20-26 November Issue
The Age of Terror
A special issue: How Isis threatens the world
Shiraz Maher: Isis is determined to draw western nations into a war of conquest.
John Bew: It’s decision time for Britain – will we join the fight against Islamic State or sit on the sidelines?
Letter from Paris: Andrew Hussey on a sleepless, grieving and edgy city.
Laurie Penny: Isis wants a holy war. The West must not play along.
Barbara Speed: Why the “Snooper’s Charter” won’t help – those who plot terror are always one step ahead.
Helen Lewis: How jihadi magazines are helping Isis win the propaganda war.
George Eaton: Why Labour MPs fear Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the Paris attacks makes the party look soft on national security.
The NS Profile: Colin Robinson on Bernie Sanders, the 74-year-old socialist shaking up the US presidential race.
Books of the Year: Michael Gove Kazuo Ishiguro Chris Patten Hilary Mantel John Bercow Margaret Atwood Alan Johnson William Boyd Rowan Williams Clive James Rachel Cooke Alexander McCall Smith Leo Robson Andrew Marr A S Byatt Mark Damazer Vince Cable Mark Lawson Lionel Shriver
Letter from Oxford: John Simpson on the Cecil Rhodes statue that’s causing jitters among the university’s grandees.
A new Clive James poem: “The Wren and the Coconut”.
Cover Story: Shiraz Maher
In the wake of the Paris attacks, Shiraz Maher argues that at some point IS will turn its attention to the West. Although the group is preoccupied for now with tightening its grip on the Middle East, he warns that “there is no eventuality in which we could expect to escape its sabre-rattling indefinitely”.
For all its nihilistic sadism, IS is a rational actor. The group controls a large landmass, enjoys autonomy and makes claims to a revived caliphate. That is a project it wants to continue expanding and consolidating by being left alone to overrun the Middle East, a process that involves massacring minorities, including the Shias, Christians, Yazidis and Kurds. If the West intervenes in this it must be prepared to face the prospect of mass-casualty terrorism at home.
Some will invariably argue that this is precisely what we should do. Leave them to it: Islamic State may be distasteful, but the cost of acting against it is too high. Besides, we cannot police the world, and what concern is it of ours if Arab societies implode in this way?
This view overlooks a broader (and inevitable) strategic imperative that can never be divorced from Islamic State. The group’s millenarianism and commitment to eschatological beliefs are such that it wants to be left alone – for now.
IS ultimately believes it must confront and then defeat the West in a comprehensive battle between haqq and batil: truth and falsehood.
Maher believes that after the attacks on Russian and French civilians in the past fortnight, “the wider world is finally realising that Islamic State is a threat it cannot afford to ignore”.
John Bew: Syria, Islamic State and why Britain now stands at a crossroads
In a bullish essay on British foreign policy, John Bew, NS contributing writer and author of Realpolitik: a History, argues that it is decision time on Isis and Britain can no longer justify sitting on the fence.
On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty
We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.
Bew addresses the five “flimsy” objections to military intervention in a recent Commons foreign affairs select committee report:
The most flimsy [. . .] was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.
Bew insists that “if we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria [. . .] it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf”.
Letter from Paris: Andrew Hussey on a sleepless, grieving and edgy city
Andrew Hussey, the author of The French Intifada: the Long War Between France and Its Arabs, describes the eerily sinister atmosphere in the French capital after last Friday’s attacks. By Sunday, Hussey, like others in the city, was drawn out on to the streets in the “abnormally good weather”:
It was as if, after a grim Saturday when the city was all but deserted, we needed to reassert our presence, to take up again the everyday pleasures of living in Paris. I went with my wife for lunch at one of the classic brasseries – the Zeyer – in the 14th arrondissement, where I live. For some reason I had an instinct to live well and do something Parisian. I was not alone. The place was packed with diners.
The Zeyer is quintessentially Parisian – a big, bustling eating machine, serving up a menu that has hardly changed in a century (it has been here since 1913). The waiters were funny and charming; the choucroute and wine were delicious. But, after the horrors of Friday night, as you sat in full view of the street, it was all too easy to imagine a gunman blasting a hole through the plate glass and to see the scene as a slaughterhouse. It took real effort not to be scared. And although the restaurant was alive with chatter, people had only one topic of conversation: are we now at war? And what does it mean?
Hussey points out that the area of Paris where the attacks took place was chosen very carefully: “this is the home of the anti-establishment Parisian left, people who read Libération and Les Inrockuptibles” as well as a “pleasure centre” of the city, which was “an obvious affront to angry puritans of radical Islam”. Rumours that concerts at the Bataclan were used to fund causes in Israel may have made that venue a target, Hussey suggests. He argues that the images of the attacks beamed around the world are now critical to the Isis war strategy:
It is now nine years since Martin Amis used the term “horrorism” to describe the spectacular forms of violence that define contemporary terrorism. He was writing about the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC, trying to understand what had happened at the beginning of the century, “what was revealed to us” in the “vehement and desperate nostalgia” that led to mass murder: “maximum malevolence”, in Amis’s words.
For Amis, 9/11 was not just an atrocity but the spectacle of an atrocity. This was what made it so terrifying. It is as if, following Guy Debord, what terrifies us most in the society of the spectacle is not just the experience of death but the image of death, transmitted globally. That is the terrible game of war that the radical Islamists are playing.
At the local level, there is now the feeling that we are on a front line and that bad things can happen to any of us at any time in France. That is why Paris remains so sleepless and edgy.
Laurie Penny: Isis wants a holy war – but the West must not play along
In a column for this week’s issue, Laurie Penny argues that to close our borders and surrender to bigotry after the recent terror attacks would be to hand Isis an immediate victory:
The morning after the murders, the people of Paris queued up to open their veins. In the days after terrorists from the apocalyptic cult calling itself Islamic State had slaughtered 129 people in Paris and 43 people in Beirut, ordinary Parisians queued for hours to give blood, even though the number of donors outstripped the number of wounded.
Of all the illogical responses to great violence, the impulse to give blood is perhaps the most sweetly symbolic. Terrified human animals come forward to offer, quite literally, the contents of their hearts, because they have no idea how else to help.
[. . .]
The unity that terrorists fear is not unity of opinion or outlook. It is unity in principle. It is commitment to the principle that every human life is of value, that pleasure and diversity and liberty are not to be thrown away the instant some psychopath opens fire in a restaurant. We cannot say for certain that opening Europe’s borders would not allow a few terrorists to cross over into our cities along with hundreds of thousands of needy innocents. What we can say for certain is that closing those borders would allow the terrorists into our hearts.
Kindness, diversity and decency are weapons that can only be brought to one battlefield, and it happens to be the one territory that Isis cannot afford to lose. It is the territory of the collective human imagination, and it has no borders at all. We are allowed to be shocked. We are allowed to grieve. But if we allow ourselves to be provoked into bigotry, cruelty and intolerance, then the terrorists will have won. It’s the only way they ever get to win.
George Eaton: As the threat from Isis grows, Labour’s internal warfare will only get worse
In this week’s Politics column, George Eaton considers widespread consternation in the Labour Party occasioned by Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the 13 November terror attacks in Paris. Labour MPs fear his remarks will leave the party open to accusations of being soft on defence:
When Jeremy Corbyn remarked two days after the Paris attacks that he was “not happy” with a “shoot-to-kill” policy against terrorists, it was the 1980s that MPs recalled. Shadow cabinet ministers suggested that it was the killing of three unarmed IRA members in Gibraltar in 1988, rather than the present threat of Islamic State, that shaped his thinking.
The former cabinet minister Ben Bradshaw told me: “The first responsibility of any government is the protection of its citizens and the defence of the realm. Trust in Labour on these issues was hard-won in the Eighties and Nineties and any equivocation on such vital matters is unhelpful.”
Corbyn’s riposte is that, far from preserving national security, the policies pursued by the Conservative government and its predecessors have undermined it. In a speech that was postponed after the Paris attacks, he was expected to say that “a succession of disastrous wars” had “increased, not diminished the threats” to the UK. Even some MPs who share this view fear that he will not win a hearing for such arguments after his recent statements. Outraged emails from voters and Labour Party members followed his comments on shoot-to-kill, they say. In their constituencies, MPs are asked how a leader who has declared that he would never use the nuclear button can defend the nation.
PLUS: Trident opponent Ken Livingstone to co-convene Labour defence review
The news that Ken Livingstone, an opponent of the Trident nuclear defence system, is to co-chair Labour’s defence review with Maria Eagle was broken by the NS political editor, George Eaton, yesterday on Twitter. Read Eaton’s analysis of the appointment here.
The NS Profile: How Bernie Sanders, the only socialist in the Senate, is shaking up the presidential race
Colin Robinson considers the rise of Bernie Sanders, the junior senator from Vermont. Until recently, Sanders was regarded as a political outlier – but is he now America’s answer to Jeremy Corbyn?
One thing is immediately striking: as he addresses primary rallies across America, arms flailing like a giant bird coming in to land, snow-white hair fizzing skywards like Doc Brown’s in Back to the Future, eyes startled behind the thick spectacles he has worn since childhood, Bernie Sanders looks quite unlike any other presidential candidate.
Perhaps the surprise in those eyes is sparked by the size of the crowds Sanders has been attracting. They are enormous, rivalling the numbers who turned out for Barack Obama back in 2008, and unprecedented for a candidate who is not shy of describing himself as a socialist: 28,000 in Portland and LA, 25,000 in Boston and 15,000 in Seattle. Even in Dallas, not a renowned centre of radicalism, 8,000 turned out to “feel the Bern”.
In these days when slick suits and pricey haircuts are increasingly a turn-off for a public weary of smooth politicians who deliver for only the wealthy, Sanders’s persona, like that of Jeremy Corbyn, his equally unkempt British counterpart, has proved popular. But it is his message – an angry chronicling of the depredations facing so many Americans and a robust social-democratic programme for putting things right – that is really pulling in the crowds. Sanders, who is 74, and the main challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, doesn’t just look different. With his confident calls for a “revolution” to break up the banks and impose higher taxes on the rich, he doesn’t sound like any other recent presidential contender, either.
Books of the Year
This week, we asked friends and contributors to choose their favourite reads of 2015.
The Justice Secretary Michael Gove‘s recommendations have a distinctly Gallic flavour: Michel Houellebecq’s Submission (William Heinemann) and Ken Kalfus’s novella Coup de Foudre (Bloomsbury USA) are both fictionalised accounts of French presidential elections. Gove applauds Kalfus’s story, based on the fall of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, as “psychologically brilliant”. John Bercow meanwhile, as a devoted fan of Sarah Waters, rushed out to buy The Paying Guests (Virago), “an upmarket, literary version of Columbo with passionate, although sadly secret, lesbians”. Douglas Alexander‘s more sober selection is Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family (Oneworld), which “sheds fiercely honest light on the choices women face in today’s homes and workplaces”.
Top of the list for both Rowan Williams and Lucy Hughes-Hallett is Death and Mr Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis (Jonathan Cape), a novel that Williams describes as “a wonderful re-creation of the imaginative world in which Dickens and his collaborators discovered Pickwick and his companions”. Chris Patten‘s somewhat darker choice is The Cartel (William Heinemann) by Don Winslow, a thriller about the Mexican drugs wars which, Patten warns, is “not for the squeamish”.
Both William Boyd and Craig Raine choose David Hare’s memoir The Blue Touch Paper (Faber & Faber) which, Raine writes, “includes a droll account of Hare’s time as a vacuum cleaner salesman in New York. A customer points out to him that ‘Hoover’, the term he favours in his spiel, is the name of a rival brand. He is representing Electrolux. Death of a salesman.” James Shapiro’s 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear (Faber & Faber) similarly gets a double endorsement. Both the NS editor, Jason Cowley, and Mark Lawson delight in this sequel to 1599: a Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. In one chapter, Shapiro turns his “X-ray brain” to the single Shakespearean word “equivocation” over 30 insightful pages.
Alan Johnson favours Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins (Doubleday) for its profound exploration of “humanity and its frailties”. Clive James, whose new poem “The Wren and the Coconut” is published elsewhere in the issue, has the highest praise for Alexandra Harris’s work of cultural criticism Weatherland (Thames & Hudson): “her book is so beautifully written that it transcends even its wealth of information. She is a poet scholar.”
Alexander McCall Smith‘s patriotic choice is Scotland: a History from Earliest Times (Birlinn) by Alistair Moffat. “Scottish history is full of tears and triumphs, moments of glory and deep despair,” he writes. “If you want to understand Scotland, start with Moffat.” His countryman Andrew Marr recommends The Illuminations (Faber & Faber) by Andrew O’Hagan, “a cracking novel” about being a British soldier in Afghanistan: “O’Hagan is as unsentimental a writer as I can think of and there isn’t a maudlin sentence in the book.”
John Simpson: Letter from Oxford
In a despatch from the city of dreaming spires, John Simpson reports on a row that has broken out over the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College:
You’ve got to look quite hard to spot it: a statue four feet high, rather attractive and informal, way above street level, on the façade of Oriel College on the High Street in Oxford. The only way you would know that it was Cecil John Rhodes, apart from the Latin inscription beneath the figure, is that he is wearing a three-piece suit and holding his familiar slouch hat in his right hand. Around this manikin a row of surprising proportions has arisen.
It is a by-blow of the much greater and far more serious dispute in South Africa, in the course of which Rhodes’s statue at the university he helped found in Cape Town has been hustled out of sight after being smeared with paint and excrement and surrounded time and again by angry, chanting students. Now the slogan “Rhodes must fall” has been picked up in the quieter atmosphere of Oxford. Oriel, which Rhodes briefly attended, is the centre of the fuss because it commemorates him with the statue in question. All this has given rise to an air of nervousness among some elements of the university hierarchy. But is it justified?
Simpson observes that although Rhodes, “outspokenly racist and imperialist”, was not “a nice man, even by the standards of the time”, he was an “extraordinary” figure who also created “one of the most effective in the modern world – the Rhodes scholarships”. For Simpson, “the past is the past” and bringing down an imperialist’s statue will neither change it nor help us progress:
The desire to cleanse history of its unattractive sides isn’t restricted to Southern Africa. But the past is the past; it can’t be changed. Charles Conn, Warden of Rhodes House, Oxford, who oversees the Rhodes scholarships, says: “We should interrogate history, of course, and learn its lessons. Nearly all historical figures held views at odds with our perspectives today. Rhodes, Jowett, Jefferson, even Gandhi, had beliefs that we find out of touch and even abhorrent. But we don’t serve the pursuit of knowledge if we agree to airbrush or bulldoze history.”
Cambridge Literary Festival – 28-29 November
The winter edition of the Cambridge Literary Festival, supported by the New Statesman, will see the editor, Jason Cowley, in conversation with Vince Cable, deputy editor Helen Lewis chair a debate on “the personality of power” with Dan Hodges, Anthony Seldon and Owen Bennett, and the NS culture editor, Tom Gatti, in conversation with Kevin Barry, the author of Beatlebone and winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize.
Kevin Maguire‘s Commons Confidential: Comrade Corbyn’s edict to shadow cabinet Castros, Robert Halfon’s East India Club trysts with “Tory totty”, and why Alan Yentob is in the firing line for the collapse of Kid’s Company.
Caroline Crampton on the landmark trial of Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi for acts of “cultural terrorism”.
Yo Zushi on the final volume of Simon Callow’s life of Orson Welles.
Mark Damazer reviews two vast histories – The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridley and Human Race by Ian Mortimer.
Will Self finds himself chowing down at the Cereal Killer Café on Brick Lane, the epicentre of London’s hipsterville.
Film: Ryan Gilbey explores the difference between art and pornography as explored in Gaspar Noé’s Love.
Daisy Dunn relishes the ancient Roman machinations in Robert Harris’s Dictator.
India Bourke meets the mental health campaigner Rachel Kelly.
On newstatesman.com: Glen O’Hara on Jeremy Corbyn, a Labour leader without historical precedent.