Defining Islamism.

August 31, 2014

There has been a curious holding of hands in recent years between the Western political far right and those of the Islamist persuasion, both insisting that any individual interpretation of Islam and the definition of Islamism are in fact one in the same. The rhetoric from both is eerily similar in many instances. They both do not care too much for equal secular and liberal protections, and seek to restrict liberty for those they don’t particularly like – this is clear from the Bendigo Mosque case, and the anti-secular opposition to it – and they both insist that a state controlled by the dictates of one faith, is a duty for every Muslim to work to fulfill; a narrative used to justify oppression from both sides of that aisle. The implication is that anyone identifying as a Muslim, but not subscribing to a World domination interpretation of their faith, is not a ‘real‘ Muslim. When it comes to conflating personal faith, with political ideology, both the Western far right and Islamists agree.

The implication that any Muslim not actively pursuing a Caliphate is not a ‘real Muslim’ is a weak one of course, because no single Muslim has the privilege of speaking for the entire faith, nor carrying the definitive interpretation of the faith. Belief is dependent on a variety of concepts, not least personal life experience, socio-economic status, all working in unison to produce an individual interpretation. Islam; the Qur’an and Hadith are so vast in content, anchored to a time and place we know so little about, with a long history of contradiction that no one in the 21st Century can claim a definitive interpretation. Indeed, whilst we see Islamists insisting that homosexual people must be oppressed in the most abhorrent ways, we also see a Swedish Imam blessing a Muslim same-sex marriage last week, and wonderful Islamic gay rights groups like the Al-Fatiha Foundation working to protect and advance the rights of the Muslim LGBT community. Whilst we see ISIS beheading its way across the Middle East, justifying its hideous actions with Quranic passages, we see Imam’s like Dr Usama Hasan issue religious edicts condemning the group, using Quranic passages also. The scope for interpretation is so vast, that for anyone to claim to be speaking for the entire faith, speaks only to their own deluded sense of superiority.

So what do we mean by Islamism? Some claim it is a term that is so diluted, it is indefinable. I disagree. I think it has a clear definition. I’ve had this debate on social media over the past few days, and I’m yet to come across a notable objection to the term, that offers any reason to think the term itself is indefinable.

How I define & use the term Islamism:
A desire to enshrine Islam into the mechanisms of state, with law and rights based on the Shariah. The desire to elevate Islam to state privilege and power.
You may reasonably be described as Islamist, if you believe that I should be free, until my freedom contradicts the Shariah.

Indeed, the Sudanese Islamist leader Hasan al-Turabi uses the term ‘Islamism’ as I use it, in his book ‘Islam and Government‘. Al-Turabi notes that Islamists are:

“Political Muslims for whom Islam is the solution, Islam is religion and government, Islam is the constitution and law.”

– That’s it. It’s that simple. If an individual believes my liberty should be dependent entirely on the dictates of Islam – believing Islam having any inherent jurisdiction over my life whatsoever – this is Islamism. this is Islamism. Erecting institutional barriers to freedom according to the principles of Islam (however you interpret the principles), is Islamism. If an individual believes Islam must be granted state privilege of any variety, this is Islamism. If an individual believes my right to pursue my own goals ends where the religion of Islam begins, this is Islamism. The means of achieving that end may vary between democratically elected heads of state like Erdoğan slowly de-secularising a country and privileging one faith, or violent extremists willing to go the extra mile and wipe out all opposition (note; that is not to say that all violent extremists are Islamists). Indeed, the two may vehemently disagree with each other on progressing the end goal, or may differ theologically (some may argue that apostates deserve execution, others may not; the fact that both believe they have a right to decide whether an apostate lives or dies, rather than neither a believer nor an apostate having any right to decide who lives or dies, is the point), but the end goal remains the same. Whether you parade the streets of London with a sign reading ‘Freedom go to hell!’, or you wear a suit, attend a nation’s Parliament and seek to impose Islam by restricting equal civil liberty via an outwardly respectable legislative process; the end goal is the same.

When I peer out of my window, I see two trees, both of different appearance and levels of imposition. There’s a big tree with red leaves that blocks direct sun light from entering my window after a certain time. There’s a tiny tree with green leaves that balances precariously during windy nights. The two are very similar yet contain nuances that suggest differences; we still call both a tree, because the nuances do not negate the roots. It is fair to say that all ‘isms’, though rooted to the same principles, contain degrees of nuance to the point where one may refer to another as ‘not a real…[insert ism as applicable]’. An ‘ism’ is an umbrella term for a set of ideas. Socialism has a wildly varying degree of proponents from the peaceful to the violent, all seeking a similar goal. With Islamism, the nuances – the means of achieving control of the apparatus of state for Islam; thus the lives of others – may differ, but the principle itself remains the same. If you believe the liberty of others should be chained to the religious dictates of the faith of Islam – however you see that goal achieved – this is Islamism. I am yet to understand why this is a controversial definition, though I suspect it is less controversial, and more uncomfortable for some who fall under this definition.

One objection appears to be that we do not share similar terms with those of others faiths working toward the same end. I agree with this objection to a point, though fail to see how it negates the solid definition of the term ‘Islamism’. It simply – and rightly – suggests inconsistent use elsewhere. In the past, we have used ‘Clerical fascism’ – a well defined term focused on Christianity. In the 21st Century, we tend to refer – perhaps sloppily – to those we should refer to as Christianists as the Christian-right. We don’t refer to Islamists as the Muslim-right. This isn’t a distinction without meaning. We do this largely because by the 1950s, what we should call Christianism started to become aligned to the mainstream political right wing, especially in the US, and had several successes, not least ‘In God We Trust’ placed everywhere, slowly chipping away at the principle of church/state separation. The Christian-right are to this day aligned to the Republican Party, continuing its fight to enshrine Christian privilege into the mechanism of state (particularly Oklahoma). It is a similar tale in the UK. It was unsurprising that the voices of dissent over the UK’s same-sex marriage bill, were almost all conservatives (Tory and UKIP), using a Christian narrative in order to withhold equal rights for others. Tony Abbott’s right winged Liberal Party in Australia, appears to favour Christian dogma, over secular liberalism. That relationship between Islamists and mainstream politics isn’t as clear as it has been for their Christianist counterparts and so the term ‘Muslim-right’ would be wholly inadequate. So we use ‘Islamism’ – a term that seems to have gained its rebirth as an new concept in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution through to 9/11 and beyond; and so both ‘Christian-right’ and ‘Islamism’ are founded upon a social, historical context, both with a very clear foundation in the desire to impose the faith of one, over the lives of others through the functions of state.

Perhaps our familiarity with the term ‘Christian-right’ is a reason we do not change it to ‘Christianism’, we already have an established term. Indeed, whilst the term ‘Christianism’ and ‘Christianists’ is at times used – A Time article and Guardian article use it – I would argue that it isn’t used enough (on this blogging platform ‘Islamist’ is recognised as a real word, whilst ‘Christianist’ is underlined to suggest a spelling error) and that it is an objection Muslims are right to raise, though not in the context of negating or diluting the clear definition of ‘Islamism’ (as the Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, Mohammed Amin implied here, whilst bizarrely questioning why the media doesn’t offer a positive image of Islamism from time to time).

As noted at the beginning of the previous paragraph, the lack of a similar word (not a lack of any word, because we absolutely do use other terms to describe them that mean the same thing) for those of other faiths progressing the same desire, does not negate the definition of Islamism as an ideological narrative that seeks to control the lives of others, according to the dictates of Islam. This is a political narrative, and regardless of what both Islamists and the Western far-right insist, is not a term to be used interchangeably with Islam. And so as far as I can tell, the definition of Islamism may be uncomfortable for some, but stands as a perfectly adequate definition.

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The fallacy of religious ‘objective morality’.

August 29, 2014

All atheists have come up against it at some point in their lives. Along with ‘so you think everything came from nothing?’, it is the main weapon in the ever shrinking theist arsenal. I’m talking of course, about the obsession with ‘objective’ morality and the absurdity that follows; ‘How can you condemn Hitler? By what standard?’ At first glance, it sounds like a philosophical conundrum that we may find troubling to deal with. But scratch the surface, and it really isn’t that difficult to respond to, without even having to begin to quote vastly immoral passages from those books.

There are several key problems, but the one I wanted to focus on is the misguided belief that religion provides a desirable objective moral standard. It is simply untrue that a moral
Statement magically transforms from ‘subjective’ to ‘objective’ by preceding it with a simple “my God says….”. I thought I’d highlight where I see the problems:

Firstly, to insist on an ‘objective’ moral base sent straight from heaven to humanity – the very base upon which a ‘subjective’ moral conclusion becomes ‘objective’ – one must conclusively prove the existence of your particular God. This means not simply convincing yourself of the existence of God, but convincing the rest of us also. Otherwise, the word ‘objective’ seems very familiar to the word ‘subjective’ and any moral judgement can be declared ‘objective’ if it is preceded with the phrase “My God said…“. We often hear from the religious the rather manipulative dichotomy presented as ‘Man’s law, or God’s law‘. Without first proving the existence of your God, what that dichotomy actually breaks down to, is 21st century Man’s law, or 1st/7th century Man’s law. If you cannot conclusively prove the existence of your God (this requires first proving the existence of a creator, followed by proof that the creator is all ‘good’ rather than all ‘evil’, followed by the leap from creator to your specific God) – through more than simple philosophical guesswork – the case for ‘objective morality’ or ‘God’s law’ falls before it’s even begun.

Secondly, both the Bible and Qur’an are subject to a myriad of interpretations and continual revisions depending on the context of the time and place, and the individual believer. Sit a liberal, secular Christian in a room with the Westboro Baptist Church, and the differences between them will be an ocean the size of the Pacific. Indeed, we see members of ISIS differing intensely in interpreting Islam’s ‘objective moral base’ from that of their immediate family members. If members of the same faith, in the same household, cannot agree on the meaning of countless ambiguous passages, nor can scholars over the course of time agree, constantly revising its meanings to fit a more modern narrative, it doesn’t get the luxury of being referred to as an ‘objective base’ for morality. If a divine being sent down obscure passages that believers in the same house hold cannot agree on, I’m afraid that reflects terribly on God’s ability to convey his message.

Thirdly, our nature is often – not always – in direct conflict with the idea of objective moral standards. Religion did not inform us that senseless murder is wrong (often, religion permits murder). We know this intuitively, and we punish murder, because murder contradicts our evolved ability to empathise with others, whilst posing a direct threat to our survival as a species if accepted universally. We empathise; that is to say, we imagine ourselves in the position of the other. Is that a basis itself for objective moral standards? Perhaps, though not in the form crafted by the religious, of an outside standard that transcends humanity. It is as much a part of our nature, as breathing. It is not separate from humanity. If indeed morality were a set of distinct rules, separate from humanity, existing prior to humanity, set out by a God, it would make sense – if God is to be considered ‘good’ – for those rules to be succinct and lacking ambiguity when handed to humanity. For those rules to be ambiguous, requiring 200,000 years of human suffering and violence to attempt to work out, implies a vastly immoral game by the divine rule giver.

It is then essential to note that humanity is not perfect. We are a wonderful yet very flawed species, and that reflects on our collective ideals over time, as we learn and grow. Morality is informed by complex interactions, including but my no means limited to our collective knowledge, our history, our mistakes, our experiences, and our evolved human intelligence – this essentially includes empathy and the ability to rationalise – at any given time. We are a complex species with deep flaws. Morality does not escape that. It evolved from our basic need to cooperate in order to survive the harshest of conditions, and grew as we grew. It is a natural condition in which without it, humanity would not have survived. Indeed, morality is essential for the survival of our species, yet not confined to our species. We see through the research of primatologists like Frans de Waal that our ape cousins show basic forms of moral reasoning; cooperation, conflict resolution etc. Morality is natural, and ever evolving. As with most natural occurrences – sexuality, gender, spirituality – religions tend to try to grab hold of nature, as if they own it, and shape it to fit the dictates of the faith, which in turn has the most awful consequences for those ‘outside’ of its narrow spectrum of what is to be considered God’s plan. In the case of morality, chaining moral progress by attempting to anchor moral ideals to tribal squabbles of 1st Century Palestine or 7th Century Arabia, and the obscurity of the passages that emerged as a result of those squabbles, is a distortion of nature, an attempt to reshape our nature, and by extension will without exception always end in oppression, because it cannot abide the nature of updated knowledge that contradicts 1st or 7th century far less informed dictates. From lands that were very patriarchal and very heterosexual dominated, it should come as no surprise that heterosexual males are the ones who coincidentally, God seems to offer the most privileges and power.

Further, there is a bizarre suggestion from the faithful, that no divine objective set of moral standards implies all moral conclusions are to be considered equal. For me, this isn’t true. One moral conclusion may be based on the available evidence and data, applied on a framework of our natural inclinations encompassing empathy among others, whilst the opposing moral conclusion may lack all evidence basing itself on mere belief, dismissing all contrary consideration. The two are not to be considered of equal weight. This is why I object to the reductive terms “objective” and “subjective” when speaking of morality. I don’t accept either.

So, we have noted that what the religious refer to as ‘objective’ requires as a bare minimum the conclusive proof of the existence of their particular God to begin its journey to actual objectivity; that what they tend to call ‘objective’ right now is simply their own subjective interpretation of ambiguous passages; and that anchoring morality to the moral ideals of a specific time and place is both unnatural, and by definition oppressive. So when theists insist that you as an atheist do not have an objective moral base distinct from humanity itself, by which to make moral judgements, the simple answer is; neither do you.


Spirituality does not require religion.

August 26, 2014

Buddhist Temple in Leshan, China.

Buddhist Temple in Leshan, China.

Back in 2010, the culture editor of Jesuit magazine ‘America’, the Jesuit priest Reverend James Martin wrote a book titled ‘The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything‘, in it, he criticises those who consider themselves spiritual, but not religious. I thought I’d offer my criticisms of several points Martin raises.

I felt it worth pointing out first – as a reference – exactly what spirituality means to me. For me, spirituality is serious inner engagement with what it means to be human. Whether we as individuals choose to involve religion or not in our personal journey, we are all spiritual, because we are all flawed and we do not like flaws. As a complex and diverse species blessed with curiosity and a burning desire for definitive answers – this, I believe is the reason for the development of religion – we cannot deal too well with flaws. We want definitive answers now. Prior to the scientific method of inquiry, we invented wonderful tales and myths to explain the seemingly inexplicable – and often terrifying – in a simple way, because we need answers, even when answers seem so complex and far away. It is how we explained volcanoes and earthquakes, rainbows and vast oceans. Not only that, but we evolved as a group species, across habitats, with a yearning for individual freedom, creating diverse social bonds. We are intrigued by beauty, we cry at the pain of others, we try to grasp fleeting happiness and make it last, we have different triggers that anger us, and we have no idea what the hell is going on most of the time, and that’s a frightening idea. We are simply very confused apes. Spirituality is a way we deal with that confusion. Evolved human intelligence has produced brilliant, yet tangled minds that brought great development aiding the survival of the species, but at the cost of inner emotional turmoil that affects us all. Spirituality is simply an individual shaped by the majesty and flaws of human evolution, and by their own experiences and memories, attempting to reconcile those confusions and those contradictions, a sort of unraveling of tangled wires in our minds, by our own minds. If religion helps an individual with that, great. If it doesn’t, that’s okay too.

Martin says:

“Religion can provide a check against my tendency to think that I am the center of the universe, that I have all the answers, that I know better than anyone about God, and that God speaks most clearly through me.”

– For Catholics to speak of their faith as humble, despite having their own city state and a massive palace, takes quite the imagination. And so I would argue the opposite to that which James Martin asserts. Religion does not check a tendency to believe oneself to be the centre of the universe. Quite the opposite, religion teaches that the chosen few are the centre of the universe. We inhabit an infinitesimally small section of time, in a universe so massive in both time and space that it requires great arrogance to believe a small section of a global population on a tiny planet are the ones blessed by a universal creator. We do not know how a universe springs into being. It is religion that teaches us that a personal God did it. A God that created everything specifically for humans, and cares who you have sex with. Indeed, not only are the chosen few the centre of the universe, not only was all of time waiting for over 13 billion years for them to spring up for a few seconds, but the rules of the chosen few must be placed upon those who do not adhere to its beliefs. The shackles of religious privilege in a secular country like the US can be quite clearly observed when we note how long it is taking to afford equal rights to same-sex couples, and the absurdity by which Christian bosses at Hobby Lobby believe the private lives of their employees, are to be linked to God against their will. We see ISIS insisting that their brand of Islam must engulf an entire region, whether the people of that region accept it or not. Martin’s implication that spirituality requires religion, is not humility, nor is it checking a tendency to believe oneself the centre of the universe. It is the exact opposite.

“More problematic than Sheilaism are spiritualities entirely focused on the self, with no place for humility, self-critique or any sense of responsibility for the community. Certain “New Age” movements find their goal not in God, or even the greater good, but in self-improvement — a valuable goal — but one that can degenerate into selfishness.”

– This strikes me as a particularly bizarre passage. The implication is that without a religious base for spiritual development, there can be no sense of humility (again, ironic given the history of the Catholic church), self-critique, or sense of responsibility, yet the goal is self improvement; which requires self-crique, and a sense of humility and responsibility. Critique, humility, and a sense of responsibility are not wholly owned subsidiaries of the religious community, which is why Eastern traditions – like Taoism – do not invoke an all powerful personal God for spiritual guidance. Gautama Buddha rejected the notion of a creator and personal God, and by Martin’s standards, Buddhists are therefore lacking a key ingredient to spiritual development. Critique, humility and a sense of communal responsibility are evolved traits from a communal and individual species, that informs our decision making, our daily interactions, and our progress as individuals and as a species. Without the development of human intelligence from Homo Habilis, through to Homo Sapiens, there would be no religion usurping the legacy of our wonderful ancestry. Religion owes its existence to evolved developments in human intelligence, not the other way around.

“Human beings naturally desire to be with one another, and that desire extends to worship. It’s natural to want to worship together, to gather with other people who share your desire for God, and to work with others to fulfill the dreams of your community.”

– This is true. But it’s not limited to gathering for religious purposes. Spiritual people do not require a belief in God to gather and to share spiritual experiences and stories. Church or Mosque or Synagogue are places that may facilitate that communal sense in-built to human beings, but we’ve been gathering, telling stories, painting art works, playing music, listening to each other and progressing long before the first Church sprang up. Secular atheists do not require the invoking of God in order to gather, to share stories, and to ‘work with others to fulfill the dreams of the community’. We don’t believe in a God, so it wouldn’t aid our spiritual journey to do so.

As an atheist, my spiritual journey is an attempt to understand myself on a deeper level, to progress, to love, to be a better person, to experience beauty, to always question my motives and thoughts, to establish my place within the wider community, and to reconcile conflicts in my life and in my mind. It does not require a belief in God.

It appears to me that the Reverend James Martin has attempted to claim spirituality and the natural human ability for self critique and development, for religion. As religious folk attempt to do with morality, it seems the religious are now taking credit for the evolution of human intelligence. Quite contrary to Martin’s attempts, Christianity simply attempted to anchor the moral musings, as well as spiritual developments of a single time and place – 1st Century Palestine – for the rest of forever. Religion therefore jumped on a moral and spiritual train already speeding along the tracks, whilst implying that they have been driving the train all along.


Stop The War Coalition: How to be a good Jew.

August 13, 2014

There is a wonderful scene from the sketch show comedy ‘That Mitchell and Webb Look’ in which Jesus is telling his disciples the story of ‘The Good Samaritan’. Half way through, one of the disciples perceptively notes the inherent racism of the story. The fact that a Samaritan doing something ‘good’ – by Jesus’s standard – warranted a story, implies that Jesus doesn’t consider Samaritans good in the first place. As if it’s a big shock that a Samaritan could do a good deed. I was reminded of this clip this morning, after reading David Wilson’s article for The Stop The War Coalition.

Wilson’s article blurs the lines between two separate issues, as if they’re one in the same. He begins his piece by mentioning the protests against recent Israeli action in Gaza, before quickly switching to the issue of existence of a state of Israel in the first place:

“Numerous Jewish groups joined the march. They marched as Jews to show their opposition to the state of Israel, which for 66 years has endlessly stolen Palestinian land and imposed the most brutal occupation and siege on Palestinians. Jewish marchers saying “not in my name” included, the Jewish Bloc, The International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, Jews for Justice for Palestinians and Jews Against the war on Gaza.

These Jewish marchers were part of a long and honourable tradition. Many prominent Jewish figures over the past century — from Albert Einstein to holocaust survivor Primo Levi — have opposed the idea of an ethnically exclusive Israeli state.”

– There is a manipulation going on here. Those Jewish protesters – such as “Jews For Justice For Palestinians” – marching to protest Israeli foreign policy in 2014, are conflated with more radical groups like The International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and names from the past who to some degree disapproved of a state of Israel existing in the first place (though the article massively oversimplifies Einstein’s beliefs). Despite the plethora of views represented, they are one long tradition, according to Wilson. This is clearly not the case, when we note what “Jews For Justice For Palestinians” say on their website:

“Jews for Justice for Palestinians is a network of Jews who are British or live in Britain, practising and secular, Zionist and not. We oppose Israeli policies that undermine the livelihoods, human, civil and political rights of the Palestinian people.
We support the right of Israelis to live in freedom and security within Israel’s 1967 borders.”

– Despite Wilson’s implied unity between Jewish groups at the march, and the list of Jewish names he throws forward opposing the existing of the state of Israel, “Jews For Justice For Palestinians” represent a web of views from the Jewish community, and support the existence of a state of Israel. Conflating the two – Israeli policy toward Gaza in 2014, and the existence of a state of Israel in the first place – betrays Wilson’s willingness to manipulate the thoughts and motives of a diverse community for his own ends, used to strengthen his own prejudices. Blurring the lines between the two issues also allows for the false suggestion that those of us critical of the STWC tactics and rhetoric are in fact using the cry of anti-Semitism at any criticism of Israeli policy in Gaza. I’ve seen that excuse a lot recently.

The obvious conclusion most of us would make, is that the Jewish community – like atheists, Christians, Muslims, tall people, people with blue eyes – are a vast group of individuals, all with different beliefs, motives, experiences, memories, from different cultural, economic, and social settings, differing hugely at some points or with more nuanced differences at others depending on the issue. From left to right, from orthodox to non-practicising. This is true of all communities, not worthy of a story in itself, and so I’d suggest Wilson’s article – a sort of patronising “this might surprise you…” article – is his very own ‘Good Samaritan’ moment.

After manipulating the thoughts and motives of such a vast and diverse group to appear to confirm his own ideals, Wilson then goes about creating a false dichotomy that only digs his increasingly anti-Semitic hole much, much larger. Those Jewish folk who opposed the existence of a state of Israel, he refers to as “honourable“. The good Jews, if you will. The implication being that if Jewish folk do not oppose the existence of a state of Israel – or as it seems, disagree with David Wilson – they are less than honourable. The bad Jews. Wilson’s own political beliefs are now the benchmark to judge the ‘honour’ of the entire Jewish community against. A framework of right and wrong for Jews alone, with the moral base being David Wilson’s own political beliefs. If they conform to Wilson’s beliefs, they get a spot at the ‘honourable’ Jew table. In the meantime, he’s prepared a handy “look at these good Jews!” list for Jewish folk everywhere to aspire. It isn’t a new dichotomy, it has its roots in a view of Jews as inherently bad, and has been commented on by Ilana Angel of New Jersey Jewish News:

“It is offensive when people say I am one of the ‘good Jews’. What does that mean? Is the implication that Jews are bad people, but I managed to somehow not be? Is there a private club of ‘good Jews’? How do you qualify to make it into this elite group of chosen people?”

– This is what David Wilson’s article works to accomplish. At first, it blurs the lines between two completely separate issues, secondly it manipulates the plethora of views of the Jewish marchers to seem to be in line with his own, and thirdly it creates a dichotomy of good and bad, right and wrong, based entirely on his own political thoughts. In short, if you’re Jewish, you might want to check with David Wilson at The Stop The War Coalition to find out if you’re the right kind of Jew or not. If you’re lucky, he might even pat you on the head.


Israel & Gaza; It isn’t “being selective” that is the issue…. it’s the motive for the selection.

August 11, 2014

I’ve been writing on this blog for several years now, and every now and again I’ll be asked “why do you focus so much on….” The question is usually followed by “Islam?“, “Christianity?“, “God, even though you don’t believe in Him?“, “The GOP?“, “Tories?“. And for the most part, those people are right. It’s not a big selection of issues that I tend to focus on. I am selective. I focus on religion, because I’m a secular atheist interested and critical of all things religion. I focus on the US Republicans, because I find their shift to the far right to have created an intriguing atmosphere in US domestic politics. I focus on the Tory Party, because, well, I don’t like them. It’s that simple. I am selective. But I’m clear in my motives and my prejudices and on such issues that don’t have a clear right or wrong, I expect a lot of disagreement from others.

In Owen Jones’s latest article for The Guardian on the rise anti-semitism, I tended to agree with much of what he wrote, but some of it I found to be more excuses for his own recent motives. He was correct when he points out that during the protests, a section of the Western right-wing attempted to paint all of those attending, as anti-Semites, which completely dilutes the term ‘anti-semitic’. It was a hideous misrepresentation of many well meaning people with genuine concerns and a wish to see the end of immense human suffering in Gaza. Where Owen slips up, is in his characterisation of the criticisms that I and others have regarding the selective outrage of sections of the Western left. Owen writes:

“The response of many supporters of Israel’s attack has been instructive. In a world where there is so much injustice and bloodshed, they say, why not march against the sectarian murderers of Islamic State (Isis) or Boko Haram? This is known as “whataboutery”: an attempt to deflect from one injustice by referring to the suffering of others. Some defenders of Israel’s governments believe the supposed special attention received by the conflict is itself evidence of antisemitism. But Israel’s atrocities attract this attention because the state is armed to the teeth and backed by western governments, rendering them directly complicit; IS and Boko Haram, on the other hand, are (quite rightly) opposed by our rulers. Demonstrations and protests are generally a means of exercising influence over supposedly democratically accountable governments.”

– This paragraph highlights my point throughout this debate entirely. It’s probably worth noting that taking issue with Owen’s selective outrage does not make one a “supporter of Israel’s attack” nor a “defender of Israel’s government“. To subtly hint at such, is as ridiculous as suggesting that criticism of Israeli policy, comes from “supporters of Hamas“. It is not worth dignifying with a full retort.

Next, the entire paragraph is irrelevant in an article on the rise of anti-Semitism, there is no reason to include it, and so I suspect the entire article was written as a response to the criticisms Jones has faced in recent weeks. (Mehdi Hasan attempted a similar excuse, which I wrote on here.) It also fails, because whilst he’s correct that demonstrations and protests are a means of exercising influence over a government, there’s no reason – nor precedent – for protests being solely connected to whom the UK/US/West funds and/or arms. The conclusion to his paragraph therefore, does not follow from his overall argument. Protests against the Sri Lankan Civil War urged World leader’s to push Sri Lanka to declare ceasefire. Their motivation wasn’t that the UK had grotesquely sold almost £14mn in arms to Sri Lanka in the recent years of the conflict (that knowledge came later), it was a concern for human rights and a possible genocide. The Global Day of Action for Burma did not include in its demands any reference to funding being the sole justification for their protest, and instead focused on raising awareness and working to pressure governments of the World into taking action. The ‘Stop Kony’ fad of 2012 – whilst it didn’t achieve its key goal, and was doubtless a fashionable fad for many rather than a protest – did achieve significant goals. It raised awareness, leading to Human Rights Watch saying:

“We’ve spent years investigating the horrors perpetrated by the LRA in central Africa – Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic (CAR), and South Sudan. We gathered evidence at massacre sites – wooden clubs covered in dried blood, rubber strips from bicycle tires used to tie up the victims, and freshly dug graves – and spoke to hundreds of boys and girls forced to fight for his army or held captive as sex slaves. And we’re elated that #stopKony is a trending topic on Twitter – if anyone deserves global notoriety it’s Kony.”

– It also led to Senators Jim Inhofe and Chris Coons raising the issue in the US Senate and pledging the US’s support for governments in Africa trying to track down leaders of the LRA. It led to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees noting an unprecedented reaction to the atrocities and new commitments to stop the LRA. To a large extent, it worked. Mobilising, protesting, using the power of social media, and all forms of pressure do not require first analysing the financial transactions of the UK. Which leads me to point two:

I am not keen on this new excuse that amounts to a sort “we don’t fund them, so we’re not that fussed” reaction. This is not how the international left traditionally went about its business, and as seen with prior protests, has not been a major theme. It didn’t strike off the list all of those human rights abusing nations or groups that weren’t receiving Western aid. It wasn’t a primary concern, and I’m not sure why it is now. It is also a badly crafted excuse and I don’t buy it as the real motive. Pakistan is one of the biggest recipients of bilateral aid, with a large chunk from the UK, despite Pakistan’s violent grip on Balochistan, to no protests whatsoever from the Western Left. The US funded the gangland regime in Honduras for years, which in turn created a brewing humanitarian crisis on the US/Mexico border with very little registering on the US Left. Afghanistan with its awful Shia Family Law, corruption within the PA, Congo, Jordan, the list goes on, and the murderous, oppressive regimes receive little protest from the left. It is a self-evidently weak excuse, and still fails to do its job, because the selective outrage is still applied inconsistently. Those conflicts may involve the US to a degree (when isolated from all other context), but they don’t directly involve Israel, so the outrage may be limited to a few words of condemnation, in perhaps a Tweet or two about how it’s all the US’s fault. I would also argue that this inconsistency and a tendency to single out Israel under a daily microscope, whilst making excuses for that, has fuelled the rise of the very anti-semitism Jones now rightly argues against.

Thirdly, my criticism is not that Owen and others like him are selective in their outrage. We all do that. I do that. Whether on foreign issues like Gaza, or domestic issues like the Bedroom Tax, we’re all selective and we all have our motives for being selective. Being selective is not a negative in itself. It would be ridiculous of anyone to demand we register equal protest and outrage at every conflict in every part of the World on every single day. That appears to be what Owen believes we’re doing, but it simply isn’t the criticism I have. I am clear with my criticism, and it is based on motive. Motive drives us all in how we select, and that is no different for that particular section of the Left. My criticism is that there is a significant section of the Left that increasingly selects its moral outrage and how it chooses to protest, on the basis of whether or not the crisis and the victims can be used as a vehicle to progress a rabid anti-US/UK/Blair/Israel sentiment. Through this, I am frustrated by their rewriting of history to filter out surrounding context, by underplaying the contribution to the crisis from figures other than the US/UK/Israel, by sharing images that do not show what they purport to show, and articles that are far less than accurate and cannot be dismissed as simple oversight. The motive is not primarily concern for victims (though I don’t doubt that concern for victims plays its part, I’m not suggesting Owen’s section of the Left lacks empathy), nor is it the traditional Left’s motive of fighting oppression where ever it is found. It is the cynical use of conflicts, to progress the underlying narrative of anti-US/Israel/West, that forms the bases of my criticisms.

When such a dogmatic motive for a very narrow narrative lies just beneath the surface, it may not be formed through conscious bigotry, but it manifests itself in simplistic analysis, and manipulative rhetoric that perpetuates bigotry (see Galloway’s recent comments). As previously mentioned, Mo Ansar played to that crowd when working to underplay the devastation caused by Hamas rocket fire. This is also evident in Owen’s past articles. For example, in his article entitled “Why the left must speak up about the persecution of Christians” – a noble fight – it doesn’t take Owen long to simplistically blame the US and UK, betraying the original point of the article:

“It is, unsurprisingly, the Middle East where the situation for Christians has dramatically deteriorated in recent years. One of the legacies of the invasion of Iraq has been the purging of a Christian community that has lived there for up to two millennia.”

– Yup. It’s the West’s fault. For the rest of us, it is the ‘legacy’ of a plethora of causes, that to an extent includes the incompetent conducting of and the aftermath of the invasion, the sectarian and disuniting policies of Maliki’s government, but those are given their strength by religious turmoil for centuries including the massacre of Assyrian Christians in the 1930s, private funding for groups like ISIS from donors elsewhere, Saddam’s relocation of Christians away from strategic resources and an emphasis on the notion that Christians are to be ‘tolerated’ in those areas, rather than considered equal. It is not simply ‘legacy of invasion, blame the US’. The problems are rooted far deeper. The context far wider.

When it came to the crisis with the self-titled ‘Islamic State’ – ISIS – in Iraq, the focus for Jones was another overly simplistic analysis, in which surrounding context can just be dismissed, in a quest to blame the US/UK. This time, the self-serving motive was less subtle: “We anti-war protestors were right; the Iraq invasion has led to bloody chaos”. It’s almost as if there wasn’t bloody chaos – a couple of genocides, nothing to see here – prior to the Iraq invasion. In his incredibly reductive analysis, Jones chooses to ignore the Iraq that Saddam left behind devoid of any semblance of democratic institutions, a massive Syrian civil war, ignore the Arab Spring, ignore a power play between Saudi Arabia – seeking to weaken Maliki whilst also opposing Jihadists at home – and Iran in Iraq & Syria, ignore what seems to be support for anti-Shia groups in Syria from private donors in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, ignore a largely heavy handed Shi’ite security force in Iraq, ignore the fight for a resurrected Caliphate from extreme elements within Islam for decades (it’s difficult to blame Blair for the popularity of al-Nabhani’s ideas and the strength of Hizb in the 1980s/90s across the globe), ignore centuries of sectarianism (including Saddam’s hideous massacre of around 100,000 Shi’ite Muslims in and around Karbala and al-Najaf a year before Blair took over as leader of Labour), ignores al-Maliki’s sectarian governance, ignores a weak Iraqi constitution, ignores the tensions between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. All surrounding context is filtered out, because it doesn’t indicate a line directly from Blair to ISIS.

So, we can discount the ‘we fund them’ excuse, because it doesn’t seem to extend far beyond Israel, and still leaves us with the same criticism of the motives for selection. We can discount the ‘we protest to pressure the government’ because that is the case with most protest movements regardless of whether or not we fund the culprits. We can discount the ‘whataboutery’ complaint, because it isn’t the criticism we actually have in the first place. My conclusion remains the same; there is a purpose in working to oversimplify conflicts in the manner that the Galloway-left often does. Being selective is not the issue. The motive is the issue. In this case, ‘being selective’ is focused entirely on how a crisis can be used to progress an anti-US/Israel narrative. Manipulated and reductive history, dismissal of all surrounding context, blatantly false or emotive images and information, and awful excuses, are all utilised to that end. And I’m fine with that bigoted motive, if only they’d admit it, because at the moment it gives the rest of us on the Left a bad name.


As the Yazidi face extermination by ISIS: Where are the Western Left?

August 7, 2014


Vian Dakheel Saeed Khadher MP making an impassioned and emotional plea in the Iraqi Parliament for humanitarian solidarity in confronting the extermination of the Yazidi population by ISIS.

Where are the protests in the streets of London and beyond for the people trapped on Sinjar? Where is the Western outrage? Where is the solidarity movement? Where are the angry demands for the right to return for the thousands displaced from their stolen lands? Where is Mehdi Hasan (currently Tweeting his distaste at ‘Conservative Friends of Israel’)? Where is Owen Jones (currently blaming the slaughter of Christians in the Middle East on the war in Iraq, obviously)? Where are the Ministerial resignations from a government remaining silent on constant torture, beheadings, and mass slaughters? Where are the ‘Free Iraq’ banners? Where is the pressure on the UN to uphold its human rights declaration and protect the most vulnerable? Where are the constant stream of images showing the grotesque result of what is slowly turning into a genocide? Where is the solidarity with the Kurds resisting ISIS? Will the Galloway’s of the World be cynically using the slaughter of the Yazidi people as a badly masked pretext to express how much they dislike Blair again? What use is a modern left that traditionally transcended international borders, if it now picks and chooses its relentless fight for basic human rights, based entirely on that population’s relation to US/UK foreign policy? The crisis in Syria and Iraq with ISIS is quickly highlighting the failures of the 21st Century Western Galloway-left’s outrage machine. It is a machine that is focused entirely on expressing its distaste for the US/Israel/Blair and will seemingly, and without a sense of shame, use any crisis to highlight that distaste. It is a left I no longer identify with.

The quickness in which the Western left springs into collective action became apparent over the past two weeks, when it responded with pictures, demands, articles, leaflets, debates, protests, and pressure over Israel’s violent incursion into Gaza and the awful human suffering that followed. This response from the Western left was admirable at times, and manipulative and slightly unsettling at others. It saw Mo Ansar try to underplay the effects of Hamas’s rockets. It also saw writers like Mehdi Hasan and musicians like Brian Eno try to justify a lack of anything close to a similar reaction to any other humanitarian crisis when that crisis doesn’t directly involve Israel or the US. A cynical attempt to justify singling out people, based on incredibly faulty, desperate logic, that may lead one to conclude that behind the poor justifications, lies the stench of bigotry. Because right now, ISIS has captured an area larger than Great Britain, controlling the lives of 6,000,000 people, whilst tens of thousands of innocent human beings – many children – from a religious minority are stuck on Mount Sinjar, threatened with starvation and dehydration if they stay, or execution for apostasy by ISIS if they leave. The women and young girls face enslavement. The men face slaughter. A further 130,000 have fled to the Kurdish north to escape death, forcing a humanitarian refugee crisis in the north of Iraq. Amnesty has noted how desperate the displaced people are for aid in the region. Unicef noted the deaths of 40 children as a result of dehydration and violence. This isn’t a crisis that the World can ignore. As ISIS spreads its net further, more human lives will absolutely fall into its hands to be crushed. It threatens to engulf the region, and beyond, and we have seen what this group is capable of. It is a crisis of massive proportions, and through it all, there is barely a mention from the Galloway, Jones, Hasan Western Left, unless they can find a way to use the human suffering to express their dislike of Blair or the US. A whole new meaning to the term ‘disproportionate response’.

After witnessing how quickly people can mobilise – especially in the age of social media – when it came to the crisis in Gaza and the constant stream of anger from protesters across the World, the quickness by which images were shared (some manipulated from previous conflicts) to create a sense of outrage, article after article, news report after news report, and international pressure rightly put on Israel for its violent incursion, I am left wondering why that Western liberal left moral compass has now been securely locked away during one of the biggest humanitarian crises in living memory.


The US border crisis: Fleeing Honduras.

August 6, 2014

The 2009 Presidential coup in Honduras increased the cycle of poverty and violence.

The 2009 Presidential coup in Honduras increased the cycle of poverty and violence.

It seems easy to forget that amid the political wrangling in Washington, the deceptive rhetoric, the mixed signals, the inability to forge a sensible and workable policy on the US border, thousands of children sit waiting to know whether or not they’re about to be sent back to the violent hellholes – slowly becoming failed states – that they fled. It is important to understand why it is those people are fleeing.

Since October, 57,000 Central American children have arrived at the US border fleeing violence and poverty on a growing scale. The murder rate of children in Honduras continues to rise. They have very little choice but to be forced into violent street gangs, or flee. They often hike through dangerous terrain, with no food or water, their lives at risk for the desire to be free. Indeed, the desire to be free, and to live in peace and with dignity will always push people to brave the harshest of conditions in order to reach that light at the end of the tunnel. For children to do so unaccompanied, indicates a crisis on a massive scale. It seems to me to be the duty of countries that push for human rights improvements across the World, to protect those children when their homelands cannot do so.

In 2011, UNHCR released a report titled ‘Children on the Run’ that concluded:

“… the many compelling narratives gathered in this study – only some of which are relayed in this report –demonstrate unequivocally that many of these displaced children faced grave danger and hardship in their countries of origin. Fourth, there are significant gaps in the existing protection mechanisms currently in place for these displaced children. The extent of these gaps is not fully known because much of what happens to these children is not recorded or reported anywhere. As such, it is reasonable to infer that the gaps may be even wider than what the available data indicates.”

“Forty-eight percent of the displaced children interviewed for this study shared experiences of how they had been personally affected by the augmented violence in the region by organized armed criminal actors, including drug cartels and gangs or by State actors. Twenty-one percent of the children confided that they had survived abuse and violence in their homes by their caretakers.”

– Displaced children are often forgotten, as indicated by the UNHCR report noting that their status back in their home countries, is not recorded anywhere. Deporting children back to the countries they fled, knowing there are no real institutional mechanisms to protect them once they return, is to freely hand them back to the gangs that abuse them. The humanitarian concerns are real, the mechanisms by which the international community protects those children are failing.

More than 2000 children arrived at the US-Mexico border from San Pedro Sula in Honduras, a city that has the highest homicide rate in the World. Political and security force corruption and instability between branches of government was visible when the Lobo Presidency voted to oust four Supreme Court judges who rejected the President’s plan to deal with a very corrupt police force. A police force responsible for 149 deaths in just two years, and with ties to organised crime in the region. When the vote came to depose the judges, Sergio Castellanos of the Democratic Unification party said:

“We don’t know when we leave after the vote if there will be prosecutors waiting to detain us. Here you have to be ready for anything.”

The situation in Honduras deteriorated after the 2009 coup that saw the Honduran Army on orders from the Supreme Court, oust President Manuel Zelaya and send him into exile. After the coup, and even after the inauguration of President Porfirio Lobo Sosa in 2010 (an election that saw allegations of voter intimidation) Human Rights Watch noted that security services in Honduras were engaged in attacks on dissenters especially journalists opposed to the coup. Six months after Lobo became President, Human Rights Watch noted:

“… at least eight journalists and ten members of the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP)—a political group that opposed the 2009 removal from office of the then president and advocated the reinstatement of the ousted president, Manuel Zelaya — have been killed since President Lobo assumed power on January 27, 2010.”

– The violence isn’t contained to the journalism profession either. Several reports – most notably by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – indicate that the children of those on the anti-coup side of the political fence were kidnapped as an incentive to silence dissent. Of the obscenely high levels of violent crime in the country, only 20% are investigated. Those abuses committed by security forces tend to go almost entirely ignored, including the murder of 15 year old Ebed Yánez, shot dead at an army checkpoint in Tegucigalpa.

The new Honduran President – Juan Orlando Hernandez – seems to be expecting the US to take the lead role, and has made little effort to end the gang violence, political corruption and soaring crime rate, whilst the US Congress tries to find cheaper and easier ways to deport. We should expect no more from Hernandez, who himself was a key player in the 2009 coup that led to a terror that would have impressed Robespierre. He was the coup-candidate. Hernandez was elected promising to increase the power of the already corrupt security services, and through an election that many reported intimidation, threats, and the deaths of at least 18 activists from the opposing LIBRE Party. He was President of the National Party-controlled Congress, and worked to consolidate power for that particular Party, by reshaping the Justice Department as a National Party friendly department.

The violent situation in Honduras, the political fight between the military, courts, and the Presidency, and the suppression of dissent, is exacerbated by short-sighted free trade agreements (most notably with Canada) and the fact that in 2010, 60% of the population was living in poverty, and 40% in extreme poverty. Further, the Garifuna people – a people living on the Caribbean coast for over 200 years – seeking to protect their land from a relentless campaign for agricultural and tourism land by big business in Honduras, live in fear of displacement, through – among other things – a reclassification of their status from ‘Garifuna’ to ‘Afro-Honduran and Afro-descendants’ for the sake of reducing their claims to land. This, despite UNESCO among others recognising the language, art, music, and culture of the Garifuna as:

“… a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Belize”.

– As tends to be the case, the human rights of actual human beings, often conflicts with the desires of big business. In 2011, Canadian businessman Roy Jorgensen used intimidating tactics to cheaply buy up the land in and around Barrio Cristales, Río Negro, and Trujillo in order to build a Panamax cruise ship pier and centre. Miriam Miranda, General Coordinator of OFRANEH, an indigenous Garifuna federation said:

“The last people who refused to sell [their land] were told ‘if you don’t sell, we’ll take your land away.’”

– The Garifuna are a target for big tourism. In 2013 Juan Peres and Williams Alvarado, members of the Peasant Movement for the Recovery of the Aguán – a group committed to protecting co-ops of peasant farmers – were murdered by paramilitary units. Members of similar groups seeking to protect the rights and the land of peasants have been kidnapped, threatened, tortured, or killed, as the land grab is dehumanised with familiar terms like “large scale land acquisitions”. Honduran newspaper La Tribuna noted:

“In Garifuna communities on the north coast of the country, many children are dropping out of classes because they are leaving the country with their parents or private persons, en route to the United States.”

– Political instability, big business threatening livelihoods, and gangs operating ruthlessly in the area combines to create the atmosphere in which fleeing for a better life is the only option for many.

Drugs cartels and other criminal gangs have control of much of the poorer areas of Honduras. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops conducted research in Honduras and noted:

“The report cites accounts of gang members infiltrating schools and forcing children to either join their ranks or risk violent retribution to them or their families. Even in prisons, incarcerated gang members are able to order violence against members of the community”.

“…law enforcement collaborated with the gangs.”

– The report goes on to note that 58% of children fleeing to the US border had been violently abused by adults before arriving at the border. There are several gangs each fighting for supremacy, in a country lacking strong political institutions, and corrupt security services. The violence that accompanies drug gangs works to push families and young people out of the area, many having to flee for their lives, or live in fear, which works to the advantage of the drug gangs, because those same people are expected to be deported back to that country, and so the cycle perpetuates.

After making the devastating decision to flee, with all the psychological trauma that accompanies such a decision, those children then tend to come up against people smugglers – the very same groups controlling the drugs trade in the country they just fled – who charge them a fortune for safe passage, or turn them into drug smugglers themselves. President Hernandez noted in his interview with CNN, that many of the young girls fleeing are caught and given birth control pills by human smugglers, to be sexually abused. Ted Carpenter for CNN reported:

“Since the cartels have seized control of human smuggling routes through Mexico, often charging refugees several thousand dollars for passage, the flood of undocumented immigrants significantly supplements the revenue that the drug gangs have long enjoyed from trafficking in illegal drugs. Would-be immigrants who can’t pay are pressed into service to carry drugs into the United States. And the surge of unaccompanied minors helps distract the already strained U.S. Border Patrol, making it easier for the drug lords to avoid having their products intercepted.”

– The lives of these children are hell. They have no choice. If those fleeing happen to make it safely to the US border, it isn’t long before they’re deported back to the very places they’re fleeing, with little to no institutional mechanisms by which they’re protected.

Gangs in Honduras have created an atmosphere – cemented by political corruption and weak institutions, along with a lack of direction in the US – in which it pays to create a humanitarian crises focused on children. Indeed, the gangs tend to target children for recruitment to their ranks. 17 year old Mario told Vox:

“I left because I had problems with the gangs. They hung out by a field that I had to pass to get to school. They said if I didn’t join them, they would kill me. I have many friends who were killed or disappeared because they refused to join the gang. I told the gang I didn’t want to. Their life is only death and jail, and I didn’t want that for myself. I want a future.”

– In May 2013, Honduras announced it was investigating the deaths of seven children murdered for refusing to join a gang. The children of central America are pawns in a gang land fight for supremacy in Central America, the failure of the war on drugs, and incompetent political wrangling in Washington.

All of the above factors in Honduras; the 2009 coup, political corruption, a power struggle between the courts and Presidency, institutional state weakness, the suppression of dissent and expression, displacement of communities for the sake of big business, the power of the drug cartels in Honduras, and the failure of the war on drugs throughout the region, have contributed to the huge numbers of children making the life threatening journey to the US border, in the desperate hope for a better life.

They are scared, they are vulnerable, and they’re being protected and shielded by no one. The child predators in their home countries, and on the journey to the US border are winning and actually profiting from a lack of coherent policy in North America, whilst the Congress of the United States enjoys a five week holiday after achieving nothing, and the authorities in Honduras remain too weak to deal with the hideous power of child abusing gangs, corruption in the security services, and big business. The children are the responsibility of the entire international community, not just the US – trying to fix the problem through reviewing work permit arrangements is a small band aid – or the countries in which they were born. The situation is a massive humanitarian crisis that envelopes the whole of the North American continent, lacks institutional mechanisms to protect those children, and will require all of those nations to work together, rather than passing the buck and treating children like pawns.