Let me just make a few things clear: after all these years I am still a socialist. I voted Labour in 2015 (and would do so all over again), and find myself broadly agreeing with a lot of what the current Labour manifesto has to offer. I never supported the Iraq War, and I feel the War in Afghanistan was mismanaged, as was the intervention in Libya. However, I cannot bring myself to vote Labour due to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, one of the most pressing issues of contention being his relationship to, and opinions of, terrorism.
This piece was originally two separate posts that I have edited together to form one full whole for publication here. The original posts can be found here and here.
On Corbyn’s Terrorism Speech, Islamist Terrorism and the Left’s “Terrorism Problem”
Firstly there is the issue of Corbyn’s speech, a speech which in many ways reflects what he has believed and promoted for years, but has been translated through a more acceptable prism.
This is not to say I disagreed with all of it: he harangues the government for applying the logic of austerity to the security services (even though his current Shadow Home Secretary wanted to abolish Mi5…) and the emergency response services (even though his current Shadow Chancellor signed a manifesto pledging their disarmament), underlining that the traditional Tory doctrine of “law and order” is utterly hollow in the face of neoliberalism’s onslaught. The contribution of prison dysfunction to the problem is also a pressing concern (note that such an issue contributed to the catalyst that has allowed the recent cycle of terrorist attacks in Paris).
But his speech contains severe contradictions and unfounded assumptions common to the rhetoric of his ilk, and it is a good opportunity to rehash some criticisms of them.
Corbyn in many ways mimics what must be a millennia old rhetorical Sophistic form, but mastered and applied by Noam Chomsky in the late 20th century and adopted by many political pundits of all stripes thereafter, whereby if you want to say something highly controversial and disagreeable, you first say its exact opposite, and then state a bland and vague version of it (you can also do this the other way around with the same effect). You could even use the “dog whistle” method of using certain words and phrases to communicate semi-hidden meaning and instruction. This way, you can address your intended audience — the proverbial choir one preaches to — directly, confuse fence sitters and the casually interested into agreeing with you, and when your critics accuse of saying the thing in question, you can point to the opposite point you said and declare “In fact, I actually said the opposite…”, which while technically true, is intellectually dishonest.
This is the rhetorical form of Corbyn’s speech: the “blame” may be “with the terrorists”, but we must see to it that “our foreign policy reduces rather than increases the threat to this country” — a blatant declaration that it is doing the very opposite.
There are other contradictions as well: if these terrorist actors are such purveyors of “atrocious acts of cruelty and depravity”, and that such “vicious and contemptible acts…cause profound pain and suffering”, then why does he aim to make “conflict resolution” the heart of his foreign policy, wherein you “will almost always [be] talking to people you profoundly disagree with”? Usually people who are “depraved” are beyond dialogue, and require a more forceful response…
But really, most of Corbyn’s condemnation of the attacks is just platitude: it is what you are expected to say, especially when you are employing the aforementioned method.
(It is also embarrassing that Corbyn says that we “must support our Armed Services”, when he is on record — video exists — in 2010 saying that the only austerity cuts must be to them. He said it, you can’t just brush it away…)
The aforementioned ‘opposed point’ Corbyn makes is clear: “Those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone. […] And no rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week’s massacre.” However, he doesn’t mention, other than prison dysfunction, what might also be leading to those causes. Again: the only real culprit on offer here is British foreign policy.
Corbyn seems to want to balance main causes of terrorism between the actions of the West and the agency of terrorists themselves, but really, without directly identifying the ideological-political drivers of the main international terrorist phenomenon — that is, what I like to call revolutionary Islamism, or is more generally known as Salafi jihadism —not even mentioning IS by name, then the rhetorical axis in practice in focuses on the West being guilty of their own woes due to “blowback” from their own policy.
But the idea of “blowback” is a questionable one. Some like Peter Bergen — whom I greatly respect as the first journalist to make Al-Qaeda his focus — sees it as a real driver of global terrorism in regards to the Iraq War. Other evidence from the Iraq War however suggests otherwise.
There also the old chestnut of confusing correlation with causation (C =/= C).
This graph has been presented as “proof” the Iraq War caused a rise in deaths from terrorism — again, that C =/= C problem. But if we adopt its logic and look closely at the graph the opposite seems true: after the 2006 troop surge there was actually an overall long-term decline in terrorist deaths, and terrorism-related deaths only began to rise sharply again after the beginnings of the Syrian Civil War, a war from which Western intervention has been (until recently) almost entirely absent. You could draw that Western intervention applied consistently could in fact reduce terrorism-related deaths overall, but that would be falling back on the correlation fallacy…
Another graph shows that over the past twenty years, terrorism attacks in Britain have reduced to an historic low, not exactly indicating a country in the throes of “blowback”.
There are other problem: I don’t know how a 2003 war can cause 2001 attacks…you also have to ignore things like the 1993 WTC Bombing and the 1995 Bojinka Plot (the “original” 9/11 which would have killed far more people). I think much of the timespan of Islamist terrorism is omitted from these graphs, leading to a distorted picture. Islamist terrorism killed tens of thousands in the Middle East throughout the ’80s and ’90s; our response in the West was mostly “Oh Dearism”…
“Blowback”, as opposed to a serious IR theory, is mostly used as a means to blame the West for its own foreign policy errors in the face of multiple terrorist attacks and hundreds of young men travelling to the Middle East to essentially kill themselves but not before killing as many innocents as they can (and desecrating a few priceless artefacts along the way). But in terms of real or self-alleged causation, the actual “inspiration” events vary, as Jonathan Freeland recently wrote: “I recall my own first encounter with [jihadism], back in the 1990s. I was speaking at a student meeting that was disrupted by loud activists from the extremist al-Muhajiroun group. What were they furious about? The west’s failure to take military action over Bosnia. These young men were livid that Britain and the US had not dropped bombs to prevent the massacre at Srebrenica. It proved, they said, that the west held Muslim lives to be cheap.” Maajid Nawaz, a former jihadi-turned-secularist activist, confirmed this for his own experience: “So Bosnia was the key recruitment drive. It was the key thing that allowed an entire generation of people that were my age, around 16 years old to be approached by Islamists who said — “do you want a solution to this problem?””.
“Blowback” is also a non-falsifiable theory: regardless of remote the act is, the War on Terror or Western foreign policy in general must somehow be responsible. For example: Joe Sacco somehow managed to blame the Charlie Hebdo shootings on the Abu Ghraib abuses, even though Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said the killings had been ordered purely in the name of “vengeance for the prophet”.
In reality, there is nothing unusual about what happened in Manchester, if we take a global perspective. Every day Islamists kill Muslim civilians across the Islamic world, and do it in the name of defending their own principles against ‘kafir’. That this sometimes happens here is not indicative of a special event; rather, we are lucky that, unlike in say Iraq, this is not a weekly if not daily event. We are not the true focus of Islamist rage because we are, as IS puts it, the “grey zone”, a place where some Muslims live, who must be either reached (and “converted”) or killed with the rest of the “infidels”, but it is the Islamic world with its Muslim population where the pivotal battles must be fought. Muslims who agree with their aims are encouraged to stay and commit terrorism in the West, but this column of extremists is obviously a microscopic group.
Of course, ideologically speaking, Islamists despise the West: democracy is “polytheism” and incompatible with Islam; secular law conflicts with God’s law; feminine freedom is an affront to decency; and so on. Our military actions — for example, drone strikes — are nothing compared to what the West represents, to quote an IS fighter from the most recent Shiraz Maher interview: “We primarily fight wars due to [sic] ppl being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue. […] Their kufr against Allah is sufficient of a reason for us to invade and kill them. Only if they stop their kufr will they no longer be a target.” We should take the words of mass murderers with pinches of salt, but then again, the regressive left (for want of a better phrase) latch onto to certain elements of Islamist discourse that parallel their own anti-interventionist/“anti-imperialist” stance while ignoring what lies at the heart of what truly drives Islamist terrorists as political actors, and what really drives all political actors: their ideology and their vision for the world. Every Islamist ideology broadly considered, whether Sunni or Shia, is dependent not on some defensive “anti-colonial” narrative lifted from Fanon — which only makes up part of their discourse — but on a desire to remake the entire world as they believe their respective interpretation of god wants to see it. For Hamas and Hezbollah (Corbyn knows them quite well I believe…), this entails the elimination of both Israel and Middle Eastern Jewry in its entirety, and the creation of a totalitarian Palestinian state in its place. For Iran’s Islamic Republic, this entails the destruction of Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and the establishment of a Shia hegemony over all of the Middle East — the Achaemenid Empire reborn. For Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, this entails the creation of a global Caliphate, a state that encompasses the entire world in a totalitarian system. There is no plurality in this one, no diversity — it is a total and complete domination.
The softly, softly “conflict resolution” approach Corbyn invokes will not work with this last group of Islamists. With the Palestinians and Islamic Republics, a solution is possible when cooler heads prevail (and I still hope one day to visit that Palestinian state), but the ‘Islamist internationals’ will never yield. They already think they are right and are willing to die for it. You talking to them just buys them time. You finding “compromise” with them just means their unwilling subjects will continue suffer. (And to think Corbyn criticised Smith for suggesting the exact same thing…)
None of this has somehow been birthed purely or even mostly from the so-called War on Terror; the 9/11 Attacks can be traced intellectually back through Osama Bin Laden, through to the chief theorist of the Muslim Brotherhood and founder of modern jihadism Sayyid Qutb, and even further back to the Islamic Revival of the late 19th century in the terminally declining Ottoman Empire (and the collapse of the sectarian millet system with it). The intellectual history of the Islamic world may at times be confusing and obscure, but (to ironically invoke Edward Saïd) to reduce a great, centuries-long political, cultural and religious struggle within a vast population spread across the Old World down to petty reaction is Euro-centric Orientalism.
At the end of the day, taking his entire career as given, Corbyn has what might best be termed an ideological terrorism fetish. The ideological ends of the terrorists themselves do not really matter, whether it be a United Ireland under a Gerry Adams dictatorship or an Islamic fascist Palestine with its Jewish population nicely expunged. It is an admiration for terrorists based in the understanding that terrorists are revolutionaries who oppose the currently existing order of things, and as revolutionaries they require unquestioning solidarity. Even when the struggle is over, every criticism of the terrorists’ violence — no matter how brutal — must be contextualised as a response to the violence of the state or of other actors, often through either minimisation or equivocation; this is why Corbyn still refuses to condemn the IRA without mentioning Loyalists. If he has to lie about it, he will lie about it.
Cobyn has systematically voted against almost every anti-terrorism law not because he believes they require judicial oversight (which begs the question: why did he never table any amendments?), but because he feels such legislation would interfere with the actions of righteous rebels.
The admiration for terrorists by political radicals (including pseudo-radical poseurs such as Corbyn) goes back a long way, and can be seen in an 1869 letter by Mikhail Bakunin, the prophet of modern anarchism, to Nikolai Ogarev, in which he praised brigandage (banditry in the Russian badlands) as a revolutionary ideal: “Banditry is one of the most honourable ways of life within the Russian state [representing] a desperate protest by the people against the infamous social order[.] The bandit is the people’s hero, defender and saviour.” For Bakunin, the bandit is currently in Russia “the only true revolutionary”, and as for moral responsibility, regardless of how many innocents are killed, it is purely the state’s fault: “Governmental cruelty has engendered the cruelty of the people and made it into something necessary and natural.”
Corbyn through a long line of apologists for mass criminality in the name of revolution carries on this tradition. His association with Irish irredentist terrorists (for how else can we describe the IRA really?) and every calibre of Islamist extremist is well documented.
For example: The Stop the War Coalition, of which Corbyn was an officer and later Chair from 2011 to 2015, in 2005 released this statement: “The StWC reaffirms its call for an end to the occupation, the return of all British troops in Iraq to this country and recognises once more the legitimacy of the struggle of Iraqis, by whatever means they find necessary, to secure such ends.” They had earlier affiliated during the initial anti-war protests with various Islamic extremist organisations.
Much later during the Paris Attacks, the StWC published an article titled “Paris reaps whirlwind of western support for extremist violence in Middle East”, which they later, under the pressure of multiple resignations, apologised for, but which in essence contained the same “blowback” argument that Corbyn makes. The article read: “Without decades of intervention by the US and its allies there would have been no ‘war on terror’ and no terrorist attacks in Paris. […] Without the American crime of aggressive war against Iraq — which, by the measurements used by Western governments themselves, left more than a million innocent people dead — there would be no ISIS, no “Al Qaeda in Iraq”.” Corbyn later that year attended their Christmas fundraiser as a “special guest”.
(There are many other occasions such as these, but The Times has helpfully compiled a list.)
It would be unfair to say Corbyn rejects military intervention outright, but it isn’t really a ‘Corbyn doctrine’: “I want to assure you that, under my leadership, you will only be deployed abroad when there is a clear need and only when there is a plan and you have the resources to do your job to secure an outcome that delivers lasting peace.”
There is an obvious problem with this: the bar is too vague to ever be properly set, or perhaps it is set so high the Hubble Telescope has yet to detect it. In his parliamentary career he has voted against every single military intervention against genocide, ethnic cleansing and mass murder, and defends this proud inaction to this very day (see his latest interview with Peston). If this means branching further into outright genocide denial, then why not?
He may point to Rwanda as a potential candidate for intervention, but there is no record in Hansard of him advocating anything like that at the time (for the whole of 1994, he apparently references Rwanda only once, in relation to humanitarian aid figures).
Corbyn and the IRA: A Closer Look
If Corbyn had just been straight up about his relationship to the IRA at the beginning, so much of this could have been avoided, but several spurious interviews later it cannot be ignored.
Just last Friday, Corbyn looked Andrew Neil dead in the eye and said: “I never met the IRA.” He also followed this up with: “I have never supported the IRA.”
This is quite a surprise, given that his supporters throughout his troubled leadership have systematically placed him at the heart of the peace process in Northern Ireland (and still are doing so), something he had not disavowed until just then.
Before we deal with this new claim, let us just analyse the original group of claims of Corbyn’s contribution to the ending the Troubles.
Of those major histories of the Troubles published in the past twenty or so years, almost none of them seem to mention Corbyn’s name. He is not mentioned in the ‘new standard’ history of the conflict by David McKittrick, Making Sense of the Troubles: A History of the Northern Ireland Conflict (Penguin, 2012) according to the index, nor is he mentioned in Tim Pat Coogan’s 1996 account The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal 1966–1995 and the Search for Peace (Arrow, 1996). (Go ahead, check, the indexes are available for preview.) How can someone supposedly so pivotal (or not) be completely ‘whitewashed’ out? Is it a vast Blairite conspiracy to re-write history?
I did however manage to find a single reference to Corbyn in the authoritative anthology The Northern Ireland Troubles in Britain: Impacts, Engagements, Legacies and Memories (MUP, 2016), but it was only in relation to the 2015 Labour leadership election, and it definitely did not paint the “Corbyn as peacemaker” dogma in the most flattering light. Here is the section in full (the ‘killer’ is the last sentence):
“The public voicing of Irish republican perspectives, or views in any way supportive of them, continues to be a risky business in England today. Di Parkin’s interviewees for her chapter 12, all Labour Party activists promoting dialogue with Sinn Féin in the 1980s, prefer to remain anonymous in order to conceal their political work in the past from their employers. Anecdotally, these concerns — and counter-measures for what Marie Breen Smyth has termed identity management are widespread, especially among those who have or seek public positions of responsibility and accountability. A vivid example of the way political sympathy for, or engagement with, Irish republicanism during the conflict continues to provide a basis for hostility and delegitimisation in British public culture can be seen in the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn during his successful campaign for the Labour Party leadership in 2015, and subsequently on Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, for their ‘links with the IRA’ and refusal to single out republican violence for condemnation.
More thoughtful critics of Corbyn and McDonnell might point out that ‘silencing’ could also work in a different way here: they presented their position in 2015 as if, in the 1980s, they had simply been encouraging dialogue and a ‘peace process’ with Irish republicanism avant la lettre. However, during the early and mid 1980s, Corbyn was unashamedly a supporter of Irish republicanism’s right to ‘resist’ British ‘oppression’.” [pp. 11–12]
(The full chapter is available online here.)
In the cited chapter, that certain participants chose to partake ‘anonymously’ could seem to be enough to explain Corbyn’s current denialism, but this makes no sense: he and his supporters have been open about it in the very recent past (and present), so why acclaim anonymity now? Even when it seems such a participation was stunningly minor?
(Does anybody else remember that episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Ted Danson donates a wing to a charity building project under the moniker “Anonymous”, only at the unveiling party to go around admitting that he was “Anonymous”, and for his supposed “humility” he got distantly more praise than Larry David who had also donated a wing but under his own name? Life imitates art…)
Every reference I can find of Corbyn during the Troubles references him not as a “peacemaker” but as an out-and-out supporter of the IRA and its campaign of violence. According to Rosa Prince’s biography of Corbyn, the Northern Irish historian and Professor of Politics at Queen’s Belfast (and former radical republican) said the following of Corbyn’s interest in the conflict: “The terms on which Corbyn was in dialogue with Adams was on the basis that Adams wins”. The same biography mentions the opinion of Northern Irish Catholic journalist Eilis O’Hanlon: “From Corbyn to McDonnell to Ken Livingstone, they all justify it these days by saying it was OK because it led eventually to the peace process. But that’s disingenuous in the extreme. When they were out defending the IRA, its fellow travellers also didn’t know when, or if, that campaign would end. They still happily supported, or had an ambivalent attitude towards, Republican violence. They knew exactly what they were doing, and how their solidarity was used by the Republican movement to paint its murder campaign as part of some wider struggle for social justice.”
All of this has a strong basis in fact: Corbyn has openly partaken in multiple link-ups with the IRA during and after the Troubles, starting at least in October 1984 when he played “host” to two convicted IRA killers. His claim to have “never met the IRA” does not only not stand up: it is demonstrably false through the words of the IRA and its closest associates themselves. Repeat photographic evidence belies this. (Even though he sometimes seems to struggle to know what exactly is going on…)
The only thing that suggests any condemnation of the IRA at any time before his leadership was an early day motion he signed in 1994 condemning the 1974 Birmingham bombing, but in fact, the motion does not actually mention the IRA by name, and demands the “cessation of violence by the paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland”; this is just yet another vague equivocation.
His own supporters claim he was fundamental to the peace process. One even places him at the crux of making the Good Friday Agreement work:
Let’s take that assertion as a given: why would someone who has “never met the IRA” be selected, out of all other MPs, to head this off? The answer is obvious: only if they had a pre-existing relationship of some kind.
Corbyn has since admitted meeting “convicted IRA terrorists” (Peston’s phrase not his) in the most stumbling, mumbling, “please-can-we-move-on” kind of way possible, but the original assertion is still making its rounds.
McDonnell and Abbott, his closest political associates, fare a lot more honestly in their declarations. McDonnell has a long history of praising the IRA, and as recently as 2003 said: “It’s about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle. It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table. The peace we have now is due to the action of the IRA. Because of the bravery of the IRA and people like Bobby Sands, we now have a peace process.” In 2015, he gave one of those non-apology apologies literally of the “If I gave offence” variety, but the aforementioned rhetoric stands for itself. Abbott made an even more unambiguous declaration back in 1984: “[Ireland] is our struggle — every defeat of the British state is a victory for all of us. A defeat in Northern Ireland would be a defeat indeed.” She may have had an “afro” back then (her bizarre self-defence), but her refusal to disavow her own words speaks for itself.
I don’t think Corbyn is completely stupid, nor are his supporters; they know the IRA has a toxic legacy that leaves even the most dye-the-wool Labour voter tasting bitterness. This explains both his recent denial and the Corbynite attempt to “ret-con” his IRA relationship (again, in spite of overwhelming evidence otherwise). Given everything, no amount of spin or retroactive (pseudo-)apologies will make this look any better. Trying to portray attending a commemoration for dead IRA operatives as some pathetic attempt to “call for a peace and dialogue” just will not cut it when it considered with everything else.
But in denying his links in the face of overwhelming evidence, he puts the final nail in the coffin for his supporters’ declarations of his limitless “honesty”, and a supposed progress through Corbynism towards a “kinder and gentler politics” that disavows the horrors of Blairite spin.
“…Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
There are people who will read this and argue that I have somehow taken quotes ‘out of context’; however, the more and more context you give quote by quote, the more these people tend to either stretch or narrow meanings, split hairs, equivocate (as though that absolves the original remark), or will demand so much additional context that the entire extant history of the known universe will have to be provided, by which time their defendant has managed to get away scot-free. I have tried to be as fair to Corbyn as possible, I’ve cited all the relevant links, and please be my guest and read Corbyn’s original speech linked at the top and all the sources on offer.
Just for a moment, forget his past general relationship with terrorism: such an egregious dishonesty can only raise the question of how open and transparent a Corbyn government would actually be, or indeed how disingenuous and censorship happy it could get.
And to return to question of his overarching relationship to terrorism and his views on intervention: When Corbyn stands up and parrots a revised version of the same line he’s been pushing for decades, while demanding that we “do not doubt [his]determination to take whatever action is necessary to keep our country safe and to protect our people on our streets, in our towns and cities, at our borders”, I respond to him (and his followers): given everything you have said, both right now and in the past stretching back thirty-five years, why the hell should I or anybody else not doubt your word?
You wrote the article that I had imagined writing. A slow-burn of beautiful restrained anger. Well done, Harris.
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