Delusional journalism (Matthew Parris edition)
“I can talk up a storm on the folly of George W. Bush or the evil that is Osama bin Laden” boasts Matthew Parris in his Saturday, July 7 column in The Times.
But Parris is volunteering for more hazardous columnising today. He is arguing that “the tide is turning against” Islamic terrorism. His evidence for this is “observation, hearsay and personal hunch.”
Parris declares: “We’re winning the battle – dare I utter the appalling cliché – of hearts and minds.”
Is it fair to describe this as delusional journalism? Are there metrics to substantiate this thesis? What sort of analysis are we dealing with here? A gnostic one contrasting the foolishness of George Bush with the evil of bin Laden. In which case, which “we” is winning? I propose the winner, insofar as Matthew is concerned, is foolishness.
Or I may misjudge him. Perhaps this is this one of these columns in which the gentle reader, guided by the observations and hunches of our fearless and cheekily revisionist columnist, finally sees through the falsity of received dogma. As the scoop of interpretation is revealed, the reader may rejoice that we are winning the war on terrorism after all. This perhaps is actually a redemptive column. The sort of thing to expect from an ernest vicar.
Yet Parris’s opinion is founded on nothing substantial at all. It exists detached completely from reality. Indeed it appears to have coincided with the most lethal car bombing so far, a siege to the death in Islamabad, the Glasgow doctors’ plot and no end whatsoever to the quotidian global horrors, albeit they have so far spared the Groucho club.
Compare Parris, purveyor of hunch, with some other journalism on offer. Because relative to the competition, Parris is writing tosh. Read the New Yorker on the poppy eradication program in Afghanistan, or Iraq Slogger, and in particular look at Le Monde Diplomatique, if you want a paradigm-shifting story about the changing nature of this thing called terror.
Reading Syed Saleem Shahzad in Le Monde Diplomatique, who has met many so-called terrorists, you are not likely to confuse his authority with that of Matthew Parris. It is in fact a contrast between two utterly different schools of journalism. One is revelatory, insightful, based on solid reporting. Parris is based on a hunch, a deadline and a fat check.
Syed’s article begins to describe the geography of a story rather than attempt to be the last word. But it is that rare thing in terrorism studies: an article with some intellectual coherence. Instead of triggering a bullshit detector, it has the smell of verissimilitude, as we say in the copy-tasting room, where we spit most of the stories out into a pot in the floor, and swallow only a few.
Syed writes of the struggles within islam itself and his story not only provides the outline of a sensible way of considering this problem, but additionally contains the uncomfortable reminder that this is not just about the comfort of Parris and his metropolitan friends. Almost all the victims of this war – or more properly, a series of armed conficts between state and non-state actors – are themselves muslims. I think this is much more interesting than Matthew’s wishful theories on hearts and minds. Compared to Parris’s theory that “we” are winning, Syed offers a different dimension of journalism, in which a complicated problem can be seen for what it is.
The on-line summary at Le Monde Diplo hardly does justice to Syed’s reporting.
Deux stratégies islamistes qui s’opposent – two opposing Islamist strategies
Al-Qaida contre les talibans – something genuinely fascinating – the old firm has broken up.
De la Somalie à l’Afghanistan, de l’Irak au Liban, en passant par la Palestine (lire « Comment le monde a enterré la Palestine »), se dessine un arc du chaos caractérisé par l’affaiblissement des Etats et le rôle croissant de groupes armés disposant d’un armement efficace (notamment roquettes et fusées) et échappant à tout contrôle centralisé. Pour les Etats-Unis, ces zones sont devenues le terrain principal de la « troisième guerre mondiale », de la « guerre contre le terrorisme ». Cette vision nourrit la stratégie de l’organisation Al-Qaida, engagée dans une lutte à mort contre « les croisés et les juifs ». Pourtant, sur le terrain, ces discours simplistes ne recouvrent pas une réalité bien plus contradictoire. En Irak, on assiste à une mobilisation d’une partie de la résistance sunnite contre les dérives d’Al-Qaida qui s’est lancée dans un sanglant combat contre les chiites, n’hésitant pas à s’en prendre à leurs lieux de culte. En Afghanistan, de violents incidents ont opposé les talibans aux combattants étrangers d’Al-Qaida, les premiers privilégiant une stratégie nationale (et la recherche d’un modus vivendi avec le pouvoir pakistanais) et les seconds appelant au renversement des régimes musulmans en place, dénoncés comme « impies ».
An arc of chaos is described by the map of Somalia to Afhagnistan, Iraq to the Lebanon, passing through Palestine. This is characterised by the weaknening of states and the growing role of armed groups outside of all effective centralised control and armed with effective weapons, notably rockets and explosives. For the United States these zones have become the principle battleground of the third world war or of the war against terrorism. This vision has in fact nourished, fed into the startegy of al-Qaida which is engaged in its own struggle to the death against christians and jews. Meanwhile on the ground, these simplistic discourses do not capture the reality which is much more conflicted. In Iraq one part of the sunni resistance is mobilising against Al-Qaida who have launched themselves in bloody fighting with the shiia… In Afghanistan there have been violent clashes between the taliban and the foreign fighters of al-Qaida, the Taliban primarily nationalists seeking a strategy including a modus vivendi with the Pakistani power next door; al-Qaida calling for the overthrow of Islamic regimes already in power which they denouce as impious.
Compared to this, Parris is not even starting to understand what he is writing about. One must mention in passing that more than 150 people were killed in one Iraqi city in terrorist attacks on the very day that Parris’s column appeared, although none of them will have been known to Parris.
In the campaign to purge delusion from the media on the subject of terrorism, one cannot help notice today’s Sunday Telegraph with its splash warning of a 15-year fight against terror. This is an intriguing new benchmark – one previously undisclosed, I believe. We have been warned that this is generational. But 15 years sound rather specific. A target!
Admiral Sir Alan West, a former first sea lord, now a war counsellor to Grodon Brown, choses a Tory paper to predict that the war on terror will take a decade and a half to win, and went on to make similar points on Sky News. So this was entirely manufactured news.
Interestingly, though, with the scoop that this is no more than three five-year plans. Fifteen years is in fact a dramatic improvement since the forecast of Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, our man in Kabul, last month that it would take 30 years to win the instant struggle. (Apparently, the largest British embassy in the world is being built in Kabul so Cowper-Coles may just have been making the case for a longer mortgage. His embassy should be a long way out of town, in a defensible position, is my advice.)
So more happy news on the war on terror. Within a fortnight of the Brown administration taking over, the time to win has been reduced by decades, from those now obsolete estimates of Cowper-Coles, to the really rather encouraging estimate of Admiral West.
Oh, but we mustn’t call it a “war on terror”. West says of the phrase: “I hate that expression. When I first heard it – I think it came over from the states – I thought it was totally the wrong thing.”
He continues, oddly, that,”it’s not like a war in that sense at all. It demeans the value of a war and it demeans the value of a lot of things.” Demeans the nobility of war, perhaps? What does he mean? That terrorists fight dirty?
Reading Parris, West and Syed Saleem Shahzad I am not sure how we will know when we have won the war on terror – perhaps there will be no more terrorists. West is right, however, that a new approach is badly needed to tackle it. But what is this to be? Be nicer to muslims? More bombs? Poppy eradication? Information war?
The fundamental problem is one that nobody dares acknowledge. The versions of democracy and justice on offer on our side are actually pretty unconvincing. Our example is frankly not so persuasive in the battle for hearts and minds. Maybe if there were no secret prisons, no torturers, elections were decided by voters and not lawyers, seats were not for sale in parliament, corrupt arms dealers were not operating in collusion with governments, for example, the “west” could offer some rentable values to the world.
Until then, it does sound as if the answers to the problem of terror are less likely to be found in the west than within islam itself.
We are all capable of writing real nonsense from time to time. It is odd how the war on terrorism brings out the worst in many journalists as well as most politicians.
A useful Wikipedia discussion of the expression “war on terror” can be found here.
I have previously written of delusional media here, questioning Channel 4 News’s theories on muslim alienation.