City remembers: New York mayor Bill de Blasio at the 9/11 memorial. Photo: Getty
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It’s New York, it’s almost Christmas and we’re ladies: but we’re not here to shop

Tracey Thorn’s Off the Record column. 

I’m sentimental about New York. I’ve spent enough time here over the years to feel some connection but never enough for the magic to fade, so it’s still Wonderland to me. In my ear sings Paddy McAloon – “Strolling Fifth Avenue,/Just to think, Sinatra’s been here, too . . .” – and I share his rose-tinted specs.

So I’m almost disappointed to discover that nowadays two women visiting for a long weekend, as my sister and I are, will be assumed by everyone from the check-in people to the cabin crew to be on a shopping trip. It’s New York, it’s the run-up to Christmas and, hey! You’re ladies, you must be shopping, am I right?

No, we’re not and despite our smiles we are slightly affronted at the suggestion, for we are here not to buy but to look. To walk and wander, eat and drink, marvel at it all. To “hang”, if you like. We have restaurants booked, theatre tickets lined up, excursions planned, a four-day, non-stop itinerary to keep to, so we are ready and raring to go. Much like the man next to me on the plane who, as we prepare to land at JFK, reaches into his bag for a can of deodorant and shoves it up his shirt to give each armpit a blast. It’s New York, after all. Being prepared is the least you can do.

I first came here on tour back in the 1980s; old photos show me eager and youthful, posing reverentially outside the Brill Building, my dyed blonde spiky hair blown back by the howling gale at the top of the Empire State. In the 1990s, Ben and I tried living here for a very short while, in an apartment over a now-derelict shoe shop on Chambers Street where, a few years later, some of the rescue operation would be based after 9/11.

Our stay was long ago and the city has changed so much, but the shadow of 9/11 and all that followed still hangs over it. At least, I assume that shadow is what accounts for so much of the continued security everywhere – the bag searches at the Empire State Building, the police presence all the way across the Brooklyn Bridge, the coastguard patrol boat with a machine gun mounted on the prow escorting the Staten Island Ferry.

The romantic in me has always seen the city as a place of vibrancy and joy but these reminders of sadness are hard to ignore. They’re brought into focus at the 9/11 Memorial, a vast water feature sited on the footprint of the twin towers. There’s something Zen-like and calming about it, a huge version of the flowing water in Japanese temple gardens, but at the same time I can’t help seeing it as a kind of giant sink, conjuring up the unwelcome thought of lives being washed away down the plughole. The idea feels disrespectful but perhaps it’s not wrong to feel the awful sense of loss and of waste. People literally vanished into the ground beneath our feet here, down where the water flows.

After this sorrow, the rest of our trip is all joy. We walk for miles and stare at all the sights and drink in little bars to a soundtrack of Feist and New Order, Spandau Ballet and Dolly Parton. We go to an evening of Peggy Lee songs performed by a varied line-up of singers, all fantastic.

Finally, for our last night, we splash out on a midtown hotel with a view. Checking in, we hear that our travel agent is one of the hotel’s “preferred partners” and from that moment we are treated like royalty, both of us upgraded to a suite on the 49th floor and handed $100 to spend in the spa. Being a cool and world-weary traveller, I spend only two hours taking photos of the room, which is the size of a decent flat.

Even this high up and through the thick double glazing, you can hear the streets below, car horns and police sirens. On it goes, noise and lights, all day and all night, a gift of sound and vision.

When I return later, a fog has descended and my room is almost lost in it. The view now is pure Gotham City. Or Blade Runner, thrilling and spooky and I have never felt further from home.

If I ever get blasé about New York, please take me out and shoot me. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos
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Why defeating Islamic State means taking on the digital caliphate

A new book by Liam Byrne explains that the British government is making a critical mistake in its methods of combating home-grown extremism.

The terrorist group Islamic State caught the world by surprise in June 2014 when it declared a caliphate in the heart of the Middle East. Within a few months, like an avenging fire, it had scorched across Syria and much of Iraq, carving out an empire stretching more than 400 miles from Aleppo to the Iraqi town of Sulaiman Bek, which lies just 60 miles from the Iranian border.

IS, or Isis, or Da’esh, seemed unstoppable but it has now been pushed back, possibly decisively. Since 2014, it has lost an estimated 45,000 jihadists, as well as control of key towns and resources. Its enemies – Kurds, Iraqi troops and Shia militias – are in Iraq’s second city, Mosul, and are advancing on the group’s de facto Syrian capital, Raqqa. But, as the Labour MP Liam Byrne points out in this timely book, the fight against Isis and its brutal ideology has many fronts. Isis is obsessed with controlling territory and creating a global caliphate. But it existed for many years without territory. With its war on the world going badly, its digital caliphate is becoming ever more important.

In his wide-ranging and discursive study, Byrne concentrates on what is perhaps the most significant fight of all: the “battle of ideas”. His journey has taken him to northern Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. He makes his most interesting discoveries, however, in his own constituency of Birmingham Hodge Hill, where Muslims boast the highest share of the population (52 per cent) of any area in the UK.

Byrne concludes that Isis and other jihadi groups such as Boko Haram and al-Qaeda are fundamentally heretical by nature. Essentially they are death cults, with as much relevance to most Muslims as David Koresh and Jim Jones had to “mainstream” Christians. Ironically, Isis claims to espouse the purest form of Islam, pursued in the 7th century by the Prophet Muhammad. Thus, it believes that it has the power to excommunicate apostates, an act known as takfir, and the right to exterminate them. This has metastasised into genocide, as Christians, Kurds, Yazidis and, above all, Muslims in the Middle East can attest.

Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the group, which then called itself alQaeda, morphed with Saddam Hussein’s avowedly secular Ba’ath Party. In effect, this was the merger of a terrorist group and an embittered terror apparatus. The objective of Isis was to trigger conflict between Iraq’s Shia majority, which came to power after the invasion, and the Sunni minority, which had hitherto ruled the roost. The group’s global aim was to foment division between Muslims and everyone else.

Byrne believes the British government is making a critical mistake in its methods of combating home-grown extremism. It has bought in to a “clash of civilisations” doctrine that makes Islam the problem. In the UK, counter-extremism programmes such as Prevent are based on a “conveyor belt” theory that identifies religious conservatism as the trigger for radicalisation. But Byrne, citing security and academic sources, argues that anger and resentment, often engendered by a sense of marginalisation, are more powerful factors: “. . . the starting point for radicalisation may in fact be rage rather than religion”. Jihadists have often created their own version of Islam after conducting rudimentary research online; two Birmingham men convicted of fighting in Syria ordered copies of Islam for Dummies on Amazon before leaving for the front line.

We should – at the very least – recognise the true nature of the extremist threat we face. The US president-elect’s declared solutions to dealing with Isis include bombing “the shit out of ’em” and barring all Muslims from entering his country. Reason and rationality may seem in short supply these days, but they have a habit of returning once people tire of the dispiriting alternatives. In the meantime, we could do worse than reach for Byrne’s excellent, revealing and clear-sighted book.

Andrew Hosken is a BBC reporter and the author of “Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State” (Oneworld)

Black Flag Down: Counter-Extremism, Defeating Isis and Winning the Battle of Ideas by Liam Byrne is published by Biteback (258pp, £12.99​)

Liam Byrne and Michael Gove will discuss Isis, Islamist terror and the “battle of ideas” with the NS contributing writer Shiraz Maher on 12 December in London. To book tickets visit newstatesman.co.uk/events or call 020 3096 5789​

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage