Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Rise of the Hobgoblins

Recently, I stopped paying attention to the news, and started looking at how it’s being framed. Take this example of what I mean, from a headline published by the Financial Times:

Cynicism is no match for the mortal threat posed by ISIS[1]

The Daily Express had plastered on it three words from the Prime Minister discussing ISIS: Greatest Ever Threat[2].

If ISIS is the ‘Greatest Ever Threat’, then we may increase the national deficit paying Literature graduates to come up with descriptions for traumas of old. Let’s look at the facts. ISIS is fighting on two fronts in a mere 500-mile stretch between Baghdad and Damascus. To its north is Turkey, the second largest army in NATO, to its west, Israel, the fourth most capable military power on Earth, to its East, Iran, which has been bulking up its armed forces - since being made part of the ‘Axis of Evil’ - to its South, Shiite militias which were able to expel the British armed forces from Basra[3] and on top of all that is the Iraqi army who, now in Shiite areas, are motivated to actually fight than flee as they did in Sunni Mosul. Short of invading Jordan, ISIS has reached the greatest borders it can hope to achieve, conquering an area about the size of Belgium[4]. After ISIS, the fighting in Ukraine is the biggest scare story of the week. That conflict has claimed 2,200 lives, meaning the crude murder rate in Ukraine is about 4.8 violent deaths per 100,000 people, or the same murder rate as the annual one produced in the US from general gun violence. The Game of Thrones being played between Putin and NATO may be interesting for political theoreticians looking at the situation from 30,000 feet, but this isn’t quite Stalingrad. In light of all this, either the press is privy to information of an ISIS/Ukrainian/Putin/NATO super-weapon about to engulf the world, or we’re suffering the biggest stroke of collective amnesia in history. Are we really justified in letting the establishment wrap us all in a blanket of fear before nursing us with the sour medicine of more government policies and curtailment of our liberties? My short answer is no. Here’s the longer one.

Barack Obama was factually correct when reassuring the distraught news and twitter junkies around the world that the world is safer today than it has been. Lets go through our recent track record.
The 19th century was a complete and utter horror show. The ethnic cleansing of the Americas was completed. Across the Atlantic, Africa was completely colonized. Belgium, that small harmless country on the road to France for German armies to march through, killed some 8 million people in the Congo[5]. Lets not even go into what the industrial giants did. I could go on with that century.
The less said about the 20th century, the better. It averaged 1.6 million war deaths per year[6]. How does that compare to the 21st century? You know, the one in which a new crisis seems to pop up like a whack-a-mole every week? Using the highest estimates for the death tolls in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Mexican drug war and other conflicts currently raging around the world, we barely get to one tenth of that figure. One estimate (admittedly using the lower casualty counts) averages it at 1/30th of that figure, about 55,000 deaths per year this century[7]. Even the incurable Ebola virus, after having claimed 2,000 lives, is a well way short of the 60-100 million claimed by the Spanish flu just a century ago. Considering the jolt in speed modern transportation systems have over their counterparts a century ago, it’s quite reassuring it isn’t spreading and killing en masse.
That is of course not to negate the suffering of people today. For instance, the bombardment of Gaza has only recently ended. This conflict could be an article in of itself. But as a barometer, when 300 Holocaust survivors have to come out and condemn Israel for the ‘ongoing genocide of Palestinian people…[we]…are disgusted and outraged by…abuse of our history … to justify the unjustifiable[8]’, that’s a good indication of the state of affairs. Not to mention the quarter of a million people killed next door in Syria by a brutal tyrant.
But if our current panic is to go by, our ancestors would have committed collective suicide in despair had social media and a 24-hour news cycle been available during those times. It should be considered a miracle social media and instant sharing emerged in a time of such relative peace as it did. In light of this there is no good reason to be in the state of bewilderment as people are. The world is a much better place than it used to be.
In 1990 Freedom House only listed 69 countries as being ‘democracies’. Today the figure stands at 122[9]. Be under no illusions, being under democratic governance does not entail justice. In the world’s largest democracy, India, 200 million people live life as an ‘untouchable’, where sweeping excrement from the street is considered their job. Turkey imprisons more journalists than any other country on Earth[10], and here in England, the police raid the offices of newspapers to destroy their hard drives for printing stories the government disapproves of[11]. But the trend is nonetheless better than its reverse.

The real reason why the establishment is whipping up fear, is to provide an early introduction of laws which will later be used during actual times of crises. Humanity is about to cross over the Rubicon. The effects of global warming are real and being felt. Anyone who has studied the conflict in Syria will know that although the spark may have been lit in Tunisia, the dynamite was already in place to be lit, caused by the unprecedented drought and social disruption that preceded the uprising. The water-wars, lack of sufficient resources and food riots are coming. ISIS and Ukraine are mere stepping-stones over the Rubicon. As the American writer H. L. Mencken once noted:
'The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.'[12]
The article I opened with by the Financial Times warned the megaphoning of ISIS and Ukraine was a way of ‘the security state’ being able to ‘account for its existence’. The government needs reasons to put in place more Draconian laws and monitor, literally, everything you do. It now has it in its new hobgoblins to do so. Chin up, wrap tight in the blanket given to you and swallow the medicine, there’s much more on the way.

[6] Vijay Mehta, The Economics of Killing, p.4

Friday, 22 August 2014

ISIS: The Unresolvable Crisis?

I wrote this article in the memory­­ of journalist Jim Foley, who was murdered in cold blood by ISIS. Lets make one thing clear. The overwhelming majority of Muslims in Great Britain reject ISIS, which is savage and grotesque. But it is undeniable, and utterly saddening, to see a significant minority of my fellow Muslims take to the streets of East London, or to social networks, to either explicitly support ISIS, play linguistic gymnastics before condemning them, or self righteously type away as they lay the creation of ISIS at the hands of the Israeli Mossad or the American CIA, on the unfound whispers and false hopes that Edward Snowden had released NSA documents showing that, ISIS too, had been a CIA creation like Al Qaeda before it, whom we can comfortably shift the blame onto. There is simply no evidence to this effect. ISIS has its origins as part of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was one arm of the resistance to the American occupation, but grew out of its former shell and matured into its own vile creature. The group which high jacked civilian airliners and flew them into packed skyscrapers has now disowned ISIS for being too extreme.

Yet even with its extreme levels of savagery, their popularity on these shores is alarming when put in perspective. The UK and US have roughly the same number of Muslims. But the number of Muslim Americans fighting for ISIS or other such groups in Syria or Iraq numbers around two dozen, whilst the number of British Muslims fighting for such groups is closer to 700 with some estimates going as high as 2,000. Put another way, there are more British Muslims fighting for ISIS than there are in the British Armed Forces. (The Iraq War, though, undoubtedly explains much of the latter discrepancy). Those individuals who aren’t going to fight directly for ISIS, or handing leaflets in support of ISIS on the streets of Britain, are turning their hate to social media. Facebook is serving as a platform for larger numbers to either defend their new perversion of a Caliphate, or like gymnasts, show how much a human being can flex from one position to another before making a conclusion. Adhering to hardline Saudi Arabian styled Islam, they preform the same sorts of gymnastic exercises on the murder of James Foley that racists in America are using on the situation in Ferguson. ‘I’m not racist, but, there are so many blacks killing one another in Chicago, why are we focusing on Ferguson?’ which has been adopted this side of the Atlantic as ‘I’m not defending ISIS for murdering James Foley, but, there are so many people being killed in Syria/Gaza/Nigeria why are we focusing on James Foley?’ The spread of hard line, black and white Saudi Arabian style Islam in this country (which one mustn’t ever mention lest it upsets the Foreign Office) is certainly a factor in explaining this. But the cause is more complex.

Muslims in the West enjoy the freedoms imbued in Western society. But when they look around them they see superficiality and moral relativism. We’re seeing Muslim women being fined for covering up out of their own volition, whilst pornography remains legal and profitable. Going to fight for ISIS, or even possessing their written materials has rightly been criminalized, yet people are freely going to fight for the Israel Defence Forces as it decimates a refugee population. Halal meat has been demonized, whilst the most lethal drugs known to man, tobacco and alcohol, are rife, advertised and killing en masse. Their corpses can’t be numbered. The churches are empty and religion is looked down upon as tribal, whilst football matches draw tens of thousands of people to chant and sweat together on an opposing field over men chasing a ball. British people are proud a previous generation of Brits went to Spain to fight Franco out of their own will, but Muslims wanting to join the Free Syrian Army - which our own government is backing – and fight a just war against Assad who is barrel bombing his own civilian population, is considered unacceptable. The government can’t even make the distinction between terror organizations like ISIS and political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood[1] who it also wants to ban. We’re all lumped in together. You say political Muslim, I say terrorist.  Abu Nasser Muthanna, the British medical student fighting for ISIS alluded to this disaffection from society in the now famous recruitment video: ‘To all my brothers living in the west, I know how you feel [from] when I used to live there. In the heart you feel depressed…The cure for the depression is jihad …feel the happiness we are feeling.’

This is all occurring in the backdrop of a Muslim world, which from Pakistan in the east to Libya in the west, is imploding. This is all relevant, because you can imagine how a young, disenchanted and bewildered Muslim can mutate against this trend. The promise of a quick fix by a (false) caliphate can be alluring to either go out and fight for, or defend explicitly or implicitly on social networks. ISIS seemingly provides all the solutions to these problems. Strict (fanatical) moral objectivism, a clear goal and meaning sanctioned onto your life - with a comfortable afterlife to match - all wrapped up in religious imagery and symbolism neatly packaged in high class advertising, making the pill easy for the young and disaffected from society to swallow. This view is concurred by terrorism expert Roger Griffin, at Oxford Brookes University who commented ‘what ISIS has done is create a powerful set of images and slogans which crystallises the global jihadist cause in a way which is much more savvy and youth-oriented [at] … deeply disaffected third-generation Muslims living in Britain’.[2]

Compounding all of this is that as a Muslim community, our current crop of religious leaders having immigrated to Britain in decades gone by, are still in the transition phase of being replaced by future leaders born here. They are in other words ill equipped to draw in large numbers of young British Muslims. They come from a different time and are typically unable to speak English. Being able to actually understand a sermon about Islamic history, ethics and theology in a mosque - in English - does wonders. Trust me. I can vouch for it.

I’m not claiming to have solutions to these problems, but I do see a clear cross roads where British foreign policy interests, the holy grail of ‘community cohesion’ and the valve disaffected British Muslims like Nasser Muthanna could have used to fulfil their hopes of meaning in life were perfectly overlapped. Another Middle East war by Britain, but this time if the target had been Assad, could have, I suspect, welded British Muslims en masse into the British army, than groups such as ISIS, due to the fact the overwhelming number of Muslims in the UK see the Syrian uprising as a just war. With so many having gone to fight whilst looked down upon, my suspicions are many more would go if part of a legitimate fighting force aimed at actually bringing Assad to justice than join extremists like ISIS. Crucially, the Syrian population has been calling for such intervention with an increasing voice. With this war now highly unlikely, however, I hope we can meet again at another crossroad.

Monday, 23 June 2014

There Will be No Wi-Fi at The End of The World

The effect of social networks on the rapid spread of civilians across the Arab world undoing political dynasties was succinctly summarised by Guardian journalist Peter Beaumont, who was in the centre of the inferno as it raged in Tunisia. ‘The barricades today do not bristle with bayonets and rifles, but with phones.’ This increased interconnectedness is also preventing Wars. A video emerged on YouTube in Turkey of an alleged phone conversation between the deputy head of the armed forces and the intelligence chief, planning to launch a false flag operation inside of Syria, to invoke a casus belli that would justify Turkish intervention in the Syrian Civil War.

The attempts being made to curtail this democratic surveillance on powerful figures is already being curtailed at the time of writing. In the United States, the home and base of operations of the world’s largest social networking sites and other internet apparel which we have all become accustomed to, a bill has been given the nod of approval which would allow American Internet providers to make more lanes on the Internet highway available for companies willing to pay the extra price. Netflix videos for instance would load faster, as it buys up more lanes for all its extra traffic.

Under the old rules, a Turkish American immigrant dissatisfied with the state of news media could set up the world’s most watched online news outlet, The Young Turks, without having to worry if his stories aren’t liked by the Internet providers and their owners. A student at Harvard could set up a social networking site for his friends called The Facebook, without worrying to pay to get equal treatment with then giant MySpace. With the new proposed rules the age of free markets on the Internet could effectively be over. It would leave future generations, who will hopefully be more interested in these issues than the inner dynamics of the Beyoncé household, with fewer and less relevant means of interaction and cultural enrichment without knowing the reason for the lack of new innovations and stunted political environment that surrounds them to begin with.

A recently published study conducted by professors at Princeton and Northwestern Universities looked at the influence the American public have on policy outcomes. After studying 1,779 policy issues from 1981-2002 and the opinions of the majority of people on those issues compared with the opinion of business elites, they concluded ‘the preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy'. If elites want to kill the even playing field on the internet, then all they have to do is ask.

The institutional failures of a tired and corrupt system are beginning to show in the media also. Take for instance the recently determined fact the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet is melting at an unstoppable rate, which will cause a 10-foot rise in global sea levels. The projected number of people that will need to be relocated in New York City alone is almost 1 million. Less developed regions of the world will be less fortunate. The President of CNN came out to explain his network’s lack of coverage of such climate change stories, citing the ‘lack of interest’, or ratings, amongst the audience. This coming from a network which brought on guests to discuss whether supernatural events caused the disappearance of flight MH370, to capitalise on the 100% ratings surge it pulled in out of the tragedy turned reality TV show. To assume a global reckoning doesn’t quite cut the mustard amongst the audience is absurd. Another more likely reason why establishment news outlets won’t give real stories the weight they deserve, in the words of Daniel Simpson, a former foreign correspondent at the New York Times, is because ‘the “news fit to print” was pretty much the news that's fit to serve the powerful… in fact, it's their job to become their friends’, friends of other giant corporations who need to side-line the issue.

This complete lack of attention and care displayed towards the planet as we alter its equilibrium is taking an ironic twist. We dump so much of our waste into the oceans – that sustains our existence - without a second thought, that for a while scientists were unsure where all that waste was going. A recently published scientific study has found the waste could circumnavigate in the oceans, before ending frozen up in the ice sheets of the Arctic, which unbeknownst to us was acting as a global sink. Because we're melting the ice through greenhouse emissions, the melting Arctic ice is about to take a dump to the tune of trillions of pieces of plastic back into the oceans, effectively flushing the toilet back on us. We needed to wash our moral compasses and retrieve our binocular vision, but the way nature is poetically flushing the toilet on us whilst we are instead diverted to consumerism and news about Solange, is quite revealing to where we are and where we’re heading as a species; nicely summarised by a Cambridge theologian:
‘Modernity: making love in the middle of an earthquake’ – Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The Rise of Corporate Dystopia

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defence than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death, Martin Luther King proclaimed before martyrdom. If I may take the liberty to, I need alter this proclamation into one of such banality it need not itself be further explained but illustrated: a nation that continues year after year to allow giant multi-national corporations to spend more and more on its politics on the alter of Corporatocracy is approaching dystopia.
Let’s take one recent example, NSA spying. The Congressional vote to defund mass warrantless NSA spying on civilians lost at a vote of 215-207. Behind these abysmal numbers lies a more telling one. A detailed study of voting patterns of individual congressmen and the donations they received from giant defence contractors (such as Booz Allen Hamilton who are paid billions to be involved with the programme), found congressmen who voted to not stop mass warrantless spying received more than double (122% to be precise) the financial contribution (bribe) than congressmen in favour of repealing it. What an amazing chance occurrence.[1] The NSA amongst other activities, has spied on politically active academics, on the orders ‘to get them’ as one former CIA employee expressed[2] and monitors the online pornographic habits of citizens deemed a ‘potential political’ threat, so they can be defamed later.
Now allow me to fiddle with the rubik’s cube in your mind, trained never to come to inappropriate conclusions in the indoctrination centres we call public school. Swap the word NSA in the above paragraph with the word Stasi, the name of the East German secret police, and read it again.
Closer to home, yes, home, I do have affection for Britain contrary to the thoughts of some who believe I want to see it gut and filleted, David Cameron ordered an inquiry into whether the British branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the political party elected in Egypt last year, should be designated a terrorist organization and banned, following Saudi Arabia who did so last month. The head of the inquiry is Sir John Jenkins, the current ambassador to Saudi Arabia. The month before, Saudi Arabia finalized an arms deal with British manufacturer BAE to the tune of billions of pounds (the exact figures aren’t given) with the help of the British state, following a few visits from Charles and the Prime Minister paying visit to the Kingdom[3].
Proving Saudi Arabia undeniable grip over Downing Street through its financial influence is of course impossible without, ironically, spying on the innards of Whitehall. But it is not beyond ones imagination. Tony Blair, that great lion heart, prevented an inquiry into the bribery occurring between British arms manufacturers and Saudi princes after one warned of ‘another 7/7’ in London had it not been stopped.[4] Not only are we strengthening an autocracy (which also designated atheists to be terrorists) whilst simultaneously sanctioning one across the Gulf (Iran at the very least has elections), we’re also hollowing the very essence of the democratic system by allowing money to dictate policy both here and across the Atlantic. Or maybe not.

Modern technology has turned the world into a giant village. Pictures I take on my smartphone in London are uploaded onto computer servers in California before being seen by my friend in Egypt, in the matter of seconds. This compression of space and time has hyperventilated and megaphoned voices to the point small utterances can huge ripples and reach great distances. Take Obama’s ‘red line’ comment on Syria in 2012. It was completely off the cuff[5]. His team of advisors didn’t know anything about a red line walking in to the conference hall. But having made the statement every new event in Syria was framed in an expectation of an American response that was never on the cards to begin with. Obama was pushed and pushed on the statement by a 24 hour news media[6] to the point he tried to deny he ever made such a statement, before reinterpreting what he said, before he gave in and it almost led to the actual bombing of another country, that was until John Kerry said a solution to the standoff would be to remove all chemical weapons from the country. Another off the cuff remark that reversed the opposite effect of Obama’s. But look at what just happened. A giant Middle Eastern war was almost started and then avoided in less than two sentences. Smaller sentences are of course the popular medium of the day.
The CIA tried to overthrow the Cuban government recently, around the same time the media wasn’t covering the story. How? Through twitter; or, well, to be precise, a social network appearing to be privately run and functioned like twitter, but in reality was going to be used as a data gathering scheme to ferment dissent in the country. Small sentences, 140 characters have now megaphoned to the point they can topple nations. But to my original point, modern technology has compressed the world around us in on itself so much its molten any sense of otherness and turned the world into a giant mirror where we can see and analyze ourselves by comparing ourselves to the plight of others. People in Britain can now see the tweets of the Occupy movement in Zucotti Park New York and set up their own parallel movement, which happened. This sharing of ideas is something the powerful are finding very dangerous.
John Kerry had to dedicate an entire section of his speech on Ukraine on the Russian news network RT (an online phenomenon with more than 70 times the YouTube views of BBC News and three times as much as CNN) because of the very real impact it was having countering Western portrayals of the crisis. The media war is almost as intense as the crisis itself. Pepe Escobar a correspondent for the Asia times summarizes: ‘America's absolutely terrified. Because now it's not only CNN all over the world like during the war in Bosnia or during the first Iraq war. Now there is RT, Al-Jazeera, France 24, Deutche Welle, TVE, СС V, and one day we are going to have Brazilian TV going global, not only in Portuguese. They are terrified of Press TV in Iran, which also broadcasts in English, so they ban Press TV all over the place[7].’ Zbigniew Kazimierz Brzezinski, who advised the previous 6 presidents on something or another, and a global intellectual elite, complained this ‘global political awakening’ caused by the access to ‘radio, television and the internet’ is making it much more difficult to govern[8]. People can now find out what their government is getting up to. Because of this, it’s pulled the wool off people’s eyes. Our elected officials never represented us to begin with. Since I began by quoting and re-fashioning the words of one civil rights icon, I may as well re-mould another to end:

What do I think of democracy? I think it would be a very good idea. - Ghandi