Tackling ISIS: Where Do We Go From Here?

François_Hollande_-_Janvier_2012The IS attack on France has sent shockwaves around the world. The appetite for decisive action against ISIS is at a record high, and yet there is no clear consensus on what should be done. Here’s your chance to have your say on the key issues. Click on the link below to join the debate

Source: Tackling ISIS: Where Do We Go From Here?

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The First GOP Debate: A Bemused Englishman Reacts

As someone who watched every single one of the recent debates leading up to the General Election in the UK, I like to consider myself something of a connoisseur of political debate. As such I sat down at 2 am last night to watch the first Republican debate of the season with a sense of exhausted anticipation, eagerly looking forward to a step away from the banal non-debates we managed to have in my own country.

And boy, did I get that. Nothing, though could have prepared me for quite how distinct an experience watching this spectacle was going to be. Before the candidates even came out from behind their curtain I realised this was going to be a completely different animal.

The Spectacle

It wasn’t just the venue, a sold-out stadium in Cleveland obviously trumps a 200-seater BBC studio, but it was the people that filled it. Within the first five minutes of the show, there were perhaps three solid minutes of cheering, whooping and hollering as the candidates were introduced. And it wasn’t just one candidate, but every single one of them. Yes, even Ted Cruz got raucous applause. Think about that for a second.

Unsurprisingly the debate opened with Trump, who is apparently both a real person and ahead in the polls, throwing a spanner in the works by saying that if he didn’t win the Republican nomination then he couldn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t run as an independent candidate. Theatre at its finest, as the boos rang in from the audience, and the other candidates accusing him of pre-emptively supporting Hillary Clinton if he didn’t win. All this was merely an appetiser for the main event, which finally kicked off when Megyn Kelly asked Trump about his sexist comments, which can be found here by the way.

Trump responded predictably, further convincing me that he is Nigel Farage in a fat suit with a bad toupee, by saying that he says what he says and he doesn’t ‘have time for political correctness’ and casually threatening Ms Kelly that he wouldn’t be so nice to her in future. Cue whoops and cheers from the baying audience.

And this is where the true difference between debate in the UK and the US lies. As I realised very quickly, if you say something ridiculous and non-fact based in a US debate, there will be at least a portion of your audience that will vocally agree with you, whereas in the UK a hushed, embarrassed silence tends to descend over what little audience there is, as even those who agree are too ashamed to vocalise it. Hence why we get all the talk of ‘shy Tories’ over here.

The Descent to Farce

It quickly became obvious that ten people was far too many for one debate, as some candidates had to wait far longer than reasonable to speak. Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who, ironically, appeared to be talking about stealing people’s brains to better understand foreign policy, legitimately only said one thing in the first 45 minutes of the debate, while Trump, Christie, Cruz and others took up much greater air time puffing their chests out and talking about how they were different to Obama. Mr Trump even had the audacity to claim that, before he came along, nobody talked about immigration, which is ridiculous to the point of nonsense.

And the nonsense did not end there, not by any means. Other highlights included Ted Cruz claiming Obama should be more like Egypt’s notorious human rights’ abuser Abdel el-Sisi, while Rand Paul said he would collect phone records from terrorists and nobody else, before basically shouting ‘listen to me everybody, I’m still relevant, I’m still relevant’ as the more refined candidates left him in the dust.

We were then treated to Mike Huckabee saying that the military is to ‘kill things and break stuff’ and not some social experiment for transgender people, before they all spouted off about what women should and shouldn’t do with their bodies. We also had a bizarre version of the famous Monty Python ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch where each of the candidates talked passionately about their upbringing while subtly implying they’d had it harder than everyone else on the stage.

The final straw in terms of farce though, came at the end, when the candidates were legitimately asked if God had given them any advice as to what they should do on their first day. I have no words for my reaction to this, other than that obviously God should have absolutely no place in the political debate of a supposedly secular country, and the rather amusing fact that they didn’t let Trump speak on it, because presumably even God fears what The Donald might say about him.

The Serious Talking Points

Amidst the ridicule there were certain enlightening points of the debate, the Iran deal in particular, as well as the fact that Hillary Clinton was perhaps the single most mentioned name on the night. The candidates are clearly worried about her and spent much of the evening talking about how incompetent she would be, without doing anything solid to back it up. Of course, they also talked about taxes a lot, and there was more talk of red and black than you’d find even in your average Stendhal novel.

Amidst all the farce and the intrigue, though, there were a couple of important political moments that were conspicuous by their near-absence. I suppose we should be thankful that gay marriage and race relations in the US even made it into the debate, but the fact that former was restricted to two short questions, and the latter was limited to the one black candidate being asked a deflectable question five minutes before the end does stick in the craw a little. These are incredibly important, relevant and current issues, and the fact they were just glossed over makes one worry slightly for their potential future under the GOP.

The debate was such a mishmash of comings and goings that it is almost impossible to sum up easily. It is too early, I think, to say that anyone won, but I would go as far as saying Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and even Rand Paul are now fairly firmly out of the running. Trump dominated, with almost twice as much air time as some of the candidates, while Jeb Bush and John Kasich also performed relatively well on the night, coming across as the more sober, sensible candidates, though whether that is a good thing for the GOP voters or not remains to be seen. All I know is, I eagerly anticipate the next one, while hoping fervently that the Democratic campaign does not stutter and make this a close race.

Cover photo via Vox

This post originally appeared on Tremr, which you should all definitely check out!

Mob Mentality: A Brief History of The Mafia

Last week Trevor McDonald attempted the impossible; to shed light on the current state of the Mafia in America without taking into account the complex history of the organisation. The show, rather self-explanatorily titled ‘The Mafia with Trevor McDonald’ largely failed as an exercise, but that is perhaps more to do with the direction that was taken within the programme itself.

McDonald could have made an interesting exposition of the history of the mob from Sicily to America, tracking the rise in the late 19th century to its more recent fall from grace. Instead, however, it became a rather banal two hours of watching what felt like the same five minute interview over and over again, feeling like a circle of Dante’s infamous inferno. Abandon hope all ye who enter beyond the first five minutes, it gets no better.

It did, however, get me thinking about the cultural power of the Mafia, and how little we actually know about the inner workings of the gang. Sure, we have The Godfather, The Sopranos and Goodfellas as our pop-culture reference points but how accurate are they really? So I thought it would be a good excuse to dive into the history of the group, from its origins in Sicily to its more famous American cousin. In order to give a brief background to this, I am going to ignore the offshoots that have appropriated the name mafia in other countries such as Russia and China, and focus solely on the rise and fall of the organised crime unit that began in Italy and slowly planted its roots across the Atlantic.

The Italian Origins

So how did it all come about? Myths abound about where the Mafia came from, but it all probably started a lot more recently than you think. Despite various sources claiming it comes from the times of Arabic occupation of Sicily and the feudal system that was created because of that, actual evidence of the Mafia’s activities cannot be traced until the mid 1800s, just after the forced unification of Italy by Garibaldi.

According to John Dickie’s excellent book ‘Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia‘ the now eponymous crime organisation actually began in a somewhat unexpected place; the citrus groves of the Italian island. According to Dickie, by ‘the mid-1880s an astonishing 2.5 million cases of Italian citrus fruit arrived in New York each year, most of them from Palermo’.

This burgeoning industry required an incredible amount of start-up capital, but could make you rich if you spent your money right. This, however, created the ideal setting for the mob to hone their now famous intimidation tactics. To quote Dickie again:

‘As well as being investment intensive, lemon trees are also highly vulnerable. Even a short interruption to water supplies can be devastating. Vandalism, whether directed at the trees or the fruit, is a constant risk. It was the combination of vulnerability and high profit that created the perfect environment for the mafia’s protection rackets.’

So, the most famous criminal fraternity in the world has its roots in intimidating extremely wealthy lemon farmers in the late 19th century. Hardly the first image that springs to mind when you hear the word mafioso now is it?

Of course, the Cosa Nostra has moved on a little since those days, and we are principally aware of it because of the pop-culture influence it had during the late 70s through to the late 90s. From Scarface (loosely based on Al Capone) to The Sopranas, we are lucky to an abundance of riches in mob figures taking over our screens, but of course these principally focus on the American arm of the infamous mob, so how exactly did what started as a small but successful profiteering racket manage to make the leap across and ultimately have such a huge influence on the organised crime of the world’s most powerful democracy?

The Transatlantic Leap

The short and honest answer is basically immigration. From the 1870s onwards, America, and particularly New York, saw huge waves of immigration from Italy, some of whom were inevitably ‘men of honour’ who had had some exposure to the Mafia lifestyle in Sicily. This led to the establishment of the prototype for the American arm of the mob, the Five Points Gang, by Paolo Antonio Vaccarelli. This gang would be the making of some of the most famous names in Mafia folklore, from Al Capone to Charles Luciano, and was the foundation upon which the pyramids would later be built.

Luciano got his start in the Five Points Gang
Luciano got his start in the Five Points Gang

The American Mafia’s true period of success, however, came during America’s bizarre experiment with the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s. A fresh wave of Italians showed up, fleeing Mussolini’s Italy, and joined forces with their Mafia brethren that were already settled in the States. Together they created a huge industry of illegal alcohol production and bootlegging, and established themselves as the most powerful organised crime network in the country, finally overpowering their Irish-American rivals in a long-running battle that ended in Capone ordering the now notorious Valentine’s day massacre in 1929. This marked the beginning of Mafia domination that was to last decades.

For 50 years following Prohibition, the mafia had a hand in most industries of which you could think. After alcohol was made legal once more in 1933, they had to branch out into more traditional money making roots in order to keep the healthy profits they had accrued in those years, and they began getting involved with things as wide ranging as construction and drug trafficking to go along with their traditional racketeering, and thus they were cemented as easily the most successful crime syndicate in the country.

The Fall

The mafias true power, though, came from its mix of intimidation and influence, which allowed its code of silence, the famous omertà, to remain functional. Part of the success of the American Mafia was that anyone that was caught committing illegal activity knew they had a better chance serving their time  in prison than they had if they broke the code. Traitors were murdered in cold blood, while those who co-operated with the families’ wishes found key witnesses in their cases disappearing or refusing to testify, while those who did end up in jail always had their families looked after while they were away.

However, this could only last so long before the police began to offer better deals than even the Mafia could offer, and everything came crashing down in 1992 with the conviction of ‘Teflon Don’ John Gotti, head of New York’s Gambino crime family. Gotti had previously been acquitted in a number of high profile trials, hence his name – nobody could make anything stick to him.

The Teflon Don before his conviction
The Teflon Don before his conviction

This all changed in 1992, when Gotti’s former underboss Sammy Gravano agreed to testify against him, based on the fact that Gotti was looking to blame the family’s violent nature on Gravano. The FBI offered him protection to pin it on Gotti, with whom the blame lay, and the rest, as they say, is history. The illusion was shattered, and since then an increasing number of pentiti (former mafia men turned informants) emerged from the woodwork and undermined the power of the organisation by showing the authorities how it all worked.

This isn’t to say the Mafia has disappeared of course, only that now they hold significantly less sway than they once did, but they are still certainly alive and well, if perhaps not in the way we think of them in the movies. One thing McDonald’s documentary did do was shatter that illusion. Most men he interviewed were street level thugs in hoodies, hardly the suit wearing, fedora-tipping, gun-toting mobsters of our imaginations.

So there we have it, a very brief history of the development of the mafia from Sicily to the present day. It is far from comprehensive, of course, but I can only hope that it provides some context to any of you who saw the ITV documentary, or indeed have a passing interest in the subject. There are a number of fascinating longer histories of the subject out there, and the works of Mario Puzo are an excellent introduction to the genre, but if you want a more scholarly approach then I would certainly recommend John Dickie as a starting point, who himself gives an extensive bibliography of works worth reading on the subject for those interested in further reading.

German-Greek War Reparations: The Story So Far

Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Greek’s incumbent Syriza party, is no stranger to populism in his own country, but even he may be surprised by the reaction within Germany to his latest demand. Last week, Tsipras re-opened the debate regarding the (non-)payment of war reparations by Germany in the wake of World War II, and, perhaps to the surprise of some, the claim has received a significant amount of support within Germany itself. But a number of questions remain only superficially answered amongst general reports on the issue. Precisely, what is it that Greece want? What is the debate over it in Germany? And perhaps most importantly, what are the implications?

Before we get going on the current stuff it’s probably best to just recap what all these arguments are about. The Axis powers occupied Greece from April 1941 to October 1944, during which time thousands died of starvation and extermination, as well as vital infrastructures being destroyed. Since then, Germany has paid reparations a couple of times, with a voluntary payment of 115 million Marks in 1960, followed by the so-called ‘Two-Plus-Four’ treaty in 1990, in which Germany ‘finalised’ its reparations with the four main allied powers; the U.S., the U.K., The Soviet Union, and France. Now that the historical detail is out of the way, let’s get our teeth into what’s happening now.

What Greece Want

Let’s start by looking at what Mr Tsipras has actually said. A full translated transcript of the speech, which was given to the Parliamentary Committee for the Claiming of German Reparations can be found here by The Greek Analyst, but there are several notable points to be taken out. Firstly, as you might expect from a leader such as Tsipras, the speech itself has its basis in demagoguery, starting off with that old rhetorical chestnut of asking the following.

‘What country, what people can have a future if it does not honour its history and its struggles? What people can move forward, erasing the collective memory and leaving historically unjustified its struggles and sacrifices?’.

Hardly a surprising angle to take, and certainly nothing new, but it does not mean that he does not make some pertinent points. By acknowledging the legitimacy of the London treaty, which wrote off the German WW1 reparations that helped to spark WW2, he avoids giving the impression that this is merely an unlikely money-grabbing scheme, and actually makes his case all the stronger. Tsipras furthers this by claiming that the Bilateral Agreement of 1960, in which the Germans paid 115 million Marks, ‘did not have to do with the damages that involved the damages suffered by the country, but with the reparations to the victims of Nazism in Greece’. He plays a clever game of admitting that some reparations have indeed been paid, but only a limited amount, and not to the state itself, but rather to the people who were made to suffer.

So what does he actually hope to gain from this tactic? Well, by claiming that the 115 million Marks paid during the Bilateral Agreement was merely reparations to those who suffered at the hands of Nazism, he leaves the road open to reclaim the money he says is due to Greece for the ‘almost-complete destruction of the infrastructure of the country, and the destruction of the economy during the war and the Occupation’ along with the so-called ‘Occupation Loan’, which alone totalled around €8 billion in today’s money. In total then, Mr Tsipras is attempting to claim back as much as €170 billion by basing his case on the fact that Greece never recovered from the Occupation and was left behind by Europe and Germany for that reason. Given the fallout over the proposed restructuring of Greece’s €260 billion bailout, this is hardly an insignificant amount and is bound to have turned a few heads, particularly given the threat to seize German assets in Greece if the demand is ignored.

The View from Germany

In perhaps a surprising twist, the claims have received some significant support in Berlin. Senior Social Democrat officials such as Gesine Schwan and Ralf Stegner have spoken on the subject, with the former claiming that ‘it’s a mater of recognising that we committed terrible crimes against Greece’.

The situation remains a delicate one, however, as Germany has previously refused to respond to war reparations requests since the signing of the ‘Two-Plus-Four’ treaty in 1990. As such any response to Greece could cause a potential domino effect, with any number of countries perhaps using it as a precedent to claim their own reparations, particularly those countries of Eastern Europe such as Poland that suffered most under Nazi occupation and had no real say in the signing of the treaty due to being part of the Soviet Union until after the treaty was signed. This could cause issues not only economically but also politically as the past is dragged into the light once again and old wounds are torn open once again after decades of silence.

What Will Happen

This still remains anyone’s guess really, but Germany have been growing increasingly impatient with Greece over their recent economic manoeuvring, and this claim will not aid that, despite the support it has garnered among some politicians. Reparations have always been a tricky issue, and the number may be seen to be too close to the bailout negotiation amount to be taken as seriously as it perhaps otherwise might have been.

The official response from the office of Ms Merkel this week re-iterated their previous position that war reparations were not open to re-negotiation, but it is certainly a debate that deserves to be had, and how it plays out may well have a huge effect on the future of Europe itself. This would be particularly true if there is any ruling that Germany does still in fact owe reparation money, which could well result in a scramble of claims to follow Greece’s example. Either way, it will certainly be an interesting few months for German-Greek relations, and it will remain one to watch as long as Mr Tsipras is in power.

N.B. This post originally appeared on http://www.tremr.com

The View from Brazil: The Reaction to the Petrobras scandal.

The Background

The last month has been an interesting one for Brazil and its economy, if by interesting we may also imply the institutionalised corruption that has lasted decades which has recently been revealed in the country. For those who are unfamiliar with the situation, Petrobras, the state-owned former jewel of the emerging Brazilian economy, has been embroiled in a ‘kickback for contracts’ scandal after a former manager of the company, Pedro Barusco, told the country’s congress of the ‘institutionalised corruption’ that had been taking place. In fact, the scandal has become so bad that it has now expanded to implicate as many as 57 politicians. 

Now, this has all been fairly widely reported in the past few days, but there was something that struck me about the coverage. The fact is, probably largely for logistical reasons, rarely do we get an accurate picture of public opinion in the country where these momentous events take place, so I am here to change that. I would like to offer a brief breakdown of what Brazilian journalists have been saying of the events, rather than making sweeping claims on what the Brazilian populace feels about its politicians’ corruption, so if you would like to come on that journey with me, then read on, dear reader, read on.

Political Reaction

The first thing to say is that, whilst there has been some support for Dilma Rousseff herself, the general reaction has unsurprisingly been overwhelmingly negative. Ms Rousseff, the current President of the country, headed Petrobras for seven years and, while her name has not been directly linked to the scandal, there have been many questioning her leadership credentials, given that she has overseen both of the major parties involved in the corruption.

Journalists have at times been savage in their criticism of both Ms Rousseff and her government. José Neumanne, writing for the Estadão newspaper, lambasted her for her weak speech following the breaking of the news, saying ‘to ask for patience from a public that has only heard self-indulgent lies from her cannot fail to sound foolish, useless, arrogant and alienated’.

Strong language indeed, but he was not even the most vocal of her critics, the title of which goes to fellow Estadão writer Fernão Lara Mesquita who categorises Ms Rousseff as a farcical, incompetent, ‘supreme-leader’ type with delusions of grandeur. But he does not stop at criticism of Rousseff, going on to lament the whole political system in the country, saying that ‘those who play the political game must always be reminded who is in charge of whom – “Of the people for the people and by the people”‘.

Perhaps most significantly of all he questions the actual democratic nature of his country by claiming that you cannot call Brazil a democracy ‘without putting quotation marks around it’. Mesquita’s  opinion and tone have been echoed by many, and a number of people have called for the impeachment of Ms Rousseff less than 12 months after she won the presidency once more, with mass protests planned for this weekend.

Economic Impact

It is fair to say then, that politically this is one of the worst scandals to have hit South America in decades, but we must also not underestimate the economic impact of these events. It has been a widely held view that Brazil’s economy, which had appeared to be one of the rising stars in the world theatre, has stalled in recent years, and many commenters have linked this to the mistrust caused by the poor management of the state-owned oil company.

Fernanda Guimarães wrote soon after the news broke that ‘the poor governance of Petrobras was responsible for the exit of investors in all of Brazil’s economy’, while Míriam Leitão wrote in O Globo that the Petrobras situation was a tumour, and that ‘the economy is paralysed while Petrobras completes the surgery that it is having to go through’, which has implications for Brazilian business at every level.

Conclusion

Commenters then, have not held back their disgust at the way the news has affected their country, with wide-ranging economic and political criticism emerging as the scandal widens. It will undoubtedly have a huge effect on Brazil for many years to come. It remains to be seen how this will affect Dilma Rousseff’s presidency, or even if she will manage to hold on to her recently re-acquired power as more and more bad news emerges from the woodwork. What is certain, however, is that the words of Míriam Leitão offer the most poignancy here. Yes, it is a horrific abuse of power by those involved, and they should be summarily and swiftly dealt with, but the important thing for Brazil is to get its economy back up and running. To do this it is vital to find where Petrobras went wrong, fix the problem and make sure it never happens again. Easier said than done, of course, but we can only live in hope that this will be a learning experience, and that this will remain the biggest corruption scandal in South America for many, many years to come.

N.B. All Brazilian opinions were originally written in Portuguese, and the translations are my own. This post originally appeared on http://www.tremr.com

Why I’m sick of news ‘stories’: A rant on media narrative obsession

It’s fairly obvious that sensationalism sells. How else do you explain the otherwise baffling popularity of some of this country’s most popular ‘news’ sources? This should not be, however, an excuse for sensationalising every detail of every single news item, which I shall refuse to refer to as ‘stories’ so as not to perpetuate the practice. In this age of 24-hour news cycles, every factual detail is poured over until there is nothing new to say, so extra irrelevant detail must be added, and it seriously detracts from the quality of the news being reported.

ISIS

This feeling is brought on specifically by the treatment of Mohammed Emwazi, the ISIS-affiliated murderer who was recently unmasked by The Washington Post. Most media outlets have continued to use the nickname that they gave him before his identity was known, in order to continue the narrative that they have spent months working on building – that of ‘Jihadi John’. This is not only factually misleading (if you know his real name, use it!) but also disrespectful to the man’s victims. It perpetuates the myth that he is fighting for a cause that people may want to join rather than being the sadistic snuff video participator that he is. It’s akin to calling Osama bin Laden ‘Crazy Uncle Ozzy’ and not expecting it to have an effect on the way people perceive the news. Frankly, journalists should know better, they should be aware of the power words can have over people and should be more careful how they use them. This refusal to exclusively use his real name in many stories, along with the excess of useless information that have hit the headlines this past week, have served to do nothing more than to add to his personal narrative. What does the fact that his family may have claimed benefits in the UK, or whom his brother liked on Facebook, or interviews on national media with people who have met him in passing once three years ago have to do with what is going on in Syria? Absolutely nothing, and yet there they all are, helping to add to his fame, whilst even the names of his victims, who were, for the most part, trying to do good in the region, are slowly forgotten. I wonder how many people could name any of those killed right now without looking it up? My guess would be not many, and that is the real tragedy, and a consequence of how our attitude to news functions.

Cliff Richard

Not necessarily the first pairing that you might think of in an article like this, but bear with me. For it is not only the tabloids that suffer from this over-eagerness to cultivate a story where there may not be one. Even our dear BBC has been guilty of this. Take the raiding of Cliff Richard‘s home as part of the national paedophilia scandal in August of last year. Now, whether Richard is guilty or not, and he is yet to be arrested or charged, it is, in my view, not the role of any news organisation to film the first police raid of a property when the alleged criminal is not there to defend themselves. Facts should be reported, not speculation. This was trial by media in the crudest sense, and should not be considered a proud moment in the organisation’s history. Let’s be clear once more, this is the BBC we’re talking about- a national institution, not some throwaway tabloid. To make matters worse, this non-story took up the first ten minutes of a half-hour news programme on what was far from a slow news day, with Ukraine and ISIS massacres also featuring prominently. The segment included a bizarre cut-away to Portugal, where Richards had been the day before the incident took place, where the same speculation was repeated, once again with no factual evidence to back it up. Now, I’m all for journalistic investigations outing potential criminals, but there are proper channels for this process. To the Washington Post’s credit, we saw this in action with the unmasking of Mohammed Emwazi. Should these processes not be pursued fully before the information is launched, unfinished and unrefined into the public domain, all in pursuit of those mythical ratings? The answer would appear obvious, and yet it continues to happen.

Conclusion

I don’t know if journalism has ever not been this way, if the irrelevant stories of the past have just been lost through natural processes without any means to record them. Now, however, in the age of the Internet and rolling 24-hour news, there must be even more of a conscious effort to avoid sensationalism. Yes, we know it sells the papers in a declining industry, but it does not mean you have to make everything into a narrative for weeks on end. If all news organisations began to report only the facts, and have sensible, reasoned discussions about the topics of the day, then I for one would be much happier, and that is one paper I would certainly buy. N.B. -This post is an adaptation of a previous post ‘The Trivialisation of a Cold Blooded Killer’ and appeared first in this form on http://www.tremr.com

Ahmed al-Tayeb has good intentions, but it will prove futile.

On 22 February, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, of Cairo’s prestigious al-Azhar university (Egypt’s leading centre of Islamic scholarship) denounced misinterpretation of the Quran as a justification for violence, as per the BBC.

This is a positive gesture, and may begin to assuage the doubts of the veritable legion of commenters that demand that the so-called ‘moderate’ Muslims apologise every time an act of terror is committed. The question that remains, however, is to ask whether this is actually a meaningful statement, or whether it is merely an ideological standpoint that will make very little difference in real world terms.

Unfortunately, I fear it will be the latter.

The problem is the following. Sheikh al-Tayeb claims that people are misinterpreting the religion’s Holy Book and thus using it to justify violence. This is all very well and good as an opinion, but that is all that it can ever be. Despite his prominence as a cleric, al-Tayeb can never be the defining voice of Islam, nor force his own interpretation upon others.

The Quran, as with the Bible and countless other religious texts, as you might expect from a tome written before equality or human rights had begun developing as ideas, contains episodes of violence, episodes that can fairly easily be manipulated to aid the cause of dissenting voices. And who’s to say that they are wrong? Who’s to say that the most unpopular and violent explanation is not the correct interpretation of the texts? Unsavoury, but a possibility. There is not, and can never be, an ultimate authority on the text, because God, or Allah, or Yahweh, or whatever author of whichever Holy Book you believe in has never made himself known and clarified the textual ambiguities.

Islam itself, as hinted at by the latter parts of the report on Sheikh al-Tayeb’s speech, sees itself as a ‘nation’ in a way that no other religion does since talk of ‘Christendom’ ended in the 20th century. Islam is a religion that wants to politicise and disseminate its own views, and whether that is by violence or by dialogue remains very much in the eyes of the interpreter. Ibn Khaldun, a prominent medieval Islamic philosopher certainly believed this, writing “in the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force” (via the Berkeley center). There have been enough justifications for violence over the years that it is now useless to pretend that they do not exist.

The point is it is hardly the first time that a celebrated Muslim scholar has spoken out about the importance of distancing Islam from violence. Both Afifi al-Akiti and Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri have in the past issued fatwas claiming the lack of a religious basis for violence of any kind. These haven’t worked, as shown by the rise of ISIL and Boko Haram, so why should Sheikh al-Tayeb’s voice make the slightest bit of difference?

The problem is mainly a political one, with insurgents linking religion to their political aims and then using it to retrospectively justify their actions, as well as to attract others to their cause. Whether this is a misinterpretation of the texts or not is open to debate, but it is hardly the first time we have heard the argument that it is. It is impossible to keep textual interpretation uniform, and as such there will always be some loophole available to justify heinous acts. Let us not forget that the Bible was used to justify slavery and racial discrimination for hundreds of years.

Al-Tayeb’s assertion is a welcome one in principle, but ultimately will prove to be an insignificant one. It is the nature of the beast that it is impossible to control how people define their own interpretation of religion, and it will always be possible for young dissidents to fall in with the wrong crowd and be regaled with tales of a religiously justified war, and that will be difficult to change unless some form of unified position on Islam can be made available, which seems highly unlikely at this stage, particularly given the ongoing dispute between Sunni and Shia factions that has been raging for centuries.