Tuesday, June 10, 2014 

Our true shared values.

Perhaps it was just me, but as a kid I always got an illicit thrill out of seeing a swear word written down or spoken by an adult you wouldn't normally expect to use an expletive.  You could hear the same word used multiple times a day, and yet still get a tingle of the forbidden from finding it in a book.  At some point we made a visit to a city (I can no longer recall which city or when this was) and went past a theatre where Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking was being performed. I didn't have the slightest clue what the play was about, just there was something outré, thrilling about seeing it starkly advertised, uncensored and completely unvarnished.

If you're wondering what kind of tenuous connection I'm going to make between this astoundingly banal anecdote and something in the news, then here it is. Amid all the joking and mockery of defining what "British values" are, and the deadly serious politicians who always end up sounding wretchedly po-faced and about as current as Geoff Capes when they attempt to do so, the only true values we honestly share as humans are that we eat, and we fuck.  Sure, we do a lot else as well, and as my dear old nan had it, if you don't eat, you don't shit and if you don't shit, you die, but the two things that drive us as animals are eating in order to stay alive, and procreation in order to pass on our genes.  Some of us do a lot more of one than the other, call it the Russell/Jo Brand dichotomy if you like, but the equilibrium has just about remained in balance.

Yes, it sounds flippant, reductionist, facetious.  Is it any sillier though than trying to instil a set of rigid values on a people for whom abstract concepts such as the rule of law and belief in personal and social responsibility are going to mean different things?  This isn't to get into a redundant debate about relativism, it's more the absurdity of regarding the prime minister's list of values as being intrinsically British, let alone unique to this country.  If anything there is something particularly unBritish about teaching respect for the very institutions we spend so much time either making fun of or complaining about, a view a certain Michael Gove also once shared, at least when it was Gordon Brown commissioning reports "designed to enhance the bonds of citizenship".  We should note that schools will only be meant to "promote" rather than teach British values, but what the difference will be when it comes down to it remains to be seen.

Besides, beyond freedom and tolerance, just what kind of person would ever says Britishness is about responsibility?  Bizarre as it is to discover, it was John Major who almost certainly came closest to the nub of Britain as it sees itself and the world sees it when he described it in 93 as "the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and as George Orwell said “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist”".  He was definitely nearer than either William Hague or Shirley "no revolutions" Williams came in similar remarks.  Strip away the stereotypes, the clichés and the self-hatred/self-love, however difficult that last one is and I'd hazard we're now a nation of cynical, atomised, oblivious, ill at ease, generous when we feel like it, generally tolerant and funny people.  We believe in applehood, mother pie, there being no such thing as privacy, in freedom of speech for ourselves and chain stores of every variety on our doorstep.

The only reason David Cameron can be so assured the policy will have "overwhelming support" is there's not much people like to imagine more than the idea they have some kind of influence over what the next generation will be brought up to think, and as "British values" are such an open book it can mean every thing to every man.  As any parent will soon tell you, it doesn't work out like that.  The same will be the case in this instance: by the time any secondary school gets round to promoting the Govian view on Britishness, most teenagers will already know what they think about our glorious institutions, the quaintness of the traditional sense of fair play and the tolerant way young people are regarded and reported on by the world's finest media.  Gove and pals of course know this, but every education secretary ends up reduced to imagining they will leave some legacy, or indeed scar on those currently growing up.  The difference is Gove came to the job certain in what he wanted, and to hell with the consequences.  It's enough to make you wish for a politician who would break it down to we eat, we fuck, we die.  Or maybe that's just the sadness in me.

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Monday, June 09, 2014 

Michael Gove proves his worth yet again.

The idea that Ofsted inspectors can get a true, rounded image of how a school is performing over just two days is a fiction.  In most cases, not even the teachers themselves really know what's going on; the more perceptive kids certainly will, but it's rare they're regarded as being truly reliable or for that matter questioned at length by inspectors.  My old failing comprehensive shouldn't be taken as representative, not least as it's now over a decade since I thankfully left it behind, yet I can't help recalling the story told by one of our teachers about the head asking who she was.  "I'm so and so.  You're the one who conducted my final interview."

This is exactly why we should treat the reports finally released today into the 21 schools in Birmingham at the heart of the "Trojan Horse" allegations with a healthy dose of scepticism.  Considering these reports have been about the worst kept secret since Ryan Giggs' love life, with practically all the findings on the five being placed in special measures leaked in advance, the findings don't come across as the biggest shock.  They additionally don't because, with a few notable exceptions, Ofsted hasn't found prima facie evidence of extremism.  Attempts by governors in some instances to instil a more hardline Islamic ethos on some of the schools yes, success in doing so was mostly more difficult to come across.

Sir Michael Wilshaw was then left with the task of explaining why schools ranked as outstanding two years ago are inadequate now.  The obvious thing was to say all this had happened since the last inspections, despite the fact we know these were not new concerns, and to make the evidence sound a lot more firm and grounded than it actually is, and what do you know, that's exactly what Wilshaw's done.  Compare the reports into Park View and Golden Hillock for instance with that of the inspection of Oldknow Academy, and you soon discover which Wilshaw draws the most from for his letter to Michael Gove.

Oldknow is certainly the school where the evidence of an attempt by governors to exert control is most apparent.  The principal is currently on sick leave, having handed in her resignation in January, with the additional report by the Education Funding Agency (PDF) redacting some of the further information.  Staff said the school had becoming increasingly Islamic over the past year, that the celebration of other religious festivals had been cancelled despite Eid celebrations going ahead, with the most serious allegations involving the Arabic and maths teacher.  He refused to shake the hand of the EFA's female education adviser, while his was the only class they observed where every girl was wearing a headscarf and they were all sat at the back of the room.

At Park View, which has had most of the focus on it, the evidence isn't quite as stark.  Ofsted states externals speakers have not been vetted properly, a reference to how Sheikh Shady Al-Suleiman was invited in as an external speaker.  He isn't named in the Ofsted report but rather in the additional EFA one.  The Graun reported last week this detail may have been dropped after the school complained he had spoken at other universities and schools, wasn't considered an extremist by the Prevent programme, and his talk had been on "time management".  The EFA also notes many classrooms had posters advocating prayer, while some in a maths classroom encouraged pupils to begin and end the lesson with a prayer.  Religious education after Year 9 was also exclusively Islamic, with those children who wanted to study for the Christian GCSE having to "teach themselves".  There was also some evidence of gender segregation, although the EFA again makes more of this than Ofsted.

Mark Easton makes the important point that much as we might recoil from this, and as Ofsted, the EFA and indeed (indeed) Michael Gove apparently do, view such an atmosphere as not being conducive to community cohesion, failing to prepare those attending for life in multicultural Britain, where do you draw the line in a system seemingly devised to be in a constant state of controlled chaos?  If Park View and the rest were designated faith schools rather than "normal" academies in an area where the majority are Muslims, would there be the same problem?  The main finding against Park View and Golden Hillock is that at both too little is being done to raise students' awareness of the threat from extremism, which in practice effectively means teachers and governors haven't received training from the Prevent programme.  Exactly how many other schools could be accused of this failing, one wonders?  In the Park View report, Ofsted state "[S]tudents’ understanding of the arts, different cultures and other beliefs are limited."  You suspect the same could be said of almost every school that isn't ranked outstanding regardless of the area it serves.

Just how far this obsession with extremism is being taken is set out in the Ofsted inspection of Graceland Nursery School.  As a matter of urgency, according to Ofsted, the school should "ensure that key policies such as the child protection policy, anti-bullying and behaviour policies include reference to identifying and minimising extremist behaviour."  The children the school caters for are 3 to 5 years old, for crying out loud.  If this is Michael Gove's idea of "draining the swamp", we can only thank our lucky stars he's not environment minister.

Apart from the Park View schools being taken over, about Gove's only other substantive suggestions are snap, no notice Ofsted inspections and schools being required to promote "British values".  As to what British values are, your guess is frankly as good as mine.  If as suggested it's teaching respect for the rule of law and how the police and army can be held accountable to the people, then it might be a start if the government had the same respect for the former and we made it so that the latter is a reality rather than a lie.  Much as John Harris is right to argue that the overriding issue here is the disarray schools are currently in thanks to Michael Gove's determination for every single one to be an academy, with it being obvious from the outset those with an ideology to push would be first to take advantage, we can't ignore the role of religion in general.  If parents want their children to have a religious education, they're perfectly entitled to provide them with one; the state however shouldn't be in the business of doing so.  It also wouldn't go amiss if the education secretary wasn't someone apparently convinced that behind every decent, honourable Muslim there's another waiting to go off.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014 

A dangerous Melanie Phillips.

If there's one thing you can rely on when a new pronouncement emerges from the Office of Tony Blair, it's that it will be taken very seriously by both devotees and critics of our dear former prime minister alike. The responses might not be correspondingly dry, but they amount to the same thing. It's therefore not true to say that Blair's sermons don't have influence, especially when there are still those within government who share his increasingly worrying world view.

For Blair has at last dropped any real moderating factors from his black and white vision of the Middle East (and much of Africa for that matter) and what we should be doing to encourage "change". The odd thing is that Blair's idea of reform post-Arab spring seems remarkably close to the world prior to 9/11. Tony has you see clearly been revisiting Iraq and where it all went wrong, probably in anticipation of the Chilcot inquiry passing judgement on him. The problem wasn't the intervention itself or the lies leading up to it, rather the fact that both Sunni and Shia extremists immediately rose up against their supposed liberators.  Where al-Qaida previously had barely existed, within a year the most powerful franchise yet was established and on its way to controlling vast swathes of the north of the country.

Apart from Blair not admitting it was his very intervention that played exactly into al-Qaida's hands and prompted the biggest surge in jihadi recruitment since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as numerous commentators have pointed out, and ignoring all the mistakes made by the occupying forces in the first few years, his analysis is reasonably sound. Where he then gets it spectacularly wrong is in taking this view of Islamist extremism being the main factor holding the region back and applies it across the board. Yes, he is at pains to say there are other forces at work and that Islamism is not Islam, but frankly it's becoming more and more difficult to take his protestations seriously.

Blair's solution is remarkably simple. The threat is so serious and affects both ally and ostensible rival alike that differences should be set aside to challenge it. We should work with both Russia and China as they have their own problems with Islamists. Even more dramatically, such is the danger posed by the extremists in the Syrian opposition that we should aim for a negotiated settlement where Assad stays in power, at least for the time being.  Only if he rejects such a generous offer would we then look to help the same opposition through imposing a no fly zone.  This would obviously mean something approaching war, although we would demand at the same time that the extremist groups get no help from the surrounding states.  You know, just like we have for the last couple of years now, and what an overwhelming success it's been.

This new thesis from the man who previously gave us the Chicago speech is riddled with contradictions, and Blair must realise know it.  To be sure, he had no objection to dealing with authoritarian states when in office so long as they either supported or didn't interfere with the West's wider foreign policy aims, hence why he brought Gaddafi's Libya in from the cold and had no qualms whatsoever about shutting down the Serious Fraud Office investigation into fraud in the al-Yamamah deal with Saudi Arabia.  This new emphasis on realpolitik though suggests that despite continuing to support the Iraq war, given the chance to do things differently he most likely would.  Considering the more barmy neo-cons have insisted in the past that the Iraq intervention was one of the catalysts of the Arab spring, this is quite the Damascene conversion.

Then again, Blair clearly has no love for the Arab spring or for the values those who initially rose up had.  He says our ultimate principle should be support for religious freedom and open, rule based economies.  Note that he doesn't mention democracy, a word he only uses three times throughout his entire screed, one of those in reference to Israel.  Like so much of the speech, the reason is simple: democracy, as seen in Egypt and in Palestine, can lead to the people voting for the very Islamists he is so opposed to.  As Blair sets out, whether they be Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood, and regardless of whether they eschew violence, "their overall ideology is one which inevitably creates the soil in which such extremism can take root".  He goes on to say Islamism's very implementation is incompatible with the modern world, yet apparently this is its very danger.  One would suspect that if this were the case Iran's theocracy would have long since departed the scene, yet still it remains with us, in spite also of the sanctions bearing down on it.  Perhaps its survival can be put down to its managed democracy, but again, doesn't this rather undermine Blair's case?

Well yes, but it sure doesn't stop him.  Egypt then, rather than Syria, is where the future of the region hangs.  Despite coming to power in what were widely regarded as fair elections, the Brotherhood simply had to be overthrown, as it was "taking over the traditions and institutions of the country".  It wasn't just an ordinary protest that led to the ousting of Morsi, it was "an absolutely necessary rescue of the nation".  Any concerns we have about the over a thousand Morsi supporters who were massacred in the aftermath, or the 500+ protesters sentenced to death we should put aside, as we help the country "cross over to a better future".  Blair in other words supports wholeheartedly the restoration of the Mubarak era, just with a different general in charge.  Nor it seems should we worry that supporting the coup might encourage the very belief change can't be achieved through the ballot box, leading to the exact violence Blair so abhors, or about the journalists imprisoned on false charges, the kind of actions we so condemn of other authoritarian states, or indeed the very people who demanded true democracy and who want neither the army or the Brotherhood; all these are by the by when defeating the true threat posed by the Islamists is vastly more important.

The countries that go unmentioned ought to speak just as loudly as those he goes through in turn.  Strangely absent is Turkey, again perhaps because it would otherwise undermine his case.  On the face of it Erodgan's AKP would fit the bill: a party that bit by bit seems to be undermining democracy, which supports Islamists in Syria and describes children killed by its forces as "terrorists".  It remains however as popular if not more popular than ever, and has also established precisely the open, rule based economy Blair favours, to the point where the Gezi Park protests started because of the proposed development of yet another shopping mall.  For all Blair's radicalism, he also still can't bring himself to criticise Saudi Arabia by name, instead only remarking on the absurdity of spending billions
 

of $ on security arrangements and on defence to protect ourselves against the consequences of an ideology that is being advocated in the formal and informal school systems and in civic institutions of the very countries with whom we have intimate security and defence relationships.

It's this cowardice, along with his rejection of what he calls the "absolutely rooted desire on the part of Western commentators" to "eliminate the obvious common factor in a way that is almost wilful" that gives the game away.  Just as he spoke after 9/11 of "re-ordering this world around us", his ultimate desire remains the same even if his methods are now different.  Regardless of how just the grievances of those who have turned to violence and/or Islamism are, they have to be defeated whatever the cost.  It doesn't matter if those doing the smiting are as tyrannical as those they are fighting against, like the Russians in Chechnya, or the Chinese against the Uighurs, both of whom Blair wants onside for his battle, such is the danger of the ideology that we must if necessary make uncomfortable bedfellows.  We shall go on pussyfooting around Saudi Arabia's sponsorship of the very people Blair proselytises against, while keeping the pressure up on the potential ally we could have in Iran.  We must hug Israel ever closer, as the real problem is with the divisions among the Palestinians, again caused by Islamism.  


This, remember, is the Quartet's peace envoy.  He is also a man who regardless of the criticism, retains influence.  He ought to be thought of after this as Melanie Phillips with a hotline to the world's leaders.  And if that isn't scary, I'm not sure what is.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014 

Here's to you, Mr Robinson. (And the Quilliam Foundation.)

It's been an eventful few weeks for Maajid Nawaz and the Quilliam Foundation, or as I've taken to calling them, the Quill.i.am Foundation. Apart from writing a guest post for this blog on his revolutionary tweeting of the Jesus and Mo cartoon, an act that sparked more of a spat over how broadcasters and newspapers also censored the horrendously unfunny web comic than it did over how Nawaz had received death threats for saying he didn't find it offensive, he's also been deeply concerned at the treatment ex-EDL leader Tommy Robinson has been subjected to in prison.

Not for Nawaz a simple denunciation of the alleged deliberate leaving of Robinson, aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, in a room with three men who took a disliking to his face at HMP Woodhill. No, such an incident required an open letter to the Lord Chancellor and the justice secretary (PDF) expressing his disquiet, as well as how he was worried it could reinforce Robinson's "perceived grievances" against the state and undo all his good work in persuading Robinson to quit the EDL in the first place.  You see, "decapitating" the far-right street protest organisation had clearly been in the public interest, and Nawaz dreads to think what might happen if Robinson wound up dead.

Just how in the public interest Nawaz believed his good deed in extracting Robinson from the EDL to be, despite Robinson not retracting any of his previous statements, was revealed in a freedom of information request to the Department of Communities and Local Government. Despite Nawaz claiming that Quill.i.am had not received state funding since 2010, something undermined by another FOI request which showed that, although much reduced, they had still received a substantial grant for the following year, on the very day as Robinson was presented to the press as having left his inciting days behind him Nawaz was begging the DCLG for funding to help facilitate Robinson's defection. He obviously couldn't continue to live off donations to the EDL, so why shouldn't the state recognise such an important contribution to community cohesion and cough up?

Strangely, despite the polite request, the DCLG demurred (pay wall). Without wanting to surmise too much about why the DCLG decided not to donate to the keep Tommy Robinson/Stephen Yaxley-Lennon in the manner to which he was accustomed fund, it's difficult not to suspect that like some of us, they might just have felt the entire Damascene conversion was not all that it appeared.  With Robinson now detained at Brenda's pleasure, something that both he and Nawaz must have known was likely, and with the EDL already falling apart, having failed to capitalise on the murder of Lee Rigby, it was the perfect time for Robinson to claim he was leaving because he couldn't control the "extremists" any longer.  As Nawaz reveals in his letter, it's also clear how desperate Quilliam was, without a budget to fund their most high profile act of deradicalisation.  Deprived of state funding it's unclear how the thinktank is staying afloat, although that's far from unique as many other thinktanks also refuse to disclose who their benefactors are.


Due to a lamentable oversight, the letters to the department were however published with Nawaz's personal mobile phone number not redacted.  Such a breach of privacy would be unacceptable even if Nawaz hadn't been receiving threats, regardless of the credibility or lack of them.  All the same, Nawaz seemed to put the blame as much on Jason Schuman, who had also placed an FOI request, as Richard Bartholomew notes.  Threatening legal action or responding to criticism with insults is something Quilliam has a record for: Craig Murray faced down just such a threat, while Vikram Dodd was attacked after he revealed Quilliam had secretly profiled Muslim organisations for the government.

As Sunny Hundal argued back then, government funding of certain groups and not others only increases suspicions, and Nawaz's begging for money for having "turned" Robinson does everything to reinforce those prejudices.  For an organisation that started off so promisingly, Quilliam's reputation now lies in the gutter.  To have a chance of recovering it will almost certainly need new leadership, and with Nawaz the prospective Liberal Democrat candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, there's a ready explanation available should he feel it's time to move on.

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Tuesday, February 04, 2014 

Syria, the abyss, and the least worst option.

To call Syria a humanitarian disaster doesn't even begin to do justice to the abyss the country has fallen into over the past three years. Millions displaced internally, 2 million more having fled, most to neighbouring states, estimates of over 100,000 killed; the Arab spring outside of Tunisia has long since become an apparently endless Arab winter. Any hopes that the Geneva II talks would lead to some slight opening, even just the lifting of the government siege on a couple of areas that have been blockaded for months were finally dashed with the face to face negotiations ending without agreement.  The deputy to UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has since announced his resignation.

The great majority of the blame for having reached this point has to be placed on the regime of Bashar Assad. Having seen what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, those calling for reform, not initially the fall of the government, were shot down almost from the outset. The brutality of the military and security state is not in doubt, nor the continuing indiscriminate assaults on areas that have been taken by the rebels. The chemical attack on Ghouta, despite questions which still remain, was but a piece with the use of conventional weapons. The same goes for the report on the execution of prisoners compiled from the evidence provided by a defector. There are concerns over how the defector was interviewed, the fact it was funded by Qatar, which has long supported the rebels and is unworried over how hundreds are literally being worked to death building the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup, and how the authors didn't see the full cache of photographs the defector smuggled out, but it certainly wouldn't be a surprise if thousands had been tortured and then executed.

The rebels shouldn't however get a free pass as they so often do, both from the media and human rights organisations.  A case in point was the release last week of a report from Human Rights Watch, outlining the systematic destruction of 7 different areas in Damascus and Hama.  As with so much else in Syria, the demolition is undoubtedly a war crime.  Similar destruction has also been inflicted however in areas where the opposition has captured territory, most notably Aleppo, which was first taken by the rebels in a move civilians there criticised at the time.  Just as the evidence for the report was collected from satellite images, similar evidence of the destruction elsewhere where either responsibility is not as clear cut or where the blame is likely to lie with the opposition is also easily available, but clearly not of interest to HRW, which along with Amnesty was all but demanding military action after the Ghouta attack.

Part of the problem was inadvertently highlighted by the Washington Post, which mentioned in passing that the Syrian opposition groups in Geneva had been "aided by a posse of nearly a dozen mostly British media advisers".  Something few will have realised is that the group conducting the talks in Geneva with the Assad government continues to haemorrhage the little support it has in the country itself.  Juan Cole suggests the Syrian National Coalition, connected with but not in control of the Free Syrian Army, is strongest in only a third of the territory in the hands of the opposition in the north.  One suspects even that is optimistic considering the evacuation of Salim Idriss, who fled the country after the newly formed Islamic Front overran the area where he had supposedly been helming the FSA from.

The coming together of the Islamic Front brings into sharp focus just how fragmented and sectarian the fight against Assad has become.  Some of the groups which make up the Islamic Front were those described as moderate, which while not directly aligned with the FSA did fight alongside them and were meant to share their broader aims.  While there are reports the Islamic Front and the FSA have reconciled, the IF's charter makes clear its ultimate goal is a caliphate and Sharia law, not democracy.  Indeed, late last year we cut off even the non-lethal aid we had been supplying to the FSA due to the Islamic Front's emergence.  Had we started to supply weapons as some commentators had long been demanding, it seems certain they would have fallen into the IF's hands had they not already.

To get an informed impression of the current state of the civil war, you have to know that yesterday the leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, finally condemned outright the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, effectively stripping it of its affiliation with al-Qaida central.  While the Islamic State of Iraq (previously al-Qaida in Iraq, the Mujahideen Shura Council, etc) has never been under the true control of either Osama bin Laden or al-Zawahiri, not even during the height of the sectarian conflict in Iraq which ISI did so much to foment was the group ostracised by those they were meant to ultimately answer to.  Confusing things further, Jahbat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, which has also pledged allegiance to al-Qaida, was first set-up with the approval of ISI before the group decided it itself had to get involved in Syria.  The fitna between the groups was sparked by the murder of Hussein al-Suleiman, a doctor and fighter with the IF by ISIL after he had gone to the group in an effort to resolve a dispute.  With the alliances on the ground taken into account, even if unofficial, this essentially means that the British government is indirectly supporting al-Qaida, which is fighting a group that shares al-Qaida's ideology but which is too extreme for al-Qaida to affiliate with.  Did you get that? Hardly anyone does.

And yet, despite all this, we still have a few who while not putting forward what an intervention would entail, suggest that we will regret not doing so or will have to at some point in the future, when the same regrets will come to the fore.  To be fair to Hopi, he admits the current position of not doing a lot while pretending to care but still being involved enough to not be a neutral player might be the best policy, while bitterly denouncing the fact that we aren't admitting that we either don't really care or that the impasse suits us fine.  Sunny, though, really like him as I do, doesn't so much as outline what we should do that might make things better, while suggesting that we will probably have to fight on two fronts.  Do we then deal with ISIL first and then take on Assad, or do we attack the regime first then assault ISIL and then either come to an arrangement with Nusra and friends or fight them too?  Or perhaps we should take them all on at once?  Who knows?

What is more apparent that ever is that a conflict that started out simple has become intractable from the wider antagonisms playing out across the region, something to be expected when it long ago turned from being about the people against the government into being the Gulf kleptocracies against Iran, Sunni against Shia, jihadist against Islamist against moderate.  It's destabilising the nation states around it, inciting hatreds thousands of miles away, and there seems little we can do other than try and knock heads together around a table.  Truth be told, while the security services worry, and despite how close it seemed we were to taking part in a military strike on Syria, the amount we care can be summed up by the number of refugees the coalition said they'll allow in.  Hundreds, over the 1,500 that made their way here already.  The promise of getting immigration down to the hundreds of thousands is far more important, you see.  Doing nothing is an option, and is almost certainly the least worst option.  Trying to justify or humanise such a position is far harder.

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Tuesday, October 08, 2013 

Meet the new boss.

Put yourself for a moment in the shoes of Tommy Robinson, or Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, or whatever the now former leader of the English Defence League's real name is.  From once being a small time member of the BNP, he succeeded in creating an organisation which became the most powerful far-right street movement since the National Front.  You can't properly enjoy such a position of influence though when you're constantly assailed by your opponents as being a racist dedicated to undermining community cohesion, to the point where your friends are (allegedly) refused service just for being with you, or indeed when you apparently get ejected from a Milton Keynes casino on the grounds that you're a thug and therefore not welcome at the roulette wheel.  Why anyone would want to be in a Milton Keynes casino in the first place is a good question, but let's leave that to one side.

When the Quilliam Foundation then offers to reinvent you as an completely legitimate political commentator, why on earth wouldn't you take them up on it?  After all, you already made an abortive attempt to get involved in a political party, so why not square the circle and form a new campaigning organisation almost exactly the same as the EDL, merely without the embarrassing street protests that made you so notorious and loathed?  What's more, Quilliam for their part will ignore all the evidence that makes clear you're still a thug who's read a few far-right blogs and books and so knows that Islam simply must have a reformation, and instead present you as someone who merely needs "encouraging" in your "critique of Islamism".  Who wouldn't sign up when a (formerly, see update below) government-funded think-tank simply decides to forget that you deliberately conflated Islamic extremism and Islam in general on innumerable occasions?

Where Hope Not Hate offers cautious optimism, I give you absolute cynicism.  Because that's exactly what this hilarious move by both Robinson and Quilliam is, the height of cynicism.  If Robinson had truly long been worried about the extremism lower down the ranks in the EDL, he wouldn't have joined the balaclava wearing idiots who thought it a good idea to confront the police on the night of the murder of Lee Rigby, nor would he less than a week ago have humiliated himself by attempting to intimidate one of the authors of EDL News, instead going to the abode of a completely different Gary Moon.

The reality is that the EDL had reached a dead end, as was evident with the failure of the Tower Hamlets march.  Just a matter of months after Lee Rigby's murder, a crime they had long predicted and which they tried their darnedest to exploit, they couldn't even manage to equal the numbers that had marched through the borough a couple of years ago. This was despite attempting to portray the area as being under sharia law, and challenging the ban on marching through Whitechapel itself.

On a personal level, as alluded to above, Robinson had become too notorious to lead a normal life when he wasn't with his beer-swilling mates encouraging and fomenting hate. After all, what is this country coming to when the leader of a far-right organisation whose members have been convicted of countless offences can't pick his children up without getting nervous glances? Abandoning a moribund movement with the help of a counter-extremism think-tank while not renouncing a single thing you've previously said makes absolutely perfect sense.

As for that other moribund organisation, Quilliam, it makes sense for them too. Having started out promisingly, it quickly showed itself to be intolerant of criticism and more than happy to denounce Muslim organisations it decided were Islamist in nature, regardless of what others saw as a positive contribution to their local communities. Being a counter-radicalisation think-tank is also rather difficult when your raison d'etre has plunged down the political agenda; Quilliam has been pretty much reduced to commenting on Islamist movements abroad, which while a public good considering the lack of specialist knowledge elsewhere, doesn't realise justify continued public funding, if indeed they are still receiving it.

"Persuading" Robinson and Kevin Carroll to abandon their movement suits both sides. It means Robinson can join up with his even more extreme pals in America, as now seems likely, his baggage with the neo-Nazis among the EDL a thing of the past, while Maajid Nawaz can claim he's pulled off something that will benefit the country as a whole. In fact, he's handed legitimacy to a convicted criminal still facing further charges, and who hasn't altered his virulent views as much as looked to rebrand them. The problem they now face is that this discredits them equally, and Quilliam has a lot further to fall than Robinson does.


Slight update: Maajid Nawaz says that Quilliam hasn't received public funding since 2010, as Spinwatch suggested above.  We don't know who does fund Nawaz and friends however, as despite the promises made on their website, you won't be able to find any annual reports there.

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013 

Not quite out of the woods.

Considering the potential there was for serious unrest following the murder of Lee Rigby, such was the immediate reaction to the crime on both old and social media, a week on from the tragedy it seems as though the immediate danger to community relations has passed.  This isn't to understate the number of reported attacks on either mosques or ordinary Muslims, which are clearly unacceptably high, or the vandalising of two war memorials (although it's unclear who was responsible in that instance) but further deaths, serious injuries or significant property damage have thankfully been avoided.

In a way (and bear with me here), it's perhaps helped that the key figures on both sides of the extremist divide are either completely discredited or acted like bulls at the proverbial gate.  Taking into account the long weekend, the numbers the EDL managed to mobilise at their various rallies were pretty pathetic.  The most significant, the protest on Monday outside Downing Street, probably attracted somewhere in the region of 2,000 demonstrators, if we're to account for the usual police under counting and the usual organisers' over counting.  Nor have they helped themselves through the way they set about expressing their anger while trying also to honour Rigby: in Newcastle on Saturday one of their speakers let the mask slip when he said "send the black cunts home" to cheers from the crowd, while there are more than a few shots from Monday of various protesters doing something eerily similar to a salute most closely associated with a party that came to power in Germany in the 1930s.

The EDL's biggest mistake though was to imagine that rampaging through Woolwich last Wednesday night was in any way a good idea.  It would have been one thing to hold a vigil for Rigby; it was quite another to distribute EDL branded balaclavas to a bunch of boozed up hot-heads who then did little more than confront the police who were there to provide reassurance.  Rather than drawing attention to their long-standing campaign against Islamic extremists, as they desperately try to maintain their protests are aimed at, it only made crystal clear that their intention is to incite hatred and cause fear, which is of course precisely what those they claim to be against also set out to achieve.

Which brings us, sadly, to Anjem Choudary. You could say that if he didn't exist the media would have to invent him, except they err, partially did. No one else so thoroughly unrepresentative of those he claims to speak for has been so indulged and coddled down the years, whether by the tabloids who fell every single time for his stunts, or the supposedly more serious broadcasters who kept inviting him onto panel discussions. His appearance on Channel 4 News and Newsnight last week, where he predictably refused to condemn the murder of Rigby, however badly defended by both, at least made clear how loathed he is by other Muslim leaders who have to try and deal with his brand of false consciousness.

This said, it ought to be obvious that attempting to restrict extremists such as Choudary from getting on the airwaves is counter-productive, quite apart from being unworkable. It ought to be the case that the media could exercise common sense and not invite those like him onto our screens the day after an attack, but when images of one of the suspects addressing a camera, his hands soaked in blood, is deemed acceptable then it seems we've moved beyond that.  Rather than going about things backwards, we ought to be asking just how it is that Choudary has managed to stay on the right side of the law all these years.  If he does have some kind of relationship with either the police or the security services, then surely we've now reached the point at which his use as an informant has been completely exhausted.

To try and get things in some sort of perspective, it's worth remembering that up until last week it had been almost two years since we had heard anything from the government about tackling radicalisation.  This wasn't because the problem had gone away, clearly, more that a point had been reached where it seemed as though we had something approaching a handle on it.  With the greatest of respect to BenSix, who's dedicated a number of posts to Islamist ideologues and the invitations they've had to speak on campuses and at conferences, too much can be made of students listening to radicals.  It's true that far right figures clearly wouldn't get such a free pass, and we could do with an organisation on the left that argues and organises against extremists of both stripes, but let's not worry unduly.

The situation is more that we're in transition.  Whereas a decade or more ago radicalisation primarily took place in mosques or meetings where charismatic preachers or leaders were in control, the shift has been to the internet and smaller groups that are self-reinforcing.  Those that previously went through the ranks of Hizb-ut-Tahrir or associated with al-Muhijaroun, as one of the suspects in the murder of Drummer Rigby did are increasingly the minority.  The lone wolf tendency has also probably been exaggerated, yet it's true that the influence of Anwar al-Awlaki and al-Qaida's Arabian franchise has been significant, as in the cases of the Fort Hood shooter and Roshonara Choudhry.  Even if YouTube or Facebook/Twitter were more proactive in taking down content that incites hatred or promotes terrorism, as some MPs have demanded (if we're being extremely creditable to them, considering some as well as the Daily Mail seem to imagine Google essentially is the internet), something that isn't necessarily laudable, then those looking for it would quickly find it elsewhere.  The solution has to be to get smarter, both in our arguments and further empowering those who have spent the past few years successfully challenging and counselling those who've strayed towards the extremes.

It doesn't therefore help when politicians and newspapers continue to push the line that much of the blame can be put on extremist preachers, almost always without naming those apparently responsible.  It just plays into the EDL/BNP line that mosques are hotbeds of hatred, an argument helpfully refuted when protesters were invited inside for tea and biscuits when they gathered outside the Bull Lane mosque in York.  Sadly, that approach clearly isn't going to work when it comes to the planned BNP march in Woolwich on Saturday, which intends to end outside the Lewisham Islamic Centre, which is "said to have had one of the suspected murderers amongst itscongregation".  We aren't quite out of the woods yet.

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Thursday, May 23, 2013 

Falling into their trap.

Considering the way that New Labour under Blair responded to 7/7 and then the foiled "liquid bombs" plot (John Reid was on Newsnight last night once again claiming 2,500 people would have been killed, ignoring the fact the cell had never succeeded in making such a bomb and that the experts themselves had major difficulties in doing so), the coalition's reaction to the murder yesterday of Lee Rigby has so far been relatively measured. David Cameron's statement this morning mostly struck the right tone: carry on as normal, as though we weren't going to anyway, and it was a betrayal of Islam as much as it was anything else.

He did of course repeat yesterday's bromides that this was an attack on our way of life and the UK as a whole, when it only was if you buy completely into the ridiculous sense of self-importance jihadists have.  This was no more an act of war or a warning of what could be coming than the four murders carried out by Dale Cregan were.  He killed two police officers out of the deranged belief that doing so would make him the ultimate big man in prison, where he knew he was inexorably heading; more pertinently however, he did it because he could.  The same was the case in Woolwich yesterday.  Elevating their barbarous act to something more meaningful than an unusually brutal murder is to give them respect they simply don't deserve.  They're not terrorists, they're pathetic, warped, criminal individuals with the most banal knowledge of the creed they claim to belong to.

It's not helpful then when those who claim to be on the left fall into the exact same trap as the politicians and media overwhelmingly have.  Yes, we can acknowledge the impact that foreign policy has had in radicalising some of those who have then gone on to commit violent acts themselves.  What it doesn't do is even begin to explain why someone moved from being against a war to the point at which they then reached the conclusion that killing someone only tenuously connected to that war was justifiable.  That can only be understood by looking beyond foreign policy to the influence of groups such as al-Muhijaroun, as we now know one of the men associated with, and their poisonous perversion of Islam.  This is not to deny that the terrorist threat from jihadists was increased by our involvement in Afghanistan and then Iraq; it wasn't created by it though, nor will it go away when we completely withdraw from the former country.

Just as daft was the comment from the defence secretary Philip Hammond that the murder underlines "how vulnerable we all are".  Well, no, clearly some of us are more vulnerable than others.  If he meant that it shows how quickly a life can be taken, which he almost certainly didn't, then he would have been closer to reality.  These men weren't indiscriminate, although they most certainly could have made a mistake in choosing their target, they were deliberate.  Others won't be, it's true, but then they can be more accurately categorised as terrorists.  The fact is that the threat from extremism of all stripes has been declining rather than increasing, and that threat has been repeatedly and wilfully exaggerated by both the media and politicians.

This hasn't been lost on either the BNP or the EDL.  Both are shadows of their former selves, and not even the attempted attack on an EDL rally had done much to revive a movement that seemed to be petering out.  Yesterday's murder was the perfect excuse for the EDL to do what it does best: descend on an area that wants nothing to do with them, get suitably lagered up and then ponce about shouting nonsensical slogans and generally making arses of themselves.  The threat they pose comes not so much from the marches as it does the idiots inspired by Tommy Robinson (or whatever he's calling himself these days) who then go and vandalise a mosque or abuse someone who looks vaguely like a Muslim.  Nick Griffin for his part, having run his once reasonably effective far-right organisation into the ground, has been tweeting like crazy, while an email has gone out to those on the BNP's message list which reads "once again followers of Islam have shown themselves to be a wicked and cruel enemy within".

Also taking their opportunity have been the securocrats and other hangers-on of the intelligence agencies, ever keen to advance their own interests.  Newsnight gave airtime not just to John Reid but also Lord Carlile, both of whom called for the proposed communications bill, aka the snoopers' charter, to be reintroduced, so vital was it to our safety, regardless of whether or not it would have done anything to prevent yesterday's murder.  For the moment at least it looks as though a "knee-jerk response" isn't on the cards, and it's more than slightly reassuring that rather than Carlile we have a new reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson, who has wrote that terrorism law "gives excessive weight to the idea that terrorism is different, losing sight of the principle that terrorism is above all crime".

It's a message that our politicians and media could do well with taking on board.  When something so shocking is committed by someone with the intention of having the maximum possible impact, it's understandable that in the immediate aftermath they responded in the way they did.  24 hours on and we ought to be scaling things back: letting the family of Lee Rigby grieve in peace without being constantly reminded of how he was so cruelly taken from them.  If we can learn any lessons from his murder, whether in how we can potentially stop others from following a similar path to the two men, or if it could have prevented, although that seems unlikely, then we should.  The vast majority have done their part, whether it be the numerous Muslim organisations that have condemned the attack, those that have took on the EDL or BNP in their attempts to make political capital out of a murder, or those that have simply paid tribute to Rigby.  The rest could do theirs by not turning an act of savagery into exactly what those committed it wanted it to be seen as.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013 

Sigh.

Let's get something straight.  The murder in Woolwich this afternoon was not a terrorist attack.  If it was, then there are somewhere in the region of 500 terrorist incidents a year in this country, more if you include assaults that are intended to kill but fail to do so.  It doesn't matter that reports suggest a serving soldier is the victim, although that is yet to be confirmed, that the killers shouted "allahu akbar" as they were attacking him, or that they gave justifications to camera afterwards which more than imply this was an assault influenced by jihadist ideology, first and foremost this was a murder and it will be treated as any other until the men are convicted.

Treating it as a terrorist attack and not simply as a serious crime is precisely what these two men wanted.  I have no qualms about describing attacks that aim to kill on a wide scale as terrorist, as the Boston bombings clearly were once what had happened became clear, or the previous failed attacks in this country were, however inept.  This was something quite different.  Neither of the men were interested in killing or even attacking anyone else, as they could have done had they so wished.  All they seemingly wanted to do after they were finished was to be filmed, photographed, and then once the police arrived, hopefully killed and presumably "martyred", although suicide by cop would be a far better description of their intentions.

Nor was everyone who witnessed what happened panicked or terrified. Some stopped to remonstrate with the men; others tried to resuscitate their victim while they looked on. Some will undoubtedly be deeply affected by what they saw, and if it does turn out to be a soldier who was murdered, it almost certainly will cause concern that this might not be a one-off, or it might inspire copycats. What it most certainly won't achieve is any change in government policy, if that was the aim. If the hundreds of deaths in Afghanistan haven't made our politicians think twice about our deployment there, then this certainly won't.

The fear among some in the aftermath of 9/11 was that it could have been just the first of a wave of spectacular attacks against the West. While there have been a number of attempts made since, several of which have been successful and killed large numbers of people, there has been no repeat of the events of that day. Instead, what jihadists have increasingly been reduced to is primitive measures that match their primitive ideology: crude pressure cooker bombs, or attacks such as the one today. Where once groups of men conspired, now the threat, such as it is, often comes from so-called "lone wolves". More difficult to prevent, but the threat from one or two is less in the terms of damage they can do than that of a larger, better organised cell.

If anything, more fear and worry will have been caused through the truly unnecessary screening by ITV of the footage of one of the men holding two large knives in his blood soaked hands, pretentiously and contemptibly justifying his crime, than through hearing of the act itself.  In what other circumstances would a broadcaster consider it justifiable to show the immediate, graphic aftermath of an "ordinary" murder?  It's irresponsible enough when broadcasters have in the past screened videos shot by spree killers justifying themselves, let alone when the person in this instance has the blood of his victim on his hands as he does so.  Yes, it's almost certain that the person who sent in the video to ITV would have uploaded it somewhere online himself had ITV chosen not to use it or just used the audio, but that isn't anything approaching a justification.

Equally ridiculous has been the language used by politicians who ought to know better.  No, this was not an attack on everyone in the UK, as Theresa May said; this was targeted, not indiscriminate, even if the target turns out not to be a soldier although that remains the assumption.  The army doesn't represent us as a whole any more than our politicians do.  We also really don't need the "blitz spirit" rhetoric that comes so easily, as was hurled from David Cameron's mouth.  Yes, we have had incidents similar to this before, the vast majority of which were far more serious than this one, but no, our "indomitable British spirit" has nothing to do with the fact that we'll carry on with our lives as normal.

Besides, we don't seem to have any problem with actual acts of terrorism when they're carried out by those we've allied ourselves with.  For all the talk from William Hague and the Foreign Office about "strengthening moderates" and "saving lives" in Syria, we don't have the slightest idea whatsoever about how the aid we've supplied the rebels with is being used, while it's clear that we would dearly love to be arming them (and quite probably are through back channels) at the first possible opportunity.  It's not just the likes of the al-Nusra front that have committed atrocities and carried out car bombings, as was brought home by the gruesome footage posted online last week, the vast majority of the rebels are Islamists, some of whom who are just as eager as the regime to carry out sectarian attacks.  At the same time as we denounce and fight against jihadists at home and most places abroad, we effectively enable them in the places where it suits us, not caring about the possibility of blow back in its most literal sense.

What we desperately don't need is another round of what's happened in the aftermath of attacks previously, especially when this shouldn't be treated as a terrorist incident in the first place.  These men represented only themselves, not a community, not a religion, nothing.  It was just them.  There will obviously be reviews to see whether they were known to police or the security services, but this was the sort of attack that could be carried out with next to no planning, almost on the spur of the moment.  If there isn't any evidence of more to come, then the threat level shouldn't be raised only to be then lowered again within a week.  We also don't need any new measures or laws, not the "snoopers' charter", not an extension to detention without charge, not more armed police.  Nor do we need hysteria, which even the Graun seems to have fallen into.  Let's prosecute these men to the full extent of the law, ensure the murdered man's family and friends are taken care of, and not treat this as anything other than a despicable crime.

And pigs might fly.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013 

All going to according to plan.

Everything is going exactly according to plan in MaliIn have swept the French, and out have swept the Islamist rebels. Of course, that means things are going exactly according to a classic guerrilla warfare plan, where a weaker force withdraws from territory it knows it could never hold only to return later with hit and run attacks designed to wear down both support from the local population and the morale of the conventional forces, but let's not split hairs.  The rebels have retreated, ordinary Malians are delighted, if some are now taking revenge on the Tuaregs, and only a few irreplaceable antiquities have been destroyed in the process.

It's therefore perfectly understandable that the government wants to send 330 troops to the region, principally to train Ecowas soldiers in how to keep the peace and how not to act like the UN forces in the Congo, for instance. Considering the claims being brought by 200 Iraqis today at the High Court that might seem a bit rum, but let's not be cynical about this. After all, that we've gone in the space of a couple of weeks from saying there would be no boots on the ground to planting them firmly in north Africa doesn't mean we should be worried about small things like mission creep.  It's not as though this is how many other counter-insurgency campaigns have begun in the past.

To drop the annoying sarcastic tone, there's a clear disparity here between Cameron's rhetoric of a decades long campaign against extremism in the region and our sending only of training forces. It would certainly be lovely if we could just train the Ecowas forces and then leave, but all these things take time. The French intervened as they felt the rebels would have overrun the country if left to their own devices until September, the planned schedule for the Ecowas' deployment, and only now have some of those forces began to arrive in the country.  Supposedly those sent out to train the soldiers won't be combat troops, yet if a full-blown insurgency does break out, as the Islamists are reported to have fled to the mountainous region in the north east, isn't there always the possibility they'll be forced into helping out, especially as the French want to quickly draw down their own combat forces?

Certainly, we don't seem to be offering much else other than a small amount of funding.  We can't apparently spare any drones, as they're all still needed in Afghanistan, despite the continued stories of how wonderfully things are going there now and how we're meant to be out in any case by the end of the next, and so yet again it seems as though it'll be down to the Americans to take out any targets from the comfort of bases back home.  Already there's news of a deal through which a drone base will be set-up in Niger, and one has to presume it will involve the same fundamental lack of accountability that has defined the drone wars so far.  There is also as yet no discussion of anything approaching a political solution, of an attempt to at last deal with the Tuareg grievances that have fuelled their repeated rebellions, this time with international consequences.

All this said, Mali could yet turn out to be relative success story, at least by the standards of past interventions.  The rebels are relatively weak, and have split further since the French mission began; the territory still held by the rebels is if anything even less hospitable than that in Afghanistan; and they also don't have support from state actors, as the Taliban have allegedly long enjoyed.  With help, AFISMA could quickly be up to speed and ensuring that the Islamists are kept on the run.

The problem is that all these things are very big ifs, and we could equally quickly found ourselves drawn into another seemingly unending conflict against a foe that is highly mobile and determined.  The coalition should be deciding which approach it's going to take: either that suggested by Cameron's first response after the In Amenas attack, or the one suggested by Philip Hammond in the Commons today, of a relaxed role in which we contribute but don't do much else regardless of what happens.  It's obvious which one would make the most sense, but then as the past decade has shown, sense has very rarely entered into our response to the post 9/11 world.

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Monday, January 21, 2013 

Deja vu.

The first duty of any government should be to protect their own citizens.  With this in mind, don't you feel safer knowing that we have such fine, rational beings as David Cameron and William Hague in charge of our foreign policy?  Who could possibly demur from Cameron's conclusion that the threat from Islamists in north Africa is so severe that it could continue for decades, and that a global response is absolutely necessary?  How could anyone disagree with Hague when he says that rather than our intervention in Libya exacerbating the conflict in Mali, had we not "saved lives" through our enforcing of a no-fly zone it's likely the insurgency there could have made things even worse?  After all, just because the French dropped weapons into the country from the air, who knows where the rebels would have obtained arms from if they hadn't?  And in any case, Somalia clearly shows what we have to avoid in Mali as well as suggesting a model for the future.

It's really rather staggering how little we've learned, the only consolation being that Cameron has slight overall influence.  The most obvious lesson from both Afghanistan and Iraq is that when you start talking about decades long conflicts, put foreign troops on the ground and talk of "conquest", as the French have been, you're inviting a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Western intervention is the equivalent of a red rag to a bull to jihadists: the insurgency in Iraq could not have been sustained for so long if it hadn't been for foreign fighters and funding, the chief attraction being the opportunity to try to kill Western soldiers.  With the draw down in Afghanistan fast approaching, Mali could well turn out to be the most attractive place for those suitably inclined to travel to.

As Jason Burke explains, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is a tiny section of the franchise, estimated to have only several hundred fighters.  It has shown no inclination to attack the West, unlike al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, even if the death of Anwar al-Awlaki has had an impact on that section.  Similarly, despite having previously been involved with AQIM, Mohktar Belmohktar is more of a bandit than an out and out ideologue, and the chief aim of the attack was likely to have been monetary, as it has been in the past.  Whether they bargained on the Algerians launching such a deadly assault or not, their managing to hold out for three days is bound to excite opinion on the jihadi forums.

As for the Islamist groupings involved directly in Mali, it seems dubious as to whether they had or have any international ambitions, although we were right to be concerned of the potential for a safe haven to have been established for jihadis had they took full control of the country.  This said, despite all the warnings about the Somalia and the initial success of al-Shabaab there, there's little to suggest that any Westerners who travelled there to train and fight have since returned with designs on attacks here (although the group did claim responsibility for an attack in Uganda).  After years of exaggeration, we have reached a point where even the most hysterical of terror "experts" admit that threat has been significantly lowered.

Why Cameron then wants us to think that we've got to start over again only this time in north Africa is perplexing.  He has no intention of doing anything in Mali beyond giving the French moral support and the odd supply plane, and yet he seems to be implying that the threat posed by these disparate groupings, almost all driven by nationalist rather than internationalist motives, are an "existential" threat.  It may well damage British business in the region, which seems to be the only thing that Cameron and the Tories truly care about, as his frequent fluffing trips with arms companies suggest, but the attack on In Amenas will be difficult to replicate, such will be the increase in security at similar operations.  It's certainly nothing that the oil and gas companies' balance sheets can't handle.

All of which leads one to suspect that Cameron's finally discovered his inner Tony Blair.  Having started out ridiculing Blair's doctrine, he's come to the conclusion that things are so grim on the home front that he has to radiate leadership abroad instead.  Never mind that Blair came to be loathed precisely for this reason and it increased Gordon Brown's control over policy on home affairs, by projecting an image as a strong figure on the world stage, especially when Brits are caught up in things they know little of, Cameron hopes to shrug off his otherwise falling ratings.  After all, it can't be that he really believes what he's saying, can it?

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013 

The latest stop on our world tour.

And so to Mali.  One of the wonderful things about commentating, and indeed blogging is that everyone's an expert.  I know precisely jack about Mali, the Tuareg people and their repeated rebellions aimed at gaining an independent state in the north of the country, and yet here I am typing out a post on a country I have never visited and almost certainly never will.

At least I'm setting out in advance that my knowledge on the country as a whole is limited in the extreme, as have some of the other more honest people.  The same sadly can't be said universally, with some naturally turning straight to their usual positions when it came to the French intervention.  Not that this necessarily means they don't have a point: there is something in Glenn Greenwald's instant jump to conclusions that this will be seen once again through the prism of the war on terror and as an attack on Muslims.  How can it not be when those the French are fighting are an alliance of Islamists, the more secular Tuaregs of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad having been themselves driven out by Ansar Dine and an offshoot of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb?

It's also absolutely true that this is a conflict affected massively by our own intervention in Libya.  How much blame, if any can be assigned to our leaders and their decision to back the rebels against Gaddafi is however very difficult to ascertain.  The Tuareg leadership was indeed involved with Gaddafi, and they made up a significant percentage of his army.  Also apparent though is that the smuggling of arms to the fighters in Mali has not all been the work of the Tuaregs: some weaponry has been provided by the rebels in Libya themselves, who have also been (allegedly) supplying the likes of Hamas and the FSA in Syria.  As we saw in Benghazi, there are plenty in Libya of an Islamist bent who would have no qualms in helping out the likes of AQIM with supplies from seized Gaddafi stockpiles.  The French also have to take some responsibility: they apparently simply dropped weapons into the west of Libya during the intervention, an act of utter stupidity bound to lead to a free for all.

Paul Cotterill is therefore completely right to say this is a situation we should have seen coming months ago, and which could have been planned for.  Of course, we don't know properly what's been going on behind the scenes, but it's dubious whether much in the way of contingency planning for a march on the Malian capital of Bamako by the Islamists took place.  The French were apparently spurred into action by the threat to the town of Sevare, and the nearby military airport, which if taken would have left the only usable airstrip for heavy aircraft in the capital.  It must also be noted that there have been successive UN security council resolutions authorising intervention by the Economic Community of West African States; whether it covers active intervention by the French is dubious in the extreme, just as UNSC 1973 most certainly didn't authorise regime change, which is what we imposed in Libya.

This made clear, there is no reason whatsoever to doubt that at least for now the French intervention is wildly popular with the Malians in the south of the country, and why wouldn't it be?  When the majority follow Sufi Islam it's little surprise they loathe with a passion the brand of sharia imposed by the Salafist rebels, with the banning of music and desecration of holy sites, both reminiscent of the era of Taliban rule in Afghanistan.  They also prefer their former colonial masters to the likes of the soldiers from the other West African states, again hardly irrational considering the past record of meddling by neighbouring nations, as well as the tendency of some peacekeepers to flee at the first opportunity when deployed previously.

Nonetheless, the current goodwill could turn out to be shortlived, especially if the belief spreads that there are ulterior motives at work.  Should the Islamists have continued southwards, the threat to Niger and France's access to uranium would have been further exacerbated.  It's also the case that Algerian fears of a strengthening of AQIM may well have come to the fore: despite their colonial history, France has good relations with the country, and the Algerians favoured the election of Francois Hollande over Sarkozy.  It also follows the pattern of only those nations that have something to offer ending up enjoying a Western military presence: Iraq and Libya with their copious natural resources, while Syria, Iran and North Korea have all for now avoided the fate of the former, if for very different reasons.

The dangers are also manifold.  As Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, it's easy to go in only for it to turn out to be very difficult to get out.  Even in the case of Libya, the intervention took months longer than was first thought, while in Syria the downfall of Assad has been continuously prophesied only for the Ba'ath regime to hold firm.  It's difficult to make any real judgement based on the first few days, but it seems as though more resistance has been encountered than was anticipated.  Any intervention by the West where jihadists are involved also acts as a rallying call: while there might be plenty of places at the moment for those suitably inclined to go (they can choose from Syria, Afghanistan or Somalia to name but three), the opportunity to attack foreign troops usually takes precedence.  As the kidnapping today in Algeria has also made clear, and it's difficult to believe it isn't connected with Mali, there's plenty the groups involved can do in the region to strike back, even if they haven't the capacity to launch attacks here.

It may well be as Mark Malloch-Brown just said on Newsnight that the intervention by the French is the least worst option.  It could also be that the danger of a march on Bamako was overstated, and there was still time for a vastly preferable joint effort by African states to try to push back the rebels to be put together.  Whichever way it turns out, it's undeniable that our intervention in Libya had knock-on effects that we did little to counteract, and that we find ourselves yet again supporting a mission in which we'll attempt to bomb a country better.  We may still know little of Mali, but the people there will soon know plenty about us.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2012 

Two for the price of one.

There was widespread outrage today when a foreign publication published not just the paparazzi shots of Catherine Middleton sunbathing topless, but also a collage which superimposed her naked breasts onto an image of the prophet Muhammad.

The Albanian satirical magazine, Horatio Longoria, estimated to have a circulation of approximately 6 copies, went ahead with the printing out of this month's issue despite the legal action taken by the Royal family, and in spite of the widespread rioting across the Muslim world that greeted the sudden discovery on YouTube of a trailer for a movie of truly laughable production values.

Asked as to why he would do such a thing, the editor of Horatio Longoria, 14-year-old Simon Quinlack, was quoted to have said: "Well, it's for the profit. I might sell a few more copies to people at school. Never has then been so much fuss about such inconsequential things. And yes, I do mean that in more ways than one. Oh, and it was this week's hobby."

Albanian police, fearing that Quinlack might become a target for reprisals by deranged monarchists and hysterically hypocritical tabloid journalists have posted an armed guard outside his bedroom, which he is any case not allowed out of as he is grounded. Worldwide reaction to Horatio Longoria's slur on the prophet has so far been relatively muted, although Anjem Choudary is said to have called for Princess Eugenie to be beheaded.

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Thursday, November 04, 2010 

Muslims tell tabloids: put us on your front pages!

Minority Thought, 5CC and Steven (as we must now refer to the former Mr Vowl) all deal with the tabloids' curious sense of priorities when it came to the sentencing of Roshonara Choudhry, deciding that the antics of three mouth breathers in the public gallery were of far more importance than the culmination of a far more fascinating and worrying court case in their usual fine fashion.

More of note to me though is how the three papers and their rent-a-gobs have seemingly decided that they know better than Mr Justice Cooke himself does as to how he should run his own court. Mainly due to how the rest of the media either ignored the barracking and the protests outside it, which as usual was the best policy, or only made a token mention of it, we don't actually know for certain what happened. Indeed, their reports are confused: the Sun and Express have either two or three men being bundled out of court by security guards to continue their protest outside, while the Mail suggests those photographed outside were a separate second group. Certainly, if Cooke had been that troubled or startled by their shouts as he passed sentence, he could have either cleared the public gallery or asked for the men to be detained, neither of which he apparently did, with the security guards instead if we are to trust the Sun and the Express removing them of apparently their own volition. He was in by far the best position to see whether or not their comments towards a Muslim juror were either intimidating or as the Sun has it, "terrifying" her. Very few judges taking kindly to their authority being questioned or undermined, especially by those in the public gallery; that he didn't act is surely more than an indication that the reports are either being exaggerated or that he thought the best policy was to let them be dealt with by security.

What this all comes back to is not just how far freedom of speech goes, but also how you deal with those who are determined to make a scene and gain the sort of outrage over-the-top coverage which the tabloids are more than happy to give them. It was much the same back in January when that other extremist and self-publicist Anjem Choudary pretended that he and his organisation were going to march through Wootton Bassett when they almost certainly had no actual intention of doing so. The question of complicity - how by drawing attention which otherwise wouldn't have been given to a certain group you in fact do their work for them is a fine one, yet deserves to be further looked into. If anything, Choudary didn't need to go through with his threat as the reaction was such that his group would have only been over-emphasising the point. His umpteenth successor organisation to al-Muhajiroun was also almost instantly banned, further giving a goon with next to no real support the further mystique of being outside the law.

Surely the proper way to respond to the three's pathetic little protest, rather than instantly making a decision as to whether or not they were breaking any number of laws, was to regard it as what it was: a deeply unoriginal, yawn inducing spectacle and only move them on if there were any complaints made about them, which was exactly what happened. For a nation that prides itself on its supposed innate sense of tolerance and fair play, it's strange that we have such a different notion of freedom of speech to America, a country often criticised for having more than its fair share of reactionaries. When it comes to making mountains out of molehills, our press have shown themselves time and again to be world beaters.

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