The Endless Cycle of War and Surveillance

Mass surveillance in the United States precedes the War on Terror. Nevertheless, since Edward Snowden’s leaks, it is terrorism that is marshalled as the ultimate threat by government officials and compliant media outlets to justify the need for mass surveillance. In June 2013, the National Security Agency (NSA) director Keith Alexander testified before Congress that just two programs–“tracking more than a billion phone calls and vast swaths of Internet data each day”–had thwarted more than 50 potential terrorist attacks. He later admitted that this wasn’t exactly true, after the claim had already been thoroughly refuted.

A different rendition of this argument for mass surveillance suggests that a society under threat by terrorists must strike a balance between its civil liberties and safety. If the state is to have the capabilities necessary to protect us we must compromise on our civil liberties. A bit of privacy must be relinquished in order for the state to become cognizant of potential threats to our safety. On a superficial level, the argument makes sense, even if it exaggerates the terrorist threat.

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British Jihadis

At some 8,000 words Mary Anne Weaver’s recent article in the New York Times Magazine, “Her Majesty’s Jihadists”,  is the most detailed attempt yet to “understand the pull of jihad” for Muslims in the UK. The subtitle boldly states that more British Muslims have joined Islamist militant groups than serve in the British military. Why this is so is worth asking, I suppose, though one could alternately ask why so few British Muslims are willing to serve in a military that has, quite literally, been at war in one place or another for more than a century. As Guardian reported last year, “Next year may be the first since at least 1914 that British soldiers, sailors and air crews will not be engaged in fighting somewhere – the first time Britain is totally at peace with the rest of the world.” That belated peace was not to be as the British Parliament “voted overwhelmingly” to authorize air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq. In our political culture we are not supposed to ask why individuals would willingly risk their lives for geopolitical or corporate aims. Their heroism has to be mindlessly celebrated.

In any case, Weaver’s article does not address that question. It wants to “understand the pull of jihad” for British Muslims. Her article is perhaps less interesting for what it says than for what it leaves out. There are interviews with scholars belonging to the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR), a man whose three son left to fight in Syria, and Moazzam Begg–an activist and a former prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. Weaver begins her investigation by asking Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at ICSR, if he could draw a “typical jihadist profile” for her. Maher explains that the “average British fighter is male, in his early 20s and of South Asian ethnic origin” with “some university education and some association with activist groups.” Some go for humanitarian reasons and others are adventure seekers, “students of martyrdom,” and the “die-hard radicals.”

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Article on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE)

I have an article in Jacobin on the recent Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) summit held at the White House. It briefly traces the history of the Pakistani Taliban to look at some of the underlying causes of terrorism. An excerpt:

The problem is not that the Obama administration lacks the information to formulate an effective counter-extremism strategy that doesn’t scapegoat Muslims. The problem instead is that the most effective way to reduce the threat of terrorism is to retreat from empire.

It is no surprise that imperial wars and longstanding alliances with authoritarian states responsible for funding right-wing Islamist movements do not reduce the threat of terrorism. This holds true not just for “homegrown” terrorism but also for terrorist groups abroad. Unwilling to abandon policies that continually produce recruits for militant Islamism, the US falls back on blaming an ideology and the community which supposedly harbors it. Hence the focus on Muslims and the battle for “hearts and minds.”

Read the full article at Jacobin.

The Chapel Hill Murders

10897956_503582333113071_8859037425654407539_nViolence against Muslims is not an exceptional event in this country. It is the norm. The triple homicide in Chapel Hill is no outlier. It is only the most recent and brutal manifestation of the pervasive Islamophobia in this country. Michelle Golberg, writing for The Nation blog, captures some of this:

According to the latest FBI statistics, there were more than 160 anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2013. Mosques and Islamic centers have been firebombed and vandalized; seven mosques were attacked during Ramadan alone in 2012. Several Muslims, or people thought to be Muslim, have been murdered or viciously attacked. In 2010, a white college student and self-described patriot tried to slash the throat of Bangladeshi cab driver Ahmed Sharif. The white supremacist who slaughtered six people in a Sikh temple in 2012 may have thought he was targeting Muslims. So, apparently, did Erika Menendez, the homeless New Yorker who pushed a man named Sunando Sen in front of a subway train that same year.

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New York Times and Pakistan’s Double Game

New York Times editorials are usually a reliable guide to ruling class opinion in the United States. They don’t always echo government pronouncements and there is often disagreement with official government policies. They eagerly suggest alternatives to pursue while pointing out the ramifications current policies may have. Propaganda is of course at its most effective when it is subtle and seems iconoclastic. Such is the nature of New York Times editorials: even as they disagree with official government policies they demarcate the boundaries of what is acceptable and what isn’t.

A recent editorial in the newspaper of record concerns US aid to Pakistan. ” Since 9/11,” it reads, “the United States has provided Pakistan with billions of dollars, mostly in military aid, to help fight extremists.” The editorial board, however, has “doubts about the investment,” which they explain as follows: “Doubts about the aid center on Pakistan’s army, which has long played a double game, accepting America’s money while enabling some militant groups, including members of the Afghan Taliban who have been battling American and Afghan troops in Afghanistan.”

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