Category: Politics

Fearful milieux: Perceptions of Islam in an age of Trump

Muslims living and working in the United States are being forced to reconsider their futures in light of Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, announced this week.

Citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Libya and Somalia will be denied entry for 90 days while the new Trump administration “tightens” already draconian visa laws. The move has been widely lambasted, with critics comparing it to the atmosphere of 1930s Germany that led to the Holocaust. In a sick irony, Trump announced the refugee ban on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

There are many implications arising from this ban, all of them worrying. But rather than causing us too much speculation on an uncertain future, the US Muslim ban offers a pressing opportunity to explore the social and political attitudes that have created a zeitgeist where this ruling could emerge. What kind of narratives has the public absorbed to lead large swathes of it in a direction where a Holocaust-esque move could become socially acceptable? Fear is somewhere at the heart of the matter. But how did it get there, take root and flourish?

Researchers have traditionally used focus groups, polls and interviews to analyse social attitudes. Pew polls and YouGov surveys give a useful indication of generalised attitudes to certain topics. But people are less likely to offer their true opinions in a formal research situation. Instead, they may sanitise or edit their responses to appear more acceptable to the researcher. One of the more objective ways to capture true social attitudes is by analysing what people say and do when they think no-one is watching.

Shaping the online narrative

Rhys Crilley and Raquel da Silva take this exact approach in their recently published research, ‘Talk about Terror in Our Back Gardens’,  which examines attitudes among the British public displayed online, in relation to British foreign fighters joining ISIS in Syria. They argue that the views of ordinary members of the public, as well as media and elites, play a key role in shaping and generating the discursive environment, through which people filter their opinions on foreign fighters and terrorism, and form views on Muslims and Islam as a whole.

Crilley and da Silva analyse a range of online comments from social media, forums and newspaper comment sections. What they discover is problematic and disturbing, but unsurprising in light of recent developments. This research is important because it indicates how the stage has been set for the ramping up of racism, intolerance and division that has now become part of official government narrative, embodied in the figure of Trump and his administration, delivered to the masses through harsh policies that would have once been inconceivable. Although this particular research focuses on a UK sample, I strongly believe that US results of a similar study would reflect a related range of troubling views. The process seems to unfold something like this:

  1. Filtering down of certain narratives from elites/media to the masses
  2. People reproduce and reinforce (and sometimes challenge) those narratives through means of online discussion (‘echo chambers’)
  3. Narratives then become part of the social ‘milieu’; as a result society becomes fearful, divided and more likely to back repressive policies such as Trump’s Muslim ban. This sense of victimisation could also feed into the variety of factors that push certain vulnerable individuals into violent extremism

Religion seen as key driving force

In analysing the online comments, Crilley and da Silva focus on, a) the motivations people attribute to foreign fighters, as well as, b) their views on suitable government responses. The most striking feature of a) is that the most commonly-held view (51% of the sample chose it), that foreign fighters ‘are pursuing their own religious beliefs’, is one that has been consistently disproved by counterterrorism experts and behavioural psychologists alike. In contrast, just 2% of respondents chose the option that foreign fighters ‘seek adventure or excitement’, although that is probably a more common driver than religion.

So far, the conclusion is clear: British public opinion still believes religion is a key driving factor for foreign fighters, despite expert research showing the contrary. This fixation on blaming religion (specifically Islam) carries disturbing implications about the nature of British social attitudes towards the country’s Muslim community, and towards Islam in general.

Cruel and exceptional

Things get worse in the second part of the research, which focuses on the public’s views of suitable ways to deal with foreign fighters returning to the UK. The majority of comments (38%) want to ‘forbid them [foreign fighters] from returning’, while 32% of comments suggest foreign fighters should be ‘criminally punished’. Only 5% of comments suggest a view to ‘allow them to return to the UK’.

Let’s unpack the possible sentiments behind the first two responses. Forbidding foreign fighters (who are British citizens) from returning to the UK would mean rendering them stateless. For starters, this is illegal under international law. But more than that, the fact that such a large proportion of the British online public suggests stripping away the citizenship of foreign fighters, points to an innate belief that British Muslims are less than ‘British’.

This raises questions such as: Would forbidding return still be as often suggested if the people in question were non-Muslims, specifically white Britons? Does being Muslim make them ‘less British’ in people’s minds? I suspect the answers to these questions would be ‘no’ and ‘yes’ respectively.

The second most popular response was that foreign fighters should be ‘criminally punished’. Types of punishment discussed usually fell into the ‘hard’ category, such as deportation (without trial), life imprisonment and even death. The latter suggestion is particularly disturbing as some see it as the ‘only thing that will stop British Muslims fighting in Syria’ and the ‘only way’ to silence their ‘vile inhuman ideologies’. This, mentioned in conjunction with the singling out of British Muslims, suggests a high level of contempt for their human rights.

In fact, many of the comments recommend cruel and exceptional punishments, implying a ‘state of exception’ that puts British Muslims outside of the law. It dehumanises them, reducing them to a status better suited to ‘savage and wild animals’. Attitudes of this kind emerge in the mainstream media and filter downwards into the general population largely by means of online commenting.

Fear, propaganda and the online world

Terrorism inspires such primordial fear that it has become an effective tool for manipulating public opinion. These views drive the zeitgeist and, leveraged in certain ways, can propel societies into situations such as the Holocaust. We haven’t learned from history, despite many illusions of progress. Those illusions have now been shattered by the election of Trump and what has followed.

The power of the online world must not be underestimated. Harnessed effectively, it’s probably the best propaganda tool the world has ever seen. As we’ve now seen, it can shape the outcomes of elections and shift global opinion in startling directions. Critical thinking is the solution; but, as the work of Crilley and da Silva shows, much of society remains quick to jump on the bandwagon, targeting certain groups without pausing to analyse the facts.

Retrospective on loss

“What’s past is prologue.”

 – William Shakespeare, The Tempest

It was a strangely warm winter’s day while reflecting on the cold, dismal year just past. In a year bookended by this city, the enjoyment of being here can’t quite blot out memories of what happened in the middle.

Loss has defined 2016; loss of people, of peace, and of collective sanity. Perching on the brink of the approaching new year brings a sense of trepidation. From my own vantage point (ever-changing as it is), I’ve observed much news of loss. It hasn’t been pretty.

Celebrity deaths have come in a steady stream this year. The most recent, Star Wars legend, writer and activist Carrie Fisher, marks a resounding end to a terrible run that took with it some of the world’s most iconic figures, including Bowie, Cohen and Prince.

There have been other losses too, less famous but equally resonant, like the murder of the principled politician Jo Cox. And we mustn’t forget the lives lost this year in terrorist attacks that now seem frighteningly frequent, from Brussels to Berlin and all over the Middle East.

Along with human loss of all stripes we also witnessed political loss. In June, Britons voted away their privileges of living, working and travelling freely across 28 European nations. Our pound and our passports lost their heft as the people lashed out in one spiteful kick against perceived notions of Brussels and refugees. I cried when I heard news of Brexit.

Soon after, Istanbul was lost; and everything that came with it. But things were much worse for embattled Turkey, which lost peace, calm and its sense of security on that fateful July day of the failed coup. The country may never be the same again.

Globally, we lost the ability to make sense of world events. The toxic fog of ‘fake news’ descended upon us and took over our incoming news channels. This effect had been building up for months, culminating on the day the earth stood still – when Donald Trump took the White House.

The resulting furore rages on. Those of us whose job it is to seek truth feel compromised, hindered and weighed down by grey propaganda at every turn. Bot armies and paid Macedonian trolls are vying to control our perceptions. They are tools of those who wish to shape the future of nations for the worse.

No-one knows what truth looks like anymore. Each new story attracts cycle after cycle of ‘debunking’, until fact and fiction become smeared together in one unholy mass, until all is in doubt and nothing feels right anymore.

No-one knows what the new year will bring. All we can do as individuals is buttress ourselves against the coming storm, building a safe haven of the self. Because the world isn’t fair, and if we can’t rely on ourselves, who can we rely on?

Trust no-one, question everything, and don’t lose yourself.

After Berlin, can Germany resist hate?

In Berlin just before Christmas, twelve people were killed and dozens injured in another terrorist attack.

The attacker drove a truck into a busy Christmas market, targeting shoppers and bystanders, ploughing his hijacked vehicle into the crowds in much the same way as the Bastille Day attack in Nice. ISIS was quick to claim that it inspired the attack.

German authorities believe the attacker is a Tunisian national in his early 20s, according to identity documents found in the truck’s cabin, where the Polish driver was also found shot dead. Police are currently conducting a series of raids as they try to find the attacker.

Although this latest event in Berlin is as bloody and tragic as any other, it is beginning to lose some of its shock value in a year filled with carnage. It’s just another instalment in a series of attacks on European cities that have targeted Brussels, Istanbul (multiple times), Paris, and Nice this year. In response we find the usual banalities.

Politicians tweet ‘thoughts and prayers’, analysts weigh in on TV and in op-eds, while the world expresses sentiments on social media ranging from grief and solidarity to ‘we told you so’, among a range of negative remarks aimed at Islam. Most of these responses ring hollow; they’ve been said so many times already. But the anti-Islam ones are more serious than most, as for Western societies they herald yet another step down a frightening rabbit hole.

The anti-Islam, anti-refugee view, once the preserve of those at the far-right margins, is now making its way into everyday discourse. Ordinary people can’t help but be shocked at the plight of innocent victims like those visiting the market that fateful day. Far-right discourse plays on their shock and encourages their fear to take hold and manifest itself in growing fear and suspicion of the ‘other’, particularly refugees and Muslim immigrants.

But with the frequency of attacks in 2016 in particular, one could argue that ‘propaganda of the deed’ could be losing some of its potency. The West knows that it’s under threat but seems to lack the ability to counter the origins of the problem. Defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq hasn’t helped, as this latest attack in Germany shows.

The troubled worldview of disaffected, frustrated young Muslims in the West can’t very well be addressed with military action in Iraq or Syria. In fact, this only serves to stoke the flames of radicalisation and lead more people to take up arms in support of Syria’s plight. The difference is, they may choose to attack at home where it’s easier to do so.

So if Isis inspired this latest attack what is it hoping to achieve? For starters this could be a reminder that it’s still here and still a credible threat. Despite recent territorial losses in Syria and Iraq the group knows that its influence extends far beyond those battlefields. Understanding its audience as well as Isis does means that the group can still tap into their frustrations and fears, harnessing those to inspire attacks like this latest one in Berlin.

For Angela Merkel this is very bad news. Her pro-refugee policy back in summer 2015, despite its best intentions, meant that Germany perhaps bit off more than it could chew, without a clear plan in place to make sure the new arrivals were properly integrated. As thousands of desperate refugees headed for Germany, the people of overwhelmed towns and cities started to become resentful. As negative incidents emerged, such as the Paris shootings and the Cologne sexual assaults, so the tide of German public sentiment started turning against refugees, equating their very presence with a heightened risk of terrorism.

Events like these are prime opportunities for the far-right to promote its brand of hatred, fear and division. If far-right political proponents time their moves well, their parties can manipulate public opinion and use it to gain political leverage. They already did so successfully in Britain and the US, resulting in Brexit and Trump respectively. France, with the rising popularity of Marine Le Pen, is not far behind.

Merkel’s Germany has been described as the ‘liberal West’s last defender’ in Europe. Although this seems ironic given the country’s 20th century history, it’s a testament to how hard Germany has worked and how far it has come.

Germany has a few advantages that may help protect popular sentiment from far-right influence; firstly, a stronger economy than many of its EU neighbours; secondly, a media landscape that is more restrained and less hysterical than, for example, that of the UK. But Germany’s final, and most important, advantage is that it has already learned serious lessons from history. It has lived through the terrible reality of what widespread xenophobia can bring.

For this to now be undone and for fascism to return would be a travesty, not just for Germany, but for the world. It remains to be seen in the run-up to the next German elections whether the people will give in to the forces that wish to sow division, or instead form their own judgements and proceed with wisdom and clarity.

Update: Since this piece was published, the Berlin market attacker, Anis Amri, has been shot dead by Italian security forces in a shootout in Milan.

Teeth and claws

Cloudy weather allows for clearer thinking, so it is said, while sunshine ‘dulls the mind’ to risk and thoughtfulness’. If that’s truly the case, my thoughts should have been crystal during these last months. But mostly, they are full of constant musings on what a wild place the world has become.

There are four days left until the US election. Media hysteria surrounding the candidates has risen to fever pitch; with tales of deleted emails vying for dominance with those of sexual harassment (can’t think which could be worse…) Old family friends have emerged as die-hard supporters of those who purvey the latter, much to my great dismay.

Meanwhile, a glimmer of light appeared yesterday on this side of the Atlantic, as the UK’s high court ruled that Parliament must vote to trigger Article 50. This ruling is a small victory for those who just months ago watched in dismay as the future of their country was hijacked by the masses voting for false promises. We watched while the pound plummeted. We watched while other EU member states ganged up against us. And we watched while the hard-won British reputation for tolerance openness and pluralism was smashed apart in a matter of days.

On a wider scale, the world is moving in a worrying direction. Driven by fear, people are retreating to the familiar, afraid to interact with the ‘other’ in case something bad happens to them. Refugees are potential suicide bombers; immigrants will steal our jobs. We can witness the rise of Trump’s alt-right in America reflecting the Brexit mentality in Britain, and the Europe-wide rejection of refugees inextricably linked to the rise of ‘acceptable’ far-right parties, such as Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale in France. This culture of hate is growing teeth and claws.

In Turkey, the political situation has sunk to new lows with last night’s arrest of members of the elected opposition party HDP, headed by the charismatic Selahattin Demirtas. The pro-Kurd HDP supports the rights of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, along with being a vocal advocate for those of women, LGBT and workers. The MPs have been accused (predictably) of crimes ‘relating to terrorist propaganda’, which could mean absolutely anything (or could even be made up). Nevertheless, it sounds a death knell for any semblance of democracy in Turkey.

Social media in Turkey has been blocked, including WhatsApp, the country remains under a state of emergency, and it seems the powers-that-be will stop at nothing in their quest to stamp out any dissent and retain power indefinitely. What’s more, Turkey’s recent invasion of Mosul has drawn the ire of ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi, who has urged his followers to wage ‘all-out war’ against Turkey. The future of the country looks grim, to say the least.

But fortunately, not all people move in fearful herds. Examples can still be found of grassroots initiatives that promote tolerance, justice and humanity. The Devon town of Great Torrington responded to a hateful anti-refugee Facebook page by creating its own “Refugees ARE welcome in Devon” page, which has attracted a lot of positive engagement. In a similar vein, but Syrian-run, From Syria with Love is a charity that travels around the UK giving talks on the Syrian situation and encouraging donations in support of refugees. So far, much of its feedback has been positive.

There are many more like this, but the mainstream media prefers to focus on news that holds the requisite shock value, painting a picture of a divided and hateful world. Over the coming weeks and months I shall be keeping my eyes open for examples of people working hard to promote basic humanity over the constant parade of hatred and fear. Through that, perhaps I can retain some modicum of hope.

 

Turkey’s biggest trauma

The recent coup attempt in Turkey should be recognised as a “national trauma”, according to regional expert Sinan Ciddi, speaking at an event organised by the Centre for Turkey Studies at SOAS.

“We are still unsure who was behind the coup,” Ciddi said. “We only have certain suspicions that it was instigated by ‘factions’ of the Turkish military.”

In the wake of the coup attempt, it is important to understand, 1) why it failed, and 2) what the implications will be, both long and short-term, for Turkey. The following is a summary of and reflections on some of the key points from the evening’s discussion.

The US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen has been scapegoated for the coup attempt. Some of the perpetrators were loyal to Gülen, that’s for sure. But others were hardline Kemalists forming an ‘unholy alliance’, with Gülen to unseat the AKP government and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself.

The Turkish government only allows us to see a carefully curated view of events, thanks to the strategy of media blackouts that is always swiftly implemented after any incident of civil unrest. Only independent outlets such as Al Monitor can freely publish news about controversial events in Turkey. In recent months most of the events in this category have been terrorist attacks, but a media blackout also happened during the brief hours of the July coup attempt.

Why did the coup fail?
Erdogan broke the blockade of the normal media ban and took to the airwaves via FaceTime to galvanise the people against the putschists. His message resounded heavily with the crowd and propelled them into action. This was the undoing of the coup. In addition, the military made certain logistical failures, e.g. by deploying too few a number of troops, which in some ways didn’t look like a serious attempt.

The prime reason for failure was the widespread lack of military support. Generals did not step up to deploy troops in Istanbul. The coup was doomed to failure from the very beginning and civilian authority was restored overnight. Did the putschists actually intend to succeed? Or was the coup simply a smokescreen for a more sinister political strategy?

What are the implications for Turkey?
Firstly, there is now a general problem of governability in Turkey. The government has put the country under a state of emergency for three months. This means, among other things, that the cabinet can be ruled by decree and is no longer subject to parliamentary approval, nor is it under the purview of the judiciary. Since the state of emergency has been declared, there have been various rulings, which have curtailed the role of the military while enabling civilians to gain control. Military institutions have been handed over to civilian authority, including seemingly harmless ones such as hospitals and schools.

This ‘Erdoganisation’ of the military aims to undercut that institution’s Kemalist structures and construct a new military that is unflinchingly loyal to the president. In pursuit of this goal, the government has conducted a widespread purging of the ranks, with 10,000s of officers removed from their posts. The AKP has also cast a wide net to catch any additional suspected coup plotters, mainly targeting Gülenists, in a process Ciddi referred to as ‘de-Gülenification’. In addition to the military purge, at least 4000 schools, companies, universities and media organisations have also been curtailed and closed down, including the Zaman newspaper group, and Istanbul’s biggest Gülen-linked university, Fatih University.

Turkey is certainly not headed towards greater democracy. Instead, it is systematically removing all actors that potentially threaten Erdogan’s power, including political dissidents and all other opposition figures (mainly Gülenists). The coup attempt has presented the perfect excuse to do this. It is no wonder Erdogan described the event as a ‘gift from God’.

So what will the judicial landscape of Turkey look like once the state of emergency has ended? There is likely to be less and less independent governing by institutions. Instead things will shift towards the creation of Erdogan’s own ‘kingdom’, as he continues to gut Turkey’s institutions and reshape them in his preferred fashion. This is alarming for the future of Turkey’s governance, as the world still does not know what kind of constitution will eventually emerge.

What are the foreign policy implications?
In the West, alarm bells are already ringing as Turkey ratchets up the tension with its Western partners. The US ambassador did not condemn the coup immediately, a move which rankled Turks and stirred up a ripple of suspicion and anti-American sentiment. In contrast, Russian president Vladimir Putin hurried to condemn the coup and offer his support. Turks love a good conspiracy theory, and the rising suspicion of the West, especially the United States, is at an all-time high. Some people think: ‘Perhaps the US was actually complicit in the coup. After all, it is currently harbouring the ‘terrorist’ Fethullah Gülen over in Pennsylvania and refuses to give him up to face Turkish justice. Why not?’

But the US ambassador’s move, seen by Turks as failure to empathise with their traumatised country, has not helped matters. In his typical confrontational style, Erdogan quickly seized on this to stoke public sentiment against the West in an attempt to solidify Turks as a nation united against the threat of outsiders. In recent weeks Turkey has started to turn towards unlikely new friends, including Israel and Russia. But at the same time it remains a member of NATO. How long can this uncomfortable dynamic continue?

The relationship between Turkey and the EU now hinges on one issue: refugees. Believing that Europe failed to support Turkey during the coup, Erdogan has threatened to cancel his refugee programme and let them all pour across European borders. With this sword of Damocles hanging over Merkel and friends, the EU is forced to keep Turkey on side, but barely.

So what role does Turkey play in the region now?
Turkey is no longer inspiring much confidence in its Western allies in terms of resolving the Syrian conflict. It is uncertain whether Turkey can actually help in Syria or merely hinder. No-one knows for sure if the Turkish army is primarily targeting ISIS militants or instead the Kurdish forces (Western allies against ISIS), in pursuit of the Turkish state’s age-old ‘Kurdish issue’. After all, having an independent Kurdish-ruled state (Rojava) on its borders is seen by Turkey as a significant existential threat. This begs the question: what is Turkey’s true goal in Jarablus and beyond?

How far will the AKP take the state-of-emergency law?
It  could perhaps be leveraged strategically to fashion a new Turkey, one where Erdogan rules unchallenged and keeps every facet of society firmly within his grasp. Will Turkey cooperate with the western powers in Syria? And will Turkey’s currently weakened government structures be able to help stabilise Syria, or just make it worse?

The feud between Erdogan and Fethullah Gülen goes back only a short time, to around 2010. Before then, the two sides were the strongest of allies. In fact, the Gülenists were fast-tracked into power by the AKP, after the Ergenekon trials ended. Turkey has a long history of ‘deep state’ activity, so why tolerate it for all this time only to make a massive deal of it now? Is it because the Gülenists got too comfortable with their positions of power and began to overplay their hand, eventually antagonising the AKP?

The coup attempt came as a huge shock to most Western observers. Turkey is now in a state of flux and, although we can toss ideas and theories around, it is difficult to predict with any certainty what will happen next. That the AKP will take an even tighter grip on Turkey is one sure thing, especially with greater consensus between the three main parties (AKP, CHP, MHP) as they come together against the coup. Whatever we in the West think of Erdogan, we must not forget that he and the AKP remain highly popular with many Turks. He is still a democratically elected leader, although of course his actions reflect anything but democracy. Turkey remains a conundrum in many ways.