The battle for words after Paris – and how Jeremy Corbyn lost his

Michael Harris /   November 22, 2015 at 7:14 PM 3,027 views


In the absence of easy answers – no matter what some commentators claim – it was a week when words mattered.

President Hollande was thought to have found the right words in his reaction the Paris terror attacks in his speech to both houses of the French parliament on Monday (summary: liberté is out, sécurité is in). He said:

“The acts committed on Friday night in Paris and at the Stade are acts of war… This constitutes an attack against our country, against its values against its youth, against its way of life. …This is not a war of civilisation as these assassins don’t have any. This is a war against the jihadist menace that threatens not just France. …In my determination to combat terrorism, I want France to remain itself. The barbarians who attack France would like to disfigure it. They will not spoil France’s soul. …Terrorism will not destroy the French Republic because the Republic will destroy it.”

In his references to ‘war’, some felt he had made the same mistake that George W. Bush did in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. But as Simon Tisdall put it in the Guardian:

“A man of notoriously diminutive stature, Hollande was suddenly walking tall, the John Wayne of the Champs Élysées. …Modern leaders have available a number of familiar crisis-management tools, as well as some new ones. …Unhesitating, Hollande reached for them all. Faced with a fundamental and outrageous challenge to the established state, the president, as the embodiment, symbol and premier office holder of that same state, shifted instantaneously to what might be termed crisis default position one: that is to say, he stood up, took a stand, banished all sense of doubt and self-blame, and boldly rallied the nation in defence of the republic.”

Less well-received were President Obama’s remarks during a press conference at the G20 summit in Turkey on Monday. On Friday, before the attacks, he had said in an interview that ISIS was “contained.” The White House later emphasised that he was referring to the territory it controlled, although the impression of complacency remained. His later press conference remarks were generally thought to be dispassionate, defensive, and overly focused on domestic political opponents. His point was that his critics were full of fighting words, but when they did make any specific suggestions they were bad ones, such as ‘putting troops on the ground’.

One of the small but significant ways in which those on the right (and beyond) feel that President Obama has been ducking his leadership responsibilities has related to words rather than deeds: his administration’s avoidance of the phrase ‘radical Islam’ or equivalent. (President Obama’s critics failed to note that in his speech, the French President equally never said the words ‘Islam’, ‘Muslim’ or ‘Islamism’.) The administration’s rationale is apparently to avoid associating the majority of the Muslim world with this terrorism, and so disaffecting those with whom the west wants and needs to be allies against extremism. This is not just liberal political correctness – the previous administration took the same approach most of the time. However, you can I think also make the opposite argument: by recognising that in its extremism ISIS believes it represents a ‘pure’ form of Islam, you more accurately identify the challenge for the Muslim world in extinguishing what needs to be left behind to the ashes of history.

A better – more direct, more commanding – reaction came from David Cameron in his statement to the House of Commons on Tuesday:

“[T]o defeat this terrorist threat in the long run we must also understand and address its root cause. That means confronting the poisonous ideology of Islamist extremism itself. As I have argued before, that means going after both violent and non-violent extremists – those who sow the poison but stop short of actually promoting violence; they are part of the problem. …It cannot be said enough that the extremist ideology is not true Islam, but it does not work to deny any connection between the religion of Islam and the extremists, not least because the extremists themselves self-identify as Muslims. There is no point denying that; what we need to do instead is take apart their arguments and demonstrate how wrong they are, and in doing so we need the continued help of Muslim communities and Muslim scholars. …We cannot stand neutral in this battle of ideas. We have to back those who share our values with practical help, funding, campaigns, protection and political representation. This is a fundamental part of how we can defeat this terrorism both at home and abroad.”

In contrast, in his response Jeremy Corbyn naturally condemned the attacks and expressed solidarity with France, but also put more emphasis on ‘community cohesion’, anti-racism, protecting civil liberties as well as policing and border staff budgets, and urged that we should not be: “…drawn into responses that feed a cycle of violence and hatred.” But there was no mention – no description or analysis – of the nature of the threat, which is surely the starting-point for constructing any argument about how we should respond.

Corbyn had trouble finding all the right words all week. He suggested in an interview that he was  “unhappy” at any ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy against terrorists – then said “of course” he supported the use of “strictly necessary force”. On Saturday morning, Corbyn had to cancel a speech he was due to make that afternoon when he realised that his proposed attack on the foreign policies of recent governments was inappropriate (Corbyn had been due to say that “for the past 14 years, Britain has been at the centre of a succession of disastrous wars that have brought devastation to large parts of the wider Middle East. They have increased, not diminished, the threats to our own national security in the process.”)

Pressed to distance himself from the Stop the War coalition (which until recently he used to chair), who in pretty much identical terms blamed the Paris attacks on western foreign policy (Paris reaps whirlwind of western support for extremist violence in Middle East’), he merely – and disingenuously – said he would not use their “language”. Before Paris, his response to the drone strike that killed Mohammed Emwazi was to question its legality and express the preference that he should have been put on trial instead.

I often don’t agree with him, but Nick Cohen writing in The Spectator identified what may Corbyn’s problem: “Corbyn and the left he comes from cannot campaign for office by saying what they really think or they would horrify the bulk of the population. …A chorus of approval …accompanied Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour’s leader. He was authentic… an honest man making a new politics. Far from being authentic, Jeremy Corbyn is one of the most dishonest politicians you will see in your lifetime.”

Too harsh – but not without some truth to it.

There is a real need to calmly and rationally discuss how the west – how the world – can counter ISIS and Islamic extremism. There do need to be dissenting voices brave enough to avoid bravado and resist easy talk of ‘war’, and to put forward considered and historical analysis of how we got here, what western governments are responsible for, and importantly, what they’re not.

But this week, Jeremy Corbyn lost his words. He has lost his colleagues. It may not be too long before he also loses his job.

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