Friday, October 17, 2014

Do you condemn ISIS?

Look.  If pressed, and if it will help anyone sleep better at night, I will condemn ISIS in the boldest and most strident terms.  But I will do so with some weariness.

It has been a neo-McCarthyite mainstay of British politics for the last decade or so to demand condemnations of this or that from those who are in any way critical of war, of the state of Israel, or even of Islamophobic racism.  You well know the type of question: "but do you condemn these atrocities?", "do you condemn Hamas terrorism?", "do you condemn the suicide bombings?", and so on.

The point of the question is to insinuate that there is a question.  It is to imply that there is some whiff of sympathy on your part for, let's say, beheading charity workers, or enslaving and raping women.  And there is no good way to respond.  If you answer "yes, of course", the next demand will not be far off.  "Ah, then do you condemn those who would not condemn...?  Do you also condemn x?  How about y?"  You give the green light to derail the conversation, you show that the game works.  If you don't give that answer, then of course you have condemned yourself.  If you give a nuanced answer, you have prevaricated horribly when real people are dying this very second.  If you say "fuck off, I'm not answering your weaselly little question", then clearly they've touched a nerve - bit jumpy are we?  Something to hide?  And of course, even if you do offer condemnation, it might not be condemnatory enough.  Or it might just be ignored, your words misquoted or invented for you.  The aim of the game is to attach a stigma to you, not to have an honest discussion.

You see the point.  Now look at this.  The story related here, by a student tabloid which sees fit to retweet Tommy Robinson on this very subject, is untrue.  It is not the case that the NUS 'refused to condemn ISIS'.  It is a lie.  Nonetheless, this untrue story, which has its origins in a post written by Daniel Cooper of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty (AWL), has been picked up by the press both in the UK and internationally.  The result has been torrents of execration poured on the NUS Black Students' Campaign.

The actual story is a little bit less enthralling, and requires a lot more subtlety in parsing.  Roughly one month ago at a NUS National Executive Committee meeting, Cooper proposed a motion in solidarity with the Kurds, and condemning ISIS.  Frankly, knowing the AWL, I think this statement could have been a hell of a lot worse.  This is an organisation which cheerfully promotes and defends racist ideas about Muslims.  I quote from its guru, Sean Matgamna:

"Like desert tribes of primitive Muslim simplicity and purity enviously eyeing a rich and decadent walled city and sharpening their knives […] so, now, much of the Islamic world looks with envy, covetousness, religious self-righteousness and active hostility on the rich, decadent, infidel-ridden, sexually sinful advanced capitalist societies."

In contrast with such high Victorian meanderings, and in light of the heavy intimations from the same author that the AWL would support an Israeli nuclear strike if necessary, Cooper's motion seems prime facie quite reasonable to me.  Support the Kurds, condemn ISIS: what could be bad?  On the other hand, the response of the NUS Black Students' Campaign was not unreasonable either.  They didn't disagree with supporting the Kurds.  They didn't disagree with denouncing ISIS.  But they did want parts of it altered.  In a speech, the NUS Black Students Officer queried some of the formulations, suggesting that they could potentially feed into Islamophobia.

The major sticking point for the Campaign was that it called for students to 'boycott' any individual found to be supplying ISIS with weapons or training or funding.  The objection here was not that it would be politically incorrect to deprive a struggling Muslim group of the weapons it needs to blah blah blah.  The objection was that this phrasing would give the false impression that this was actually a major tendency among students - specifically Muslim students - and could feed into political pressure for added surveillance of this group, which of course takes place in quite destructive ways.

Even if you estimate this risk to be low, it's a relatively simple thing to resolve.  Assuming that Cooper and the others who drafted the motion didn't intend such a construction, and that they weren't merely seeking controversy in order to depict themselves as the victims of a soft-on-totalitarianism left, the motion could just be moderately re-worded.  It would just be a case of either amending the motion or taking it away and writing it again, so that any possible problematic implication was removed.  Since amendments to the motion were not permitted, the Campaign promised to go back and write a new motion both expressing solidarity with the Kurdish struggle and denouncing ISIS.  Before the motion could be submitted to the next NEC meeting, however, Cooper's article appeared in which he complained that the NUS didn't want to condemn ISIS because of 'identity politics'.  It was after this article appeared, roughly a month after the meeting, that the press picked up the issue.

The NUS Black Students Campaign responded with this statement.  The statement has become a hostage to fortune, inasmuch as it was susceptible to selective quotation.  This is the sentence and a half which appears as the lead quote in all the press:

"We recognise that condemnation of ISIS appears to have become a justification for war and blatant Islamophobia.
"This rhetoric exacerbates the issue at hand and in essence is a further attack on those we aim to defend."

It is usually misleadingly attributed to the NUS Black Students Officer's speech, and of course there is a reason why the quote starts mid-way through a sentence.  It is to erase any trace of the part of the statement which says:

"We stand in complete solidarity with the Kurdish people against the recent attacks by ISIS and join many others in condemnation of their brutal actions."

Now, I do not think this statement at all well-phrased.  It is quite a reasonable argument that the condemnation of ISIS, which takes place almost every day in the papers and on the television news and in political speeches, has become a ritual which has been linked to justifications for war and Islamophobia.  In fact, given the Sun's recent shit-stirring front page, we know for a fact that the connection is there.  (Do I really have to say this?)  But to make this argument in this political and ideological context, one has to be extraordinarily precise in one's phrasing - and this point isn't precisely put in the statement.  That is why it can be misrepresented as saying that the denunciation of ISIS is Islamophobic, despite its clear denunciation of ISIS.

The NUS Black Students Officer, Malia Bouattia, has been subject to volleys of vicious and sometimes violently misogynistic Twitter abuse as a result of it.  All of those 'lionhearts', 'crusaders' and 'defenders' calling her a "fuckwitted cunt" or wishing rape on her, would most likely find their withers decidedly unwrung if they realised that they had caused a young woman and her family to entertain serious and valid worries about their safety.  Because, after all, ISIS aren't the only nutters out there.  But they are just the rabid dogs, as it were, responding to the dog whistle.  Those who sounded the dog-whistle, in order to have their own 21st Century version of the 'Baa Baa White Sheep', are as much to blame.  I condemn them.