Recent Blog Articles
There are usually two kinds of people who like to commentate on foreign policy matters: those who oppose any military ‘intervention’ in the affairs of other countries; and those who have no problems advocating military intervention and will always defend such action.
I happen to be in a third, less media-friendly category of people who thinks military intervention in the affairs of other countries is a possible last resort providing:
– it is carefully judged and isn’t rushed into
– has a clear purpose and exit plan
– the public is adequately explained why such action is necessary and support it in significant numbers
– the plan isn’t to leave the country in a worse state than it was
I accept that this is too nuanced for many people, especially on Twitter… but ¯\_(?)_/¯
Anyway. I also believe it really helps foreign policy debates if politicians admitted when they fucked up. I’m actually still astounded that Tony Blair – and Nick Cohen, by the way – aren’t embarrassed to continue opining on foreign policy affairs and defending the invasion of Iraq. Living in a bubble makes you oblivious, clearly.
Like Iraq, we fucked up in Libya. We should say this so we can learn from it.
I mean, here we have Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff who was then appointed by Cameron as the UK envoy, saying: “Libya could, if it goes down this spiral, end up as a failed state.”
WTAF? There is no mention whatsoever of the UK’s hand in deposing Gaddafi (which I supported at the time), and yet doing nothing whatsoever to ensure a transition to democracy. We have screwed up and yet we’re pretending it’s the Libyan people’s fault their country has collapsed into violence. It beggars belief.
This has now become a pattern: we get involved in foreign conflicts and then we absolve ourselves of responsibility if the country collapses without proper institutions being put in place. Libya is in trouble because of us. We should have helped put institutions in place but we were too busy leaving to declare victory.
Aside from the lives lost in Libya, these kind of screw-ups also dampen public enthusiasm for genuinely necessary interventions in places like Syria*. Our own short-sightedness in foreign affairs is costing lives – of others and eventually ours, through blowback.
* PS – I don’t accept Cameron passed the above tests when rushing into Syria over chemical weapons, which is I supported Miliband’s brakes on the process.
If you watch ISIS’s videos you are complicit in its terrorism, says Nesrine Malik at the Guardian.
Sorry, but this is ludicrous for various reasons. I have watched a fair amount of ISIS videos, unapologetically, and here are several reasons to do so.
1) To study what ISIS are doing and understand symbolism of what they’re saying. ISIS videos are carefully constructed pieces of propaganda. If you want to defeat your enemy then you have to know them. This isn’t just a military war but one of ideology, which makes it even more important to understand that ideology and its weaknesses. It also helps when you’re debating with ‘at risk‘ people to counter ISIS propaganda.
2) For work. Someone has to accurately report this shit, no? Someone has to study the video to see what else it reveals, and whether its actually a fake or not. The fact that ISIS have burnt alive a Jordanian pilot is news, whether people like it or not. So someone has to accurately report it, and others will use to build a better picture of ISIS capabilities and people.
3) Most importantly, I don’t want sanitised and tightly controlled images from national news, I want to see gory details and make up my own mind. I want others to have that opportunity to do so too. War is awful and people need to know this.
For too long we’ve had coverage of news events and war from the perspective of news organisations that are are OK with showing sanitised videos released by governments, but don’t want to show pics or videos of atrocities from their own side. YouTube has changed all that and I welcome it. I don’t want to be told by others what I should or should not be watching re: war or conflict. And I certainly do not want the government stepping in and criminalising people for watching videos of external conflicts.
The New York Times has published an extraordinary account of how the two terrorists who burst into Charlie Hebdo’s office became radicalised.
Here are a few thoughts from the article, and more generally, that I think have the potential to change how western security services deal with al-Qaeda inspired terrorism.
1) Al-Qaeda’s methods have changed to Mumbai style attacks.
If more such attacks take place across Western Europe, which seems likely, then I suspect they will be more in the style of Paris and Mumbai than the 7/7 bombings. Smuggling, building and learning about detonating explosives takes time and effort. It can also be a hit and miss. But a terrorist attack using an assault rifle is easier for al-Qaeda inspired jihadists to put together. The weapons are easier to get hold off and the practice required is minimal. Seems obvious to say, but I suspect the security services are worrying less about guys carrying backpacks and more about guys looking at acquiring AK-47s.
2) The security services are over-whelmed
The French secret service have a pretty good reputation but even they didn’t see this coming, though the two perpetrators had previously been under surveillance.
After at least one of the Kouachis traveled to Yemen in 2011, the United States alerted French authorities. But three years of tailing the brothers yielded nothing, and an oversight commission ruled that the surveillance was no longer productive, said Louis Caprioli, the deputy head of France’s domestic antiterrorism unit from 1998 to 2004.
The brothers appeared so nonthreatening that surveillance was dropped in the middle of last year, he said, as hundreds of young Muslims cycled back and forth to Syria for jihad and French authorities shifted priorities.
In other words, the job of tracking Muslims thinking about joining ISIS, or those who already have, or have already returned from Syria (estimated at 250 by ICSR), is over-whelming western security services. That means they’re likely to demand more funding and more spying powers. It also means the rise of ISIS has created a lot more targets and problems.
3) Jailing jihadists doesn’t help
One of the Paris attackers was earlier jailed in 2005 to 20 months in prison for attempting an attack. He was just an inexperienced and scared boy then. But, like numerous other cases, it was in prison that he met his future mentor and one of al-Qaeda’s top operatives.
This presents a dilemma. We can’t lock people up in prison forever, and yet that may be the place they become even more radicalised. We can’t track them easily forever either, since it costs a lot of money and the rise of ISIS has made that much harder. So what do we do?
We need good de-radicalisation programmes, but there hasn’t been a serious push across Europe or the USA to embrace them either. That, I think, is short-sighted. Prisons aren’t helping.
Prison authorities quickly recruited a handful of Muslim chaplains, but jihadist hecklers disrupted their prayers.
“They would ask a religious question, and whatever answer he gave, they would contest it,” the Muslim activist said. They would mockingly toss out questions: What did the imam think about jihad? What about the situation in Palestine? Why wasn’t halal meat served in the prison?
These guys need aggressive de-radicalisation, not some half-hearted attempts.
4) More Muslims will be arrested merely for reading ‘extremist’ material
Also striking in the NYT report is that the French police had been tracking the terrorists, even to the point that they broke up another plot in 2010 involving one of the brothers. But it was thought there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him despite this:
Among the texts recovered on the laptop — which were included in the court documents — was one titled “Operation Sacrifice.” It described a plan of attack that eerily augured the actions he would later take.
“A mujahideen forces his way into the enemy’s base or else a zone where there is a group and fires at point-blank range without having prepared an escape plan,” it said. “The goal is to kill as many of the enemy as possible. The author will very likely die himself.”
And here is the security service chief’s nightmare – the guy they had been tracking and caught would later commit a major attack like the one he had read about. Fingers will be pointed at the French services, and I suspect MI5 here and the FBI will think its better to be safe than sorry from now on.
Yesterday evening I was invited by the Guardian to debate the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and where we go from here. I wanted to make a series of coherent points in a mini-speech but it never happened, so I’m writing them out here… Each point is in a separate mini blog-post.
Let’s start from the proposition that the principles of freedom of speech, freedom of religion and secularism are inherently a good thing. I always do. I think our stance on them should be unquestionable, like against racism or homophobia.
When I explain or justify any of these principles in front of sceptical Muslims, I generally get a good response. I’ve done it a few times so I’m confident of this. The other day I posted my speech to a group of Muslim students on why they should want to live in a society where people have the right to insult their prophet, and they got it.
There’s a minority who don’t agree but I would say that generally it is not that hard to convince British Muslims about the importance of free speech and having a secular government. Once you sit down and have a debate with them at least.
But there are two problems, I find.
Firstly, it’s not that they dislike the argument, it’s sometimes more that they don’t believe others are interested in free speech in the first place.
And they have a point, there are loads of inconsistencies in the government and media industry’s behaviour when it comes to free speech. The Sun’s editorial post-Hebdo was a classic case of demanding more freedom while attacking people who stand up for civil liberties.
Many Muslims say – hold on, if you don’t always believe in free speech, why should I? How to answer that? I always say that at least we are agreed that there should be more free speech but it always sounds a bit hollow to me.
Secondly, the problem is that many liberals aren’t interested in convincing others who are sceptical, but merely interested in stating that they are right and Muslims should lump it.
This isn’t good enough.
We have to make the case for free speech in a way that says Muslims also benefit from free speech. In fact they benefit more than you white folks because they are far more likely to be spied on or locked up for saying inflammatory things than you.
So lets make that case without playing into a them v us narrative.
And let’s also stand up for free speech when Muslims are being threatened. Some of the voices I hear piping up about free speech only do so when Muslims are the perpetrators not victims.
That isn’t just inconsistent, it also makes me think you don’t really care for the principles at stake. And that also makes it much harder for all of us to convince Muslims about why they should embrace more free speech and the right to insult their religion.
Late last year I was invited to speak at the LSE Islamic Society on Islamophobia and the media. Rather than preach to the converted, I decide to challenge my audience by making the case for more free speech, even if included insults to their Prophet.
In light of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo today that has killed over 10 people, I think posting this would be relevant.
Thanks for inviting me. I want to start with this picture. What I find funny is that Muslims and Sikhs are conflated so easily. They all look brown!
The other interesting point to note is how much things have changed. This was acceptable then [in the 1970s] in a way it isn’t now. At least, not about Asians so broadly…maybe Roma.
I found many more such drawings, and to me they do illustrate that Britain has changed a lot since the 70s when the National Front marched unafraid on the streets, and cartoons like these were printed without an eyebrow being raised.
The challenges now are different than the ones our parents faced.
One of those is around free speech – the issue I want to raise today. After all, it was LSE where the recent controversy around the cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed was sparked off.
In 2005 I was invited to a debate on Channel 4 after a theatre in Birmingham had to abandon a play because a large mob of angry Sikhs had gathered in protest outside, and some had broken the windows. All this because they said it insulted their religion.
The play – Behzti (‘shame’) – didn’t insult Sikhism, it had a scene where a woman was rapes in a Gurdwara (temple) on stage. Community leaders said the writer, a Sikh woman, was an attention seeker. They said she wrote it deliberately to inflame tensions. They wanted it stopped. I wrote and argued that it should stay open, not only because she was trying to raise an important topic, but because they had no right to close it down. But it was shut down because they were worried about threats and broken property.
I believe we should cherish the right to free speech. We should even understand the importance of the right to criticise, and even insult, religion.
Do I believe in insulting religious people just because they’re religious? No. Do I go around insulting or denigrating religions. No. My mother goes to the temple every day!
What I want is for us to be tolerant of people who insult religion.
Why, you ask. After all, many see the Prophet Mohammed as their family. Why should you tolerate someone who insults your family? Good question.
The problem is we cannot live in a relatively free society without the freedom of speech and freedom to insult each other’s beliefs. In fact, WE – people who are in the minority when it comes to our race or religion – should appreciate and cherish this freedom even more.
Freedom to criticise religion is the same as freedom to practice religion. One cannot exist without the other.
Think about the people who are on the streets spreading Dawah. Think about your right to say that you choose your faith over others because they are false. I want YOU to have the right the right to reject other religions. What if there was no freedom to criticise religion? Well, you couldn’t reject other religions. You couldn’t have people on the streets practicising Dawah.
If the mainstream clamp down on free speech or freedom to criticise religion – its always the minorities who lose out first. If Britain had a law against blasphemy – the first people in jail would be half the imams in the country.
If you appreciate the fact that Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims broadly have the same right as Christians, then you should embrace freedom of speech. If you think people shouldn’t be locked up for expressing fringe and perhaps unpopular opinions, then you should embrace free speech.
And let’s be clear about what I’m referring to here. What about anti-semitism? What about anti-zionism? Be as anti-zionist as you want – you should cherish that right.
Freedom to incite violence against a group of people because of their background – no. Not against Jews, Muslims or Sikhs. But demonising a group of people because of their backgrounds? Well, if we allow that for Jews, it will happen to Muslims too.
Freedom to reject or criticise Islam, Judaism or Sikhism? Yes.
The right to be offended? Yes. You have that right. The right to protest or boycott someone if they insult your religion? Yes. That’s democracy. But the right to censorship? No. Threats of violence against people who do? No. A law against insulting religion. DEFINITELY NOT.
People don’t automatically have the right to shut down a play, close down an exhibition, stop a book being sold, or stop someone from speaking peacefully just because they don’t like it.
Why should you defend this freedom? Because you want… in fact you NEED the right to protest against the government… to speak out and say things the mainstream might find unpopular. The right to expose wrong-doing, even if others don’t like it. When freedom of speech is curtailed, it is always used against minorities first.
I leave you with this. I was talking to a friend yesterday and she said the Prophet Mohammed was the first leader to introduce a pluralist constitution where Jews had the right to their own religion and did not have to believe in Islam. She added, by extension, they were rejecting Islam and rejecting the teachings of the Prophet. It was blasphemy. Yet the Prophet understood the importance of that right.
To my relief the audience clapped after, and many students came up to me after to say they agreed with me.
If the general election in May 2015 is fought on who is best placed to deal with the deficit, then the Labour party will lose. Both Labour and the Tories know this. Miliband will focus on living standards, the NHS and inequality. So why a major speech on the deficit today, six months before an election? And why a pledge to cut spending and the debt?
Both the politics of what’s going on, and the numbers that underline it, are important.
The Labour leadership feel, quite rightly, that George Osborne wants to push public services off a cliff with unprecedented cuts. They lost the first fight on austerity, for reasons I outline here. But they recognise that if they don’t fight Osborne back this time, he will once away get away with having the media debate on his own terms.
Which is why Miliband’s speech is important today. He wants to hammer that the extent of Osborne’s cuts will “return Britain to the 1930s” if he is allowed to hoodwink people into accepting them.
A few things to remember.
1) Labour has not signed up to the extent or the way Tories plan to cut the deficit. Ignore the hype, read this piece.
2) Miliband will say quite emphatically, as one of his key principles: Britain will only be able to deal with the deficit by tackling the cost-of-living crisis. That means a focus on raising wages, and cutting spending like housing benefit by building more housing.
3) Labour will “ensure that those with the broadest shoulders bear the greatest burden” – will be another key principle. That means a much bigger emphasis on tax rises than the Conservatives, to close the deficit.
And this is the key paragraph:
This is now a fight for the soul of our country. It is a fight about who we want to be and how we want to live together. The Tory vision is clear: the wealthiest being looked after, everybody else on their own, public services not there when you need them. Our vision is different: a country that works for everyday people, with public services your family can rely on, a government that prioritises working people so that we can earn our way out of the cost of living crisis, a Britain built on strong economic foundations.
I’m pleased that Miliband is seeking to expose Osborne’s horrendous plans and set up a clear dividing line.
Rather than complain that this is another speech about the deficit than something important like the NHS, we need to see it for what it is: an attempt to expose Osborne’s ideological agenda to permanently slash Britain’s public services.
I oppose positive discrimination because white men have run the most successful positive discrimination scheme of all time
I was invited this week to speak at Cambridge University, with the topic title: “Does Britain need more positive discrimination?“. We could interpret this however we liked.
Below is roughly what I said.
In the 1940s, When Vera Rubin told her school physics professor that she’d been accepted into Vassar, an arts college near New York City, he said, “That’s great. As long as you stay away from science, it should be okay.”
Predictably, she didn’t. Rubin went on prove there was vastly more dark matter in the universe than previously thought, and overturned some basic laws of Newtonian physics.
And yet, she was turned down from the astronomy program at Princeton because they didn’t allow women. For years the scientific community ignored her work, only accepting it later after her male colleagues validated it. She didn’t get a Nobel prize for her work.
a) Before you came to this talk, I suspect some of you thought to yourself: I bet someone from the talk is going to open with a sob story of a gifted black-disabled-lesbian woman, to illustrate why we need positive discrimination.
But you’re wrong – I oppose positive discrimination. I oppose positive discrimination with every breath because, like many of you, I believe it to be unfair. Why should someone get promoted just because they belong to a minority group, instead of their ability? It’s wrong!
b) Between 1 and 3% of the British population are white men who graduated from Oxford or Cambridge. Yet, they completely dominate the worlds of higher academia, politics and business. Just 0.5% of all university professors in Britain are black. Just two FTSE 100 companies have a female chair.
THAT, my friends, is the most successful positive discrimination scheme of all time. A group of white, middle-aged men have successfully discriminated against anyone who didn’t look like them for centuries. THIS is why I’m utterly opposed to positive discrimination!
c) Diversity isn’t about gender or skin colour – it’s about background, experience and mindset. But all of those are usually the by-product of having a different gender or skin colour. And studies consistently show that companies or groups with more diversity do better than those more homogenous. Why? Because people with different mindsets look to solve problems in different ways. If we want more innovation, we don’t need more positive discrimination, but we do need more diversity.
d) Look around you: there is rampant positive discrimination everywhere – albeit in favour of white middled-aged men. But worse, because of this positive discrimination, we all lose out. Yes, even you, the white Cambridge man at the back – you lose out too!
I bet you’re thinking: that doesn’t make sense, I’ve hit the jackpot. how do I lose out? But you do.
If our companies and government had been more diverse to begin with, hiring talent from any gender, race or sexual orientation they could find, we would have far more progress than we do now. We could be chilling on hoverboards and flying around the world at twice the speeds for half the environmental cost. We could have solved our energy or poverty crisis .
Put it another way. It’s a bit like me raising you all in prison and then saying, wouldn’t it be great if the prisoners could also enjoy as much freedom as the wardens?
. We aren’t fulfilling our potential as a civilisation because the vast majority of intelligent people out there don’t get the opportunity to use their talents. They are shunned in favour of a narrow minority.
A woman Mexican engineer may have thought of a brilliant way to extend battery life. But since Apple hired its first high-ranking female executive in 24 years only recently, you are still cursing them for the shit battery life on your phone. You lose out too!
This is why I oppose positive discrimination, because so far it has been used to help white men. I want to see an end to this regime of positive discrimination.
Postscript: I was asked in the debate afterwards, so I’ll make this clear: in order to redress the balance I think it’s fine to have quotas for women, but not racial minorities.
UKIP have unveiled this poster as a PR stunt for a by-election
— Sunny Hundal (@sunny_hundal) October 25, 2014
The response by the usual UKIP-faithful has been that I should be more outraged about child sexual abuse than the poster.
1) I have been writing about on of this kind of child sexual abuse (by gangs, usually of predominantly Pakistani-heritage men) for over ten years. Sometimes even at the risk of helping the BNP. I wrote two angry articles about the Rotherham scandal too. So don’t preach to me on what I should get angry about.
2) You can be very angry about child sex abuse without using it as a PR stunt to score political points. This is what UKIP are doing.
What’s more striking is UKIP hypocrisy.
And don’t say UKIP never turn up to vote at EU affairs, because they do.
They couldn’t bother to vote on legislation on child abuse at EU, but they’re now trying to score political points from it.
The comedian Russell Brand was interviewed on Newsnight last night about his book, which you can watch above.
One headline is that Brand casually implies 9/11 was an inside job because George Bush had links to the Saudis, before half-heartedly back-tracking.
But I was more depressed by the first 10 minutes of conversation, and I want to explain why because I think this matters in a wider context.
In the debate Evan Davis wants to ask Brand a simple question: what is the alternative you propose? The comedian, who has apparently written an entire book calling for a revolution, doesn’t have a straight answer. Brand says the current system isn’t working (partly true) and points to activism by others challenging the consensus.
Brand says he is merely a high-profile voice and his job is to amplify the work of others. I think that’s fair enough.
But Davis has a more profound question that Brand clearly doesn’t want to answer. My version of that question goes like this: If you want to replace the current system of capitalism with something else, who is going to make your jeans, iPhones and run Twitter?
I.e. capitalism clearly has downsides, but it also leads to products that people really want to use. The desire for profit has led companies like Apple, Levi’s and Twitter to create popular products that – especially in the case of social media – we can sometimes even use for free (in return for being forced to watch advertising, of course).
In the debate, Evan Davis asks Brand about the fact that wages have historically gone up: making billions of people richer and allowing them to afford products like fridge freezers, TVs and iPhones. Brand’s response is: “Mate, I ain’t got time for a bloody graph“.
And then there are other responses that suggest he is blindly oblivious to his own privilege.
Russell Brand says stop paying your mortgage or going to work. Let me know how that works out for you pic.twitter.com/OoMnD2d5c7
— Anita Singh (@anitathetweeter) October 21, 2014
The problem I have with Russell Brand is that his style of politics is anti-intellectualism on an epic scale. He isn’t just leaving the heavy lifting to others, he casually dismisses facts like they are irrelevant.
Yes, our capitalist system is breaking down and our democracy has many flaws with it. But any discussion that starts with the premise that we need a revolution to over-throw the system must at least have a response to the inevitable: “and replace it with what?”
This isn’t to say I’m in favour of unadulterated capitalism or that I think cooperatives, mutuals, non-profit groups or social enterprises have no place. In fact we need far more of them. But, in effect, the Russell Brand critique is mild because all it really wants is a bit less of what is currently on offer a bit more of… some nice things that other people are asking for. To dress that up as a ‘revolution’ is plainly fatuous.
The establishment humours Russell Brand because he poses little threat to the system. Newsnight has him on because he’s good for their ratings, not because they want to bring down the system too. The lack of an effective critique means that people will listen to him, glaringly see the obvious contradictions and unanswered questions, and dismiss the Left as over-privileged white guys who don’t want to work but want their iPhones anyway.
A few years ago, I was going past the occupation of Parliament Square. I was quite defensive of the activists in the media and wanted to spend a bit of time just getting to know them. Bad idea. I came in being quite sympathetic, but soon realised that some of the people there only spoke in cliches and hadn’t actually looked into the nuances of what they were saying. The woman I was talking to seemed to think everything was a conspiracy. Soon she was joined by some people who firmly believed 9/11 was an inside job. I made an hasty exit. Of course, every group has its share of cranks but it was a very sobering experience.
If Brand gets more apolitical people to question the world they’re in, then great. But I worry about something else: that there’s a broader slide towards anti-intellectualism among lefties where facts don’t matter and smart critiques are junked in favour of cliches. The world is a messy place and our politicians are very flawed people. But we have to work (sometimes within the system) to continually reform it and improve it, not wait around for some vague revolution that will never come. If the end result is the UKIP-isation of the Left then I don’t want any part of that revolution.
Also worth reading: Why Owen Jones is wrong to suggest that criticism of Russell Brand is merely ‘snottiness’ — by Abi Wilks
I’ve not waded that much into the debate on Scotland’s future, partly because I’ve been focusing on ISIS and partly because its not my fight. I support the Union but its up to the people of Scotland to decide and they’re unlikely to be persuaded by this random guy from London.
But I’m perplexed by the pro-independence position that some lefties have taken, particularly the Green party.
The Yes Scotland campaign say their economy is strong and can survive independence thanks to natural resources such as oil and gas. Its a key claim on their website and its true; oil and gas would be key to an independent Scotland’s finances.
Revenue from oil and gas is also how an independent Scotland will pay its bill and stave off deep spending cuts. I’m not saying they’re the only source of revenue but they’re very key to Scotland’s future. Without them there would be deep cuts. Independence would make Scotland even more dependent on that revenue.
As you can see from the chart above, revenue from fossil fuels easily dwarfs everything else combined.
Scotland wants to invest in renewable energy, but the money for investment will inevitably have to come from further investment and money raised through oil and gas.
So why are the Green Party supporting an outcome that makes a nation even more dependent on exploiting its oil and gas resources?
Can someone explain this to me?
If the Greens are arguing that Independence will make Scotland less dependent on fossil fuels, I’d like to see the evidence and sums, since the YES campaign in Scotland isn’t saying that at all.
NEWS ARTICLES ARCHIVE