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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


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.


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.

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.