Hilary Lawson on error, philosophy and TED: “It’s really a business conference organisation”

Preview: How The Light Gets In.

If you walk north from the main festival site at Hay, through the town along Broad Street onto Heol Y Dwr, you’ll come to a separate enclosure. Inside there are small tents, a three-chambered pavilion, food and music stands, fronted by a repurposed 18th century chapel. You won’t find any readings or book signings. Instead, you’ll find little arguments.

How The Light Gets In, the annual festival organised by the Institute of Art and Ideas, aims to use music and philosophy to destabilise the reigning orthodoxies of modern thought. We no longer live in a religious age, but rather, as John Gray has argued, an age in which secular humanism – with its faith in human and technological progress – is the dominant mode of thought.

The festival was named for Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”, and this year’s theme, “Error, Lies and Adventure”, has been chosen to inspect the cracks. Terry Pratchett, AS Byatt and Terry Eagleton will debate the usefulness of fantasy to human understanding; Will Hutton, Shirley Williams and Cory Doctorow will ask whether we have reached the final days of the American Empire, and Oliver James, Frank Furedi and Richard Bentall will discuss the roll of power and influence in psychiatric practice. These are just three of over four-hundred events.

I spoke to Hilary Lawson, author of Closure (2001) and founder of the Institute of Art and Ideas, about “error”, TED and philosophy.

How did this year’s theme come about?

Each year we go for a theme to structure our events. We try to go for themes that we think are contemporary and at the edge of current thinking. One of the ways in which the festival is a little different from others is that we don’t simply identify well-known people in relevant fields and invite them along to talk. That’s not how we function. We identify what we think are the big intellectual themes, break them into smaller debates, and set about deciding who’s saying the most interesting things about each topic.

In the case of “error, lies and adventure”, there are lots of different layers. The first is that we tend to regard error as being something to be avoided, certainly in public life. Instead we should be looking at error as a way of realising that there’s something wrong with the way one is doing things which provokes new challenge and adventure. I think there was bigger philosophical thought … do you have any philosophical background yourself?

Not especially. My reaction to the theme was to think about the usefulness of error: that not every problem is a deviation which can and ought to be “fixed”. There’s also the serendipitous nature of acquiring knowledge – the hazardous, random aspects of the learning process. A lot of the time we have no control over the way knowledge is spread and I kind of like that. Sorry, that’s a long answer … I don’t have any philosophical training.

But it’s all related. One of the things we have been exploring in the biggest broad-brush sense is where does culture go after postmodernism? If you’re drawing huge brush strokes through decades of thinking – what is going on at the moment? Well, we had modernism and scientism and the belief that science would eventually uncover the truth about everything – and though there are some people who still think that is the case and indeed most of the media still operates in that frame – intellectually speaking, postmodernism and relativism have become more dominant. That’s left a lot of people intellectually lost.

To operate in a postmodern space where there are alternative ways of holding the world and there’s no objective truth is not entirely satisfactory. We have to get things done. We have to decide what matters and what works and all of those sorts of things, but we can’t just revert to some previous modernist notion that we’re going to discover the secrets of the universe tomorrow and that we might just lay them out in an educational form.

So, we could put the rigorous optimism of say, TED talks, at one end of the spectrum, and the useless polarisation of the sciences and humanities at (undergraduate level at least) in our universities, at the other?

I think that the academy has lost itself. As far as philosophy is concerned the academy is still operating with a framework which is one-hundred years old: a sort of Russell-Wittgenstein framework. A belief in clarifying what you mean by your words. This may have been exciting 100 years ago but it certainly isn’t exciting any more. When we started which was four or five years ago I think the primary perception of philosophy was Monty Python’s football match – a sort of joke. You certainly wouldn’t take philosophers seriously, they were just people to be laughed at, couldn’t even manage to kick a football. So our thought was, “this is crazy, it is obviously the case that we are all philosophers in the sense that all we wonder what it means to be alive and what’s going in the world and what’s really true.”

A lot of discussion of science in the media is both misrepresentative and false. I’m particularly irked by the news stories which say “well, y’know, the geneticists say this about our behaviour and so therefore case closed.” A first rate geneticist will in fact tell you our behaviour cannot always be explained by such easy assumptions.

We have lots of science debates, but our science debates aren’t about presenting science, rather, they’re examining whether this is a good way of going about things and asking what are the challenges to it. So in fact, the closer you look at science you see it’s full of underlying arguments and, as it were, black holes in thinking – rather than it being presented as a monolith of knowledge which is gradually uncovering the truth. What we’re trying to do in those situations is identify the big issues which lie behind the developments around science and to examine them and challenge them.

One of the ways in which we differ to TED is that they focus on giving individuals a platform (and I would say, those individuals frequently have commercial interests as well and a particular point to make – it’s really a business conference organisation.) What we do is try to focus on the debate. We do have individual talks, but we don’t let them do that unless they’re also prepared to be in debate and its debates that drive our festival programme and the IAI site.

It’s easy to forget that half of the festival is dedicated to music. Does having live music, in some way, help the intellectual atmosphere along?

The reason we have music is that if you go into a lecture hall, it's rather po-faced. There are all sorts of status and hierarchy issues in the lecture hall. Our venues are relatively small - our biggest venues have an audience of about 250 - so if you’re in our audience you can ask a question or make a point without it being a vehicle for the handful of people wanting to promote themselves. If there is some music drifting in from an acoustic set happening outside it stops people thinking “gosh that’s the professor of Physics from Harvard I can’t possibly have anything to say to them” and it somehow encourages space where people really talk to each other.

Really it's how student life should work: we have our debates and talks during the day, and in the evening we have a party. Of course, some of the best conversations happen in the evening. You see our speakers shouting to each other on the dancefloor about a debate that they’ve been in.

Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to this year, as distinct from last?

People frequently say to me “what’s the thing you’re looking forward to most” and I say “well, we’ve got 450…”, it’s not really reasonable to be looking forward to one. We didn't mention it before, but the third layer to the theme is that if you operate in a postmodernist space, one of the puzzles is that the reason people get lost is that it looks as if anything goes. If there’s no objective truth how do you discriminate between one thing and another? One question that’s interesting there is the question of error. There may not be objective truth but there clearly is error.

Error seems to be a starting point for so many things. The discovery and imagination that has come about through error, for example. Joyce relished mistakes – there are all those great anecdotes about the mistakes in Finnigan’s Wake, which he kept and still exist in the book today. It also has moral connotations. These are, I suppose, further layers.

We’ve tended to focus on trying to avoid error and just trying to present things as “truth”, but in an odd sort of way its almost the reverse, that we can never arrive at an ultimate truth. What is interesting is that we can say things that are in some way wrong. How does that work? How is it that the world enables us to get things wrong, but it somehow doesn’t enable us to get things right?

How The Light Gets In will run from 23 May to 2 June in Hay-on-Wye.

Let there be light. A bookshop in Hay-on-Wye. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era