In the wake of the Paris attacks, something must be done…

Once again, terrorists have attacked Paris, this time leaving well over 100 people dead. Everyone will agree that this is a tragedy and that something should be done to prevent anything like it happening again.

Of course, what that something is will vary greatly, depending on your point of view.

For some, it will mean increased domestic security; more spying on innocent people, less freedom of movement, less freedom of speech, less compassion towards refugees and even more intensive military engagement abroad. It will mean increasingly oppressive and restrictive actions by western governments against their own citizens and particularly against foreigners. Such ideas will masquerade under the banner of “common sense” and a “duty to protect”.

We need a rational response, and the basis of any rational analysis has to be the principle of cause and effect.

It’s very easy to dismiss any argument which reflects culpability on our own governments as “making excuses for terrorists” or “blaming the west for everything”. Let’s be clear, the immediate responsibility for these attacks lies only with the terrorists – that should go without saying. The challenge, however, is to understand if and how our own foreign policy contributes to creating an environment in which terrorism can flourish. This is essential if we are to be able to judge whether a particular response is likely to be effective, or actually make the problem worse. It’s not a difficult thing to do.


The 2003 Invasion of Iraq

Ever since the invasion of Iraq, the Middle East has been in meltdown. With a few exceptions, the consensus of public opinion now appears to accept that the invasion of Iraq was ill-conceived, and that both the motivation behind and the execution of the invasion were shockingly inept. Let’s not rehash that debate, except to point out that the lessons learned were the wrong ones. Foreign policy shifted from outright invasions involving the deployment of ground forces to remove foreign governments deemed a “threat to our interests”, to providing support for militant groups inside the target nations whose objectives broadly align with western objectives.

Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, dubbed the “Arab Spring“, to varying degrees resulted in relatively stable coups. Revolutions can be great, there are many governments around the world who thoroughly deserve to be overthrown. The problem is that revolutions and popular uprisings also present easy opportunities which western intelligence agencies, especially the CIA, are past masters at taking advantage of. They’ve done it for years throughout Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, and even more recently since the ending of the cold war in Eastern Europe with some degree of success – at least as success is defined by the west.

In Libya, things went much less smoothly. Gaddafi had long been a thorn in the side of both western and Arab governments; his support for revolutionary movements around the world had bought him praise in some circles, and branded him a sponsor of international terrorism in others. His plans for a single African currency threatened the position of the US dollar as the global reserve currency, and his support for Pan African unity signalled trouble for western corporations’ ease of access to African resources. His record of political oppression at home was questionable, yet Libyans still enjoyed some of the highest living standards of any nation in Africa, and an average life expectancy of 75 years. In short, Libya had progressed significantly since independence, and potentially stood to benefit if the “old guard” who had led that process, but who still clung jealously to power, could be moved aside to allow greater political and economic freedom.


Western backed insurgents in Libya

In the normal course of events, that’s what might have happened, but in the context of the Middle East in 2010 where many Libyans from the eastern part of the country had actively participated in the Iraqi insurgency, such an outcome was unlikely. Instead, NATO provided close air support to a mixture of tribal militias, each with a different vision of how the country needed to change, a significant portion of whom were al Qaeda style extremists. Soon after Gaddafi had been defeated and lynched, the black flag of al Qaeda was on open display above the courthouse of Benghazi.

Since then, the country has been divided with no effective government, and roaming bands of competing militia extort, murder and torture the civilian population at will. Libya has become a failed state, and life for ordinary Libyans is significantly worse than it was before.

Arms looted from the defunct Libyan army were soon used to destabilize Mali, a former French colony, and following a UN resolution France dispatched troops to the country to defeat that insurgency.

Other arms were reportedly being funnelled to Syria to support the ongoing uprisings there. What had perhaps begun in Syria as a genuine response to another post-colonial-yet-clinging-to-power-longer-than-was-healthy regime was being transformed and hijacked by two sets of forces. The first was the usual western interference, the British, Americans and French supporting the Free Syrian Army, who we were told were “moderates” committed to a secular and democratic Syrian state. The second were salafist head-choppers sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and a few other Gulf states.

To add context, Syria is at the crossroads of two proxy wars. One between western and Russian interests competing for geo-political control of the Middle East and Mediterranean, and in particular, seeking to remove Russia’s naval base at Tartus. The second, part of a wider conflict between Sunni and Shi’a Islam, championed by Saudi Arabia and Iran respectively.

This Sunni/Shi’a conflict has fomented for a long time, dating back at least to Saddam’s invasion of Iran in the 1980s, and has intensified again as a result of the sectarian conflict which developed in post-invasion Iraq. In 2010, the majority Shi’a population elected a highly sectarian Iraqi government led by Nouri al-Maliki, whose repression of the Sunni minority in Iraq caused much friction and division, and signalled growing Iranian influence in the country. This, along with Iranian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria’s Bashar al Assad formed a substantial power base opposed to Saudi interests.

The alienation of Iraqi Sunnis left them isolated and vulnerable, making an alignment with al Qaeda in Iraq, whose affiliates in Syria were making significant progress, much more attractive to tribal leaders who had previously opposed them. The forces on both sides of the border then coalesced into what we now know as ISIS, or ISIL depending on your translation. In a matter of weeks, ISIS had taken over great swathes of Iraq, eventually capturing Iraq’s second city of Mosul, as well as having control of huge parts of Syria.


Convoy of ISIS militants

In Syria, the FSA, such as it had existed, either collapsed and faded away or was absorbed into other more radical forces, including ISIS, along with their western supplied arms and money. In reality, the FSA were never that “moderate”, and their membership moved fluidly between them and other more radical elements as boundaries and allegiances shifted during the war.

The US response to ISIS was to engage in sporadic bombing campaigns, and never amounted to much more than a mild annoyance to ISIS. The more recent involvement of Russia appears to be having a much stronger effect, with ISIS now losing ground rapidly in Syria and gradually in Iraq too, thanks to the Iraqi Army and a Shi’a militia who, it has to be noted, are every bit as fanatical and cruel as ISIS.


The devastation of Syria

Over a quarter of a million people have so far died in Syria and this once developed and largely secular nation has been reduced to rubble. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are sheltering in neighbouring states, and tens of thousands of them are also fleeing to Europe as hope of a resolution to the conflict has faded. It’s a humanitarian disaster on a massive scale.

Certainly, religion plays a significant part in this conflict. Most Arab nations didn’t form by natural processes, where people of similar customs and religions come together to form nations. The modern map of the Middle East was drawn by agreements between European powers, much like the map of Africa, paying no attention to the cultural and religious identities of those who fell within their borders. If anything, the potential to divide the populations against each other was seen as an advantage, because a population divided is weaker, easier to manipulate and dominate from outside.

Yet, it’s not the whole story. Any popular movement will find ways of expressing itself in the vernacular that local people understand, in much the same way that Christianity wasn’t the cause of slavery but Biblical texts and ideas were used to justify what economic interests had designed. In Iraq, resistance to a foreign invasion came first and religious fundamentalism followed. Lacking any deep political ideology, religious-based rhetoric filled the void and gave meaning and direction to the resistance.

However, the fact remains that the vast majority of the victims of ISIS are other Muslims who ISIS have deemed insufficiently observant, and the vast majority of Muslims around the world are at least equally as horrified by ISIS as everyone else.

It is, surely, beyond argument that the rise of ISIS is directly attributable to the destruction of stable, if less than ideal, mostly secular nation states and the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent people by western armies and their Islamist proxies.

The situation today in Syria has many parallels in the past, most obviously since the increased involvement of Russia with the conflict in Afghanistan during the 1980s. There, Islamic extremism was deliberately encouraged as it could be used to motivate strong resistance to the Soviet invasion, which itself had been deliberately provoked. The CIA provided logistical support to native Afghan groups, while Saudi Arabia organised the foreign fighters shipped in to assist, most notable among which was of course Osama bin Laden. The seeds of this current conflict were sowed 35 years ago in Kabul, and have borne fruit this weekend in Paris.

Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab

Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab

Even earlier, the salafi Islamic sect itself, pejoratively called Wahhabism, arose in Saudi Arabia as the House of Saud, with British support, murdered their way to power in the 1920s.

What happened in Paris is the exception, though, rather than the rule. By far the greatest number of casualties occur in the Middle East itself, and a few in Africa, and whilst some do attract attention like the kidnapping of the schoolgirls in Nigeria, for the most part the reaction is muted. It’s not entirely unreasonable for westerners to be more affected by events happening on their doorstep, to people like them in places like the places they go. However, it is shallow.  The unrelenting media hype which accompanies these events is in part opportunist pandering to populist themes in order to maximize ratings, and part blatant propaganda to reinforce xenophobia and underline the unspoken implication that European lives matter more.

Alongside this narrative is an acceptance of the inevitability of continued war, of the intractable nature of a problem which stands little chance of resolution. This is just untrue, with a real effort aimed at the causes, organisations like ISIS could be dismantled in months or a year or two at most.

All that’s required is a real will to do so. That would mean ending western interference in other countries out of purely strategic and financial interests. It would mean confronting Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to cut off the supply of money, arms and ideological indoctrination which that region has been exporting for decades.

That’s not a course of action without costs, as the west relies on Saudi oil, and of course Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest importer of arms with a total trade worth more than $60 billion. The world’s top exporters of arms are the very same countries which form the UN Security Council, led by the USA.

That trade in oil and arms is more important than people’s lives is itself an indictment of our economic and political system, and an expression of the imperialist priorities which drive global conflict and give rise to terrorism. Ultimately, it’s all about the money and it always has been.

The real irony of course is that all of this happens in the name of democracy, when if democracy really worked this would all change tomorrow. The vast majority of the profits from the arms trade, war and neo-liberal globalisation pass ordinary people by and go straight into the pockets of billionaire shareholders and corporate directors, whilst the bills for war are passed directly to the people, the taxpayer, to you and I.

The only way to change this is to enforce our collective will on the streets and through the ballot box, to let it be known that we do not consent to this war or the next, that we stand together as people tired of war, death and suffering who demand a world where people’s lives come before corporate profit.

The world is inter-connected, our security can only be guaranteed by ensuring the security of others. No amount of military power or technology can ever truly protect us, and if we use it to inflict harm and suffering on the weak and the vulnerable sooner or later some of that violence will inevitably rebound back on us.

Ultimately, the “liberation” of oppressed people across the Middle East from the despotic regimes of Gulf state monarchs and from the crazed pseudo-religious criminality of groups like ISIS will be contingent on the liberation of the western world from the grip of the corporate greed, plutocracy and corruption which created them.


The threat of the ‘other’ Taliban…

Whilst it’s very common to find discussions of the role of political Islam in motivating and justifying violence, it’s much rarer to hear any in-depth discussion of the role of political Christianity in supporting the US military; yet, religiosity and support for the military do go hand in hand as is evidenced by this study as well as the plethora of religious iconography deployed by American military fanatics.

Religious people are born into a belief system which is already embroiled in a war; a battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. To sophisticated believers this is an analogy, or expresses a spiritual struggle as much within themselves as in the external world. To the more literally, fundamentalist minded, it lends itself to being easily translated into physical warfare.

To the American Christian Right, God and Country are founding pillars of their beliefs, and the country’s war is God’s war; be it against the ‘godless communists’ of the cold war or the ‘false religion’ of Islam today. Further back in history, the idea of Manifest Destiny supported the genocide of Native Americans, and after that, slavery. Christianity’s pedigree of violence and bloodshed is proven.

Some apologists will argue that Christian violence is all a matter of history, a point which becomes moot when one considers the bloodthirsty support of the Christian Right for the violence meted out by the US military. They play an esseniStock_000008144534_ExtraSmalltial role in providing political and spiritual cover for US military aggression. Their violence is merely disguised under the uniform of the US soldier and hidden beneath the veneer of state sanctioned conventional warfare.

The results are the same – beheadings, burnings and dismemberment.

Support for Israel is also heavily intertwined with Christian belief, particularly amongst dispensationalists for whom the Kingdom of God will be a literal Kingdom which lasts for a thousand years, based in Jerusalem with Jesus at its helm. These ideas don’t even originate from scripture; they come from the Scofield Bible which is a heavily annotated Reference Bible widely used in the United States and virtually nowhere else. The idea of the Rapture comes from the same source, and is equally unfounded.

The irony that, if the Bible is to be believed, Jesus was nailed to the cross by soldiers following orders, for breaking the law, is completely lost on most soldier-worshipping Bible bashers. In the same way, the instruction to ‘turn the other cheek’ is one of the few they choose not to take literally.

It’s no less the case for many of these fundamentalist Christians than it is for ISIS that eschatological beliefs play a central role in shaping their view of the world. To them, the forces of good and evil are on a collision course which will come to a head with the de$_35struction of the world as we know it, and after which the wicked will be punished and the good rewarded. Of course, the one difference being that each regards the other as evil and themselves as good. What they hate in each other is simply a reflection of themselves made ugly by a vision cleared of self-justification.

Another of the consequences of American exceptionalism, which attributes economic bounty to blessings from God rather than to global imperial domination, is that it assumes that if prosperity is a consequence of godliness, then inversely, poverty must be be a consequence of sin. It completely negates any basis of legitimate political grievances derived from the economic disadvantages with which poorer nations are confronted. It is this which makes simple tropes like ‘they hate us for our freedom’ more credible than any actual analysis of economic, political and military cause and effect.

Once faith and politics combine, the mixture is toxic. As Bertrand Russell once commented, ‘The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.’ Any political ideas are open to debate and persuasion, whereas religious ideas derive from faith and have no ideological basis. They are far less mutable, and debating them can lead into a minefield of Biblical or Qur’anic quotations, interpretations and refutations… unless of course one simply goes for the foundation, the faith itself.

To me, as an atheist, there’s nothing more amusing than watching a Muslim and Christian in debate. However, the consequences are no laughing matter; with the certainty that God is on your side and that your actions are willed by God as part of a war against evil there is little room left for evidence, nuance, compassion, empathy or rational discourse. ‘They’ are evil, and evil needs to be destroyed. No matter the level of violence employed, the death and destruction caused in the name of holy war, the fundamentalist never reflects on their own actions to consider if they, too, might be evil.

The binary nature of beliefs is a problem. To me, nothing is ever entirely good or entirely bad, the beauty of aJesus_solderny subject is found in understanding the complexity and nuances within it. Fundamentalist religious belief polarizes everything to one extreme or the other, both of which are wrong.

In their rejection of science, evolution, knowledge and intelligence in favor of the infallibility of an ancient Bronze Age text; religious fundamentalists of all persuasions represent a real challenge to all of the advances mankind has achieved since the Renaissance. They threaten to take us back to the world as it was before; rife with superstition and torture, where pain and suffering were seen as holy atonement for wrongs committed by a mythical ancestor who in all probability never existed. If the aim of religion is to elevate the human condition, it fails miserably in the hands of any literalist. It’s brutal.

If the consequence of a focus on ISIS is that the Christian Right is ignored, or worse, strengthened, then the threat of the rise of a Christian Taliban in the United States becomes ever more real. Given the power and armaments at the disposal of the US military, should they ever fall under their command, this is a far, far greater threat to humanity than ISIS could ever be.

We ignore it at our peril.

So, you’ve seen this page and now you’re angry and offended.


Here is a quick guide to help you.

The first thing you may want to do is attack me. You’ll maybe want to tell me I’m a loser who has never contributed anything to society, who lives in my mum’s basement and has a grudge against the military because they rejected me, or that maybe a soldier stole my girlfriend who wanted a “real man” instead of a coward… something like that.

The problem with that is, you don’t know me. You know nothing about me, so your attacks on me mean nothing to me. They don’t upset me. You’re not actually attacking me, you’re attacking the person you imagine me to be in order to allow yourself to continue to feel superior, and to therefore restore your sense of self worth at my expense. Once you realize this, you’ll probably then ask why I “hide behind a page, instead of using my real name”. You’ll ask me personal questions, “have you served”, “are you a Muslim”, “do you have a degree”, etc. If I answer, you’ll ask for more and more proof, and then if I don’t give you that you’ll call me a liar. You’re just fishing for information so you can attack me with greater accuracy because you can’t hit a target you can’t see.

The real question you should ask is why this affects you so deeply. Perhaps you’re too used to having people suck up to you because of your military record? Perhaps your whole identity is rooted in what you feel you “gave for your country” and now you feel like everybody owes you some gratitude? Maybe thinking of yourself as a war hero is all you’ve got to distinguish yourself? If you are or have been a soldier, you’ve seen war. You’ve seen death and destruction, maybe even lost friends… if you’re so tough, why should what a stranger on the internet thinks make you so angry that you want to swear at them and threaten them with violence? When you do that you don’t make me question my beliefs, you make me think you’re an unstable, violent individual who lacks self control and probably shouldn’t be running around foreign countries with a gun.

The thing is, I don’t need your approval or to justify my existence to you. This page isn’t about me. It isn’t about you either. It’s not a personal attack on you because, hey, I don’t know you either. It’s not an attack at all, it just says that I don’t believe that being a soldier automatically makes a person a hero. It’s about how the hero worship of soldiers translates into support for war, and silences dissent about foreign policy as if to question war is to insult or betray the troops.

It’s about the issues, and attacking me won’t actually make them go away.

I don’t accept that you fought for me. I didn’t ask you to do it, you volunteered. As far as I’m concerned you’ve been used to fight wars which were more about economic gain and global power than they ever were about my freedom. In doing so, you’ve actually created more problems and dangers, and possibly caused innocent people to suffer too. I can’t thank you for that, even if you were well intentioned. I’d rather you hadn’t done any of it, I’d rather you stayed home safe with your family, I’d rather discourage other young men and women from making the same choices. At the very least, I’d like to enable them to make a more informed choice.

It’s people who cheer for every war and tell young people it’s noble and heroic to die for their country who harm soldiers, not people like me who ask questions and try to encourage people to think and consider if military action is necessary or wise. If you’ve truly suffered and sacrificed, you have far more reason to be angry at them for causing you real loss and injury than to be angry at me for hurting your feelings.

Take a breath, read what we are actually saying, think about it. If you still disagree then come and say why in a calm, coherent fashion.


BREAKING THE SILENCE is a film with enormous emotional power, bringing us the human consequences of our military attacks on Middle East countries. It also provides us with important insights into the reasons for these cruelties, exposing the emptiness and hypocrisy of the claims made by the Bush administration that it is fighting terrorism and promoting freedom. I wish this film could be shown in every classroom in the United States, to guard young people against the lies they will hear from on high, and to prepare them to be active citizens in the struggle for a peaceful world.” – Howard Zinn, Author, A People’s History of the United States

‘Breaking The Silence: Truth And Lies In The War On Terror’ (2003) was screened six months after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and two years after the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. The film dissects the truth and lies behind the ‘War on Terror’, investigating the discrepancies between American and British justification for ‘war’ and the facts on the ground in Afghanistan and Washington DC.


The real threat: The war machine and the soldiers who serve in it.

“War and the business of war is a greater threat to democracy at home than any other threat abroad…”

These figures fairly reflect US government priorities, but probably less so the priorities of the American people.

I understand the argument that equates high government spending on the armed forces to the military being a “socialist” institution; and whilst it’s fun to tease Republicans with the hypocrisy of their opposition to spending on socialized medicine, or education, whilst they remain fanatically enthusiastic about spending on a socialized military, there is something even more pernicious about this.

Socialism is meant, at least theoretically, to represent a transfer of wealth from the private sector to the public sector, or in more basic terms, from richer to poorer. What this represents is something different; it’s a transfer of wealth from the public sector to the private sector, from the poor and middle classes to the privately owned and hugely wealthy corporations who supply military contracts.

Regardless of your opinion on taxation (and I know we have many libertarians who support this page, all of whom are welcome), the corporate sponsorship of the politicians who in return loot the national treasury in favor of these sponsors is blatantly corrupt and wholly undemocratic. More than that, it’s a driver for war. There are huge vested interests intent on making sure that the USA always has an enemy which the public are sufficiently fearful of to justify and make acceptable the daylight robbery of millions of citizens of billions of dollars, and inevitably, the destruction of foreign countries and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

This doesn’t create jobs, the arms industry is highly technical and low on labor costs. The costs of training military personnel are huge. If the money spent on the military, which has a primarily destructive function, were either spent instead on socially beneficial projects or simply left in the taxpayer’s pockets to spend as they choose, more jobs would result.

If the death march of the US military across this planet is ever to be halted, the challenge to democracy within the USA presented by the military industrial complex will need to be addressed. Never mind freedom and democracy elsewhere, war and the business of war is a greater threat to democracy at home than any other threat abroad.  The soldiers also profit from this, and take orders directly from the same politicians who endorse this expenditure. A positive change in foreign policy would be a direct threat to the livelihood of every soldier in exactly the same way as it would threaten the profits of those who manufacture and supply the arms and equipment they use to wage war, not to mention the other corporations who reap the spoils of war; gaining access to resources and markets, and the reconstruction contracts to rebuild what the military lays waste to.

Soldiers are an essential and inherent component in the machinery of war. If ordered to, many of them would defend the interests of these corporations against the American people, just as they do abroad. Soldiers are not defending freedom, they’re part of the threat to it.