New Times,
New Thinking.

26 August 2015

The New Statesman Cover | Isis and the new barbarism

In the magazine this week.

By New Statesman

28 August-3 September 2015 issue
Isis and the new barbarism


A major essay on the origins of Isis by John Jenkins.


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Who’s who in Team Corbyn.

John Gray: Why our culture is an exercise in death denial.

Leader: The NS endorses Tessa Jowell as Labour’s candidate for London mayor.

George Eaton: The parties with the most to fear from a Corbyn-led Labour – and those with the most to gain.


John Jenkins: How should the west respond to the barbarism of Isis?

In a major essay, John Jenkins, a former British ambassador to Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria, writes about the origins of Isis – commonly known in Arabic as Da’esh – and how western countries should respond to it. He begins by painting a vivid picture of life under the Islamists:

Living under the rule of Da’esh (the self-described Islamic State) would undoubtedly be horrific. Even if you accept that some of those apparent enthusiasts for the Rule of the Saints whom Da’esh interviews in Mosul, Raqqa or Deir az-Zour for its sequence of video postings do mean it – and aren’t just worrying about the guys in the background with beards, AK-47s and hunting knives – you have to assume that most people do not want to live in a world where every cigarette, every tune that springs to the lips, every morning shave, every slip of the veil, any expression of disgust at the dropping of helpless men from tall buildings, the enslavement of minorities or a flicker of aberrant sexual desire could lead to instant execution.


Although to UK readers this may seem a distant experience, Jenkins writes that the threat of Isis is closer than we think:

This is no longer some exotic subject, confined to area specialists and policy wonks, and representing a specific material challenge within the context of one or two regional state systems. It is global, surfing world networks of communication, exchange and trade. It is transnational. And above all it is ideational: that is to say, the claims made by certain forms of political Islamism about the nature of the state, the meaning of Islam, the character of the authentically Muslim, the relationship between the sacred and the profane, the ungodliness of human political dispensations, and the religious duty to replace them by force if necessary, represent a more serious and sustained challenge to the stability and security of the Middle East than bombs, missiles, guns and knives. Most of these claims are not new. Many of them figure in disputes that Islamic historiography tells us go back to the earliest days of the faith. But they have resonated down the centuries, shape the expression of 21st-century grievances and are associated with modern forms of communication and political mobilisation that amplify their impact.

He continues:

But, it seems to me, what is new in the case of Da’esh is the striking combination of a number of features: the clarity of its transnationalism; the speed, professionalism and discipline with which its global religio-identity narratives are produced and flexed; the way these are backed by an encompassing Islamist jurisprudence (look, say, at Turki Binali’s Muqarrar fi al-Tawhid – Da’esh’s basic coursebook); the skill with which they are harnessed to its political goals. There is also the subtlety with which it tracks and shapes opinion (the first message was “we stop genocide in Syria”; then “we champion Sunnis in Iraq”; then “we build a service state”; then “we are a righteous caliphate”); and the effectiveness (so far) of its hybrid military operations in the Syria/Iraq theatre and its stripped-back crowdsourcing model. All these features are linked by a complex thread – the studied marketing of a constructed identity, or performativity, as the theorists say: this is designed to reinforce Da’esh’s self-image as a rightly guided eschatological and millenarian movement, to convey what one analyst calls “a sense of apocalyptic time”, but also to proclaim the temporal success of such an enterprise and communicate purpose while the world watches.

Jenkins argues that the UK must willingly join international efforts to oppose Da’esh:

That will require a more convincing public account of the global common interest than we collectively have at present, when all too often a form of political as well as economic mercantilism reigns on all sides and gestures take the place of thought. And we can do without the narcissism of much foreign-policy posturing.

The basis for such a new coalition can only be found in a new seriousness of purpose that looks not for eye-catching initiatives, but for a sober and sincerely joint appreciation of the threat, together with a commitment by all concerned to see the task through together, buttressed by a recommitment to the international rule of law. That would probably require a reshaped Nato and UN as well. One can dream.

And he concludes:

What we can help provide is a greater sense of collective endeavour and security. Without skin in the game, we have no role. Without security there is no stability. Without stability there is no shared political space. That space may be in short supply everywhere. But it won’t emerge out of civil war, sectarian confrontation, chaos or a sense of abandonment.

Read the essay in full below.


Who’s who in Team Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn‘s campaign for the Labour leadership is run by a crack team of activists and MPs. Some of the faces are old party stalwarts but others are young and little known:

Kat Fletcher

Head of strategy and key aide

[Fletcher] was elected NUS president in 2004 against opposition from the more centrist Labour Students group. She has been close to Corbyn for close to a decade and was his agent in this year’s election. She is also a power player in Islington politics in her own right, rising to deputy mayor just two years after being elected as a councillor. Outside politics, she runs a small chain of gastropubs called Handmade Pubs.

Seb Corbyn


No race for the Labour leadership would be complete without the presence of a Red Prince or two. The second of Corbyn’s three sons is a Cambridge graduate who has been pressed into service as a bag-carrier and all-purpose aide for this election.

Carmel Nolan

Head of press

Corbyn’s press chief is a former radio journalist and veteran campaigner from Liverpool – and, like him, was a leading architect of the Stop the War coalition. She has described the Corbyn team as “a coalition of the willing and the available” and “like Stop the War with bells on”. Nolan, formerly known as Carmel Brown, is respected by Westminster hacks as a serious operator. In her spare time she researches the fates of Liverpool men who served in the Second World War.

Simon Fletcher

Campaign chief

A veteran back-room operative, Fletcher spent eight years as Ken Livingstone’s chief of staff. In 2000, after Tony Blair ensured that Livingstone was not selected as Labour’s candidate for mayor of London, Fletcher took him to victory as an independent, masterminding a “Stand down, Frank” campaign against Frank Dobson.

Read the profiles in full below.


A sting or a tickle? John Gray on death  

The philosopher John Gray argues that our human culture and civilisation are a grand exercise in denying death.  

When he was entering what he knew would be the final stage of his terminal illness, Bob Monkhouse used to joke that the terrible thing about dying was how stiff it left you feeling the next day. There is something pleasantly cavalier in the comedian’s quip. Why make a tragedy of something that will happen to us all? Perhaps we’d be wiser if we didn’t think of death at all, but instead – as the philosopher Spinoza recommended – only of life. But that kind of wisdom seems to be beyond our capacity. The human preoccupation with death is pervasive and universal, and every society offers remedies for the anxiety that the fact of mortality evokes.  

Religions have their afterlives, while secular faiths offer continuity with some larger entity – nations, political projects, the human species, a process of cosmic evolution – to stave off the painful certainty of oblivion. In their own lives, human beings struggle to create an image of themselves that they can project into the world. Careers and families prolong the sense of self beyond the grave. Acts of exceptional heroism and death-defying extreme sports serve a similar impulse. By leaving a mark, we can feel we are not just fleeting individuals who will soon be dead and then forgotten.  

Gray argues further that although writers often highlight the preoccupation with death, it is important to remember that we don’t always fear the prospect of dying:  

They are right to suggest that it is awareness of death, more than anything else, which differentiates human beings from other animals. They are also right to argue that denial of death is one of the most powerful forces in human life. Where they go astray is in passing over how, on the contrary, many human beings have welcomed their mortality.  

To start with, religions aren’t always immortality cults. A preoccupation with death may be universally human, and attempts to escape from it are found in many cultures and traditions – including, as the authors show, Chinese alchemy. But a longing for everlasting life has been at its strongest in societies and individuals whose values are shaped by monotheism, more particularly by Christianity. (Belief in an afterlife hasn’t been central in most currents of Judaism.) In ancient Greek polytheism, it was believed that the gods envied people their mortality; everlasting life might be a curse – an eternity of boredom. In many of their forms, Hinduism and Buddhism express a search for mortality, the project of releasing human beings from the unending life that comes with the cycle of transmigration and rebirth.  

For the poets and philosophers of pre-Christian Europe, death was by no means always an evil. The Roman Stoic Seneca had no compunction in writing to a young disciple that he should not be afraid to consider suicide if he had already tasted most of life’s pleasures. Even more boldly, the Greek poet Theognis, writing some time in the 6th century BC, declared: “Best for all for mortal beings is never to have been born at all” – a line that Nietzsche used in his analysis of ancient Greek culture. In his poem “Tess’s Lament”, Thomas Hardy has the heroine of Tess of the D’Urbervilles give voice to a similar sentiment: “I cannot bear my life as writ,/I’d have my life unbe;/Would turn my memory to a blot/. . . And gone all trace of me!” What Tess wants is not just to cease to exist, but to “unbe” – never to have been born. Hardy’s character illustrates the power of Freud’s insight that human beings can be moved as much by a longing for complete extinction as by the urge to live.  

Gray concludes:  

[The] human response to mortality is intrinsically contradictory. We fear the prospect of death and build up elaborate defences against it, yet at the same time yearn for the inconceivable transformation that death will bring.  

It is unreasonable to look to philosophy for remedies for this quintessentially human self-division. Better take up a religion, or else accept and enjoy the short, uncertain life we are given. In the end, feeling stiff the next day is no big deal.  


The Leader: Tessa Jowell’s London calling

In the Leader this week, the NS endorses Tessa Jowell as Labour’s candidate for mayor of London:

On 11 September, the Labour Party will announce who has won the race to be its candidate for the London mayoral election in May 2016.

The field for the contest in London is strong but one candidate stands out: Tessa Jowell, who has built a broad-based movement of support. Polls also indicate that she is best placed to defeat the Conservatives and their likely candidate, Zac Goldsmith, next May.

However, the case for Tessa Jowell extends far beyond her electability. She is a fine communicator who has been far less divisive than many of her contemporaries in the party. She has an excellent record in government, most notably in founding Sure Start, the national nurture and childhood programme, and in helping to bring the 2012 Olympic Games to London. Through her Olympics experience she has developed good relations with business, which are essential in the global metropolis of London.

Her campaign for mayor has shown she has the right priorities for the capital: addressing the housing crisis, concentrating on disadvantaged children’s early years, grappling with entrenched inequality, while being open-minded about business and commerce.

Labour is poised to elect two men to the positions of leader and deputy leader of the national party. We welcomed the election of Kezia Dugdale as the new leader of Scottish Labour, and it would be cheering, too, if Tessa Jowell were to win such an important role in British politics. She is the best choice for both Labour and London.


The Politics Column: George Eaton

Those with the most to fear from a Corbyn-led Labour – and those with the most to gain

Geroge Eaton writes that, for all sides, “Corbyn’s victory would be a disorienting moment”. He considers what the Conservatives stand to gain or lose from Corbyn winning the Labour leadership:

The Tories have been near-silent this summer on the grounds that one’s enemy should never be interrupted when making a mistake. Those who cheered when Ed Miliband’s victory was announced are confident in their judgement. Their warnings that Miliband would “spend more, tax more and borrow more” and strike a deal with the Scottish National Party proved remorselessly effective, despite his protestations. They see no reason why they would prove any less so against Corbyn, who pleads guilty to each of these charges. “If there isn’t a Labour majority but a minority and we’ve got to work with other parties, probably on the basis of a day-to-day arrangement or . . . a supply arrangement, then do that,” Corbyn has said of the SNP.

Eaton also looks to the Liberal Democrats, Ukip and the Greens:

The hope of the Liberal Democrats is that a Corbyn win would allow them to claim the middle ground, as the SDP did in 1983. Jack Straw, the former Labour foreign secretary, has predicted that they will rise from the dead “like Lazarus”. But as a result of the Lib Dems’ stained reputation, the collapse of three-party politics in England and the Tories’ ambition to colonise the centre, their recovery cannot be assumed.

[. . .]

Nigel Farage has endorsed Corbyn on the grounds that his victory would further attract Labour supporters to Ukip. But Corbyn’s team makes the reverse case: that he would allow the party to reconnect with those alienated by the “LibLabCon” establishment. Yet his unashamedly liberal stance
on immigration represents a potentially formidable obstacle to persuading Farage’s followers. If Corbyn, as appears likely, chooses not to campaign for EU withdrawal, Ukip will have space to champion its other great cause. The forthcoming referendum, which most expect next autumn, will raise the salience of Brussels.

It is the Greens who some suggest have the most to fear from a Corbyn-led Labour. For decades, they have exploited the ample territory to the party’s left.

The Greens’ transport spokesperson, Rupert Read, has denounced Corbyn as being “in hock to the ideology of growthism” for his emphasis on economic stimulus through “people’s quantitative easing”. Because of the Greens’ distinctive identity, its support may yet prove more resilient than some assume.

He concludes:

The election of the Islington North MP, his sole title for 32 years, would represent a further destabilisation of British politics. One prediction can be advanced with confidence: few voters would be indifferent to Jeremy Corbyn. For all parties, the rewards or costs of their positioning could be great. The same is true of Corbyn. As Ed Miliband’s experience showed, opposition leaders have only a narrow window within which to define themselves. Like traders in a volatile market, all sides must place their bets with care



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