Friday, June 30, 2006

Elections 2006 and Hamdan v. Rumsfeld

Having spent the morning looking at legal analysis of the implications of the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, I thought I’d offer some political analysis – particularly from the perspective of how this will affect the November 2006 elections in the U.S. The short take is this:

The fate of the GITMO prisoners does not impact the elections, but Senators Frist and Graham have already said they would work with the White House to introduce legislation to allow military tribunals to be used (the door left open by the Supreme Court). This legislation is certain to include spurious language about acting to protect American citizens in the fight against terrorists and Al-Qaeda etc., thereby making it difficult for Representatives or Senators to vote against the bill in an election year; the attack ads would be too easy: ‘Senator X voted to protect terrorists rights and risked the lives of American citizens.’ I hope it doesn’t come to that, but at the moment it looks like that is exactly what will happen.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Thanks to Phil at Finland for Thought for the shout, and hello to any Finland for Thought readers who have surfed over here. We're not nearly as good at being controversial as Phil but hopefully if you drop by once in a while you might find something that will interest you.

Toby and Charly.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Helsinki vs. Slough

Listening to the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 as I was leaving the house this morning, I caught a report on how Slough (pronounced to rhyme with "cow") Borough Council is having its services stretched to breaking point by the recent arrival of large numbers of legal immigrants from the new EU members - the report mentioned in particular Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Whilst obviously problematic for Slough, I can’t help feeling a certain amount of Schadenfreude. Finland, like many of the other EU-15 (the older EU members) introduced restrictions on the free movement of labour from the new EU members when they joined two years ago – the so-called “transition periods”. Germany led this move, being worried that it would be deluged by Poles willing to work for lower wages. As someone who has made full use of my right to move from home country to another EU country to work and live, I feel this was fundamentally wrong: telling my fellow EU citizens from Eastern Europe that they were actually second-class citizens. Due to this I was relatively proud that the UK was one of the few old member who immediately opened their doors to migrant workers from the new member-states (the others that I know for sure were Ireland and Sweden – apologies if I have forgotten anyone else).

The fear in Finland was that Estonians, who speak a not dissimilar language and many of whom “know” Finland to some degree, would flock to the country and putting pressure on an already tight employment situation. At the time I argued that at least with young people they would be far more attracted to the bright lights of the big cities of metropolitan Europe – be that London, Berlin or Paris – rather than Helsinki, which – despite being an exceedingly civilised place to live – remains a rather provincial and dull place in comparison to vibrant, edgy, multicultural madness of a European megalopolis. Finland has now sensibly dropped its “transition period” but does not appear to be overwhelmed by Estonians, Hungarians, Poles, or anyone else. Unlike Slough.

For anyone who has been to (or more likely – through) Slough, this is darkly amusing. Slough is most famous for being the subject of John Betjeman’s famous poem "Slough":

Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn't fit for humans now,
There isn't grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!

In more recent times its fame has increased by being the home town of David Brent of “The Office” fame; and the equally fictional Ali G comes from just down the road in Staines.

When Finland debated in the early 1990s whether it should join the EU one of the anti- arguments was that if the country did join Germans would swoop in and buy up all the lake-front summer cottages. When I first arrived in Finland in the mid-1990s the projected German summer cottage invasion had not occurred and there was definitely a 'slightly miffed' feeling in the press, along the lines of “so what’s wrong with our beautiful lakes and cottages?” I do hope that Slough Council receives some additional assistance from central government to help them integrate the new arrivals and that Slough only benefits from its new Baltic residents. I’m sure Slough, despite all the jokes, is an interesting, diverse and pleasent town. And it appears that David Brent beats Helsinki every time.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Of Pirates and Terrorists

Over three years ago in Washington I interviewed Bruce Hoffman of the RAND corporation - one of the worlds leading academic researchers on terrorism and political violence. He said already then - less than a year and a half after 9/11 - that it is better to think of al-Qaeda as an ideology than as a movement. This is something that all my research since has not led me to question. Rather, three years on its seems to be even more the case.

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast of Open Source discussing Iraq and al-Qaeda after Zarqawi and one of the guests, Lawrence Wright of the New Yorker (and author of an excellent article on Ayman al-Zawahiri), made an almost throwaway yet brilliant comment. He said:
"[Al Qaeda] is like a pirate flag; anybody can run it up, you can just call yourself Al Qaeda. I think that Zarqawi was the last one who formally went through the motions of saying ‘can I join this organization?’"

I would still say that Dr. Hoffman was/is correct - except for one of the most noticeable things about al-Qaeda is its lack of an identifiable political ideology in the sense that the western world has become used to various "-isms". Bin Laden has always had concrete political aims, as analysts like Michael Scheuer (formerly of the CIA, now at the Jamestown Foundation) have tried to point out to particularly the American media which seems far more interested in describing it as nihilistic violence. There is an ideology behind the Salafi-Jihadi violence we have seen from London to Bali but it is defuse, vague, and often couched in language and terminology designed to appeal to al-Qaeda's core audience. It is also flexible enough to be adaptable to local specificities. We should attempt to understand it but this is by no means a straightforward task.

In this sense, the Jolly Roger is a superb analogy that brings home what al-Qaeda is to a non-specialist audience with real clarity. In the days of the pirates there did not have to be links between different pirate crews or commanders, yet when a merchant vessel saw the skull and crossbones flying from an approaching ship anywhere in the world they knew exactly what to expect. We should no longer fetishize "links" to try and prove that Mr. X arrested for a bomb plot in so-and-so western city once met master-terrorist Abu al-Y who was last seen hiding from American predators drones in the hills of South Waziristan - that's for the police and intelligence agencies to work out. If Mr. X and his mates in Leeds, or Toronoto, or Lille think they are doing global jihad for al-Qaeda, they are al-Qaeda - links or no links.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Racism and Northern Irish "Loyalism"

I'm currently in the UK so this a UK-themed post. I used to live in Glasgow and when I turned up there as a "hayseed" English country boy, off to uni in the big city, I knew absolutely nothing about the Scottish spillover of Northern Irish sectarian/football politics. Only when I asked my Glaswegian summer-job colleagues who these noisy blokes, with their flutes and drums, were marching past the end of my street each summer weekend morning, did they explain to me that Glasgow also has Orange marches. The graffiti on the toilet walls in the University library was a further education in Scottish sectarian hatred (I was always oddly pleased that scrawlings in the bogs on the social science and philosophy floors of the library weren't quite as unpleasent - further evidence that social science is clearly good for people). One of my tutors was involved in anti-racist organising in the city and told me how right-wing extremist groups like C18 were recruiting amongst Rangers fans (for those who don't know Northern Irish/Scottish politics, Rangers is the Glasgow football club idenified with Protestantism and the Loyalists in Northern Ireland; as opposed to Celtic which is a Catholic club and hence seen as sympathetic to the Republicans in NI)- as she put it "they start by hating the Catholics, they move on to hating the Jews and end up with hating all blacks."

In this context this story from early this last week about the linkage between increasing racist attacks in NI and Loyalist paramilitaries (read - "psychopathic gangster thugs") is hardly suprising although it is still depressing. Hence the story from later in the week about Loyalists yet again trying to kill each other makes you wonder as to whether there is some type of cosmic-justice after all.