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In this week’s New Statesman | The deep roots of Isis

A first look at this week’s magazine.

21 November 2014 issue

Cover story: The deep roots of Isis

Karen Armstrong on Wahhabism - how Saudi Arabia’s extreme form of Islam led to the rise of jihad in the Middle East

Plus

Jeremy Bowen’s Syria Notebook: How Bashar al-Assad looks more comfortable than ever – and why I tweet pictures of food from warzones

Special report on prostitution: Lucy Fisher meets the male punters who believe it is their ‘right’ to buy sex

Former Europhile Mehdi Hasan turns against the EU: “We were wrong then, let’s not be wrong now”

George Eaton on the political advantages of minority government and the possibility of a second election in 2015

Football agent Jon Holmes: Fifa is now plumbing new depths of comic-book villainy

Books special: Simon Heffer on a glut of Waterloo histories

Anoosh Chakelian: how the Labour safe seat of Holborn and St Pancras became a Green target

Fiction’s religious turn: Philip Maughan on the novelists challenging the New Atheist consensus

 

Cover story: The deep roots of Isis

In this extended essay, the author and religious commentator Karen Armstrong argues that “although Islamic State is certainly an Islamic movement, it is neither typical nor mired in the distant past” because Isis’s roots are in radical Wahhabism, which emerged in Saudi Arabia only in the 18th century. Armstrong explains how this religiously conservative movement was exported from Saudi Arabia and how its values are now embedded in much of the Muslim world:

The soaring oil price created by the 1973 embargo – when Arab petroleum producers cut off supplies to the US to protest against the Americans’ military support for Israel – gave the kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] all the petrodollars it needed to export its idiosyncratic form of Islam. The old military jihad to spread the faith was now replaced by a cultural offensive. The Saudi-based Muslim World League opened offices in every region inhabited by Muslims, and the Saudi ministry of religion printed and distributed Wahhabi translations of the Quran, Wahhabi doctrinal texts and the writings of modern thinkers whom the Saudis found congenial, such as Sayyids Abul-A’la Maududi and Qutb, to Muslim communities throughout the Middle East, Africa, Indonesia, the United States and Europe. In all these places, they funded the building of Saudi-style mosques with Wahhabi preachers and established madrasas that provided free education for the poor, with, of course, a Wahhabi curriculum. At the same time, young men from the poorer Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan, who had felt compelled to find work in the Gulf to support their families, associated their relative affluence with Wahhabism and brought this faith back home with them, living in new neighbourhoods with Saudi mosques and shopping malls that segregated the sexes. The Saudis demanded religious conformity in return for their munificence, so Wahhabi rejection of all other forms of Islam as well as other faiths would reach as deeply into Bradford, England, and Buffalo, New York, as into Pakistan, Jordan or Syria: everywhere gravely undermining Islam’s traditional pluralism.

A whole generation of Muslims, therefore, has grown up with a maverick form of Islam that has given them a negative view of other faiths and an intolerantly sectarian understanding of their own.

Understanding that Islamic State is not a remnant of a primitive past but a product of modernity is key to dealing with the threat, Armstrong warns. She believes the movement might finally be running out of steam:

IS may have overreached itself; its policies may not be sustainable and it faces determined opposition from Sunni and Shia Muslims alike. Interestingly Saudi Arabia, with its impressive counterterrorist resources, has already thwarted IS attempts to launch a series of attacks in the kingdom and may be the only regional power capable of bringing it down.

 

Jeremy Bowen: Syria Notebook

The BBC’s Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, reports from Damascus as the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad begins to regain his grip:

The big conclusion I take away from ten days in Damascus is that the regime of Bashar al-Assad seems more comfortable than at any time since the war started in 2011. On one level, that doesn’t seem logical. The Syrian president has lost control of large parts of the country. The jihadists of Islamic State and the Nusra Front, which is an al-Qaeda affiliate, are on the rise. Groups that include the Free Syrian Army are more than holding their own in the south.

But in Damascus, the war seems to have receded. The city no longer shakes quite so much from the cracks and booms of outgoing artillery fire. The Syrian armed forces have taken ground around the capital, and negotiated local ceasefires. Rebels are still fighting and plenty of people are still dying. Syria’s war has pulled in all its neighbours, in one way or another. But President Assad appears to have more possibilities now.

Bowen also explains how he is using Twitter to convey something of daily life in a warzone – but not everybody approves:

Recently, as well as reporting on what’s happening for the BBC, I have taken to tweeting pictures of food. I’ve sent plenty from Damascus. That’s partly because I think food tells you a lot about a society. But also because it is important to show how people live as well as how they die. I have had a quite a severe trolling from those who disapprove, on the grounds that anything other than the horror of war is a distortion and a distraction. I disagree. If you don’t like it, trolls, don’t look at the pictures

 

The Politics Column: Will 2015 be a year of two elections?

The NS politics editor, George Eaton, asks if the age of coalitions is now over with both main parties seemingly reconciled to the prospect of a minority administration:

One senior Conservative backbencher told me that having promised Tory MPs a vote on a second deal with the Lib Dems, David Cameron would “struggle” to win their approval. The Prime Minister, he argued, should run a minority administration (an option many believe he should have pursued in 2010) and seek parliamentary support for populist measures such as an EU referendum on an individual basis. This would culminate in a snap election aimed at securing a majority.

Labour is even less amenable to the prospect of coalition than the Conservatives. Four years on from the election, most MPs maintain an undiminished tribal loathing of the Lib Dems. One shadow cabinet minister told me: “Clegg or no Clegg, I wouldn’t enter government with them.”

Eaton finds that not all Liberal Democrats are averse to the idea of minority rule either:

The Lib Dems have long threatened to bring down any party that has the “arrogance” (in the words of one strategist) to try to rule without a majority. But some can see the advantage of a period outside of government to allow their war-weary party to convalesce. Significantly, Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president and the most likely successor to Clegg, told me that his party “should not rule out” the option of tolerating a minority administration

 

Special report: Lucy Fisher on prostitution’s male punters

The NS reporter-at-large Lucy Fisher asks why so little attention is paid to the male punters whose demand for sex fuels prostitution:

If prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, then punting is the oldest consumer activity. Yet it remains broadly unexamined, perhaps because the questions it raises – about male desire and power, about society – are too uncomfortable.

Fisher takes to the online forum PunterNet to find out who these men are and their views, if any, about the ethics and legality of the behaviour they engage in:

The posts on the PunterNet site range from obscenely violent and misogynistic descriptions of experiences with prostitutes to mundane notes on the easy availability of off-road parking.

[ . . .]

The prevailing view of the punters I contacted for this article was that, in one way or another, a man always “pays” for sex. Many viewed marriage and relationships as intrinsically economic relationships, in which the man provided financial security in return for sex, among other rewards. Some justified their use of prostitutes as merely an equivalent transaction. One man notes: “The question shouldn’t be, ‘Why pay for sex?’ It should be: ‘Why not pay for sex?’ We pay for lots of things in life. Sex is just another commodity.”

[ . . .]

Many punters offer justifications akin to that of a sweatshop boss: they hold the economic and social power, and they believe the exploitation of that power – using it over another person – is legitimate. If a woman is poor and “wants” to sell her body, they see nothing wrong with purchasing it for sex. As one punter says: “Some of them on PunterNet talk about women like they’re a commodity, that’s true. I don’t think it makes any difference as long as you treat the lady well. At the end of the day, it is a business.”

 

Mehdi Hasan: my teenage Europhilia is now a source of embarrassment

A tweet from Eurosceptic MEP Daniel Hannan promoting a Wrong Then, Wrong Now video prompts Mehdi Hasan to recall with embarrassment the days of his “wild-eyed teenage Europhilia”. Hasan finds it increasingly difficult to defend the EU project:

Today, Europe is only marginally more popular with the public than ebola; hard-right parties are sweeping to victory in European elections in the UK, France and Denmark; and the eurozone has only narrowly dodged a triple-dip recession. With all this going on, it’s pretty difficult to mount a credible defence of the single currency or, for that matter, the EU itself.

Hasan asks where all the progressive critics of the EU have gone:

The left across Europe has been seduced by the EU’s promise of workers’ rights – forgetting that you can’t enjoy those rights if you don’t have a job to begin with. Mass unemployment is now a fact of life across swaths of the EU and, especially, the eurozone. More than half of young people are jobless in both Greece and Spain, yet unelected Eurocrats still want more growth-choking austerity.

This is a political and economic scandal, not to mention a human tragedy. And progressives should be saying so. But the left in the UK has ceded all the Eurosceptic terrain to the xenophobes and the “Little Englanders”, to Ukip and the Tory right. We were wrong then. Let’s not be wrong now.

 

Editor’s note: Jason Cowley on Pope Francis, Fifa’s villainy, and Clive James’s long goodbye

Jason Cowley is disappointed but not surprised to discover that Pope Francis’s liberalism and humanity do not extend to life-changing advances in science:

There is so much to admire about Pope Francis, the Argentine Jesuit who has become a talisman for many on the left. He lives modestly and has great humility. He scourges inequality and global poverty. He has courageously intervened in the Israel-Palestine conflict, which becomes ever more hopeless with each new atrocity committed. Yet his reported remarks condemning in vitro fertilisation – or “the scientific production of a child” – and embryonic stem cell research were dismaying, if not altogether surprising. He is, after all, the Pope and not some kind of Latin American bandit-revolutionary, as some would have it.

Cowley asks if the beautiful game has the leader it deserves in Sepp Blatter who, at 78, is seeking election for another term as Fifa president:

Fifa’s report into the World Cup bidding process has hilariously exonerated Russia and Qatar of any duplicity but condemned England for breaking the rules. Fortunately, Michael Garcia, the American lawyer hired by Fifa to investigate corruption, has condemned the way his report has been misrepresented by Blatter. Football is a fabulously simple game debased by those who control and seek to profit from it.

The NS editor reflects on the career of Clive James when he travels to the Cambridge Union Chamber to hear the poet, novelist and TV presenter discuss his latest book:

What we were treated to was a virtuoso one-man show. “Here I am making another final performance!” he joked.

This was a reference to his chronic illnesses. James has emphysema, “reward for a lifetime’s smoking”, and leukaemia, which has been in remission since 2010. Modern medicine (“the meds”) and the dedication of Addenbrookes Hospital have prolonged his life beyond what even he imagined was possible. When you are living under a death sentence, one course of action, he said, was “inaction”. The other was “to go on working, as if you have all the time in the world”, which is what he says he has been doing. In truth, the poems he has published recently, several of them in the NS, are mostly about the period of his long, drawn out dying. These late works offer a kind of extended leave-taking. They are about memory and forgetting and about what will soon be lost for ever: yet the tone is resigned, not bitter. And, because this is James, there is sardonic humour.

Plus

Letter from Kosovo: Melanie McDonagh reports from Pristina on the country’s constitutional and economic crisis

Helen Lewis on Blackfish, human arrogance and the horrors of the marine amusement park

Sophie McBain meets the convention-defying surgeon, writer and indie-rock lover Atul Gawande

NS Critic Mark Lawson on TV’s Amazon age: why conventional broadcasting is as fragile as a house of cards

Will Self laments losing his library libido on a visit to the Bibliothèque Nationale

Drink critic Nina Caplan: how I overcame my fear of the absinthe fairy

Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire shares his latest gossip from Westminster

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder