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Pin the blame on them

An exhibition of medals designed to dishonour their recipients shows that our current climate of ind

You don’t imagine curators as the type to rub their hands together in gleeful satisfaction, or pat themselves on the back for their shrewd judgement – we leave that to the bankers. Their timing at the British Museum, however, is spectacular. An exhibition about medals that confer disgrace rather than honour upon the recipients, memorialising triumphs of negative achievement, will surely pull in the outraged in droves. The Daily Telegraph might think it has mastered it, but the art of shaming is a more complicated practice than merely naming names.

“Medals of Dishonour” unearths a pertinent history of disgrace, suggesting there is little extraordinary about our current climate of indignation. The targets range widely, but it may be cold comfort to learn that the enduring contenders for such gongs are the bankers, religious leaders and politicians of this world. Financial Speculation (1720), the work of an anonymous German artist, could readily apply to 2009 in its scorn of venture capitalism. Referring to the economic bubble that led to the collapse of the South Sea Company, which at the time had a monopoly on trade with South America, and so brought financial ruin to many speculators, a figure blows banknotes from a set of bellows and asks, “Who will buy shares?” while the inscription reads: “Who in the desire for money will allow himself to be led by this wind?” Political lampooning finds a natural home in the form of the medal.

When medals first flourished during the Renaissance they were not intended to be awards, but were circulated by hand as personal and diplomatic gifts. We would do well to resurrect this practice. The medals by contemporary artists (commissioned by the British Art Medal Trust in 2008) refuse moral transparency, demonstrating just how compounded, indeed commercialised, shame has become in our global culture of consumerism. Grayson Perry’s For Faith in Shopping captures this crossfire by playing with Christian symbolism. The Virgin Mary becomes “Our Lady of Bond Street”, her image adorned with brand names; the obverse depicts the Christ Child as “born to shop” – symptomatic, Perry explains, of “the ideal infantilised worshipper that hyper-consumerism depends on”. Mass consumption gets the ironic thumbs-up, as does a brand culture that feeds off feelings of inadequacy, shaming individuals into “needing” the latest designer clutch bag, its status far outweighing the meagre capacity.

And in a cultural economy of overinflated celebrity status, the notoriety of shame acquires a market currency all its own as shame morphs into resistance, appropriated by the marginalised as a badge of honour. Michael Landy’s glittering brass medal is a scathing indictment of Labour’s “antidote” to “broken Britain”, the Asbo. A mugshot of a 17-year-old Asbo recipient, Dean Rowbotham, stares vacantly outward, while the reverse lists his crimes – “issued threats of violence, harassed residents of Hartlepool . . .” Selfishness and destructiveness are seemingly celebrated here, but shame becomes the slipperiest of fishes when the brass is so shiny that you can’t fail to see your own face reflected in it.

To feel shame (MPs, take note) is to scrutinise oneself through the eyes of others and not by internal values. As Perry suggests, “These medals only have an impact if you have a conscience.” Unlike guilt’s individualistic fixation, shame is the most social of emotions, which explains why the medal of dishonour, like the sonnet, or the essays of Montaigne, is the product of humanist thinking, characterised by self-examination. Liberalism may regard “naming and shaming” as a pernicious instrument of social control, the bastion of the Daily Mail, but the sting of these “decorations” rests on Aristotle’s view of shame as a quasi-virtue – a precondition without which no other virtue can be understood.

Not surprisingly, the destructiveness of war features heavily. The exhibition takes its title from the American sculptor David Smith’s series Medals for Dishonour, which responded directly to the United States’ highest military award, the Congressional Medal of Honour. Hanging medals on gallery walls for the first time, Smith’s surrealist and symbolic series, produced in the late 1930s after a trip to Europe, lambasted war and the system he considered responsible for it. His targets were fascism and capitalism, and the political and religious leaders whose activities promoted hatred, thus laying the ground for war, along with the industrialists, scientists and media who colluded with them.

Smith’s innovation rested on the obscurity of his designs, in keeping with the nuanced approach of contemporary art in general. The artistic impulse to shame took on a more complex charge as ideological structures rather than individuals were targeted. Marcel Duchamp’s Sink Stopper (1964), the most beautiful medal on display, goes furthest. Produced by the artist as the solution to a lost shower plug, Duchamp’s silver cast of a plughole discredits the medal system entirely. With no political, only a practical and aesthetic value, it drains (quite literally) the genre’s potency to denote.

But is it the artist’s duty to shame? Cornelia Parker, best known for her installation Cold, Dark Matter (1991), believes so. We Know Who You Are. We Know What You Have Done (2008) cri­ticises the Bush-Blair coalition by turning their close alliance into an impenetrable conspiracy, showing the backs of their heads: they gaze into the heart of the medal and each other’s eyes. Whatever went on between them has been compressed into an unknowable space.

“Artists have a responsibility like anyone else to hold power to account,” Parker suggests. “Sometimes words fail and it has to be done with images. Shaming is important, but it’s more about asking questions. The back is always as big as the front, so you need medals for the negative, if you’re going to honour the good.”

True enough. The artist only exists, Tarkovsky said, because the world is not perfect. These medals – particularly those produced in a post-9/11, post-Iraq, post-Blair world – demonstrate the cyclical nature of shame cultures. Humiliation risks repelling the person condemned; degradation is passed on, transformed and transposed. And yet the collective impression suggests that more than mere questions are being asked here. In fact, these “prizes” without moralising are deeply moral.

As the most powerful literature about shame intimates – one thinks of J M Coetzee’s Disgrace, or Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge – shame is often our salvation, as well as our ruin. Perhaps our MPs, and the likes of Bernard Madoff and Sir Fred Goodwin, will come to appreciate the medals of dishonour that the public is bestowing on them? Perhaps.

“Medals of Dishonour” runs until 27 September. More information:

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, HOWZAT!

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Inside the minds of the Isis murderers

As pressure on the terror group who claimed responsiblity for the Manchester attack intensifies, the threat to Britain will only become more acute.

The police and security services had consistently warned that a significant terrorist attack in Britain was inevitable. Yet no warning could have prepared us for the horror of the suicide attack on the Manchester Arena on Monday night. Twenty-two people were killed and at least 60 were wounded as they were leaving a concert by Ariana Grande in what was the most deadly attack in Britain since the London bombings of 7 July 2005, in which 56 people died.

Like the London bombers, the Manchester suicide attacker, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was British. He was 22, lived in Manchester and studied business management at Salford University before dropping out. He worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. The son of Libyans, Abedi is said to have returned recently from a visit to the North African country, where Islamic State has a foothold.

Ariana Grande is a former children’s TV star who made her name on channels such as Nickelodeon. Her fan base is overwhelmingly young and female, and many of those killed or wounded were children, including Saffie Rose Roussos, an eight-year-old girl from Leyland, Lancashire.

Islamic State inevitably claimed responsibility for the massacre, dismissing the victims as “crusaders”, “polytheists” and “worshippers of the cross”. This is not the first time Islamist terrorists have targeted children.

A Chechen jihadist group calling itself ­Riyad-us Saliheen (meaning “Gardens of the Righteous”) took more than 1,100 hostages, including 777 children, in a school siege in Beslan, Russia, in September 2004. In the event, more than 330 were massacred, including 186 children. Gunmen from the Pakistani Taliban also stormed a school in 2014, killing 148.

For terrorist actors, these are neither whimsical nor irrational acts. Contemporary jihadist movements have curated a broad and expansive intellectual ecosystem that rationalises and directs their actions. What they want is to create an asymmetry of fear by employing indiscriminate barbarism to intimidate and subdue their opponents into submission.

We have grown accustomed to a wave of terrorist attacks being carried out in the name of the self-styled Islamic State ever since the group’s official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani began prioritising them in 2014. (He was killed in an American air strike on Aleppo province in Syria in August last year.)

The US-led coalition against Islamic State has weakened the terror group in its former strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. In response, IS has been forced to concentrate more on what it calls “external operations” – by which it means inspiring its sympathisers and operatives to carry out attacks on Western countries. Indeed, al-Adnani encouraged the group’s supporters not to migrate towards IS-held territory but rather to focus their efforts on attacks in their home countries.

“The tiniest action you do in the heart of their [Western] land is dearer to us than the biggest action by us,” he said in an audio statement released last year. “There are no innocents in the heart of the lands of the crusaders.”

Islamic State refers to its strategy as “just terror”. Its framing places culpability for attacks on Western states on these nations themselves by claiming that IS actions are a response to aggression or assault. That much has been outlined in the group’s literature. “When will the crusaders end their hostilities towards Islam and the Muslims? . . . When will they recognise that the solution to their pathetic turmoil is right before their blinded eyes?” the militants ask in the IS magazine Dabiq. “Until then, the just terror will continue to strike them to the core of their deadened hearts.”

IS offered a rationale of this sort as justification for its bombing of a Russian commercial aircraft – Metrojet Flight 9268, travelling from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt to St Petersburg. That attack in October 2015 killed 224. Similar reasoning was offered for the attacks in Paris the following month in which 137 people were killed, in a series of co-ordinated, commando-style gun and bomb outrages across the city.

“Revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe,” IS declared in Dabiq. “Let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken . . . The [caliphate] will take revenge for any aggression against its religion and people, sooner rather than later. Let the ­arrogant know that the skies and the lands are Allah’s.”


Through my academic research at King’s College London, I have ­interviewed scores of Westerners who became foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq to quiz them about their motives. Last year, one man from High Wycombe who had joined IS told me that it wanted to attack British targets in response to the vote in the House of Commons to extend British air strikes against IS targets to include sites in Syria (the British had only been targeting the group in Iraq until that point). “Do they [the British government] expect us to sit back and do nothing? ­Idiots,” he said.

In this respect, IS frames its attacks as acts of “revenge” and predicates its response on the Islamic principle of qisas, which is comparable to lex talionis or the doctrine of “an eye for an eye”. Qisas was always intended to be a tool of private redress for an individual or his/her family to seek justice in matters relating to bodily harm. Typically, it relates to cases of murder and manslaughter, or acts involving physical mutilation (say, leading to loss of limbs). The principle creates a framework for retributive justice.

The contemporary Salafi-jihadi movement has adopted a particularly innovative approach to the concept of qisas in two ways. First, groups such as IS have taken the idea and construed it in a way that justifies indiscriminate terrorism, such as the attack in Manchester. They argue that qisas has a political dimension and that it can be applied to international affairs in a way that holds civilians responsible for the perceived crimes of their governments.

Second, qisas is normally applied only in cases where the aggressor is known. IS, by contrast, holds every citizen-stranger of an enemy state responsible for the actions of his or her government. Thus, when it released its statement claiming responsibility for the Manchester attack, it said that it had struck against a “gathering of the crusaders . . . in response to their transgressions against the lands of the Muslims”.

It is this militaristic construction of qisas that allows IS to rationalise the bombing of a venue where large numbers of young girls had gathered to watch a pop concert, dismissing them as “crusaders”.

This is not new. In 1997, Osama Bin Laden told CBS News that “all Americans are our enemies, not just the ones who fight us directly, but also the ones who pay their ­taxes”. His rationale was that all Americans, by virtue of citizenship alone, are vicariously liable for the actions of their government.

Just a few years later, Bin Laden used the same idea to justify the 11 September 2001 attacks and also invoked it in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The blood pouring out of Palestine must be equally revenged,” he wrote. “You must know that the Palestinians do not cry alone; their women are not widowed alone; their sons are not orphaned alone.”

IS used the concept most dramatically in January 2015, when it burned alive a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh, whose plane had crashed in its territory. A video of the killing was circulated on the internet and social media. The group claimed his bombing raids had killed civilians and that it wanted to punish him with “equal retaliation”, in keeping with qisas.

What is well known about al-Kasasbeh’s murder is that he was burned alive inside a cage – but that is not the whole story. To understand how IS tethered this to the principle of qisas, it is the end of the gruesome video that is invested with most significance. After al-Kasasbeh has died, a truck emerges and dumps rubble over the cage. It was claimed this was debris from a site he had bombed, thus completing the “equal retaliation” of returning like for like. The idea was that IS had retaliated using the two principal forms in which a missile attack kills – by fire or debris.


The Manchester attack came on the fourth anniversary of the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London. Rigby was killed by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale in the middle of the afternoon on a street outside a military barracks. That attack was in keeping with a pattern we have become increasingly accustomed to in Europe: an unsophisticated plot that employs ordinary, everyday items – a car, say, or a knife.

The consequences of such attacks have been seen across Europe, most notably in Nice on 14 July 2016, when 86 people were killed during Bastille Day celebrations after a jihadist drove a truck into crowds on the promenade. Similar attacks followed in Berlin, Westminster and Stockholm.

The security services find that these murderous attacks are extremely hard to disrupt because they typically involve lone actors who can mobilise quickly and with discretion. The Manchester attack was different. Explosives were used, which means the plot was inherently more sophisticated, requiring careful planning and preparation.

We know that two of the 7/7 bombers had previously trained in Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions, where they honed their skills. In other plots, such as the connected attacks in London and Glasgow Airport of 2007, the explosive devices failed mainly because the bomb-makers had found it difficult to travel abroad and develop their skills in safe environments. Whatever Abedi’s connections, the long war in Syria and Iraq has once again created a permissive environment for terrorist training and attack planning.

The devastating impact of this has already been felt across Europe. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, more than 800 Britons are believed to have travelled there to fight. From Europe as a whole, the figure is over 5,000, of which a significant number are believed to have joined IS. Of the British contingent, the security services estimate that about half have returned or become disengaged from the conflict. Of those who remained, a hundred are believed to be active, the rest having been killed.

It is improbable that Abedi acted alone in Manchester or that this plot had no international component. Indeed, he was already known to the authorities (and had returned recently from Libya). As pressure on IS intensifies across Syria and Iraq, the threat to Britain will only become more acute as the group’s sympathisers prepare for what they consider to be a fightback.

This speaks to the scale of the threat facing Britain, and Europe more generally. Our police and security services have been stretched and continuously tested in recent years. Just recently, in March, the Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley told Radio 4’s Today programme that 13 plots had been thwarted since Lee Rigby’s murder in 2013. Put another way, the police have disrupted terrorist plots every four months for the past four years.

Naturally, Islamic State is not the only threat. On 13 May, one of Osama Bin Laden’s sons, Hamza, released a video, titled “Advice for martyrdom-seekers in the West”, on behalf of al-Qaeda. Hamza, 27, who was his father’s favoured successor to lead the group, called on its supporters to concentrate on attacks in the West rather than migrating to conflict zones in the Middle East and beyond. Scenes of previous ­terrorist attacks in Britain played throughout the video.

The central leadership of al-Qaeda is increasingly looking for opportunities to reassert itself after being eclipsed by Islamic State and losing control of its affiliates in Syria. It needs attacks and a cause in the West with which to revive itself. Hamza therefore cited the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris as a critical example, calling for the assassination of anyone deemed to have “insulted” Islam.

The Charlie Hebdo attack was especially important for al-Qaeda because it enabled the group to transcend the fratricidal conflicts that frequently define relations between the various jihadist groups. In Syria, for instance, al-Qaeda’s affiliates (when it had better control over them) and Islamic State have been in open war with each other.

Yet, the Charlie Hebdo attack brought warm praise from the group’s Islamist rivals because none of them wanted to appear ­unsupportive of an atrocity that had, as the terrorists proclaimed, “avenged” the Prophet Muhammad’s honour.

The British man from High Wycombe who joined IS told me the group had welcomed the attack for precisely those reasons. It was something that, in his view, had confirmed the “nobility” of the attackers, even if they had not been members of IS.

Is it too late for the West to save itself, I asked him. What if the West simply accepted all of Islamic State’s demands: would that provide respite?

The answer was as emphatic as it was stark: “We primarily fight wars due to ppl [sic] being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue.”

He went on: “Their kufr [disbelief] against Allah is sufficient of a reason for us to invade and kill them. Only if they stop their kufr will they no longer be a target.”

In other words, we are all guilty, and we are all legitimate targets.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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