Handed A Softball Question On ISIS, A Miscalculating Owen Smith Self Destructs

Owen Smith, the supposedly mature and electable alternative to Jeremy Corbyn, is nothing but a pale, naive and cheap imitation

There could hardly have been an easier question asked of the two Labour leadership contenders, Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith, during the hustings/debate broadcast on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show this morning.

Moving the focus on to the Islamic State (sorry, so-called Islamic State – this being BBC world), Derbyshire asked both men whether or not they believed that any peace process in Syria should involve representatives from ISIS.

Immediately alarm bells should have been sounding in Owen Smith’s head, for this was the most primitive of political traps. Anything other than a robust “hell no!” would instantly be taken to mean woolly socialist accommodation with Islamist extremism, and so the correct thing to do was clearly to temporarily forget nuance, give the robust “hell no!”, and then move on.

Even Jeremy Corbyn managed to get it right. He was clearly lying through his teeth – given his public statements on Hamas and other violent organisations, everyone knows that a Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn would fawningly seek to include ISIS in any negotiations. That’s just who he is. But even Jeremy Corbyn, the man who supposedly lacks a political radar, recognised the trap and said “They’re not going to be around the table, no” when put on the spot by Derbyshire.

Meanwhile Owen Smith, desperate to out-socialist Corbyn at every turn while portraying what he mistakenly thinks is an air of grown up realism, charged headlong into the trap, saying:

My record is I’m somebody who has worked on the peace process in Northern Ireland for three years, I was part of the UK’s negotiating team that helped bring together the loyalist paramilitaries, the DUP in particular into the process, alongside Sinn Fein, and my view is that ultimately all solutions to these sorts of crises, these sorts of international crises, do come about through dialogue. So eventually, if we are to try and solve this, all of the actors do need to be involved but at the moment ISIL are clearly not interested in negotiating.

I’m sorry, which one is the waffling socialist dilettante with no understanding of political communications again? Because for all the world it looks as though Owen Smith is the prevaricating incompetent here, not Jeremy Corbyn.

Let us count the ways in which Owen Smith is wrong. Firstly, there is no comparability between the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the ideology-driven, pan-national phenomenon of the Islamic State.

While it sounds statesmanlike and mature (clearly what Owen Smith was striving for) to intone that serious compromises have to be made on both sides in the pursuit of peace, citing the Northern Ireland peace agreement as evidence, it is a very poor comparison. For the Troubles, for all their complex history, were characterised very much by the narcissism of small differences – the furious hatred  which built up between two very similar communities living side by side (Catholic vs Protestant, Nationalist vs Unionist).

When peace negotiations were underway, both sides were prevailed upon to accept a power-sharing agreement in a devolved assembly as well as weapons decommissioning and early prison release for convicted terrorists on both sides. The shared pain was ultimately acceptable to both sides because there was an attractive, shared goal to work towards in the form of a peaceful and more prosperous Northern Ireland.

The difference between the West and the Islamic State (or even between peace-loving Syrians and the Islamic State) does not fit this profile in the slightest. We are not talking the narcissism of small differences, but the belligerence of exceedingly large differences. Islamic State seeks to conquer and occupy territory, and impose its impossibly strict, fundamentalist Wahhabist dogma on all those with the misfortune to become its citizens. There is no compromise, no half-way terms of peace for which the subjugated people of Iraq or Syria could sue, let alone countries like Britain, France and America ,which are the Islamic State’s overseas targets.

The kind of negotiations fancifully suggested by Owen Smith in his failed bid to appear mature and statesmanlike are simply not possible with Islamic State. By their own words and actions, ISIS does not compromise or water down its demands or dogma. “Live and let live” is neither possible nor desirable. Nobody is realistically going to get the Iraqi government to agree to a power-sharing deal involving the surrendering or dilution of sovereignty over its cities. And in the case of Syria, the ongoing civil war means that there is no one authority to speak on behalf of Syrians anyway.

More than anything, this incident serves to underline the sheer superficiality of the Owen Smith candidacy. While this blog was previously encouraged that Smith had at least a few policy ideas of his own (one step better than the hapless Angela Eagle, whose pitch for the top job seemed to rest entirely on her winning personality) these have proven to be nothing but a restatement of Jeremy Corbyn’s own ideas, the kind of policies which a Corbyn manifesto would no doubt have outlined prior to the general election anyway.

With almost zero policy difference between the two candidates, Owen Smith’s only remaining advantage over Corbyn was his supposed electability. Unlike Corbyn, we were told, Owen Smith will avoid making the faux-pas, media missteps and party management howlers which have caused the parliamentary party such unease. And yet in his desperation to defend his left flank, Owen Smith walked into the kind of headline-generating trap that even Jeremy Corbyn managed to avoid.

Did the Parliamentary Labour Party really just squander any opportunity to take the fight to the Tories after the EU referendum and the ascension of Theresa May just to replace Jeremy Corbyn with a third-rate flop of a leadership candidate in the form of Owen Smith? Is this oily, vacuous dilettante really the best that they can do?

Where are the latter-day equivalents of Barbara Castle, Peter Shore, Hugh Gaitskell, Clement Attlee, Aneurin Bevan or Tony Benn?

How small are the creatures who now seek to bestride the shrunken Labour Party?

 

Owen Smith - Labour Party Leadership Coup

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Bastille Day Terrorist Attack In Nice – The Enemy Which We Refuse To Name Strikes Again

Nice Attack - Truck - Terrorism - France

As #PrayForNice trends on Twitter and another European city is plunged into terror and tragedy, what action have we taken to name, confront and defeat the evil which threatens us?

The news and images coming from the French city of Nice on what should be the most celebratory of days for the French people – Bastille Day – are awful, and heartbreaking, and wearily familiar.

As of this time, 77 people are confirmed dead, mown down on the Promenade des Anglais by a truck driven at high speed and containing an arsenal of weapons and explosives. This is clearly an act of terror – the numerous bullet holes in the windshield of the blood stained truck a testament to the amount of force it took the security services to stop the vehicle. And of course this is the third time in nineteen months that the French have suffered a grievous, high profile terrorist attack on their soil – first Charlie Hebdo, then the Bataclan, both in Paris, and now the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice.

To this we can add the Brussels terrorist attacks in March this year and, looking beyond Europe, numerous deadly attacks in Turkey as well as the terrorist shootings in San Bernadino and Orlando.

This is the future. This is the kind of terrorism which we are now going to face – not truly grand attacks on the level of 9/11, where casualties run into the thousands, but a long, slow grind of relentless medium-sized attacks, often on lower-value targets or in second tier, provincial cities. Often their planning and execution may turn out to be quite crude – this is not the age of the cunning master plan coordinated from a supervillain’s lair, but of “quick and dirty” plots hatched by autonomous cells and all the more unsettling precisely because they do not strike where we expect.

Now, murder comes to the airport entrance before the security checkpoints, or to an unremarkable concert venue, or a nondescript office or the main strip of a seaside town. Places which with the best will in the world are impossible to defend 24/7.

Radical Islamist terror has moved firmly into the age of the lone wolf, or the quasi-autonomous sleeper cell.

Why? Think of it like WiFi. Terrorist networks can no longer safely rely on coordinating large scale attacks in the West from a remote location with a reasonable degree of confidence that they will go undetected. Therefore, if ISIS and other fundamentalist Islamist organisations cannot physically cooordinate logistics and dispatch operatives to conduct attacks in Western cities, they must resort to other, remote means.

When the traditional methods of internet, telephone and even face-to-face communication are at risk of being intercepted by the security services, proponents of fundamentalist Islamist ideology must instead rely on transmitting their ideology and broad objectives through more general means, including YouTube and social media, targeted at the right susceptible population – usually disaffected and alienated young Muslim men who do not feel connected to or fully invested in society. The leaders of this death cult then rely on some of their indoctrinated targets possessing sufficient initiative to become their own mini terrorist masterminds.

We saw this approach in San Bernadino last winter, and again in Orlando last month. As more facts emerge, it may become clear that the Nice attack followed this pattern. Alternatively, it may be that Europe’s porous border and chaotic influx of migrants allowed foreign terrorists to slip through the net and aid in the planning or execution of the attack (press reports currently indicate that ID found on the truck driver suggest that he is a 31-year-old with dual French-Tunisian nationality, but this ID could well be fake or stolen).

But what is already crystal clear is the stark, uncomfortable fact that since Paris and Brussels (or Madrid and London, if you want to cast back a decade) our leaders have done nothing – nothing at all – to meaningfully grapple with this scourge of Islamist terrorism. So terrified are they of being accused of intolerance or racism that all we hear is the furious insistence that these atrocities have “nothing to do with Islam“.

And it’s just false. Of course the barbarity in Nice has absolutely nothing to do with the peaceful, moderate Islam practise by millions of adherents in the West and elsewhere. But it cannot be denied that those who do commit mass murdering acts of terrorism often explicitly reference Islam as their inspiration and justification – and do so from a very literal reading of certain Islamic texts. Moderate Islam does not inspire terrorist attacks, clearly. But fundamentalist, radical Islam often does, and we need to admit as much, for if we cannot even name the threat which we face what chance do we have of overcoming it?

As Douglas Murray rightly pointed out in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre:

Contra the political leaders, the Charlie Hebdo murderers were not lunatics without motive, but highly motivated extremists intent on enforcing Islamic blasphemy laws in 21st-century Europe. If you do not know the ideology — perverted or plausible though it may be — you can neither understand nor prevent such attacks. Nor, without knowing some Islamic history, could you understand why — whether in Mumbai or Paris — the Islamists always target the Jews.

[..] We have spent 15 years pretending things about Islam, a complex religion with competing interpretations. It is true that most Muslims live their lives peacefully. But a sizeable portion (around 15 per cent and more in most surveys) follow a far more radical version. The remainder are sitting on a religion which is, in many of its current forms, a deeply unstable component. That has always been a problem for reformist Muslims. But the results of ongoing mass immigration to the West at the same time as a worldwide return to Islamic literalism means that this is now a problem for all of us. To stand even a chance of dealing with it, we are going to have to wake up to it and acknowledge it for what it is.

The cost of this furious pretence that Islam is totally unconnected to the “so called” Islamic State and the terror attacks committed in its name can now be measured in a growing toll of human lives. And the slickness with which we now mourn these events, with standardised tributes and modes of behaviour, only serves to emphasise our utter lack of coordination in preventing their recurrence.

As this blog commented after the recent Brussels attacks in March, charting the inevitability of the public grieving followed by zero meaningful action:

Impromptu shrines appear in a major square of the afflicted city, with candles, chalk drawings and sometimes a bit of impromptu John Lennon.

And the day closes with Europe and America’s major landmarks illuminated to resemble the national flag of the afflicted nation. They’re getting really good at that part now.

Fast forward a day, and plans are well afoot to grant even more powers to the well-meaning but overstretched security services – who were unable to make use of their current extensive powers to thwart the attack – and generally at the expense of our civil liberties. Particularly our rights to privacy and free speech.

Fast forward a month, and we have all moved on. Domestic political concerns, celebrity scandals and daily life have reasserted themselves.

I think we can all agree that we’ve got the public grief, cathartic expressions of solidarity and stern faced authoritarianism down to a fine art at this point.

When are we going to start acknowledging – and maybe even tackling – the root causes?

Unless our leaders can openly and unequivocally acknowledge that the terrorist scourge which sees murder brought to the streets of Europe on a near-monthly basis has its roots in a fundamentalist, literalist and militant strain of Islam, how are we ever to really get to grips with the issues of radicalisation and non-assimilation?

If the deaths of eighty slain people in Nice have nothing whatsoever to do with Islam then how do we hope to save young and impressionable Muslim schoolgirls in London from stealing away to Syria to join ISIS, or young and impressionable Muslim boys from falling under the seductive spell of jihadist recruiters?

If we cannot openly and comfortably name the enemy which we face – not an entire religion, but certainly a very real and present strain of Islam – then how do we even begin to formulate policies which will meaningfully reduce this threat over time?

The answer is that we cannot. We can clamp down further on our precious civil liberties, bartering away even more of our freedoms in the hope of purchasing additional security (and letting the terrorists win, since they count as a victory anything which diminishes our liberal democratic way of life). We can ramp up the surveillance state and clamp down on freedom of speech to make it look like we are doing something purposeful, even though the costs of such draconian measures far exceed the benefits. But none of these measures will stop two radicalised guys and a truck from repeating the horrors of Nice in Camden Town or Edinburgh.

It is impossible to create the perfectly secure country, and the closer one tries to get to this ideal, greater and greater are the liberties which must be traded away in exchange. Therefore, the only way to stop more Nice attacks from happening is to approach the problem from the other end and seek to tackle the radical, fundamentalist Islamist extremism.

And this is the one thing which our leaders, in their tragic fear of giving offence, shamefully refuse to do.

 

Paris Terror Attacks - Eiffel Tower Dark - 2

Top Image: Guardian

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When Is The Islamic State Not The Islamic State?

Islamic State - ISIS - Islam - Daesh

Rather than tackle an intractable issue and mortal enemy, our superficial politicians are quibbling over the language we use in describing it

When is the Islamic State in Syria – ISIS – not the Islamic State in Syria?

Apparently the answer to this question is: since a couple of days ago, when the hive mind of lazy politician groupthink decided that we must bend and warp journalistic practice – and the English language itself – in order to make it clearer that the majority of us do not condone the activities of that brutal, backward-looking group of primitive fundamentalists.

My attention has been elsewhere lately – freshly returned from a relaxing and eventful trip to Greece but otherwise more focused on domestic than foreign affairs. So it was surprising to find my attention drawn back by the furious row between the government and the BBC over exactly how the public service broadcaster should refer to the nascent medieval kingdom seeking to establish itself in the middle east.

The Spectator is – quite rightly – having none of it:

‘Isis’ is an acronym of Islamic State in Syria. ‘Isil’ – an acronym of Islamic State in the Levant. Isil is the better translation of the group’s Arabic name al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa al-Sham – where ‘Sham’ represents greater Syria or ‘the Levant’ as we would say in English.

As for ‘Daesh’, it has the small propaganda advantage of reminding Arabic speakers of Daes (‘one who crushes something underfoot’) and Dahes (‘one who sows discord’). But beyond that childish word association it is no help at all, for ‘Daesh’ is just the Arabic abbreviation of al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa al-Sham – or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

All the euphemisms politicians demand we must use to avoid calling Islamic State ‘Islamic State’ therefore call Islamic State ‘Islamic State’. How can they not, for that is its name? And it is no more up to outsiders to change a group’s name than it is up to you to change the names of your acquaintances. Assuming the politicians know what they are doing, they must believe that many voters will not know what ‘Isil’ and ‘Isis’ stand for, or only Arabic speakers will understand the meaning of ‘Daesh’. In other words, they are relying on ignorance and hoping to foster ignorance too.

Never mind the obvious undesirability of government telling the state-owned broadcaster what to report and how to report it – thus proving the central argument against government ownership of the media. Of far more concern is the fact that politicians – specifically our current generation of uncharismatic, uninspiring, superficial leaders – seem to believe that expending time and energy arguing about what to call the Islamic State is more important than doing anything about ISIS in the real world.

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