5th July 2016
One thread which runs through many of the articles published here is an attempt to highlight hypocrisies and inconsistencies within society and politics. My recent silence has not been due to a lack of relevant examples but rather to being overwhelmed by possible illustrations, as well as being rendered speechless for a while by the volume of divisive rhetoric and dangerous invective in the media, social and mainstream, ‘post-Paris’.
It should go without saying that the November 13th terror attacks in Paris were an horrific event resulting in the tragic loss of many innocent lives. However, the ‘Eurocentric’ reaction to such loss of life should not be ignored. The media and individuals across Europe and the US, as well as in far-flung places like Australia and New Zealand, dedicated hours of coverage and endless threads of social media posts to reporting and commenting on the events in Paris in minute detail. Facebook enabled users to emblazon their profile picture with the tricolour in a show of solidarity with the French. After the initial uptake, some began to point out that Facebook had never offered the Nigerian, Lebanese or Malian flags in such a manner as a result of terrorist attacks there, questioning why Paris was different. And in that lies the problem, as the media and politicians actively fan the flames of fear that Europeans and Americans are the number one target and (most important) victims of terrorism. However, a look at the statistics shows a different picture. In the 6 months from July to December 2015, the Paris attacks and the shootings in Chattanooga and San Bernardino, as well as the downing of the Russian plane in Sinai, took the lives of around 370 people. During that same time, ISIL and affiliates were responsible for deaths in Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Tunisia and Lebanon numbering over 900. Meanwhile, Boko Haram also killed over 900 people in Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon, while Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda were between them responsible for another 50 deaths in Kenya, Somalia and Mali. In comparison to the European and US incidents, most of these received very little, or in some cases, no media attention or outpourings of collective grief. Our sympathy for victims of terrorism is selective and it is very apparent from this which lives we in the ‘West’ believe matter.
This discrepancy is in itself disturbing, but what is equally worrying is how politicians and the media use the fear of attacks on the ‘homeland’ to drive political agendas, despite ‘death by terrorism’ being far down the list of statistically likely ways to die. The post-Paris political world echoes strongly of the post-9/11 world and the attacks in France are being used to bolster and enliven the idea (fearing it may have been fading after 14 years) that the West is in a necessary war with Islam and extremism. Paris is being used to justify the continuation of the War on Terror. It’s open season again for government surveillance of their populations, sweeping aside any post-Snowden concerns over the Patriot Act and mass collection of data; the UK’s ‘snooper charter’ is back on the table and in the US the Paris attacks are being cited as a reason to challenge civilians’ right to use encryption. Meanwhile, just as governments were finally beginning to take responsibility for the growing refugee crisis, partially created by the war in Syria, the attacks in Paris are now being used as a reason to backtrack on the commitments some nations made to accept refugees from the war-torn region. And just as 9/11 was used to justify the invasion of Iraq, following Paris the UK government voted to increase its military involvement in Syria. Even that parliamentary debate had echoes of George Bush’s War on Terror declaration of, “you’re either with us or with the terrorists”, when Prime Minister David Cameron accused opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn of being a, “terrorist sympathiser” for arguing against increased military intervention.
Such oversimplified, polar views of the world are also what have led to the rise of Islamaphobic attacks in the US and Europe, with protests outside mosques, including the depositing of dead pigs and bacon, apparently under the assumption that all muslims are potential terrorists. This view is only reinforced when leading Presidential candidate Donald Trump states his aim of blocking all muslims from gaining entry visas and then sees his poll results increase as a result. Painting the picture of the threat of terrorism coming solely from Islamic extremists also allows nations in the West to continue to downplay the actions of extremists of other ilks, such as the far-right or Christian and Jewish fundamentalists. In the US there is a great deal of resistance to classifying as terrorism the threats of violence, arson attacks and shootings against women’s health clinics which perform abortions, including the killing of 3 people on Nov 27th at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood. At the moment, there is much debate on social media over whether the armed militiamen holed up in a federal building in Oregon to protest government ownership of land, should be classified as terrorists but the authorities and media have so far resisted doing so. It seems that when such actions involve white Christians, the word terrorism is rarely employed. It is Islam and Islamic extremism which continues to be represented as the main source of terrorist activity. However, selective outrage and political hypocrisy exists within the UK and US’s stance against the extremes of Islam, as evidenced in their dealings with Saudi Arabia. While claiming their general criticism of Islam comes from a desire to protect human rights such as freedom of speech and gender and sexual equality, they maintain close ties with Saudi Arabia, one of the strictest adherents to Sharia law. The country’s legal system sees the death penalty applied in cases of homosexuality and protesting against the government and requires women to have permission from a man before engaging in work, study or travel. After beheading almost 50 people last week, including teenage protesters and a Shia cleric, the condemnation from their Western allies was tepid, showing that whatever ideologies fuel the ongoing War on Terror, they remain secondary to lucrative oil and arms deals.
7th January 2016
Every week now we hear the media, politicians and ordinary people brandishing the words ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ in an attempt to explain the turbulent, complicated world around us. The following are some examples from last week alone:
– In response to WikiLeaks’ information dump of CIA Director John Brennan‘s personal emails, a Mediaite contributor stated “it was, at its essence, nothing less than terrorism: an illegal, politically-motivated act designed to terrorize an intelligence officer.”
– The interesting case of a man in Jerusalem shot dead by soldiers after acting erratically and trying to grab a gun from an IDF member. His behaviour was enough to see him labelled a terrorist, but only until it was discovered that he was an Israeli jew. The ZAKA (voluntary emergency response team) chairman on the scene said, ““When I arrived with the ZAKA team at the site of the supposed terrorist attack, it seemed to be a ‘standard’ current terrorist attack, a stabbing attempt, and the terrorist was apprehended. I wanted to cover the body in a black bag [reserved for terrorists]. After I was asked to take care of the body I saw that he was a Jew, and that it was a mistake to speak of a terrorist. I immediately notified the police and we switched to a white ZAKA body bag.”
– In New Zealand some controversy erupted over a TV3 journalist’s story on purchasing a gun without valid documentation. While this was intended to highlight loopholes in the system, the police are considering charging the journalist with illegal purchase of a firearm. Meanwhile, the owner of the gun shop in question criticised the journalist’s actions, saying, “This was more like a terrorist activity, frightening people above a level they should be concerned.”
The word ‘terrorism’ has its origins in Revolutionary France, where it was used to describe the action of those in power to frighten the general population into submission, defined as “government by intimidation”. More contemporary definitions of the word include: the instilling of fear or terror; the unofficial or unauthorised use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims; such practices used by a government or ruling group in order to maintain control over a population; such practices used by a clandestine or expatriate organisation as a means of furthering its aims. (Definitions courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary)
Admittedly, these definitions cover a wide range of activities and are open to very divergent interpretations. We’ve all heard the adage, “one man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist” and no doubt if the civilian population of the US, the UK or New Zealand were living in fear of becoming collateral damage due to a bomb dropped from an unseen, unheard, pilotless plane, then drone attacks would be classed as acts of terrorism. However, it seems that the very fast and loose use of the word today comes from the media’s desire to produce attention grabbing headlines, in an increasingly competitive news marketplace, combined with those in power attempting to encourage a culture of fear in which increased surveillance, government control and punitive measures are accepted as necessary. Therefore, the very use of the word ‘terrorism’, in which the media and politicians are complicit, is, by definition, an act of terrorism in itself.
This raises the sticky and delicate issue of vocabulary choice in politics. Words such as ‘terrorism’ are used hyperbolically but when overused or regularly employed inaccurately they can become hackneyed and begin to lose their impact. Other words become common currency – extremism, radical ideology, hate speech – but these too require definitions of their own. In the UK, the government’s current anti-terror policies involve an attempt to stamp out the grooming of young people for terrorist acts through extremist ideologies. The government has settled on a definition for ‘extremism, as “the vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values”, placing itself in the impossible position of having to then define ‘British values’. They gave it a shot with, “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”, but how do you fully define something so utterly intangible? So it is important, when politicians and the media bandy about words like ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’, that we constantly question what those using them intend them to mean.
25th October 2015
David Cameron’s speech this week, outlining the British government’s plan to counter extremism, focussed on a multi-cultural nation and its “commitment to British values”. These values were elucidated as including, “democracy, freedom and sexual equality.”
“We have, in our country, a very clear creed and we need to promote it much more confidently. Wherever we are from, whatever our background, whatever our religion, there are things we share together. We are all British. We respect democracy and the rule of law. We believe in freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of worship, equal rights regardless of race, sex, sexuality or faith. We believe in respecting different faiths but also expecting those faiths to support the British way of life. These are British values. And are underpinned by distinct British institutions. Our freedom comes from our Parliamentary democracy. The rule of law exists because of our independent judiciary. This is the home that we are building together. Whether you are Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Christian or Sikh, whether you were born here or born abroad, we can all feel part of this country – and we must now all come together and stand up for our values with confidence and pride.”
Meanwhile, he censured universities, the media and internet firms for not doing enough to aid the battle against radicalisation, essentially calling for increased surveillance and censorship in the same breath as extolling the importance of freedom of speech within the British value system.
“We need universities to stand up against extremism; broadcasters to give platforms to different voices; and internet service providers to do their bit too. Together, we can do this.”
In the speech, Cameron also severely played down the consequences of the UK’s questionable history in the Middle East and Africa, over-simplifying the situation in the extreme. He repudiated any suggestion of links between the country’s past actions and current terrorism, presenting as evidence the fact that 9/11 happened before the Iraq war and that the UK helped muslims in Somalia and Kosovo. He also dismissed links between poverty and terrorism with a sweeping statement that some terrorists come from wealthy, educated backgrounds.
“Now let me be clear, I am not saying these issues aren’t important. But let’s not delude ourselves. We could deal with all these issues – and some people in our country and elsewhere would still be drawn to Islamist extremism. No – we must be clear. The root cause of the threat we face is the extremist ideology itself.”
So by reducing the problem to one of ideological belief, he simplified the complex issues of disenfranchisement and injustice down to one of communicating the ‘right’ messages to people. And one of his principal methods for this is through integration, emphasised by the repetition of his election victory assertion that his party would lead “a ‘one nation’ government, bringing our country together” in “a stronger, more cohesive society”.
Cameron correctly identified the problem with this concept of ‘one nation’ as that of individual identities but mistakenly focussed his attention solely on racial and faith-based differences.
“For all our successes as multi-racial, multi-faith democracy, we have to confront a tragic truth that there are people born and raised in this country who don’t really identify with Britain – and who feel little or no attachment to other people here. Indeed, there is a danger in some of our communities that you can go your whole life and have little to do with people from other faiths and backgrounds.”
His speech, while being careful not to criticise faith-based schools, did raise questions surrounding the ghettoisation of certain groups within the country. While Cameron was no doubt picturing in his mind inner city schools in cities like Birmingham or Bradford, some have pointed to the Prime Minister’s own educational background as an example of someone far removed from the life of the everyday British citizen.
As much as people like to deny it, class still plays a major part in people’s identity in the UK. Many citizens feel that they have little in common with the political and economic elites in the country and so search elsewhere for a community to belong to. And this brings us to the thorny problem which may render Cameron’s plan impotent; that of the concept that there is indeed a shared national identity.
In his 1983 book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson first conceptualised the nation state as a social construct, held together by shared geography, history, language and customs, but ultimately consisting of imagined relationships.
“The nation is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear them, yet in the minds of each live the image of the communion.”
While national sports teams and institutions, such as the Royal Family, create a sense of shared culture, in reality David Cameron has little in common with a third generation Jamaican London cabby, a transgender teenager in Manchester, an emergency room nurse in Cardiff or a sheep farmer in the Scottish Highlands. Such diverse characters have been bound together by the Enlightenment idea of the nation state as a balance between citizen’s rights and responsibilities; the government would protect and assist their citizens in return for loyalty and service. In the UK today, as the welfare system is picked apart, the few remaining national institutions such as the NHS and the BBC are slowly eroded and it becomes increasingly apparent that those in power have so little trust of their citizenship that universal surveillance is endorsed, the rights of citizenship can seem diminished. As a result, in calling for the people’s cooperation, Cameron needs to reinforce the idea of nationhood and promise new benefits, that of protection from the perceived dangers of terrorism.
While there are many who still staunchly embrace and support the idea of nation, albeit often those on the far-right and those in the north who recognise a different national identity to the one which Cameron is appealing to, perhaps the call to arms in support of your country has lost some of the power which it held historically. Cameron cited the struggle against Hitler in his speech this week in his jingoistic call to action against a common foe. Just as the enemies in the current battle against extremism are no longer nation states, neither can the solution be sought in national pride. Anderson traced the construct of nation states to the birth of printing and for many years it was newspapers, and then television, which were the ‘social glue’ holding countries like the UK together. However, since the introduction of satellite television and then the Internet, the gatekeepers have been removed and people now have access to an infinite, global range of identity choices and selection of communities of which to belong. These communities need not be extremist or radical, but simply other people, from anywhere in the world, with similar views on movies, breastfeeding, education, ecology, cars or cookery. For many people who are part of these communities, they have much more in common with their fellow members than with those who happen to live in close geographical proximity to them. And so it is these ‘virtual communities’ and their contribution to people’s individual identities which present a challenge to the dominance of national identity upon which Cameron seems to be relying.
In today’s global world of contracted time and distance, of access to limitless information about other lifestyles, of fluid, adaptive identities, Cameron’s appeal to national pride seems oddly antiquated. His understanding of the challenges of identity seems limited to that of the diaspora in British culture without recognising the other countless differences amongst the citizenship and without examining the current realities of many living in the UK. His call to arms harks back to the army recruitment of the World Wars, when the enemy comprised of a nation state wearing matching uniforms, marching behind an identifiable leader. Just as today’s enemy is not such a homogenous group, neither are the citizens on whose help the Prime Minister is calling.