1 – 7 April issue
The terror trail
John Gray on the new age of hyper-terrorism.
Letters from Brussels: Tim King on Belgium’s refusal to learn from its mistakes and Shiraz Maher on catching the bombers.
Conrad Black in defence of Donald Trump.
Mishal Husain: Notebook from Lahore.
Letter from Tikrit: Anthony Loyd on rough justice in the killing fields of Iraq.
Stephen Bush on the politics of income tax.
Douglas Kennedy on the sad decline of the middle classes in the United States.
Tristram Hunt: Michael Gove’s “anglophone” vision is a betrayal of serious history.
Cover story: John Gray on the new age of hyper-terrorism.
In this week’s cover story, John Gray argues that those who believe liberal values are on the right side of history are guilty of blind faith:
If hyper-terrorism seems sure to be a lasting presence, this is not just because of current conflicts in Syria and Iraq. The roots of violent jihadism lie in aspects of contemporary life that prevailing theories of modernisation – which have guided the West’s disastrous interventions in Muslim-majority countries – ignore or deny. According to these theories, Islamic societies are engaged in a struggle to catch up with the West. The journey may be long and arduous but there is no alternative. To modernise means to replicate the course of development that culminated in the liberal-democratic nation state. Once this process has been repeated in Islamic societies, the jihadist threat will diminish and eventually disappear.
Some such theory informs the faddish discourse of radicalisation, which tells us that people join Isis and similar jihadist groups because they have been brainwashed. Indoctrinated into extremist beliefs, they embark on a career of savagery and terror that they would never otherwise have envisioned. Prised out from their own societies, they then throw away their lives in the service of a suicide cult. But it is a cult that has set itself against the modern world, and all it can do is revel in nihilistic violence.
This is a frightening picture, but it is also decidedly optimistic. If the young men and women who leave the London suburbs and the banlieue of Paris to fight in Syria or Iraq have been indoctrinated, the problem can be solved by re-educating them. Like children who have been abducted by a freakish sect, they can be deprogrammed and reintegrated into the mainstream. In this comforting story, jihadism is a roadblock standing in the way of what Barack Obama has called “the arc of history”. Liberal values show the direction in which all of humankind wants to move. Once the roadblock has been removed, the normal course of progress can resume.
Gray dismisses this narrative, pointing out that modernisation and terror have often gone hand in hand:
Hyper-terrorism today is the product of an interaction of tangled geopolitical conflicts with the resurgence of apocalyptic religion. Dealing with the threat requires an understanding of this combustible mix. The narrative of modernisation that imagines terrorism can be countered by exporting Western institutions impedes any clear perception of the scale of the threat. The ongoing attacks that are now certain continue a history of violence that has shaped the modern world. If hyper-terrorism is here to stay, one reason is that it never went away.
Letters from Brussels: The lessons that Belgium will not learn.
Tim King explains how enmity between the conservative Flemish separatist N-VA party and francophone socialists has helped incubate terrorism in the Belgian capital:
[Bart] De Wever’s N-VA is now the biggest party in Flanders and has most seats in the Flanders national parliament, though the N-VA is only 15 years old. The past three decades have brought a progressive devolution from the national to the regional governments, partly in response to Flemish separatism, partly in response to the growing asymmetry, political and economic, between Flanders and Wallonia.
The effect of this has been to impoverish Brussels, caught in the middle, and weaken the federal government. Effective counterterrorism requires integration and centralisation, yet there will be none if N-VA does not recognise that the Brussels regional government needs more resources, as does the federal government. There will be even less if the francophone socialists see every attempt to reform Brussels as an N-VA plot.
Shiraz Maher, an NS contributing writer and senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, visits the Belgian capital the day after the attacks at Zaventem airport and Maelbeek Metro station and finds an alarming lack of urgency among the forces of law and order:
While some of the press reported that there were armed police on the streets, I witnessed only the lightest of security presences wherever I went. When I visited the suspected “bomb factory” in Schaerbeek, where the hardware for the November attacks in Paris was made, it seemed like any other day in the troubled district.
British officials, by contrast, were much more proactive at St Pancras Station in London before I boarded the Eurostar: there was an increased police presence, as well as enhanced security checks and sniffer dogs.
In the UK, intelligence officers have long grumbled about the incompetence of their Belgian counterparts, complaining about a lack of sophistication to their tradecraft and approach. What I saw on my visit to Brussels – the somewhat minimalist approach to security just days after the deadliest terror attack in Belgium’s history – gave me reason to believe this.
The most worrying aspect of the Brussels bombings is the extent to which they expose how European intelligence agencies frequently miss the people they should be catching. The three suicide attackers were known to the security services and were suspected of moving within radical networks,
yet somehow they managed to evade arrest for months before launching their attacks.
Conrad Black: In defence of Donald Trump.
In this week’s Diary, Lord Black of Crossharbour extols the virtues of Donald Trump, who is leading in the race for the Republican nomination to stand for the US presidency:
Donald Trump’s political virtues, which are understandably lost on most foreigners, are that he is not complicit in any of the public and foreign policy failings of the past 25 years and that he has an impressive record as an industrialist. He enjoys huge name recognition, is financing his own campaign and not milking the system to pay for it, and he has brought to the forefront the issues that most disquiet Americans: illegal immigration, anaemic economic growth and an almost complete failure of US foreign policy. He is attracting millions of disaffected Democrats and people who formally did not vote and had given up on the system.
Personally, I know him to be a generous, loyal and charming man, with no bad habits and a very attractive family. Apart from his attitude to immigration, he is a radical centrist, and it is absurd and indicative of its stupidity that the far left tries to disrupt his meetings and denounces him as an extremist, while intelligent conservatives lament that he is not conservative enough.
The international response to the rise of Ronald Reagan was almost as hysterical as the reaction to Trump, and Reagan is now a candidate for Mount Rushmore. Trump’s gaucheries are much more grating, and publicly, he is a caricature of a type of ugly American. But despite his foibles he would probably be a competent president.
As with Trump in the United States, so with Boris Johnson in Britain – Black suggests that political big beasts of the Boris and Trump kind offer a brand of leadership lacking since the days of Reagan and Thatcher:
From this distance, it seems that the UK has not fared brilliantly in the post-Cold War years. Margaret Thatcher was sent packing, largely for a more co-operative attitude to Europe than most Britons have now, and as thanklessly as Churchill (1945) and Disraeli. Labour required three terms to squander the fiscal strength and international prestige that Thatcher and John Major had achieved (the only time Labour has won consecutive full terms). From here, it seems that the present government, apart from a competent performance by the Chancellor and by Michael Gove, IDS and a couple of others, has faced in all directions on every big issue, well beyond the call of necessity for a minority government.
David Cameron seems to have gambled that an In/Out referendum, rather than just a mandate to renegotiate, would compel a vote to stay in the EU, and that he did not need to wring serious changes from Brussels. I find it hard to believe that the UK will submit to this flimflam on such a vital issue. Donald Trump, master of the deal (as I know from our very satisfactory association in Chicago), would have done better. So will Boris. Perhaps, as the Americans say, the office seeks the man.
Mishal Husain: Notebook from Lahore.
Mishal Husain, of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, is in Lahore mere hours before the peace of Punjab’s capital is shattered by a Taliban suicide attack on a children’s park. Husain reflects on the coexistence of beauty and brutality in a country she used to visit every year as a child:
This week I saw the best and the worst of Pakistan, in a single city on a single day. The city was Lahore, the historic heart of Pakistan’s richest province and political base of the governing party. The worst has been well documented – Sunday’s attack on a park full of families, including many Christians celebrating Easter weekend. The television news channels began to attach names and faces to the dreadful numbers – a woman incoherent after the murder of her three children, a family that had lost eight members.
Only a few hours earlier, I had been experiencing one of the glories of Pakistan: the architectural legacy of the Mughal emperors, who ruled a swath of south Asia for two centuries. They developed and feted Lahore, and on that Sunday I had been into its walled Old City to see some of the extensive restoration work under way.
[. . .]
This trip was my first to Pakistan since reporting on the Peshawar school attack in December 2014, and this time I brought my children along, keen to show them something of a country that I grew up visiting every year. They’ve enjoyed the experience, and cricket has played a big role in that. They love the game, as do most people here, which means there is always something to talk about and, even better, people to play with. The boys carry a set of plastic stumps, a bat and a tennis ball almost everywhere they go, and before you know it there’s a game on. No Urdu and no English required – cricket is the universal language.
[. . .]
We left the city walls hours before Lahore’s peace was shattered by the heinous park attack, a reminder of the immense challenge Pakistan faces in combating the terrorism that has blighted it in recent years. But the country also has much to offer, not least in the great city of Lahore.
The Politics Column: Stephen Bush on the Scottish National Party and income tax.
The editor of the Staggers blog, Stephen Bush, recalls the Australian prime minister Paul Keating’s advice to Tony Blair never to put up income tax (“Take [money] off them anyhow you please but do that and they’d rip your f***ing guts out”). Bush notes that Keating’s advice has fallen out of fashion with Scottish Labour (in her campaign for May’s Holyrood elections the party’s leader, Kezia Dugdale, is promising to add a penny to income tax) but has “picked up new converts among the Nationalists”:
Having promised to back Ed Miliband’s increase in the top rate of tax last year, the SNP will go to the country this May pledging to keep it where it is. Nicola Sturgeon has also ruled out increases to the basic and higher rate.
It’s not just Keating that Sturgeon is channelling with the rhetoric she has used to justify her decision. It is George Osborne. The SNP First Minister argues that the 50p rate would drive higher earners elsewhere, costing her administration’s coffers not just the extra 5p that the policy would raise but the 45p that it secures now – which is exactly the same case as the Chancellor made when cutting the top rate in 2012.
Who is right? The dispiriting truth is that Sturgeon, Dugdale and Keating all are, in different ways. Scotland and England have an open border, a shared language and a shared regulatory framework. Moving south of the border to escape Scotland’s 50p rate is far easier than relocating from London to Geneva. While the top rate is at 45p in England, it must also remain so in Scotland. And that works both ways. Because of the SNP’s decision to slash air passenger duty, England must do the same, or drive Newcastle Airport to the wall.
Dugdale is also right. Higher taxes and higher borrowing are the only escape routes from Osborne’s austerity programme. Yet, as Labour strategists freely concede, her promise has hurt the party among voters. It is entirely possible that the consequence of Scottish Labour’s conversion to tax rises will be a third-place finish in the Holyrood election and an end to Dugdale’s leadership.
Letter from Tikrit: Anthony Loyd on rough justice in Iraq’s killing fields.
Anthony Loyd, war correspondent of the Times, meets Colonel Ali al-Sudani – the closest thing to law and order in Tikrit, the centrepiece of Iraq’s “Sunni triangle” that was recaptured by Shia militiamen last April on behalf of the Iraqi government:
He is a Shia, 46 years old, part nemesis, part enforcer, and as the Iraqi government’s most senior military intelligence officer in the city, he has executive powers that exceed those of almost any other individual there. With his gang of black-clad henchmen he arrests, interrogates, frees, cajoles, threatens and fights whoever and however he wants, to keep the city at peace.
[. . .]
Chain-smoking, insomniac, surging with energy, the colonel busts everyone’s balls: his own men’s as well as those of returnees suspected of affiliation with Islamic State.
“I’ll arrest you if there is a problem,” he tells a fat Iraqi army major. “If there is a bomb explosion here I’ll arrest you and I’ll put you in jail!”
We are in his headquarters at that moment, a drab one-storey complex protected by blast walls, lacking any flag or insignia, in the southern suburbs of Tikrit. Colonel al-Sudani speaks quietly and the fat major squirms, his face clouded with shame. The major has made a lazy mistake. The previous day a sudden influx of returning refugees wore out the patience of the major’s soldiers at a checkpoint on the edge of Tikrit. They let scores of the returnees in without first running the men’s IDs through a computer check for terrorist history. Colonel al-Sudani has found out and summoned the major to his base.
“We’ve spent months trying to make Tikrit safe, and with one mistake you might have blown it,” the colonel tells him. “You know what Da’esh [Islamic State] are doing here – putting clean-shaven operatives back in among the refugees to act as sleeper cells. You know that, and you failed to check the returnees. I’m telling you: one bomb and you go to jail.”
Tristram Hunt: Michael Gove’s “anglophone” vision is a betrayal of history.
Although he acknowledges it is an elegant piece of writing, Tristram Hunt argues that Michael Gove’s statement in support of Brexit reveals the Justice Secretary’s Whiggish understanding of European history and says it is based on a flawed analysis of the British national interest:
Western unity is being tested as rarely before. Surely Gove must see that the historical lesson is not that Britain should cast off from its geographical moorings? To walk away from Europe in its latest hour of need would be a self-defeating dereliction of duty and history; a betrayal of our usual role as a force for peace, security and the proper balance of powers. Brexit is the politics of defeat and the philosophy of decline.
Read the piece in full on newstatesman.com.
Douglas Kennedy on the sad decline of the middle class in America.
An encounter with a Donald Trump supporter at a petrol station in New Hampshire and watching Stephen Karam’s play The Humans on Broadway prompt the novelist Douglas Kennedy to reflect on the demise of America’s middle class:
The once great middle class – considered for generations the economic and social bedrock of the nation – is now in a largely forlorn state.
It was poignant to watch this play on my native island of Manhattan. I grew up here when there was a functioning middle class within its vertical geography. I remember this not-too-distant era (the Sixties and Seventies), when a schoolteacher, a producer for public radio and a fireman (to name just a few of our neighbours in the apartment building on West 77th Street) could live and even raise families in the city centre.
The Reaganite boom of the Eighties began to undermine Manhattan’s affordability, as Wall Street remunerations ballooned, pushing rents and real-estate prices into the stratosphere. The boom has yet to end. We have reached the point where, according to a recent New York Times article, someone making $250,000 a year in Manhattan is considered to be on “the upper edge of middle class”. More tellingly: “Household incomes in Manhattan are about as evenly distributed as they are in Bolivia or Sierra Leone – the wealthiest fifth of Manhattanites make 40 times more than the lowest fifth.”
Granted, Manhattan is not the American heartland and it boasts, with San Francisco, the most expensive cost of urban living in the country. This is nonetheless an accurate reflection of a larger statistical truth: there is a huge fiscal disparity between affluent Americans and their middle-class compatriots.
Yet the middle classes remain curiously reluctant to vote for candidates who would improve their lot, Kennedy notes:
Herein lies the Gordian knot of American politics: how to convince those on middle incomes to start voting for people who truly want to push for greater economic fairness. It is an unsolvable conundrum that makes the downward slide of America’s middle class even more infuriating and sad to witness
Peter Oborne finds that David Laws’s latest book, Coalition, sheds unflattering light on Cameron and Osborne.
Helen Lewis: Why Donald Trump’s casual sexism makes him an icon to men who feel robbed of their birthright.
Laurie Penny meets female refugees in Germany who live in fear of both Muslim extremists and the far right.
Peter Wilby joins other former editors at the Independent’s
Simon Wren-Lewis on new books by the economists Thomas Piketty and Yanis Varoufakis.
Television: Rachel Cooke is bewildered by Rowan Atkinson’s monotonous Maigret.
Marina Benjamin probes the stories of the Columbine killers
and the Unabomber in A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold and
Every Last Tie by David Kaczynski.
Frances Wilson on Thomas De Quincey’s opium-eating and the
cut-throat world of 19th-century journalism.
Will Self: Why running up escalators on the Tube is a badge of metropolitan honour worn by true Londoners.
Drink: Nina Caplan on the mystical heart of sake.
For more press information, please contact Anya Matthews: firstname.lastname@example.org / 020 7936 4029 / 07815 634 396