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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


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.


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

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.