Independent on Sunday, 12 April 2015
One letter sent to staff at Southampton General Hospital expressed the hope that the doctor’s own children would get cancer and die
Medical stories appear in the press every day. Some are well-founded, written by health correspondents who know how to evaluate clinical studies. Others are little more than re-written press releases, encouraging anxieties among credulous readers. Doctors and health professionals have long regarded this as a problem, but seldom has a medical story had such damaging and far-reaching consequences as the controversy about a five-year-old boy called Ashya King.
Following surgery to remove a brain tumour last August, Ashya’s doctors wanted him to have follow-up treatment at the hospital in Southampton which performed his life-saving operation. His parents, Brett and Naghemeh King, wanted him to have a treatment called proton beam therapy which isn’t available in the UK, although the NHS sometimes pays for patients to have it abroad. They removed the boy and took him to Spain, a sequence of events which led to the parents’ arrest. Ashya eventually received the treatment at a private clinic in Prague.
Last week, one of Ashya’s doctors appeared on the Today programme and told the other side to this story. Dr Peter Wilson, paediatric intensive care consultant at Southampton General Hospital, sounded shell-shocked as he talked about the hate campaign endured by staff last summer. At one point, so many abusive calls were coming in the hospital shut its switchboard. His voice shaking, Dr Wilson recalled getting a letter from someone who expressed the hope that his own children would get cancer and die. “The overwhelming sentiment was one of just an absolute outpouring of hatred,” he said in an interview for a documentary shown on BBC South.
The impact of what happened at the hospital – a group of doctors and nurses being put in modern stocks – is still being felt. The abuse never really stopped but it flared up again when Mr King gave interviews last month, telling journalists his son was cancer-free. Members of the public found email addresses and telephone numbers on the hospital website, and bombarded staff with more abuse. They told them they were wrong about Ashya’s treatment and demanded to know how they felt now that he had been “cured” abroad.
Treatment for a medulloblastoma comes in three stages, beginning with the removal of the tumour. After that, the patient is indeed cancer-free, but two further stages are necessary to reduce the chances of the disease recurring. Ashya’s doctors believed his best chance of survival over the next five years lay in conventional radiotherapy and chemotherapy. When his parents disagreed, the medical team referred him to the NHS Specialised Services Proton Clinical Reference Panel, which confirmed their opinion that he was not a suitable candidate for proton beam therapy.
It is very good news that Ashya appears to be in remission following his treatment in Prague, but cancer experts say it is too early to speak of a cure. “The fact he is disease-free at this point is great, but it doesn’t mean he is cured yet,” Professor Karol Sikora, a leading oncologist, told the BBC. But that hasn’t stopped journalists repeating far-fetched claims about the boy’s health. “Ashya’s cured” was the headline in The Sun last month.
Some sections of the media love the idea of a “miracle cure” but the effect on other families with sick children has been dreadful. Lisa Joslin’s nine-year-old son, Jack, had the same kind of tumour removed at Southampton hospital in 2013. When she read about Ashya’s case, Lisa wondered why Jack hadn’t been offered proton beam therapy. “We contacted our consultant and he explained that it wouldn’t have offered any benefit for the kind of tumour Jack had,” she told me on Friday. Happily, Jack is now in remission. Lisa is “over the moon” about the treatment he received, but she’s upset about the way the medical team at Southampton has been treated in the media. “They save so many children’s lives,” she said. “I just think it’s unfair.”
Publicity about this case has damaged trust between doctors and families, adding to the anguish of parents faced with a terrifying diagnosis. Can they trust what doctors are telling them? The fact that proton beam therapy is recommended in only about 1 per cent of cases, according to Cancer Research UK, has barely been mentioned. According to Dr Wilson, the case has put clinicians in an “impossible position” as they try to explain to families why their children are getting a different treatment from Ashya.
No matter how journalists sympathise with the parents of a sick child, they have a duty to discover and report the facts. They also need to consider the impact of sensational reporting on doctors, nurses and other families in a similar situation. No one should get abuse for doing their job, and that’s especially true of dedicated NHS staff trying to save children’s lives.
The Guardian, 10 April 2015
The Labour leader’s ‘betrayal’ of his brother is used to attack him. But who wants hereditary privilege? They’re not the royal family, after all
I’m not sure how I managed to miss the fact that leadership of the Labour party is a hereditary position. Apparently, Labour hasn’t even got round to abolishing the rule of primogeniture, as the defence secretary, Michael Fallon, reminded us on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday. Fallon suggested that Ed Miliband “stabbed his own brother in the back”, appearing to suggest that modern political parties operate a line of succession similar to the royals.
According to this hitherto unknown rule, David Miliband’s expectation that he would become Labour leader was no less solid than the Prince of Wales’s claim to the throne; Ed’s challenge was a constitutional outrage, a bit like the Duke of York suddenly announcing he’d like to have a go after his mum dies. The whole point of male primogeniture is that it’s an immovable thing, ensuring that the firstborn son smoothly assumes his rightful place when his turn comes round.
What’s that you say? The previous Labour leader, Gordon Brown, is neither dead nor father to either of the Miliband boys? Look, we’re talking about myths and archetypes here: think Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Romulus and Remus. True, none of these individuals aspired to become leader of the Labour party, as far as I know, but obviously the same rules apply. Just ask the defence secretary. And, sadly, Fallon isn’t the only person who thinks like this.
Later this month, the Duchess of Cambridge will give birth for the second time. Where are the crowds, waiting eagerly outside Buckingham Palace? Two years ago, the birth of Prince George was a massive event, at least as far as the media were concerned; in the days leading up to it, camera crews and correspondents set up a long line of stalls in The Mall. Whether the public was quite so fascinated is another matter, with just over half the population telling a polling company that they weren’t interested in the birth. But TV and newspapers breathlessly anticipated an announcement that the third in line to the throne had finally arrived. Prince George can expect a pretty long wait, judging by his grandfather’s experience, but something about the idea of a firstborn clearly entranced the media.
Independent on Sunday, 5 April 2015
Demands for politicians to show their true selves are likely to have the opposite effect
If you believe The Sun and The Daily Telegraph, Ed Miliband has already lost the general election. Not so, according to The Guardian and the Daily Mirror, both of whom put the Labour leader narrowly ahead after last week’s televised leaders’ debate. Clearly, both these things cannot be true, which says something about the fiercely partisan nature of the British press in an election period.
Hang on, though, isn’t this election supposed to be different? Isn’t it the moment when the two-party system finally breaks down? The growing popularity of small parties and the anti-politics movement championed (if that’s the word) by the comedian Russell Brand are said to have created a new political atmosphere.
This time, politicians from all parties will have to work harder to win votes – that much at least is true – and they also need to be more honest with the electorate; the public is sick of being lied to, and authenticity is what voters want more than anything. The television debates are supposedly essential to separating out the genuinely well-intentioned from people who are just in it for themselves.
The word that comes to my mind when I hear all this nonsense is too rude to print in a family newspaper. None of the three main parties is doing well in the polls and they’re terrified of making promises they may not be able to keep if, as expected, the result of the election is another coalition or a minority government. Everyone wants to avoid the position Nick Clegg got into after the 2010 election, when he found himself unable to keep a rash promise not to increase tuition fees.
In such circumstances, no one should be surprised if candidates are sometimes reluctant to make cast-iron promises. If sufficient voters want an end to two-party politics – and we shouldn’t forget that many of us don’t – a kind of prevarication will inevitably be one of the consequences. It’s why this year’s election manifestos will be rather different, striking a balance between what parties would do with an outright majority and what they can realistically achieve if they are merely the largest party.
The problem is that any appearance of reticence feeds public distrust of politicians, which is widespread and corrosive. MPs have become targets of vitriolic personal abuse, partly as a consequence of the Iraq war, which has done incalculable damage, and the MPs’ expenses scandal. But it is linked to a wider phenomenon in which instant, noisy and uninformed opinion has polluted political discourse. This has been encouraged by narcissists such as Brand, who are untroubled by their own glaring contradictions.
On Thursday evening, a woman who heckled David Cameron during the leaders’ debate became an instant celebrity, telling journalists afterwards that she wouldn’t vote for any of them. “I gave them nearly a full hour and I found that they were still lying about the issues,” she announced grandly. In fact, as several commentators noted, some of the claims made during the debate depended on different interpretations of statistics, and that’s very different from deliberate falsehood.
I don’t know whether anyone seriously believes that branding everyone as liars – including, presumably, the hapless Natalie Bennett – is a reliable method of achieving better politics. It may well be easier to shrug off the abuse if you have never been in power, like the Greens. “Didn’t the women do well?” was one response to Thursday’s leaders’ debate, but they didn’t face anything like the pressure Cameron, Miliband and Clegg were under.
In this poisonous climate, Miliband faces a double whammy. He knows he won’t get a fair hearing from right-wing editors who have never forgiven him for standing up to the press over phone hacking. The effect on his public persona is painful to watch.
I happened to be out of the country last weekend, and was mystified when I received emails from the Labour Party offering me the chance to buy a “Hell, yes!” T-shirt. My heart sank when I did a quick search of news channels and discovered that this was Miliband’s response to a fatuous question from Jeremy Paxman about whether he was tough enough to be PM. Miliband could have said prime ministers are not cowboys and need to be lots of things, including sensitive to the needs of the vulnerable. But he behaved like the hammiest of actors. He did it again during Thursday’s debate, with those long, soulful stares into the camera.
I’m sure it isn’t just Miliband feeling the strain, but I’m already seeing a paradox in this campaign. Shrill demands for politicians to show their true selves were always likely to have precisely the opposite effect, forcing decent people into putting on a performance. Thus far, the most striking thing about the 2015 election is its capacity to manufacture inauthenticity on an unprecedented scale.
Independent on Sunday, 22 March 2015
I don’t doubt it is unpleasant to be wrongly accused of rape but such events are rare
There is a problem with rape in this country; it just isn’t the one we keep being told about. The vast majority of people who commit serious sexual offences are never even questioned but what we hear about repeatedly is a handful of well-known men who have been wrongly accused of rape.
If you listen to quite a few politicians and much of the press, you might think it’s a much more pressing problem than getting justice for the huge number of women and girls who currently have no hope of ever seeing their attackers brought to justice.
You might even believe that most men live in terror of malicious accusation, and that it’s got worse since the setting up of Operation Yewtree (otherwise known as a “witch-hunt” of elderly celebrities) following the exposure of Jimmy Savile. This is all nonsense, of course, but it surfaced again last week when a committee of MPs recommended that suspects should be entitled to anonymity, even in rape cases, until they are charged.
The Labour MP Keith Vaz, who chairs the Home Affairs Select Committee, said he had been persuaded of the need for change by hearing from the DJ Paul Gambaccini, who described his “12 months of trauma” on police bail before he was told he would face no charges in relation to allegations of historical sex offences. Vaz accused the police of using a “flypaper” technique of leaking details of an arrest in the hope that other victims would come forward, a practice that he denounced as causing “irreparable reputational damage”.
Vaz has got it wrong, in the same way as other politicians and commentators who have previously gone down this route. The Lib Dems did it after the 2010 general election, going even further than the committee and proposing that anyone accused of rape would remain anonymous until convicted. The proposal, opposed by some Labour MPs and women’s groups, was dropped after Conservative ministers said there was insufficient evidence to justify it. That doesn’t stop it resurfacing, especially when one or two high-profile men – most recently the Conservative MP Mark Pritchard – complain that they were identified in the press even though the allegations against them did not lead to charges.
I don’t doubt that it’s unpleasant to be wrongly accused of rape but such events are rare; a landmark report published by the Crown Prosecution Service two years ago was clear on this point, dismissing myths about high levels of false accusation. I’m not convinced it’s worse than being accused of murder or terrorist offences and I’m offended by the notion that “reputational damage” deserves more concern than the plight of women who have been brutally attacked. Sympathy for a handful of men certainly shouldn’t tip the balance in a way that threatens to make getting convictions in rape cases even harder than it already is.
Publicity is vital for one, very straightforward, reason. Many victims don’t understand that rape is a serial crime; they think they’re the only one who’s been targeted by their attacker. If a woman fears it will be her word against his, she’s less likely to come forward and subject herself to the ordeal of a rape trial; it’s a very different matter when she discovers that the man has been arrested and she is not the only victim.
The presence of multiple accusers makes charges and convictions more likely, given that juries are less inclined to believe that three or four unconnected women are making up stories.
Popular fiction is full of outlandish serial killers but in real life serial sex offenders are a much more common problem. Savile may have been unusually prolific but the black-cab rapist, John Worboys, is believed to have targeted more than 100 women. The trials of the so-called “celebrities” who were charged in the wake of the Savile revelations confirm the serial habits of men who commit serious sexual offences: the television presenter Stuart Hall had more than a dozen victims, while the publicist Max Clifford and the entertainer Rolf Harris were each convicted of offences involving four victims.
A similar pattern emerges if you look at the convictions of “ordinary” men such as Adam Downworth, who was jailed for life at Manchester Crown Court in 2013 for the particularly brutal rape of five women. A former police officer, Wayne Scott, was jailed in the same year for eight rapes involving three women; after his trial at Newcastle Crown Court, detectives appealed to other victims to come forward and said Scott was a prolific offender who could have attacked “any number” of women.
These cases are not unusual. Last week, in a meeting with senior officers from Scotland Yard, I heard a statistic I’ve encountered on many similar occasions: they think they only hear about a fifth of rapes committed each year. Reports are up post-Savile but politicians should be asking what stops so many women going to the police and what can be done to encourage victims to have the confidence to report attacks.
I don’t think it’s acceptable that thousands of sex offenders are walking around perfectly free, safe in the knowledge that they are unlikely ever to be arrested. I hate knowing that so many rape victims are living with psychological scars and, in some cases, the additional burden of having to see their attacker on the street – he may be a former partner, neighbour or co-worker – as though nothing ever happened.
The police and prosecutors know that this is the reality of rape in this country; I just wish legislators and opinion-formers would pay more attention to it.
Independent on Sunday, 15 March 2015
Images of listless patients, lying on mats in makeshift clinics, play into a false narrative of inevitability
Three days ago, a British healthcare worker who contracted the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone was flown back to the UK. She is now being treated at the Royal Free Hospital in London where two British nurses, William Pooley and Pauline Cafferkey, were successfully treated in the past. Five other British healthcare workers were flown home last week after suspected contact with the virus.
I hugely admire Western health workers who go to West Africa, and I don’t begrudge them the best possible treatment when they are exposed to the virus. But the striking difference in survival rates between African victims and Western patients who are flown home tells an uncomfortable story. Even the best hospitals in the Western world would struggle to cope with a full-scale Ebola epidemic, rather than the isolated cases we have seen so far. But the countries affected by the current outbreak didn’t have anything like adequate health services to begin with.
That’s one of the reasons I’ve found images of African victims so hard to bear. Images of listless patients, lying on mats in makeshift clinics, play into a false narrative of inevitability; like famine, this is what happens in Africa. But it isn’t: the chief reason why Africans are more likely than Westerners to die from Ebola is inequality. The contrast with a handful of British patients, who are transported from RAF planes in mobile isolation units, and attended by a phalanx of health professionals, is almost too painful to contemplate.
When the first Ebola patients were diagnosed in Sierra Leone, I thought of the doctors and nurses I met on my first trip there seven years ago and wondered how they could possibly cope. When a matron showed me around Freetown’s Connaught Hospital, I was shocked by the lack of basic equipment; I was equally shocked by the diseases they were struggling to treat on a daily basis, including malaria, meningitis and tetanus. Elsewhere in the country, I met young adults with wasted legs and discovered that they had contracted polio when they were children, at a time when it had all but disappeared in Europe.
In the US, there are fewer than 2.5 doctors for every 100,000 residents; in Sierra Leone, when the Ebola outbreak began, the comparable figure was 0.22. There were around 134 doctors and little more than 1,000 nurses to care for a population of six million, and 11 local doctors died in the first nine months. In all, across the three worst affected countries – Guinea and Liberia as well as Sierra Leone – a total of 339 health workers had died by the end of last year.
Few countries in the world were in a worse position to deal with a deadly virus. Last week, according to the World Health Organisation, the death toll in West Africa passed 10,000. It’s a dreadful milestone, but the reason it’s so high is that Ebola has attacked populations made vulnerable by inequality
Independent on Sunday, 8 March 2015
The banning of a docuemntary about a horrific attack on a young woman in Delhi has terrible echoes elsewhere
The Indian government is up in arms. It has banned a documentary, India’s Daughter, which includes a reconstruction of the notorious gang rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in Delhi. Ministers can’t stop Leslee Udwin’s film being shown elsewhere – you might have seen it on BBC Four last week – but they would like it to be consigned to oblivion. It reflects badly on India, you see.
The rape of the 23-year-old student took place just before Christmas 2012, bringing thousands of people on to the streets to demand greater protection for women. All of this happened before the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, took office, but he would like the entire subject to just go away. Last month, his government shelved a plan drawn up after the Delhi gang rape to set up 660 rape crisis centres across India; the figure has been slashed to 36 because the Prime Minister believes that the Indian police are “sensitive enough” to deal with rape cases. His confidence in the authorities isn’t universally shared, leading to a dreadful incident in north-east India last month when a suspected rapist was dragged from jail and lynched.
According to some estimates, a rape takes place in India every 20 minutes. The documentary explains why the figure is so high: the quiet dignity of the victim’s parents contrasts with the chilly detachment of Mukesh Singh, who drove the bus and shows not a shred of remorse for the sexual torture and murder of their daughter. The Minister for Parliamentary Affairs believes that the film is an “international conspiracy to defame India”, but what it really does is expose the profoundly misogynist culture that creates men such as Singh. The fact that ministers are more concerned about the country’s reputation than the safety of half the population does the same.
“Honour” is at the heart of this problem, whether it’s that of a country or an individual woman. According to the driver, the student shouldn’t have been out at night with a male friend; once the rape started, she shouldn’t have struggled with her attackers. “A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy,” he declares in the film. One of the defence lawyers backs him up, making the astounding claim that he would burn his own daughter alive if she “disgraced herself” by going out at night. (The victim, by the way, was returning from an early-evening showing of The Life of Pi when she was targeted.)
India is not the only country with a rape problem. In South Africa, some estimates have suggested that there could be half a million rapes each year, many of them by multiple perpetrators and characterised by extreme violence. In Mexico, rates of rape and murder involving female victims are so high that they have been officially described by the UN as a “femicide”. Similar attitudes can be found in all these countries, proposing that it’s up to women to modify their behaviour if they want to avoid being attacked. When Singh claims in the film that a “decent” girl wouldn’t be out at nine o’clock at night, it brings to mind the Grand Mufti of Australia, who, in 2006, compared women to a plate of uncovered meat. If they would only stay indoors, he argued, nothing bad would happen to them.
It’s easy to dismiss such views as pre-modern, a relic from a period of history before gender equality emerged as one of the most basic rights. Feminists and human rights activists have challenged them in country after country, including India, where the Delhi bus attack is one of a series of gang rapes that are almost too awful to read about. But the reality is that rape culture – an outdated set of ideas about how women should behave – exists everywhere in the world. An integral feature is the habit of disbelieving victims or dismissing their experience as not “real” rape.
Only last week, a serious case review was published into the sexual abuse of hundreds of girls in Oxfordshire. It’s clear that the perpetrators, who were from a predominantly Asian background, thought they could do what they liked because no one would listen to their victims. They were right: the authorities repeatedly failed to recognise that they were dealing with serial rape, falling back on the ludicrous notion that girls of 12 or 13 were making “lifestyle choices” when they had sex with men twice their age. Almost exactly the same thing happened in Rotherham, where at at least 1,400 girls were abused.
Then there’s the Ched Evans case. The footballer has been convicted of rape by a jury and hasn’t even finished serving his sentence. (He was released from prison last year after serving half of his five-year tariff and remains on licence.) None of this has discouraged a vile campaign by some of his supporters, who have broken the law by identifying the victim and vilifying her on social media. It’s a classic piece of victim-blaming: she was drunk, she went back to his mate’s hotel room, what did she expect?
Rapists have always tried to come up with “excuses” for their crimes, just as Singh does in India’s Daughter. It’s sickening to listen to, but a salutary reminder that a punitive focus on the behaviour of victims is at the core of rape culture. Education is the key to ending it and it needs to go like this. First, stop blaming girls and women for behaving normally. Second, bring up every boy to understand that the responsibility for not committing rape lies squarely with him.
Sunday Times, 8 March 2015
A brilliant novel about class and ambition from one of France’s top crime writers
Unless you read French crime fiction in the original language, you probably haven’t heard of Michel Bussi. None of his books has been published in English until now, even though he is one of France’s bestselling authors. All of that should change with After the Crash, a novel so extraordinary that it reminded me of reading Stieg Larsson for the very first time. Bussi’s novel brings with it the same thrill of discovering a truly original voice.
After years in which Nordic crime fiction has dominated bestseller lists, French crime writing is undergoing a renaissance. Fred Vargas was the biggest name outside France until recently, but Pierre Lemaitre’s trilogy about a Parisian cop has collected rave reviews around the world.
The surprising thing about Bussi is that it has taken so long for him to be published here; this geography professor from Rouen has won 15 literary awards and stayed in the French bestseller lists for the past two years. After the Crash is a family drama with everything thrown in: class conflict, dynastic ambitions and a King Solomonesque dilemma over the identity of a baby. It begins with a plane crash in 1980 that prompts a series of murders; the date is essential because it is before DNA testing became widely available.
Two days before Christmas, a flight from Istanbul to Paris ends in disaster when it ploughs into a mountain. The only survivor is a three-month-old girl. The child’s survival is hailed as a miracle and a couple from northern France, Léonce de Carville and his wife Mathilde, come forward to claim her as their grand-daughter, Lyse-Rose. Then a second couple appears, and insists that the baby is their grand-daughter, Emilie. It turns out that there were two families on board with babies of the same age, and the authorities are faced with the grim task of deciding which claim is more convincing.
The dispute is made even more sensational by the disparity between the two families; the de Carvilles are wealthy aristocrats, while Pierre and Nicole Vitral run a food stall on the beach in Dieppe. The class war between the grandparents makes headline news, and the de Carvilles are furious when a court rules against them. Refusing to give up, they employ a private detective with a shady past to look for proof that the infant has been given to the wrong family.
Eighteen years later, the child has grown up. Her life is punctuated by tragedy, including the death of her grandfather in a suspicious accident, and she faces a conflict of loyalties when she falls in love with the man she believes is her elder brother. Meanwhile, the detective is collecting his papers, haunted by his failure in the case, when a detail catches his eye that could solve the entire mystery. Shortly afterwards, a body is found in his office.
If this sounds like melodrama, it is carried off with confidence and panache; the notion that earth-shaking passions lie just below the surface is a popular theme among French writers. Vargas has always written from the premise that the ordinary is merely a façade. She also shares a taste for the grotesque with Bussi, whose characters in After the Crash include a malicious but strangely sympathetic anorexic.
In retrospect, it seems clear that Vargas has gradually opened doors for other French writers in much the same way Henning Mankell did for his fellow Swedes. After the Crash introduces an author with an unusually devious approach to plot, unafraid to set false trails or withhold vital information. It is one of the most remarkable books I’ve read in a long time; Bussi breaks every rule in the book, but I doubt I’ll read a more brilliant crime novel this year.
Independent on Sunday, 1 March 2015
The appeal of Isis lies in its messianic belief that the final victory for Muslims is imminent
It was never all that easy to join al-Qaeda. Some hopefuls may have gone trekking off to Afghanistan, expecting to find Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora cave complex, but after 9/11 its leaders were basically on the run. Islamic State (Isis) is a very different matter, as the disappearance of three schoolgirls from Bethnal Green in east London has demonstrated. They seem to have followed in the footsteps of another Londoner, Mohammed Emwazi – otherwise known as “Jihadi John” – who was in Syrian territory controlled by Isis at least two years ago.
Last week, Emwazi was identified as the masked killer of a number of hostages held by Isis in Syria. He is now one of the world’s most wanted terrorists, leading to fevered speculation about how this “angelic schoolboy” from Maida Vale, west London, turned into a sadistic torturer. I take this supposed transformation with a pinch of salt, having heard any number of people express astonishment when their neighbours turn out to be serial killers. On the whole, we assume that people we went to school with or live beside are like us, and a great deal of radicalisation takes place in small groups where we’re hardly aware of it.
That’s one of the reasons, I think, why it’s so hard to understand why people in this country are attracted by this horrible organisation. Why would a young man with a degree from Westminster University give up everything to join a terrorist organisation that tortures and kills indiscriminately? Why did those schoolgirls leave their families and head for a war zone, apparently in the knowledge that they will be expected to marry battle-hardened fighters? There has been a great deal of puzzled commentary along these lines in the past few days, and it underlines a widespread failure to grasp the appeal of Isis.
First, it’s come closer than other Salafist organisations to creating a “caliphate”, a geographical location where teachings of the Prophet Mohamed govern every aspect of existence. In that sense, it offers a homeland where disaffected young Muslims can turn their backs on everything they dislike – or have been encouraged to dislike – about the modern world.
Second, it understands the power of slick propaganda videos and wanton destructiveness. Last week, a video was posted online showing the destruction of artefacts (most of them replicas, hopefully) from the museum in Mosul, an Iraqi city that stands on the opposite bank of the Tigris from the ancient Babylonian city of Nineveh. Mosul was captured by Isis last year and the video shows its followers using hammers to smash statues that had survived for millennia; then the scene shifts to an archaeological site where a man takes a drill to an Assyrian deity, a winged bull that dates back to the seventh century BC. This literal form of iconoclasm proves that Isis values culture as little as human life, as we discovered when it began posting murder videos online last summer.
At the time, the readiness of Emwazi to behead a helpless captive caused widespread shock. Since then many other videos have emerged, showing similar murders as well as shocking scenes of children playing with severed heads. It isn’t much comfort to know that members of Isis don’t value their own lives a great deal, either; attrition rates among fighters are high and teenage girls who aspire to join the organisation are warned that they should expect to become widows. What is wrong with these people?
The answer, I’m afraid, is that we are dealing with an eschatological movement of a type that became common in the Middle Ages. You and I may be looking forward to a long and peaceful existence, but these guys are eagerly anticipating the apocalypse. You would think that enough people have built arks or retreated to mountainsides, only to emerge with egg on their faces, for this end-of-days nonsense to be treated with the contempt it deserves. (Think David Koresh, apocalyptic leader of the Branch Davidians, who died with his followers after a siege near Waco, Texas, in 1993.) Not a bit of it. In this instance, it all centres on the Syrian town of Dabiq, north of Aleppo, which was seized by Isis last April. Dabiq means nothing to most people in the West but for Salafist Muslims it is a very big deal indeed. Isis has even named its English-language magazine after it.
In November, when the American hostage Abdul-Rahman (formerly Peter) Kassig was about to be murdered, his killers deliberately chose Dabiq as the site for their latest gruesome exhibition. “Here we are, burying the first American Crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive,” the man we now know to be Emwazi says in the propaganda video. It’s tempting to dismiss this as empty rhetoric, but it refers to prophecies that the final showdown between Islam and its enemies will begin in Dabiq; members of Isis are expecting the imminent arrival of the Mahdi, a messianic figure who will lead a Muslim army to victory before the end of the world.
I don’t know whether the story is apocryphal, but, according to some sources, Osama bin Laden was warned in 2008 that the founders of what would become Isis were obsessed with the Mahdi and the end-of-days. He’s supposed to have written to them, saying, “Cut it out.” Sadly, this eschatological movement took no notice.
It has now eclipsed al-Qaeda as the go-to terror organisation of the day, with the added attraction of controlling an area larger than some long-established countries. Running away to join Isis isn’t an attractive option for most of us, but the picture might look different if you believe the world is about to end. People do remarkable things under the influence of millenarian ideology, and Isis is something new in the field: an apocalyptic movement that offers a temporary refuge from the modern world and a last chance to be saved.
Independent on Sunday, 22 February 2015
After he fell out with his parents, Ziamani was radicalised in only 12 weeks
The murder of a British soldier, Fusilier Lee Rigby, on a street in Woolwich, east London, a couple of years ago shocked almost everyone who saw the aftermath in grisly TV footage. The sight of one of the killers with his hands drenched in blood was chilling, so the realisation that a few people did not feel the same horror is deeply counter-intuitive.
How could anyone find such an event exciting or inspiring? One of the tiny minority who did was a Muslim convert called Brusthom Ziamani, a 19-year-old who idolised one of the killers and has now been convicted of planning a copycat attack.
Levels of violent crime have gone down in the UK in recent years, with the telling exceptions of sexual and domestic offences. It’s striking, however, that young men such as Ziamani or the Charlie Hebdo murderers are attracted by acts that most of us find utterly revolting. I can’t recall a time when we’ve been assailed so constantly by real-life images of torture and murder, yet videos of beheadings have not stopped a stream of young Britons heading for Syria to join Islamic State. Police say Syria-related terror arrests increased six-fold last year, while a man with a British accent is the chief suspect in the murder of several hostages.
The taboo against violence is not as powerful as we would like to imagine. It’s not just jihadist propaganda that lies behind this, effective though that clearly is. It’s also about varying degrees of psychological resilience, which make individuals react very differently when they find themselves in adverse circumstances. A number of European countries are emerging from recessions which have, among other things, impeded traditional male methods of building self-esteem. It’s been clear for some time that Islamist preachers target young men who come from unstable families, don’t have regular jobs and are on the fringes of petty crime. This doesn’t excuse them at all but it helps to explain how easily some individuals are drawn into destructive behaviour. After he fell out with his parents, Ziamani was radicalised in only 12 weeks.
Quite a bit of academic research has been devoted to the question of psychological resilience, and the factors which drive it down. Recession, unemployment and a lack of job security all have disastrous effects, creating what one study characterised as “fear, anger and a recurring sense of uselessness”. Official figures released last week show that the suicide rate is highest in North-east England, one of the most economically deprived areas of the country, and lowest in London.
I’m surprised that this highly visible effect of inequality isn’t discussed more often, given what we know from other statistics: the poorest fifth of adults are at significantly higher risk of developing a mental illness, while a 2011 survey suggested that people from minority ethnic backgrounds are six times more likely to be admitted to hospital because of mental health problems.
There is evidence that men and women handle feelings of hopelessness and low self-esteem differently. Last week’s figures showed that male suicide has reached its highest rate in more than a decade, a period which coincides with one of the worst recessions in recent history. Almost 5,000 men killed themselves in 2013 – more than three times higher than the number of female suicides.
I don’t know whether the prohibition against violence is weaker among men or they’re socialised to believe it solves problems. Male violence is and always has been big at the box-office: one of last year’s most successful films was American Sniper. A friend who watched the video of the Jordanian pilot burning to death observed that it was so professionally made that it didn’t feel real, and I wonder if impressionable youths from south London can tell the difference.
‘We love to die the way you live,’ Ziamani boasted in a letter found in his flat. It’s a common jihadist taunt, revealing how violent death has been deliberately romanticised to attract young men with nothing much to celebrate in their lives. Once they get to Syria, they desperately want to fit in, becoming brutalised to a point where they allow themselves to be photographed holding up severed human heads.
Islamic State is essentially a death cult – going to Syria to fight is not a long-term career option, to put it mildly – but it has recruited followers in London, Paris, Copenhagen and other European cities. One of the reasons I oppose publishing stills from its videos is that I don’t want to be brutalised by them, lulled into thinking that this kind of violence is unavoidable in the modern world. The damage it is doing is incalculable, and the need to address the problem of individuals with low psychological resilience has never been more pressing.