Discussing Extremism and Free Speech on Sky News

I cannot account for why its taken me until now to blog about this, but last month I was invited onto Sky News to give the English PEN view on extremism, free speech, and the conviction of Anjem Choudhary.

The notorious Islamist preacher had been convicted of supporting terrorism on the basis of Tweets he had posted, pledging allegiance to ‘the’ Caliphate, rather than ‘a’ Caliphate.  The prosecutors argued (successfully, as it turns out) that this constituted support for ISIS. Continue reading “Discussing Extremism and Free Speech on Sky News”

Calling LBC to Debate Our Response To Terrorism

What a hideous few days for terrorist attacks in Europe.  First, a spate of incidents in Germany: an axe attack; a shooting that killed nine people; someone with machete; and most recently a suicide bomber that injured 15 people. 

And then on Tuesday, the despicable murder of Fr Jacques Hamel at his church in Rouen, France. It’s less than a month since the Nice attacks, when a man in a truck deliberately ran over hundreds of people celebrating Bastille Day.

The regularity of these attacks only adds to the fear that the terrorists seek to sow.  There is a sense that Europe is a battleground, that things are falling apart.  The Far Right will seek to exploit this fear to their advantage.

We need to remember that these incidents are still extremely rare.  After the Nice attacks, the author Tom Pollock wrote a post on the likelihood of someone being hurt by a terrorist:

In France, in the last two years, there have been 8 attacks for which responsibility was claimed by Islamic Extremist Terrorists, killing a total of 247 people. There are 66,000,000 people in France. At the current level of activity, their odds of being killed in a terrorist attack in a given year are less than two ten-thousandths of one per cent. That’s 27 times lower than their odds of dying in a car accident. …

In Iraq, by contrast, the chances are much higher.

We would do well to remember this… but of course it’s not the whole story. Being told that they are extremely unlucky is no comfort to the victims or their families. And even though the chances of you or me being caught up in a terrorist attack are vanishingly small, we still do not want to live in a country or on a continent where this happens so frequently.  There is a psychological impact on everyone. 

Yesterday, I heard the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy on the radio, suggesting that everyone now needs to alter their mental state. We must, he said, become far more cautious and suspicious in public spaces. He offered Israel as an example of the permenant state of alert that Europe needs to adopt.

I think that would be sad and wrong. The Israelis perpetual expectation of attack is one reason given for the continued occupation of the West Bank.  It’s an attitude that leads to soldiers shooting at children throwing stones.

But Something Must Be Done, right?

Perhaps not. What seems clear from the recent attacks is that the level of co-ordination with the leaders of Islamic State / Daesh is minimal and perhaps non-existent. There may not be any networks to infiltrate or many conversations on which to eavesdrop. The security services are surely already doing all they can, but there is no easy way to prevent so-called ‘lone wolves’ using everyday objects to hurt ordinary people, as happened in Rouen and Nice.  

At least, no way that would preserve civil liberties and the open society that we value, and which the terrorists loathe. Security guards outside churches, really?  It’s a problem that can only be solved with long term social policies, not quick-fix increase in the security presence.

On Monday, I called into the Breakfast Show on the talk radio channel LBC. During the programme, plenty of callers had been discussing the latest terror attacks.  Some people advocated racial and religious profiling, and The host, Nick Ferrari, seemed to be imply that the terrorism was essentially the fault of asylum and immigration policy.

I called in to say two things.  The first was to point out that (pace Tom Pollock, above) terrorists kill a tiny, tiny proportion of the population of Europe.

My second point was that we should not introduce any new policies, such as banning Muslims or ignoring refugees, that would compromise our values.  Such policies are exactly what the terrorists want because they ‘sharpen the contradictions‘. Demonising Muslims and turning away refugees will only boost recruitment to ISIS.  I am shocked that there are still people in this country and around Europe who do not understand this.

At the end of my impromptu contribution to Nick Ferrari’s show, I tried to introduce the idea that we should accept that some people will die from terrorism, in the same way that people die from cancer, in wars or car accidents. In this, I had in mind the short article ‘Just Asking‘ by David Foster Wallace, written for Atlantic magazine in 2007.

What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea?

If we must change our way of thinking, let us internalise this: We cannot live in a state of total security.  Some crime and even terrorism is always likely to be with us. This idea is something that liberal people, who support human rights and a free society, often try to avoid talking about.  I have written before on the need for campaigners and those who advocate for civil rights to be honest about the negative consequences of advocating freedom. We need to better explain why the freedoms and rights that we hold are worth preserving, even if bad people can do bad things with those freedoms. 

When I made this point on my LBC, Nick Ferrari accused me of being “sanguine” about terrorist deaths! I cannot decide whether he was right on that point: perhaps in the moment my argument was poorly put. Or conversely, perhaps accusing rights defenders of such things is a standard tactic deployed by those of a more authoritarian tendency?

Incredibly, the audio from the show does not appear to be readily available online, so you cannot judge for yourselves. 

Mass Murderer Wins Human Rights Case and That’s A Good Thing

Anders Bering Breivik may have won a court case, but when it comes to his racist political project, he has lost completely.

Anders Bering Breivik, the far-right terrorist who murdered dozens of people in the Utoeya massacre in 2011 has won a human rights case.

He was being kept in solitary confinement for 22 hours a day, which the Norwegian court ruled was inhuman.

The judge in the case made a succinct point about human rights:

In her ruling, judge Helen Andenaes Sekulic said the right not to be subjected to inhuman treatment represented “a fundamental value in a democratic society” and also applied to “terrorists and killers”.

Continue reading “Mass Murderer Wins Human Rights Case and That’s A Good Thing”

Brothers Grim

I wonder whether the security services know whether attacks planned by siblings have a higher success rate?

Belgium has become the latest victim of a terrorist attack. Daesh/Islamic State have claimed responsibility for the bombings in Brussels, and the authorities there have named two of the suicide bombers as brothers Khalid and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui.

The last three terrorist outrages in Europe have all been carried out by brothers.  Salah and Brahim Abdeslam were part of the group who carried out the Paris attacks on 13th November 2015. Continue reading “Brothers Grim”

I Take Full Responsibility For Apple Inc Protecting The Privacy of a Dead Terrorist

There are several reasons why I am happy to have personally blocked this terrorist investigation

Apple have refused an FBI request to help crack the iPhone of a terrorist.

Ray McClure, the uncle of murdered soldier Drummer Lee Rigby has said that Apple is protecting terrorists, and that ‘life comes before privacy’.

I think Drummer Rigby’s uncle is mistaken, both in his assumptions about what Apple is technically capable of, and the moral trade-off between life and privacy.

We need to understand that Apple are not being asked to decrypt just the iPhone of one particular terrorist.  They are not like a landlord with a spare key that will open a particular door.  If they were, then there would be legitimacy in Mr McClure’s complaints.  A judge could examine the particular case at hand, and then sign a warrant that permitted entry to the property or decryption of a device.  Targeted surveillance and privacy violations are a legitimate law enforcement tool.

But that is not the request.  Instead, the FBI have asked Apple to hack their entire operating system in such a way that would enable them to by-pass encryption on any iPhone.  Including mine. Continue reading “I Take Full Responsibility For Apple Inc Protecting The Privacy of a Dead Terrorist”

#YouAintNoMuslimBruv: How We Became Savvy Propaganda Merchants For Good

Following the awful knife attack at Leytonstone on Sunday, the hashtag #YouAintNoMuslimBruv has been trending on social media.  It has been so widely shared that it was discussed on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme and even the Prime Minister repeated it during his speech.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

To recap, the phrase was shouted by a passer-by at Muhyadin Mire, who attacked a fellow passenger on the London Underground system, allegedly shouting “this is for Syria”.  Mire has been charged with attempted murder. Continue reading “#YouAintNoMuslimBruv: How We Became Savvy Propaganda Merchants For Good”

Shocking photographs reproduced in watercolour

I am fascinated with the Waterlogue app, which converts any image into a watercolour.  Most apps and PhotoShop filters that purport to recreate a particular artistic style seem to do a poor job of it – mangling the image but without reproducing the essence of the art form.

Such ‘artistic’ filters are usually used to convey a sense of beauty. The examples from the Waterlogue community all have an extremely traditional subject matter: landscapes, portraits and still life, framed rather conventionally.

I put six of recent history’s most famous yet shocking images through the tool.  The results are below.  They are instantly recognisable, and although the paint removes detail from the images, I find them just as sad as the photographic versions.

Continue reading “Shocking photographs reproduced in watercolour”

Why we shouldn’t execute Islamic State militants with air-strikes

Yesterday, the Prime Minister re-announced that his Government had targeted British citizens with missiles fired from RAF drones.  Two men are dead.  The Sun and others have cheered the news.  Others have expressed grave concern. Continue reading “Why we shouldn’t execute Islamic State militants with air-strikes”

Quoted in the Huffington Post discussing ‘Homegrown’

An extremely odd and disconcerting story was reported in the Guardian this week, regarding a National Youth Theatre play that has abruptly cancelled, just two weeks before its opening night. There are fears that ‘Homegrown’ was pulled due to the sensitive subject matter: young people drawn to ISIS.

I spoke to the Huffington Post about the issues raised for English PEN: Continue reading “Quoted in the Huffington Post discussing ‘Homegrown’”

‘Draw the Line Here’ Mocks the Men in Masks

Such images are a form of wish fulfilment – if only a pen or a brush could really stop bullets. But they are also visual mantras, an assertion of the well-worn phrase that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.

Another article on Huffington Post, published yesterday.  I’ll write something on the launch event too at some point soon.


Today we mark the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 terrorist attacks on the London transport system, which killed 52 people. It’s also exactly six months since the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, in which 12 people were murdered.

The public response to both these outrages was an overt show of defiance to the terrorists. In the days after the London bombings people shared ‘We Are Not Afraid’ images and continued to ride the tube. Immediately after the Paris attacks, ‘Je Suis Charlie‘ became a message of solidarity and a statement that we will not be scared into silence.

The Paris killings also inspired artists to pick up their pens, pencils and paint brushes. Some of the most eloquent responses to the tragedy were not words, but pictures. A new book, Draw The Line Here, which brings together over a hundred such cartoons, will be launched today in London. Continue reading “‘Draw the Line Here’ Mocks the Men in Masks”