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Can Obama woo the Muslim world?

Obama went to Cairo to woo the Muslim world. But one lofty speech won’t stop America from being loat

Ever since the attacks of 11 September 2001, Muslims whom I know, both in Britain and abroad, have taken an almost morbid pleasure in telling one particular joke about George Bush and Tony Blair. It seems that the two leaders are sitting at a White House dinner, whispering to one another in the corner, when a diplomat from a friendly nation walks over to them and asks what they are discussing.

“We’re finalising our plans for World War III,” says Bush.
“Really?” says the diplomat. “And what are the plans?”
“We’re planning a war which will kill 14 million Muslims and one dentist,” answers Bush.
A look of confusion appears on the face of the diplomat. “One . . . dentist?” he asks. “Why? Why would you kill one dentist?”
At which point, Bush turns to Blair and smirks: “I told you no one would give a damn about the Muslims.”

Some might argue that such black humour is illustrative of the paranoid and distrustful modern Muslim psyche. Perhaps it is – but, as the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

Eight years of disastrous invasions and oc­cupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, belligerent rhetoric towards Iran and Syria, and absolute US support for Israel’s bombardments of Lebanon and Gaza have incited hatred among the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims.

From the very outset, Bush’s so-called war on terror alienated and radicalised Muslims around the world and exacerbated levels of anti-American feeling. According to a Zogby poll, for example, between 2002 and 2004, the proportion of Egyptians with negative attitudes towards the United States jumped from 76 per cent to 98 per cent – that is, almost the entire country.

Egypt is where Barack Obama delivered his much-anticipated set-piece speech to the Islamic world, at Cairo University on 4 June – less than two months after a similar address to the Turkish parliament in Istanbul, where he pronounced that “the United States is not and will never be at war with Islam”.

Where getting a fair hearing is concerned, Obama benefits not simply from not being Bush, but also from charisma, background and a reputation as a calm, moderate politician.

“In the Middle East and the wider Muslim world, [US poll] ratings took a sharp dip after the invasion of Iraq,” says Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies and co-author of the book Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. “They never permanently recovered anywhere during the Bush years. Now we’re seeing them recover in 2009.”

Such is the weight given to her views and insights into the Muslim mindset that Obama appointed the 33-year-old Mogahed to his Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships, making her the first veiled woman to gain a position in the White House.

In the run-up to Obama’s speech in Cairo, Mogahed reiterated to reporters the importance of the president conveying to his global Muslim audience “the idea of respect, co-operation, and a demonstration of empathy”. Her own polling suggests that one of the most important things the US can do to improve relations with Muslims is to refrain from seeing them as being in any way inferior or backward.

For my part, however, I don’t think Mogahed goes far enough. Poll after poll in the Islamic world has demonstrated that, above all else, Muslim anti-Americanism is shaped not by cultural, religious or ideological factors, but by US policies, chief among them support for Israel and, more recently, the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

When asked, “What is the first thought when you hear ‘America’?”, Muslim respondents to the 2004 Zogby poll of six Arab nations overwhelmingly answered: “Unfair foreign policy.” And when asked what the US could do to improve its image and rebuild relations with the Islamic world, the most common answers were: “Stop supporting Israel” and “Change your Middle East policy”.

This is not new. Over half a century ago, in 1958, President Eisenhower described “the campaign of hatred [in the Arab world] against us, not by the governments but by the people”. His own National Security Council concluded that the “majority of Arabs” saw the US as “opposed to realisation of the goals of Arab nationalism” and interested only in protecting “its interest in Near East oil by supporting the status quo and opposing political or economic progress”.

Yet, bizarrely, in more recent years, the Bush administration and its acolytes in the media refused to concede any link at all, not even the slightest, between its policies in the Middle East – often intrusive and militaristic – and the consequent terrorist blowback, preferring instead to push the simplistic, almost childish, formula: “They hate us because we are free.”

What often goes unmentioned is that the Bush administration’s own independent advisers disagreed – and did so publicly. The Defence Science Board is a little-known 40-member federal advisory committee to the Pentagon, staffed by civilian experts from a variety of diplomatic, military, academic and business backgrounds. The board’s voluminous and usually technical reports have a tendency to focus on rather abstruse and recondite issues such as “Achieving Interoperability in a Net-Centric Environment” or “Logistics Transformation Phase II”.

In recent years, however, the one exception to this rule has been the scathing, if not devastating Report of the Defence Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication, produced in 2004, examining the effect of Bush’s various wars on America’s allies and enemies.

Its conclusions are as stark as they are damning: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom’ but rather, they hate our policies.”

“The overwhelming majority,” says the report, “voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favour of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the long-standing, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan and the Gulf states”.

How did the Bush administration react to the report? By burying it. Despite being completed on 23 September 2004, the report was quietly shelved by the then defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, until after the November presidential election that year – thereby denying it the maximum political impact. Sidney Blumenthal, a former White House adviser under President Clinton and consummate Washington insider, pointed out at the time that the report was “silently slipped on to a Pentagon website on Thanksgiving eve, and barely noticed by the US press”.

Frustratingly, in the lone story in the New York Times which covered the report, the author quoted from the paragraph that began: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom’” – but then omitted the crucial following sentence about what Muslims do object to: “. . . one-sided [US] support in favour of Israel and against Palestinian rights” as well as support for Muslim tyrannies. The Times did, however, include the sentence that immediately followed the missing one, suggesting that the author or his editors deliberately removed the crucially revealing yet controversial middle sentence from the paragraph.

It is no wonder that the 22-year CIA veteran and former head of the agency’s Osama Bin Laden Unit, Michael Scheuer, believes there has long been a conspiracy of silence among political and media elites in the United States about the real reasons for Muslim hatred of America. In his acclaimed book Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror, published in 2004, Scheuer argued that “while there may be a few Muslim militants out there who would blow up themselves and others because they are offended by McDonald’s restaurants, Iowa’s early presidential primary, and the semi-nude, fully pregnant Demi Moore on Esquire’s cover, they are exactly that: few, and no threat at all to US National Security”.

Rather, he wrote, “the United States is hated across the Islamic world because of specific government policies and actions”.

Five years on, Michael Scheuer says that he has no faith in Barack Obama’s ability to turn the tide of hatred, or to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world. Obama has “no intention of leaving Iraq or Afghanistan”, Scheuer told me. “In other words, his foreign policy in the Middle East is the [same as the] Republicans’ but with a softer voice.”

I am not so sure.

Obama may indeed have intensified the US war in Afghanistan and extended it to Pakistan, and he may have remained shamefully silent during the Israeli assault on Gaza in January, when he was president-elect, but in other areas policy seems to be changing – even if only very slowly. The Obama administration has, for example, belatedly demanded that Israel freeze its settlement-building activities in the occupied territories, made diplomatic overtures to Tehran, forbidden torture and pledged to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

There have been small yet not insignificant changes in other areas, too. As a victim of what one liberal commentator once called the “preventive war on innocent tourists” at US airports during the Bush era, and having been detained by Homeland Security for several hours at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas, in 2006 simply for having the terrorist-sounding surname “Hasan”, I can testify to the changed atmosphere in the Obama era. In May this year, on my return to Bush Intercontinental, I was welcomed by a smiling immigration officer who waved me through passport control.

As countless commentators and analysts have noted, Obama is the change that he promised. This applies at home and abroad, and especially vis-à-vis the US and its fraught relations with the Muslim world. The mere presence of Obama in the White House begins to address the “fundamental problem of [US] credibility” highlighted by the Defence Science Board report of 2004. “Simply there is none,” it concluded at the time, adding that “the United States is without a working channel of communication to the world of Muslims and of Islam”.

This is emphatically no longer the case. The fact remains that when America’s new president stood up on 4 June to deliver his speech in Cairo, his sceptical, distrustful and largely disillusioned global Muslim audience was confronted by not a swaggering Texan cowboy with a tendency to talk of war, crusades and Islamic fascists, but a black man, with the middle name “Hussein”, born to a Muslim father and raised in the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, by a Muslim stepfather. Obama, in and of himself, embodies America’s “channel of communication” to the Islamic world, and it is his name, his heritage and his appearance that will help him to begin breaking down the barriers between the two cultures.

But it won’t be enough.

Fundamentally, the likes of Michael Scheuer and the Defence Science Board are correct. If Obama cannot pledge and deliver on meaningful and long-lasting changes to radicalising US policy in the region, if he cannot bring himself to confront the Muslim view of America’s actions as it is – and not as he and predecessors assume it to be – if his actions don’t speak louder than his words, then no amount of lofty rhetoric or stentorian intonation in Cairo, or, for that matter, Istanbul, will make even the slightest bit of difference. Nor will his appearance, background or “Islamic” heritage.

On the contrary, as Scheuer put it to me, rather bluntly: “Muslims are not stupid. They will demand that President Obama’s words be matched with deeds – and if he fails to deliver, his looks, name and ethnicity will make the negative Muslim reaction even worse.”

Mehdi Hasan is the New Statesman’s senior editor (politics)

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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They know where you live

Imagine your house being raided by armed police. That’s what happened to Mumsnet’s Justine Roberts after she fell victim to an internet hoaxer.

At around midnight on Tuesday 11 August 2015, a man dialled 999 to report a murder. A woman had been killed in her London home, he said, before hanging up without offering his name. A second call followed. This time, the man claimed to be the killer. He told the operator that he had now taken the woman’s children hostage at the Islington address. They were locked with him inside a room in the house, he said. The police responded with reassuring speed. Fifteen minutes later, eight officers, five of them armed with automatic weapons, accompanied by saliva-flecked dogs, arrived at the scene and took up position in neighbouring front gardens. When one officer banged on the front door of the house, the team was greeted, moments later, not by a masked murderer but by a blinking and bewildered au pair.

Justine Roberts, the woman whom the caller claimed to have killed, was in fact nearly 2,000 kilometres away – in Italy, holidaying with her husband and children. After explaining this to the police, the au pair called Roberts, who assumed that the incident was an unfortunate misunderstanding, one that could be unpicked after the vacation. It was no mistake. Roberts had been the victim of “swatting”, the term given to a false emergency call designed to bait an armed unit of police officers to storm someone’s home. It wasn’t until a few days later, as the family was preparing to return to London, that Roberts discovered that she had been the target of a planned and sustained attack, not only on her household, but also on her business.

Roberts is the founder of Mumsnet, the popular British internet discussion forum on which parents share advice and information. A few days before the swatting incident, members of 8chan, a chat room that prides itself on being an open, anonymous platform for free speech, no matter how distasteful, had registered accounts on Mums­net with the aim of trolling people there. When legitimate Mumsnet users identified and then ridiculed the trolls, some retreated to 8chan to plot more serious vengeance in a thread that the police later discovered. Roberts wasn’t involved in the online skirmish but, as the public face of the site, she was chosen as the first target.

After the initial armed response, Roberts’s perception was that the police were unconcerned about the swatting attack. “We were told that there was no victim, so there was not much that could be done,” she told me. The hoax caller, however, was not finished. In the days after the incident, there was chatter on Mumsnet and Twitter about what had happened. A Mumsnet user whom I will call Jo Scott – she requested anonymity for her own safety – exchanged heated messages with a hacker who claimed responsibility for the 999 call.

“It descended into jokes and silliness, like many things do,” Scott said. “I didn’t take it seriously when the hacker said he had big surprises in store.” She doesn’t believe that what happened next was personal. “I think I was just easy to find.”

A few days after police were called to Roberts’s home, Scott was in her bedroom while her husband was sitting downstairs playing video games. At 11pm, she heard a noise outside. “I looked out of the window and saw blue flashing lights in the street,” she recalled. “I could hear shouting but I didn’t pay it much notice.” Then she heard her husband open the front door. Police rushed into the house. An armed officer shouted upstairs, asking Scott if she was hurt. When she replied that she was fine, he told her to fetch her two young children: he needed to see them. Scott shook her sons awake, explaining, so as not to alarm them, that the police had come to show the boys their cars. As the three of them went downstairs, the officers swept up through the house, repeatedly asking if there were any weapons on the property.

“I was beyond confused by this point,” Scott said. “Everyone was carrying a gun. They had little cutaway bits so you could see the bullets. My eldest asked one of the officers if he could have a go on his gun and went to touch it.”

As Scott sat with an officer downstairs, she asked what had happened to her husband. “I later found out that the noises I’d heard were the police calling for him to come outside,” she said. “He dropped the PlayStation controller as he left the room. It was only later that we realised it’s a good job he did: in the dark, the controller might have looked like a weapon.”

Outside, Scott’s husband had been surrounded and arrested. Other police ­officers were on the lookout in the front gardens of nearby properties, having warned the couple’s neighbours to stay indoors, away from their windows. “One of the officers said it was beginning to look like a hoax,” Scott said. “Then he mentioned swatting. As soon as he said that word, I twigged that I’d seen the term that day on Twitter in relation to the Mumsnet hack.”

***

The term “swatting” has been used by the FBI since 2008. “Swat” is an acronym of “Special Weapons and Tactics”, the American police squads routinely called to intervene in hostage situations. It is, in a sense, a weaponised version of a phoney order of pizza, delivered as a prank to a friend’s home, albeit one that carries the possibility of grave injury at the hands of police. For perpetrators, the appeal is the ease with which the hoax can be set in motion and the severity of the results. With a single, possibly untraceable phone call, dialled from anywhere in the world, it is possible to send an armed unit to any address, be it the home of a high-profile actor whom you want to prank or that of someone you want to scare.

In America, where swatting originated, the practice has become so widespread – targets have included Tom Cruise, Taylor Swift, Clint Eastwood and the Californian congressman Ted Lieu – that it is now classed as an act of domestic terrorism. In the UK, where Justine Roberts’s was one of the first recorded cases, swatting is classed as harassment, though that may change if these and other forms of internet vigilante attacks, such as doxxing, become increasingly commonplace.

Doxxing involves the publication of someone’s personal details – usually their home address, phone numbers, bank details and, in some cases, email address – on the internet. It is often the prelude to swatting: after all, the perpetrator of a hoax cannot direct the police to the target’s home address until this is known. (During the week of the Mumsnet attacks, one of the perpetrators attempted to locate another target using their computer’s IP address, which can identify where a person is connected to the internet, often with alarming precision. Their calculation, however, was slightly out; police were called to a neighbour’s address.)

Though doxxing has a less dramatic outcome than swatting, the psychological effects can be just as severe. For victims – usually people who are active on the internet and who have outspoken opinions or who, in the eyes of an internet mob, have committed some kind of transgression – the mere threat of having their personal information made available on the web can cause lasting trauma. A Canadian software developer whose home address, bank details, social security number and email history were published online in 2014 told me that he now keeps an axe by his front door. “I still don’t feel safe here,” he said. “It’s terrifying.”

Christos Reid, a social media manager for a software company, was doxxed last year. Reid’s information came from a website he had registered seven years earlier. “I woke up one morning to find a tweet announcing my personal details,” he told me. When he asked the Twitter account holder to take down the address, he was told to commit suicide. Reid said he was “OK for about half an hour”; but then, after he went out, he broke down in the street. “I’ve become more paranoid,” he said. He no longer gives out business cards with personal information.

Reid lives in London, but at the time of the doxx he was attending an event in Nottingham, home to the British police’s largest cybercrime division. He was impressed with the police response, even though they told him that they had not heard of the term “doxxing” before. “I was interviewed by two separate people about my experiences who then compiled everything into a case file and transferred it to the Met. When I arrived home, an officer visited me to discuss what happened and my options.”

The policeman explained harassment law to Reid, and offered advice on how to improve security at his flat and what to do if someone hostile turned up at the address. Reid shouldered the repercussions of what had happened alone; no suspects were identified. A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police similarly said that although detectives from Islington CID have investigated the swatting attacks made on Roberts and Scott, no suspects have been identified “at this time”, even as “inquiries continue”.

Doxxing may seem to be a mild form of harassment but it carries with it an implicit threat of impending violence; the worrying message is: “We know where you live.” Unlike swatting, which is always malicious, doxxing is sometimes viewed by its perpetrators as virtuous. In November 2014, hackers claiming to be aligned with the internet group Anonymous published personal information allegedly belonging to a Ku Klux Klan member from Missouri. The hackers said that their action was a response to the KKK’s threat to use lethal force against demonstrators in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, protesting against the killing of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer. In January 2015 hackers claiming to be from Isis took over US Central Command’s Twitter account and posted information about senior military officers, including phone numbers and email addresses. In each case, those carrying out the doxxing believed, however mistakenly, in the virtue of their actions and hoped that the information could be used to bring punishment or ruin to the subject.

The term “doxxing” may be new but the practice is an old one. The Hollywood blacklist revealed the political beliefs and associations of actors and directors in the late 1940s as a way to invite shame, deny employment and dissuade others from following their example. “But it has become a lot easier to find people’s private details with the help of the internet,” Jeroen Vader told me. Vader owns Pastebin, a website that allows users to upload and distribute text documents, and where much of the personal data is anonymously uploaded and shared. “People post their private information on social networks,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t aware that their information is so easily available to others.”

In Justine Roberts’s case, the perpetrator may not even have needed to look at social networks to mine her personal information. “If you’re on the electoral roll, you’re easy to find,” she said. “There’s not much you can do to stop people getting hold of your data one way or another, whether it’s for nefarious reasons or simply to better advertise to you. We live in a world that is constantly trying to gather more information about us.”

Jeroen Vader said he has noticed an “upward trend” in the number of doxxing posts uploaded to Pastebin in recent months, but insisted that when someone uses the site’s abuse report system these offending posts are removed immediately.

Across social media companies, action is more often reactive than proactive. Victoria Taylor, a former director at Reddit, one of the largest community-driven websites in the world, said that the rule against publishing other users’ personal information has been “consistently one of the site’s most basic policies” and that “any violation of this rule is taken extremely seriously by the team and community”. Still, she was only able to recommend that victims of doxxing send a message to the site’s administrators. Similarly, when asked what a person can do to remove personal details that have been published without permission, a Twitter spokesperson said: “Use our help form.”

The spokesperson added: “There has def­initely been an overall increase in doxxing since 2006, both on Twitter and on the internet more generally.” She attributed this rise to the emergence of search engines such as Intelius and Spokeo, services designed to locate personal information.

***

The surge in the number of dox­xing and swatting attacks is in part a result of the current lack of legal protection for victims. Confusion regarding the law on doxxing is pervasive; the term is even not mentioned in either US or European law. In a tutorial posted on Facebook in 2013, the writer claims: “Doxxing isn’t illegal as all the information you have obtained is public,” and adds: “But posting of the doxx might get you in a little trouble.”

Phil Lee, a partner in the privacy, security and information department of Fieldfisher based at the law firm’s office in Silicon Valley, said that differing privacy laws around the world were part of the problem. “Various countries have laws that cover illegal or unauthorised obtaining of data. Likewise, some of the consequences of releasing that data, such as defamation or stalking, cover elements of what we now term doxxing. But there is no global law covering what is a global phenomenon.” Indeed, Roberts believes that her London address was targeted from America – the 999 call was routed through a US proxy number.

One challenge to creating a law on doxxing is that the sharing of personal information without permission has already become so widespread in the digital age. “If a law was to state something like, ‘You must not post personal information about another person online without their consent,’ it wouldn’t reflect how people use the internet,” Lee said. “People post information about what their friends and family members have been doing all the time without their consent.

“Such a law could have a potentially detrimental effect on freedom of speech.”

Lee believes that a specific law is unnecessary, because its potentially harmful effects are already covered by three discrete pieces of legislation dealing with instances where a person’s private information is obtained illegally, when that information is used to carry out illegal acts and when the publication of the information is accompanied by a threat to incite hatred. However, this does not adequately account for cases in which the information is obtained legally, and then used to harass the individual in a more legally ambiguous manner, either with prank phone calls or with uninvited orders of pizza.

Susan Basko, an independent lawyer who practises in California and who has been doxxed in the course of her frequent clashes with internet trolls, believes that the onus should be on the law, rather than the public. She points out that in the US it is a crime to publicise information about a government employee such as their home address, their home and cellphone numbers, or their social security number, even if the information is already online. “This law should apply to protect all people, not just federal employees,” she said. “And websites, website-hosting companies and other ISPs should be required to uphold this law.”

Basko said that doxxing will continue to increase while police have inadequate resources to follow up cases. For now, it is up to individuals to take preventative measures. Zoë Quinn, an American game designer and public speaker who was doxxed in 2014, has launched Crash Override, a support network and assistance group for targets of online harassment, “composed entirely of experienced survivors”.

Quinn, who spoke about the problem at a congressional hearing in Washington, DC in April last year, recently posted a guide on how to reduce the likelihood of being doxxed. “If you are worried you might some day be targeted,” she wrote, “consider taking an evening to stalk yourself online, deleting and opting out of anything you’re not comfortable with.”

Both Scott and Roberts have changed their privacy habits following the attacks. Scott is more careful about interacting with strangers online, while Roberts uses scrambler software, which ensures that she never uses the same password for more than one online site or service.

For both women’s families, the effects of their encounters with armed police have also lingered. When one day recently Roberts’s husband returned home early from work, the au pair called the police, believing it was an intruder. And Scott is haunted by what happened.

“What if my husband had made a sudden move or resisted in some way? What if my eldest had grabbed the gun instead of gently reaching for it? What if people locally believed that my husband did actually have guns in the house?” she asks. “I don’t think the people making these sorts of hoax calls realise the impact.” 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism