On Corbyn’s Terrorism Speech and How to Think About Islamist Terrorism
It took a few days to finish off and might now be a little irrelevant, but it does reflect on common problems in the Left’s response to terrorism, which have for the most part culminated in Corbyn’s speech, a speech in many ways which reflects what he has believed and promoted for years, but has been translated through a more acceptable prism.
This is not to say I disagreed with all of it: he harangues the government for applying the logic of austerity to the security services (even though his current Shadow Home Secretary wanted to abolish Mi5…) and the emergency response services (even though his current Shadow Chancellor signed a manifesto pledging their disarmament), underlining that the traditional Tory doctrine of“law and order” is utterly hollow in the face of neoliberalism’s onslaught. The contribution of prison dysfunction to the problem is also a pressing concern (note that such an issue contributed to the catalyst that has allowed the recent cycle of terrorist attacks in Paris).
But his speech contains severe contradictions and unfounded assumptions common to the rhetoric of his ilk, and it is a good opportunity to rehash some criticisms of them.
Corbyn in many ways mimics what must be a millennia old rhetorical Sophistic form, but mastered and applied by Noam Chomsky in the late 20th century and adopted by many political pundits of all stripes thereafter, whereby if you want to say something highly controversial and disagreeable, you first say its exact opposite, and then state a bland and vague version of it (you can also do this the other way around with the same effect). You could even use the “dog whistle” method of using certain words and phrases to communicate semi-hidden meaning and instruction. This way, you can address your intended audience — the proverbial choir one preaches to — directly, confuse fence sitters and the casually interested into agreeing with you, and when your critics accuse of saying the thing in question, you can point to the opposite point you said and declare “In fact, I actually said the opposite…”, which while technically true, is intellectually dishonest.
This is the rhetorical form of Corbyn’s speech: the “blame” may be “with the terrorists”, but we must see to it that “our foreign policy reduces rather than increases the threat to this country” — a blatant declaration that it is doing the very opposite.
There are other contradictions as well: if these terrorist actors are such purveyors of “atrocious acts of cruelty and depravity”, and that such “vicious and contemptible acts…cause profound pain and suffering”, then why does he aim to make “conflict resolution” the heart of his foreign policy, wherein you “will almost always [be] talking to people you profoundly disagree with”? Usually people who are “depraved” are beyond dialogue, and require a more forceful response…
But really, most of Corbyn’s condemnation of the attacks is just platitude: it is what you are expected to say, especially when you are employing the aforementioned method.
(It is also embarrassing that Corbyn says that we “must support our Armed Services”, when he is on record — video exists — in 2010 saying that the only austerity cuts must be to them. He said it, you can’t just brush it away…)
The aforementioned ‘opposed point’ Corbyn makes is clear: “Those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone. […] And no rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week’s massacre.” However, he doesn’t mention, other than prison dysfunction, what might also be leading to those causes. Again: the only real culprit on offer here is British foreign policy.
Corbyn seems to want to balance main causes of terrorism between the actions of the West and the agency of terrorists themselves, but really, without directly identifying the ideological-political drivers of the main international terrorist phenomenon — that is, what I like to call revolutionary Islamism, or is more generally known as Salafi jihadism —not even mentioning IS by name, then the rhetorical axis in practice in focuses on the West being guilty of their own woes due to “blowback” from their own policy.
But the idea of “blowback” is a questionable one. Some like Peter Bergen — whom I greatly respect as the first journalist to make Al-Qaeda his focus — sees it as a real driver of global terrorism in regards to the Iraq War. Other evidence from the Iraq War however suggests otherwise.
There also the old chestnut of confusing correlation with causation (C =/= C).
This graph has been presented as “proof” the Iraq War caused a rise in deaths from terrorism — again, that C =/= C problem. But if we adopt its logic and look closely at the graph the opposite seems true: after the 2006 troop surge there was actually an overall long-term decline in terrorist deaths, and terrorism-related deaths only began to rise sharply again after the beginnings of the Syrian Civil War, a war from which Western intervention has been (until recently) almost entirely absent. You could draw that Western intervention applied consistently could in fact reduce terrorism-related deaths overall, but that would be falling back on the correlation fallacy…(and I never supported the Iraq War either…)
Another graph shows that over the past twenty years, terrorism attacks in Britain have reduced to an historic low, not exactly indicating a country in the throes of “blowback”.
There are other problem: I don’t know how a 2003 war can cause 2001 attacks…you also have to ignore things like the 1993 WTC Bombing and the 1995 Bojinka Plot (the “original” 9/11 which would have killed far more people). I think much of the timespan of Islamist terrorism is omitted from these graphs, leading to a distorted picture. Islamist terrorism killed tens of thousands in the Middle East throughout the ’80s and ’90s; our response in the West was mostly “Oh Dearism”…
“Blowback”, as opposed to a serious IR theory, is mostly used as a means to blame the West for its own foreign policy errors in the face of multiple terrorist attacks and hundreds of young men travelling to the Middle East to essentially kill themselves but not before killing as many innocents as they can (and desecrating a few priceless artefacts along the way). But in terms of real or self-alleged causation, the actual “inspiration” events vary, as Jonathan Freeland recently wrote: “I recall my own first encounter with [jihadism], back in the 1990s. I was speaking at a student meeting that was disrupted by loud activists from the extremist al-Muhajiroun group. What were they furious about? The west’s failure to take military action over Bosnia. These young men were livid that Britain and the US had not dropped bombs to prevent the massacre at Srebrenica. It proved, they said, that the west held Muslim lives to be cheap.” Maajid Nawaz, a former jihadi-turned-secularist activist, confirmed this for his own experience: “So Bosnia was the key recruitment drive. It was the key thing that allowed an entire generation of people that were my age, around 16 years old to be approached by Islamists who said — “do you want a solution to this problem?””.
“Blowback” is also a non-falsifiable theory: regardless of remote the act is, the War on Terror or Western foreign policy in general must somehow be responsible. For example: Joe Sacco somehow managed to blame the Charlie Hebdo shootings on the Abu Ghraib abuses, even though Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said the killings had been ordered purely in the name of “vengeance for the prophet”.
In reality, there is nothing unusual about what happened in Manchester, if we take a global perspective. Every day Islamists kill Muslim civilians across the Islamic world, and do it in the name of defending their own principles against ‘kafir’. That this sometimes happens here is not indicative of a special event; rather, we are lucky that, unlike in say Iraq, this is not a weekly if not daily event. We are not the true focus of Islamist rage because we are, as IS puts it, the “grey zone”, a place where some Muslims live, who must be either reached (and “converted”) or killed with the rest of the “infidels”, but it is the Islamic world with its Muslim population where the pivotal battles must be fought. Muslims who agree with their aims are encouraged to stay and commit terrorism in the West, but this column of extremists is obviously a microscopic group.
Of course, ideologically speaking, Islamists despise the West: democracy is “polytheism” and incompatible with Islam; secular law conflicts with God’s law; feminine freedom is an affront to decency; and so on. Our military actions — for example, drone strikes — are nothing compared to what the West represents, to quote an IS fighter from the most recent Shiraz Maher interview: “We primarily fight wars due to [sic] ppl being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue. […] Their kufr against Allah is sufficient of a reason for us to invade and kill them. Only if they stop their kufr will they no longer be a target.” We should take the words of mass murderers with pinches of salt, but then again, the regressive left (for want of a better phrase) latch onto to certain elements of Islamist discourse that parallel their own anti-interventionist/“anti-imperialist” stance while ignoring what lies at the heart of what truly drives Islamist terrorists as political actors, and what really drives all political actors: their ideology and their vision for the world. Every Islamist ideology broadly considered, whether Sunni or Shia, is dependent not on some defensive “anti-colonial” narrative lifted from Fanon — which only makes up part of their discourse — but on a desire to remake the entire world as they believe their respective interpretation of god wants to see it. For Hamas and Hezbollah (Corbyn knows them quite well I believe…), this entails the elimination of both Israel and Middle Eastern Jewry in its entirety, and the creation of a totalitarian Palestinian state in its place. For Iran’s Islamic Republic, this entails the destruction of Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and the establishment of a Shia hegemony over all of the Middle East — the Achaemenid Empire reborn. For Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, this entails the creation of a global Caliphate, a state that encompasses the entire world in a totalitarian system. There is no plurality in this one, no diversity — it is a total and complete domination.
The softly, softly “conflict resolution” approach Corbyn invokes will not work with this last group of Islamists. With the Palestinians and Islamic Republics, a solution is possible when cooler heads prevail (and I still hope one day to visit that Palestinian state), but the ‘Islamist internationals’ will never yield. They already think they are right and are willing to die for it. You talking to them just buys them time. You finding “compromise” with them just means their unwilling subjects will continue to suffer. (And to think Corbyn criticised Smith for advancing the exact same thing…)
None of this has somehow been birthed purely or even mostly from the so-called War on Terror; the 9/11 Attacks can be traced intellectually back through Osama Bin Laden, through to the chief theorist of the Muslim Brotherhood and founder of modern jihadism Sayyid Qutb, and even further back to the Islamic Revival of the late 19th century in the terminally declining Ottoman Empire (and the collapse of the sectarian millet system with it). The intellectual history of the Islamic world may at times be confusing and obscure, but (to ironically invoke Edward Saïd) to reduce a great, centuries-long political, cultural and religious struggle within a vast population spread across the Old World down to petty reaction is Euro-centric Orientalism.
At the end of the day, taking his entire career as given, Corbyn has what might best be termed an ideological terrorism fetish. The ideological ends of the terrorists themselves do not really matter, whether it be a United Ireland under a Gerry Adams dictatorship or an Islamic fascist Palestine with its Jewish population nicely expunged. It is an admiration for terrorists based in the understanding that terrorists are revolutionaries who oppose the currently existing order of things, and as revolutionaries they require unquestioning solidarity. Even when the struggle is over, every criticism of the terrorists’ violence — no matter how brutal — must be contextualised as a response to the violence of the state or of other actors, often through either minimisation or equivocation; this is why Corbyn still refuses to condemn the IRA without mentioning Loyalists. If he has to lie about it, he will lie about it.
The admiration for terrorists by political radicals (including pseudo-radical poseurs such as Corbyn) goes back a long way, and can be seen in an 1869 letter by Mikhail Bakunin, the prophet of modern anarchism, to Nikolai Ogarev, in which he praised brigandage (banditry in the Russian badlands) as a revolutionary ideal: “Banditry is one of the most honourable ways of life within the Russian state [representing] a desperate protest by the people against the infamous social order[.] The bandit is the people’s hero, defender and saviour.” For Bakunin, the bandit is currently in Russia “the only true revolutionary”, and as for moral responsibility, regardless of how many innocents are killed, it is purely the state’s fault: “Governmental cruelty has engendered the cruelty of the people and made it into something necessary and natural.”
Corbyn through a long line of apologists for mass criminality in the name of revolution carries on this tradition. His association with Irish irredentist terrorists (for how else can we describe the IRA really?) and every calibre of Islamist extremist is well documented.
For example: The Stop the War Coalition, of which Corbyn was an officer and later Chair from 2011 to 2015, in 2005 released this statement: “The StWC reaffirms its call for an end to the occupation, the return of all British troops in Iraq to this country and recognises once more the legitimacy of the struggle of Iraqis, by whatever means they find necessary, to secure such ends.” They had earlier affiliated during the initial anti-war protests with various Islamic extremist organisations.
Much later during the Paris Attacks, the StWC published an article titled “Paris reaps whirlwind of western support for extremist violence in Middle East”, which they later, under the pressure of multiple resignations, apologised for, but which in essence contained the same “blowback” argument that Corbyn makes. The article read: “Without decades of intervention by the US and its allies there would have been no ‘war on terror’ and no terrorist attacks in Paris. […] Without the American crime of aggressive war against Iraq — which, by the measurements used by Western governments themselves, left more than a million innocent people dead — there would be no ISIS, no “Al Qaeda in Iraq”.” Corbyn later that year attended their Christmas fundraiser as a “special guest”.
(There are many other occasions such as these, but The Times has helpfully compiled a list.)
It would be unfair to say Corbyn rejects military intervention outright, but it isn’t really a ‘Corbyn doctrine’: “I want to assure you that, under my leadership, you will only be deployed abroad when there is a clear need and only when there is a plan and you have the resources to do your job to secure an outcome that delivers lasting peace.”
There is an obvious problem with this: the bar is too vague to ever be properly set, or perhaps it is set so high the Hubble Telescope has yet to detect it. In his parliamentary career he has voted against every single military intervention against genocide, ethnic cleansing and mass murder, and defends this proud inaction to this very day (see his latest interview with Peston). If this means branching further into outright genocide denial, then why not?
There are people who will read this and argue that I have somehow taken quotes ‘out of context’; however, the more and more context you give quote by quote, the more these people tend to either stretch or narrow meanings, split hairs, equivocate (as though that absolves the original remark), or will demand so much additional context that the entire extant history of the known universe will have to be provided, by which time their defendant has managed to get away scot-free. I have tried to be as fair to Corbyn as possible, I’ve cited all the relevant links, and please be my guest and read Corbyn’s original speech linked at the top.
But my overarching point is this: When Corbyn stands up and parrots a revised version of the same line he’s been pushing for decades, while demanding that we “do not doubt [his]determination to take whatever action is necessary to keep our country safe and to protect our people on our streets, in our towns and cities, at our borders”, I respond to him (and his followers): given everything you have said, both right now and in the past, why the hell should I or anybody not doubt your word?