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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Friday, August 06, 2010 

The Quilliam Foundation and accusations of McCarthyism part two.

Maajid Nawaz from the Quilliam Foundation has responded to yesterday's Guardian article on their "secret" report in what seems to be the characteristic style of the organisation: by making a wholly unsubstantiated attack on the journalist responsible, Vikram Dodd, denouncing him as a "regressive" for writing a "one-sided propaganda piece in favour of Islamist bigots".

In fact, as Dodd points out in the comments on Pickled Politics, his piece would not have been so one-sided (although it still isn't in my view, being a fair appraisal of the document even if it doesn't focus on the recommendations made on counter-terrorism policy) if QF had bothered to defend themselves when he twice phoned them up, instead deciding not to comment. As for why the Guardian decided not to post Nawaz's response, it's patently obvious: they weren't going to publish unfair abuse of Dodd, as is more than their right.

While putting in an otherwise fine defence of the document when not resorting to ad-hominem attacks, Nawaz's explanation for why it was meant to be secret in the first place is both far from convincing or adequate:

After listening to some of our critics, Quilliam had kept this paper out of the public limelight to avoid sensationalism. It seems, however, that a disgruntled civil servant decided to leak the hard copy we sent to the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) online, where it has now been read over 10,000 times.

Err, so after listening to the organisation's critics, it was decided that it was best to make sure that they couldn't read it in the first place. Well, that's certainly one way of avoiding people disagreeing with you. If Quilliam had really wanted to avoid "sensationalism", then putting it into the public domain would have ensured that would have been the case; the only reason it became a story was exactly because of the secrecy and leak. It could further have avoided it by bothering to defend the document when first asked, rather than shooting the messenger afterwards. It's this abrasive nature which QF's founders seem to relish that leads to "disgruntled civil servants" leaking documents, especially when they're all but insulted in the preamble to the document.

For all of Nawaz's bluster about leftist regressives, one of the few points he doesn't address is the remarks of Robert Lambert, co-founder and former leader of Scotland Yard's Muslim Contact Unit:

"The list demonises a whole range of groups that in my experience have made valuable contributions to counter-terrorism."

There's no arguing with Quilliam's main point that government obviously shouldn't be funding organisations whose ultimate aim, even if peaceful, is the dismantlement of democracy and imposition of Sharia law, yet many of the groups listed have only tenuous real links with Islamism, and as Lambert suggests, actively help with counter-terrorism. Regarding them as irredeemable, even if as Quilliam argues, they shouldn't be banned, is unhelpful in the extreme.

The nature of Nawaz's response only underlines how QF, funded by the government, although it doesn't admit so in their annual report (PDF), despite directing readers of the FAQ on their site to it, needs to change if it is going to be taken seriously. As Sunny points out in the comments on Nawaz's piece, "funding certain groups and not others simply increases the back-stabbing and annoys the hell out of ordinary Muslims (who are suspicious of govt funded programmes as it is)". It will annoy them even more to learn that Nawaz is being effectively funded to launch such fusillades against a journalist simply reporting on a document which should never have been secret in the first place. If Quilliam is meant to lead debate on the nature of Islamism and extremism in British society, then the attempts it makes to shut down and limit those debates are at odds with its very mission and the "shared secular democratic values" which Nawaz wants Muslim-led organisations to espouse. Through their brooking of no dissent, their welcome advice on how to counter radicalisation risks being drowned out, which would be the greatest tragedy of all.

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Thursday, August 05, 2010 

The Quilliam Foundation and accusations of McCarthyism.

The Quilliam Foundation, the anti-Islamic extremism think-tank funded by the government, is a distinctly strange and shadowy organisation. It's almost impossible to know what to properly make of it, such have been the antics especially of one of its co-founders, Ed Husain, best known writing the memoir The Islamist, detailing his journey through radical Islam and his subsequent rejection of it. From first being seen by many on the right as the answer to the lackadaisical, even collaborationist left, willing to associate with and defend Islamists without understanding the ideology they were trying to propagate, Husain left them feeling cheated first by denouncing the Israeli assault on Gaza of December 2008/January 2009, even going so far as to warn the government that by not doing enough to end the conflict it was complicit in the radicalisaton of young Muslims which would almost certainly take place as a result, and then later by attacking Melanie Phillips for seeing conspiracies where there were none. A week after that crossing of swords the Foundation threatened litigation against Craig Murray for suggesting that the charity had not published its accounts for the year previously, when, it subsequently emerged, the accounts had indeed not been filed until six days after Murray's first post on the subject.

One of Murray's accusations was that QF was akin to a "
branch of New Labour tasked with securing the Muslim vote and reducing British Muslim dissatisfaction with New Labour over the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan", hardly the most generous of opinions of a counter-extremism think-tank but certainly one that wasn't actionable. It also didn't chime particularly with Husain's criticism of the government over the Gaza conflict, but it's certainly interesting that it's now, with New Labour out of office and our new overlords the Con-Dems in charge that the Quilliam Foundation has drawn up a strategic briefing paper titled: Preventing Terrorism: where next for Britain. Even more intriguing is that it's not clear whether the paper, sent to Charles Farr, the director general of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, was actively solicited, or drawn up at QF's own initiative. Not, it should be made clear, would we have known anything about it had the document not been leaked. The document was not intended for public disclosure, or to even be circulated within the Home Office, with QF justifying this stance in the preamble to Farr:

Based on our past experiences in this field, we believe it is sometimes useful for the government to mull over and refine sensitive policies -- such as the government's counter-terrorism strategy -- without the twin distractions of media attention and potential civil service defensiveness.

Exactly why QF didn't want the document more widely circulated is immediately apparent - it's highly critical of government departments' current counter-radicalisation policies, while finally going on to list in an appendix a whole series of organisations and groupings it introduces as "The British 'Muslim Scene'. It's also this section which Scribd doesn't want me to have access to, so I can't really comment on it. Needless to say, this compiling of various different groups and labelling them on whether the government should associate with them or not, regardless of whether they promote violence or are merely politically Islamist, something which QF argues in the document itself makes little difference as the overall aim of such groups is usually the same, just their methods differ, has been denounced as McCarthyite. One of those saying as much is interestingly
Inayat Bunglawala, the very person whom Ed Husain was defending last year against Mel P.

The strange thing is that the most controversial part of the document is in fact the justification for keeping it secret, the logic behind it being so obviously false that one of those not meant to see it almost certainly took the first possible opportunity to get it out into the open. It indeed might well be useful for the government to mull over and refine sensitive policies in private, but not without there being submissions from all of those going to be affected first. You simply can't formulate exactly the sort of policy which QF seem to want without there being a widespread debate which involves the media and the civil service, and their reasons for not wanting such oversight and debate of their own proposals are dubious at best. At worst, it suggests that despite being an organisation directly funded by the taxpayer, with apparently way above average salaries for both Husain and
Maajjid Nawaz, it rejects the openness which such comfortable surroundings demand. If this is what we're paying you to do, why aren't we allowed to read and comment on, if not outright reject your recommendations? That QF has refused to comment on the leak or the document also speaks volumes. If this is what you really think should happen to counter-terrorism policy, why not come out and defend it and defend the secrecy in the first place?

There's certainly nothing within the document which is particularly revelatory or fantastically controversial. You can quibble with the claim in the introduction that "the extremist mood music ... which draws British citizens into radicalisation, remains loud and attractive", although a think-tank which is set-up to tackle exactly that is hardly going to admit that the threat has diminished. Also worthy of critique is the way the document's introduction over-intellectualises the motivations of Salafist jihadists. It claims for instance that the infamous comments made by two of those convicted of involvement in
Operation Crevice, of "no one can even turn around and say 'Oh they were innocent - those slags dancing around'", referring to a possible plot to bomb the Ministry of Sound, is an example of a concept known as "forbidding evil", a divine obligation to enforce moral behaviour. Far more likely is that this was just casual prejudice with only a small ideological disgust for "Western decadence" behind it. It's difficult to shake off the feeling that Nawaz and Husain see all strains of Islamism through the prism in which they first encountered it and then experienced it - that of the scholarship they went through in order to progress up the leadership rungs of Hizb ut-Tahrir. The jihadist foot-soldiers far more often have very little to no scriptural reasoning, let alone knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence, to fall back on when challenged, if they ever are.

If the document is an attempt to stay relevant under a new government, then it's one which regardless of its intentions deserves cold, calm appraisal and study of its recommendations. While understandable that they wanted it to remain secret, they've only injured themselves by so tortuously and erroneously arguing for special treatment that both it and they neither need nor deserve, while opening themselves up to both justified and unjustified criticism. QF remains a distinctly strange, opaque organisation, and if it wants to survive that has to swiftly change, especially when its work remains so intriguing and potentially invaluable, even if not even being close to becoming beyond reproach.

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Monday, January 11, 2010 

The impossibility of freedom of speech.

As quickly as it was announced, and as quickly as the media were tiring of the story, Anjem Choudary and friend(s) have decided that they're not going to march through Wootton Bassett after all. Not that they were ever going to march in the first place, as anyone who had bothered to take a look at the aborted "March for Sharia" last year would have concluded. While Choudary certainly played a blinder throughout, as suggested last week, it's also difficult not to conclude that the media were wholly complicit in and even further encouraged Choudary's offline trolling. Admittedly, it is a great story - Islamic group which hates our freedom wants to march through the same place where our "glorious dead" are first honoured on their return to their final resting place, especially the chutzpah it takes to suggest they'll be doing something similar, carrying empty coffins to symbolise those that the same glorious dead might themselves have killed, and one which few will have decided not to cover on the basis that it's all bullshit. After all, bullshit is something that the media thrives off, as anyone reading a tabloid on almost any occasion will note.

It is however slightly rich to then play the "distress and hurt" line, on how deeply offended the families of the dead will be by these prancing bearded extremists walking down the same street as their relatives were returned down when you yourself are also causing it by suggesting it's going to happen when it's fairly certain that it isn't. It also allows the likes of the Sun to suggest that because there's one idiot with verbal diarrhoea around there must be plenty of others like him also, and that the government isn't doing its job in protecting us from these clearly dangerous mouthbreathers. It doesn't matter that the Sun itself provided him with more of a soapbox than anyone else, interviewing him, printing his nonsense and allowing him to appear on their piss-poor internet radio station with Jon Gaunt. Clearly it's not the media that provides him with space that are the problem - it's the loon himself. The government, naturally, agrees, hence the umpteenth banning of a group that Choudary's been involved with. To call it futile and stupid would be putting it lightly - all he's going to do is after another period of time create a new one, which will again in consequence be banned, until the world explodes or Choudary dies, whichever comes sooner, and each time it happens Choudary can continue to claim both persecution and mystique, martyring an idiot with no support purely for the benefit of other idiots.

All this is distracting us though from a group that actually did go ahead with a protest, and who were today found guilty of public order offences after protesting at a homecoming parade by the Royal Anglian Regiment in Luton last March. Whether they have links with Choudary personally or not is unclear, although it wouldn't be completely surprising if they did, but one suspects that they are also remnants of what was once al-Muhajiroun, or malcontents with an ideology similar to that of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, although that group generally shuns such public confrontation. Luton has had problems with a small minority of Islamists for a few years, causing widespread grief through guilt of association to the wider community, with the protest last March being the final straw.

The conviction of five of the group who were prosecuted, with two others being acquitted, is still however a cause for concern, regardless of whether or not you agree with the views they expressed, when it comes to the right to protest. The old cliche is that to shout "fire" in a crowded theatre when there isn't one is illegal because of the dangers of causing a panic; in this case the men have been convicted not because of something similar, but because they were causing "harassment and distress", to which one response has to be to say "ah, diddums". It would make rather more sense if they were convicted on the grounds that their shouting, accusing the soldiers of variously being murderers, rapists and baby killers, was inflammatory, which it certainly was, to such an extent that the police were having to protect the men from the crowd, with a couple of members of the public themselves arrested for their behaviour in response, but that wasn't the case.

Instead, the worrying thing is that the Crown Prosecution Service felt that their actions had gone "beyond legitimate political protest". Although soldiers themselves are quite rightly very rarely targeted for their role when the responsibility mainly lies with the politicians that send them into conflicts, with the exception of the shout that the soldiers were rapists, the other cries they made would certainly not be out of place on an angry but perfectly legitimate protest against a war, especially one that was ongoing. It's also not as if the slogans themselves are necessarily inaccurate: some relatives of service personnel killed in Afghanistan and Iraq have described them as being "murdered", hence those on the opposite side could say exactly the same, while air strikes have in the past certainly caused the deaths of whole families, babies included. The rape accusation is the only one that couldn't be made to stick in any circumstances. The difference between abuse and insults and legitimate political protest is a very fine one, and one which some swearbloggers would certainly breach if placed in the same situation. In one sense, what today's successful prosecution means is that protesters have to consider whether the public around them might consider their sentiments to be harassment, alarming or distressing. Doubtless those there to welcome home and support the troops did find a protest which was unflinching in its criticism alarming or distressing and also outrageous; do they though, as the judge said, have the right "to demonstrate their support for the troops without experiencing insults and abuse"? Or indeed, the unspoken implication, without having to put with up any sort of protest that disagreed with the view that the troops were courageous heroes?

No one is going to be crying any tears for those convicted, especially when they are quite clearly using freedom of speech only for their own ends, not believing in it for anyone other than themselves. We have though always had a strange notion of freedom of speech in this country, one that is far more restricted than it is in other equivalent democracies: it would be lovely if we could be more like America on this score, where they put up with the likes of the Westboro Baptist Church without having to resort to the law to prosecute them for pushing eccentric, insulting and abusive opinions, but that seems to be beyond us and our media, who delight in being outraged even while pushing that which disgusts them.

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