Mangled thinking, Mr Behr

17 Nov

Dreadful article by Rafael Behr in the Grauniad today. You get the gist from its headline: Jihadism a symptom of western policy? That’s mangled history.

In a piece whose thrust is to rubbish Jeremy Corbyn – in this instance for his response, woeful to be sure, to the shoot to kill question – Behr writes:

The charge sheet against western policy dating back a generation is easily drafted. It takes moments to weave a tale of counterproductive geopolitical vandalism, starting from US support for the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan, via the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq, pausing to condemn blind eyes turned and arms sold to Saudi Arabia, whence the theology of infidel-murder pullulates.

But to stop there is lazy …

No, Mister Behr. To start there is lazy. Lets go back a little further, to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine on which Israel is founded. To the activities of Anglo-Persian Oil (BP in today’s money) and otherthrow of an elected Iranian government for having the temerity to try to nationalise its own oilfields. To the underwriting of the Shah by US-led imperialism* – its Faustian Pact with an autocratic and fundamentalist elite in Riyadh going back decades precisely because Saudi Arabia, like Israel and the Shah’s Iran, were the conduits through which western capital could assert its will on the entire region. And to the west’s peg-on-nose support – ever subject to review, as Saddam discovered, should the realpolitik change – of useful despots who kept profits and oil flowing whatever the costs in human rights, and lives overwhelmingly Muslim.

For an article whose bombastic and pretentious style tosses history around like confetti, its author shows little real grasp of the stuff. But let him speak for himself:

… to stop there is lazy. Worse, it takes an effort of analytical obtuseness to make aggressive western governments the initiating agent of all that is sinister, void of good intent or positive consequence, and thus explain jihadism as a symptom, with the CIA and Tony Blair as the virus. As if the Taliban should have been left to rule Afghanistan; as if the insurgency against allied forces in Iraq were a national liberation front akin to anti-colonial movements against the British Empire; as if Isis presented negotiable terms of secular grievance that can be settled at a peace conference; as if the rhetoric against “Zionist-Crusaders”, the genocide of Yazidis and the systematic enslavement of women were all logical extrapolations from a dodgy strategy cooked up in the Pentagon: extreme, yes, but explicable by cross-reference to prior western offences.

Yet this join-the-interventionist-dots view of terrorism’s genesis holds sway in the office of the leader of the Labour party.

Behr is having a field day. First, history begins for him in 1980. From there he moves to “analytic obtuseness”. Whose? Those who believe with rather more evidence than he himself offers that, following the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, a century of western exploitation did indeed beget regionally seismic resentment. Resentment that generated aspiration. Aspiration that searched every which way – Pan Arabism, Ba’athism, Parliamentarianism and non violent Islamism – for regional pride and real independence from the west. It takes analytic obtuseness in spades to divorce the calculatedly horrific acts of Isis from the despair and crushed hope left by Nasserite and Ba’athist failure to deliver on that pride and independence.

From there Behr moves to straw-mannism: as if the insurgency against allied forces in Iraq were a national liberation front akin to anti-colonial movements against the British Empire; as if Isis presented negotiable terms of secular grievance that can be settled at a peace conference … 

Really? Do you know anyone, outside of Behr’s purple prose and limited but highly active imagination, who believes any such things? No, me neither. But let’s cut the crap and note where this pompous fool is heading – the office of the Labour leader. Well stone the flamin’ crows; who’d have thought it?

* I define imperialism, as distinct from colonialism, as the export of capital by a dominant power in ways that bribe and bully the leaders of weaker states, typically in Africa, Asia and Latin America, so as to exert control over entire peoples and their resources. It’s a far from perfect definition but will have to do for now.

* * *

I will give Rafael Behr this much, not that he comes right out with it himself. None of what I say above addresses the question; why Isis nowI’ll be attempting more considered answers in coming posts but for the moment will content myself with noting a heady concoction of factors that take in – Gestalt fashion, the whole greater than the sum of its parts – the following:

  • The failure of western capitalism to offer its young the prospect of a safe and prosperous future, even as inequality soars to levels as dangerous as they are obscene. That failure generates counter-currents like Occupy, Eco-terrorism and electoral ‘apathy’. None of these, however, is underpinned by holy texts assuring frontline fighters of a place in paradise.
  • Comms technologies transformed by digitisation, smart phone, social media and world wide (including but not confined to ‘dark’) web.
  • Factors Behr himself acknowledges, albeit with dismissive condescension: (a) the bankrolling of jihad in cold war Afghanistan; (b) the mix of hubristic venality, reckless folly and American Exceptionalism – boosted dizzyingly by the fall of the Soviet Union – that led to the invasion of Iraq.

5 Replies to “Mangled thinking, Mr Behr

  1. Nice piece, Phil. I’m in Kl and things are twitchy as they await the arrival of ‘world leaders’ for the 15th Asean Summit.


    • I’d be interested to hear the noises KL is making, Brian. Oil rich mono-economies aside, Malaysia is that rarest of things, a successful Islamic capitalism.

  2. Nicely put Phil – agree with your commentary wholeheartedly. I also agree that Corbyn’s response was foolhardy – and all too quickly misrepresented on several media channels
    – ie not necessarily intended to mean no shoot to kill in the event of a terrorist attack – but against shoot to kill a terrorist suspect. Big difference – and Jean Charles de Menezes’ killing was not so long ago.



    The new site is bril!

    • Thanks for the glowing words on my site, Steve. And more importantly for bringing out a distinction I failed to make. Corbyn’s bumbling was just that: ineloquence and lack of crisp clarity rather than any more serious malaise. Trouble is, such little things can have bigger consequences and Jezza has given succour to those in his party who’ll vote against him once Cameron decides the time is right for another stab at bombing Syria.

      • PS: Oliver Tickell, writing today in the always excellent CounterPunch – – summarises the wider context of that interview with Corbyn. After describing the open war being waged from all sides on the man, he has this to say about that interview:

        “And here’s the mystery. Kuenssberg is always good at nailing down the key, defining question. And the obvious follow-up to Corbyn’s reluctance to endorse “war on our streets” was, surely: “But just to be completely clear for our listeners Mr Corbyn, would you or would you not agree to the use of lethal force against terrorists if that was necessary to save civilian lives?”

        But this is the question that was not put. Did Kuenssberg know that she had what she wanted ‘in the can’ and that any further question would only detract from its impact? Was a BBC producer yelling “Cut!” into her ear?”

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