Two Assassinations and a Brexit
This was published at al-araby al-Jadeed/ The New Arab.
On June 16th Jo Cox, a proponent of EU membership, a compassionate supporter of refugees, and the most articulate voice for revolutionary Syria in the British parliament, was shot, stabbed and kicked by a middle-aged man screaming “Britain First!”
On the same day Syrian citizen journalists Khaled al-Issa and Hadi Abdullah, 48 hours after surviving an air raid, were severely injured in an assassination attempt by controlled explosion.
Jo died in hospital shortly after she was attacked. In a different world, the kind she fought for, she would have been an honoured guest in free Syria. Khaled al-Issa died of his wounds on June 24th. Having survived Assad and ISIS-inspired brushes with death, it was probably Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate, that got him in the end. In a different world Khaled would be reporting on the achievements of post-dictatorship Syria. In this world, however, the very best are being murdered. The very worst are growing in power.
East and west, violent and nativist authoritarianism is on the rise. The British media focused on characterisations of Jo’s murderer, Thomas Mair, as a troubled loner rather than as a terrorist. Had he screamed ‘Allahu Akbar’ rather than ‘Britain First’ as he stabbed and shot, the emphasis would certainly have been different.
Mair’s action was performed against the background of Britain’s vote (a week later) to leave the European Union. Or rather Wales and England’s vote. Scotland, failed once again by the British democracy, voted to stay in the EU. So did London and other metropolitan centres, and Northern Ireland. Large majorities of Asian and Black voters voted to remain, as did the young.
But the working and lower middle classes in rural, suburban and smalltown England and Wales tended to vote to leave. There are good reasons to worry about the EU’s unelected bureaucracy, its neo-liberalism, the distance of power from the governed. There’s a very good case to be made for democratic reform. Sadly, the debate hardly touched this area. The Brexit voters were expressing their discomfort at the dislocations caused by globalisation and, more specifically, the Conservative Party’s austerity policies. Public services are decaying, benefits are being cut, real jobs have been replaced by zero-hours contracts. The absence of a serious left has allowed rightist analysis of this grim situation to dominate.
In other words, people are blaming foreigners, like this: If it takes weeks to arrange a doctor’s appointment, that’s not because of government cuts but because there are too many migrants in the waiting room. If the government failed to spend money on our flood-hit area, that’s because the money was sent abroad to help foreigners instead.
The public profession of such false logic is increasingly common, and usually goes unchallenged. The assumption that foreigners are behind our social and economic problems generates huge resentment against both migrants and people who might look like migrants (because they aren’t white). In this context, many English people feel that the influx of aliens threatens their cultural identity. The significant paradox is that they are less likely to feel this way if they actually live in an area with a high proportion of migrants.
The Leave campaign exploited the mood. It spread the lie that Turkey was about to join the EU, and that millions of Turks were about to move in next door. Nigel Farage’s UKIP party deliberately helped confuse the free movement of European citizens with the movement of non-European refugees. UKIP published a poster of brown people, most of them Syrians, queueing at a border. The words ‘Breaking Point’ printed underneath.
Of course, Britain has accepted very few Syrian refugees, and of course, leaving the EU will do nothing to stem non-European migration. But facts don’t matter here. It’s perception that counts.
“It’s all about immigration,” one inhabitant of Barnsley told Channel 4, to justify his leave vote. “It’s to stop the Muslims from coming into this country. The movement of people in Europe, fair enough. But not from Africa, Syria, Iraq, everywhere else, it’s all wrong.”
All Britain’s major political parties campaigned to remain in Europe. The exit vote was also, therefore, a vote against the establishment. But in the absence of a real alternative, it became a vote for another, more ruthless wing of the establishment. People voted to ‘take their country back’, forgetting for a moment that they had never owned it in the first place.
Boris Johnson, likely the next prime minister, is a proponent of working more closely with Syria’s Assad regime and its Russian sponsor – even though Assad’s scorched earth strategy is the first cause of both the refugee crisis and rising Islamist extremism. Johnson has praised Vladimir Putin’s “ruthless clarity” in Syria – as Putin’s forces destroy schools, hospitals and marketplaces, as they shower villages and cities with illegal cluster, incendiary and thermobaric bombs.
Johnson’s attitude to Putin is shared by his fellow leave campaigner Nigel Farage, and in the US by Donald Trump. Indeed, all three demagogues share qualities with Putin. Like him they are entertainers, masters of the media. Their understanding of style is superb, their approach to facts is postmodern. Like Putin they know how to use populist, nationalist, and racist rhetoric to win the support, or at least the attention, of the alienated and angry classes. And like Putin, their own interests are diametrically opposed to those of their alienated supporters. In this respect, Putin really is a leader of the age. The 21st Century he-man, spun on myths, grins and fury, is now the dominant brand.
Putin armed and protected Assad as he burnt Syria and ruined its people. Then he subjected Syrian civilians to Russia’s own military assault. Twelve million Syrians are now homeless, five million are refugees abroad. Putin helped fund right-wing anti-immigrant parties across Europe, including the Front National in France. In Britain, Nigel Farage unveiled a poster of fleeing Syrians. A mood of national chauvinism and xenophobia was inflated. This, at its fascist fringe, led to the murder of Jo Cox. Then England voted to leave the European Union. The economic and political aftershocks will weaken and perhaps eventually disintegrate the Union. The weaker the European Union, the more likely that Putinist aggression (in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe as well as the Middle East) will continue to be appeased.
The world (but primarily Russia and Iran) came to Syria to smash the revolution. Now the echoes of counter-revolution are rippling out to infect the world.