Libération

je-suis-charlie

Radicalism usually prospers in the gap between rising expectations and declining opportunities. This is especially true where the population is young, idle and bored; where the art is impoverished; where entertainment – movies, theatre, music – is policed or absent altogether; and where young men are set apart from the consoling and socialising presence of women.

This thought-provoking quote is from Lawrence Wright’s vital 2006 book setting out the long context leading to 9/11, The Looming Tower, which I read in 2007. In it, he traces al-Qaeda back to its roots in Egypt, and Sayyid Qutb, the “father” of the radical Islamic movement: a middle-class, educated civil servant and writer who learned his hatred of America while studying there in the 1940s.

It was modernity Qutb took exception to (“secularism, rationality, democracy, subjectivity, individualism, mixing of the sexes, tolerance, materialism”) and returned radicalised to Egypt, a country still under the yoke of Western colonialism. After Gamal Abdel Nasser took control in a military coup against the bloated ruling class in 1952, Qtub hoped for “a just dictatorship”, but Nasser moved the country towards a socialist, secular society (ring any bells?) and Qtub’s cohorts in the Sharia law-favouring Muslim Brotherhood turned against the leader they had helped to put in place. (The Brotherhood would, of course, play its part in the post-Arab Spring reconstruction vacuum.)

Qtub ended up in prison in the crackdown on dissenters after a failed assassination attempt on Nasser, and it was here, brutalised, tortured and horrified at the Muslim guards’ treatment of other Muslim prisoners, that he wrote his apocalyptic manifesto, Ma’alim fi a’Tariq (Milestones), which, among other assertions based on his own dark reading of the Quran, stated that any Muslim serving Nasser was not a “true Muslim”. (This observation from 50 years ago felt relevant again yesterday when Malek Merabet, brother of the murdered Muslim policeman Ahmed Merabet in Paris and a proud, upstanding example to anyone in a crisis, called his brother’s killers “false Muslims”.)

Thus, did Qtub make enemies of anyone who didn’t agree with him and set the clock back to the days of the Prophet Mohammed, before which the world existed in “a period of ignorance and barbarity”, jahiliyya. When Qutb was hanged on August 29, 1966, Wright’s fastidious book seems to say, al-Qaeda was effectively born.

I reprint the quote above, and the context beneath it, because it kept coming back to me over the past week’s grim events. It might seem glib to accuse radicalised men like the Kouachi brothers of simply being “young, idle and bored” (and it doesn’t account for the actions of Hayat Boumeddiene, partner and accomplice of Amedy Coulibaly in Thursday’s Montrouge shooting and Friday’s Porte de Vincennes siege), but there is a grain of truth in the generalisation, and those in the neglected suburbs of Paris certainly felt – and feel – disenfranchised and apart from the glories of modern, secular French society.

I have no answers to the broader problem, but I do think an inquiring understanding of the situation is required – and a reaction as dignified and nonviolent as the one we’re seeing across France. None of this happened overnight. The warning signs were there. And so much of it leads back to pre- and post-war Western colonialism (Saudi Arabia’s close ties to America were always troubling to more traditionally versed Muslims and when King Fahd allowed US troops to be stationed there in 1990, the camel’s back was figuratively broken). It’s something Nigel Farrage and Marine Le Pen would do well to remember before they open their mouths today, I think.

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How does it feel to be the father of 172,907* dead?

Blairface

Who’s old enough to remember the Falklands War? I know we’ve experienced some sabre-rattling about the Malvinas from the Argentine and British camps of late, but it seems unlikely that anybody would go to war over their sovereignty in 2013. I hope not, anyway. Having grown up under the long shadow of the Second World War (my parents were born during it, my grandparents lived through it, one of them fought in it; it influenced the films we watched, the toys we desired and the games we played), and, as a boy, having been fascinated by all aspects of the 1939-45 apocalypse, it was surreal in 1982 to live in a country that was at war, with our tank-straddling Prime Minister sending something called a “task force” to this contested 12,173 square kilometres of dry land in the South Atlantic to repel a South American invader.

There was a war! Alarmist rumours went around school that conscription might be introduced, and, as a paranoid 17-year-old, I had to process what that might mean – even though it was highly unlikely. Anyway, around 900 people died in that stupid war, hence the title of the subsequent 1983 single by anarcho-syndicalist squat-rockers Crass: How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of 1000 Dead? In many ways, the title was enough, not that it would have robbed Margaret Thatcher of any minutes of sleep on her notoriously short nights.

I hadn’t even fully assimilated my politics at that point, and was still living under the long shadow of my Dad’s, but my eventual conversion to left-wing idealism was taking shape somewhere inside my brain, and it was the accumulation of persuasive signposts like the title of that Crass song – and the collage that packaged it – that helped to build it.

Since 1982, the country I live, pay tax and vote in has been involved in a number of other wars, invasions, air strikes and “humanitarian interventions”, notably the Gulf War of 1990, and the Iraq war, which began with the illegal invasion in 2003 and was never officially declared. We are currently “celebrating” its tenth anniversary, and this means that Tony Blair’s face is back in the news, albeit mostly in montages. In Iraq, which is pretty much universally acknowledged to be in a far worse state than it was before we invaded it, the anniversary was marked by bombs killing 56 people and injuring 200 in Shia areas.

I say “we invaded it” – I didn’t invade it. Irag was officially not invaded in my name, because I marched on February 15, 2003 to say so, along with millions of other sane souls around the world. Ours was the largest march in London’s history, even according to the police’s massaged-down figure. (I also marched against the invasion of Afghanistan two years earlier, on October 13, 2001.) When I look back, I feel proud that I cared enough to march, although it also makes me a little sad, as the marching spirit was beaten out of me by the feeling of democratic powerlessness I felt after Operation Iraqi Freedom (cheers) kicked off regardless at 5:34 am Baghdad time on 20 March, 2003 (9:34 pm, 19 March EST).

London_Anti_Iraq_War_march,_15Feb_2003

What optimism I must have had in 2001-2003. I did not decide to march; I had no choice. I love the foregone conclusion of the way I felt then. I dislike the lack of fight in me ten years later. But there is, at least, one man to blame. And I still hold him to account for what happened: the Christian sense of destiny behind his dead eyes as he told us that Saddam Hussein could attack us with only 45 minutes’ warning with weapons of mass destruction that he was definitely hiding in Iraq. I didn’t believe a word Tony Blair or George W Bush said. And although this might have been viewed as kneejerk leftist aversion, history tells us that I was right not to. That he continues to stand by his decision to follow Bush into Iraq to help assuage his Oedipus complex rankles with me. He always says he “regrets” the loss of life, but not the decision to do the thing that caused the loss of life.

* He may or may not be the father of 172,907 dead, as a definitive figure is impossible to put your finger on. It could be more, it could be less, but is probably more. This is the best current estimate of the Iraq Body Count project – and of course it’s recently shot up after the violent protests to mark the tenth anniversary – and it’ll have to do. You might say I’m being melodramatic dredging up the Crass lyric, but the whole sorry, disgraceful episode offends me, yeah? And the rich, tanned, our-man-in-the-Middle-East Tony Blair really needs to get out of my sight, please.

And, as previously declared, I am reading Jason Burke’s The 9/11 Wars, a pretty exhaustive account of the mistakes, assumptions and dangerous strategic miscalculations made by the invading forces in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mentions the abuses and crimes committed). We’re just at the point in 2006 when the author declares “the beginning of the end” for bin Laden loyalist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s archaic “Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” network, whose worryingly broad stated aim was to “bring the rest of the Middle East and potentially the Islamic world within the boundaries of a new caliphate.” In November 2005, he claimed responsibility for suicide bombs that killed 60 people in three hotels in Amman in Jordan (including 38 members of a wedding party), after which opinion polls showed that Jordanians turned against the Iraqi insurgents, indicative of a wider rejection. If Burke’s book tells us anything it’s that the country, and the region, fell into factional chaos after the US/UK invasion, and took until 2006 before the death toll abated. Claiming strategic victory for the American “surge” strikes me as patting yourself on the back for removing some of a red wine stain you made by pouring white wine onto it.

So, you’ve got my kneejerk reaction, and you’ve got my well-read, analytical reaction. I’ll give the final words on this blood-stained anniversary to Crass.

Your arrogance has gutted these bodies of life
Your deceit fooled them that it was worth the sacrifice
Your lies persuaded people to accept the wasted blood
Your filthy pride cleansed you of the doubt you should have had
You smile in the face of death ‘cos you are so proud and vain
Your inhumanity stops you from realising the pain