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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

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.