The Canterbury Scene remembered

Earlier this month, Daevid Allen died at the age of 77. Even though (to my surprise) he got an obituary in the New York Times, his name will not have been widely known among Americans.

He was an Australian Beat poet, latter-day minstrel and co-founder of Soft Machine and Gong. Upon his arrival in England in the mid-60s, he helped give birth to what would later become known as the Canterbury Scene.

For centuries, Canterbury was known as a place of pilgrimage in South East England, but during the late ’60s and early ’70s the name began to signal something else: a new musical culture.

Like many forms of creativity this didn’t fit neatly inside a ready-made niche.

In the era of record stores, albums had to be racked somewhere and the Canterbury groups would usually get shoved under Progressive Rock, but what they really represented was a meeting place between rock, jazz, classical, avant-garde, and what had yet to be dubbed World music.

But the Canterbury Scene couldn’t exactly be defined in stylistic terms. It was more of a tribe of musicians engaged in fluid collaborations, forming bands which had a habit of gaining their widest recognition after they had already dissolved.

Inventive, dense, complex, eccentric, lyrical, classical, experimental, psychedelic, romantic — the Canterbury sound had all these qualities. And the musicians creating this sound tended to express a particular constellation of English values: non-conformist, whimsical, innovative and yet unpretentious.

For readers here who find my choices of music and even the fact that I post any music, strange, the Canterbury Scene is part of the explanation why — which is to say, while as a teenager my friends were listening to Led Zepplin, The Who, and Deep Purple, I was engrossed with the offbeat creations of the likes of Matching Mole, Gong, and Hatfield and the North.

Here, and for the next few days, is an introduction to the Canterbury scene and the music which — at least to my ear — remains as original and inspiring now as it was when it was recorded over 40 years ago.

Egg — ‘Enneagram’ (from The Civil Surface, 1974)

Gong – ‘Love is How U Make It’ (from Angel’s Egg, 1973)


Personal and public tragedies

“Ask not what disease the person has, but what person the disease has,” the Canadian physician William Osler would often say.

Although he is often described as the father of modern medicine, that particular lesson has not been deeply learned either by medical practitioners or the public at large.

Andreas Lubitz, the 27-year-old German pilot who is believed to have deliberately crashed a Germanwings Airbus A320 airliner in the French Alps, is now reported to have been suffering from depression.

Depression has thus been turned into a one-word explanation for what led to the catastrophic end of Flight 9525.

In the world of simplistic narratives in which we live, a lot of people will now imagine that anyone with depression has the potential to become a mass killer.

But the true story of what led a young man to end his own life and at the same time kill another 149 people, may never be known. It’s quite possible that his deadly impulse did not coalesce into a firm intention until he found himself alone in the cockpit.

William Saletan assumes the dubious role of a fatalistic suicide counselor when writing:

If a person is determined to kill himself, telling him to abstain isn’t enough. The least he can do — and perhaps the most he can do — is to spare the lives of others.

That’s a bit like talking someone down by imploring them not to jump off a building until passersby have cleared the sidewalk. It might sound like a reasonable request, yet it overlooks the tunnel vision of despair. It’s an attempt to appeal to a person’s sense that life is precious when that is the very sense that they have already lost.

In the aftermath of any catastrophic event, we always crave an explanation — a way of understanding what happened, and in this case, a way of becoming confident that something similar will not happen again.

Aircraft crews wear uniforms for a very good reason: we entrust ourselves to their safe care with the expectation that they follow something akin to military discipline in their allegiance to procedure. Uniformity in appearance helps reinforce the expectation of uniformity in behavior. That’s why no airline will ever introduce “casual Friday” where the flight and cabin crews can show up however they please. Even though we know each individual has their own personal life, as passengers we rely on their personal lives not intruding on their work.

Lubitz may have foreseen that his diagnosis was going to destroy his career and concluded that if he couldn’t work as a pilot — if he had to abandon his life’s dream — he had no reason to live. That might explain his suicidal intention, but it wouldn’t explain why he chose to end the lives of everyone around him.

To understand that choice, we might need to understand why he chose to become a pilot in the first place.

Since in piloting the emphasis is on technical proficiency, as passengers we tend not to be too concerned about the pilot’s people skills. Can he land the aircraft safely is all we care — and at least 95% of the time it will be he.

But flying a passenger aircraft doesn’t only require skill in its operation, it also requires a deep sense of responsibility. No doubt most pilots take on and carry that responsibility in an admirable way, but I have to wonder whether in an age of paranoia, the ability and perceived need to isolate the flight crew from the passengers has come at the expense of the human factor.

The flight crew need to be just as concerned about the welfare of the people on board as do the cabin crew and yet within the post 9/11 security constraints it’s common for pilots to get no more than a fleeting glimpse of their own passengers as they pass through the departure gate.

Within the prevailing security mindset, airlines are now being required to consider implementing a rule that many already apply: that whenever a pilot leaves the cockpit another crew member should stand in so that a single pilot is never left alone.

But there might be other procedural changes not directly related to security that could have reduced the risk of the Germanwings tragedy.

Flight crews could just as easily receive passengers and point them to their seats as does the cabin crew. If Andreas Lubitz had met and made eye contact with everyone on the aircraft in this way, he might not have chosen to end their lives — he might even have had second thoughts about ending his own.


The myth of the two-state solution

Israel declared its independence in 1948. Less than twenty years later it expanded its territorial control across the West Bank and Gaza (and Sinai).

What has subsequently come to be referred to as “The Occupation” has referred to the status quo which (with a few modifications) has endured for the overwhelming majority of Israel’s existence.

The Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, and the so-called “peace process” which followed, have merely provided political cover for the relentless expansion of Jewish settlement and Palestinian dispossession across the West Bank.

What right-wing Zionists refer to as Judea and Samaria is not an aspiration — it is the political reality of a state in which full democratic rights are granted to Jews but not Palestinians.

While the mantras of ending the occupation and dismantling the settlements have tirelessly been repeated, year after year, the settlements have grown.

Both the terms settlement and occupation, mask with seeming impermanence a reality that has been set in reinforced concrete.

Given that over the course of more than twenty years, no progress whatsoever has been made towards the implementation of a two-state solution, the fact that it has now been rejected by Benjamin Netanyahu is a non-event. Yet this is a non-event that is deeply upsetting to many American Jews.

It’s not that they believed that peace was just around the corner. On the contrary, the value of the two-state solution has never derived from expectations about the future. Instead, its value is based very much in the present.

For liberal Americans — Jewish and non-Jewish — the two-state solution ideologically sanitized Israel by ostensibly embodying the desire that the political aspirations of both Jews and Palestinians could be recognized. If this promise is taken away, liberals are deprived of a fiction that allowed them to avoid confronting the illiberal nature of the Jewish state.

Americans want to be able to say they support Israel and democracy and Israel is forcing them to choose between the two.

Noam Sheizaf provided a reality check for participants at the J Street conference in Washington DC this week, when he said:

In Israel, we’ve got to the point where arguing for a state for all its citizens — equal rights for everyone — is a form of ‘Arab nationalism’ that should be made illegal. While arguing for an ethnic state that gives privileges to one group over the other is ‘democracy’…

I am 40 and I only know one Israel — and that’s from the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea. And in which there live Palestinians and Jews, roughly the same size of populations — they’re totally mixed with each other. They’re mixed in the Galilee, they’re mixed along the coast, they’re mixed in the West Bank by now, they’re mixed in the Negev — everywhere Jews living next to Palestinians.

One group has everything — all the rights — the other one has privileges given to it according to a complicated system of citizenship and where they happen to live and where their grandparents were in ’48…

I think we need to start looking at this in civil rights issues, if that’s what we believe in — and that’s the kind of activism I’m looking for. Not redrawing maps in a way that will keep some people in and some people out so that we can call themself [a] democracy.

Sheizaf also took J Street to task for its failure to talk about Gaza:


Israel and Netanyahu: A racist prime minister can only stay in power with the support of racist voters

Allison Kaplan Sommer says that: “Israelis, whether they want to admit it or not, have spent a good part of the past year feeling afraid.”

She goes on to detail how Benjamin Netanyahu masterfully built his election campaign around the exploitation of that fear.

He systematically painted the main contenders vying for the premiership Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni as weak and ineffective, laughably so. He began by feminizing them and infantilizing them with mocking videos that portrayed them as gossiping girlfriends in a kitchen and misbehaving children in a preschool.

As the campaign wore on, he moved away from a comic approach and started making his charges more seriously. His rivals were naive dupes, he said, vulnerable to foreign pressure, and would leave Israel exposed to its enemies – while he positioned himself in contrast as a strong protector who can stand up to pressure no matter where it came from (even the White House!) and whatever he deems necessary to keep Israelis safe, no matter how brutal, immoral, or racist.

The derisive manner in which Netanyahu condescended to “Tzipi” and “Bougie” and “the left” when he spoke evoked the famous Jack Nicholson speech in “A Few Good Men” when, testifying as Col. Jessup, he smirks “Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom … My existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.”

At every juncture, when the going got tough for Netanyahu, appealing to fear was his go-to campaign strategy. Some might argue it was his entire campaign strategy. To those who understood this, it was clear in his showdown with President Obama that he would never submit to White House pressure to cancel his speech before Congress, no matter how hard Obama and the Democrats piled on the pressure.

The reason had nothing to do with the urgency of the issue of Iran or even Netanyahu’s desire to impress his electorate with the speech – but because backing down would utterly undercut the tough unbending image he was working to project to the electorate.

The ultimate proof of the effectiveness of his scare-mongering tactics – and his willingness to cross any line to implement them – was the now-infamous last-minute online video released well into Election Day, expressing fears based on factually-challenged claims: “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out.” He compared the need to vote for him to the emergency military reserve call-up notice: “Get out to vote, bring your friends and family – in order to close the gap between us and Labor. With your help, and with God’s help we’ll establish a nationalist government that will safeguard the State of Israel.”

In the video, Netanyahu puts out the call in the urgent tones of of a military commander planning strategy and giving out orders with a tone of urgency. He makes the pronouncement seated in front of a map of the Middle East, clearly designed to remind voters of the neighborhood in which they reside: Hamas to the south, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and now, ISIS just over the border with Syria.

It all worked brilliantly. Israelis went for the devil they know – they voted for an internationally unpopular bully rather than roll the dice on a man they feared might be too nice to keep them safe.

Whether one is an Israeli or not, Jewish or gentile, everyone understands what it means to be afraid. Fear is easy to exploit and so those whose fears are exploited are easy to view as victims.

From this perspective, Netanyahu, the bully, coerced Israelis and took advantage of their prevailing fears.

For Israel’s liberal supporters — especially in America — this way of viewing Netanyahu’s ability to retain his hold on power is essentially sympathetic. It provides room for loving Israel while despising its leader.

But Israel’s prime minister did not get re-elected simply by being a very effective fear-monger. What he did was wholeheartedly tap into the racism that lies at the core of Israelis’ fears.

Netanyahu did not snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by desperately resorting to racism. Racism was his trump card which he played with perfect timing, confident that it would have its desired effect.

Rather than letting the power of racism become blunted by being scattered among the small parties of the Right, Netanyahu successfully presented voting for Likud as the best way of holding back the Arab threat.

In America, for a politician, even at a minor local level, to make such a blatantly racist move would almost certainly destroy his career.

Even though racism still pervades American culture in many ways, it is no longer culturally acceptable. Even though a lot of the political opposition to Barack Obama has had racist undertones, racism rarely blatantly shows its face in contemporary America — at least among those who hope to win elections. Racism has to be concealed, but when exposed, is generally disavowed.

When Netanyahu warned about “Arab voters coming out in droves,” he was in fact reiterating the core presupposition upon which Zionism is founded: that non-Jews pose a threat to Jews and Jewish security depends on the protection of Jewish power.

Peter Beinart, one of Netanyahu’s harshest critics, describes Israel as “the one state in the world that has as its mission statement the protection of Jewish life.”

That is indeed true, but the implication is that without the protection of such a state, Jewish life is inevitably in jeopardy.

Yet even though the U.S. Constitution has no provisions that relate specifically to the protection of Jewish life, it’s hard to argue that Jews living here are any less safe than those living in Israel.

On the contrary, what protects Jewish life and the lives of every other minority more than anything else is not any form of nationalism, but instead it is democracy.

In a democracy, citizens share equal rights. In Israel they do not.


How to save jobs and destroy the planet

If I was invested with the powers of a dictator, I’d be especially ruthless in one particular way: I’d show no mercy to those guilty of crimes against language.

No, I wouldn’t be another Bryan Henderson — the Wikipedia editor who has a vendetta against the phrase “comprised of.”

The guilty, in my book, are not those who fail to bow in obeisance to the mythical gods of grammar. What I view as an inexcusable abuse of language is to regard it as nothing more than a tool of deception.

The people who specialize in this corrupt art, work in advertising, public relations, and politics, and they create things like this:

The American Progressive Bag Alliance.

Plastic bags — fluttering down windswept streets, getting caught in branches, blocking drains, choking animals, poisoning groundwater, and colonizing oceans — might seem to have a life of their own. Apparently they are now also demanding political rights and claim they are progressive.

It turns out, however, that APBA is not an alliance of bags, but instead (predictably) it represents the transnational corporate power and interests of the plastics industry:

  • Advance Polybag, Inc. – bag manufacturer
  • The Dow Chemical Company – resin maker
  • ExxonMobil Corporation – HDPE resin maker
  • Hilex Poly Co., LLC. – bag manufacturer, co-founder
  • Inteplast – bag manufacturer
  • NOVA Chemicals, Inc. – polyethylene manufacturer
  • Superbag Corporation – bag manufacturer
  • Total Petrochemicals USA – polyethylene manufacture
  • Unistar Plastics, LLC – bag manufacturer

I imagine that those came up with the name American Progressive Bag Alliance, have to drug themselves to sleep — and probably drug themselves at work, too. Either that, or through a self-administered lobotomization which cuts out principles for the sake of career, the conscience they were born with, withered away a long time ago.

If, like me, you’ve never heard of this alliance before, Bill Raden explains what they have done:

Just when Californians were getting used to the idea of living without getting free, single-use grocery bags at the supermarket checkout, Secretary of State Alex Padilla recently announced that a referendum effort aimed at rescinding the plastic bag ban signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in September had qualified for the 2016 ballot. Pending the results of next year’s vote, the announcement effectively suspends the July 1 implementation of the measure, Senate Bill 270, which would have been the first statewide bag ban in the nation. (Citywide bans, such as those passed in Los Angeles and San Francisco, will remain in place.)

Padilla’s office says that a random sampling found that the measure’s supporters collected at least 555,236 valid signatures — more than the 504,706 needed. Ironically, Padilla had been a key force behind the passage of SB 270, when he was in the State Senate.

Californians currently use about 11 billion disposable plastic shopping bags annually with a market value that the plastic bag industry estimates at between $100 million to $150 million. Those sales will now be secure for an additional 15 months.

The effort to put the so-called “people’s veto” onto the ballot was mounted by the American Progressive Bag Alliance, the same industry consortium that bitterly fought passage of the ban.


ISIS’s Islamic credentials still in dispute

The latest chapter in the backlash provoked by the Atlantic’s controversial article, “What ISIS really wants,” comes from Mehdi Hasan in a 5,000-word piece for the New Statesman.

The rise of Isis in Iraq and Syria has been a disaster for the public image of Islam – and a boon for the Islamophobia industry. Here, after all, is a group that calls itself Islamic State; that claims the support of Islamic texts to justify its medieval punishments, from the stoning of adulterers to the amputation of the hands of thieves; and that has a leader with a PhD in Islamic studies who declares himself to be a “caliph”, or ruler over all Muslims, and has even renamed himself in honour of the first Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr.

The consequences are, perhaps, as expected. In September 2014, a Zogby poll found that only 27 per cent of Americans had a favourable view of Islam – down from 35 per cent in 2010. By February 2015, more than a quarter of Americans (27 per cent) were telling the pollsters LifeWay Research that they believed that life under Isis rule “gives a true indication of what an Islamic society looks like”.

Yet what is much more worrying is that it isn’t just ill-informed, ignorant or bigoted members of the public who take such a view. “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic,” wrote Wood in his widely read 10,000-word cover report (“What Isis really wants”) in the March issue of Atlantic, in which he argued, “The religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”

Hasan responds by saying we need to ask: “is Isis a recognisably ‘Islamic’ movement? Are Isis recruits motivated by religious fervour and faith?”

The answers he provides to these questions come in a form reminiscent of nineteenth century ethnography.

There is no need for us to understand the natives (those being the members of ISIS) by their own accounts — given the notorious duplicity of this murderous tribe, such accounts could hardly be relied upon. It is instead sufficient and wholly appropriate to look at ISIS through the eyes of observers — even observers who profess no direct knowledge of the organization.

Thus, the first piece of evidence of the lack of religiosity of ISIS comes from a former hostage, Didier François, who noted that hostages were not provided with a Quran.

Which demonstrates what? If, on the contrary, ISIS had been schooling its hostages in Islam, would this, for Hasan, buttress the assertion that the group is indeed very Islam? I doubt it.

Another field account Hasan offers comes from an American journalist:

In a recent despatch from Zarqa in Jordan, birthplace of the late AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and “one of the country’s most notorious hotbeds of Islamic radicalism”, Foreign Policy magazine’s David Kenner sat down with a group of young, male Isis supporters.

“None of them appeared to be particularly religious,” Kenner noted. “Not once did the conversation turn to matters of faith, and none budged from their seats when the call to prayer sounded. They appeared driven by anger at humiliations big and small – from the police officers who treated them like criminals outside their homes to the massacres of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq – rather than by a detailed exegesis of religious texts.”

As Hasan and others frequently note, there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. If one was to randomly listen in on conversations between groups of Muslims and also observe how often they pray, would this be a reliable way of determining who should or should not be described as very Islamic?

For good reasons, most non-Muslims would avoid referring to Muslims as people who call themselves Muslim, because in the religiously diverse world in which we live, the business of determining who does or does not authentically represent their own faith is an intra-faith issue.

Are Jehovah’s Witnesses genuinely Christian? Are Hasidic Jews more Jewish than secular Jewish Zionists?

These are questions best left to be argued about and between those who ascribe themselves these identities, because they are inherently subjective issues.

To call ISIS very Islamic seems to me much less a statement about Islam than it is a retort to those who assert that ISIS’s Islamic trappings are simply a facade.


Paradoxically there is often a secular slant to arguments about who does or does not legitimately represent any particular faith and this comes through the concept of religious fanaticism.

In societies where religion is generally viewed as a private matter, the religious fanatic is the person who is seen as taking their religion too seriously. This is a secular perception.

Mainstream religions tend to have greater tolerance for non-believers, those of weak faith, and the less devout. Indeed, the capacity for any religion to enlarge itself depends to some degree on its ability to be inclusive by lowering the bars to membership.

Those groups that get marginalized and dubbed fanatical, tend to be the ones who are also preoccupied with questions about religious purity, strict adherence to scripture and narrowly defined authenticity.

As understandable as it is that the vast majority of Muslims want to disavow ISIS and assert that it does not in any way represent Islam, denunciations of the literal application of Sharia law by others are heard much less frequently.

When an Iranian court implemented an order that a convict have one of his eyes gouged out last week, it would be very hard to argue that this was an un-Islamic implementation of law. On the contrary, it could reasonably be described as very Islamic — even if this approach to Sharia disturbs many Muslims.

Saudi Arabia’s delegation to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last week defended the state’s escalating use of the death penalty by saying it is authorized under Sharia law. Saudi Arabia is frequently criticized for its appalling human rights record, but rarely is it accused of being un-Islamic.

Inside every religion there are power struggles and contested claims about who holds the most legitimate authority. But just as is the case in so many other facets of life, these are ultimately mundane expressions of egotism.

Flag-wavers of all descriptions see their flags (be they national or religious) as emblems of power a portion of which they are claiming as their own.

Hasan concludes:

To claim that Isis is Islamic is egregiously inaccurate and empirically unsustainable, not to mention insulting to the 1.6 billion non-violent adherents of Islam across the planet. Above all else, it is dangerous and self-defeating, as it provides Baghdadi and his minions with the propaganda prize and recruiting tool that they most crave.

He started out by asking whether ISIS recruits are motivated by religious fervour and faith and proceeded to demonstrate that they are not.

But if that’s really the case, how could claiming ISIS is Islamic actually serve as a recruiting tool?

Religious veneration always invokes a separation between the sacred and the adherent. The pristine religion is somehow imagined to exist independent from its followers, yet the fact is that religions are their adherents.

Islam is Muslims. Judaism is Jews. Christianity is Christians. Buddhism is Buddhists.

Religions come into existence and also die and it’s easy to tell when a religion has died. Its temples and sacred texts might survive and yet it has no human form.

ISIS is Islamic by a measure that probably isn’t worth disputing, but those who argue that it is not Islamic seem as deluded as those who view it as the epitome of Islam.


Why American public opinion is often not worth measuring

Five years ago, a CNN opinion poll of adult Americans asked:

Do you think Iran currently has nuclear weapons, or not?

71% of the respondents answered “Yes.” Only 3% expressed no opinion, which is to say, acknowledged that they didn’t know.

In the intervening period, as news of ongoing negotiations between Iran and the U.S. (and the rest of the P5+1) has occasionally captured the headlines, I guess a number of those who believed that Iran already has nuclear weapons have since deduced that there would be no negotiations taking place if indeed Iran was already nuclear armed.

The results of a poll released earlier this month indicated that a majority of Americans (Democrats, Republicans, and Independents) now “support an agreement that would limit Iran’s enrichment capacity and impose additional intrusive inspections in exchange for the lifting of some sanctions.”

And yet, another recent poll shows that an even larger majority of Americans believe a nuclear deal with Iran would make little difference in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Perhaps that’s because there are still a lot of Americans who believe Iran already possesses nuclear weapons.

As much as anything, the information opinion polls gather says as much about the questions as the answers.

If I was a pollster, I’d be tempted to ask questions like this:

Have you tried the new energy drink, P5+1?

Do you think it tastes better than P5?

I’d also present a questionnaire to all members of Congress, asking:

What does the “P” in P5+1 refer to?
a) Peerless
b) Protestant
c) Permanent
d) Piquant
e) Don’t know

And who is the 1?
a) Israel
b) North Korea
c) Germany
d) United States
e) Don’t know

But seriously, the professional pollsters could provide a valuable public service if they simply prefaced every attempt to gather public opinion by underlining the value of answering, “don’t know,” when that’s really the truth.

With some gentle coaxing, we might find that Americans are not as delusional as they often appear. They’re simply afraid of revealing how little they know.

If people were less embarrassed about intentionally exposing their ignorance, then polls might more than anything else highlight the degree to the United States is a dysfunctional democracy in which the media, political, and educational systems are failing to sustain an informed citizenry.


The mythical secular civilization promoted by evangelical atheists

John Gray writes: Considering the alternatives that are on offer, liberal societies are well worth defending. But there is no reason for thinking these societies are the beginning of a species-wide secular civilisation of the kind of which evangelical atheists dream.

In ancient Greece and Rome, religion was not separate from the rest of human activity. Christianity was less tolerant than these pagan societies, but without it the secular societies of modern times would hardly have been possible. By adopting the distinction between what is owed to Caesar and what to God, Paul and Augustine – who turned the teaching of Jesus into a universal creed – opened the way for societies in which religion was no longer coextensive with life. Secular regimes come in many shapes, some liberal, others tyrannical. Some aim for a separation of church and state as in the US and France, while others – such as the Ataturkist regime that until recently ruled in Turkey – assert state control over religion. Whatever its form, a secular state is no guarantee of a secular culture. Britain has an established church, but despite that fact – or more likely because of it – religion has a smaller role in politics than in America and is less publicly divisive than it is in France.

There is no sign anywhere of religion fading away, but by no means all atheists have thought the disappearance of religion possible or desirable. Some of the most prominent – including the early 19th-century poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, the Austro-Hungarian philosopher and novelist Fritz Mauthner (who published a four-volume history of atheism in the early 1920s) and Sigmund Freud, to name a few – were all atheists who accepted the human value of religion. One thing these atheists had in common was a refreshing indifference to questions of belief. Mauthner – who is remembered today chiefly because of a dismissive one-line mention in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus – suggested that belief and unbelief were both expressions of a superstitious faith in language. For him, “humanity” was an apparition which melts away along with the departing Deity. Atheism was an experiment in living without taking human concepts as realities. Intriguingly, Mauthner saw parallels between this radical atheism and the tradition of negative theology in which nothing can be affirmed of God, and described the heretical medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart as being an atheist in this sense.

Above all, these unevangelical atheists accepted that religion is definitively human. Though not all human beings may attach great importance to them, every society contains practices that are recognisably religious. Why should religion be universal in this way? For atheist missionaries this is a decidedly awkward question. Invariably they claim to be followers of Darwin. Yet they never ask what evolutionary function this species-wide phenomenon serves. There is an irresolvable contradiction between viewing religion naturalistically – as a human adaptation to living in the world – and condemning it as a tissue of error and illusion. What if the upshot of scientific inquiry is that a need for illusion is built into in the human mind? If religions are natural for humans and give value to their lives, why spend your life trying to persuade others to give them up?

The answer that will be given is that religion is implicated in many human evils. Of course this is true. Among other things, Christianity brought with it a type of sexual repression unknown in pagan times. Other religions have their own distinctive flaws. But the fault is not with religion, any more than science is to blame for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or medicine and psychology for the refinement of techniques of torture. The fault is in the intractable human animal. Like religion at its worst, contemporary atheism feeds the fantasy that human life can be remade by a conversion experience – in this case, conversion to unbelief. [Continue reading…]

Conversion can be thought of as an example of the miracle of neuroplasticity: that beliefs, firmly held, can in the right circumstances, suddenly be upturned such that the world thereafter is perceived in a radically different way.

That transition is usually described in terms of a bridge that leads from weak faith, no faith, or false faith, to conviction, but as Gray points out, that bridge could also be imagined to be traversable in the opposite direction.

The mistake that all evangelicals make (be they religious evangelicals or new atheists) is to imagine that they have the right and ability to march others across this bridge.

Real conversion, by its nature, cannot be coercive, since it entails some kind of discovery and no one discovers anything under pressure from others.

In a world that remains predominantly religious, the new atheists have ostensibly embarked on a mission of staggering proportions in their effort to purge humanity of its unreasonable superstitions.

This could be viewed as a heroically ambitious undertaking, but there seem to be plenty of reasons not to see it that way.

If the new atheists genuinely hope to persuade religious believers to see the error of their ways, how can they make any progress if they start out by viewing their prospective converts with contempt?

When was it ever the first step in a genuine process of persuasion, to start with the assumption that the person you are addressing is a fool?

As much as the new atheists may appear to be possessed by evangelical fervor, they’re appetite to condemn religion sometimes mirrors the religious fanaticism that condemns apostates.

“Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them,” writes Sam Harris in apparent agreement with the leaders of ISIS. Their only disagreement is over which propositions warrant a death sentence.

Still, much as the new atheists are often guilty of evangelical errors, I seriously doubt that their mission truly is to mount a challenge against the reign of religion.

On the contrary, I think their mission seems to have less to do with changing the world than it has with preaching to the converted. It’s about selling books, going on speaking tours, appearing on TV, amassing followers on Twitter, and doing everything else it takes to carve out a profitable cultural niche.

Who would have thought that it’s possible to pursue a career as a professional atheist? Sam Harris has, and I’m sure he has been rewarded handsomely and his success will continue, irrespective of the fate of religion.


SNL skit targets American militarism, Toyota — and ISIS?

When an American man reaches that juncture in life where he’s ready to buy a Toyota Camry, he can be confident he’s now living the American dream: a reliable car, a house in the suburbs and then the final act that will prove his boldness and manhood — he tearfully ships off his teenage daughter to join the U.S. Army.

I didn’t watch the Super Bowl, so I didn’t see this ad until today. My reaction to Toyota’s message: WTF?

It seems like the writers for Saturday Night Live also took exception to Toyota’s message and thought that it was worth a parody — a parody which a segment of SNL’s audience thought was in bad taste.

As much as some viewers are applauding SNL for being so bold as to take on ISIS, I think that what the show really did was use ISIS to give themselves some cover while taking an indirect punch at U.S. militarism and the Americanist dogma that military service is the closest thing to saintliness.

Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for Toyota to seize the marketing opportunity that has been staring them in the face for decades: to launch The Technical — a four-wheel drive pickup truck with a factory-installed gun-mount, and “fully loaded” with all the features that an organization like ISIS needs for desert warfare.

But joking aside, when the military history of the 21st century gets written, among the tools of warfare of preeminent importance, the Toyota pickup truck is probably going to rank higher than the drone. And it’s not just any Toyota truck; the truck of choice is the Hilux.

“The Toyota Hilux is everywhere,” says Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger and now a fellow of the Center for a New American Security. “It’s the vehicular equivalent of the AK-47. It’s ubiquitous to insurgent warfare. And actually, recently, also counterinsurgent warfare. It kicks the hell out of the Humvee.”

Whether you’re an American dad, or you’re fighting for ISIS, there’s only #OneBoldChoice: Toyota.

Now if there’s any way Toyota could trick ISIS to trade in their Hiluxes for the Toyota Isis minivan — that’s right, Toyota makes an “Isis” — there’s no question the militant group could swiftly be defeated.


ISIS may not be a global threat, but neither is it a problem with a ready solution

The New York Times reports: The reports are like something out of a distant era of ancient conquests: entire villages emptied, with hundreds taken prisoner, others kept as slaves; the destruction of irreplaceable works of art; a tax on religious minorities, payable in gold.

A rampage reminiscent of Tamerlane or Genghis Khan, perhaps, but in reality, according to reports by residents, activist groups and the assailants themselves, a description of the modus operandi of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate this week. The militants have prosecuted a relentless campaign in Iraq and Syria against what have historically been religiously and ethnically diverse areas with traces of civilizations dating to ancient Mesopotamia.

The latest to face the militants’ onslaught are the Assyrian Christians of northeastern Syria, one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, some speaking a modern version of Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

Assyrian leaders have counted 287 people taken captive, including 30 children and several dozen women, along with civilian men and fighters from Christian militias, said Dawoud Dawoud, an Assyrian political activist who had just toured the area, in the vicinity of the Syrian city of Qamishli. Thirty villages had been emptied, he said. [Continue reading…]

In the aftermath of the war in Iraq, some Americans, perceiving echoes of the government-fueled national hysteria that followed 9/11, now regard the attention being given to ISIS as disproportionate to the size of the threat.

A few days ago, one commentator described ISIS as: “A nasty nuisance, which has killed thousands in the Middle East, but a nuisance nonetheless.”

If one subscribes to the Steven Pinker view of the world, then how bad the current situation is, just comes down to numbers.

Fewer people have been killed by ISIS than by barrel bombs dropped by the Assad regime in Syria, or were killed during the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The threat to humanity posed by climate change, far exceeds all other global threats, including what can arguably be called a minor threat from ISIS.

But if an issue is defined as not rising above the threshold of being a nuisance, solely based on numbers, then since between 1882 and 1968 only 3,446 blacks were lynched in America, should the racial violence occurring during that chapter in this country’s history be described as having been no more than a nasty nuisance?

The very fact that we view lynching as emblematic of a chapter in history, illustrates the fact that significance can never be reduced to numbers.

In France, the death toll from the Charlie Hebdo shootings was little more than the average number of fatalities that occur every day on France’s roads.

Since statistically, the French face little more risk from terrorism than they face from traffic accidents, does that mean the French government should devote the same amount of time and resources to addressing road safety as they do to tackling terrorism?

Again, this doesn’t just come down to numbers. For one thing, there’s no reason to view road safety as a problem that risks escalating. Neither is there reason to imagine that individuals or groups of people have a specific interest in making the roads more dangerous. Road safety is an issue that gains ongoing and appropriate attention from every relevant constituency from central government to local government, town planners to school teachers, and vehicle manufacturers to medics.

The fact that it is the type of issue that generally gets effectively addressed, is the very reason it is largely ignored in political and popular discourse.

Conversely, while it’s easy to say that ISIS presents a problem that needs “to be dealt with,” the very fact that it remains unclear what mechanisms might be effective in tackling this problem, is one of the main reasons ISIS continues to grab the headlines.

ISIS might not represent an unstoppable force and yet its campaign of violence has proved very difficult to contain.

Politicians glibly talk about the strategy for defeating ISIS, yet no one has made a convincing case that such a strategy has been found.

Some observers believe that each time another ISIS headline appears, the group has simply been served up the attention it craves, but to dismiss this as a group of attention-seekers is to gravely misjudge ISIS’s ambitions.

A year ago, before ISIS had become a household name but after it taken over Fallujah, President Obama wanted to downplay its significance in what became an infamous dismissal — he said they were just “a jayvee team.”

In those early months of 2014, ISIS used America’s inattention to its full advantage.

Whether showered with or starved of attention, ISIS pursues its goals because they have less concern about how they are perceived by Americans, or for that matter the rest of the world, than we might imagine.

The issue now is less about the quantity of attention ISIS garners that it is about the quality of that attention.

When viewed through the paradigm of the war on terrorism, it’s natural and appropriate to point to that neocon project’s manifold failures. We might also see this as the latest manifestation in a problem that cannot wholly be solved. In other words, that we need to learn how to live with what can be regarded as a manageable amount of terrorism.

But maybe we are being distracted by the category of terrorism itself.

In spite of the fact that ISIS has engaged in what are generally viewed as some of the most grotesque acts of terrorism ever carried out, it differs from all other terrorist groups in at least two fundamental ways:

  • It has spawned a mass movement, and
  • It has captured and now governs large tracts of territory.

While there was recent furious debate about whether ISIS should be called Islamic, there has been little discussion about its claim to have created a state.

That claim is treated as too preposterous as to merit consideration — the so-called Islamic State is surely destined to implode.

And yet that hasn’t happened and it isn’t about to happen. Neither is this a state that stands any chance of being recognized by any other, but nor does it seek such recognition. On the contrary, the recognition it seeks is from all those who reject the legitimacy of nation states — and this constituency is large and growing.


ISIS ‘Jihadi John’ named as Mohammed Emwazi, portrayed as victim of UK counter-terrorism policies

British aid worker, Alan Henning, and his executioner, alleged to be British jihadist, Mohammed Emwazi.

British aid worker, Alan Henning, and his executioner, alleged to be British jihadist, Mohammed Emwazi.

The Washington Post reports: The world knows him as “Jihadi John,” the masked man with a British accent who has beheaded several hostages held by the Islamic State and who taunts audiences in videos circulated widely online.

But his real name, according to friends and others familiar with his case, is Mohammed Emwazi, a Briton from a well-to-do family who grew up in West London and graduated from college with a degree in computer programming. He is believed to have traveled to Syria around 2012 and to have later joined the Islamic State, the group whose barbarity he has come to symbolize.

“I have no doubt that Mohammed is Jihadi John,” said one of Emwazi’s close friends who identified him in an interview with The Washington Post. “He was like a brother to me. . . . I am sure it is him.”

A representative of a British human rights group who had been in contact with Emwazi before he left for Syria also said he believed Emwazi was Jihadi John, a moniker given to him by some of the hostages he once held.

“There was an extremely strong resemblance,” Asim Qureshi, research director at the rights group, CAGE, said after watching one of the videos. “This is making me feel fairly certain that this is the same person.” [Continue reading…]

Qureshi, in a statement on the CAGE website, portrays Emwazi as a victim of British counter-terrorism policies:

This case should trigger thinking about British domestic and foreign policy. What risk assessments, if any, have been made about British counter-terrorism policy and the key part it plays in radicalising individuals? How have the security services been allowed to get away with abusing British citizens without redress? Why are the long-standing grievances over Western interventions in the Muslim world been ignored?

Propagandists have a habit of becoming the most devout believers in their own narrative, but I think it requires a particularly distorted mindset to portray Emwazi, given his alleged actions, as a victim.

In a press conference today, Qureshi described Emwazi as a “kind” and “gentle” young man.

In a video released today, Qureshi says: “The questions shouldn’t be about Jihadi John but they should be about what role our security services have played in alienating people in this society and turning them away from being able to find solutions to the problems they have.”

Moazzam Begg, CAGE’s director of outreach and a former detainee at Guantánamo, can also reasonably argue that he has been a victim of Britain’s counter-terrorism policy and what some see as its over-zealous security services.

Given Qureshi’s reasoning, are we to imagine that Begg or anyone else finding themselves in a similar position might be just as likely to follow in Emwazi’s footsteps and become another of ISIS’s executioners?

In fact, Begg has no illusions about ISIS: “You have no idea how dangerous these people are,” he wrote on Facebook in early 2014.

He also wrote:

“I saw muhajireen (foreigners), locked in cages, by Allah worse, than my Guantanamo cell.

“They beat people to make them confess…just like the Arab regimes, there is no difference.

“I have been to many places, Bosnia, Afghan… but never seen this kind of fitnah [turmoil] and such dangerous extremism and readiness for takfeer [excommunication].

“Syrians on the ground have started to hate foreigners because of them.

“ISIS have even detained and killed aid workers…brothers from UK who have taken convoys [have] been looted by ISIS, guns shoved in faces of brothers who have crossed Europe to bring aid.

“And what’s the basis of detaining the non-Muslim aid worker [Alan Henning] who came in as a guest of Muslims, under their protection? They’ve probably murdered him too, just like many Muslims they’ve done that to.”

The world is full of people who for multitudes of justifiable reasons regard themselves as victims, yet this doesn’t absolve them of responsibility for their own actions.

The Guardian adds: “Jihadi John” is one of a trio of Britons who held hostage Spanish, French, Danish, British and US nationals. The hostages were captured in northern Syria, some in Idlib province, others in Aleppo and a third group in and around Raqqa province, which has since become the main Syrian stronghold of Isis.

The jihadi cell that spawned Isis was initially strong in Idlib province, having taken root there in the summer of 2012. From there it spread to Aleppo, where hostages that had been captured at that point were held in one of two locations – under the eye hospital in the centre of the city or in a factory deep in an industrial zone on its northern outskirts.

By February last year, all the hostages, including Briton John Cantlie, who is one of two remaining western hostages, were moved to Raqqa.

It was in Raqqa that the hostages first became aware of the status that Emwazi had developed among Isis. One former hostage described him as “cold, sadistic and merciless”.


The danger in denying that ISIS is Islamic

Is ISIS Islamic? Indeed, is it — as The Atlantic claims — very Islamic?

Strangely, these questions have been treated by many commentators in the West as questions about the nature of Islam rather than questions about the nature of ISIS.

Thus, multiple arguments have been presented to show why ISIS should not be regarded as an authentic expression of Islam — arguments which do a better job of educating non-Muslims about Islam than they do in providing much if any insight into ISIS.

Understandably, many Muslims, appalled by ISIS’s actions, naturally want to assert vigorously that ISIS does not represent Islam and in that sense should not be called Islamic. Fine.

But once one moves beyond the headlines about the atrocities committed by ISIS and beyond the intra-Islamic discourse on the religion’s true nature, it soon becomes clear why the group should indeed be described as being Islamic.

That observation need not be treated as a slur on Islam or a condemnation of Muslims, but seen simply for what it is: a characterization of the religious foundation upon which ISIS rests, in its conception, expression, and goals.

To claim that ISIS is Islamic, is not to claim that it is “an inevitable product of Islam,” or that it reveals the true nature of Islam.

To understand why in objective terms without making qualitative judgements, ISIS can very reasonably be described as Islamic, consider the following report by Ali Hashem. (Based in Beirut, he is a columnist for Al-Monitor who also reports for Al Mayadeen, and has previously reported for Al Jazeera, the BBC, and numerous Arab newspapers.)

When the average Islamic State (IS) member is asked why he is fighting, he typically responds, “So that Sharia prevails and Islam’s banner stays high.”

Marwan Shehade, an Islamic scholar and expert on jihadist groups, told Al-Monitor, “There’s no doubt the organization is built on three main elements: the Sharia, the military might and media. Their main slogan is derived from Ibn Taymiyyah’s famous saying, ‘The foundation of this religion is a book that guides and a sword that supports.’ By ‘a book’ they mean the Quran and religion.”

Despite the debate over whether IS represents Islam and what “true Islam” is, Islamic movements, sects and scholars perceive IS as truly believing it is enforcing the rule of Allah according to the Quran and the Hadith under the guidance of the organization’s Sharia Council, probably the group’s most vital body. The council’s responsibilities include overseeing the speeches of the self-declared Caliph Ibrahim (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) and those under him, dictating punishments, preaching, mediating, monitoring the group’s media, ideologically training new recruits and advising the caliph on how to deal with hostages when it is decided to execute them.

Underlining the central decision-making role of the Sharia Council, Hashem goes on to quote a former ISIS mufti he spoke to in Iraq in January, who told him: “There’s nothing that is decided without the Sharia Council’s approval.”

The average American may not know much about Islam, but by this point most have heard the term caliphate and know that it refers to a kind of Islamic state.

They also know the term Sharia but typically have a distorted understanding of what this means and easily succumb to irrational fears about its implementation.

The effect of hearing President Obama insist that ISIS is not Islamic is to make many Americans believe that the commander-in-chief is in a state of denial. They question whether he really understands who the U.S. is fighting against in its war on ISIS.

Worse, denying that ISIS is Islamic, has the perverse effect of empowering Islamophobes by making them sound like realists — the only people willing to speak the truth about ISIS.

If the only people in America willing to say that ISIS is Islamic are also people who make a radically different claim — that ISIS reveals the real nature of Islam — then Islamophobes will dominate popular discourse on ISIS.


Facing ISIS

There are an estimated 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. If one knows nothing else about Islam, that number alone provides sufficient reason to understand why there is no intrinsic relationship between Islam and terrorism. If Islam did indeed breed terrorists, how could there be so many Muslims and so few terrorists?

To view ISIS as revealing the true nature of Islam makes no more sense than believing that a small fundamentalist sect might define Christianity.

Fundamentalists of all stripes see themselves as the standard bearers of “true” religion in a wider context which, by definition, they view as corrupt. Pure religion only needs to be promoted where impure religion supposedly runs rampant.

As soon as we enter into debates about true or false Islam, good or bad Muslims, we are granting ISIS one of its key claims: that Muslims need to defend Islam by policing who does or does not have the right to call themselves a Muslim.

Both ethically and practically, it should be sufficient to recognize that anyone who identifies themselves as a Muslim, is a Muslim — no litmus test required.

In the following interview, Bernard Haykel addresses the question of whether ISIS is truly Islamic.

In Washington, conceding the fact that ISIS probably can’t be bombed out of existence, there is much talk nowadays about the need to challenge the group’s ideology.

Whoever came up with the slogan, “think again, turn away,” must have been a graduate of the Nancy Reagan school of psychology.

Just say no to terrorism.

Right! That’s sure to work — just like a program to pacify violent urban ghetto gang members by recruiting them to the Boy Scouts of America.

It should be axiomatic that in the art of persuasion you will never make a connection with your target audience if you treat them like vulnerable fools, susceptible to being led astray.

Such an approach is bound to be ineffective and likely rests on a false premise: that ones adversary is engaged in willful deception.

The threat from ISIS derives less from deception than it does from the fact that its leaders actually believe what they are saying.

In his closing address at the White House’s Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, President Obama yesterday referred to the “false promises of extremism.” In using that phrase, he echoed a widely held belief that the leaders of extremist organizations do not genuinely believe in the ideologies they promote — that their intent is to dupe naive recruits.

This is all part of the prevailing narrative that emphasizes the importance of de-legitimizing terrorism. In the same vain, ISIS is described as having perverted Islam, for which reason it should not be called Islamic.

This is a wrong-headed approach because it disregards the foundation of radicalization: the rejection of what are perceived as inauthentic expressions of religion, corrupt political systems, and failed societies.

The radical believes he is tapping into the pure root of something that has in its wider manifestations lost its authenticity. Those who don’t share that perception are themselves seen as having no legitimacy and no capacity to distinguish between authenticity and inauthencity.

When an American president, attempts to engage in PR on behalf of the global Muslim community, those Muslims with whom ISIS’s message resonates, will most likely respond to Obama’s words with howls of scorn.

In Congress last week, as the New York Times reported, there was a rare note of realism from an unlikely source who provided a reality check on the ability of the U.S. government to challenge ISIS ideologically.

“Unfortunately, as we all know, the government is probably not the best platform to try to communicate with the set of actors who are potentially vulnerable to this kind of propaganda and this kind of recruitment,” Nicholas Rasmussen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Senate Intelligence Committee last week.

“We try to find ways to stimulate this kind of counternarrative, this kind of countermessaging, without having a U.S. government hand in it,” Mr. Rasmussen continued. “People who are attracted to this don’t go to the government for their guidance on what to do, not the U.S. government and certainly not their governments in the Middle East.”

Neither do they go to their parents, or their imams, or other community leaders.

Obama suggested, among other things, that we need to: “lift up the voices of those who know the hypocrisy of groups like ISIL firsthand, including former extremists.”

That could be useful, but I wouldn’t overestimate the power of such voices. The disaffected have a tendency of being perceived as dropouts — people who didn’t have what it takes, whose commitment wasn’t deep enough, and whose fears undermined their faith.

What would cut the ground from under the extremists’ feet is not a counter-narrative that deligitimizes their claims, but instead a vision that is even more radical than the one ISIS offers.

Obama said:

When governments oppress their people, deny human rights, stifle dissent, or marginalize ethnic and religious groups, or favor certain religious groups over others, it sows the seeds of extremism and violence. It makes those communities more vulnerable to recruitment. Terrorist groups claim that change can only come through violence. And if peaceful change is impossible, that plays into extremist propaganda.

So the essential ingredient to real and lasting stability and progress is not less democracy; it’s more democracy. It’s institutions that uphold the rule of law and apply justice equally. It’s security forces and police that respect human rights and treat people with dignity. It’s free speech and strong civil societies where people can organize and assemble and advocate for peaceful change. It’s freedom of religion where all people can practice their faith without fear and intimidation. All of this is part of countering violent extremism.

The trouble is, these are all observations that have been made many times before, and especially coming from Obama’s lips they sound like nothing more than a wish-list.

For decades, the United States has consistently undermined democracy in the Middle East. Even after the Arab Spring erupted, Obama was only halfhearted in his support for grassroots democracy movements.

The United States does not have it in its power to deliver democracy to the region. What it could do is set expiration dates on the support it provides to its many corrupt allies.

Ultimately it is the choice of these governments to either continue concerning themselves exclusively with their own survival, or to collectively construct a new Middle East in which its people matter more than its rulers.

Right now, the only choices on offer are between two forms of managed chaos. On one side the institutionalized violence of authoritarian and corrupt rulers and on the other the savagery of ISIS.

Neither side has a vision of the future in which the dignity and respect that ordinary people deserve is even being offered.


Four years after the Libyan revolution

On February 23, 2011, CNN’s Ben Wedeman gave this report from a rally in Benghazi:

Some of us are suckers for these kinds of expression of “people power,” but for Glenn Greenwald and other prescient anti-interventionists, such scenes of joy must have been deeply depressing.

How could the Libyans (and those of us who supported their revolution) be so foolish as to not understand that they were hoping for too much if they imagined they might be entitled to the peace and freedom we in the West take for granted?

Less than a month later, as Gaddafi’s forces advanced on Benghazi, its residents warned of an impending bloodbath and appealed for international intervention. Their call was answered by NATO.

But just over two years later, Alan Kuperman, after gazing into his special crystal ball that reveals alternative futures, confidently asserted that “there was virtually no risk of such an outcome” — contrary to its residents fears, Benghazi was never really in danger, said the Texas-based scholar.

Again we were reminded of how ill-equipped ordinary Libyans are to recognize their own interests.

Some observers might think it’s hard to be sure what would have happened to Libya had NATO not intervened. Prophet Kuperman suffers no such doubts:

The biggest misconception about NATO’s intervention is that it saved lives and benefited Libya and its neighbors. In reality, when NATO intervened in mid-March 2011, Qaddafi already had regained control of most of Libya, while the rebels were retreating rapidly toward Egypt. Thus, the conflict was about to end, barely six weeks after it started, at a toll of about 1,000 dead, including soldiers, rebels, and civilians caught in the crossfire. By intervening, NATO enabled the rebels to resume their attack, which prolonged the war for another seven months and caused at least 7,000 more deaths.

Anti-interventionists such as Greenwald, believe that from the vantage point of the intervention’s architects, it was not actually a failure, since the secret motive of all such policies is — so he says — to create a justification for endless war.

[T]here is no question that U.S. militarism constantly strengthens exactly that which it is pitched as trying to prevent, and ensures that the U.S. government never loses its supply of reasons to continue its endless war.

Far from serving as a model, this Libya intervention should severely discredit the core selling point of so-called “humanitarian wars.” Some non-governmental advocates of “humanitarian war” may be motivated by the noble aims they invoke, but humanitarianism is simply not why governments fight wars; that is just the pretty wrapping used to sell them.

From both inside and outside Libya, there are now renewed calls for intervention, this time to thwart the rise of ISIS following the group’s latest atrocity.

Anti-interventionists, ever true to their convictions, presumably believe that no intervention is justifiable or could conceivably help.

But given that such a conviction must be based on an uncanny ability to foresee the future, why wait until the future is past to tell us what it might have been? Why not tell us all now what will happen if the world’s leaders follow your wise counsel?

Anti-interventionists might believe that it is their destiny to be ignored, but that really isn’t true. In 2011 they warned that Libya would set a dangerous precedent — that similar interventions were bound to follow the so-called Libya model. First Libya, next Syria.

It didn’t happen. Indeed, Syria can really be heralded as a triumph of anti-interventionism. Not even the use of chemical weapons was enough to trigger U.S. missile strikes. And once Obama finally mustered a nominal coalition of military forces, it wasn’t with the aim of toppling the regime. Instead they have become de facto allies of Assad, in a combined effort to push back ISIS.

If the lesson from Libya was that dictatorial rule is not such a bad thing, then Washington’s relations with Damascus and Cairo indicate that it has already taken many of the anti-interventionists’ cautions to heart.

Both in the U.S. and Europe, anti-interventionism, seemingly unbeknown to its loudest advocates, is altogether mainstream. In the aftermath of Iraq and Libya, Western governments are far from trigger-happy.

Italy’s Premier Matteo Renzi in spite of ISIS’s presence a stone’s throw across the Mediterranean, now says: “It’s not the time for a military intervention.”

“Wisdom, prudence and a sense of the situation is needed with regards to Libya,” Renzi said. “But you cannot go from total indifference to hysteria”.

Likewise, the UK has ruled out intervention in Libya “at the moment.”

Such caution may soothe some anti-interventionist fears, but there is little evidence supporting the sentiment behind the anti-interventionist position — that being, that if throwing fuel on the fire makes the fire burn more strongly then the converse will necessarily be true.

Sometimes it will be true and at others it will not, but those who refuse to remove their ideological blinkers will find it impossible to differentiate one case from the other.


America and Muslims — the exceptional and the ordinary

Friends and family of Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister Raza Abu-Salha, have eloquently described what exceptional individuals they were and how dearly they will be missed.

It is natural and appropriate that at such a time of tragic loss, those feeling the most grief want to honor the memory of three lives so senselessly cut short.

In their own ways, each of these young people was unique and irreplaceable.

But as Muslims, were they exceptional? Probably not.

We live in a world where blowhards, attention-seekers, and those obsessed with leaving their mark, too often take center stage. Ordinary virtue gains too little acclaim. Acts of kindness that hold societies together, may be so small and commonplace as to often go unnoticed.

People like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Bill Maher, who each appear to have their own need for notoriety and who have contributed significantly to the Islamophobic currents active in North America and Europe, might care to pose themselves this simple question:

Who are more numerous? Muslims like the three who were gunned down in Chapel Hill on Tuesday, or those who flock to join the ranks of ISIS?

There are 1.6 billion Muslims. For any non-Muslim with an ounce of common sense, the answer should be obvious, yet within the febrile imagination of every Islamophobe, every single Muslim is viewed with suspicion.

Over a decade after the 9/11 attacks, Harris, bemoaning the inefficiency of security screening in American airports, wrote:

We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it…

Needless to say, a devout Muslim should be free to show up at the airport dressed like Osama bin Laden, and his wives should be free to wear burqas. But if their goal is simply to travel safely and efficiently, wouldn’t they, too, want a system that notices people like themselves?

Because I have family in the North of England, over the years I have passed through Manchester airport many times and have often amused myself by imagining how terrified Harris would be if he ever arrived there.

If through some act of lunacy, the airport authorities and airlines there decided to follow Harris’ recommendation, traffic would grind to a halt.

Manchester is every Islamophobe’s worst nightmare and yet has never distinguished itself as a hub of international terrorism.

Harris, with his polished demeanor of gravity, refers in all seriousness to people who look like jihadis, as though terrorists obligingly follow a particular dress-code and shaving style.

What he and anyone who truly values reason should understand is that anyone who practices the art of spotting Muslims, is much more likely to encounter the many Deah Barakats than a much rarer Jihadi John or an Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

As for the chances of having a neighbor like Craig Hicks? They’re far greater than the chances of a close encounter with the terrorists that animate the fears of too many Americans.

But then comes the question that appears in one form or another so often on Twitter — this time from Palwasha in Pakistan:

If terrorist just means, worthy of contempt, then sure, both are terrorists.

But even though the term terrorist gets tossed around too freely, I don’t think it has lost all meaning. As Padraig Reidy points out:

Terrorism, as carried out by groups across the world, religious, secular or somewhere in between, tends to come with a cause, a manifesto, a list of demands. Anders Breivik, with whom Hicks will be compared, may have acted alone, but he had a manifesto; he laid out his reasons for killing, and hoped that others would follow his example. There is no evidence thus far that the North Carolina killer was hoping to inspire others, or to issue edicts, or even claim legitimacy for his actions.

As much as can be gleaned from Hicks’ Facebook page, if he had a plan, it didn’t include murdering his neighbors. Having just become certified as an auto parts dealer, it appears he intended to return to a career he had pursued for over two decades. He also seems to have been thinking about vegetable gardening in recent days.

There are numerous accounts describing Hicks’ anger. He described himself a “gun-toting” atheist. The Associated Press reports:

A woman who lives near the scene of the shootings described Hicks as short-tempered. “Anytime that I saw him or saw interaction with him or friends or anyone in the parking lot or myself, he was angry,” Samantha Maness said of Hicks. “He was very angry, anytime I saw him.”

Hicks’ ex-wife, Cynthia Hurley, said that before they divorced about 17 years ago, his favorite movie was “Falling Down,” the 1993 Michael Douglas film about a divorced unemployed engineer who goes on a shooting rampage. “That always freaked me out,” Hurley said. “He watched it incessantly. He thought it was hilarious. He had no compassion at all,” she said.

Hicks’ militant atheism which he expressed obsessively through Facebook, seems like it may have been a channel for his own rage.

Did he choose his targets because of their specific religion, simply because they were visibly religious, or because of some irresistible logic within his own anger?

Whatever his reasons, there’s almost certainly another Hicks in every American city — some angry middle-aged white man whose rage only catches wide attention when he ends up articulating it through the barrel of a gun.

And much as Harris may object to being associated with Hicks, they don’t just share the same ideology; they also seem to have a liking for the exactly the same kind of gun.

In his argument in defense of gun-ownership, Harris features a photo of a Ruger LCR revolver. Likewise, Hicks, posted a photo of his own loaded Ruger LCRx revolver on Facebook less than a month ago.

As a cultural symbol, the gun represents for many Americans something about their core identity — it is cherished as a guardian of freedom.

Yet it also represents a fusion of fear and power, weakness and strength, as it emboldens cowards.

Without his revolver, Craig Hicks would most likely have never been more than an irritating neighbor — a man whose poisonous thoughts never turned deadly.


Craig Stephen Hicks: The new face of militant atheism?

Craig Stephen Hicks

Craig Stephen Hicks

Following Craig Stephen Hicks’ cold-blooded murder yesterday of his neighbors, Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, and Abu-Salha’s sister, Razan Abu-Salha, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, it’s tempting to suggest that Richard Dawkins shares some culpability in the crime.

Hicks’ Facebook page makes it clear that he is an admirer of Dawkins and the ideology of antitheism.

But to hold Dawkins responsible — wouldn’t that be like holding all Muslims responsible for the actions of a few terrorists? After all, Dawkins advocates treating “all religions with good-humoured ridicule” — not murdering their adherents.

Dawkins is on the defensive and tweeted: “How could any decent person NOT condemn the vile murder of three young US Muslims in Chapel Hill?”

So far I haven’t seen any condemnation of the murders coming from Sam Harris, so it remains to be seen whether in Dawkins’ opinion his closest cohort is a decent person.

Dawkins retweeted this comment: “Can these imbeciles not understand the difference between arguing against religious belief and hating believers?”

I’m not sure which imbeciles this refers to: People like Hicks? Or people who blame Dawkins et al for Hicks’ actions?

Dawkins, Harris, and other prominent atheists, while engaging in their crusade against Islam, invariably employ the same rhetorical device: It’s OK to hate Islam so long as you make it clear you have nothing against Muslims.

The question is: how can such a clean separation be made between people and their beliefs?

The New Atheists themselves are not quite as materialistic as they profess. They too are passionate about their beliefs.

Richard Dawkins would no longer be the man we know if he was “born again” and declared Christ was his savior. Atheism is not written in his DNA and yet his beliefs are just as integral a part of who he is as a person as is his genetic code.

Those who condemn Islam and yet claim they have no intention of promoting hatred of Muslims, are either being disingenuous or they are plain stupid.

On Hicks’ Facebook timeline he re-posted an image embossed with the American Atheists’ logo. In text over a satellite image of the Middle East are the words: “People say nothing can solve the Middle East problem. Not mediation, not arms, not financial aid. I say there is something. Atheism.”

On the page where the image was originally posted, someone comments: “Education takes time compared to, say, extinction or obliteration. One way or another it’ll come.”

If atheism is the ultimate solution, then as this commenter insinuates, in some people’s minds genocide might be the required method for dealing specifically with “the problem” of Islam.

Those who vilify Islam do indeed open the door to those who would murder Muslims, while those who claim that atheism might be the panacea for the world’s problems, are in fact indulging in an idle and sometimes dangerous fantasy.

How do they envisage the world’s religious believers — which include the vast majority of this planet’s population — might be persuaded or forced to abandon their faiths? Good-humored ridicule is unlikely to do the trick.

For a while it looked like science, empowered by The Enlightenment, would effortlessly push religion aside and faith would be replaced by reason, just as easily as the horse and buggy gave way to the combustion engine.

It didn’t happen and there’s little chance it ever will, because while none of us is genetically programmed to take to on any particular belief system, there is reason to think that the a need for belief systems of some kind is built into the architecture of the human mind.

Human life cannot be governed by reason alone and people are no more likely to discard religion than they are to abandon music or sports. Moreover, faith that the world would be more peaceful without religion — a dogma which is axiomatic to New Atheism — has no more solid a foundation than faith in an afterlife.

Thus it is evident that New Atheism, through blind ideology and social affiliations, already shares some of the trappings of religion.

Maybe with the appearance of Craig Stephen Hicks the movement should be seen as having fully entered the religious fold since at its margins, it too has its own murderous fanatics.


The fight against ISIS and the wider war

Hassan Hassan writes: Savagery is part of Isis’s ideological DNA. The danger of the group lies in its effort to transform the concept of jihad not through individual fatwas, as al-Qaida does to justify suicide bombing in civilian areas, but through a fully fledged ideology. To do so, Isis uses stories from Islamic history and modern jihadi texts to change the paradigm of how to understand and conduct jihad.

One of the most prominent of those jihadi texts is a book called Idarat al-Tawahush, or Management of Savagery, by an anonymous jihadi ideologue who calls himself Abu Bakr Naji. The book, translated by William McCants of the US Brookings Institution in 2006, has been widely distributed on jihadist online forums. But for the first time, Isis members have confirmed that the book is part of the organisation’s curriculum. As part of research for a book I co-wrote, one Isis-affiliated cleric said that Naji’s book is widely read among provisional commanders and some rank-and-file fighters as a way to justify beheadings as not only religiously permissible but recommended by God and Muhammad. Another member gave a list of books and ideologues that influence Isis, including Naji’s book.

The Management of Savagery’s greatest contribution lies in its differentiation between the meaning of jihad and other religious tenets. The author argues that the way jihad is taught “on paper” makes it harder for young mujahideen and Muslims to grasp the true meaning of the concept. “One who previously engaged in jihad knows that it is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, [deterrence] and massacring,” Naji writes, as translated by McCants. “I am talking about jihad and fighting, not about Islam and one should not confuse them. He cannot continue to fight and move from one stage to another unless the beginning state contains a stage of massacring the enemy and deterring him.”

The concept Isis used to justify the massacre of hundreds of Shaitat tribesmen in Deir Ezzor, Syria, in August was tashreed, a word that can be translated as “deterrence”, as mentioned in the quoted text. “That is the true jihad,” said Abu Moussa, an Isis-affiliated religious cleric, echoing Naji’s text. “The layman who learned some of his religion from [mainstream] clerics think of jihad as a fanciful act, conducted far away from him. In reality, jihad is a heavy responsibility and requires toughness.”

Naji’s book offers practical tips on how to fill the power vacuum left by what he calls the retreating armies of the west and its regional agent regimes, as a result of gradual violence applied by the mujahideen. He says that the defeat of the crusaders in the past was not a result of decisive battles between the Muslim and Christian armies, but was a process of exhaustion and depletion. He argues that the Muslim victory in the 12th-century Battle of Hattin, when crusaders led by the king of Jerusalem, Guy of Lusignan, were defeated by the Muslim army, led by Saladin, was possible only because of previous small-scale skirmishes in a variety of locations. Such small acts, Naji writes, include “hitting a crusader with a stick on his head”, a statement echoed by Isis’s spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani in the wake of the air strikes in Syria.

Naji says that people think of Muslims at the time of the crusaders as one state, led by Saladin al-Ayubi and Nouradin Zinki, but “the fact is they were small families controlling citadels and fighting jihad against crusaders on a low level, in a hard hitting way. What Zinki and Ayubi did was to bring together those small blocs into one big organisation but the largest role was played by those small blocs.” According to Isis, violence has to be steady and escalatory to continue to shock and deter. Random acts of violence are not enough in this context. Brutality has to be ever more savage, creative and shocking. So if the immolation of the pilot is more savage than previous murders, Isis will undoubtedly be searching for an even more savage method to carry out its violent punishments.

J.M. Berger notes that following the release of the video of Muath al-Kasaesbeh’s murder, many commentators suggested that this time ISIS’s brutality may have been so extreme that it will provoke a backlash, potentially leading to the group’s downfall. Berger cautioned against jumping to this conclusion:

When ISIS publicizes its inhuman horrors, its goal is to infuriate and horrify its enemies, to create divisions within the coalition fighting it, and to draw more and more countries ever deeper into the conflict. The “gone too far” theme may be reassuring, but it’s dangerous. We shouldn’t be congratulating ourselves for reacting to ISIS propaganda exactly as ISIS intends.

This is a popular idea: that if we react the way the terrorists want us to react, then we have given in to terrorism. We have allowed ourselves to bend to their will.

Emotionally, this makes sense. Provocation is an exercise in attempting to hijack agency. So refusing to be provoked in the desired way seems like the best way of avoiding losing control.

But on Twitter, @kufr666 says: “It’s a mistake to take IS ‘intentions’ into account at all when measuring our response to their provocations.” I’m inclined to agree with him.

This isn’t a game in which the winner turns out to be simply whoever succeeds in the exercise of their will. Outcomes matter more.

When ISIS launched its assault on Kobane, the small Kurdish town on the Syrian side of the Turkish border held little strategic value. What it offered instead was an opportunity for the media to have a grandstand view of ISIS in action and a demonstration that they are an unstoppable force. ISIS expressed no doubt about how swiftly or decisively it could accomplish its goal.

Initially, the U.S. deployed its “strategic patience,” responded cautiously to the provocation of ISIS’s muscle-flexing and was willing to allow Kobane to fall under the jihadists’ control.

It turned out, however, that when YPG fighters declared they were willing to fight to their last drop of blood, they really meant it.

The U.S. then faced a dilemma. It could either sit on the sidelines with Turkey and watch the Kurds getting slaughtered, or it could step in and provide air support and hopefully help demonstrate that ISIS is not an unstoppable force.

Some may argue that Kobane ended up being destroyed in order to save it, but the town’s residents were in no doubt that they could claim victory. It was ISIS which sustained the heaviest losses while Kobane itself can be rebuilt.

While the savagery of ISIS is indeed calculated to intimidate those who would stand in its way, the danger for its opponents seems to come less from the risk of overreacting than it does from viewing a small irregular army as a global terrorist organization.

ISIS will succeed or fail based on its ability to conquer and govern territory. It can’t be sustained on propaganda victories alone.

ISIS has staked its credibility on its ability to create a caliphate. It can’t survive as nothing more than a network and an ideology. Ultimately, without land, populations, and resources under its control, it has nothing.

Paradoxically, what some would like to characterize as the greatest terrorist threat in human history, might be better viewed through the prism of conventional warfare with potential winners and losers. ISIS is unlikely to ever surrender, but that does not preclude the possibility of its defeat.

Nevertheless, even if it turned out that the fall of ISIS were to come as rapidly as its rise, the consequences of such a victory would likely have a limited impact on the wider conflict — a conflict currently seen through multiple fractures that span all the way from Pakistan to Libya, but which when history is written may eventually come to be seen as a single war: the Greater Middle East War of the 21st century.

In that war, the fight against ISIS is just one battle. And in that war, ultimately either everyone finds a way of coexisting or everyone continues losing.


Patience is better than revenge

With the burning alive of Lt. Moaz al Kasasbeh — a Jordanian fighter pilot whose gruesome death was videotaped and celebrated by ISIS and its supporters — followed by the swift execution of two prisoners in Jordan, the Middle East’s proverbial cycle of violence keeps on revolving.

Just as swiftly, Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Liberman, praised Jordan for this act of vengeance, expressing the hope that “soon other imprisoned terrorists in the kingdom will be executed as well.”

Revenge is always popular in that it briefly satisfies a visceral desire that scores can be settled — it offers the vain hope that order can be reestablished just as quickly as it was lost.

And it applies a theory of justice that has proved demonstrably ineffective throughout history.

Mitchell Prothero reports:

Jordan state television said Tuesday night that Jordanian authorities believe Kasasbeh’s killing was filmed nearly a month ago, and that that was why the Islamic State refused to provide proof that Kasasbeh was still alive during recent negotiations. That belief was consistent with tweets from rebel activists opposed to the Syrian government who posted on Jan. 8 that the pilot had been executed.

Jordan’s King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh were in Washington meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry just moments before the video was made public. There was no hint that any of the men knew of the death as they exchanged pleasantries during a signing ceremony marking increased U.S. assistance – from $660 million to $1 billion – to help Jordan cope with the Syrian refugee crisis and rising energy costs.

Immediately after the ceremony, however, the video hit the Internet, and statements of condemnation and condolences began flowing from the Obama administration to Jordan. The president called it “one more indication of the viciousness and barbarity of this organization.”

Islamist groups often behead captives who’ve been convicted, fairly or not, of dire crimes in an Islamic court, and beheading is a common form of execution in Saudi Arabia, which claims the Quran as its legal code and constitution. But burning alive is a rarity, and its religious foundation was uncertain.

Jihadist supporters on social media said the justification for burning comes from a Quranic verse that authorizes Muslims to “punish with an equivalent of that with which you were harmed,” according to several postings on Twitter and other forums.

Zaid Benjamin, a Radio Sawa journalist who monitors extremists online, noted that the same scripture was invoked after a mob set fire to the bodies of four American security contractors and strung up their charred corpses on a bridge in the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004. Today, Fallujah is part of Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate.

At the time, mainstream Muslim scholars condemned the act, saying that Islam does not allow for the desecration of corpses. The clerics also pointed out that the second part of the verse jihadists use as justification suggests that revenge isn’t the preferred reaction: “It is better for those who are patient,” the verse states.

Here’s the complete verse from the Quran:

And if you punish [an enemy, O believers], punish with an equivalent of that with which you were harmed. But if you are patient – it is better for those who are patient.

Contrary to the widespread assumption in the West that the Middle East is governed by a philosophy of vengeance, this verse seems more than anything to be a counsel on restraint.

It says if you punish — not when you punish. And to say that the punishment should be equivalent to the harm, while also saying that patience is better, sounds much less like a call for vengeance than a call for restraint.

But if patience is better than punishment, does that mean there should be no war against ISIS? Not in my opinion.

Unopposed, ISIS will continue to advance. Even so, thus far if success can be determined by numbers, ISIS appears to be winning as its losses are more than replenished by new recruits.

That said, raw numbers might be a misleading metric upon which success can be measured.

Obviously it would be preferable if ISIS was visibly losing its appeal, but whereas last year it was ISIS’s unopposed success and its ability to create some kind of caliphate that drove its increasing popularity, those who are now flocking to its ranks are surely being drawn by their desire to die for their chosen cause. In other words, as ISIS becomes increasingly nihilistic, it appeals above all to those who see almost no value in life.

A group that terrorizes the people it wants to govern — that does things like executing children for watching soccer on TV — is demonstrating its own lack of faith in its ability to win popular support.

No doubt ISIS can continue drawing on an unfortunately abundant supply of death-hungry fanatics, but no one can construct a caliphate or any other kind of state with hands whose only skills are destructive.