Brussels central train station after the attacks, March 2016. Wikicommons/Romaine. Some rights reserved.
After Brussels, there are wider faultlines. On one side, those of us who seek to understand political violence in the round. Terrorism on the streets of Europe as blowback from 14 disastrous years of war on terror; ISIS the bastard child of our misadventure in Iraq (the > 700,000 dead, the installation of a sectarian government and the incubation of the Islamic State in US-run prisons) and the multilateral meddling in the Syrian uprising and the ‘war on terror’ launched by the Assad regime.
On the other, the armchair ‘terrorologists’, ‘radicalisation’ experts and cheerleaders for a new war on “Islamic extremism”. They acknowledge that the war on terror has been a disaster, but cannot countenance the idea that our liberal, enlightened societies bear any responsibility whatsoever for the actions of those Europeans who have joined the ranks of ISIS. This can only be down to something entirely alien and external to European culture: “Islamism”. To suggest anything else is at best disingenuous, at worst an “apology for terror”:
“As must have happened with the defenders of Stalin years ago who could see only the injustice of the capitalist powers while willfully blind to the gulag and the purges, it seems that the very love of our fellow human beings and rage at the sight of suffering that drives us to become progressives in the first place have thoroughly deserted these one-sided cynics”.
This is how my friend and erstwhile colleague Leigh Phillips reacted to the Brussels attacks, calling on the Left to the abandon the “sneering” and “clucking” about chickens coming to roost, ditch the “apologetics”, and support the demand that “Isis be annihilated”. If we really want to understand the atrocities in Maalbeek and Zaventem, he suggests, we need to go back to the opening of the Grand Mosque in Brussels nearly 40 years ago. Seriously dude, what happened?
I’m not racist but…
Everyone knows the war on terror has been an unmitigated disaster; even Tony Blair admits this (well, almost). But for all the bleating about ‘new approaches’, the militarist and Islamophobic mindset of the old one prevails.
Phillips’ prescription is typical: “to stop these horrors, we must cut off funding to ISIS” – a rehash of the post-9/11 orthodoxy that “stopping terrorism starts with stopping the money” (it doesn’t, or at least it hasn’t worked, despite turning the global financial system into a surveillance apparatus) – and shift our focus to “extremist political Islam”. Hence his call for a new BDS-style campaign against Saudi Arabia and Turkey, coupled with support for the Kurds in their secular, progressive and militarily successful campaign against Islamic State. The trouble with this ostensibly appealing proposal is less its hopeless simplicity, but the thinking behind it. For it is a logical fallacy to demand an end to the war on terror with one breath, and the annihilation of ISIS with the next.
Of course progressives should oppose ISIS; there’s nothing whatsoever racist about that, or indeed wishing them a particularly nasty demise. But we should be under no illusion whatsoever as to the implications of calling for their extermination. Not only is this a (renewed) mandate for slaughter and repression, invariably of combatants and innocents alike, it is exactly what ISIS wants: to ratchet up the ‘clash of civilisations’, and to feed the Islamophobia that has swept through the west and fuelled the rise of the Far Right. They somehow miss the blindingly obvious correlation between racist attacks, and the relentless messaging, not least their own, that terrorists are made in the Mosque.
While commentators like Phillips caution that the failure of the war on terror is playing into the hands of Alternative für Deutschland and Donald Trump, they somehow miss the blindingly obvious correlation between the racist attacks perpetrated by their supporters, and the relentless messaging, not least their own, that terrorists are made in the Mosque.
Just as some of our fellow citizens departed for the “Islamic State” because they believe in its utopian and apocalyptic vision of an alternative society in the making (though as agencies like Europol and the FBI now acknowledge, the disgusting realities of that alternative has diminished recruitment), so the racists confronting “towel heads” on the streets of Croydon and the fascists rampaging through Brussels are channelling their own “rage at the sight of suffering”.
“Apologetics” and the left
There is also a crucial synergy between Phillips and co.’s demonisation of “apologists” and the criminalisation of ‘apologia’ under the war on terror (see also “public provocation”, “indirect incitement”, “insulting the state”, “disseminating terrorist propaganda”, “glorification” and all the other terror-speech statutes).
Demonisation is used by the right to prevent the left actually opposing the war on terror with anything more than platitudes; criminalisation is used by the state against those who speak out against its crimes, or in favour of struggles for self-determination.
So when people of the left here in Britain, like Jeremy Corbyn and others who founded Stop the War, or the National Unions of Students or Teachers, stand together with Muslim organisations to actually oppose the war on terror, they’re slandered with the same preposterous tropes: “terrorist sympathiser”, “apologist”, “collusion”.
Meanwhile, it is Kurds and Turks who know better than most about the crimes of ‘apologia’. And here more than anywhere, the fundamental flaws in liberal explanations for political violence are exposed. For while Leigh Phillips and I both profess support for the Kurds’ struggle for self-determination and the Peshmerga’s heroic resistance to ISIS, I can’t help wondering how he feels about the PKK and other Kurdish militant groups use of suicide bombers.
Like the one dispatched to Ankara on 13 March this year, killing 37 people and injuring at least 125 more, in retaliation, it was claimed, for the bombs dropped on Kurds in the border town of Cizre by Turkish air forces. Does our unqualified support for the Kurds make us “apologists for terror”, or are we to suggest that these particularly spine-tingling acts of political violence are somehow qualitatively different when they’re done in the name of something other than Islam?
The fact is that we simply cannot begin to account for the agency of secular suicide bombers with a cause in one location, when all we can offer-up is brainwashing by Salafist preachers in another. Nor, let’s be honest, is it “sneering” or “clucking” to suggest that the innocents who died in Ankara that day were indeed, however tragically, reaping the whirlwind of the relentless repression of the Kurds by the Turkish state. The scary thing is not what might have been, but what we’ve already become.
Since we’re here, let’s take this thought exercise a step further, and imagine for a moment that the ‘coalition of the willing’ had exacted its revenge for 9/11 not on secular Iraq, but greater Kurdistan. Is it really so hard to imagine that a tiny minority of Europe’s 1.5 million or so Kurds might be moved – either independently, or via some medieval sect that emerged from being ‘bombed back to the stone ages’ – to return the slaughter of the powerless to the seats of power? Would our countries now be full of experts on ‘the trouble with Kurdish culture’, railing against something called ‘Kurdism’, or would we instead be blaming the Kurds’ own Islamic faith? Can we imagine ‘reformed’ members of the PKK writing government ‘counter-extremism’ policies and running compulsory ‘de-radicalisation’ programmes for kids, like something inspired by A Clockwork Orange? The scary thing is not what might have been, but what we’ve already become.
Beyond liberal posturing
Just as the war on terror was a gift to al Qaeda, the new war on “extremist political Islam” is a gift to the “Islamic State”, which clearly isn’t going to be “annihilated” anytime soon. We need to understand that. Just as we need to understand – even if we accept the hypothesis that the Saudi and Turkish regimes bear some extra special responsibility for the disaster playing out in Iraq and Syria (music to the ears of war criminals like Assad and Blair) – that there is more than one war going on, with many complex historical dimensions, legitimate claims and grievances, and multiple external influences.
Just look at Syria, where no less than 97 armed factions signed the recent ceasefire agreement (and others did not). There are scores more in Iraq, not to mention Libya and the Horn of Africa. Lots of these groups fight under the banner of Islam, including some who are fighting each other. In the absence of functioning states and economies, poverty is as much a driver of people to the arms of these groups. It is the purest of folly to suggest – on the back of received wisdom about “Salafism” and “Wahhabism” or anything else – that some of these groups should be selected for “annihilation”, while others are chosen as our “frenemies” in pursuit of those ends.
If we genuinely want to channel the “rage at the sight of suffering that drives us to become progressives” into an alternative to the war on terror, we’re going to have to abandon the militarized identity politics, suppress the Islamophobia, and stop treating the world like a giant game of risk.