Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Vive le technicolor.

What Daesh call the ‘greyzone’ is the world at its best.

Surely there is nothing left to say. Or maybe there is but by someone else. In the words of Philip Levine ‘[t]here is more to be said,/ but by someone who has suffered/ and died for his sister the earth/ and his brothers the beasts and the trees.’ Not me. Not us - whoever that is.

So much has been said and yet not enough has been heard. The voices of critics have overshadowed the ordinary, everyday voices of those who have actually suffered due to the work of Daesh. Many of the people victimised by Islamists worldwide are, of course, Muslim… Because they are not Muslim ‘enough’ or are the wrong kind of Muslim, or are fleeing the Muslims killing them but not everyone wants to give them asylum because, well, they’re Muslim and they’re not ‘like us’.

There has been so MUCH comment on this over the past week, and yet I’m desperate to hear from voices that sound human rather than cynical. I just can’t hear any more from some angry over-entitled bystander claiming the ‘chickens have come home to roost’ or that this is now a war against Muslims. So I’m writing this post not so much with the intention of adding new ideas to the debate but to make a plea for a more responsible and compassionate attitude. And this includes the political rhetoric of those seeking revenge.

The drone attacks on Daesh in Raqqa seemed so fast considering they were the most extensive air raids carried out by France in Syria so far. But then Hollande had already declared "France will be merciless towards these barbarians” the day after the attacks on Paris. It smacked of revenge and of wanting to appear to do something, anything, definitive in order to show strength at a time of generalised fear. And yet the truth is that we do not know if there is any military strategy that can defeat terrorists who do not fear their own deaths, and whose networks of influence can extend to drug-dealers and bar owners in Paris with little prior engagement with Islam.

Hollander's approach worries me, as does much of the debate around the Paris attacks. Many have not paused to take a breath before stating ‘what they reckon’ in articles, speeches, political statements and even in their posts via twitter and Facebook, adding to an already flooded terrain of knee-jerk responses.

The problem with absolutist talk when it comes from politicians or even activists is that it propagates a vision and attitude that is alienating and dehumanising. Those of us sharing our views at this time have a responsibility to offer more than propaganda. Why? Because otherwise we implicitly agree to the black-and-white, with-us-or-against-us world that Islamists and the racist far right want us to live in - one where normal life and nuanced perspectives don’t exist.

Some have complained that Paris was over-hyped and that this lack of perspective proves a racist attitude towards the non-white victims of terrorism in other countries. Fine. That’s a view. But in some cases this was done without even stopping to acknowledging the victims in Paris. I can’t help feeling that if someone can skip over the significance of a death with such ease, they have in truth done a disservice to all victims of terrorism everywhere by showing the same callous disregard for life that warmongers are capable of. All life is important. It’s never worth ignoring an atrocity, either in Paris or in Kenya. Stand up for that and you stand for something better.

As part of the Telegraph’s tirade, journalist Tom Harris claimed it was normal and good to feel “murderous rage” about the Paris attacks. Yes. Apparently Corbyn is out of touch with the “broader public” because they are all, like Harris, revelling in “murderous rage”. Oppose Corbyn if you like, but not because he’s failing to stand for “murderous rage”. I’ll admit that I felt some anger at hearing about the Paris attacks but it definitely wasn’t “murderous”. If you’re feeling “murderous rage” again, Tom, please don’t write about it and shove it into the public domain because, funnily enough, “murderous rage” sounds a bit terrorist-y to me. 

Meanwhile, Tariq Ali of the Stop the War Coalition (STWC) wrote a statement that sounded like he had written it very fast indeed. ‘The West is not morally superior to the jihadis’ he says in his piece Isis in Paris. The ‘West’? Who is that? Governments? Everyone in the West? Workers and students and children in the West? He is basically using ‘West’ in the same way that jihadis use it. The corrupt West. The evil West. The ‘WEST’. Ali is not the only one using the word in this way; military strategists use it too. Much has been made of choosing the term ‘Daesh’ over ‘ISIS’ or ‘ISIL’. I think reflection is needed on all us-versus-them language.

Daesh don’t like nuance and it is, according to issue 7 of their own publication Dabiq, seeking the “extinction of the greyzone”. In their words, "The greyzone is critically endangered, rather on the brink of extinction. Its endangerment began with the blessed operations of  September 11th”. And this, in their view, is a brilliant thing.

The knee-jerk reactions, the “murderous rage”, the black and white world of Islam Vs. the ‘West’, this is what they want even more than anything. The attacks are only part of a long term strategy to create division and intolerance. This is where Daesh do indeed share a great deal with European fascism: their aim is to create divisions that lead to civil war and the destruction of civil society, where the majority are polarised into two main camps: those against the fascists and those with them. And that’s when their real game plan starts, when victory goes to those morally ‘superior’ while the morally ‘weak’ must go to the wall. (I realise I’m quoting Hitler. I hope I don’t have to do that often in life).

It’s my view that organisations such as Daesh hare some of fascism’s views on gender roles precisely because both types of movement despise all traces of nuanced perspective and therefore gender and sexuality become ‘absolute’, black-and-white issues. Men and women become ‘essentially’ different in their eyes, and because fascism places no value on accepting differences, of allowing agreement or compassion between groups who are not identical, this ultimately allows the male leadership to sexually abuse women with a clear conscience. Thus, just as the National Socialists had their Joy Division, ISIS have the Yazidis to rape and torture. A dichotomous with-us-or-against-us worldview can lead to this point when it reaches its logical conclusion.

Regular Muslims living in London or Paris or any big multicultural city are perceived as enemies by Daesh precisely because they live their lives in the ‘greyzone’, i.e. they’re not angry or oppressed enough to play the hate game. The thing is, the greyzone is where many of us – Muslim and non-Muslim – are grateful to be living.  It’s where we drink coffee and see our friends without fear of violence. It’s where children – girls and boys - can thankfully go to school in peace. It’s where we talk about our views and feelings online without the danger of being killed for them. It’s where we read books that haven’t been censored and share poetry and music and humour. It’s where we can care for our neighbours no matter what colour or religion they are because they too have children and catch colds and appreciate a smile now and then. If we lose this trust, we lose everything worth having. 

As part of its coverage of the Paris attacks, Channel 4 News interviewed Daniel Cohn Bendit - a French-German Green party politician who was a key figure in the May 1968 demonstrations. He was adamant that language of ‘war’ is dangerous and he was saddened that on the morning after the attacks he was actually thanked by a migrant taxi driver for getting into his car. He asked the taxi driver why he was being thanked. The Parisian driver replied that three people had already refused to get into his taxi after observing the colour of his skin. Reflecting on this with genuine sadness, Bendit says ‘This is the beginning of a general suspicion. If France loses this battle, if we grow the intolerance that every Muslim could be a murderer, France is lost.’

I feel passionately that the politics and language of revenge has to be challenged, as well as the disingenuous talk of commentators of all political persuasions who are simply spreading the rage. What these people are doing – whether it’s their intent or not – is creating a world with no space for compassion, no time for independent thought, and this sucks the oxygen out of our common humanity. It poisons the well of democracy.

I used a poem earlier in this article because in many ways poetry can function as the opposite of propaganda. While poetry celebrates the multifariousness of lived experience, propaganda denies/ ignores its very existence. So I’m going to use another poem, now, to sign off. It’s called ‘Snow’ by Louis MacNeice and reading it gets me thinking about the ‘suddenness’ of when lives are lost through violence and of how life can be both ‘spiteful’ and beautiful at the same time. The entire poem illustrates the coexistence of pain and beauty. Things simply live alongside each other. MacNeice celebrates the ‘drunkenness of things being various’ and ‘plural’. Because what Daesh call the ‘greyzone’, let’s face it, is the world at its very best in glorious technicolour.

By Louis MacNeice


 The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was

 Spawning snow and pink roses against it

 Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:

 World is suddener than we fancy it.


 World is crazier and more of it than we think,

 Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion

 A tangerine and spit the pips and feel

 The drunkenness of things being various.


 And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world

 Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -

 On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands -

 There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

Friday, 13 November 2015

It's the pay gap that's 'vulgar', not talking about it

In March 2015 the Women’s Equality Party was founded to push “for equal representation in politics, business, industry and throughout working life”, after what I would call the failure of mainstream politics to fully address these issues. I’ve been following their progress closely and it was while reading an article about their policies online that I saw the video of Kate Winslet’s recent interview. (
 I honestly wish I hadn’t watched it, because in it Winslet declares the public discussion of the gender pay gap in Hollywood a terrible thing. Apparently, she finds women talking about money ‘vulgar’. ‘Wow!’ I thought to myself, ‘She sounds some English aristocrat from the 1900s complaining about uncouth Americans. Plus, she’s making the demand for better wages look bad.’

I then did my homework and discovered that, unfortunately, Winslet represents a broader malaise in the British workplace. According to an O2/ CIPD study published earlier this year, British women are less likely to ask for a pay rise than men, citing reasons such as the fear of being perceived pushy or ungrateful. And these fears are not unfounded because the management class in this country is indeed more likely to view a female employee negatively if she gets a bit ‘vulgar’ about her pay packet.

In the interview, Kate Winslet goes on to confirm that she feels very ‘lucky’ to be where she is, i.e. she isn’t an ungrateful cow like those women in Hollywood. The problem with this is that while actors like Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence certainly aren’t toiling away in a factory or a call centre, the pay gap crosses social class both here and in the US, so ANY women speaking up about the issue – especially a high profile woman – is important for all. It helps to break the ‘polite’ silence around women being short-changed both economically and politically.
The British dislike of mentioning money has to be put to one side if women are to make any progress, and Ms Winslet’s view that arguing about wages in public is ‘vulgar’ only perpetuates a culture of sexist attitudes and low expectations that disadvantages all women in the workplace.

I, personally, would rather like to ask Ms Winslet if she views the suffragettes Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst as also ‘not very British’?  They, too, might have chosen to simply stay ‘grateful’ about their well-off position. And to make things worse (a let-down to all women) Sylvia Pankhurst was involved in the British labour movement, where vulgar people talked about money and their political rights. I know. So vulgar. Really yuck.

A good few years ago Winslet had a go at claiming to be working class, which I suppose is absolutely fine but very, very odd for someone sounding more like a cardboard cut-out of Marie Antoinette these days. In fact, someone really needs to put Kate in a T-Shirt that reads ‘This is not what a feminist looks like’ and be done with it.