Defamation and Binary Idiocy
To summarise: I have been smeared by a Scottish newspaper. Most of the words they attribute to me I did indeed say, but they have decontextualised and selected to such an extent that they make me say things I do not believe – for instance that September 11th was a good thing, or that the Taliban should take over Afghanistan. What follows is a rather long description of meeting the man from the gutter press, which I hope will set the record a little straighter. Yesterday, meanwhile, 33 civilians were killed
by NATO bombs in Afghanistan.
I was doorstepped the other morning. A young man wearing a suit and an apologetic manner wanted to ask some questions on behalf of the Scottish Mail on Sunday.
What? Stumbling down the stairs in my thermal underwear, wild-haired and bestubbled, I dream for a passing moment that I’ve become as important to the world as Tiger Woods or Amy Winehouse. Perhaps even now press vermin are going through my rubbish bin. Perhaps paparazzi are crowding the front garden.
Alas, our aspiring hack, young Oliver Tree (for so he called himself), hasn’t yet graduated to the tabloid heights, and neither have I. It soon becomes clear that his mission is much more mundane, is indeed the everyday grind of papers like the Mail: to create outrage where there was none before, to smear, misrepresent and decontextualise, in order to strangle the possibility of real debate.
He clutches, rather guiltily, an article of mine. “I wonder if you could say why you think suicide bombing is ‘a leap forward’?” he asks. Nonplussed, I take the article from him and check what I’ve written. It’s a brief piece, but still it’s quite clear to any literate person what I’m saying: that the Taliban’s Code of Conduct is a leap forward – for the Taliban – and that an example of this is that it calls on Taliban fighters to avoid hitting civilians.
A wilful misinterpretation, or possibly just hasty ignorance. Mr Tree informs me that this is one of his first jobs. He seems on the edge of a stutter. Taking pity, I bring him into the house and make him a cup of tea. I spend an hour talking to him. I talk with nuance, knowing that the Mail on Sunday doesn’t usually understand nuance, but I talk nevertheless. It may be that young Tree will hear a more complex story than usual. It may be a good start for him.
Sadly, it soon becomes clear that the hack already has the story. It’s already written in his head. My job is merely to fill in the blanks. None of his questions seek to understand my view of what is happening in the Middle East. They all seek a response which spells MUSLIM TERRORIST. Questions like: Should British soldiers be killed? Do I want the Taliban to win? Do I feel British? (Do they ask George Galloway that question?)
And yesterday, I had a page to myself. A photo-shop picture of me looking mean in front of the burning World Trade Centre. Headline: Facing Fury, the Scottish Writer who Thinks 9/11 Attacks were ‘Work of Art.’
Mr Tree is certainly economical with the truth, but no one can accuse him of inconsistency: he misrepresented every single one of my answers. Everything I said was recorded – by Mr Tree. If anybody wants to hear the interview, I suggest they call him.
Let me make a few points, starting with the headline. I compared the London attacks to the New York attacks and argued that the London bombs were, if we ignore the numbers killed, even more criminal and stupid than the New York atrocity. I then quoted the German composer Stockhausen, who called 9/11 a work of art. Stockhausen didn’t say 9/11 was a good thing; he made the accurate observation that the attacks were planned as a public media event, to create iconic imagery. Obviously. So were the Nuremberg rallies. Recognising this does not make you a Nazi.
Look at this: Yassin-Kassab “went on to say that sources in Syria had told him the United States and Israel were responsible for truck-bombing Iraqi civilians. He added, ‘I know a lot of Iraqi refugees, if you ask them they will say it’s the Americans. It’s the Israelis.’”
What Tree doesn’t tell his readers is what I then said – that I thought Wahhabi-nihilist terrorism was a ‘home-grown’ problem, that it was too simplistic of the Arabs to claim that all the terror was American-originated, although the Americans and Israelis may well have penetrated al-Qa’ida groups, and have certainly created the conditions for al-Qa’ida to flourish.
I did not ‘justify the use of suicide bombers against British troops,’ as if the Taliban are awaiting Shaikh Robin’s fatwa. I did not call the soldiers ‘criminal’, although their political masters and many of their actions are. I did say that the deaths of British soldiers in Afghanistan was ‘logical and natural’, but I did not express happiness about this. I very clearly expressed sadness and revulsion that the troops have been sent to commit criminal acts by a lying government, sent to a country which has not attacked Britain, and sent into a war which cannot be won. That notorious Islamist-terrorist Max Hastings expresses my view that the war is unwinnable in this Daily Mail piece. His opinion is also shared by Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, Britain’s senior military commander in Afghanistan. (I advise Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith to steer clear of the Scottish Mail on Sunday. He could find himself accused of high treason.)
If British occupation troops are walking about in Afghanistan, Afghans will shoot at them. If there were Taliban troops occupying Britain, British people would shoot at them, logically and naturally. If the Mail on Sunday wants to pretend that I am endangering British troops by speaking plain English, that’s its business. But the reality is that it’s the Mail on Sunday (and the rest of the right-wing media, and the Labour and Tory parties) which endanger British lives by spouting pro-war propaganda.
The families of British soldiers should worry about this. They could, after all, lose their sons, as Bob Wright lost his 27-year-old son on an Afghan minefield. The Scottish Mail on Sunday got this grieving father to call me a “traitor”, and to remark that hearing ‘this’ “from someone who lives in this country is disgusting.” This was the general method of the defamation, to sum up my words with something like ‘the Taliban should win’ and then to seek an outraged response from the Scottish Tories, veterans’ groups and the like.
As for my saying the Taliban should win, I spent a long time telling Mr Tree that the Taliban couldn’t conceivably conquer Afghanistan without superpower backing (which it had last time) because half the Afghans don’t like the Taliban. NATO is involved in another people’s complex and long-running civil war – a war caused by foreign interventions in the first place. NATO’s presence does not help to calm the situation.
I probably did say, “I don’t have a blanket condemnation for suicide bombing. Fighting military targets, whether you do that with a Kalashnikov or a suicide bomber or a roadside bomb, is perfectly justifiable,” and I stand by it because I don’t see a moral difference between hitting a target with your body or with a tank. The result for the person killed or maimed is the same. So our moral judgement of the rightness of an action must be based on a political context. For instance, is this person fighting to liberate himself or to oppress others?
In Mail on Sunday land, if you oppose the occupation of Afghanistan or Iraq, you’re a Taliban or Saddam Hussain partisan. If you oppose the depredations of Zionism, you’re an Islamist anti-Semite. If you suggest that American involvement in the region has laid the ground for blowback, your real home is Tora Bora. It’s so very tedious, this idiotic binarism. It’s so very much the opposite of clear and honest thought.
For those who fear that I am, after all, a Wahhabi nihilist, I encourage you to read what I have written about Osama bin Laden and the Saudi regime. (Another piece which upset the patriots at the Mail on Sunday was this one, on poppies. And I strongly suspect that this article on the Quilliam Foundation may have had a role in the episode.)
Anyway, it’s all par for the course and not to be taken too seriously. I am told that the Scottish Mail on Sunday arrived up here only recently – like the BNP – and has a negligible readership.
What adds an unpleasant edge to the episode is that the dangerously undefined ‘glorification of terror’ is now a criminal offence. Ministers and media figures have suggested that ‘supporting armed resistance anywhere in the world’ should qualify as glorification. In order to be as consistent as Mr Tree, these people should now call for Britain to withdraw from the Fourth Geneva Convention, which accepts occupied peoples’ right to resistance.
The aim of such smears is to intimidate. I am not intimidated, because I do not glorify terror. I want terror to stop, and I call for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in order to bring this end closer. In this, I am in agreement with the majority of Britons.
Rereading the page, I don’t like the phrases ‘someone who lives in this country,’ ‘traitor,’ ‘Arab writer’, and ‘half-Syrian.’ I feel these words have a force to them which would not exist if there weren’t an effort being made to intimidate oppositional voices from ‘the Muslim community’. If my name were Robin Smith, I think I’d face less obvious stereotyping. But the overall aim is to shut up anybody willing to think beyond the ideological boundaries.
And now what to do? I will learn some lessons. Newspapers like the Mail on Sunday are not the fourth estate but instruments of power. They are very often no more than platforms for defamation. So I will not let their hacks in, however small and scared they look. I will ask what the purpose of the article is, and then I’ll ask them to send written questions, to which I will give one-sentence answers, and I’ll keep a written record of our exchange.
Perhaps two-word answers would be better still.