Yesterday I was interviewed by Melbourne’s Triple R Spoke program about the current war against ISIS, the Middle East and media blindness and complicity:
My weekly Guardian column:
Nav K. Samir converted to Islam two years ago. He’s a young Sydney-based writer from an Indian background who recently featured in the successful new Facebook campaign, Australian Muslim Faces. Born into a Hindu family, Samir was attracted to the spiritual and intellectual life of Islam. At the age of 23, after six years of considering the switch, he became Muslim.
I met him earlier this year at the Lebanese Muslim association in Sydney and spoke with him recently about why he thinks a small number of young Muslims are attracted by the Isis message.
“There’s a lack of context, lack of spirituality and understanding, combined with impatience. Many Isis fighters are newly converted, newly pious … these men have grown a beard in three months and they don’t give Islam time to be understood.”
He is tired of having to defend his religion against bigots who take these instant Islamists to be the authentic representation of Islam.
“Keyboard warriors often ask: “Where is the universal Muslim condemnation of terror acts?” We’re distancing ourselves, so why do you keep asking? People just aren’t listening.”
“It’s been the same narrative of apology for decades and we’re sick of it. It’s like the probation the media is trying to grant me. I want to stand back, it’s got nothing to do with me and it’s nothing to do with Islam. I don’t need to come out and prove my innocence.”
The teenage converts – both male and female – who form much of Isis’ recruiting base in the West, are young and inexperienced. As a former Taliban “recruiter” remarked in early September, they targeted:
“People who didn’t know the religion as much. People who were converts, because converts would probably have problems with their parents at home, so they were more likely to stay in our company.”
Instant Islamists. And now we are suddenly deluged with instant experts on terrorism, too. Politicians and journalists compete for the snappiest sound bite on Islam, Isis and fundamentalism, mostly with little understanding of the issues.
We get fiery sermons from terrorism alarmists, lurid descriptions of apocalyptic death cults, pontificating war advocates who tell us that this new conflict against Isis will not be Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya, and bigotry dressed up as insight.
This instant expertise about Islam is mirrored by reporters who learned little from every past terrorism hysteria, and simply repeat the same, old tired tropes to the same, skeptical audience.
Then there are the “instant Muslims” – like the young, white reporter from The Daily Telegraph who dressed up in a niqab “in two different parts of Sydney to see how people would react”. Unsurprisingly, she felt alien and uncomfortable.
Mimicking Muslims is fair game. Portraying them as odd, un-Australian and weird is standard operating procedure for vast swathes of the mainstream media.
When actual Muslims do appear and question Western policy in the Middle East, like they did on last week’s Q&A, The Australian calls it“crass anti-Western propaganda”.
Now a new “threat” has appeared out of thin air: The Khorasan Group, a hardened cell of Syrian terrorists “too radical for al-Qaida” that appears to be completely fictional.
Everything has happened so quickly, as if by command. But there are some things about our newest war at home and abroad that aren’t instant: the constant downplaying of the role played by US allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar in fuelling and funding Isis; the amnesia surrounding the radicalisation in US detention of Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – once, reportedly, a calm individual; and the emergence of Isis from the ashes of the disastrous Iraq war, a point well made by independent Australian MP Andrew Wilkie.
The ignorance of Australia’s elites is also deeply entrenched. A friend who works at one of Australia’s leading Muslim groups tells me that he’s contacted daily by journalists who demand to know what his organisation is doing to reduce the threat of terrorism – as if a Sydney-based Muslim is somehow responsible for Isis beheadings or mass rape.
It’s not difficult to show the diversity of the Muslim faith; take a look at Conor Ashleigh’s wonderful photography of a community in Newcastle. And it’s possible to treat radicalisation with the seriousness and context it demands, as The Saturday Paper’s Martin McKenzie-Murray did last week, in a forensic analysis of the killing of Abdul Numan Haider.
The pressure on the Australian Muslim community is immense, a feeling of being outsiders, exacerbated by a message that they’re different and under suspicion. Many Muslim women in particular feel disempowered and not trusted by the wider, white majority. Islamophobia is now unofficial government policy and some media’s central worldview.
Muslims have ample reason to be sceptical towards government and intelligence services; real journalists would investigate why. Sadly, most in the media are failing in their basic duty to question.
“Islam isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon,” Samir says. His religion, just like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and others, is complex, contradictory and open to various interpretations – but figuring that out can’t be done in an instant.
During the recent Byron Bay Writer’s Festival this event, broadcast by ABCTV1’s Big Ideas, was a robust discussion on the rights, responsibilities and pressures of conflict reporting in a post 9/11 world:
In this session writers Abbas El-Zein, Antony Loewenstein and Washington Post journalist David Finkel deliver strikingly different perspectives on the Iraqi and Afghan wars. An intense discussion develops about the nature of reporting and advocacy, with Finkel and Loewenstein very much opposed.
Finkel has covered wars in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, documenting the impact of war on the psyche of the soldiers at the front. Loewenstein explains that whilst he is not without empathy for the plight of the individual soldier, his sympathies lie with the Iraqis and the Afghans.
Finkel drives home the need to tell a story without an agenda “so that readers can feel what war can be.” El-Zein is in agreement and observes “the job of a journalist isn’t to judge” but to deliver to the public the most comprehensive information available.
This session was filmed at the Byron Bay Writers Festival and moderated by Jacqui Park.
My weekly Guardian column:
It’s extremely rare to have the genesis of a political smear campaign uncovered for all to see, just like it is uncommon to read the correspondence between senior government officials and media backers to attack opponents and critics. And yet, that’s exactly what is unfolding in New Zealand.
New Zealanders are currently witnesses to an expose of unprecedented proportions. These details are contained in investigative journalist Nicky Hager’s new book, Dirty Politics: How Attack Politics is Poisoning New Zealand’s Political Environment. The work has caused an earthquake, entrapping more players every day. New actors like Kim Dotcom are revelling in the outrage, and US journalist Glenn Greenwald has beeninvited to speak in Auckland a few days before the September poll.
The story revolves around prime minister John Key, the conservative leader facing re-election. Hager has obtained information, emails and Facebook messages from the files of right-wing blogger Cameron Slater, founder of the Whale Oil website. The documents show a deep and intimate connection between Slater and Jason Ede, former senior advisor to Key.
The situation is made worse by the allegation that a senior cabinet minister, Judith Collins, established close ties to Slater to bash enemies. Hager claims that the blogger, with the assistance of Ede, breached an unsecured opposition party Labor computer to obtain private information. Labor party head David Cunliffe says the allegations are “the closest New Zealand’s got to its own kind of Watergate”.
Hager is an experienced journalist with a history of receiving leaks from deep inside the establishment. His 2011 book, Other People’s Wars, was an explosive examination of New Zealand’s extensive involvement in conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and the “war on terror”. A close associationwith Wikileaks, along with constant attempts to challenge the country’s outward perception of being a quiet nation with few geo-political ambitions, places Hager as a leading, independently minded reporter getting past the spin so dominant in modern politics. He shows how smear, fear and arrogance have become key ingredients of Key’s administration.
Wellington-based blogger Danyl Mclauchlan wrote in mid-August on the significance of Hager’s latest scoop:
“Whatever the wider implications, the book has had a profound effect on me, personally. Something that doesn’t come across in the news coverage about Dirty Politics, and Cameron Slater, Jason Ede, Jordan Williams, Simon Lusk et al is just how fucking awful these people are. They spend their lives trying to poison and contaminate our politics. They enjoy seeing people suffer. They get excited by the idea of breaking up the marriages of their political enemies and ruining their lives.”
These sentiments explain why Dirty Politics and its warning extend well beyond New Zealand’s borders. The revelations detail a form of attack-dog politics that’s now common-place in global affairs.
In the book’s preface, Hager explains how Key was desperate to continue his success by constructing a charming public persona while pursuing “ more personal attacks and negative politics than any in living memory.” I asked Hager to tell me more:
“It is about political PR and particularly what the US Republican party strategists have called a two-track approach. This is where the leaders are presented as positive while other people, the second track, conduct personal attacks and dirty tricks against their opponents. There were particularly nasty people doing the government’s dirty work and it didn’t look good for the government when they were exposed.”
This style of politics will be familiar to even a casual observer of insider journalism. It’s a worldwide trend. Journalists routinely receive “exclusive” leaks from government insiders that provide perfect ammunition to attack the other side. Hager shows how in New Zealand, the relationship between government and its media allies suits both their agendas – it simply is the method of today’s corporate politics.
I’m currently in America, where things are eerily similar. Watching Fox News is like a rehearsed ballet: every show over the last week has claimed that president Obama’s response to the murder of journalist James Foley has been so weak because he issued a statement before going back to his golf game while on vacation – host Judge Jeanine’s monologue epitomised the channel’s sentiment.
Arguing over Washington’s response to the ISIS threat is legitimate, but it’s hardly accidental that Obama is being damned for not bombing ISIS in Iraq and Syria before dinner-time. Fox News has a history of telling its hosts (and even guests) what to say and think – it’s Republican party PR as journalism.
This brings us back to New Zealand. Hager has been pleasantly surprised by the best-selling success of his book – his biggest yet. He says that the small, local media market risks being abused by powers with ulterior motives. “Our small, mostly foreign-owned media risks being a push over for well organised PR campaigns”, Hager argues. “Political manipulation is helped by poor media. But this isn’t a criticism of the journalists themselves, who of course want to do good work.”
Without a central leaker, Hager would have no book. He salutes their bravery. “We mustn’t fall for the idea that whistleblowers are doing something wrong. They are the natural reaction to undemocratic government.”
The same applies to Australia. We desperately need a healthier leaking culture to uncover the murky dynamics between corporate, media and government interests. It’s a shame so few journalists are willing to foster this environment and protect sources beyond the reach of intelligence agencies so keen to monitor dissent.
I’m currently in America, investigating disaster capitalism in privatised immigration detention for my 2015 Verso book.
I’ve been watching a lot of cable TV (lord knows why but I’m a masochist) and it’s been ISIS day and night (apart from mostly awful coverage of the killing of Michael Brown and white blindness on racism). Fox News is desperate for President Obama to bomb Muslims and ISIS is the current target in Syria and Iraq (host Justice Jeanine’s monologue reflects the bloodlust inside Murdoch’s station). The former head of Britain’s MI5 stated that the Iraq war massively increased the terror threat. What do you think attacking Iraq (again) and Syria (presumably with the assistance of the once-reviled and now loved Assad regime) will do? ISIS has grown because the Assad regime allowed it to surge, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Understanding the reality and rise of ISIS is clearly too difficult for many in the mainstream media though journalist Patrick Cockburn’s new book is one of the best primers. How to tackle ISIS extremism, especially in the wake of the shocking beheading of US reporter James Foley, brings clear challenges to the press. What to show, how to show it, what is propaganda?
This VICE News film on ISIS is remarkable, scary, intense and vital. Incredible access:
Last Friday I gave the following speech at Sydney’s Lebanese Muslim Association forum on terrorism, Gaza, ISIS and Western governments spreading fear and anger towards the Islamic faith. Labor MP Tony Burke and Liberal MP Craig Laundy both pledged to bring harmony to the community and yet both their parties have flamed bigotry. Government surveillance is clearly mostly targeted towards Muslims and honest politicians would acknowledge it.
Here’s my speech:
– Thanks to Andrew Bolt and the Murdoch press for mentioning tonight’s event this week; it’s clearly a threat to public order to be critical of Israel and the “war on terror”.
– It’s a shame there are no women on this panel discussing the effects of war, terrorism and the Middle East from the group that often suffers the most from counter-terrorism policies as well as Zionist and Muslim extremism.
– We must resist fear without question.
– We must resist the narrative being sold to us about Palestine and Israel, so-called Western “humanitarian intervention” and government spin over the supposed terrorist threat.
– We must resist the pressure placed on vulnerable communities to accept collective guilt for the actions of a few. I believe the Muslim leadership needs to more vigorously refuse to co-operate so closely with governments and intelligence bodies that aim to bring mass surveillance on the Muslim and wider communities.
– A recent report in the US, through documents leaked by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, found that the NSA and FBI have been secretly monitoring for years thousands of Muslims with no connection to terrorism at all, along with a handful of potential extremists. Some of the most prominent Muslim spokespeople in the US are now suing the US government for being caught in an unaccountable system with no chance to defend themselves.
– Another recent report, from another NSA whistle-blower, revealed that the Obama administration has placed over 680,000 people on its secretive Terrorist Screening Database with more than 40% of these individuals having no connection to terrorism.
– With our closeness to the US, there’s every reason to believe the Muslim community in Australia is equally under suspicion. The Muslim response should not be acquiescence with the state, the AFP or ASIO but demands to know the evidence explaining why collective guilt has become the defacto policy from Canberra. It is unacceptable and does not make us safer.
– Let’s speak out against the barbarity of ISIS and Al-Qaeda and understand why this hatred is brewing in our midst. It’s because of failings in education, language, parenthood, attention, imams, government actions, Western foreign policy hypocrisy and atrocities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Libya and beyond. We have a responsibility to challenge fundamentalism and understand its roots to reduce it.
– I speak to you as an atheist, Jewish, Australian, proud of my heritage but ashamed of Israeli actions. A few years ago my friend Peter Slezak and I founded Independent Australian Jewish Voices to highlight the growth in Jewish dissent over the Middle East. Not all Jews are Zionists and increasingly across the world young Jews are speaking out against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and wars in Gaza. Not in our name.
– Jews who speak out against Israel are often demonised, harassed and threatened. But recent actions in Gaza, the brutality, death and destruction, have unleashed a growth in Jewish dissent around the world.
– Anti-Semitism must never be tolerated. It must be challenged and crushed. This conflict isn’t about Jews versus Arabs. It’s about Zionism colonising Arab lands. Remember that many Jews are proudly Jewish and proudly anti-Zionist.
– 500 South African Jews, from a traditionally strongly Zionist community, recently signed a public letter that read in part: “Just as we resist anti-Semitism, we refuse to dehumanise Palestinians in order to make their deaths lighter on our collective conscience. We sign this statement in order to affirm their humanity and our own. We distance ourselves from South African Jewish organizations whose blind support for Israel’s disproportionate actions moves us further from a just resolution to the conflict.”
– This is the kind of humane Judaism of which I can be proud.
– One of the finest Israeli, Jewish journalists, Gideon Levy, explained this week what is at stake and why we must stay vigilant and outspoken: “A wave of animosity is washing over world public opinion. In contrast to the complacent, blind, smug Israeli public opinion, people abroad saw the pictures in Gaza and were aghast. No conscientious person could have remained unaffected. The shock was translated into hatred toward the state that did all that, and in extreme cases the hatred also awakened anti-Semitism from its lair. Yes, there is anti-Semitism in the world, even in the 21st century, and Israel has fuelled it. Israel provided it with abundant excuses for hatred. But not every anti-Israeli sentiment is anti-Semitism. The opposite is true – most of the criticism of Israel is still substantive and moral. Anti-Semitism, racist as any national hatred, popped up on the sidelines of this criticism – and Israel is indirectly responsible for its appearance.”
– The media frames this issue as between two equal sides fighting over land and autonomy. The press says it’s “complicated”, that only certain perspectives should be heard, namely Zionist lobbyists and the occasional Palestinian or Arab. This is a lie. For too long, spokespeople from the Jewish establishment claim that their community speaks in one voice over Israel. They say they’re against terrorism and want peace. But what about state terrorism, unleashed by Israel and Australia and the US in Iraq and Afghanistan? Their dangerous tendency to conflate anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism leads to public skepticism over their cause.
– In reality, this conflict is about occupation of Palestinian land, since 1948, and the legitimate rights of both Jews and Arabs to live in peace in Palestine. I have seen the reality of this situation with my own eyes in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza and found warmth, resistance, hardship, destruction of neighbourhoods and a desire for peace. But there cannot be a true and sustainable peace without justice, the Palestinian Right of Return and an end to the decades-long occupation.
– Shamefully, successive Australian governments have indulged Israeli actions for too long. As a result, Canberra is now a fringe player on the world stage, unable to even acknowledge that East Jerusalem is “occupied”. The rise of Israeli fascism, endorsed by the Israeli government, is largely ignored in the West.
– But there is hope. The last ten years have seen an explosion of new media that allows a stunning diversity of views. During the recent Gaza conflict, we all consumed tweets, Facebook posts, blogs and mainstream news from countless sources inside Gaza. Some were Gazans, able to communicate their plight online to the world, and others were brave professional reporters, such as Jon Snow from Britain’s Channel 4, who were unafraid to document the horrors unleashed by Israel on the people of Gaza.
– In Australia Palestinian writers and commentators are occasionally heard though far too rarely. There is still timidity. Here’s an example. I was recently asked to appear on a popular current affairs TV show to debate a Zionist lobbyist. The lobbyist refused to show up alongside me so the TV producer cut the segment. Without a strong pro-Israel voice it was deemed impossible to have the story. How many times is a pro-Israel voice appearing alone on our TV screens? Regularly. A robust discussion over Israel and Palestine is healthy and necessary within the Jewish community but just featuring a Jewish dissident, on my own, was clearly a bridge too far. Why not have a Jew and Palestinian discuss the issues calmly and passionately?
– The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is surging in popularity. From public moves against Sodastream for operating a factory in the occupied territories to European countries selling stakes in Israeli banks that bankroll the occupation. I strongly support BDS and encourage its growth in Australia. I hope the Muslim community more fully embraces this non-violent tactic, by lobbying politicians, businesses and the media to force Israel and its financial and intellectual backers to pay a price for flouting international law.
– Of course Israel isn’t the only guilty party in the Middle East. One of the most pernicious actors is the US-backed Saudi Arabia, spreading poisonous Wahabism across the world. Extremism lives in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Palestine, Egypt, Yemen and Iran. Do not be afraid to confront the radicals in our own communities, those who preach death, beheadings and violent jihad.
– We must resist with purpose.
This week I was invited onto 2SER’s Fourth Estate media program:
In the wake of Mike Carlton’s resignation from the SMH over Israel/Palestine, the panel discuss the pitfalls of interacting with readers and dealing with vicious feedback. Plus, compassion fatigue and the media and typos, when are they newsworthy?
My weekly Guardian column:
The Byron Bay writers’ festival, one of Australia’s largest literary events, has just finished after three days of discussion and debate under sunshine and rain. With record-breaking crowds listening to writers and rappers in large outdoor tents, it was impossible not to be seduced by the diverse participants, including British authors Jeanette Winterson and Geoff Dyer. I spoke about vulture capitalism, Gaza, Palestine and adversarial journalism.
The growth of literary festivals in Australia and globally is a cultural phenomenon that deserves more discussion. India’s annual Jaipur literary event attracts over 100,000 people in a frenzy of debate, colour and energy. When I spoke in Jaipur in 2011, there were “only” around 50,000 visitors. The event’s reputation and stature has grown exponentially since then.
Martin Puchner, the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English at Harvard University, writes:
“It is difficult to imagine something like the Jaipur Literary Festival in China, and not just because of state censorship there. Jaipur is made possible by the democratic diversity of India … but also by the deep roots that tie India to the Anglophone world.”
In fact, Chinese literary festivals are growing in size and reach, as are similar events in Indonesia and South Africa, as are literary festivals in Sydney, Melbourne, Darwin, Perth and Brisbane, which challenge the notion that the book is dying due to the rise of digital publishing.
Around 80,000 people attended at least one Sydney writers’ festival event this year. San Francisco’s Litquake festival encourages writers to read their fiction from tablets, laptops or mobile phones. Self-published authors are thriving, making money (some, anyway) and demanding to be included at the establishment table.
The snobbery around these writers should disappear because finding a respected publisher may not always be the ideal option. Britain’s Polari first book prize, for writers exploring the LGBT experience, has this year shortlisted two self-published authors on its longlist.
This global literary movement is frequently backed by corporate dollars and state funding, surely the sign of a healthy democracy. Unfortunately, necessary questions over sponsors using their dollars to whitewash bad behaviour or greenwash polluting or destructive policies are too often ignored in the rush to accept the money.
That’s why this year’s controversy over Australian company Transfield, who turn a profit from managing asylum seekers in mandatory detention while backing the Sydney Biennale, was a unique opportunity to link the arts to business practices. Literary festivals would be wise to take note, lest they be accused of turning a blind eye to dirty dollars being spent on worthwhile pursuits.
Why do we love these annual institutions? Founder of The Hoopla, Wendy Harmer, launching the Newcastle writers’ festival in April characteristic style, argued that a communal need for spiritual and intellectual nourishment, along with disillusionment with the political process and its media followers, draws populations to discover new places to share ideas.
With regional towns getting in on the act, Harmer said, “the hunger for communion with like-minded souls is growing. Especially among women, who are not content to sing along to the same old hymn book or obey party rules set by institutions run by men”.
The strength of any cultural institution is its willingness to build an audience, make them feel at home, provoke them, and bring them enjoyment. Reflecting on the politics of the time is surely a pre-requisite for remaining relevant and topical, and yet there often remains a curious lack of diverse voices arguing over the issues of the day.
One of the most persistent critics of literary festivals in Australia is the Sydney Institute’s Gerard Henderson. He often writes that the partly “taxpayer subsidised” writers’ events are heavily skewed against rightwingers. In 2013 he wanted to know why there were largely “leftist, left-of-centre or social democratic participants” in Sydney.
“And what about right-of-centre types and social conservatives?” he asked. “Well, it seems that fewer than a dozen fit this category. That’s a balance of six to one. That’s your typical Sydney Writers’ Festival. That’s your taxpayer dollar working for – well, you be the judge.”
Henderson is, in part, correct. It’s rare to find political panels with writers who vehemently oppose each other’s point of view and argue for, say, the strengths in Tony Abbott’s government, tough asylum seekers policies or the war in Iraq. I think this matters and it’s surely important to provide a platform for articulate advocates of these positions. This is not about spurious balance – literary festivals aren’t designed to have two self-described leftwingers and two conservatives on every panel – but robust disagreement is healthier than constant, furious agreement.
Like many of us in our online habits, we spend too much time listening and reading to those who we like and respect rather than find uncomfortable or offensive. This circular behaviour is like comfort food; tasty but ultimately unintellectual.
Last weekend in Byron I was on a panel with writer Abbas El-Zein, and Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post journalist David Finkel, on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Finkel and I clashed over the benefits of embedding in a war zone versus independent reporting, and whether we should have more sympathy for occupation forces or civilians under their rule. It was heated but respectful and reflected a different worldview towards reporting in a time of conflict. The audience responded positively to the spirited discussion.
Literary festivals have the opportunity to challenge authoritarianism and intolerance. Events don’t operate in a vacuum – witness the 2011 campaign, of which I was a part, alongside Tariq Ali and Noam Chomsky, against a cosy Galle writers’ festival in the heart of a repressive Sri Lankan state. Writers and audiences have a responsibility to remember to both enjoy themselves and the many artists imprisoned and killed for simply expressing a critical, public opinion.
We Australians feel connected to the wider world but are also insulated from its more brutal waves. Writers’ festivals are a unique way for us to briefly connect with each other during a time of global unease and insecurity.
Moving report, on NBC News, by Ayman Mohyeldin that details the current Israeli violence in Gaza. Slowly but surely Americans are being exposed to the reality of Israel’s crimes in Palestine: