Another Day, Another Fisking

There’s a first rate ruck going on over at Crooked Timber arising out Daniel having noticed that the agenda of Unite Against Terror seems to be expanding to include attacking the BBC for not editorialising its news coverage in the style of Fox News.

Oddly enough, since this thread started, UAT’s news section seems to have disappeared.

Time, then, for another good fisking – this time of the main statement on UAT’s website. Same drill as last time – original in normal text and my own sarky comments in italics.

Terrorist attacks against Londoners on July 7th killed at least 54 people. The suicide bombers who struck in Netanya, Israel, on July 12 ended five lives, including two 16 year old girls. And on July 13, in Iraq, suicide bombers slaughtered 24 children. We stand in solidarity with all these strangers, hand holding hand, from London to Netanya to Baghdad: communities united against terror.

Between July 1 to July 13 2005 there were also terrorist attacks reported in the Lebanon (2 deaths), at the disputed Ayodha Temple – until 13 years ago the site of the Babri Mosque – in Utter Pradesh, India (90-minute gun battle in which all six attackers we killed), in Spain (4 bombs at a power station resulting in minimal damage – claimed by ETA) and a fifth in the Italian Cultural Institute in Barcelona (minimal damage, one policeman injured – thought to be the work of Italian anarchists) and a fake bomb in a Jerusalem bus station which was traced to two members of an Israeli infantry regiment protesting at the policy of disengagement.

I note this merely to point out that there is far more to terrorism than either radical Islamic groups and/or suicide-bombing.

These attacks were the latest atrocities committed by terrorist groups inspired by a poisonous and perverted politics that disguises itself as a form of the religion of Islam. The terrorists seek a closed society of fear and conformity. They are opposed by Muslims the world over. Muslim community leaders have condemned the London attacks unequivocally. We reject the terrorists’ claim that they represent authentic Islam. They do not.

So within the first couple of paragraphs we’ve gone from the generic ‘Unite Against Terror’ to the rather more specific ‘Unite Against Islamic Terrorism’ or, more to the point, ‘Unite Against Terrorism which threatens us and our allies’, rather like the US State Department which defines terrorism – in legal terms – only by reference to whether a particular terrorist group is perceived to constitute a threat to US interests.

As this Wikipedia article on terrorist groups shows there is rather more to terrorism than the narrow focus chosen by this campaign, which rather compromises its pretensions of ‘internationalism’ by excluding consideration of the diverse nature of terrorism and the varying contexts in which it takes place – contexts which don’t lend themselves quite so easily to the promulgation of a clear and absolutist moral position.

This is of interest primarily because it disregards the moral ambivalence which lies at the heart of one of the key doctrines which underpins the ideological position of this campaign’s founders – Humanitarian Interventionism, otherwise referred to as the ‘Blair Doctrine’ which developed out of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo during the late 1990’s. The generally accepted ‘history’ of this conflict is that the West intervened to protect Kosovo, and particularly ethnic Albanian’s who made up the majority of Kosovo’s population against Serbian aggression – this is, however, only half the story in so far as it ignores one the main causes of this aggression, a two year terrorist campaign by the ‘Kosovo Liberation Army’ against Serbian interests in Kosovo.

The aftermath of Kosovo is a study in moral relativism – while the West has pursued, and continues to pursue, charges of crimes against humanity against key players on the Serbian side, former KLA members who allowed themselves to be disarmed at the end of the conflict and embraced democracy were given a ‘clean slate’ and remain highly influential in Kosovan political society – others, it should be noted, took alternate routes, forging post-conflict ‘careers’ in either organised crime or as ‘foreign’ insurgents in neighbouring regions, such as Macedonia, continuing their attacks on ethnic Slavs. I may be wrong but I am unaware of any efforts on the part of either the ‘West’ or the Kosovan authorities to bring terrorist charges against member of the KLA relating to their actions from 1997-99.

Perhaps ‘Unite Against Some Kinds of Terror – the kinds which lend themselves to easy and simplistic moral judgements – and which threatens us and our allies’ would better characterise this campaign, even if as titles go it’s rather less snappy.

We remember the attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 and in Madrid on March 11, 2004. But we know that al Qaeda and groups that are inspired by Bin-Ladenism have carried out atrocities in France, Pakistan, Israel, Kenya, Tanzania, India, Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, Tunisia, Indonesia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, North Osetia and many other countries.

Bin-Ladenism? Here there seems to be the suggestion that Bin Laden is somehow the ideological ‘engine’ behind Al Qaeda and radical Islamic terrorism in general.

This is fundamentally incorrect on two counts.

First, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are relative latecomers to world of radical Islamic terrorism – they have been such groups operating in Egypt and other parts of North Africa, Pakistan and Kashmir, the Philippines and South East Asia – in Malaysia and Indonesia in particular, since the late 1960’s and 1970’s, and all to the same basic agenda, demanding the creation of a strict Islamic state and imposition of Shariah law

Second, Bin Laden’s talents lie in his organisational abilities and his grasp of the strategy of asymmetric warfare, a skill he picked through his contact with the CIA, MI6 and the Pakistani SIS during the course of the Afghan conflict of the 1980’s. Al Qaeda’s primary ideologue is Ayman al-Zawahiri as evidenced by Al Qaeda’s 1996 ‘fatwa’ against the US and its allies which was released jointly and in the name of both Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri – neither, it should be noted, have the legitimate authority within Islamic jurisprudence, to issue such a fatwa.

Bin-Ladenism is a complete misnomer and a misstatement of the ideological foundations of Al Qaeda – his, and Al Qaeda’s, sole ‘innovation’ has been to move Islamic terrorism into the global arena and carry out attacks outside the Islamic world, directly involving the West in an internal conflict within the Islamic world which has going on for the last forty years.

The vast majority of the victims of al Qaeda’s violence have been Muslims. Those who have suffered at the hands of violent Islamic Fundamentalist movements in Iran and Algeria have also been ordinary Muslims.

Hang on a second, we’re getting off the subject of terrorism here.

Let’s get this into a proper perspective…

Al Qaeda = Global Terrorist Organisation

Iran = Constitutional Islamic Republic arising from the overthrow of a monarchical state by a Shi’a-led popular revolution.

Algeria = Ongoing civil war since 1991, now mostly over with the surrender of the ‘Islamic Salvation Army’ – the relevant point here being that the cause of the civil war was the cancellation of democratic elections by the incumbent government after the first round of voting which it became obvious that the radical ‘Islamic Salvation Front’ (FIS) would win the election.

Is it me or is this staring to look less and less like its actually about terrorism and more and about promoting an ideological conflict with Islamic conservatism.

This terrorist violence is not a response by ‘Muslims’ to the injustices perpetrated upon them by ‘the west’. Western democracies have been responsible for some of the ills of this world but not for the terrorist murders of these deluded Bin-Ladenists.

Right, we’re back on to terrorism now – note how ‘response’ as in “not a response by ‘Muslims’” leads into the notion of ‘responsibility’ as in ‘ Western democracies have been responsible for some of the ills of this world but not for the terrorist murders…”

The claim that ‘the West’ are not responsible of Al Qaeda’s actions does not preclude those actions arising as a response to actions undertaken by the West – one can dispute the legitimacy of the response but not its existence. Here the narrow concept of responsibility is being used to deny the existence of any relationship between Western actions in the Middle East and terrorist attacks on the West by Al Qaeda – this is fundamentally a false premise and pure sophistry.

Also there’s the use of ‘Muslims’ in quotes following on directly from a reference to Iran. Is there some sort of suggestion here that we should include the Shi’a – the second largest sect within Islam which makes up around 15-20% of the total Muslim population – in the list of ‘not proper Muslims’.

These attacks did not begin in 2003. The first attempt to blow up the World Trade Center took place ten years before, in 1993.

This is deliberately disingenuous, offering a limited and inaccurate historical perspective on Al-Qaeda. As is widely acknowledged by, amongst others, the US Congressional Research Service, Al Qaeda turned its attentions to the West and to the US in particular following the 1990 Gulf War and the decision of Saudi Arabia to seek western assistance in expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait rather that make use of Al Qaeda and the pan-Islamic militia left over from the Afghan conflict. This reference to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre, which was in any case the work of an Egyptian terrorist group and never fully linked to Al Qaeda itself, deliberately foreshortens the historical perspective to create a false impression that these attacks begin ‘out of nothing’, which is simply not the case.

As noted earlier, the history of Islamic terrorism extends back to the 1960’s – long before Al Qaeda came together.

These terrorists do not hate what is worst in the societies they attack, but what is best. They despise individual liberty, critical thought, gender equality, religious tolerance, the rights of minorities and political pluralism. They do not criticize democracy because it sometimes fails to live up to its principles; they oppose those principles.

Back, again, to the presumed superiority of our own values over those of not only Al Qaeda but, by including references to gender equality, of Islamic conservatism in general – again, the attack here is not merely on Islamic radicalism/terrorism but on elements of Islam which are very much part of the mainstream – Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights, critical thought, gender equality and political pluralism is no better than that of Iran. Is the House of Saud no included in the things we’re supposed to be uniting against or has campaign just not thought things through properly.

Strip away considerations of morality for a moment and it becomes clear that the basic ideological position being put forward here – that ‘our’ values are the right values and therefore everyone should live by them, is identical to that of Al Qaeda – the details differ markedly but the basic premise is the same.

In areas of conflict, the terrorists have damaged attempts at peaceful and political solutions to problems. They choose killing and reject mutual recognition, accommodation, negotiation, understanding, and compromise.

Again, we have the projection of our values and value systems – ‘compromise’ is offered but only on our terms with no particular consideration of how that might conflict with or affect their values. This is an emerging strand of conflict in efforts to develop a constitution for the post-Invasion Iraq – the Shi’a majority want a constitution which reflects their position on a number of things, gender inequality being one, which conflicts with our own ideas and values so, if they vote, democratically, to introduce their position in law over and above the liberal position the West favours, what do we do then? Do we ignore their democratically expressed wishes – the will of their people – or not?

In the face of such an enemy, we believe it is vital that democratic political forces in all countries unite. We need a global movement of solidarity linking together communities threatened by terror. United we stand against terror.

But that’s not what you said earlier when you made it pretty clear that your interest is solely in Islamic terrorism, or are you now proposing we take sides in, say, the ongoing civil war in Sri Lanka or the conflict in Kashmir – and if so who’s side are they suggesting we take?

Or are we still excluding messy situations from this ‘global movement of solidarity’?

We can find our inspiration in the behavior of ordinary people in the immediate aftermath of terrorist atrocities. Always the story is the same. A fractured world is mended by the kindness of strangers. We see, amidst the pain and anguish, in the rubble of the Twin Towers, the wreckage of a London bus, the bloodied glass across a Tel Aviv street, and among the Mothers searching for their children in Baghdad, that a common humanity asserts itself. Extraordinary acts of courage and selflessness become commonplace. The impulse of solidarity overwhelms fear and help comes from strangers.

Well quite. Couldn’t help noticing, however, the reference to Tel Aviv here – are we being partisan or do we also condemn disproportionate responses to terrorism which also kill innocent civilians as we did in relation to the Serbs in Kosovo? Say, for instance, like the firing of missiles into a civilian-occupied block of flats from a helicopter gunship in order to kill a couple terrorists who are hiding in the block?

Counting casualties is a somewhat inexact business but the most reliable sets of figures available show that casualties figure in the first Palestinian Intifada (1987 – 1993) came in at 160 Israelis – almost all members of the Israeli Defence Force – and 1,162 Palestinians. 159 of those Palestinian casualties – only one less than the total number of Israeli casualties – were children under the age of 16, the majority of whom were shot while throwing stones at Israeli troops.

Casualty figure since the start of the second (al-Aqsa) Intifada are subject to rather more dispute.

Figures for Israeli casualties are fairly consistent, around 1,000 deaths – of whom around 700 were civilians – and around 6,700 wounded.

On the Palestinian side, figure for the total number of deaths and wounded are fairly consistent – anything from 2,200 to 2,500 deaths and more than 22,000 wounded – however the apportionment of death between civilians and ‘combatants’ – i.e. members of terrorist groups and irregular militias – is disputed. Israel’s security services claim that only around a third of Palestinian casualties were civilians, which would make both sides even in terms of their respective civilian death tolls, however human rights organisations contend that the real figure for civilian casualties amongst the Palestinians is around 55-60% of their total casualties, around twice that of the Israeli side.

Now you tell me what the absolute moral position is on that set of figures, because I’m buggered if I can see it.

With every healing gesture between strangers we feel a candle of hope has been lit in a dark world. On 7/7 a London tube worker rushed towards the blast, running down a smoke-filled tunnel, torch in hand, to lead out the survivors.

These ordinary yet heroic rescuers teach us the ethic of responsibility. It is time to assert our common humanity against all who would divide us. It is time to forge communities united against terror, respectful of the dignity of difference, and organised to extend active solidarity to each other across the globe.

Is it me or is this all getting a bit ‘trendy vicar’ here – people often respond to crises with acts of compassion – so what! If we’re meant to sign up for things just out of admiration for the work of the emergency services then why not start a campaign to unite against earthquakes.

This is meaningless rhetoric, marketing spiel for selling ribbons, t-shirts and rubber wristbands.

We are frequently urged to understand the terrorists, but too often the call to understand is code for justification and apology. There are always other, better, more effective, and more human ways of opposing injustice than by killing yourself and others in a symbolic act of hatred. Muslims who have pursued modern democratic politics have often been the first in the firing line of the terrorists. The road to a just solution in Israel-Palestine is signposted by ‘mutual recognition’ and ‘political dialogue’ not the blind alley of terrorism.

Ah, yes – the ‘apologists’ trope. Actually very little of the discussion around causes, links and trying to formulate an understanding of terrorism has sought either to justify it or apologise for the actions of the perpetrators – most of us are rather more concerned with understanding terrorism from the point of view of working out how to combat it effectively and, in particular, how the wider context in which it takes place serves to radicalise young Muslims to the extent that they are willing to commit such acts on the basis that identifying and addressing their disaffection we might persuade them that terrorism is actually the wrong way of going about things.

Perhaps you might like to recognise that somewhere along the line, if its not too much trouble. We’re not all members of RESPECT or the SWP you know…

Mind you it is worth noting this post, entitled “I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse” , from Harry’s Place – who are amongst the founders of this campaign – which kicks off with…

It’s a possibly useful task to read quotes from supporters of the ‘resistance’ and other apologists for terrorism in a heavy Italian-American accent. Give it a try with these examples:”

Before going on to note these comments from ‘Don’ George Galloway MP:

If the British government continues with this disastrous policy, greater disasters will follow — to the people of Iraq, to our troops in Iraq and to the citizens of our country.”

However lets consider the following comments as well…

I condemn the act that was committed this morning. I have no need to speculate about its authorship. It is absolutely clear that Islamist extremists, inspired by the al-Qaeda world outlook, are responsible. I condemn it utterly as a despicable act, committed against working people on their way to work, without warning, on tubes and buses. Let there be no equivocation: the primary responsibility for this morning’s bloodshed lies with the perpetrators of those acts.”

Now who do you think said that? Blair? Ken Livingstone? One of the signatories to this campaign – after all it mirrors one of Unite Against Terror’s central premises, that the terrorists are responsible for their actions?

No. Those comments were made in speech in the House of Commons on July 7…

… by George Galloway MP.

Now I’m no great fan of Gorgeous George but I do think that if you’re going to try to hang someone, at least do it for something they’ve done – oh and do feel free to search Harry’ Place for a reference to this latter comment – you won’t find it.

We stand firmly against the racists who seek to exploit the current tensions for their own agenda.

Yet, this campaign doesn’t seem to notice that much of its basic argument, by focusing exclusively on Islamic terrorism, is proving highly attractive to those same ‘racists who seek to exploit the current tensions for their own agenda’ and, indeed, lending an undeserved air of legitimacy to that agenda – or is it just that they think that by simply tacking the term ‘fascism’ onto Islam when referring to Al Qaeda and other radical Islamic groups they’re actually making a distinction between your own position and that of those who might pursue a similar line of argument from altogether different motives?

We stand firmly against those who apologize for the terrorists and who misrepresent terrorist atrocities as ‘resistance’.

I refer the reader to the comments I made some moments ago.

We offer our support and solidarity to all those within the Muslim faith who work in opposition to the terrorists and who seek to win young people away from extremism and nihilism, towards an engagement with democratic politics.

What, unconditionally?

There’s a solid body of evidence to show that the 2003 invasion of Iraq has caused a significant degree of disaffection amongst young Muslims, disaffection which has proven to be fertile ground for those radicals seeking to recruit people to their cause. So what happens if, as seems likely, those within the Muslim community who are seeking to ‘win young people away from extremism’ come back to you and point out that invading Iraq hasn’t really helped their case for engagement with democratic politics and is, in fact, a key cause of just the kind of resentment and disaffection that the radicals are playing on.

Are you still going to offer them support and solidarity – or are you just going to call them a bunch of apologists and ignore what they have to say.

We believe that democracy and human rights are worth defending with all our strength. The human values of respect and tolerance and dignity are not ‘western’ but universal.

So you’re all off to sign up for a tour of duty in Iraq, then? No, thought not…

Oh, and if respect and tolerance are universal values, does that mean you’ll respect and tolerate those who tell you to piss off because they prefer to stick to their own values rather than adopt yours? Didn’t think so either…

We are not afraid. But we are not vengeful. We believe the kindness of strangers has lit the way and this light will drive away the darkness. We want to join light to light to show that evil, injustice and oppression will not have the final word. Through these acts of human solidarity we will mend the world the terrorists have fractured.

[A]nd this light will drive away the darkness. We want to join light to light to show that evil, injustice and oppression will not have the final word”.

And is that doesn’t work I suppose you can always send in the ‘Justice League’…

We seem here to be overly reliant on what is fairly blatant Christian rhetoric – not so much ‘Unite Against Terror’ as come join the great crusade of the sanctimonious missionaries of democracy. There appears to be a distinct subtext here, one which equates humanitarian/democratic values with Christian values and which, in the context of campaign against terrorism arising from within the community of a theological rival, makes me more than a little bit uneasy to say the least.

The underlying message here seems to be that we can all get along just fine in this world… as long as its done our terms, under our system of values and, by implication, if and only if ‘you Muslims’ become more like us and buy into our values – no doubt the Gideon’s are already planning their first shipments to the Baghdad Hilton in anticipation.

We invite you to sign this statement as a small first step to building a global movement of citizens against terrorism.

Far too much of this stated position is based on an assumption of the superiority of western values and an set of absolute moral positions, many of which I just don’t share in the same blind, unquestioning way that’s being promoted here.

Looked at objectively and without moral bias, this position is basically; “We believe the world would be a better place is everyone shared our values and believed the same thing we do” – and so too is that of Al Qaeda and other radical elements within Islam. They’re really not so different as those behind this campaign might like to believe – just opposite sides of the same coin, each pursuing their own utopian dream of a perfect society and a new world order based on the pre-eminence of their own beliefs, certain in the knowledge that they – and only they – are right. Its a position that can only lead to more conflict, not less – the perfect recipe for a perpetual state of war.

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions then this campaign has already started laying slabs – Unite Against Terror? More like come join the new moral army.

No thanks.

  • Sancho Panzer
  • Far too much of this stated position is based on an assumption of the superiority of western values and an set of absolute moral positions, many of which I just don’t share in the same blind, unquestioning way that’s being promoted here.

    Having examined whether or not a set of values which holds that forcing women to wear the veil and executing homosexuals are bad things is “superior” to a set of values which regards these things as good, I have come to the conclusion that yes, the former set of values is indeed superior.

    I reached this conclusion by reasoning from a premise of human rites and secular principles which are probably shared by the author of the above article. Why has the author come to a different conclusion? Because I am “blind and unquestioning” and he is open-eyed and inquisitive?

  • Unity

    I reached this conclusion by reasoning from a premise of human rites and secular principles which are probably shared by the author of the above article. Why has the author come to a different conclusion? Because I am “blind and unquestioning” and he is open-eyed and inquisitive?

    Good question…

    …to which the answer would take into account whether you also believe that such values can simply be projected on to cultures and societies from the outside or whether such cultures have to find their own way to those values for them to have any real meaning.

    This is where the element of being ‘blind and unquestioning’ comes into the picture. Yes I do share a belief in human rights and secular principles but what I don’t share is the assumption that such things are so self-evident that they can be simply imposed from the outside on a culture which does not share some or all of those values. In that sense they are not ‘universal’, they are things which have been arrived at be a process of reason which, in our own society, has been at time neither straightforward or without its struggles or casualties along the way – an even today there are still some in our own society who would take some of those ideals away if allowed to.

    To think, as some clearly do, that we can simply impose these values into the Islamic world – by force, even, as has been the case in Iraq – is pure hubris. It took centuries of conflict in Europe to break the stranglehold of the Christian Church – whose values in certain matters are little more enlightened than those of Islam – on Western society, yet some now seem to think that we can sweep the influence of Islam away in a few short years and with little difficulty at all, that if we, for example, force western style women’s rights onto Iraq through its constitution the Shi’a will simply accept it and change their values to match our own.

    That simply isn’t going to happen – more to the point its dangerous to believe that it will, it makes it all seem so easy when it patently isn’t and, therefore, encourages a belief which can only lead to conflict that no side can genuinely win.

  • dawood

    Some great points here. Most I agree with to some degree. But the one thing that troubles me is that everyone is doing the exact same thing you are accusing the original writer of doing – the whole superiority thing.

    As someone who is a Muslim, and is opposed to extremism/terrorism/whatever, and actively working within my community to fight against this mentality, I find it rather disheartening that Islam is once again reduced down to women wearing rags on their head, homosexuals being stoned and stuff like that.

    Why can’t the Islamic legal tradition be accepted as just that? A legal tradition. With a methodology, specific subjects that need to be mastered before making rulings (such as intimate knowledge of classical arabic, interpretive principles, logic, looking after the interests of the community and so on)?

    Many Muslim intellectuals/scholars in the ‘west’ as well as the ‘east’ offer a more progressive voice – but from within the Islamic tradition – using Muslims own frames of reference, sources and methods – not from being externally forced on to those who have a different cultural experience and worldview.

    Islamic Law has much more going for it than ‘just’ stoning people who commit adultery, killing apostates and chopping the hands of thieves. It also developed a form of compensation for women who were sexually assaulted pre-Middle Ages (as her ‘property’ [ie. sexual autonomy] was taken) compared to modern law which has only (relatively) recently got this, and many other interesting examples when you look inside the tradition.

    There are different approaches to the religion all battling out for legitimacy within the Muslim communities right now, and i personally think that only through responding from within the tradition (as well as working towards a better foreign policy etc.) can this ‘war on terror’ actually be won.

    Sorry for ranting – some interesting thoughts going on here!

  • Katherine

    I think many people could do with a decent dose of education on religions other than Christianity. My RE classes at school contained next to nothing on, say, Islam. No, strike that, it contained nothing. I am 28, so I think it is probably fair to say that anyone older than me, including the current policy makers in government, got nothing too.

    The only knowledge about Sharia law that most people have is from newspaper stories about stoning and veils, because that make better headlines. Sad but true.

  • dawood

    Totally agree Katherine. The Muslim community in the UK (as well as elsewhere) has got an uphill battle, and with crappy/old-timer leadership, they have no one who can help do it.

    Not only do they have to constantly ‘defend’ the mainstream population from media attacks, but they also have to first and foremost educate themselves. I have only been Muslim for around 3 1/2yrs, and for the last 2 have known more about the intellectual history of Islam than most everyday ‘born’ Muslims. Sad but true.

  • David

    Thank you for your thoughtful response, Unity. I now see what you mean, and I agree with you.

    However, I’ve read through the original UAT statement, and I see no reference anywhere to imposing values upon unwilling cultures, let alone any blind and unquestioning acceptance that this is what we should be doing. In fact, the point seems to be to resist the imposition of alien values upon our own unwilling culture.

    What am I missing?

  • David

    The problems that people believe are the problems and the people they believe have the answers are really the problems.
    Propagander constantly spread to divide public oppinion,divide and conquore.
    If war was the way to peace then the world would have been at peace a millenia ago.
    There is no path to peace peace is the path.
    All it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to stay silent.
    Bush philosophy the tree of liberty must be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants.
    Hence Sep 11 2001 justify a war and penalise anyone who doesent support his war.
    Revelations war mongers will burn but people need to stand up and not be afraid.
    Easier said than done.