Isil’s clash of civilisations


There’s one thing America’s right and Isil agree on: The clash of civilisations narrative. And in each issue of Isil’s propaganda sheet, Dabiq, they run through some of the latest examples in a section called “In the words of the enemy”. For the eighth edition it’s Rick Santorum, drawn from an interview he did last month….

They will get stronger. … This is really important to understand. The reason the West had a thousand year war with Islam is that Islam was ever expanding. When Islam began to contract, it collapsed, and the caliphate was eliminated. Now they have established a caliphate. They are dead serious about expanding it. Unless we begin to take back that ground and make this caliphate just irrelevant in the eyes of the radical Muslim world, we are going to have a bigger and bigger problem.”

This is exactly what the Islamic State, intent on a prophesy fulfilling battle to end all battles at Dabiq, wants to hear. So let’s not give it to them

More on Philip Hammond’s late arrival in Lausanne:

Britain needs to learn its own lessons from Lausanne

The nuclear deal with Iran might technically involve the P5+1 but it is increasingly clear that it is being  forged without the UK. As John Kerry’s tweet shows, our foreign secretary has been absent, for some reason travelling to Washington DC this past week even though the secretary of state wasn’t there.

Philip Hammond himself is all too aware of this fact. In an extraordinary briefing (while in DC) he explained the rationale for his absence so far…

“I’m going back to London and I will go to Lausanne as soon as it’s appropriate to be there,” he said, explaining that the talks were in a highly technical phase.

Hammond noted that a previous round of talks held in Vienna last November failed, and said he was now wary of “going and sitting in a hotel room for two days.”

“It’s only an hour, an hour-and-a-half, flight away,” he said. “I will jump on a plane and go to Lausanne as soon as we sense that we’re getting to the point where we need to sit down.”

So even if he was in Lausanne, he would be sitting in a hotel room, apparently surplus to requirements.

Thankfully he did finally arrive on Sunday, presumably when the French and German foreign ministers (who were already there) said the photo op was looming.

There’s a broader point here, beyond a pissy comment on Mr Hammond’s profile. If the UK continues to hem and haw about its role in Europe, it will find itself further removed from the big stage. And while our French and German comrades are putting themselves front and centre of one the biggest diplomatic initiatives of the moment, we will have nothing but a walk-on role right at the end.

At least Cathy Ashton has been highly involved in getting talks to the stage where a deal is possible. But even she has sadly slipped from view since finishing her term as EU foreign policy chief.

All this is to say that the idea that Britain can continue to punch above its weight on the world stage is pie in the sky unless we are working closely with France and Germany.

American Sniper’s crucial arc

I finally went to see American Sniper a couple of weeks ago. It was OK. Possibly it had been spoiled for me by the ceaseless debate about what it all meant. Whether it was pro or anti-war. Pro-America or anti. That sort of stuff.

In fact, as this rather excellent review in the New York Review of Books points out (subscription), it painted a more complex picture than its critics were prepared to allow. Sure, it didn’t give too much of an insight into Iraqi life. But it was a film about an American sniper. And in doing that it captured something crucially important about the development of that American sniper, and thus the war more broadly. Take this exchange when a psychiatrist asks Chris Kyle whether he had done things didn’t want to do….

“Oh, that’s not me, no. No, Sir, I’m not worried about that. I am willing to meet my Creator and answer for every shot I took.”

These lines are also simple and direct, but Cooper’s voice is weak, close to breaking, and the look on his face betrays bleak fear and doubt. With these two scenes and a few others the arc of the film is established, from the gung-ho enthusiasm of young men eager to go forth and kick ass for the greatest country in the world, to the half-strangled confusion of men who have suffered and killed for reasons that slip away like water in sand.

(One other brief point. I have started reading the NYRB recently. Many of its reviews are of books that are months – if not years – old. How much better than the instanalysis we are subjected to everywhere else.)


I prefer Brooklyn’s royal couple


So another royal visit. This time Charles and Camilla. Cue a load of articles in the British media about how the US loves our Royal Family. I’m not entirely convinced, given the not-very-scientific sample of chatter coming from the seats behind me during the Brooklyn Nets game attended by Wills and Kate last year.

There was no sign of the royal couple for the first half, much to the fury of the people behind me. In fact they only took their seats midway through the third quarter. Worse followed, when they were immediately attended to by a couple of waiters bearing oversize cartons of popcorn on silver platters. And then the rather pithy put-down from the seats behind…

“Not even Jay-Z and Beyonce get treatment like that… and they’ve earned it.”

Which I suspect is a little unfair on all the hard work done by Kate’s mum Carole, but you get the point. And I wonder if that sort of attitude rather explains why Pippa is struggling to get a deal…

Death of the guitar…


Lots to like in Kim Gordon’s new memoir. As a regular consumer of Britain’s music magazines throughout the 1980s and 1990s one paragraph made me chuckle out loud…

In England, people had been loudly proclaiming the death of the guitar and the birth of the synthesiser, but Sonic Youth and other American guitar bands started to create a buzz.

Now that takes me back…

The making of Jihadi John

Astute piece on the making of Jihadi John by my friend Amil Khan. He rightly – in my view – points out that the lure of al-Qaeda is not in its ideology per se, more in its ability to mould injustices, local grievances and conflicts to its own agenda, providing a ready-made set of solutions to young men whether they are growing up in northern Nigeria or west London.

The result is that if you have a problem with the status quo—with the world you see around you—al Qaeda, and now Islamic State, provide you with a ready-made practical ideology, supported by soldiers confident in their ability to scare their enemy. Other anti-establishment forces such as the anti-globalisation movement are unable to match the broad-based appeal or the battlefield-earned credentials—and for many youth, the thrill—of Islamist extremism.

It is also a reminder of how our own society seems to lack any of the organising ideologies that once offered us certainty – for good or ill.