which was booming at Carlisle in the late eighteenth century. Mounsey & Giles was a imagesleading Carlisle solicitor’s firm; Mounsey, Lawrie & Co. a leading calico-printer. On the strength of this, William Mounsey’s father, who took on the family businesses, bought Rockcliffe manor and built a large villa, Castletown House, while cannily managing the enclosure of much of Rockcliffe’s common land.

William, born in 1808, was destined to be a solicitor like his father, but first had a fairly undistinguished military career in Persia of which nothing significant is known at all, other than that during it he clearly learned Persian and Hebrew, and began his fascinated exploration of Jewish culture and history. He bought commissions in three regiments (ensign in the 30th Foot, lieutenant in 15th and Captain in the 4th, King’s Own). He sold his captaincy in 1844, perhaps on his father’s death, and returned to England.

Back in Carlisle, William took over the family firm and maintained his antiquarian and linguistic interests. He wrote at least one article, on mazes, for Notes and Queries, the leading forum for scholarly antiquarian research (today, sadly, given over almost entirely to literature, reflecting the disappearance of the learned amateur antiquarian like Mounsey). But the traces he has left are concrete, cut into the landscape he loved. He walked widely in Cumberland, and carved his name in a variety of languages. In the Eden gorge near Armathwaite he chiselled in 1855 a mischievously amended verse by Isaac Walton as well, perhaps, as a number of curious faces.  At St Constantine’s Cells, also on the Eden, he added in 1852 to existing Roman graffiti a ninth century Welsh verse meaning This leaf which is being persecuted by the wind, let her beware of her fate: she is old though only born this year, and a verse of his own in praise of Ituna, the Eden. His inscriptions were full of cryptic, sometime astrological references, and he had a imagespenchant for reversing letters, and frequently his own name, which often (as on Hoy) became YESNOUM SUMELILUG or (at Wetheral) MHW.

He also had an interest in the mazes cut by shepherds on the Solway marshes, of which there were three in his youth (the illustration above is said to be of one). In Notes and Queries he wrote that “the herdsmen at the present day are also in the habit of cutting labyrinthine figures which they also call ‘the walls of Troy,’” and related this to the Welsh Caerdroia, the word for a shepherds’ maze in Wales. Quite what they were for is debated, and shepherds may have cut them and perhaps danced them by Mounsey’s time simply because their fathers and grandfathers had. They are found across northern Germany and Sweden, and may have been used as a way of enticing and trapping evil spirits  by leading them noisily into the maze and then leaving them trapped at the centre. Mr Emett suggests that foreign sailors may have brought the original pattern, but in fact the Rockcliffe mazes are only three of the twenty-nine listed in Britain by W H Matthews in 1922, ten of them having ‘Troy’ in their names. I am interested by this, living as I do within a mile of another turf maze on the common at Saffron Walden, with a similarly intricate path-pattern designed only to lead from the edge to the centre.

But the focus of Mr Emmet’s essay is the Jew Stone. Mounsey, as I noted in my last, was clearly fascinated by Jewish culture and adopted a costume and beard based on Jewish practice, presumably as he had seen it amongst the Jews of Persia. We have to imagine his walking about the country heavily bearded and perhaps dressed in robes of some kind – hence his name, ‘the Jew of Carlisle.’ There certainly weren’t any local Jews there in the mid-nineteenth century from whom he could draw clues. And to judge whm2 (2)by his inscriptions, although he was interested by Kabbala and Jewish scholarship, he remained an orthodox, if rather florid, Anglican. The Jew Stone was cut and mounted in a lonely spot on Black Fell Moss. Seven feet high and covered in inscriptions, it must have been an odd thing to encounter near the source of the Eden – odd enough to provoke a bunch of navvies engaged in laying the Carlisle-Settle railway to smash it in 1870. Inscriptions in Greek and Latin were supplemented with a Star of David – Solomon’s Seal – and a triple T sigil symbolizing the Trinity. The Greek inscription reads Seek the river of the soul – whence it springs, whence thou hast served the body in a certain order – when thou hast acknowledged thy duty to the sacred scriptures – thou shalt be raised again to the order from which thou art fallen. Let us flee with the ships to our dear native land; for we have a country from which we have come and our Father is there.

In 1989 a group of local people in which Charlie Emett was a moving force worked with an Israeli called Shalom Hermon to replace the stone with a carefully made replica. Hermon had been an artillery officer with Jewish Brigade, training at Catterick in 1945 and intrigued by the Jew Stone marked on his Ordnance Survey map, but not to be found where marked. By the eighties a minister in the Israeli government, Hermon was able to help with fund-raising, and attended the inauguration of the new stone on Outhgill village green, where it should be safer from vandals.  A curiously interesting story, which leaves one wondering what else William Mounsey did, read and thought about – and where else he carved his name.


Post-holiday miscellany

Brummie Qur'an
 Fresh back from a holiday in Orkney, where watery sunshine more or less staved off the cold. The extraordinary remains of the islands’ neolithic cultures mesmerised us, as did the ghosts of the German Imperial Fleet, scuttled in Scapa Flow in 1919, just below our windows. Three short notes today, rather than an essay.


The TLS published on August 7th a fascinating article by Gabriel Said Reynolds (Variant Readings: The Birmingham Qur’an in the context of debate on Islamic origins) about the recently identified pages of an early Qur’an that may have been brought to Birmingham from Fustat in the nineteenth century. What is fascinating about the two leaves is their date – carbon dating places them between 548 and 645, earlier than any other known copy of the Qur’an with perhaps one exception – while the text is virtually identical with the standard text traditionally believed to have been assembled for the Caliph ‘Othman (644-656). Carbon dating, in fact, almost certainly places this apparently ‘Othmanic text well before Othman’s caliphate, upsetting the accepted history of the revealed text. If the dating is good (and it is said to have 95% accuracy) then this Quran was written when the revelations had hitherto been assumed to have been preserved in conflicting versions only on palm-leaves and the shoulder-bones of camels. It raises a whole lot of questions about textual history and textual variation (Reynolds reminds us that the text of the Quran as it now exists, the King Farouk Qur’an, was finalised and published in 1924 and revised in 1936), suggesting that the story of ‘Othman’s scholars agreeing a single text, and consigning bones and palm-leaves to the flames, needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. “The dates,” as Reynolds puts it, “are not simply early. They are too early. Instead of rejoicing, the news about this manuscript should lead to head-scratching.” It poses some very fundamental questions. “The upshot of all these early dates is that the Qur’an may well date earlier than Uthman, possibly much earlier. It may be time to rethink the story of the Qur’an’s origins, including the traditional dates of Muhammad’s career.”


As sad coincidence would have it, one of the last generation’s most glittering and controversial Qur’anic head-scratchers, Patricia Crone, died in July. There have been many obituaries, that from the New York Times here. Its author quotes Fred Donner of Chicago as saying that she had “made it clear that historians of early Islam had failed to really behave as historians — that is, had failed to challenge the validity of their sources, but rather had accepted complacently what I call the ‘traditional origins narrative’ created by the Islamic tradition itself.” Her books caused much argument and not a little bitterness, and particularly Hagarism which questioned radically the origins and nature of early Islam: she wrote, as she said, as “an infidel for infidels,” meaning that she was not hobbled by sacred orthodoxies and had the privilege of an objective approach to the texts. I remember very well attending, as a postgrad in 1982, her undergraduate history class in Oxford, which she opened with a virtuoso performance, a scintillating hour on pre-industrial societies which formed the germ of her remarkable book Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World (1989). I’d have loved to hear her on the Birmingham dating conundrum.



On the island of Hoy, off Orkney, there is an interesting trace of the Middle East in the form of a line of Persian cut into the granite of a neolithic rock-tomb. The tomb is 5000 years old, a chamber-tomb carved into a glacial erratic: it is unique in Britain, and known as the Dwarfie Stane, having gathered a trail of stories about its being the home, or the tomb, of dwarves or trolls. Among the other laboriously cut, and often well-lettered, Victorian graffiti, is the line of Persian which translates as I sat here for two nights and have found patience. It was cut by ‘Major’ William Mounsey, whose name is also carved, backwards, in Latin script, apparently in 1850. Some say that his patience was learned of the midges.

Mounsey was an intriguing and eccentric character, born near Carlisle in 1808, and returning there after a military career abroad. For a start, he almost certainly wasn’t a major, army lists giving him the rank of captain right up to the end of his career. He is said to have been an intelligence agent – a spy – for the British army in Persia and Afghanistan, though I can find no easy corroboration of this. He seems to have been easily competent in Hebrew, Persian, Greek, Latin and Welsh, and was an amateur antiquarian as well as a soldier and a solicitor. He wandered widely, cutting curious inscriptions into ancient monuments and hillsides, often in Welsh and frequently backwards. He may have been responsible for a series of five faces, various stars of David and a fish carved in rocks in the Eden valley. Later in life he wore a large beard and dressed, in a priestly costume he designed himself, based on his studies of Jewish history and culture, and was known as ‘the Jew of Carlisle.’ One venture was a walk (in full sacerdotal fig) along the river Eden from sea to source, cutting his name as he went. He commemorated the walk with a monument called ‘the Jew Stone,’ at Black Fell Moss which was destroyed by malignant navvies and survives in a facsimile standing at Outhgill. It reads, predictably in Greek, Hebrew and Latin: William Mounsey, a lone traveller, commenced his journey at the mouth and finished at the source, fulfilled his vow to the genius and nymphs of the Eden, on 15th March 1850.



One of the infinitely many personal tragedies of Syria took place last week, in the death of Khaled al-Asaad. He was the archaeologist in charge of the site at Palmyra: he had been there more than half a century, and knew its every nook and cranny, writing about it with incomparable authority. The Daesh were convinced, probably correctly, that he knew where Palmyra’s moveable treasures were concealed. They wanted them for loot and resale, and threatened al-Asaad with death if he did not reveal them. Al-Asaad refused to do so, and was killed, his decapitated body strung up from a pillar in the centre of Palmyra.

A personal tragedy certainly, but also a vignette of real nobility. This was a man who understood very well the way in which human and material culture are inextricably entwined, and how the destruction of cultural heritage is part-and-parcel of atrocity and genocide. Christopher de Bellaigue reports asking a Zoroastrian priest “what happens if the flame [in the Zoroastrian temple] at Yazd goes out?” The priest replies: “Nothing. Except that the endeavours, toil and devotion of our forefathers will have come to naught.” And that’s exactly it – the destruction of material culture is both everything and nothing, and those who sneer at concern with stones ‘when human beings are dying,’ fail to understand the intimate ties of past and future, of stone and flesh. Across Syria and Iraq ancient peoples whose bloodlines go back thousands upon thousands of years into prehistory are being slaughtered, enslaved and exiled by incoming Chechens, Arabs, Punjabis, Maghrebis and Europeans. Destroying and looting the warp and weft of their history and identity is part of the process of removing them as though they had never been.

In a particularly good article last week in the Evening Standard, Robert Bevan, a member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, discusses this whole issue very wisely, writing that “until the West can demonstrate that it understands that the fate of peoples and the fate of their culture are interlinked, there can be no resolution to the ongoing attacks on both.” He discusses the insights of Raphael Lemkin, the Byelorussian Jew who drafted and promoted the 1948 Genocide Convention (having coined the word). Lemkin linked the two voices of annihilation – against people and against their culture – in his drafting of the Convention, but the UN removed reference to the destruction of culture, with disastrous results. Not that Lemkin confused the two. Bevan quotes him as saying, luminously, “Burning books is not the same as burning bodies, but when one intervenes against mass destruction of churches and books one arrives just in time to prevent the burning of bodies.” That early warning function is long past in Syria, but we ignore at our peril the systematic campaign by barbarians to extirpate any culture that is not their own poor, two-dimensional figment of one. And not just in Syria.



Finally a note that the recently published number 15 of the excellent Critical Muslim is focussed on Educational Reform, and is full of good things. I have an article in it on education reform in North Africa, called The Sheepskin Effect, and there is much more, all of it worth reading, intelligent, though-provoking and often important.

Tall, Nasty Stories and the Four Pillars of Wisdom


Auberon Waugh returned again and again in his later writing to ‘hamburger-gases,’ the toxic, greasy emissions from hamburgers that he affected to believe were responsible not only for global warming, but for the decay of stonework on ancient buildings, madness in humans and almost any other ill you care to imagine. Seductive as the theory is, it seems unlikely to be quite the universal explicator that Waugh hoped.

Today, discussion of the threat posed by salafi-jihadi terrorism is full of hamburger-gas. The modern equivalent of Waugh’s universal explainer is the ‘narrative.’ This word is used to mean the master-story, the worm-like account of the nature of the world that is purveyed by bearded Svengalis and burrows into the brains of young Muslims, seducing them into terrorism, or into the grey landscape of ‘Non-Violent Extremism.’ Put simply, the hamburger-narrative is a world view that believes Christians and Jews (and Shi’ites too) to be responsible for the world’s ills; sees Muslims as persecuted the world over, but particularly of course in and by the West; sees Western policy in the Middle East as an oil-fuelled crusade; views the mores and morals of the West as unutterably debased and corrupt; and calls for violent, pre-emptive action against the infidel as well as the oppressive sultans of the Muslim world itself.

This was what the Prime Minister was referring to when, in the wake of the appalling events at Sousse in which 37 people were gunned down, he talked of “the poisonous radical narrative that is turning so many young minds.” It certainly is poisonous nonsense, but tempting as it is to identify in ‘the narrative’ a single external reason for radicalization, doing so is rather like asserting that obesity is caused by Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. It is of course true, in a limited sense, but it is a small slice of a larger and more complex truth that includes chocolate Easter eggs, Turkish delight, fizzy drinks, potato crisps, lack of exercise, Camembert and spaghetti alla carbonara.  Of course the narrative is real. Of course it is largely rubbish. And of course it crystallizes in a number of young Muslims, with dreadful results, the rationale for violent action. But it isn’t a sort of airborne bacillus (like anthrax, for example) that lights on the shoulder of happy, balanced young men and women and turns them instantly into black-clad zombies.

Staphylococcus aureus is a bacillus that provides a different, and more useful analogy for narratives. It is silently and invisibly present in our noses and on our skins, where it is a normal part of the flora, but it “can cause a range of illnesses, from minor skin infections to life-threatening diseases such as pneumonia, meningitis,” and so on. Most of the time it doesn’t, but certain conditions encourage it to manifest itself malignantly, and then it is very dangerous. That’s how narratives work. They’re around us every day, sloshing through the bilge-filled scuppers of the internet and along the rows of puzzled faces at the café, but most of us – and crucially most young people – see them for what they are, and ignore them. Simply pointing fingers at ‘the narrative’ is not enough: the question is why some people are receptive to it, what changing conditions encourage its emergence, and how therefore the bacillus ceases to be a cheerful passenger in the human nose and becomes a killer.

And these conditions are not unique to Muslims. Every paranoid cult and groupuscule has its narrative, from Daech and the Hindu VHP to Aryan supremacism and Heaven’s Gate. The last was (past tense because it was a cult with a terminator-gene) particularly stark: its members were persuaded to believe that the Earth was about to be recycled. In an attempt to pre-empt, or avoid, being aboard the earth when this dramatic fate overcame it, the cult’s devotees group committed mass suicide in white pyjamas, in March 1997, believing that their spirits would be able to board a UFO hiding in the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet, which just happened to be passing fairly close to earth at the time. These narratives, Daech or Heaven’s Gate or Aryan Knights Templar, are intellectually worthless, self-pitying cock-and-bull backstories, which under stress seep like staphylococcus from the nasal cavities of Anders Breivik, Marshall Applewhite, Dylan Roof, Jihadi John, the Pompey Lads and many others, into their cruelly stunted, uncritical minds.

The narrative – and this applies to all of them – is dangerous for those whose resistance has already been compromised, and not for those whose resistance hasn’t. The brittle, the unhappy, the frustrated – and perhaps most dangerously, the simply confused adolescent – are the objects of a process of emotional and intellectual seduction that knows no credal boundaries. I commented a month or so ago on the fascinating parallel drawn by Professor Kate Cooper between the radicalisation of young Muslims today, and the radicalisation of young Christians in late antiquity – in both cases often amounting to grooming for martyrdom. It is that process that needs to be understood, how it uses the narative as a tool; how it fixes upon personal insecurities, crises and traumas; and how it is magnified by isolation, insinuating men with beards and the ubiquitous internet.

The attraction today of focusing on narrative to the exclusion of other drivers is clear. If hamburger-gas is responsible for the radicalisation of young Muslims, then other reasons adduced can be brushed aside. In his generally very constructive ‘Ninestiles’ speech on countering terrorism and violent extremism, the PM dismissed the three most often cited drivers of radicalisation – foreign policy, education and poverty: “Some argue it’s because of historic injustices and recent wars, or because of poverty and hardship. This argument, what I call the grievance justification, must be challenged.” How? Well, it can’t be Iraq, “because 9/11 … happened before the Iraq war;” it can’t be poverty “because many of these terrorists have had the full advantages of prosperous families or a Western university education.” So it must be the poisonous narrative itself.

It’s easy to see why blaming a factor outside the direct control of governments is appealing (and Mr Cameron did add, of the ‘grievance justification:’ “Now let me be clear, I am not saying these issues aren’t important”). Accepting the impact of foreign policy on violent extremism would change the whole matrix in which foreign policy is made, and endanger the notion of military intervention in the Middle East. So 9/11, coming before the invasion of Iraq, can’t be the reason. But really this is a straw man: Britain and the US invaded Iraq in 1991 as well as in 2003; and there is a smoking trail of consequences that have followed British (and French, Dutch, Italian and American) involvement in the Muslim world over many generations, right up to today.

By the same token, admitting poverty as a possible driver would open up difficult conversations. Quite how problematic is hinted at by this week’s report from the Runnymede Trust, which suggests that current welfare reforms will disproportionately affect “minority ethnic people,” with “with nearly 50% of Pakistani children and over 40% of Bangladeshi children living in poverty.” All those children are Muslim, so we must certainly hope that poverty isn’t a driver.

But this whole tenor of argument is very unsubtle. Reasons can’t be adduced and tested one at a time and dismissed in a sentence. Whatever else it is, the process that we call radicalisation isn’t simple, and there are many conditions that make people vulnerable. There is much to say about the relationship between education and radicalisation, and I’ll return to that in my next post. Two other example of weaknesses that seem to invite radicalisation are mental illness and prison conversion. Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley noted in front of the Home Affairs Committee last week that “about a quarter of terrorism investigations now involve ‘vulnerable’ people, including those with mental health issues, who are being targeted by the Islamic State.” (Think Waj, the simpleton in Four Lions – pictured below – who swallows the narrative like a sea-lion swallowing a mackerel: “Omar is disillusioned about the treatment of Muslims around the world,” goes the plot-summary, “and is determined to become a soldier. This is the most exciting idea Waj has ever heard. Better still it’s a no brainer because Omar does his thinking for him.”) Those whose intellectual immune system has been compromised are being targeted for infection.

Other vulnerable groups seem to include prisoners who convert to Islam (and bear in mind that “more than 70% of the general prison population,” according to the Social Exclusion Unit in 2004, “has two or more mental health disorders”, so the overlap with the last group is suggestive). This is interesting background to remarks by the former head of the National Counter Terrorism Security Office, Chris Phillips, who maintains that staff cuts in prisons of 30% between 2010 and 2014 have allowed a serious increase in radicalisation, especially of converts.

Of course the “poisonous narrative” has its place in this manipulative process, and it would be quite wrong to suggest otherwise. What Kate Cooper reminds us is that there are many such narratives, tailored for time and place over great sweeps of history. The narrative slips snugly and easily into the minds of young and adolescent men and women who have been destabilised in other ways. Mental illness and prison are two vectors, but the central feature of all of them is anomie, alienation, the sense that your wheels are spinning and have little traction on life, prospects and surroundings. As a recent report says of Iftekhar Jaman, who went to Syria with the Pomey Lads, he “was transformed from a part-time worker at a Sky call-centre with few prospects, to Abu Abdurrahman al-Britani, reportedly the leader of a ‘brigade,’ with an assault rifle, a cause and a following on social media.”

Pankaj Mishra, writing in the Guardian, talks of “humiliated rage and furtive envy,” the toxic package that drives the young and alienated, as characterising “Muslim insurrectionaries and Hindu fanatics today.” He means by this the awful conflicting pressures of feeling left behind, condemned by the way the world is ordered to exclusion, while at the same time aspiring to all the material goods and less tangible status that the world order seems to promise, without delivering. This driving condition was most aptly explored by Dostoevsky, who, in Mishra’s words, “saw most acutely how individuals, trained to believe in a lofty notion of personal freedom and sovereignty, and then confronted with a reality that cruelly cancelled it, could break out of paralyzing ambivalence into gratuitous murder and paranoid insurgency.”

We need the confidence to assert firmly that well-adjusted people with a strong sense of their identities, comfortable in their own skins, confident of their families’ love and unconditional acceptance, and of societies’ respect and esteem, and imbued with hope for the future, don’t become terrorists – whatever poisonous bilge is poured into their ears. The narrative, in other words, is not the whole answer. It is a part of the answer, of course, but it is a factor that comes into play like staphylococcus aureus only when other conditions have created vulnerability.

What worries me is one other feature of the staphylococcus: abuse of antibiotics has created a drug-resistant strain that is very dangerous indeed. The analogy here is very uncomfortable, and tells us to worry less about countering narratives, which will perhaps simply create resistant strains; and more about addressing, with painful honesty, the causes of the underlying vulnerabilities that let them in. These are the three missing pillars.



Syria: eating chocolate in gardening gloves


I’ve just spent two-and-a-half days in blazing sunshine at St Andrews, attending the Syrian Studies Centre’s biennial conference on Syria. I learned a lot, met some very interesting people, and was thoroughly depressed. Quite why I was depressed was summed up for me on the last morning by a speaker who said that he was conscious that the conference had not really succeeded in linking the two levels – the high level, strategic, conflict-resolving, power-sharing international level, and the people-on-the-ground level, the Syrians who are suffering abominably and endlessly in Syria or in exile. I’m not sure that the gap is culpable, and both levels were well represented, but it does highlight for me the terrible difficulty of keeping in mind the individual – the suffering, puzzled, desperate human being – when examining the moveable elements at a high level. How will Russia play its interests in Ukraine against those in Syria? Will Iran trade its land-bridge to Hizbollah via Damascus? Will the Assad regime acknowledge stalemate, and what will it do if it does? Will the Saudis even allow the Iranians to the table? And how does all this affect the distraught lawyer from Raqqah who was speaking on the screen as I left the conference on Friday, telling of the killing of his friends, the sacking of his office and his own torture by the regime – and of his brother’s execution by Daech.

It seemed to me, too, that there are two very different dramas playing out. On the ground, millions of Syrians are either in exile, sometimes well-heeled, more often desperately penurious (and many dying in the attempt to become exiles); or facing unimaginably bloody horrors at home, in places that were once safe. High above them in the empyrean, strategists try to work out the next move in the game of three-dimensional chess that might, just conceivably, help Syria inch towards a fragile peace, of some provisional and deeply unsatisfactory kind. Assad has got to be part of it, the Iranians and Russians have got to support it and be paid off with compromise. Well, as one speaker said with guarded desperation, of course an end to the violence is the overriding aim for everybody.

And of course this is true. An end to the obscene killing of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and the enforced exile of millions is the most important short-term aim of all. The problem is that I didn’t hear much in St Andrews that made me optimistic that it is close. Or even in the middle-distance. Several eminent people of great integrity, closely involved in what passes for a peace process, on behalf of the UN, the EU, and individual European states, all talked eloquently of the problems. So did several impressive academics, closely involved in the porous borderland where academic conflict resolution bleeds into practical conflict resolution, men who spend patient hours, weeks, years trying to make infinitesimal degrees of progress towards a solution that may well, as they are all clear, be unattainable, and at best is still a long way off. I am lost in admiration for the commitment, the knowledge and the skill.

But as one of the experts in peace-negotiation and stabilisation said, after much talk of ‘an exhausted stalemate,’ the problem is not so much reaching one (which we probably have) but persuading both sides to acknowledge it at the same time. This seemed to me a rather gloomy conclusion to a conference called Syria: Moving beyond the Stalemate.

It isn’t possible to summarize a rich and complex tapestry of presentations and conversations, except to say that one risked becoming a little seasick in the tumbling between the two levels. Analysis of the possible strategic positions taken by the big outside players – Iran, Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia – without which there cannot be peace, sat alongside fascinating insights into just how local government is being jury-rigged from scraps of the ancien regime and ad hoc sharia courts, and how much the form of such improvisation depends on exactly wher you are looking. In this vein, most interesting was a young scholar called Fouad Gehad Marei, whose talk, Governing in the Meanwhile, looked at this bottom-up governance-bodging through a year in Aleppo, and the brief phenomenon of the United Judicial Council which for a time administered pretty decent justice. But striking here is the time-lag inherent in scholarship: the UJC is two years gone, and however fascinating, isn’t dispensing justice today. In several talks about rebel factions, we ran up against the fact that the research had been done before the rise of ISIS, so that variants of “And then of course there’s ISIS but I’m not going to talk about them,” were all too frequent. Without in any sense doing down the quality of the work, the actual urgency of Syria’s plight made me feel a bit like a player in that old children’s party game where you have to cut and eat a large bar of chocolate with a knife and fork while wearing gardening gloves.

In between, there were some exceptional talks. The most fascinating of all was Dawn Chatty’s exploration of the history of migration in Syria, the way in which Syria has been a country of refugees since Ottoman times and before. She spoke of massive flows of refugees in the 19th century from the Ottoman borderlands, of Jews, Christians, Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians and Caucasians. She explained the punctilious and surprisingly ‘modern’ Ottoman Immigration Commission set up in 1860 to manage immigration, and the French approach to citizenship and political division. And then onto this canvas she painted the very diferent migration  experiences of Syrians in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Clear above all is the fact that the refugee experience in Turkey is significantly better than elsewhere – that something of the old Ottoman code still shapes attitudes, with NGOs supporting refugees, temporary protection, shelter, healthcare and the right to apply for work permits. In Lebanon and Jordan the experience is less good, and Prof Chatty speculated that the cultural and social closeness of refugees with the people of those two countries makes for friction, while the greater difference, as well as (possibly) sufi-driven open-handedness, make Turkey a markedly less hostile destination. Other interesting papers dealt with the Kurds, the Alawis and the way nasheeds have developed and been used by jihadis in Syrian contexts to generate emotional empathy and attachment. Its author, Moutaz al-Khedar, came out with the obvious-but-surprising observation that singing, according to jihadi texts, really is heresy – haram – but is authorised for the strictly pragmatic reason that it works. Just like, as he said disarmingly, suicide.

The last morning saw a panel – which included Fouad Marei and Rana Jawad – on Alternative Governance and Voices. A bit of a rag-bag, it nonetheless came closest to shining a light on the real predicament of Syrians. Alexa Firat talked of the founding of the literary journal Awraq, in the midst of war, and its brave attempt to shape thinking for and about Syria’s future. Joshka Wessels looked at video activism, and while perhaps necessarily a little inconclusive, gave glimpses into the braveries, defiances and fears of those who are determined to witness (though not addressing the slew of false witness that is so routinely also borne, and which makes understanding events on the ground such a treacherous puzzle). This gave a sense of life’s continuing despite the surrounding madness – of people planning ahead for a future that they can only dimly see, but which they imagine, though tremulously, often with greater confidence than their politicians and those negotiating far above their heads.

What I missed was a sense of creativity, of actually touching the stuff of imagination. Amongst the books on the bookstands outside the conference were piles of works on politics and international relations, Syrian history, jihadism and military theory. But I didn’t see a single novel, play or book of poetry. Yes, it was an academic conference, but it was also much more, and would have benefitted greatly from a reading or two from, even by, Syrian writers. The closest we got was a small pile of Critical Muslim’s excellent volume 11, Syria, with its splendid mélange of creative writing and sterner analysis.

I’d have loved to see a film, too, and there are many Syrian possibilities, of course. Because of its British Council links (the Council helped to fund it) I thought of the wonderful film Queens of Syria, recently shown in London and Brussels as part of the Council’s Syria: Third Space exhibition. It is a documentary, but a documentary of a rather special kind, following a re-interpretative production by Georgina Paget of Euripides’s Trojan Women, acted entirely by women refugees from Syria, now in Jordan. None had ever acted before, and they didn’t find it easy. All were afraid. “Many of the women only decided to show their faces on the last day of filming; this is an example of the reality of negotiating with fear,” the film’s director, Yasmin Fedda is reported as saying.

The resonance of Euripides down the centuries is extraordinary, and like the Trojan women gazing on lost Troy and lost lives, one of the Syrian actresses says “We were all queens in our own houses. It is like us: we lost everything.” Art, after all, helps us say things that are otherwise very difficult, sometimes impossible, to say. As one actress said, “Since I started this project, my life has been renewed.”


Saints, jihadis and online Foxe


In a week when the PM and the Home Secretary have been making speeches in Slovakia about terrorist recruitment (at a wonderfully resonant conference called GLOBSEC), it’s odd and pleasing how serendipity stacks up complementary inputs into our thinking. This week I have been at an Open University seminar on Religious Violence and the Social Media, and then at another organized by the Islamic Studies Centre at Cambridge on Anti-Muslim Hate Crimes. In between the two, I saw Deeyah Khan’s fascinating documentary, Exposure: Jihad – a British Story. The three fit together to tell a powerful story that is amplified by thoughtful press coverage (though not necessarily by speeches at GLOBSEC, which seemed to be trying to turn the focus back onto the culpability of Muslim communities themselves).  In the background, this week has seen a family of nine, women and children from Bradford, slipping off to the ‘Caliphate;’ a teenager from Dewsbury murdering several Iraqis at Baiji with a bomb with which he also killed himself; and a convert from rural Buckinghamshire killed while taking part in a terrorist attack in Kenya. There has followed all the usual heartbreak, breast-beating and finger-pointing.

The question of ‘Why?’ is ever-present and urgent, but I don’t think we really begin to grasp the answer.  Answers are almost by definition simplistic, because the influences, pressures, perversions and deceptions that lead to mass murder, using oneself as a bomb – or to taking infants to a bloodthirsty, solipsistic enclave in the Middle East – can only be hugely complex. Furious rebuttals of each suggestion are even more simplistic, and generally focus obstinately on exceptions: the reason can’t be British foreign policy because lots of people who don’t like British foreign policy don’t join Daech. It can’t be poverty because lots of daechi fighters come from relatively comfortable backgrounds. It can’t be lack of education because many jihadis are well educated. Quite. Simple answers get simple rebuttals, and the whole conversation is pretty short on meaning.  There is presumably a kaleidoscope of reasons that form themselves into different patterns for each individual, a kaleidoscope that includes all of these and many more. In Slovakia the spotlight is being turned back onto Muslim communities and the shape of their religiosity. This too is one of the small pieces of glass in the kaleidoscope, but it isn’t in itself an answer.

One of the speakers at the OU workshop was the Manchester University ancient historian Professor Kate Cooper.  Her current field of research is the early church, and what she spoke about was martyrdom. What was the background to Roman kids – particularly girls – in Late Antiquity  going off and allowing themselves to be eaten by lions, chopped up, burned, dismembered, broken on the wheel?  She picks out three repeating scenarios: unjust suffering and moral heroism; inter-generational conflict; and ‘the marriage plot,’ and she calls these “key concepts to watch for in thinking comparatively about identity, idealism and religious violence.”  The first is about the charged nature of the stories of martyrdom, their readiness to go viral: this has always been so, as the carefully cultivated corpus of martyrdom stories shows. And not just within the Catholic church: Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the only book other than the bible in most English churches in the 16th and 17th centuries, was a vector of such stories more than a millennium later.  Indignation, as Professor Cooper pointed out, is very powerful emotion and unusually communicable.  “The meaning of [the martyrs’] death,” as she puts it, “could be manipulated in memory.” Indeed so:  Daech has put Foxe online, and the slew of online video footage of brutality towards Muslims and the pathos of martyrs, is carefully calibrated for maximum viral effect.

As for inter-generational conflict, the sense that “my parents don’t understand me” is universal and  perennial; and it is instructive to be shown close parallels between the way ancient Christian ‘father figures’ and modern Muslim ‘father figures’ insert themselves into this gap. They use the implication that parents really don’t understand what it is to be young, nor do they ‘get’ the truth of religion. Adult Christian ‘handlers’ “use[d] ideas of eschatology and revelation to allow the younger generation to legitimately withdraw obedience from their (comparatively moderate) parents,”  writes Professor Cooper, and ideas like this are particularly easily spread among adolescents, going with the grain of classic – and normal – family tensions. As Daniel Koehler puts it, of jihadi recruiters: “Recruiters need to build a wall within families to distance [their targets] from their mothers.” Eschatology and revelation help here too.

And finally, ‘the marriage plot,’ the escape from pressure to marry in accordance with parents’ wishes and impersonal agendas, by submitting to the alternative parenthood of a more understanding mentor.  An age-old and powerfully motivating icon of conflicting inter-generational agendas, and today an endlessly repeated crisis for families and communities making the rapid zig-zag movement between tradition and modernity in a generation or two.

All three ring true down the ages, and tell us a good deal about what is happening today. It seems to me very useful indeed to take this frightening pattern of contemporary seduction, which can all too easily be read as uniquely evil, or uniquely a result of the social media age, or uniquely Muslim, out of any of those specific frameworks, and to see it as the outcome of careful manipulation (‘grooming’ if you like, but this choice of word is deliberately intended to draw sexual parallels which are probably a distraction) of young people at particularly manipulable moments in their lives. In both cases the intrusive mentor uses religion: but for a millennium and a half the first story has been read as good, while the second today is read as evil. The parents of the early Christian martyrs themselves would have had sympathy with the Dewsbury family, and seen their daughters’ unkempt Svengalis as unequivocally bad; but in neither case does this stop the children’s stroies being stirred ruthlessly into a viral whirlwind of propaganda and proselytism.

Deeyah Khan’s film built very clearly on this. She interviewed a small number of Muslims who had been radical, and in some cases fought jihad, under the influence of a single man, Abu Muntasir, who was a jihadi himself, a charismatic preacher and a recruiter in the 1990s. Tall, handsome and eloquent, Abu Muntasir is the ‘father figure’ that Professor Cooper was analyzing, and is described in exactly those terms by several of his one-time myrmidons. They talk of isolation, a sense of rejection by the society in which they lived as young men, of a lack of communication with their parents.  To this one of them added a physical deformity that he also felt set him apart. What they all describe is a sense of alienation from the family, local and social context in which they had grown up – were growing up – and the finding of an alternative family. The warmth of their memories was consistent. They talked of the emotional and physical embrace of a new family, of feeling valued, needed and understood. Interestingly, though disillusioned, they remembered this experience with what looked like wry affection.  Most were now imams, and – in this obviously self-selecting sample – of a peaceful outlook, working to prevent others making the mistakes they made. This involved talking openly to young Muslims about family, religious difference, marriage and sex (which one described unsurprisingly as the major preoccupation of Muslim boys who cannot in principle have any sexual contact before marriage).  Even Abu Muntasir himself talked with emotion and apparent candour about his own role, admitting clearly that he had manipulated the young men, just as they described some of the techniques of manipulation. There were tears, apparently of regret, from Abu Muntasir; but what came across, perhaps surprisingly, from all of those interviewed, was that these are normal, pleasant, even attractive people, able to talk with an accessible realism about the wasted years of their own lives.

They illustrate implicitly, and in one case spoke quite explicitly about, what one speaker at the OU called “double alienation.” A younger man, not one of Abu Muntasir’s protégés, said “When I’m in Britain, they call me a Paki: when I’m in Pakistan, they call me a Brit.” Said with humour, because as he explained, a strong new religious affiliation had drawn him away from a life of petty crime and given him a manageable and comfortable identity. He, like the older men, pointed clearly to a strong sense of not belonging, of lacking the stabilizing gimbals of family and society to help navigate through adolescence.  There was, and is, no implication that the family weren’t loving – just they didn’t understand, didn’t grasp the pressures and insecurities of doubly alienated children. And then, under the influence of the new family, the new father figure, came the poisonous insinuation that the parents “weren’t proper Muslims.”

The film focused on men, but it’s very clear that unprecedentedly many of those going off to join the jihad are women – and that women play a particular part in recruiting, publicising, stabilising and perpetuating the daechi ‘Caliphate.’ What’s less clear is why, and here my day in Cambridge gave me a clue. It was a fairly downbeat day in that it showed the routine, demoralising harassment that many Muslims undergo. What I hadn’t expected (perhaps naively) was that more than half of all recorded ‘religious’ hate crime is against women – and that 80 per cent of female victims were wearing hijab or niqab at the time of the incident. These figures are very rough (the British Crime Surveys reckon that under-reporting is well above 50 per cent), but the overall pattern is clear. Anti-Muslim hate crime is predominantly a white (73.6 per cent), male (83 per cent), young (54.2 per cent of perpetrators aged between 25 and 29) activity, generally in a public place and more often than not directed at Muslim women. Many Muslim women report being spat at as fairly routine. So, many stay at home, or in their communities, isolating themselves in homogeneous urban areas with homogeneous schools and services. It wouldn’t be surprising if some felt intolerably persecuted, and open to the suggestion that there’s a better life elsewhere. Particularly if home life in Britain isn’t all that great.

So it seems that dislocation, doubt about one’s identity, alienation from society at large and discomfort with the habits and persuasions of one’s parents open crevices in the integrity and solidarity of family life into which the determined outsider can put his jemmies and begin to lever it apart.  Arguments about ‘fault’ are often irrelevant: it’s clear that many of these families are loving and supportive. They simply don’t understand what is happening to them and their children. Like the pagan (or passively Christian) parents of ardent young converts in late Antiquity they represent a culture that their children are being induced to reject.  They stand at the lethal intersection of cultural change and malign manipulation – manipulation which employs those contagious, viral stories of suffering, martyrdom and victimhood that are so very effective.

One more factor makes this cocktail lethal: the availability of instant gratification. Most teenaged boys down the ages have fantasies about saving the world, being a hero, attracting girls, blowing away injustice at gunpoint. Most teenaged girls harbour somewhere in their minds a Heathcliff fantasy, a longing for the sort of man their parents would find totally unimaginable. In previous generations we shrugged these fantasies off and went back to our homework. One or two young daredevils ran away to join the circus, or the gypsies. A few went, in the 1930s, to fight in Spain. Today, though, there are siren voices on the internet in the privacy of a child’s bedroom, and a ticket to Gaziantep or Istanbul is half a dozen clicks away. Today you can run away to join this circus and cross the last border 24 hours later. Wish fulfilment fits inside a half-term holiday, and without a chance – perhaps ever – for second thoughts.

Serendipity continued with a very good short piece in the Guardian this morning by Sadakat Kadri. He writes that “forces other than faith are at play. One of them is the dynamic that draws young men elsewhere towards gangs. Growing up in isolated immigrant communities, they might be more likely to view the group’s macho hierarchy as a force for stability.” And of young women, “Isis blogs and Twitter accounts are filled with questions from women curious to marry fighters – because an eagerness among good Muslim girls to hook up with bad jihadi boys is a strong part of the group’s appeal.” And finally, he summarizes very usefully: “Isis offers a way of escaping stifling familial expectations, the low-level racism of wider society, and communal customs  that many British Muslims themselves don’t value. In exchange, it promises a godly cause – the defence of victimised Muslims – that draws similarly passionate people from all over the world. Troubled young men imagine a land where they can start anew, commanding respect as upholders of God’s law. Unhappy women dream of attaining happiness …”

Plus ça change …



Bavures and Shibboleths – language in Morocco

Morocco-school-MerzougaAs anyone who follows this blog knows, I am rather preoccupied with the question of language. Both the fus7adarija dimension, and the whole question of foreign languages. (And of course the matter of Tamazight.) To dispense with the first, I have little doubt that the very high levels of illiteracy (a recent op-ed in by Abderrahmane Lahlou L’Economiste quotes Ministry of Education figures for illiteracy as high as 76% at primary grade 4) are not going to be significantly reduced until the diglossia on which they rest is resolved.  This means some version of the Zakoura Foundation’s proposal to make darija the language of instruction at least in early primary, before converting to fus7a when pupils are ready. (Zakoura describes this process as building a passerelle, or footbridge, from the mother tongue to Arabic.) Champions of classical Arabic rest their arguments on Arab or Islamic solidarity, the price of which is widespread illiteracy, and Zakoura’s recommendations have been deliberately misrepresented by many who should know better.

There is no visible evidence that Arabic is well enough taught in Moroccan schools for there to be any hope of its prospering as the universal language of literacy. It is a discussion that needs to be conducted on evidence, but the scenes of emotional and histrionic disorder that break out in parliament whenever it arises suggest that the day of evidence-based discussion has not yet arrived. Parliament itself is not wholly qualified to handle the evidence: Houda Filali-Ansary wrote in La Vie Eco of the last parliament, si l’on trouve toujours des élus ayant le niveau d’études primaire, ils sont de moins en moins nombreux, tout comme l’élu totalement analphabète est une espèce en voie de disparition. Certes, dans un certain nombre de cas, il s’agit de députés d’un certain âge. In other words, a certain number of older MPs can’t read themselves, and others have only primary education. Well, it’s generally the old fellows waving their order papers and shouting.

As for foreign languages, which the King emphasized so strongly in his August 2013 education speech, French is becoming the language of an old elite. Demand for English is growing very fast, and that for French is not. A senior fonctionnaire said to me a couple of years ago “La francophonie, c’est une prison,” the language of a colonial and post-colonial elite which is of less and less currency in the world of ideas and research, let alone film, music and youth culture. Certainly there is much that is to be treasured in francophone Moroccan literature, and it will always be accessible, but English seems to be becoming the foreign language of choice for the younger generation. Willy-nilly.

As I said in response to a recent argument on Twitter on this subject, we may not like it – but complaining about it is a bit like complaining about the weather. I tweeted a link to an essay I wrote last year, towards the end of my four years in Morocco, called Bavures and Shibboleths: The Changing Ecology of Culture and Language in Morocco which I think adds something to the discussion, and I have added it to the masthead of this blog (or you can find it here).

Breaking things for spite, north of Baldock

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Ordering the library at Alexandria put to the torch in 642, Amr ibn al-‘As is supposed to have said that whatever was in it that agreed with the Quran was superfluous, whatever disagreed with the Quran, impious. The story is not true (the library had been burned several times before, and Amr was an ‘As, not an ass), but it makes for a good vignette of fanatical vandalism. In fact, something close to the opposite was more typical of the Muslim conquest of the Roman and Sassanian empires. Within a century of the first conquests the scientific and philosophical texts of the Greeks were being carried to Baghdad by the barrow-load and translated into Arabic. Baghdad became the greatest entrepôt of intercultural knowledge in the world for half a millennium, and the focus of the broadest, deepest literary culture the world had yet seen. While Rome was a sheep-grazed, bandit-infested ruin and Paris and London were daub-and-wattle villages, Baghdad held the torch for civilisation. And long after Baghdad had faded, sacked by Mongols in 1258, Cordoba in Andalus took up the same torch, becoming the window through which Christians could access the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of Greeks and Arabs. Audacious scholars like Friar Bacon of Oxford went there to study in the world’s greatest libraries at the knees of an older and intellectually much more sophisticated culture than their own.

So the current slew of destruction being visited on libraries, museums and monuments across Daechi bandit country is not consonant with the mainstream history of Islam, traditionally greedy for knowledge and attentive to the past; though it has often surfaced as vicious undercurrent, just as destructive iconoclastic puritanism surfaced in Byzantium and later in the West. It is easy (and absolutely right) to abhor this kind of ignorant, solipsistic vandalism, but in doing so we should also remember our own Reformation, which involved the wholesale destruction of monastic libraries (a century later Aubrey still laments finding manuscript pages lining pie-dishes), the purging of images from churches, the ripping-out of tombs, the smashing of stained-glass and the burning alive of conscientious objectors. Religious reformation is not a kind business, something often forgotten when supercilious commentators in the West opine that Islam still awaits its Reformation: Islam is arguably having its own reformation, right now, and it is very messy. Disintermediation, the impatient establishment of direct lines between the individual and God, the individual and the holy texts, is a radically destabilising business. In our case, fluffy Anglicanism was still several centuries away, so we would do well not to hold our breath as we wait for fluffy Islam.

We should remember too the destruction of war, and the libraries of Germany destroyed in Allied action – perhaps a third of all the books in Germany in 1939 were burned in the next six years, and many of the great buildings of the Reich. And closer to home, we must not forget how in Baghdad US troops allowed the Iraq Museum to be looted and the National Library to burn down. Little of this (though there are exceptions, like the Bosnian national library), in modern times at least, is the deliberate, nihilistic cultural warfare that Daech seems to revel in – and which is the mark of Wahhabi Salafism wherever it spreads its dark wings, from the destruction of the early Muslim graves and the houses of the Prophet’s family at Mecca to the desecration of sufi shrines in Timbuktu, Mosul or Tunis. In the shadow of those same black wings universities are stripped of their books and their faculties, whole spectra of humanistic subjects banned and punished. As Ibn al-Ass said, even if Ibn al-‘As didn’t, “Whatever agrees with the Quran is superfluous, whatever disagrees with the Quran, impious.”

The uncompromising puritanism and relentless logic of uber-tawhid, the paranoid monotheism that tries to obliterate any distraction, any hint of reverence for the human, any wisp of suspicion of mediation between man and God – this is a recurrent but not dominant strand throughout Muslim history, the simplistic, assertive self-doubt of the outsider faced with things too complicated to grasp or too subtle to explore. In our day it has been propagated, and vastly inflated, by a tidal wave of money from the Persian Gulf in what one can only describe as one of the most successful cultural relations offensives of modern times.

And the more we hate it, the more they do it, because riling the West is very much part of the script in Iraq these days. Anything the Daesh can do to bait the old colonial powers (and contemporary manipulators) of the West is attractive: blowing up winged bulls and colossal buddhas is much more satisfying than just thumbing your nose. “Come and get us,” those sledgehammers cry – because their apocalyptic, chiliastic schema demands foreign troops on Muslim soil to provoke their Armageddon. It is tragic and extraordinarily ahistorical, the obsessive hyperlink back to the mid-seventh century, denying all the greatness of Islamic civilization that has come since, and the earlier civilizations on whose shoulders it stands. And that of course is just the point. What little information we can assemble about the educational background of the better-educated Islamists of Daech or the Muslim Brotherhood suggests that they are engineers, computer-programmers, doctors, vets and agronomists. Not a historian, archæologist or sociologist in sight: these are men trained in disciplines that only allow right and wrong answers. I’m reminded obliquely of Talat Pasa, reproached by Henry Morgenthau, the US Ambassador to the Sublime Porte, with Turkish plans to blow up Ayya Sofia in case of an allied landing, who replied smugly, “There aren’t six men in the Committee of Union and Progress who care for anything old. We only like new things,”

But our being visibly traumatized probably does more harm than good, and much of the work of saving Iraq’s heritage necessarily goes on in secret, without fanfare, just as the libraries of Timbuktu were smuggled piecemeal to safety before the book-burning barbarians arrived in town. Better for us to document, and at a personal level, to remember. I have been looking through photographs and remembering Mosul, Hatra and Nimrud, Nineveh and Ashur from my time in Iraq in 1989 and 1990, before the first Anglo-American (etc) War. We were privileged to be in Iraq at a time when all these extraordinary and wonderful places were intact, almost empty and mostly visitable. I climbed the ziggurat at Ur with my mother, at least as far as the soldiers in the anti-aircraft battery on the top would let us; I scrambled up the citadel at Nineveh among the fragments of ancient Assyria; I stroked the beards of the winged bulls at Nimrud – with one of them I photographed my daughter, and it is desolating to think of some hirsute imbecile destroying it with a bulldozer. In the alleys of Mosul I found smoky churches, thick with incense and ostrich eggs, that far pre-dated Islam; at Hatra the strange statues with giant blackberries on their heads which we have just witnessed hammered to oblivion; and by the banks of the Tigris we watched a Mandæan wedding, a congeries of rituals from long before the birth of Christ. In all this we were more fortunate than we then realized, and while I shudder at what is happening both to people and to history, I remember with a very real, if grim, joy. And I think of the Mesopotamian plain, cluttered with mounds as far as the eye can see, each one a town or city, still largely unexcavated and likely to remain so, however fast and hard the Daechi bulldozers loot.


I was reminded recently that Baldock in Hertfordshire is named after Baghdad. When the Knights Templar founded the market town of Baldock in the 1140s, they seem to have called it Baldac, or Baudac, both versions of the contemporary French name for Baghdad. Whether this represents a manifesto of their intention to retain the Real McCoy in the face of Muslim attempts to recapture it, or whether it was a piece of sympathetic magic meant to boost trade at their newly granted market by the spring of the river Ivel, I do not know. The great bronze canopy over the altar at St Peter’s is a baldaquin, or baldacchino, named for the Baghdadi taffeta of which less permanent regal canopies were made. Another Baghdadi taffeta, ‘ataba, gives us ‘tabby’ – first a cloth and then, by analogy a cat, though a cat that supposedly reached England from Cyprus in the baggage of another ambassador, Sir Thomas Roe, as a gift for Archbishop Laud. It was known at first as a Cyprus Cat rather than a Baldock Pussy. That’s probably quite enough etymology, and I end by wondering how Baldock has missed the trick of twinning itself with Baghdad (somehow Eisenberg and Sanvignes-les-Mines lack the zing of – forgive me – the ur-Baghdad). I shall clearly have to refer henceforth to Baghdad as Baldock.

Herd Immunity and e-pidemics


In the case of Fnideq, with its extraordinary density of young terrorist recruits (see my last post) I find myself mulling not just over propaganda, but over contagion, and wonder if the tools of epidemiology might not be as useful to understand it as radicalization theory. I don’t of course mean by this simply the glib image of ‘radical Islam’ as a rampaging virus in a grubby turban. But I do think that there may be more interesting parallels in looking at the way information, acceptability, normalization and recruitment develop. The density of cases of departure on jihad in Fnideq, at one percent of the total population (and perhaps 15 percent of young men in the poorer quarters) is so great that it does seem to behave almost like a highly infectious disease. What proportion of cases per thousand of population would push – have pushed – the ‘epidemic’ beyond the control of public health, or in this case public security, officials to achieve an unstoppable momentum of its own? Is there a percentage of population that must succumb before the dam breaks, and what epidemiologists call ‘herd immunity’ – the level of inoculation or immunity that gives protection to the whole of a population group by making the vulnerable too few for effective transmission – breaks down?

It is reckoned that immunization levels of about 92-94 percent will guard a community against measles, those who are un-immunized being protected by their scarcity in a much larger protected population. When immunization levels drop (through ignorance, laziness, or faddish refusal to use MMH vaccine), hotspots emerge where immunizations levels are particularly low, and then they spread and join up. It is what has happened during the ebola epidemic in Monrovia and Freetown, and what the government of Freetown is trying to counter with its three-day city lockdown. Like infectious disease the jihad jumps from person to person opportunistically. Where resistance is low, progress is fast. Where each infected person infects more than one other, the epidemic grows – and where fewer, it shrinks and ultimately disappears. Moving from the former situation to the latter is as much the business of counter-terrorist thinkers as it is of epidemiologists.

It’s easy enough to see why immunity is low in the poor quarters of poor towns on the Mediterranean coastal plain, where hash-smuggling is a staple, education poor, youth unemployment appalling, and where the poor live in proximity to the very rich. In Fnideq everyone knows someone who has gone to Syria, and everyone has family across the border in Sebta where “the Moroccan quarter, called Principe, is a real nest of jihadists. It is in many ways a ghetto, and the Spanish police practically never set foot there.” Principe is, in public health terms, a source of infection. It’s actually quite hard to imagine that number of people in a small town simply taking off for jihad; and it’s certainly not sufficient, though it may well be necessary, to imagine each of them sitting in a lonely bedroom with a 3G key, independently reaching identical ideological conclusions. Personal contact is needed too, and the life-opportunities that the lads at the café talk about are as likely to be jihad as jobs. The idea of jihad, the jihadi meme, which hops from victim to victim, finds easy new hosts. ONERDH suggests that the virus has evolved as viruses do, so far, over two ‘generations’ of adaptation. We may see that as a parallel to the adaptive behaviour of a real virus, which, having exhausted the pool of those susceptible to its original form, evolves very fast and begins to try other ways of entering other hosts. The jihad virus/meme has mostly exhausted the pool of those accessible through religious means, and has moved on in slightly different form to hosts whose interests are – initially at least – more material and more self-centred.

I recently, courtesy of my student son, came across a fascinating article in the New England Journal of Medicine on – of all the strange analogies – the spread of obesity, a study using a long-term (32-year) network analysis to try and see whether obesity is at least in part socially transmitted. The study showed that for individuals at one degree of separation from obese members of the original group tracked, the chance of obesity was 45 percent higher than random, and if the two people were actually friends, it was 57 percent higher. Among the study’s conclusions is the suggestion that “the psycho-social mechanisms of the spread of obesity may rely less on behavioural imitation than on a change in [a person’s] general perception of the social norms regarding the acceptability of obesity.” And if that happens in social networks in the US, it seems very probable that dense radicalizing networks, like those in Fnideq, change the social norms regarding the social acceptability of jihad. And it makes good sense: we don’t really need the NEJM to tell us that if our friends are all doing something, we are more likely to do it too.

Perhaps this is a useful way of thinking about radicalization and jihadi recruitment. It is clear that there is a lot of internet flirtation with radicalizing materials. In an immunized population, this sort of sporadic, or stochastic, occurrence would flare occasionally and die out. But in a dense and susceptible population where immunization and resistance are low, and networking close-packed, it spreads like wildfire. Natural immunity may come at first from a lazy secularism, so the infection develops to spread through different channels: it appeals to the frustrated, jobless or marginally employed, bored, hopeless and listless young. The same sort of young people, in other words, who a few years ago would have slipped away to Europe.

What constitutes immunization in this metaphorical sense? It is perhaps a heady cocktail of jobs, healthcare, education, opportunity, respect and permission to hope for a better future, to engage in a political process with the hope and intention of change. In the absence of this serum, the germ spreads. It’s interesting to note the conclusion to the TelQuel article (on Daechi recruitment) that I quoted in my last post, and the evidence from Marrakech of a specifically religious immunization. In the Ochre City, it seems, herd immunity is intact:

One can’t yet predict the decline of ideological jihadism in favour of a jihadism … which has more to do with adventure. A city like Marrakech is proof that ideology and religious discourse still have their place, given that the number of departures on jihad [from Marrakech] is extremely low, thanks to a local salafist network that is firmly apolitical and pacifist. Even so, the migration (hijra) and combat to which Daech calls seem still to hit their mark: “A response to frustration,” suggests Mohamed Mesbah [a researcher]. Above all, it’s the emptiness they feel that all the candidates seem to have in common: an emptiness in politics, in spiritual life, in social life … that’s the common denominator.”

police (1)


The Pied Pipers of Fnideq


A couple of weeks ago I was in Morocco for a conference about the Social Media, at Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane; and then went on down to Rabat for a day or two. It was a visit bracketed by terrorist attacks in Tunis and Sana’a, with much blood shed and much more, I’m afraid, to come. Odd, in the circumstances, that in all the perceptive and stimulating discussion of the social media at AUI there was no single mention of what is so close to the top of our own minds in Europe, the use of those same media for terrorist propaganda and recruitment. It’s not that it’s not happening in Morocco: it is. A former salafist prisoner is quoted in the Moroccan press this week as saying that while al-Qaeda’s recruitment was a relatively long, slow process of indoctrination, “Today, thousands of young people train themselves in their own bedrooms with nothing more than a 3G key.” It was a lacuna in a future-scoping conference, given the relentless virtuosity with which Daech has developed and deployed its social media skills.

I find a growing concern amongst Moroccan friends at the reach of the terrorists and the presence of returned jihadis; and growing discomfort at Morocco’s fecundity as a source of recruits. The attack on the Bardo in Tunis is a chilling reminder of how tourism offers a soft underbelly of a target, with immense economic implications. In recent months there has been a marked stepping-up of visible security in Rabat with hadar – vigilance – patrols of well-armed security personnel (always a policemen and two soldiers, a strutting dactyl in pink epaulettes) patrolling the city and the major roads around it.

I sat happily in Rabat cafés reading a pile of newspapers and magazines with my coffee. In Spain, I read, a Moroccan woman has been arrested after arranging the journeys of as many as 40 other women to Syria from right across Europe and the Arab world. A specialized e-procuress, targeting breeding-stock for the caliphate. Recounting the story of this 30-year old woman, originally from Tetouan, who emigrated to Spain in 2000, Akbar al-Yaoum writes that it all started when she turned to the internet to fill a void in her life. On Facebook she made a virtual friend who showed her a better future in Syria for her and her son, as well as a reasonable salary if she agreed to join the “women who defend Islam.” According to the paper, which picks up an article originally published in El Pais, Samira was quickly indoctrinated to turn even against her own husband. Furthermore, she quickly became an effective recruiter of women on behalf of Daech, and especially of young women of child-bearing age. The newspaper expresses astonishment that this young woman defended, tooth and nail, during her judicial interrogation, the doctrines of Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi, making it quite clear that she would happily show her young child the YouTube videos of hostages being decapitated by the bloodthirsty men of Daech.

And all this, at least according to the writer, because she needed something to fill a void in her emigrant life, and found that something in the abyss of the internet. It’s a useful prototype of the process – a personal emptiness solaced by virtual contact, with material inducements offered, followed only later by indoctrination – but indoctrination that seems to have led to real, tooth-and-nail commitment.

Meanwhile TelQuel has a cover story on Daechi recruitment, focusing on Morocco itself, where the Ministry of the Interior counts 1,500 jihadis who have gone to Syria and Iraq. A high proportion comes from the north coast, the old Spanish protectorate where the Rif runs down to the sea (and where of course lies Tetouan, home of Samira the e-procuress). Of Morocco’s 1,500 jihadis no fewer than 500 come from the single town of Fnideq, two kilometres from Sebta (Ceuta) on that coast. With a population of about 50,000, Fnideq has the – perhaps unique – distinction of seeing one percent of its entire population fighting in Syria and Iraq. Most of them come from the quarters that are, in that delicate French euphemism, defavorisés – quarters at the top of the town called Ras Lota, Kondessa, Lebrare, and Lmarja. Here the proportion is much higher than one percent – perhaps (and I’m guessing) ten or fifteen percent of young adult males.

Of the current second generation of jihadis, reckons ONERDH (the Northern Human Rights Observatory), 60 percent have in some sense been recruited through the internet and – as so often in Britain – they have mostly given no signs of radicalization before leaving. As one father from Fnideq put it, “He had no beard, nor anything else. He never went to the mosque. He was an electrician and earned a good living. One day he told me he was going to Larache for work.” Others are less prosperous, 50 percent in casual employment, 57 percent with no education beyond primary school. And 67 percent of them are under 24 years old. ONERDH identifies two distinct generations, already, of Moroccan jihadis. The first “was attracted by the prospect of helping destitute people, and by holy war.” The second, today’s, generation is driven by “self-fulfilment, the lust for adventure and the search for material well-being.”

This lattercategory are uncannily similar to the economic migrants who buy a dangerous passage on a fishing smack to Spain, and the ‘second generation’ analysis suggests that the motivations may not be dissimilar. The north coast of Morocco is prime migration country. In Leaving Tangier, Tahar Ben Jelloun describes the young men sitting listlessly after sunset at a seafront café looking across the strait to Spain: The customers know one another but do not converse. Most of them come from the same neighbourhood and have just enough to pay for the tea and a few pipes of kif. Some have a slate on which they keep track of their debt. As if by agreement, they keep still. Especially at this hour and at this delicate moment, when their whole being is caught up in the distance, studying the slightest ripple of the waves, or the soud of an old boat coming into the harbour. Sometimes, hearing the echo of a cry for help, they look at one another without turning a hair. The cafés of Fnideq are perhaps very similar, young men tempted by different dreams, different ways out, and looking across the sea for bright lights and transformative hopes.

Parents in Morocco as in Britain, say that their children showed no obvious signs of changing lifestyle before legging it to Larache or Gatwick. The process of radicalization, which we speak about as though we understood it, is as varied as the people who pass through it. Some are religious, many are not. The encouragement and support of a small group of friends seems important, as Marc Sageman pointed out as long ago as 2004: “social bonds play a more important role in the emergence of the global salafi jihad than ideology,” whether in a Fnideq café, a Sudanese teaching hospital or a Bethnal Green school. It also suggests an explanation for the role of online grooming, the constant iteration of messages from those who have gone before, calling like sirens to friends and acquaintances. Since Sageman wrote in 2004, the social networks themselves have spread across the world, and much of the intense conversation that used to take place in cafés and on street-corners now spins out internationally, in virtual space. Morocco’s security forces are pretty good at rolling up actual physical recruiting networks (a Daech cell was busted in Fnideq as recently as January). But the café and the 3G key seem still to provide simple answers to some of life’s old problems.




Electronic Sabine Women


When you are building a state you need women. Without them, the state is bunch of warriors who, however heroic, ferocious and bloody, and however magnificent their whiskers, will eventually get killed, grow old, go home. Without women there can be no state because there is no permanence, no real settlement, no homes, no children. Warriors in male communities like the ribats of North Africa grow no roots and, fickle as they are, will eventually drift on to other wars and other places. Women are the esparto grass that binds the sand-dunes together, to make a military camp into a state.

And a state is what Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his myrmidons in Raqqah are very keen indeed to be acknowledged as having built. They are very touchy about nomenclature: they don’t like to be called Daesh (even though it is a perfectly good acronym, ad-Dawlat al-Islamiya fi-l‘Iraq wa-ash-Shams – ‘the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’), perhaps because it rhymes with something.  It is always used, in the wonderfully prim word favoured by the British press, ‘pejoratively.’ Worse though, Daesh positively hates the way al-Jazeera refers to them insistently as ‘the Islamic State Organization’ (Tanzim). Their entire claim to legitimacy rests on being a state, not an organization.

Without a tangible, braggable state the Caliphate is not just flimsy, it is non-existent: a caliph without a state is like a belt with no trousers to hold up. Because number one amongst the attributes that make it both possible and perhaps even obligatory to declare a caliphate is the control of a large swathe of territory. A Tanzim  – organization – doesn’t have that.  A dawla – state – does. So al-Baghdadi needs to be recognized as having a state, otherwise his own legitimacy as caliph  is undermined. And while there are many other strands to Daesh’s self-justification, this is an important one. (It is also of course why we should never refer to his outfit as IS, or ISIS or ISIL, because every time we say the S-word Daesh gets a little more real – like children shouting “I believe in fairies” to revive the dying Tinkerbell at Peter Pan.)

Romulus, the founder of Rome, ran into the women problem two or three years after founding the city in 753 BC. He had lots of warriors and seven promising hills by the Tiber, but no women. His men were getting restless and thinking a great deal too much about sex. There was a risk that they would move on, and anyway no prospect of permanence in his new city-state unless he could get hold of some women. So he invited the various Sabine tribes in the vicinity of Rome to a party, and when they were all royally drunk, kidnapped their women and chucked the menfolk out of the city. This is referred to as the Rape of the Sabine Women, and although historians argue about whether the women were raped or just seized and later sweet-talked into ‘marriage,’ the argument at this distance is fairly academic because little Romans soon started to appear, and the rest is history.

The Raqqah caliphate needs a new generation of jihadi Muslims. The majority of its jihadis are locals – Iraqi Sunnis and former Ba’thists who were systematically alienated by the Shi’a regime, Syrian Sunnis who were systematically alienated by the crypto-Shi’a Alawi elite of the Asad family. Some at least of these have families to defend, but many, perhaps most, don’t. As one Syrian fighter puts it, The economic crisis casts its grim shadow over middle class people … struggling to survive in the face of soaring prices, high taxes and low incomes. Young men could not marry and start a family until they were over 30. This emasculation – the despair at having no prospect of job, a home or the means to marry and support a family – is a commonplace amongst young people across the Middle East and North Africa. Once combined with a political resentment and a justificatory ideological narrative, it is explosive.

To keep them happy and to breed the the next generation, the Caliphate needs women. There are local Muslim women in the area controlled by the caliphate – Arabs, Kurds, Circassians and others, and many reports of forced marriage of unmarried women to Daeshi fighters. In many cases ‘marriage’ may be a rather loose description of the transaction, but outright and wholesale rape of Muslim women, though it certainly happens, is not a long-term solution because the people of Raqqah and Mosul and the other Daeshi towns need to be kept on-side. The locals are known as Ansar, or supporters, and a minimum of orderly restraint is needed to retain their support – forcible ‘marriage’ to a man’s daughter is not the best way to his heart. Let alone hers.

The problem, however, comes in two parts, sex and marriage. The first is easily enough satisfied, by reviving the supposedly traditional and Prophetically sanctioned enslavement of non-Muslim women whose menfolk are defeated in war. These women are simply loot, ghanima, to be taken and used. One author (Weiss/Hassan, Inside ISIS, 2015) writes of a Daeshi fighter:

Abdelaziz … kept a Yazidi girl in his house as a sabiyya or sex-slave. She was his prize for his participation in battles against the peshmerga forces in Sinjar. According to ISIS’s propaganda magazine, Dabiq, one-fifth of the sex-slaves taken from Sinjar was distributed to ISIS’s central leadership to do with as it so chose; and the remainder was divided amongst the rank-and-file, like Abdelaziz, as the spoils of war. Abdelaziz showed us a picture of his sabiyya. She was in her late teens. She ‘belonged’ to Abdelaziz for about a month before she was handed off to other ISIS commanders.

Boko Haram does almost exactly the same thing, capturing Christian girls and enslaving them for sex and perhaps child-bearing. Some of these desperately unfortunate women are forced to convert to Islam, and become subject to the caliph’s interpretation of shariah law on the matter of marriage, which in this case means up to four wives and as much human loot as you can manage. But there is, in the caliphate (though perhaps not in Bornu or the Sinai), another source of women, referred to by Mohamed Tozy as those performing the Jihad de Sexe. These are the women from across the Muslim world, who throw up everything and head for Syria in order to be part of the Daeshi enterprise, pious citizens of their soi-disant state. They may represent as many as one in six of those going from western countries to the caliphate.

Why do they go? The question needs an answer, as we contemplate the three teenagers from Bethnal Green who used their half term holiday to slip away from their families to Turkey and on across the border into the Black Hole once known as Syria. They were good students, clearly apples of their parents’ eye, and they had given no obvious signs of excessive religiosity or jihadi sympathies. On the face of it they and others like them are going voluntarily to join an economy of female flesh that is hard to imagine any young girl contemplating without horror. They will almost certainly marry fighters, perhaps bear children and in due course, still in their teens, be widowed when their bearded husbands die in battle, or blow themselves up in a bus queue or vegetable market.

These premature, often adolescent, widows will then bring up their their daughters for the same throwaway, leave-behind-bride routine that they have undergone themselves. As for their sons, they will go to jihad school for a programme of systematic indoctrination – and brutalisation. Another recent book (Stern/Berger, ISIS – Inside the Terror State, 2015) describes the sort of thing: a young boy is being interviewed on a Daesh propaganda film. “What will you be in the future, if God wills it?” the interviewer asked. “I will be the one who slaughters you, oh kuffar,” the boy responded, grinning at the camera. “I will be a mujahid, if God wills it.” One 10-year-old boy from the video was seen in a subsequent release executing two prisoners. Such videos and images are far from rare. Isis members routinely post images on social media of children holding severed heads and playing on streets where dismembered bodies are splayed carelessly on the sidewalk. One image posted to Twitter showed a child playacting the beheading of American hostage James Foley using a doll.

The caliphate’s education policy seems clear (though the sources must always be approached with some circumspection). Isis strictly controls the education of children in the territory it holds. According to a teacher from Raqqa, Isis considers philosophy, science, history, art and sport to be incompatible with Islam. “Those under 15 go to sharia camp to learn about their creed and religion,” an Isis press officer in Raqqa told Vice News. “Those over 16, they can attend the military camp … Those over 16 and who were previously enrolled in the camps can participate in military operations.” But in Isis propaganda videos, even younger children are shown being trained in the use of firearms. And, as the authors add drily, Isis follows a trend of training ever-younger operatives. By doing so they hope to ensure a new generation of fighters. Leadership decapitation is significantly less likely to be effective against organisations that have children ready to step into their fathers’ shoes.

The effect that this has on children is barely imaginable (except that in the child armies of West Africa we have seen the desolating plasticity of the child forced young into violence, and the profound damage done to that child). But the question that comes back and back is: do young women setting off from western countries suspect the fate that awaits their unborn children and themselves? Do they welcome it? Do they think about it? Some of course move with their menfolk. But the real enigma is those, like the three young Londoners, who set off, starry-eyed, to join this blood-soaked ideological enterprise. They clearly want to share in the romantic adventure, the creation of a godly state. Some think they will fight, but are disappointed to find that this is not the purpose of the females imported into the caliphate – though some talk, in the poignant language of a disneyfied childhood, of “pulling a Mulan,” or going into battle disguised as boys. They don’t: their life is one of marriage, sex, breeding, cooking, cleaning and early widowhood, the lot of the soldier’s wife down the ages.

A recent report called Becoming Mulan (Institute for Strategic Dialogue) analyzes the trails of social media activity left by these young women, particularly those whose job is to lure others to follow them. It seems that on top of the jobs of the soldier’s wife down the ages, they are expected to use social media to attract others. This seems very clear in the way the three London girls followed another friend from their own school who had left for Syria a few weeks earlier. Radicalization by social media takes place in the bedroom, in front of a laptop, and female friendship is central: Beyond romantic attachment, and in common with their male counterparts, the women within our dataset speak of the sense of cameraderie and sisterhood they experience in ISIS-controlled territory, in contrast to the fake and surface-level relationships they have in the west. This search for meaning, sisterhood and and identity is a key driving factor for women to travel.

Or, as Hanif Qadir, a former jihadi in Afghanistan puts it, You’ve got young men and women on social media platforms in the middle of the night when they should be doing their homework or should be in bed. But they’re being engaged or groomed online, even though they may not know it … these girls have been ripped out of their households to join a network of individuals who clearly don’t have their best interests at heart. How did this happen? Social media.

As I was contemplating this puzzle, I happened on a quite different news story, headlined Nuns turn to social media to tackle lack of recruits. It tells of how Spanish convents, unable to recruit novices to the religious life, have taken to using a website called Buscoalgomas, or ‘I’m looking for something more.’  One convent alone reports 200,000 visits to its website, 8,000 Facebook likes, 461 Twitter followers and 12 nuns recruited through the social media (augmenting the convent’s population by 65%). The average age of nuns is plummeting, with the convent’s own average now down to 35, and the typical electronically recruited novice aged 20-30. This rings a bell. So does the comment by one sister, They’re trying to find their place in the world and what attracts them about the convent is the joy and affection they find there. Or another, These days no one goes to a convent, so we have to be on Twitter and Facebook. And a third, We have to be in touch with reality, and listen to people who are suffering, both existentially and materially.

What this suggests to me is something more subtle and complex than simply the external cultivation – radicalization – of young men and women, clear though this is. These stories speak of a generation of young people looking for meaning. It is an emptiness and a search that clearly affects both Catholic Spaniards and Muslim Britons – and no doubt many more, too, trying to find their place in the world and looking for joy and affection through the medium of their generation – the internet.  The problem is that Raqqah is not a convent, the price is very high, and the street one-way.



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The Arabist

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Ahmed Benchemsi

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London Review of Books

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Jadaliyya Ezine

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