Nick Cohen’s Nazi confusion

The Observer columnist’s odd piece on Israel, Islamists and Godwin’s law.

Nick Cohen, formerly of this parish, has devoted his latest Observer column to the Israel-Palestine conflict and the siege of Gaza. I can't help but respond to some of his weird and wonderful claims.

Let me begin with a confession: I used to be a huge fan of Nick Cohen's. I bought, read and reread Cruel Britannia. During the early, cautious, frustrating, triangulating New Labour years, it was Cohen's columns to which I turned for solace, guidance, enlightenment and -- even -- wit. "When the rest of the press was cheering on Blair, particularly in New Labour's early days, Cohen was his most virulent critic and almost the only coherent voice asserting 'real left' values," wrote the former NS editor Peter Wilby, as he examined and analysed his friend's "rightwards lurch" back in 2005.

But 11 September 2001, to borrow a cliché, changed everything for Cohen (although perhaps not immediately -- as late as January 2002, four months after the terror attacks on the twin towers, he was happy to rage against George W Bush, the United States and its "poodle", the United Kingdom, and, in a column in defence of "anti-Americanism", he wrote that "there is little about modern America to be for").

He has since become monomaniacally obsessed with Islamism, Islam and Muslims, and an ardent defender of the US, the UK and Israel. He has described the British army as the "armed wing of Amnesty International" while castigating Amnesty itself for being an "evil corporation". His shift to the Bush-loving, warmongering, liberal-imperialist, neocon right was even more sudden, surprising, simplistic and shameful than Christopher Hitchens's. Predictably, perhaps, Cohen has ended up with a column, reviewing television, at the right-wing, ultra-conservative, Islam-obsessed Standpoint magazine ("Standpoint's core mission is to celebrate our civilisation, its arts and its values . . . at a time when they are under threat"), which he has used to rail against, among other things, the "liberal" bias of Channel 4 News and the BBC's alleged belief that "all Islamist atrocities were the work of the international Jewish conspiracy".

Unlike, say, Johann Hari, Cohen has yet to apologise, or show any remorse or regret for, his outspoken support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. (You can catch up on the amusing spat between Hari and Cohen here and here. Or you can check out the row he had with his former Obs colleague and one-time Euston Manifesto ally Sunder Katwala, of the Fabians. The latter concluded: "We also have here the well-known phenomenon of the zeal of the convert. That is why several of the keenest neocons and Thatcherites had been Marxists . . . It is the personal politics of exchanging one set of absolute certainties for another, and proclaiming them with equal conviction and lack of nuance. Nick Cohen is another case in point. He offered an absurd 'agitprop-left' response to 9/11 and the initial military action against Afghanistan, then accused anybody who couldn't agree with him over Iraq as being in bad faith. As we all pick up the pieces, he is now shouting about the betrayal and failure to engage liberal Muslims . . . Cohen had every reason to already know he was spouting nonsense.")

I don't know Cohen. I've never met him or spoken to him. Upon joining the New Statesman last June, I made a conscious decision not to take potshots at him, out of a misplaced admiration for a journalist whom Roy Hattersley once described as "lucid, principled and irresistibly readable". (I even held my tongue in January when, unprovoked, he joined the online smear campaign against me on his Standpoint blog.)

But I can't do it any more. His columns become more ridiculous (not to mention right-wing) by the week. On 8 May, for example, Cohen urged the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition with the Conservatives (and not Labour): "There is no point in being in politics if they do not." The following week, however, on 16 May, he accused the Liberal Democrats of having "toffed up" the Cameron-led coalition and "sundered their links with the social democratic tradition", and described Vince Cable as a "good social democrat who threw in his lot with the Tories . . . a man with a mortal sin on his conscience."

Bizarre. Does the Observer not provide this man with an editor? A sub? A reviewer of copy?

Yesterday's column from Cohen saw the former leftist truth-teller eagerly defending Israel -- a country whose record of aggression and ethnic cleansing he had acknowledged in Cruel Britannia -- and accusing liberal critics of Israel of reviving "Europe's oldest anti-Semitic tropes". Perhaps Cohen should read the Israeli press before he sounds off about anti-Semitism and the Jewish state. Here are four headlines from Haaretz last week:

Ari Shavit: "Fiasco on the high seas"

Reuven Pedatzur: "A failure any way you slice it"

Yossi Sarid: "Seven idiots in the cabinet"

Gideon Levy: "Operation Mini Cast Lead"

Does Cohen expect us to believe the staff of Haaretz are Jew-haters? And is Nelson Mandela, who described Palestine as "the greatest moral issue of the age", a lazy anti-Semitic liberal as well?

But here is my favourite bit from Sunday's Obs column, on the subject of "Godwin's law":

Mike Godwin held in 1990 that the longer a discussion continues on the web the greater the likelihood that some fool invoking the Nazis would reduce it to absurdity. Today, reduction to Zionism has replaced reductio ad Hitlerum. It is impossible for discussions of Middle Eastern dictatorship, the rise of psychopathic Islamism or the alienation of immigrant Muslim communities in the west to continue without participants maintaining that Jewish influence is "the root cause" of the evils to hand. From the far left to the Liberal Democrats, alleged progressives have Jews on the brain.

Put aside the ludicrous and patronising idea that "alleged progressives" are all secret anti-Semites; focus instead on his invocation of Godwin's law, because he then hilariously confirms and obeys the law himself later in the same column. And not once, but twice:

1) "They [modern Arab rulers] need a conspiracy theory to divert the attention of their subject populations from the failures of their rule as badly as the tsars did in the 1900s and the Nazis in the 1930s."

2) "As with the European reactionaries of the 20th century, Islamists do not stop with Jew hatred."

I ask again: does the Observer not provide this man with an editor? A sub? A reviewer of copy?

One final point on Cohen: a man so committed to detecting anti-Semites and "Islamists" under every liberal and Muslim bed should be ultra-careful about his own language and indulgence of "tropes". Cohen claims to oppose Islamism, not Islam; Islamic extremists, not ordinary Muslims. But here he is, writing in the Observer in November 2009 about the Labour government's alleged "wooing" of religious, and in particular Muslim, "extremists":

At the Department for Communities, I am told that real power does not rest with the ineffective John Denham, but Shahid Malik, his deputy, who perhaps hopes that appeasing Jamaat and the Brotherhood will help him keep the core vote in his Dewsbury seat and enable a few other desperate Labour MPs to survive a potential Tory landslide as well.

Reread that paragraph again. It suggests that the then junior minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government, a Muslim, controlled the department from the shadows and used his "power" to advance the sectarian interests of "Islamist" groups and secure Muslim bloc votes. It is deeply offensive, paranoid and wholly inaccurate. Imagine if Cohen had written the following paragraph instead:

At the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I am told that real power does not rest with the ineffective David Miliband, but Ivan Lewis, his deputy, who perhaps hopes that appeasing Bicom and the Board of Deputies will help him keep the core vote in his Bury South seat and enable a few other desperate Labour MPs to survive a potential Tory landslide as well.

If he had written such a paragraph, we would, rightly, all be up in arms. Perhaps Nick Cohen should think about that the next time he chooses to fear-monger about Islam and Muslims.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.