Jason Burke on ‘a complex fusion of the secular and the religious’

“I watched 9/11 unfold in the office of The Observer,” says Jason Burke, one of the UK’s foremost experts on Al-Qaeda and currently South Asia correspondent for The Guardian.

“I was just back from Algeria,” he says. “I stood in front of the TV watching the first tower burning, then watched the second plane go in. I turned to the deputy editor and said ‘that’s Bin Laden’. He told me to get a satellite phone and some money and get to the airport.”

That’s exactly what the he did, spending the next decade writing from the front line of the post-9/11 conflicts, including two critically lauded books, Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam and On the Road to Kandahar: Travels through Conflict in the Islamic World.

The 41-year-old’s latest tome, The 9/11 Wars, looks back at the violence of the past decade, offering an insight into the conflict from the perspective of the local and the regional. As he puts it: “seeing things for myself”.

It’s an understanding on the conflict built from meeting hundreds if not thousands of participants across the globe.

“Repeatedly in these encounters, whether it was failed suicide bombers, Iraqi militants or western intelligent specialists, I kept having difficulty reconciling the individual with the general, and particularly the local with the global,” says Burke, sitting at a coffee table in central London.

The author, originally from North London and now based in New Delhi, admits that tackling ten years, particularly a decade so scarred by violence, was a difficult task. The book’s arc progresses through the aftermath of 9/11; the escalation of violence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Europe; and the years post the European attacks, which saw a gradual change in western policy.

“The progression in terms of the understanding of Al-Qaeda over the last ten years has been absolutely phenomenal,” he points out. “And central to that greater understanding has been the disaggregation of Al-Qaeda from being the global organisation with tentacles everywhere, led by a single figure, to being something far more diverse with a whole variety of local manifestations.”

Within days of the Twin Towers collapsing, Al-Qaeda had been morphed in the public consciousness into an all-encompassing terror network, a religious SPECTRE with bin Laden orchestrating the chaos from his Tora Bora redoubt.

“That global vision has slowly been broken down,” says Burke, arguing that by viewing Al-Qaeda as a local phenomenon, the West was able to refine its understanding and apply counterterrorism measures that were far more bespoke.

“Much of the thinking within the counterterrorist community is now about the individual, it’s about the particular circumstances or courses of events that takes a person into radicalism or radical violence. We’re no longer talking about global profiling. What we are talking about is real granularity – hierarchies, flat networks and the mechanics of individuals.”

While reporting abroad Burke saw that it wasn’t the global narratives that were determining events, but local factors – communities, families, brothers…

“Most terrorist or militant attacks used local materials, perpertrated by local people operating only a couple of hours travel from their homes. Yes, 9/11. Yes, a couple of other major international events. But 99 per cent of the violence is rooted in communities, often intra-community.”

Burke sips his water before launching into a dissection of the causes of the conflict:

“Let’s look at what this conflict is really about. Is it about Islam versus West? Is it about good versus evil? Is it about these meta-narratives that ideologically driven thinkers on all the sides were trying to impose? Or is it about people and their reactions to certain contexts and certain situations?”

I ask why the West, its commentators and its governments (Samuel Huntington’s ‘The Clash Of Civilisations‘ became required reading post 9/11) were so eager to bolt a grand narrative onto the conflict.

“I think it’s a hangover from the Cold War,” he says, “but also after a massive shock you seek simple answers because a complicated answer is not particularly morally or intellectually satisfying.”

The West played along with Al-Qaeda’s framing, a narrative staggering in its lack of sophistication.

“There was a very strong influence from the evangelical Christianity in the States, which fed into that framing,” Burke adds.

The reasons underpinning America’s eagerness to engage post 9/11 remains an open debate, but the US didn’t act alone in Afghanistan and Iraq. Britain was in lock step and the evangelical argument doesn’t carry across the Atlantic.

“No, but Blair brought liberal humanitarian interventionism to the equation, which looking back seems just as dated.”

In regards to Afghanistan, Burke argues that Western strategy has made a couple of distinct shifts, from “ridding the world of terrorist training camps”; a move the author says was “long overdue”, to creating “a liberal pluralist democracy with a free market system”. Finally, around 2006, Western doctrine decided that it was to be “none of the above”.

The author also witnessed what he calls a “similar ratcheting down of expectations and of objectives” in Iraq. In both countries, by 2006, the early idealism was on its way out and by 2008, following Obama’s election, it had completely gone… so much so that the Taliban “are now being rapidly rehabilitated as partners for peace”.

I suggest that the turning point for Afghanistan may have been the 2009 election, which saw incumbent Hamid Karzai returned amid strong accusations of electoral fraud.

“Earlier,” insists Burke, “though a lot was pegged on that election. By 2009 a lot of people thought the core problem in Afghanistan was the government’s legitimacy.”

Karzai was first elected in 2004 with around 55 per cent of the vote. However his subsequent term was characterised by charges of corruption and a growing disquiet about civilian casualties. By the end of the term, he was deeply unpopular.

“The Americans and the British thought if they could get a legitimate government in Kabul, that legitimacy would trickle down. What actually happened was a total catastrophe. Karzai screwed things up horribly.”

“Following the election, the West was forced to do a quick re-messaging. The line was now ‘this is what happens in Afghanistan, this is still the best we’ve got, now we’re moving forward with our Afghan partners’.

Moving forward, for the West, meant out of the door as quickly as possible. “This is pretty much where we are now,” he adds. “So the election was key, but it came against a backdrop of on going change.”

Within the book, Burke characterises the problem of extremism as “a complex fusion of the secular and the religious that’s extremely difficult to counter.” It’s an unusual charge, as secularism is often perceived to be one of the principle targets of the extremists.

“Violent Islamist rhetoric was influenced by the revolutionary ideologies of the 20th Century,” he says, citing the impact of Nazism and revolutionary communism on the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic thinkers.

They also share similar structures,” he says. “What does radical Islam do? It takes a situation, it explains what’s gone wrong and it gives you a programme for a solution. You don’t really need to think. It gives you all the answers, just like revolutionary communism or Marxism.”

“What bin Laden did was to fuse very contemporary concerns – oil, Israel, Palestine, human rights – with a revolutionary Islamic violent methodology, along with a lot of mythical references, which are enormously potent in terms of identity baggage. He talked about the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols, and he talked about the crusades. These are all fantastic push button issues.”

“Terrorism is not about massive organisations,” he continues apace, “and it’s not about psychopaths. It’s also not about starving people or revolution. It’s about pairs or small groups of people egging each other on. It’s a social activity like anything else. Yes – it’s abhorrent and morally unjustifiable, but it’s not that dissimilar to robbing a bank.”

“People get sucked into it. If you look at the interrogations of British militants, the leaders of the groups were using the same type of arguments criminals use: ‘If we go down you’re coming down with us’ and ‘if you go to the cops, we’re all going to go down’. It’s like the mafia… not in terms of mailing body parts, but a shared understanding of how things work.”

The author is also quick to dismiss a link between poverty and terrorism. “We’ve seen violence from very poor people, we’ve seen violence from extremely rich people and lots in between.”

Two chapters are devoted to what in retrospect appears to be the nadir of the decade, the years 2005 and 2006. Following the Madrid bombings (2004), the murder of Theo Van Gogh (2004), the London bombings (2005), the riots in Paris (2005), the failed transatlantic bomb plot (2006) and the Danish cartoon affair (2005), he concedes that, at the time, Europe looked like it was on the precipice. However, reporting on the unrest in Paris, Burke was confronted with a phenomenon far removed from militant Islam.

“In three weeks I didn’t hear a single religious slogan, or see any religious graffiti. There was simply no religious element on the ground.”

“The people who were rioting were largely non-Muslim. The main slogan of the rioters was that hardy perennial of urban violence, ‘fuck the police’.”

Yet at the time, the notion of Europe falling to a Muslim hoard gained ground on the right in the US, while Oriana Fallaci’s book ‘The Force Of Reason‘ had their European counterparts in a similar flap.

“It was all hysterically overblown,” says Burke. “There was no massive radicalisation of European Muslims. That is important, as Al-Qaeda was unable to recruit. The first stage of their plan was the spectacular propaganda attack; the second stage was the mass roll out of that violence.”

Around that time Al-Qaeda started to lose support in Muslim countries, especially when violence was being perpetrated on Muslim soil.

“The best example is the 2005 bombing of the hotels in Amman,” he says. “Prior to the bombings, approval ratings in Muslim countries for Bin Laden, Musab al-Zarqawi and suicide bombing was up around 60-80 per cent. Immediately after the bombings, that went down to 15-20 per cent. The Al-Qaeda strategy… not only failed to gain new recruits, but was undermining its own strategic aim with every step it took forward.”

Al-Qaeda began to face similar problems in Iraq. In the west of the country, the Sunnis ended up aligned to the US, after Al-Qaeda started appropriating “the rackets, which fed the power of the local sheiks.”

Which brings Burke back to his original thesis, that of the local versus the global:

“The Al-Qaeda ideology and package is disrespectful of local differences. In the end most people just have their communities – there’s no global narrative. They’re just getting on with their daily life – individuals, families… The bloke who lives down the road, asking whether he can get water or not, whether he’s proud of being who he feels he is – an Iraqi, an Arab, a Sunni, a Muslim, a father, a tribal chief or whoever. These are the drivers behind those critical decisions as to whom he is fighting.”

I ask if he think another major attack, one on the scale of 9/11, is likely.

“There might be another attack, but there might not be,” he says. “That uncertainty is what the whole security industry gravy train runs on.”

The author points to another shift in thinking: “These days, the US seems less preoccupied with how to protect itself against a terrorist attack and more concerned with how to be resilient when a terrorist attack occurs.”

Speaking to veteran journalist Bob Woodward in 2010, President Obama said:

“We can absorb a terrorist attack… we’ll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever… we absorbed it and we are stronger.”

“It was an extraordinary statement,” says Burke. “He’s right, of course. The US could absorb four or five. It would have its impact but one of the most astonishing things about the American economy, with its massive deficit and all its structural problems, is that over the past ten years it has managed to pay for two trillion dollar wars.”

“You have to remember that the insurance costs for Hurricane Katrina and the recent Japanese Tsunami are many, many times greater than those of 9/11. That’s the power of terrorism… to terrorise is to make people fear something disproportionately.”

I start to ask the author about more recent events… “bin Laden dying offers a sense of narrative closure,” he says, interrupting. “It is easy to be mistaken about these things… but there is a sense that what’s happening with the Arab Spring is the start of something different, a new cycle.”

It’s an optimistic tone on which to end, but not before Burke adds one last note of caution:

“Watch out for social conservatism. Western portrayals of the Middle East and places like Pakistan can be very misrepresentative. Western journalists, myself included, very often allow the educated, elite English speaking voices to dominate, giving the impression that they’re representative of much of their society.”

“So you end up with a view of a country made up of either extremists or moderates. The majority middle ground doesn’t get heard. And that majority middle ground is often socially conservative, religiously conservative, deeply anti-American and deeply anti-Western. I think it is going to be very interesting to watch in the coming years.”

This first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Cenk Uygur on Brits, Bachmann and Barak…

Cenk Uygur is an unlikely global celebrity. Born in Turkey and raised in the US, the trained lawyer started broadcasting a satellite radio talk show called The Young Turks in 2002. By 2005, the format had developed into an online broadcast distributed on YouTube, from where it has grown to become one of the best known and most viewed offerings on the web. It currently boasts around 30 million views each month, and has received more than 500 million views in total since launch.

“I knew we had a following,” Uygur tells The Huffington Post UK, “when I got off the underground in London and heard someone shout ‘Cenk – what are you doing here?’ I’d only been in the country about an hour.”

Yet notoriety is something the 41-year-old has increasingly had to deal with. Last year, the success of Uygur’s online show caught the attention of cable news channel MSNBC, who offered the LA resident a contract to host their coveted 6pm slot. He accepted, though it proved only a brief association. After six months, Uygur was offered a lower profile time, which he refused, having been told his tone was not to the liking of executives in Washington.

Uygur’s combative style, developed for the web generation, apparently didn’t sit well with the cable news audience. So, he moved back to TYT (though he never actually left) and is now looking to expand.

“The UK is our third largest territory behind the US and Canada,” he says. “It would be great to take the show there. Maybe in the future we can expand to set up Young Turks in different regions, and the UK would definitely be a prime contender to do that. Because of the show’s global popularity, we are definitely looking to give it more of an international feel.”

Using YouTube, alongside live web streaming, has given Uygur and his fellow Turks an almost global reach.

“That’s the great thing about being online,” he says. “If you look at shows like John Stewart and The Colbert Report, they’re restricted to a channel. We are not.”

Every day, more than a million people visit the TYT channel on YouTube, for their daily fix of progressive political discourse, entrenching Cenk as a fixture in the US media landscape. And, in a country where newscasters wear their political leanings like an identity badge, Uygur is unashamedly to the left of the divide.

“I started The Young Turks as there needed to be a push back against Fox News and the other news sources, which only pushed the agenda of big corporations,” he says. “We didn’t sit down and have a meeting in which we determined the editorial or political line. We just try and present the news without all the bulls*it. The show is just a reflection of the people that make it.”

For Uygur, John Stewart, The Colbert Report, Air America on the radio, plus MSNBC’s increasingly progressive stance is all part of the same push back. “It is a fight to balance out the news so Americans aren’t just told one side of the story,” he says.

I enquire if, in the interest of balance, he ever invites conservatives on the show?

“We try and get conservatives on the show all the time,” he snaps back. “It’s great when they come on. I have nothing against conservative principles, however what’s preached by people like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News has absolutely nothing to do with conservatism.”

“You only have to look at subsidies for oil companies,” he continues, now in full flow. “These subsidies are sold by the right-wing media as an issue that fits well with conservative principles. Can there be anything less conservative than subsidies for oil companies? People like Limbaugh or companies like Fox News are paid by the corporations to push their agenda. They call it conservatism, but it’s just corporate propaganda.”

It’s the kind of vitriol that has won the Uygur fan and foe alike. It is also indicative of America’s increasingly polarised media, much of which has come to resemble two armed camps rather than members of the same profession.

It’s a situation not only certain to continue through to the 2012 election, but could well have a bearing on its outcome.

“Obama is in so much trouble right now,” says Uygur. “He’s got nine per cent unemployment… and that nine per cent is not going down anytime soon. Then there’s the downgrade of the country’s credit rating, following the ridiculous situation with the debt ceiling.”

In recent months, the TYT host has become increasingly critical of Obama and the current administration.

“If he was doing the right things, it wouldn’t be so bad,” he says, “but the President simply isn’t looking at the type of policies that will get the country out of its current mess. It”s just more tax cuts for the rich. I can honestly see Obama’s popularity figures dropping into the 30s.”

So you think Obama will lose, I ask?

“No – I’m not saying he will lose. The Republican Party could do him a favour and nominate some lunatic. That would give him a chance.”

The nomination process for the Republican Party, although underway, is far from yielding a definite candidate, with a recent CNN poll putting Ricky Perry, Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann as the leading candidates in that order, with Sarah Palin yet to declare.

“People are actually talking about Michelle Bachmann as a real candidate for the Republican nomination,” he says with exasperation. “Come on… Admittedly, her figures are good right now, but she is simply not a serious candidate. Mitt Romney is more likely as is Rick Perry. I’m surprised that Mike Huckabee has ruled himself out of the race. He would mobilise the evangelical vote and could portray himself as a populist. There’s a mood in the country right now for a populist candidate. I’m amazed he hasn’t jumped back in.”

“The run up to the election is going to be vicious,” he continues, barely drawing breath. “The Republicans have already started. The leak about Michelle Bachmann taking prescription drugs was unbelievable. I’m the last person who wants to see Bachmann in the White House, but for Republicans to leak the migraine information, questioning not only her mental health but also inferring that she was addicted to prescription drugs was unforgivable. Unfortunately, I think it’s going to be that kind of election.”

Whatever happens, The Young Turks will no doubt be covering it, broadcasting their daily mix of the irreverent, the serious and the funny from their poky studio in downtown LA.

“We’d like to expand as the set is looking a bit cramped,” he says. “The set has been a good home as it’s very intimate but we’re in the process of moving very soon. Actually, I can’t confirm that right now… but we are.”

This first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.