EvolvePolitics thinks “You are ISIS”: Manchester and the Clickbait Left’s Terror Denialism

 

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Manchester Arena, May 22nd 2017. Photo: CNBC.com

On May 24th 2017, a man named Stuart Michael Waddicor posted a Facebook response to the May 22nd Manchester Arena suicide bombing by Salman Ramadan Abedi in which he claimed to understand “how ISIS (who have claimed responsibility for the MEN Arena attack) works”. Waddicor helpfully explained that “anti Islamic hate speech on Facebook” was to blame for radicalisation of young British Muslims. The left-wing hyperpartisan website EvolvePolitics shared this in a repost with the caption “Absolutely spot on”, which was itself shared 46,000 times.

This post, and the viral spread of it on Facebook, embodies everything that is intellectually, morally and politically wrong in the political left’s understanding of terrorism. It is a goulash-pot of reheated Chomskyan nihilist woo combined with the folk wisdom of half-remembered Bill Hicks and Frankie Boyle stand-up bits, asserted as a statement of liberating knowledge triumphing over social ignorance, flecked with the rage and sneer of the virtuously illuminated. It has successfully convinced or satisfied the beliefs of those who gave it around 6,000 ‘likes’ that the way to stop ISIS and similar groups from continuing to attack and slaughter civilians is to post shouty Facebook statuses condemning the racist or ignorant comments made by friends and relatives, breathlessly declaring “YOU, the ones full of hate…. YOU are ISIS.” Yes, you, the British people who post uninformed Facebook comments, are ISIS. You are not even just helping ISIS, YOU are ISIS. By the power of your ignorant social media comments, you have forced otherwise normal young men from Muslim backgrounds to join an organisation which has committed genocide, enslavement and mass murder.

Racist British Facebook posts are to blame for ISIS. The navel-gazing narcissism of this position would be laughable if it were not also profoundly sinister, made more so by the far reach of the post’s viral spread on social media. Expertise from institutes for the study of radicalisation, the memoirs of former extremists, the insights of social psychology and political science mean nothing – but a viral post which blames Islamist terrorist attacks on your racist uncle wins your approval and shared influence. This is what it is now like to be a socially concerned member of the political left who wants to respond to terrorism without actually responding to terrorism.

Anyone who wants to “educate” themselves via viral posts which blame the brainwashing of ISIS recruits on racist Facebook posts should probably drop the hyperpartisan Kool-Aid and instead look at a resource like the the SITE Intelligence Group, which has helpfully posted (and pinned to its Twitter feed) a video explaining how ISIS actually does indoctrinate young people, including teenagers and children. Anyone genuinely interested in the subject should consider viewing it – though be warned that its content is extremely disturbing and includes scenes from ISIS-made videos, including atrocities committed by children.

ISIS shows its initiates videos of executions, massacres and atrocities committed by its own members. It shows battlefield scenes and the glorification of carnage. It depicts the global military campaign against itself as a campaign of annihilation against all Muslims, everywhere. Racist Facebook posts by people in the West form a minimal, trivial if not totally insignificant part of its initiation and training. The fact that 6,000 people, many of them university educated, would be willing to endorse or enthusiastically re-post a claim as objectively false, if not completely delusional, as one which ascribes ISIS recruitment in Britain as relying on offensive social media posts, is profoundly disturbing. The future of any ability to resist terrorism depends upon a willingness to understand the most basic essentials of how terrorism functions. There is apparently a desire among sections of the educated to sacrifice this understanding in favour of indulgence in ideologically-satisfying pseudo-knowledge produced by hyperpartisan echo-chamber sites.

The wrongness expands beyond junk explanations of how terrorist organisations, including ISIS, function or recruit followers (not a single source is given for any of the societal-sweeping accusatory claims).  The people who have enthusiastically liked and shared this status have done so without the slightest thought for any understanding or knowledge produced by experts in radicalisation or the study of ISIS itself. Their reasons for sharing it are most likely for the same reason that social media echo-chambers like EvolvePolitics are able to thrive in the first place. The anti-Western, “we are to blame” leftish partisanship of the post confirms their existing beliefs, and signals to others that they are anti-racist; in fact so anti-racist, that they blame non-Muslims for the Islamic State more than any Muslims, including the individuals who join ISIS. In proffering a baseless, fact-free pseudo-explanation of the functioning of terrorist recruitment, the author claims to “want to take a minute to remind people how ISIS works”. The reader who ‘likes’ the status is then signalling that they are enlightened, and knows what’s really going on.

The seething hatred for the inferior, uneducated masses is contained in the explosion of self-righteous declaratives; “YOU are ISIS. You are the enemy.” No consideration is given for the seriousness of branding members of the British public to be part of a terrorist organisation. No consideration is given to the fact that an extremist in 2016 murdered a serving Member of Parliament screaming “death to traitors!”; it is apparently totally acceptable to declare one’s Facebook friends and neighbours to be part of ISIS, and responsible for ISIS recruitment, if one is on the viral clickbait Left.

When I first read this post, in all its bizarre misdirected fury, the following thoughts sprang initially to mind:

1. The overwhelming majority of “foreign” ISIS recruits (those not from the territory it controls in Syira and Iraq) are still from Muslim-majority countries. ISIS was created by men who had spent their entire lives living in the Sunni Arab-majority states of Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The recruits come from across the globe and their reasons for joining are multi-faceted. One of the most predominant is the appeal of living in a promised utopian state, and playing divinely-ordained roles in creating this state. The beliefs about the world held by ISIS supporters are profoundly disordered and include belief in (often antisemitic) economic conspiracy theories and persecution complexes without basis in fact. British ISIS recruits follow in this same general pattern.

2. The “poor, beaten down” people in those same Muslim-majority countries are the non-Muslim minorities who have for the most part not formed an equivalent movement to ISIS, despite the wholesale persecution and even extermination of minority faiths. Yazidis, Coptic Christians and Sufi Muslims have not formed an apocalyptic death cult of their own which is comparable to ISIS. The scale of persecution being visited on religious minorities by ISIS, as well as by authoritarian governments in the region, vastly dwarfs the scale of bullying or ill-treatment suffered by any Muslim community in the democratic West.

3. Millions of people are currently unemployed, living in poverty and frustration in Southern Europe, particularly Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece, and have been for prolonged periods of time. Whilst they may end up voting for extreme parties or endure higher rates of suicide and substance abuse, the risk of them becoming jihadists or killing their fellow citizens in suicide bombings is near zero. If ISIS recruits in the West feel marginalised by unemployment or lack of suitable jobs for graduates, they face the same situation as millions of others – but with the tantalising hope offered by an ideology which promises to solve everything for them.

4. ISIS requires no ’empowering’ to brainwash others. Any totalitarian movement or even any run-of-the-mill religious cult, is capable of brainwashing its members without reference to external hostility or without even using external materials. Many radicals are spoon-fed a distorted view of the world which may present news and historical events in a way beneficial to the group – but practically any event can be used as ammunition in the machinery of propaganda and brainwashing.

 

Every single premise in the post shared by EvolvePolitics is demonstrably wrong, distorted and contrived to confuse and manipulate an audience, either written by someone who knows nothing about ISIS and radicalisation or someone who wants others to form an extremely distorted picture of the subject. This is not merely mistaken or offensive, it is obscene. It is obscene because, in addition to blaming the innocent or the non-culpable (random Facebook users who post prejudiced or unpleasant statuses and comments) for the recruitment successes of a genocidal terrorist movement, it absolves the guilty (the ISIS recruiters and those who willingly answer their call) of moral culpability. It directs the people reading the posts to focus their attentions and anger away from ISIS itself and onto their own society, misdirecting as well as misinforming them as to why terrorists are attacking them and how to prevent this.

This is, in moral terms, about the equivalent of encouraging the public in the 1920s to blame the existence of the New York Mafia on working-class Irish-Americans who were rude to Italian-Americans in the street.

The price of self-delusion with junk explanations, victim-blaming and abolishing the moral agency of the enemy – the actual enemy, not the imagined posters on social media who the author elevates to the same status as ISIS – all of this is the mark of an ideological framework that is bent on self-immolation, and taking its supporters with it. The term ‘Regressive left’ was coined for precisely this kind of post; the men who join ISIS are infantilised to a status of naive, even helpless victimhood, whilst the virtuous and anti-racist left seek to blame terrorism on the people they despise as a matter of first principle; the ignorant masses of their own societies.


This is the language of the fanatic, the person who regards their own society as more deserving of condemnation and hatred than the individuals who are killing its citizens. People posting things you do not like on Facebook are not ISIS. Only ISIS are ISIS. If we believe the real solution to stopping terrorism is to swallow the anti-Western, anti-democratic propaganda of the Islamist movement entirely before spewing it out in a torrent of abuse directed at the British public, we really are lost. In the moral universe of the person who wrote this post and the left-wing hyperpartisan clickbait website which posted it, ISIS is drained of moral responsibility. The political Islamist movements which spawned ISIS, the Sunni Wahabbist clerics which gave it its theology, and the legions of quiet sympathisers who funnel money to ISIS from across the world, bear less responsibility for terrorism than Dave from Margate who posts an angry comment under a news article.

This post demonstrates, in the plainest terms possible, how appeasement and capitulation to an enemy is made possible. If the logic of this post is followed though to its logical ends, ISIS will merely have to sit back and watch whilst Britain destroys itself in a festival of virtuous self-hatred. They will ask how their propaganda worked so effectively as to create a situation where educated, middle-class opinion-formers with influence over the media and the culture of this country, came to believe in the days following the massacre of children at a pop concert, that the appropriate response was to blame themselves and not the people who actually carried out the massacre.

This post, if it was believed and acted upon by the people who make the decisions in this country, is as dishonest, bigoted and dangerous as anything spat out of the mouth of Katie Hopkins or Tommy Robinson. The more dangerous for the fact that the author, the publishers and the people who ‘liked’ this post, think they are being clever, that they are intellectually and morally superior to their racist neighbours for believing its premises and conclusions.

This post is an exhibit in the kind of self-annihilating regressive thought that will, if it were taken even remotely seriously by the majority of the population and the governing classes, give the Islamists a victory they could never have predicted.

 


 

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Brief thoughts on apologetics and propaganda

This is a post most unscholarly of which to boast and I must plea for contrition for the relative sparsity of references in advance. However the recent wave of discussion on every platform of political and social discourse concerning the relationship of religion, politics and belief to the events in Paris this month have prompted a pause for thought. What are the boundaries and distinctions, if any, between apologetics and propaganda?

All who have at some point followed or engaged with the practices and subcultures of Christian apologetics, particularly the popular and populist veins that are currently led by book sales and hit counts by a subset of the American evangelical right, will have seen the command given in 1 Peter to believers that they must present a reasoned defence of their beliefs to outsiders. To present such a defence or apologia in the Koine Greek of the Epistle’s original (and somewhat pseudeipiegraphic or forged) composition. That believers must give an “answer” for the faith, especially during times of persecution, and explain the veracity of their convictions for holding it. With some apologetic irony, in defending my ascription of ‘forged’ character to 1 Peter, one of the evidences that modern New Testament scholarship uses to date the Epistles are references made to events external to the audience of each letter in addition of the language of the epistle itself. St. Peter, the original Cephas, would almost certainly have lacked the rhetorical training and Greek composition skills required for authoring the epistle. Furthermore, the persecutory events referred to throughout, whether describing social marginalisaiton or forcible suppression of the Christian faith by Roman authorities, are better fitted to the reign of the Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD) rather than his predecessors from the 30s to the 70s AD.

And without planning, I have gone on a New Testament Studies digression. Was this not meant to concern propaganda?

If an apologia gives a defence of a belief or position, that may reasonably extend to beliefs in policy and the conduct of individuals and parties beholden to this belief. Communicating the message (the truth-bearers, as it were) of the Christian religion to outsiders is the exercise undertaken in apologetics. In that sense, it is hard not to think of one of the most famous residents of Downing Street in the modern era; not the occupants of Number 10 or 11, but instead that prototypical Malcolm Tucker and Tony Blair’s former Director of Communications. Most Christians and believers in general may know him as Alistair ‘We Don’t Do God’ Campbell. The original context of that infamous reply is something demanding a lengthily post of its own.

Campbell, as with every spin-doctor and image handler, was charged with defending the positions of the Blair government, as well as the character of Blair himself, to outsiders. He bore the hope and faith of the New Labour project on his back – the scenery could come crashing down around him if things went badly wrong. Somewhat like S/Paul of Tarsus, he was an expert at handling difficult and seemingly insurmountable challenges to the credibility of his creed; call him any name under the sun for his handling of the Iraq War and the media circus surrounding it in 2003, but you cannot call him ineffective or impotent. Campbell was paid well for his work but was not a mercenary or hired gun – there was never any risk of him defecting to the other side for a handsomer pay packet.

So what this meandering late-night post is digging toward, as the confused but hopeful Biblical archaeologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries hoped they were, is a solid conclusion to a serious question. Is apologetics a matter of spin?

The vast compendiums and encyclopedias of evangelical inerrancy, explaining away every contradiction and misnomer in the Bible as merely “apparent” contradictions, the legions of reply books to any atheistic, sceptical or scientific text (consider the upwards of thirty hardback responses to The God Delusion that were published by major or minor firms, not even considering the vanity press replies and online apologetic scrambling) and the vast expenditure made on training seminars and conferences for apologetics. Apologetics is taught at Christian universities; the most influential are probably Biola University, home to the philosophical apologetics megastar William Lane Craig and ‘investigatory’ apologist J. Warner Wallace, and Houston Baptist University, home to evangelical New Testament scholar Michael Licona as well as Lee Strobel, a former legal editor for the Chicago Tribune whose book The Case for Christ became one of the best-selling and most influential apologetics texts of the early 21st century. If bold and somewhat extravagant claims are made about the number of independent attestations of Jesus and the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts, it probably stems from the claims made in this and similar books. Again, more posts will follow.

Between these institutions and individuals, a vast theistic higher education sector has come to exist in the United States, offering a parallel to secular universities and colleges for families and students who wish to remain firmly within the fold of their faith. When these universities state that “Through a rigorous, Christ-centered and Spirit-led education we enable our students to grapple with and engage in the spiritual, intellectual, ethical and cultural issues of our time, their implications and application to everyday life.”, they make their purposes evident. Apologetics-based education is ultimately a training program for the promulgation of the Christian faith. There would be nothing contestable in itself about this – students must be free to pursue any course of education they wish without impediment by the state or others – except we might be more cautious about supporting similar academic projects undertaken in the name of political ideologies. Consider Alistair Campbell retiring from politics has he has done in order to establish a private university with a “Labour-centered and Blairism-led education” as the ethos of its curriculum and eyebrows would begin to rise.

With regards to Paris, argumentative of the Islamic faith in the light of another atrocity carried out by self-appointed martial defenders and representatives of the Prophet Muhammad has led to great indulgence in one of the most well-attested and intellectually galling logical fallacies: No True Scotsman. Francois Hollande stated on French television following the attacks that the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo staff, several police officers and four people in a Jewish supermarket had “nothing to do with Islam”. This juxtaposition begs the question – if men shouting “we have avenged the Prophet” and acting entirely upon belief in just retribution for blasphemy against the Divine and his appointed human servants has “nothing to do with Islam” – what would? Evidently it is diplomacy and the need for civil calm has trumped razor-sharp or even moderately watered-down logic. The French President speaking more plainly about the connections between belief, indeterminacy and action and the theological claims of the Qur’an and Hadiths following the attacks may not have aided the stability required after several days of chaos. Spin can prevent riots and pogroms. But it can, as generations of antisemitic and racist canards in Christian and Islamic nations have proved, be both the root and the accelerant of them.

Apologetics and the misuse of history is something which, when I can allot the proper time, earn much of the attention of this blog. Alongside political abuses and distortions of history made most manifest in the school classroom per the efforts of overzealous education ministers, as well as the myth-making of popular histories furnished by newspaper columnists, the subject suffers egregiously in the hands of religious apologetics. Again, this is not to cast disparaging criticism at the work of all religious authors and certainly not to religious believers generally. As stated previously, the field of Christian apologetics at present remains under the predominant influence of conservative Evangelicals and fundamentalists in the American cultures of Christianity. Likewise, Islamic apologetics remains in the grip of conservatives – when the faith is not being externally defined and ‘defended’ by jihadism and militant Islamist ideology, it is usually upheld to outsiders by representatives whose ultimate vision of an accomplished Islamic society is comparable with minor differences to militant counterparts. This helps none in the Muslim community attempting to protect their rights to exercise beliefs without threat of intimidation or harassment by the self-styled counter-jihadist movement and only provides fuel for disingenuous media outlets thriving on Chaucerian characters that provide inflamed controversy with every appearance. It is small wonder that Sean Hannity and FOX News have repeatedly picked Anjem Choudary as their guest speaker on matters Islamic. One spin-drying machine races against another in an arena where rhetoric wins out and facts are left bloodied by the wayside.

Whether the fields of Christian and Islamic apologetics constitute propaganda, and the defence of religion from association with violence and militancy in general falls under a diplomatically necessary denialism, will require greater scholarly focus. I must state immediately my own lack of confidence in the reaction to the Paris attacks from several quarters; first, those on the political Left who forgot the supposed values of 1789 and 1848 and 1870 and declared France to have been a ‘racist country’ inviting violence upon itself with its structural oppression of Muslims and other minorities. The fetid ignorance of this dogmatic adherence to an unfalsifiable structuralism is made all the more laughable by the origins of structuralist theory, along with the very concept of a right-left spectrum, in the nation and capital city subjected to theocratic terror from January 7th to January 9th 2015. The worst was probably epitomised by one very unwise tweet by Laurie Penny, made whilst the second wave of attacks (this time targeting Jews in a market) were still taking place: “Murder is vile and unconscionable. Freedom of the press must be protected. But racist trolling is not heroism. Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie.”

This attempt at contrarianism fails every litmus test but passes succinctly as an effort to spit on the dead and blame the victim. Trolling knows no irony.

If Sartre, Foucault and Barthes had been abducted and butchered in their offices by Catholic fundamentalists aggrieved at their critiques of mass society, would the chorus of the identity politics Left have resounded quite as loudly “Murder is wrong BUT.” This post from 2005 by the late, great and insightful Norman Geras, then Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Manchester, entitled ‘Apologists Among Us’, makes the link explicit. The excuse-making and denialism of the causal agents behind the beliefs of Islamist militants during the Iraq insurgency was, in Geras’s view, an act of apologia for evil. It stands the test of time; sadly, history is yet to make Geras’s comments appear dated or from an epoch before the present.

Apologetics takes many guises and it would be unfair to characterise it as merely the art of excuse-making, denial and outright lying. There are schools of apologetics which have produced useful and significant contributions to logic and the advancement of human reason – hard to believe in the age of banana-wielding science deniers and the school of historical method hijackers whom I would like to be known as the Empty Tombers. But in the reactions to events like the January Paris massacre and the diplomatic needs for face-saving denial of the self-evident, we see apologetics at play in the most sordid and dishonest manner. Something worth apologising for.