It’s a blustery, wet day in London, after a weekend unusually glued to the news, following the shock that came late on Friday with the killings in Paris, carried out by Islamist gunmen. It is only 10 months since the Charlie Hebdo murders, and again this city (just two hours away from us) has had its civilian life ripped and slashed in the supposed name of religion, though actually in the cause of a pathological Islamist ideology.
Responses, give or take the inevitable sniping at tricolour facebook filters, or our failure to be actual global citizens, devoid of location in geography or culture, have been largely sympathetic and non-apologetic this time. I guess it isn’t so easy to characterize a hall full of kids at a metal gig as “white men punching down”? Hopefully the hip political blogosphere won’t prove me wrong on that, but even it seems muted.
This also follows a year of mass migrations from Syria (among other places), from where this attack is meant to have been ordered by “ISIL”, though maybe planned in Belgium, and one of the killers is reported to have come in as a refugee via one of the Greek Islands. But this shouldn’t obscure the fact that these attacks, as with ones that have occurred in the UK, are largely home grown in nature, and not the result of foreign infiltration. It will inevitably bring up entirely reasonable questions about border controls, but that isn’t so much the primary question here. While these killers were inspired and catalysed by an ideology which finds its practical training and organizational centre (when it needs one) outside of Europe, they are largely our own citizens.
But as some have pointed out, it would be disingenuous to pretend that Islam has nothing to do with this, just because they are Islamists rather than simply muslims, or that there isn’t a particular problem in the (religiously identifiable) communities affected. Unfortunately when you treat something as an “elephant in the room”, it gets to be the size of an elephant after a while. But it really is very important to make distinctions here, and I don’t just say that because I have friends and neighbours who are muslims. I would be the last person to discount the destructive potential of proscriptive, monotheistic religion, but I am perfectly aware that things can be liberalised and made innocuous, creative and life affirming, and that given a massive smack in the political teeth, religions can behave. Even Christianity kinda managed it eventually (at least here), and Christianity has been a shit storm of violence and sexual repression in its time, and still tries to be in various ways on occasion.
Sadly and predictably, I’ve heard reports of increased abuse leveled at muslims in the UK, which is an ignorant, ugly and stupid occurrence. If someone can’t treat people as individuals (which includes people you don’t know, as of principle) then they are no friend of my world view. I actually posted a plea for people in general to treat muslims in their area of the UK with extra courtesy, due to the likelihood of this phenomenon. I also added that if people wanted to help both the muslim community and the rest of us, then start supporting muslim secularists, humanists and atheists, and those moderate “cultural muslims” that just want Islam to be a heritage, and religion a personal choice. For that I got branded a “bigoted asshole” with an “agenda” (by a woman who wasn’t muslim as far as I could tell), as I was choosing which muslims I felt were helping both themselves and their wider community in the UK. But that’s what we get: leftist idiots who view people as blocks to be marked up or down on the basis of what their identity means to their ideology, and right wing thugs who hate them as blocks for their own emotional ends. I wish the two “sides” would just fucking marry each other and move elsewhere.
It is idiocy, and insulting to view whole groups as homogenous cyphers for your ideological or emotional ends, and it’s creepy to boot. Of course I am not going to support a muslim that thinks gays should be killed, Jews are responsible for the world’s troubles, and the world should have shariah law imposed upon it. What kind of respect would I have for them (let alone the people in their own community they are pushing this shit on) if I just said “oh hey, right on brother, I actually can’t criticize you, simply because of what you are”. And sorry to break the news to people, but they do exist, and they are not a tiny bunch of “extremists”. It’s no more inherent to Islam than it is to Christianity, but knowing any history, should that not give you some pause? But should it also not give some hope? Because if you could get to the point of pulling the teeth of Christianity (to quite a large degree), then the same can be done to Islam. And muslims would benefit accordingly. It’s just really sad that the “new left” generated identity politics of the last 40 years abdicated real secularism and humanism, for its own righteous belief system which helped to isolate minority communities, entrench isolated identities, and give succour to fundamentalism. But what is an individual muslim to them? Just a cypher for a block of humanity, or else a non-entity. Part of the reason that I singled out the kinds of muslims I did for support was because these are the very individuals who face the greatest criticism and threat from conservative co-religionists, and get the least support from supposed “western progressives”. In fact, they are sometimes themselves attacked by “progressives” anxious to not appear “Islamophobic”. The irony really isn’t funny.
The attack on Paris is said by some commentators to signify something of a game change for ISIL (I’ve heard this a few times on British TV), in that it was well organized and trained, and largely resorted to the use of fire arms rather than bombs. Well the London bombings of 2005 were pretty well coordinated too (I known that wasn’t ISIL then), but this did seem like more of a full guerilla action. This was also a departure from the recent pattern of “lone wolf” attacks, which could pretty much be any disaffected/unhinged individual that ISIL could claim responsibility for in retrospect. This was definitely a thing, not just sociopathology combined with disinformation. But there are so many overlapping problems coming together here.
The attackers are usually home grown, which brings up the question of what turns them into killers, and not just killers, but political killers. This is the equivalent of joining a cult, and after all these years we should know something about kids joining cults. We even had our own back in the day (remember the Red Army Faction and The Red Brigades?), but they had less to sustain them longer term. France and the UK have taken different approaches to their “ethnic minority” communities, with France emphasising secular citizenship, and the UK embracing a dysfunctional multiculturalism, but both countries have problems with sizeable minorities within their muslim communities actually travelling to Syria to join ISIL. Without excusing the deranged actions that these people are taking, there have to be causative factors for the alienation and disaffection that these people feel. On top of that we have the question of Islam itself, and without blaming an entire religion (which is too uncritical an approach to be useful), there is clearly something going on here. I would question the kind of money and influence that countries like Saudi Arabia have been pouring into fostering backward looking, literalist interpretations of Islam for generations. And then there are the training grounds that our governments have been creating* ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. I can still remember the first report I saw of a group called “The Taliban”. It was just a part of the “Mujahideen” that had been supported and armed by the USA, and Osama bin Laden also turns up here. When the invasion of Iraq was being talked up, there was all kinds of bullshit spouted about Saddam being some kind of Islamist threat (oh, and imaginary weapons of mass destruction), but anyone who even had a cursory knowledge of the area could have told you that Saddam was no Islamist¹. With the deposing of Saddam Hussein more chaos ensued, into which actual Islamists could move. And now we have Syria. I can’t even begin to fathom the balance of things in Syria, it is complicated for sure, and oh, there’s ISIL now. And I haven’t even thought about Libya. But what these war zone Islamists can certainly provide for our homegrown terrorists is propaganda, a sense of identity, potentially training and (if they can be got into the country) weapons supplies.
So I could see at least three things there, creating a (kinda) perfect storm for the right kid in the wrong place at the wrong time – and that is very bad luck indeed. The murkiest part is the continued creation of Islamists and the chaos for them to fill, by the actions of our own countries in foreign lands (and I don’t mean them “behaving badly”, I mean destabilizing the societies that kept Islamism in check). The domestic pushing of retrogressive interpretations of Islam you would think would be easier to deal with, but until it is recognized and engaged with as a danger (and not an extreme or rare occurrence), that is just business as usual. The more liberal and modern alternatives need to be respected and supported at the least. The last question I have is how we manage to fuck up a bunch of kids so badly that terrorism is not just thinkable (you’d be surprised how many hippies and students from the 70s talked about violent revolution as inevitable for progress) but doable. Obviously, something like a distorted religious belief will help with that, and I’m not excusing anyone’s actions here, but there has to be an element of profound alienation involved, because I don’t believe that the hundreds of people who have travelled to Syria just from London are all sociopaths. We won’t heal our way out of this with therapy I’m afraid, but two countries that treat their muslim communities quite differently have got the same bad result. We need to work out what we are doing wrong here, and we need to treat muslims not as a collective thing (which both left and right have done for their own purposes), but as modern individuals like any other, which is exactly what they are in reality.
And I think it would help if, instead of regurgitating platitudes about religious and cultural sensitivity, and pandering to ideas of balancing religious privileges, we took a secular approach and got rid of all religious privilege across the board. A little difficult when you have a Church of England with the monarch as its head, and seats reserved for bishops in a House of Lords, but someone needs to give this stuff the elbow. Of course that of itself won’t do it either, there are too many factors, and not time enough to bring about that kind of change in British society, but we need to make religion a personal affair, not a politicized one as we tread around “sensitivities” that amount to a legitimized power of threat, coercion and censorship for specific groups based on their sense of “offense”. You can see that some things would be going in exactly the wrong direction.
I hope that people who know a lot more than me will have well founded, decisive strategies for dealing with the poisonous effects of Islamist ideology. Maybe the rest of us could just make small steps, but in the right direction.* whether through intent or through the decisive disruption of a previous status quo.
18th November 2015- articles/blogs/videos referenced:
¹ 4th January 2016: Apologies here, for although I was quite unaware of it myself, Saddam Hussein in fact was turning from secular Baathism to Islamism during the 90s and onwards, as detailed in this article, presumably for tactical purposes of governance. According to this account, not only Saddam Hussein’s shift, but the subsequent policy of the American occupation, and the post-Hussein Iraqi government (towards former Baathist army officers, and the Sunni minority population) had a considerable effect on the structure of ISIL, and the skills and experience that would go (or be driven) to it.