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Friday, 18 December 2015

2015: a year of terror

How quickly we forget. Just a year ago, 132 children in Pakistan were killed in an attack by jihadi gunmen on a school in Peshawar. We recoiled in horror -- and then we moved on.

Just as we did after the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks in Paris last January when 17 people were killed. And the attack in Kenya in April when 148 students were killed. And the one in June in Tunisia when 38 people, most of them British tourists, were killed. And the one in October in Ankara when 102 people were killed. And the one three weeks later on the Russian passenger jet in Egypt when 224 people were killed.

(We haven't forgotten, because we never even noticed, that in March, more than 140 people were killed in suicide bomb attacks on two mosques in the Yemeni capital, Sana'a.)

All that before the attacks in Paris a month ago, in which 137 people were killed. According to a list in Wikipedia of Islamist terrorist attacks during the course of 2015 -- a list that must inevitably be incomplete and can be only a very rough tally (it excludes, for example, any attacks in Syria) -- there have been 105 attacks this year, with a total death toll of around 2,800.

2015: the year of terror. An all-out assault on Western civilisation and our way of life.

Wrong.

Because the country that has suffered the highest number of attacks this year is Nigeria, thanks to the murderous activities of the jihadi group calling itself Boko Haram. Next comes Iraq, followed by Afghanistan. These are not countries that are 'Western' in the generally accepted sense of the word, yet they have been targets far more frequently than Europe or the US. Which means, of course, that the jihadis have killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims.

It is also worth noting that the deadly attacks by jihadis long pre-date the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Who now remembers the attacks in Paris in 1995 by the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria that killed eight people? Or the attack in 1997 in Luxor, Egypt, that killed 62 tourists? Or the one in 1998 when 200 people were killed in attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania?

How quickly we forget. And, more to the point, how quickly our political leaders forget. Which helps to explain why their responses to the threat posed by jihadis tend to be so piecemeal and ineffective. Perhaps they have never heard of the American philosopher George Santayana, who wrote: 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'

Bombing Islamic State targets in Syria may, possibly, help to reduce the threat of further IS advances in Syria and Iraq and may, again possibly, help to reduce the threat of further attacks in Europe. What it will not do is 'defeat' the ideology that underpins its appeal to those who flock to join its ranks.

I'm not at all sure, in fact, that an ideology can be defeated. What we can do is propose an alternative ideology that offers a better future than a suicide vest and death. In other words, an ideology that offers young men in places like Tunisia, Egypt, Chechnya, Iraq and Syria, a future which offers more than a life of oppression and unemployment.

The same applies to young Muslims in Belgium, France and the UK, because those who join IS do so in the full knowledge that they are almost certainly going to their deaths. What a calamitous failure of Western policy-making it is that the message of jihadi zealots, whether online, in mosques or in jail, can be more attractive than the alternatives that should be on offer.

So the task for 2016 is to craft a far more sophisticated response. It needs to be a response that reaches young potential jihadis before they turn in desperation to an apocalyptic vision of a global caliphate. A response that encourages them to feel an integral part of the society in which they are growing up, rather than part of a suspect minority in which everyone is regarded as a potential terrorist.

In places like Nigeria and Chechnya, it means putting in place a governing structure that does not depend on cronyism and corruption. In Europe it means rethinking how political leaders refer to Muslim minorities. It means being prepared for the long haul and not falling into the trap of thinking that the only response to a terrorist attack is to introduce ever more oppressive 'anti-terrorist' measures.

The key is good governance. In a country where all citizens feel they have an equal chance of making something of their lives, where they don't come to believe that the odds will always be stacked against them because of their faith or ethnic origin, there will be far fewer tempted to end their lives by blowing themselves up in crowded places. It is a difficult message for politicians to sell -- I don't see Donald Trump or Ted Cruz being much persuaded by it, for example -- but it's a message that we need to hear.

And here's another message for American voters as they prepare to elect a new president in 2016. Remember those 2,800 deaths from Islamist terrorism worldwide this year? Each one of them a life cut short unnecessarily, leaving behind grieving families and friends in more than 25 countries across the globe.

So what about the 12,700 people who have been shot dead in the US since the beginning of this year? That's more than four times as many killed by guns in one country alone than by jihadi terrorism in the whole of the rest of the world.

I just thought it was worth mentioning.

Friday, 11 December 2015

People Together: confronting fear and bigotry

It is time to take a stand.

Against bigotry. Against fear. Against lies.

It is time to take a stand against those who seek to divide us and turn us against our neighbours. And to stand up to those who seek to terrorise us into submission.

From the moment when the first human beings huddled together in primitive agrarian communities, we have known that we are stronger together than apart. That is why the people whom we should fear most are those who seek to sow discord and division.

It is time to stand together: Muslim and non-Muslim, black and white, young and old. It is time to unite against the fanatics and the bigots. They want to turn us against each other, so our response -- our only response -- must be to come together.

Together against Donald Trump. Together against Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage. And together against Islamic State. The danger we face is not foreigners, or immigrants, Muslim or non-Muslim -- it is fear. Fear born of ignorance, exploited by those who seek power. I'm not interested in labels, so I will not give them a label. But open a book of European history and you soon see where fear and ignorance can lead.

The opposite of ignorance is knowledge. So to answer those who fear the foreigners, let us point to all those (many of them Muslim, by the way) who staff our health services, serve in our armed forces and police services, care for our elderly and vulnerable, drive our buses and trains, own and run our corner shops, establish our small businesses and create jobs. In the US, we must point out -- again -- that more than half the chief executives in Silicon Valley are foreign-born.

How about a rallying cry? People Together. La Gente Unida. Le Peuple Ensemble. Das Volk Zusammen. Churches and mosques; towns and cities; leftwing and rightwing; trades unions and employers' organisations; celebrities, musicians, film stars and teachers, social workers and community activists; David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn; Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

And how about mass rallies in the New Year? Trafalgar Square in London, The Mall in Washington DC, the Place de la Republique in Paris, the Plaza del Sol in Madrid. Hundreds of thousands of people. Together. United against bigotry and fear.

Donald Trump calls his supporters 'the noisy majority'. Noisy they most certainly are, but to call them a majority is another of his lies. According to the latest opinion poll, fewer than half of American voters support his idea of banning all Muslim immigrants from the US. That means that he speaks for the minority, not the majority. Even if his ideas are backed by significant numbers of likely Republican voters, they are themselves a minority.

In France, Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden, the xenophobes and Islamophobes also claim to speak for the majority. They do not, but it is time to organise to confront them. We should not forget that in 1933, when the National Socialist German Workers Party, led by Adolf Hitler, came to power, it had won less than half the votes cast.  Within months, Hitler had banned all other political parties.

The people who support Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage are not all bigots, but they are frightened -- and they are angry. They are frightened by the changes they see around them, by the disappearance of secure jobs and affordable housing, and by the cultural and ethnic changes that they neither understand nor want. And they are angry at the political élites who have ushered in these changes and who have ignored their fears.

So how do the political élites respond? By redirecting the anger towards the traditional scapegoats: the foreigners, the migrants, the Muslims. In the days of strong trades unions and workers' education, there was at least a mechanism for pushing back against the lies. But those days have long gone, along with the coalmines, the steelworks and the shipyards.

The idea that a billionaire property developer (Trump) or a former stockbroker (Farage) can somehow claim to represent the interests of those who have been cast aside by the forces of globalisation and free market capitalism is frankly risible.  As for the Front National in France, the French commentator Natalie Nougayrède wrote in The Guardian: 'France is a country that for three decades has suffered mass unemployment. It is a country where globalisation is widely perceived as something of an existential threat because it is associated with the loss of jobs and a national loss of status … The fact is that France has failed to adapt to the challenges of globalisation.'

So who is going to point out that it wasn't immigrants or refugees who crashed the banking system, and it's not immigrants or refugees who benefit from a grotesquely unfair taxation system that sees those at the top of the pile rewarded with obscene wealth while those at the bottom are squeezed to within an inch of penury.

The trend towards populism and demagoguery is not a purely Western phenomenon. President Putin of Russia, President Erdoğan of Turkey and prime minister Modi of India all exploit the same fears as Trump, Le Pen and Farage. All know that in order to deflect popular anger at their own inadequacies as political leaders, they need to identify alternative culprits. So they point their fingers at the traditional suspects.

It is time to answer their lies. It is time to organise in defence of those who need defending, just as the people in communities devastated by the recent floods in northern England organised to defend themselves and their neighbours. I doubt that they checked first on their ethnic origin or religious faith.

It is a task perfectly suited to the newly-enrolled members of the newly-energised Labour party, if they can be persuaded to tear themselves away from tearing each other apart. Clicking on a petition calling for Trump to be banned from Britain won't quite do it, as well as being wrong in principle.

Yes, Trump is dangerous, but even more dangerous, as Franklin D Roosevelt pointed out more than 80 years ago, is fear itself. The columnist Simon Jenkins wrote this week: 'Fear is the most potent of political weapons. It is more deadly than greed, ambition or love of home. It is dangerous because it feeds on the irrational in human nature.'

The author and journalist Michael Goldfarb, author of Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews From the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance, asks in this week's Jewish Chronicle: 'Are Le Pen and Trump true fascists or simply nativist racists? Or are they just self-aggrandisers with an eye on the main chance? Does their demonising of Muslims remind you of the demonising of Jews back then? Is this really the return of fascism? Or something merely unpleasant but less threatening? And did you ever think "it" could happen again?'

So as an early Christmas wish, or an even earlier New Year resolution: no more fear, no more bigotry. People Together.

Friday, 4 December 2015

A day is a long time ...


What a difference 24 hours make. On Thursday morning, after an unexpectedly powerful speech from Hilary Benn, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was reeling. The look on his face as Benn was applauded -- applauded! -- in the Commons chamber said it all. Not a good day at the office.

Twenty four hours later, after a stonkingly good by-election victory in Oldham West and Royton, Mr Corbyn is entitled to turn on his critics: "Can't win elections? Too extreme? Really?" On a wet Thursday in December, after a parliamentary debate that showed the party's deep divisions in all their gory splendour, Labour actually increased its share of the vote, up 7.3% compared to the general election in May. A good day at the office.

Lesson One: don't believe what you read in the papers. But Lesson Two: take the long view. Labour has not suddenly become a lean, mean election machine, simply because it won a by-election in what should always have been a rock-solid seat. The party's civil war is only just beginning, and just like the war in Syria, it will be long, messy and bloody.

It is tempting to quote Macbeth and see politics as little more than "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing." Tempting, but wrong. The past few days have signified a great deal for both the UK's main political parties. They have probably signified rather less, however, for the people of Syria, ostensibly at the heart of this week's debates.

For the prime minister, Wednesday night's Commons vote authorising RAF action against IS targets in Syria as well as in Iraq marked the successful conclusion to a two-year campaign to reverse the humiliation of his defeat in 2013 when Labour under Ed Miliband refused to back his proposal to send the RAF into action against President Assad. As the Financial Times put it, this week's vote marked "a return to the world stage by a prime minister accused of presiding over a 'deeply worrying' strategic shrinkage."

For Mr Corbyn, the debate brutally demonstrated his tenuous hold over his parliamentary colleagues, and the toxic nature of some of the key relationships inside his party. The Oldham result will encourage his supporters to ratchet up their pressure on unconvinced Labour MPs: "You say we're unelectable under Corbyn? What about Oldham?" The result will do nothing to heal the party rifts.

So what does it all mean for Syria? In his Commons speech last Wednesday, Mr Corbyn said: "Yet more bombing in Syria will kill innocent civilians -- of that there's no doubt -- and turn many more Syrians into refugees." It is impossible to disagree: bombs kill people, and not only the people against whom they are aimed, yet it is worth examining the record.

According to the Ministry of Defence, "in more than a year of strikes against Daesh (IS) targets in Iraq, there have been no reports of civilian casualties resulting from UK air operations. RAF Tornado and Reaper aircraft have flown a total of 1,632 combat missions and have carried out more than 380 successful strikes in Iraq."

Maybe. Chris Woods of the airwars independent monitoring organisation estimates that more than 360 civilians have been killed in Iraq by coalition air attacks over the past year, but it is impossible to calculate how many, if any, of them were a result of UK action. Professor Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King's College, London, is prepared to accept the MoD claim but warns that they are "not a sure guide" to likely consequences in Syria.

According to US press reports, in Iraq several hundred Sunni tribesmen, trained by US soldiers and backed by US air strikes, are expected to join Iraqi army troops imminently to launch an assault on the IS-held city of Ramadi. If they do -- and if they succeed in dislodging IS -- it will be heralded as an example of how air strikes can help in the battle of attrition against IS.

There is, of course, one big difference between Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, foreign intervention forces work side-by-side (up to a point, anyway) with the national army. In Syria, at least for now, similar cooperation with Assad's army is inconceivable. It will make the task in Syria even harder than it is in Iraq. But, in my view, that doesn't mean it's not even worth trying.

On their own, a few more air strikes from RAF Tornados and Reaper drones will not turn the tide. But if UK participation in the Syria air campaign gives the British more clout at the negotiating table, together with such key players as Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, this week's Commons vote will not have been in vain.