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In this week’s magazine | How Islamic is the Islamic State?

A first look at this week's issue.

Cover Story: "How Islamic is Islamic State?"
Mehdi Hasan argues that the Quran cannot be blamed for violent political extremism

Plus

The NS Interview: Xan Rice speaks to the Labour MP and former army officer Dan Jarvis about a "truly representative" parliament.

Helen Lewis makes a modest proposal to turn parliament into 364 affordable flats and make our MPs decamp to Hull.

The Politics Column: George Eaton writes that, in the struggle over housing,the Tories' blind spots have given Labour the advantage.

First Thoughts: Peter Wilby on hacking at the Mirror and his Tory nightmare.

 

Cover Story: How Islamic is Islamic State?

In a wide-ranging report, Mehdi Hasan writes that Islamic State's motives are political, not religious.

Asking if Isis is "a recognisably 'Islamic' movement" with "recruits motivated by religious fervour and faith", Hasan consults a range of experts, including the forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman, who has spent years trying to understand the extremist mindset. Sageman tells Hasan that it isn't religious faith but a "sense of emotional and moral outrage" which propels people to venture into war zones, and notes that today "Orwell would be [considered as foreign fighter like] a jihadi".

"Religion has a role but it is a role of justification. It's not why they do this [or] why young people go there."

Isis members, he says, are using religion to advance a political vision, rather than using politics to advance a religious vision. "To give themselves a bit more legitimacy, they use Islam as their justification. It's not about religion, it's about identity . . . You identify with the victims, [with] the guys being killed by your enemies."

Hasan speaks to Richard Barrett, the former director of global counterterrorism operations for MI6, who subsequently led the al-Qaeda and Taliban monitoring team at the United Nations. He says that although we "should not underestimate the extent of their belief", Isis is "mostly to do with the search for identity" and "belonging", rather than religion:

"The Islamic State offers all that and empowers the individual within a collective. It does not judge and accepts all with no concern about their past. This can be very appealing for people who think that they washed up on the wrong shore."

Hasan also interviews the former militant Mubin Shaikh, who explains how studying Islam helped him leave his violent views behind:

Shaikh argues, "The claim that Isis is 'Islamic' because it superficially uses Islamic sources is ridiculous, because the Islamic sources themselves say that those who do so [manifest Islam superficially] are specifically un-Islamic."

Hasan concludes:

Religion plays little, if any, role in the radicalisation process, as Sageman and countless experts testify. It is an excuse, rather than a reason. [. . .] To claim that Isis is Islamic is egregiously inaccurate and empirically unsustainable, not to mention insulting to the 1.6 billion non-violent adherents of Islam across the planet. Above all else, it is dangerous and self-defeating, as it provides Baghdadi and his minions with the propaganda prize and recruiting tool that they most crave.

The NS Interview: Dan Jarvis

Xan Rice meets the Labour MP Dan Jarvis and they discuss his time in Afghanistan, his role as a shadow minister, and his problems with the laziness of some of today's politicians:

"I remember on my first day in the House of Commons [7 March 2011] a Conservative MP said to me: 'The thing that you need to learn about this place is that it is only really a part-time job.' I was pretty stunned to hear that and it's completely not the case. You can potter around and do it as a part-time job if you want, but to do it effectively requires a huge amount of effort. I think people deserve that. I am not making any comment about whether I am effective or not. I think people will see that I put the work in."

Jarvis also expresses his dislike for the "political pantomime" of Prime Minister's Questions:

"When I go round the schools I cannot justify that level of behaviour to kids who see it and ask me about it. Some people say it makes it more of a spectacle and fewer people would watch if it was not that sort of confrontational environment. I don't really buy that."

Jarvis adds that he has an issue with the number of career politicians in parliament, as "the public wants more people with life experience". He also sees this as partly a representation issue:

"There is an over-representation of people [in parliament] who have been to public schools. That is a fact of life that we should seek to address.

"It's not to say we have not got exceptional people who went to public schools who can do exceptional things. But we need a parliament that is truly representative of the public that it is there to serve."

George Eaton interviews Tim Farron

As the Liberal Democrat activists' darling, Tim Farron MP, launches his re-election campaign in the Lake District, he talks to George Eaton about the future of his party. Farron still shows a great deal of admiration for the Lib Dem leader, praising Nick Clegg "so fulsomely that he is moved to tears":

"I'll tell you the thing I am most proud of, most proud of, that nearly nobody knows about, is that there are nearly 3,000 children of asylum-seekers who are not under lock and key now because of what Nick Clegg did with his popularity.

"I hear Nick Clegg being attacked regularly; if you want to know the integrity of somebody, it's that he spends his political capital, gets nothing for it and makes people's lives better. That's a man with integrity."

Of the number of seats the Lib Dems seem likely to lose, he says:

"I've got in my head what I think is a number. There are various sets of numbers, which you think are acceptable, disastrous, brilliant and more shades in between. I was talking about 1997 before: that was our leap forward from being an outsider party to a main-player party. We need to be nearer that '97 result [46 seats] than, shall we say, the results that came before it and that's as close as I'll get to giving you a number."

Despite that, Farron insists:

"We are absolutely competitive in all the places we've been traditionally competitive in." But he adds: "A major job for us, on day one after the election, is to begin rebuilding everywhere else; you have to protect the citadels first and then we can go out and repopulate the plains."

Helen Lewis: A modest proposal - let's turn the Houses of Parliament into 364 affordable flats and make our MPs decamp to Hull

For her Out of the Ordinary column, Helen Lewis writes that when it comes to the Palace of Westminster:

. . . the laudable urge to preserve our history has clotted into an unhealthy attachment to the outdated and antiquated. Any attempt to drag parliament into the 20th century, let alone the 21st, is treated by a certain cadre of MPs as a heresy akin to taking a leak on the Bayeux Tapestry.

She observes that these archaic ideals are visible in the architecture of the palace:

Woven into the very fabric of Westminster are assumptions about who the building - and, by extension, our democracy - is intended to serve. The sashes to hang your sword in the cloakroom may be a quaint relic of an age long gone, but the lack of convenient disabled access and the shortage of ladies' loos in the old palace are daily reminders that parliament wasn't built with those groups in mind.

Lewis argues that modernisation is a must for modern democracy, and concludes with the proposal by the campaign group Generation Rent, which has "semi-flippantly suggested that the palace could be turned into 364 affordable flats for hard-up Londoners, and "Parliament could be shipped off to somewhere like Hull".

It won't happen, of course. There will be enough trouble trying to persuade MPs to move out temporarily while £3bn of essential repair is done to the building: most would prefer that the work be done around them, even though this will cost more. There is also much sniffing about a new education centre turning parliament into a "tourist attraction", as if many of those tourists aren't the voters they are elected to represent. The irony is that, if the Commons does crumble into the Thames, it will be largely because the ultra-traditionalists resisted any kind of modernisation for so long.

The Politics Column: George Eaton

The NS political editor, George Eaton, writes that in the struggle over housing the Tories' blind spots have given Labour the advantage:

On the wall of Ed Miliband's office is a 1945 Labour poster promising "a non-stop drive to provide a good home for every family". For the opposition leader, it is a permanent reminder of the need to emulate this crusade. The issue of housing is playing a greater role at this general election than at any other in recent history. Between 1992 and 2010, the subject was consigned to the lowly rung occupied by agriculture, energy and the arts. Once asked why New Labour devoted so little attention to housing in government, the former cabinet minister Hazel Blears candidly replied that no one was interested enough.

They are now.

He writes that "unlike the Conservatives", Labour has "recognised the economic reality that, even with state assistance, property will remain prohibitively expensive for many". The party's pledges to cap rent increases and ban letting agents from charging fees to tenants should win it votes, while the Conservatives, Eaton says, "have remained largely mute on the subject."

He concludes:

In future elections, housing will rank alongside the economy, immigration and the NHS as an issue of supreme salience. That Labour enjoys a convincing lead in this area is cause for optimism among the party. As headline polls suggest the Tories may have achieved the hitherto elusive "crossover" required for election victory, it is one the opposition must exploit now.

Plus

Geoff Dyer on Raymond Williams.

Peter Wilby on his Tory nightmare.

Hannah Rosefield on Miranda July.

The Diary: Stefan Buczacki on the pleasures of riddling, Hitler's phone number and another BBC solecism.

Leo Robson on Tom McCarthy and Kazuo Ishiguro.

Will Self: Our statues will outlast us - so let's think twice before making
any more naff public art.

This article was updated 6 March to give context to a quote.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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