War? Well, not really…

WarLast week (29 June) UK Prime Minister David Cameron spoke in Parliament for almost two hours about the killing of 38 people by a gunman in the Tunisian resort of Sousse.

Before we look at what he said – or any of the related details – we should start with a couple of disclaimers.

First of all, I am not Russell Brand: I do not believe that it’s hypocrisy to hold a brief silence to remember people who have been killed – even if they had been killed, as Mr Brand claims, as a result of UK foreign policy (and it is not so simple).

I do feel there’s a certain piquancy to the idea that we should hold a minute of silence to remember 38 people shot dead on the Mediterranean coast, and yet not only hold no minutes of silence for the more than 2,000 people drowned in the same sea since the start of the year, but also to refuse to take part in rescuing people from that sea.

But that does not mean we should not remember people shot dead while on holiday. I think we certainly should. Just that we should also remember the thousands of men women and children drowned – and help the tens of thousands who are risking their lives to make the same crossing.

Secondly, I lived in Tunisia, in a holiday resort – albeit one considerably further South and East than Sousse – while I worked at Choucha Refugee Camp in the wake of the first Libyan Civil War (the world can be a weird place, I agree. Then again, we all have to live somewhere…)

It was a strange place – though quirky, rather than unsettling – with an odd balance between the acknowledgement of the importance of tourism and the acceptance of tourists (white tourists in various states of undress on the beach, a supermarket; ‘Al Jazeera’, with a semi-hidden ‘cave’ filled with alcohol) and the ordinary lives of Tunisians.

I arrived there a few days before I began work, and spent those days talking to people and familiarising myself with the place in which I lived. I met topless French sunbathers lying on the sand just yards from a coast road on which some people were walking wearing Berber clothes and head-covering (the hijab had by that time been illegal for many years in Tunisia, after being declared ‘extremist’ and ‘un-Tunisian’). Neither group seemed offended or unhappy with the other.

At a coffee shop on the same day, one of its owners explained: ‘We are not offended. Why should we be offended by what people wear or do not? The Berbers wear their clothing and do not make anyone else wear it. The Europeans wear the same clothes as us, and if they undress on the beach it is to swim, or because they are too hot.’

His wife added: ‘I would not be on the beach topless, here. It is never warm enough for that. In Russia and France, it is much colder.’

It is, of course, not possible ever to speak to every single person in a community – far less a country – but it is a shame David Cameron could not have met and spoken to some Tunisian people before he stood up in Parliament to talk about the murder, by Seifeddine Rezgui, in Sousse.

Rezgui, a 23 year-old electrical engineering student, marched along Sousse beach on 26 June and opened fire on tourists at the Marhaba Hotel. Thirty-eight people were killed, making it the deadliest attack in Tunisian peace-time.

He is now believed to have been trained in Sabratha, Libya, by IS members, though some confusion remains about that (the UK newspaper the Daily Mirror reported on 4 July that he had been trained by IS members belonging to Ansar Al Sharia. Ansar Al Sharia is an Al Qaeda-affiliated militia, and directly opposed to IS).

He was shot dead by Tunisian police, bringing the attack to an end.

Mr Cameron declared that ‘the killers’ (there was just one killer, Rezgui) had ‘declared war on Britain’.

It’s hard to understand why he felt the need to do this.

It is possible that he wished to appear a ‘strong national leader’ in the face of tragedy, or perhaps that he wished to use this as an opportunity to launch an attack on someone (he did also state that the UK government would provide a ‘full spectrum’ response to Rezgui’s attack, which gives this idea some weight: but it’s hard to imagine where that attack could sensibly be launched).

Because even if it was a declaration of war, it was an extremely unsuccessful one. Rezgui, who ‘declared war’ is dead. So the ‘war’ has been won (even if it were true that he had been trained by IS operatives in Libya, this was not an IS attack: the group has not claimed responsibility for it as it has in each attack it has launched itself).

It may well be, however, that Mr Cameron was looking much closer to home. He has argued for many months now that the government should do more to crack down on ‘extremism’ in the UK, and in his speech he declared he was ‘determined to change the narrative so those drawn to Islamic extremism are combatted more effectively’.

At best, this was an extremely poor choice of words. First of all, why, in a speech about the killing of innocents, would the Prime Minister stand in Parliament and pledge to ‘combat’ not extremists, but those who are ‘attracted to extremism’? (Cameron also used the term ‘Islamic fascism’ several times, leading one to wonder why, in the face of a planned march against Jewish people in Golders Green, he had not chosen to decry fascism in all its forms).

Equally, even as he announced plans for a counter-extremism strategy (which is likely to ban yet more organisations in the UK) Mr Cameron himself admitted that ‘extremists fall short of condoning terrorism’. That is, the government of the UK is planning laws to prevent not terrorism – and not even groups which ‘condone’ terrorism – but groups which do not commit acts of terror, or accept or support such acts.

Perhaps this is why he decided he needed to use the rhetoric of war.

Because in the midst of an undeniably frightening international environment, it is worth remembering that despite the government’s sensationalist language, and despite the undeniable fact that the slaughter of 38 human beings is an unacceptable and despicable act, Rezgui was a lone gunman. And he was killed at the scene of his crime.

It is extremely hard to imagine any leader of a state claiming one man had ‘declared war’ on an entire state, especially once he had already been stopped. And it would be useful for us all to remember that the word ‘extremist’ – even in Mr Cameron’s lexicon – does not translate to ‘terrorist’.

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Within the same address to Parliament, Mr Cameron made one further point. He claimed ‘the source of radicalisation is not poverty. In the UK, it is often young people who have been to good schools, with a good strong family background that who do not have deprived lives who have chosen a violent path.’

Though this is certainly the case in as far as it goes, it is worth mentioning that no-one ever claimed that the sole cause of terrorism was poverty. And it’s also important to remember that just because poverty is not the only cause, that does not mean it is not a major cause.

The vast majority of organisations like IS and Al Qaeda are strongest in parts of the world where people are poor, by global standards, and one major effect of material poverty (an effective exclusion from society, leading to alienation and a search for an alternative) is basically the same as the effect of marginalisation – and marginalisation is fuelled by incidents such as your community being blamed for, and told it is doing too little to prevent, inhuman acts it actually had nothing to do with.

To put it another way, no, perhaps not every person in the UK to have joined IS had no money. But had the group not been set up – in a region where its strength is driven by poverty and desperation – would they have started their own terror organisation? It seems extremely unlikely.

No-one should seek to excuse the acts of delusional, maniacal members of terrorist organisations, but it would be reassuring to have political representatives who gave the impression they actually understood the world in which we lived, and did not wish to react to it with repression and paranoia.

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