Mercurius Maghrebensis

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

Month: July, 2015

Tall, Nasty Stories and the Four Pillars of Wisdom

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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.

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Syria: eating chocolate in gardening gloves

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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.”

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