Words as weapons

Actress Shirley MacLaine has caused outrage with comments in her memoir suggesting holocaust victims were “balancing their karma from ages before” (see here). The book includes in the sub-title ‘A lifetime of questions, speculations…’ and so on, leaving a lot of caveated wriggle-room.  So this might be nothing more than a ham-fisted example of the old adage about ‘no such thing as bad publicity’. But in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the current debate about freedom of speech, her book highlights the power of words to wound.

This is nothing new, of course. British Prime Minister David Cameron chooses words deliberately when he talks of a “war on mediocrity” in schools. Likewise his opposite number, Ed Miliband, countering with a desire to “weaponise” the issue of the National Health Service. Intriguingly, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland has just released a classified document from 1985. It contains advice to the then new Minister, Tom King, on toxic words to steer clear of (see here). Words like ‘British Army’, ‘orange’, ‘green’ and ‘Ireland’ may seem innocuous enough to many observers, but were felt, at the time, to be sufficiently loaded as to be worth avoiding. (When I served in Northern Ireland I remember a local councillor’s outrage at a new cycle path along a busy road. His concern was not for the safety of the cyclists. Rather at the numerous junctions on the route there were patches of tarmac where the green cycle path, white give way symbols and yellow (gold) lines intersected.  These, he fumed, were Republican symbols being foisted on the public without consultation.)

But where to draw the line between censorship and free speech if words can be so powerful? “How do you take on ideas if you hide them from view?” asked Tom Slater assistant editor of the online magazine Spiked and vocal opponent of all forms of censorship on a recent BBC Radio 4 programme, The World Tonight (link here – start at 16:37). “Censorship is a judgment on the audience,” he says, by allowing aberrant views to go unchallenged. Some authorities have resorted to legislation. An OSCE report into free media (see here) was sharply critical of Republika Srpska, the ethnic Serb portion of Bosnia, for too heavy-handedly encouraging self-censorship.

Gene Sharp, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, understands the power of words better than most. The ‘Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare,’ as he has been called, founded the Albert Einstein Institution and promotes nonviolent struggle to challenge dictatorship and oppression. His amazing film, How to start a revolution, (see trailer here) suggests one of the most powerful methods is the use of signs in English.  The point being that the audience the protesters should be appealing to is global, not local, and English is better understood world-wide than any other language.

Some in the media have started referring to Islamic State, or IS, as Daesh, knowing well the power words and language hold. France, also, now uses this term in official language (see here). Justin Marozzi, historian and author of ‘Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood’ has clear advice. “Follow the Arabs,” he says, “they don’t use the term IS for a very good reason.” The term Islamic State came from the group itself and he suggests we unwittingly confer legitimacy on them by supporting their narrative. Alternatively, Daesh, with connotations of being ‘outsiders’ or ‘renegades’ has a “strongly pejorative meaning of crushing something underfoot, of trampling on people, of being bigoted,” he says.

Words can hurt; governments know that, terrorists and individuals too.  When does free speech become incitement; when should self-censorship give way to legislation? And in a global conversation, won’t somebody always be offended?

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Back to the future

Scan 20 Update in light of the House of Commons Report

This post first went up on January 22nd. I update it now as Britain’s House of Commons Defence Select Committee has released a report today criticising Britain’s limited military involvement in the fight against Da’ish (also known as Islamic State). Reinforcing the concerns I raised in the post below, the report suggests there is an “unwillingness of any of the Service Chiefs to provide a clear, and articulate statement of the UK’s objectives or strategic plan in Iraq”. It also criticises the “lack of clarity over who owns a policy—and indeed whether such a policy exists”. Link to the report here.

Back to the future

Philip Hammond, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, hosted a summit on January 22nd of 21 of the 60 countries contributing effort to defeat Da’ish, the increasingly used term to better describe the group also known as IS (see here). Coordination of the international campaign is sorely needed. For one thing, Britain’s military involvement is primarily from the air. Given limited political appetite for boots on the ground after the recent campaigns this decision is understandable. But it is also a glaring strategic mistake.

As operations in Afghanistan wound down towards the end of 2014, Britain’s Royal Air Force shifted the focus back to Iraq.  Tornado aircraft started interdicting Da’ish in October, with Reaper remotely piloted air systems (RPAS, or drones) commencing operations on November 10th.  The tempo did not slow over Christmas and, according to figures released by the British government here, has increased throughout January.

We have been here before. After the first Gulf War in 1991 the imposition over Iraq of the northern and southern No-Fly Zones by America, Britain and France was expected to lead to the fall of Saddam Hussein. They achieved nothing of the sort.  A Top Secret document (see here) from December 2001, declassified in 2011, between the office of Sir Richard Dearlove, then Chief of Britain’s overseas spy agency the Secret Intelligence Service (also known as MI6) and Sir David Manning (then foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair) states: ‘Regimes have compromised with Baghdad (sanctions busting) for gain because they see no prospect of effective action to remove Saddam’.

‘No prospect of effective action’ neatly describes how air power alone cannot dictate events on the ground. Supporters of the current strategy in Iraq see the Kurdish Peshmerga forces as the ground element; capable to a degree the marsh Arabs and others that rose up against Saddam after the 1991 Iraq war never were.  They will also point to the current efforts to expand the Iraqi army and reduce their reliance on shia militias (or ‘volunteers’ as Iraq’s Human Rights Minister told me here.) They might be right, but basing a military strategy on such imponderables is a bold step.

There is another, arguably more worrying, lesson from the No-Fly Zones. Committing combat forces is about as serious a decision a state can take. There is no room for getting it wrong, and victory, however weakly defined, is a must. The No-Fly Zones became a strategy in their own right and the longer they endured the higher were the stakes.  To withdraw the forces would have been to embolden Saddam and he would have claimed, rightly, to have seen off another attack.  But in the absence of a definitive outcome (and with no UN resolution backing the action) the three Western powers had a choice: commit to a costly and never-ending military campaign, or force  a conclusion.  Starting military action without knowing how to end it is not a strategy and it rarely ends well.

Da’ish are unhindered by the line on the map beyond which Britain has decided it will not act (although other Coalition members take a different view). A strategy with no clear link to an end-state and a fragile relationship with a largely-unknown ground force may succeed.  But history suggests it won’t.  And when it fails, it fails explosively.

Morals and dilemmas

Mohammad_Mehdi_Al_BayatiAs introductions go, Mohammed Mahdi al-Bayati’s takes some beating.  Described by his media consultant as “the person with the worst job in global politics”, Iraq’s minister for human rights carries his burden with grace.  Mr Bayati, 52, an ethnic Turkmen, is a former foe of Saddam Hussein and still carries the physical scars of his efforts.  The moral compass employed by many western societies who view decisions in black and white terms does not work for Mr Bayati.  By necessity he inhabits a morally-grey world, wrestling daily with choices the likes of which will trouble mercifully few of us in our lifetimes.

Take for example what he describes as the most shocking moment of his time in office.  He talks of a 13-year-old Yazidi girl whose seven family members had been killed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, now commonly called Islamic State, or IS).  Kidnapped and repeatedly raped she was sold for $4000 US at a people-trafficking market held weekly in ISIL-controlled Mosul, Iraq’s second city.  Through his office Mr Bayati supported the girl’s purchase and continues to endorse the purchase of of other women and girls.  Does that encourage the kidnappers? “If you don’t buy for release,” he suggests, “they will be slaves.”  In the absence of a military or (highly unlikely) political solution to the problem of ISIL, moral pragmatism such as this has to suffice.

Or take his attitude towards the use of shia militias. These volunteers, as Mr Bayati prefers to call them, are critical to Baghdad’s fight against ISIL. But there are inevitable problems. They have been widely blamed for abuses and for the inflammation of the sectarian tensions that pushed the sunni community to support ISIL in the first place.  The Iraqi military is able to exert only tenuous control. “They are not necessarily well-trained, and yes, they will make mistakes,” Mr Bayati says.  “But if they are not used, then ISIL will control the whole of Iraq.”

The use of the death penalty, reinstated in 2004, is another controversial area. A recent United Nations report said that death sentences have been passed based on evidence from disputed confessions or secret informants, and that some defendants saw a defence attorney for the first time only when they arrived in court.  The Iraqi government says it is unfair to expect the same standards of due process from a country that is, effectively, in a state of civil war. It is also, Mr Bayati says, a deterrent to any foreign fighters heading to Iraq: “If they hear the news that we have stopped the death penalty, the whole world will come to Iraq to fight,” he said. Furthermore, when asked about an amnesty for ISIL fighters on death row Mr Bayati is uncompromising, perhaps because he has a domestic audience to consider: “How about an amnesty for all those already put in their graves by terrorists?” he said. “There are thousands of orphans, and many MPs and officials killed. These people should have a day in court too.”

Choices and dilemmas. Buy the girl? Use the militia? Reinstate the death penalty? It is extremely hard to bring an unwavering moral line to these issues. Much discourse in the western world is couched in zero-sum absolutism as politicians take ethical lumps out of each other, spurred on by an increasingly uncompromising public. If only the choices were that easy.