Tag Archives: David Kilcullen

What I Am Reading 26th September 2009

  1. The Boy Who Followed RipleyPatricia Highsmith. Refreshing assumptions of amorality, selfishness and ruthlessness. I’ve not found Highsmith’s short stories so enjoyable, and the Ripley series, of which this is the fourth, tails off a bit too. But it’s still fun. And Ripley as a character strongly reminds me of a good friend of mine. More for reasons of style and decisiveness than a total lack of moral compass. (Nor does my friend emit the startling flashes of anti-semitism that trouble me in Highsmith’s Ripley books.)
  2. The One from the Other: A Bernie Gunther MysteryPhilip Kerr. Ex-cop, ex-SS man, current private investigator Bernie Gunther is still poking around the affairs of Nazis, this time as they try to flee to new identities in 1949, post World War Two defeat. Always best when bringing Germany vividly to life pre, during or post war. This one, so far, flags only during a trip outside that familiar territory to Tel Aviv & Cairo, along with Adolf Eichmann of all people. (To be fair, in A Quiet Flame: A Bernie Gunther Mystery, Gunther’s wanderings round Nazi haven Argentina were convincing.) Hard boiled Chandleresque.
  3. Still reading:The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big OneDavid Kilcullen. (See previous reference to jihadist v. takfriri.) Kilcullen quotes a Chinese Colonel Qiao: “The first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules, with nothing forbidden.” Apparently he said that strong countries would not use “unrestricted warfare” against weak countries because “strong countries make the rules while rising ones break them and exploit loopholes… The United States breaks UN rules and makes new ones when those rules don’t suit its purposes, but it has to observe it own rules or the whole world will not trust it.” This was in the context of US complacency about threat levels pre-9/11.
  4. Finished: Death at the President’s Lodging (Classic Crime)Michael Innes. One of those attractively presented Penguin Crime Classics. Thankfully a lot less annoying than The Moving Toyshop (Classic Crime), but still far too contrived. The solution is revealed thanks to the injection of “the unexpected aid of three precocious undergraduates.” In other words, after much brow furrowing and erudite conversation, a new eye witness appears near the end of the story with vital evidence, making most of what has gone before irrelevant. Er, isn’t that cheating?

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Language wars

In any conflict or dispute, setting the terms, choosing the terrain, defining the terms can be decisive.

In the ongoing political battle over taxation in the UK for instance, fixing in voters minds the concept of a “death tax”, rather than a redistributive inheritance tax, skews the argument one way right from the beginning.

Here’s another example that caught my eye. It’s from David Kilcullen’s book  about counter insurgency, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. (See previous post.) He’s trying to label his enemy in such a way as to delegitimise them in the eyes of Muslims – to make the Islamic sea an inhospitable place for so-called terroristic fish. Here’s a passage from the preface:

“I use the term takfiri to describe the enemy’s ideology, and the phrase “takfiri terrorist” to describe those who use terrorism to further that ideology. The doctrine of takfir disobeys the Qur’anic injunction against compulsion in religion (Surah al-Baqarah: 256) and instead holds that Muslims whose beliefs differ from the takfiri’s are infidels who must be killed.

“Takfirism is a heresy within Islam: it was outlawed in the 2005 Amman Message, an initiative of King Abdullah II of Jordan, which brought together more than 500 ulema (Islamic scholars) and Muslim political leaders from the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League in an unprecedented consensus agreement, a ‘unanimous agreement by all Muslims everywhere as represented by their acknowledged most senior religious authorities and political leaders.’ Al Qa’ida is takfiri, and its members are universally so described by other Muslims, whom they routinely terrorize.

“In my view [David Kilcullen’s view, that is], and compellingly for me in the daily vocabulary of most ordinary local people, religious leaders and tribal leaders with whom I have worked in the field, ‘takfirism’ best describes the ideology currently threatening the Islamic world.

“I prefer it to the terms jihad, jihadist, jihadi, or mujahidin (literally  ‘holy war’ or ‘holy warrior’), which cede to the enemy the sacred status they crave, and to irhabi (terrorist) or hiraba (terrorism), which address AQ’s violence but not its ideology.

Takfiri is also preferable to the terms salafi or salafist, which refer to the belief the true Muslims should live like the first four generations of Muslims, the ‘pious ancestors’ (as-salaf as-salih). Most extremists are salafi, but few salafi believers are takfiri, and even fewer are terrorists: most, although fundamentalist conservatives, have no direct association with terrorism.”

So – is this a credible attempt to come up with a better term than “jihadist”? Is it more accurate than “terrorist”? Or is it nothing more than a self-interested transparent attempt by one side to undermine the other by resetting the definitions?

Can it catch on? It is sometimes difficult to budge accepted terms from the popular and journalistic lexicons – hence the persistence of the term “joyriders”, despite efforts to rebrand them as “death drivers” or something similar.

Any thoughts from Muslims out there on the appropriateness or otherwise of takfiri in this context? Is it right? Does it work for you?

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What I’m reading 14th September 2009

1. Just started The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One byDavid Kilcullen. (Counterinsurgency – particularly in Iraq. I spoke to Kilcullen once, friendly, in a rush. The book is supposed to be good. Let’s see.)

2. Death at the President’s Lodging (Classic Crime) byMichael Innes. (Murder mystery in an Oxbridge-type college. I’m less optimistic about this one.)

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