January 28, 2018No Comments

Shiraz Maher’s Salafi-Jihadism: The History of An Idea

I read this in tandem with Adonis' Introduction to Arabic Poetics, which I'm burning to write about. But this, it was a fascinating "in-the-weeds" analysis of the origins and overwhelming resilience of Salafi-Jihadism as a soteriology and political doctrine. The book is structured around specific categories that Maher describes as forming the Salafi-Jihadist project of "progress through regression" - itself a brilliant way to put it, and approach thinking about it.

The categories as I've previously noted were:
"al-walā wa-l-barā", the lines of loyalty and disavowal for the sake of Allah.
"takfīr", which delineates Islam against everything else and protects it against insidious corruption from within. e.g excommunication, banishment from the faith.
"tawhīd and hākimiyya" which explain what legitimate authority should look like and who it should serve. e.g how God's sovereignty is established within a political system.
and "jihad", the method of revolution. Literally means to exert of effort or struggle but also has a legal definition of combat or fighting.

I found this book comprehensive and considerably deepened my understanding of the current conflict in Syria, its international implications as per global terrorism and the various regional conflicts of the last three decades.

January 5, 2018No Comments

Reading Salafi-Jihadism


I've found Shiraz Maher's book on the history of Salafi-Jihadism to be a brilliant study on contemporary Islamic extremism. I recently picked it up from a bookstore after finishing research on In Our Mad and Furious City last year. Call it residual curiosity. Usually I tend to read around the subject matter for projects I'm working on at the time. A method of immersion I suppose, loose research I'd call it. Loose, since these things have a tendency to swim around in the subconscious. I try not to be too directed or forceful with it, but find the reading vital.

Maher's book is comprehensive so far, setting up how we may define Salafism and the evolution of Jihadism, key scholars in its study, typologies and terminology. Cited so far are the likes of Quintan Wiktorowicz, Muhammad Hafez, Thomas Hegghammer. If I'm ever to do further study, I can start here.

Interesting to note is Maher's categorisation of Salafi political preference, where 'methods for change' may be split into categories such as: Violence, Activism or Quietism. The attitudes toward the state or institutional order may be defined under these categories as the rejection of, challenge to, or advisory respectively. This is interesting given the current protests in Iran and the recent policy changes in Saudi Arabia which seems to have been instigated internally.

Maher concentrates on the violent-rejectionists Salafis for the purposes of the book, detailing the history of the ideology. The five essential categories of Salafi-Jihadism according to Maher are concerned with protection and promotion of Salafism (a purist or conservative form of Islam that seeks to revive the practices of the first three generations of Muslims - the al-salaf al-sālihīn or 'pious predecessors').

The five categories are as follows:

al-walā wa-l-barā - lines of loyalty and disavowal for the sake of Allah.

takfīr - delineates Islam against everything else and protects it against insidious corruption from within. e.g excommunication, banishment from the faith.

tawhīd and hākimiyya - which explain what legitimate authority should look like and who it should serve. e.g how God's sovereignty is established within a political system.

jihad - the method of revolution. Literally means to exert of effort or struggle but also has a legal definition of combat or fighting.

I will be looking to read this as in relation to so called 'lone-wolf' terrorism. Those who have no discernible contact with direct networks but are sufficiently inspired by the cause. I think about the young men who killed Lee Rigby, the Manchester Arena bomber or the 7/7 attackers. It is one of many concerns at the heart of In Our Mad and Furious City, how young minds can be so taken with their own violent compulsions and what it means for our own proximity to all forms of extremism within society.

November 28, 2017No Comments

Finding Room

I slept on the floor of my study this afternoon. The night was the third, fourth in a row now, where for a series of reasons I haven't been able to sleep for long hours. There seems to be an organised attempt by my two cats to instigate a daily routine better suited to them than for me. One of the cats, a brown long hair, is missing my wife's presence and patience at home. He has become grouchy. He insists upon waking up at 3am to scream at the lights, the walls, the front door, the wind outside. I wake, I pet his coat, he settles and I bury my head under the pillow.

In the early mornings the writing comes out like clay. Though the mood I wake up with still feels good. Perhaps it's the lack of sleep, or morning coffee, but the words that emerge on the page have odd glints of something new buried in them. Every so often though, a great flood comes out where I have to clear it of the lumps. And that's tiring. And that's when I need to rest. But instead I reach for coffee.

Space has helped, my own space and some stillness after a frantic autumn spent clearing away and invoicing for unimaginative work. But now, with this stillness, moments of good clay feels like progress. My thoughts seem to be scented somehow with the research. It feels wonderful, it all seems to have come from unfamiliar corners of my mind. Definitely the research, I think. The things I've been reading.

Islamic art and architecture, for instance. That's new. European and American anarchist history too, which has come to fascinate me. And the politics of the PKK in Northern Syria and their particular form of Kurdish Democratic Federalism. I've also been returning to and discovering writers like Abdullah Öcalan, Robert Irwin, Ezra Pound, Günter Grass, Anakana Schofield, Tayeb Salih, Machado De Assis and many others.

I remember Maggie Nelson speaking about this. Each book is a sort of performance of a writer burning through their obsessions. Agreed, I think. I like her idea of burning through. Particularly since my first book In Our Mad and Furious City is being sent out by my publisher now, and is in the hands of new readers. I seem to have made room. Given myself yet more space to set something else alight and begin again.

I am being swept up feels like, by some new thing which will inevitably dictate the next few years of daily routine.

Hisham Matar speaks about this too, doesn't he? I vaguely remember something he said, something about being able to denote periods of his own life by what he was working on at the time. Each of his works, he said, dictated where he was, how he spent his days, how his life was shaped by the subject. Each three year period assumed the texture of the work.

In Our Mad and Furious City felt like a scream, like running. This new book, I don't know. But I'm curious. Anyway, the other cat is eating the houseplants and is need of my attention.

October 19, 2017No Comments

Meanwhile on Medium

While I'm setting this site up, you might want to check out my Medium, where I've been writing for the last few years. Mainly about video technology, making the internet fairer for artists and sometimes books and politics. Don't worry, I'll transfer some of the best stuff here. Anything below this point, regard as as archive.

March 8, 2012No Comments

Uganda’s Missing Narrative

Alfa’s Second Story

There was a young man, hardened eyes, who spoke to us about justice. We knew him as Alfa, no last name. Formerly abducted by the L.R.A at 15, he was now being sheltered among other former abuductees behind corrugated walls and chicken wire at a vocational training school in Pader, Uganda. ‘Former abductees’ was the given term – ‘child soldiers’ had connotations, we were told. Alfa was the one who approached us at first, pensive but with a broad smile, “So this camera here, it takes video too?” he had asked us as we past by the scrawny tree he was resting against. He had a blue biro between his fingers which he kept fidgeting with, biting the nib, tapping. Yes, we nodded, it takes video.

When we sat down with Alfa, we asked him to tell us two stories; one about his past and one about his future. He spoke about his former life as if he had told it a million times before. A terrible tale, ripped from his childhood, innocence beaten out, and a daring escape during a crossfire. When it came time to speak about his future however, he stopped. He simply looked at us and said, “you don’t want to talk about that.” He smiled. “Why?” we had asked. “Because,” Alfa gave out a breath and put his pen in his pocket. “It’s boring. It goes nowhere.” The first story lasted thirty minutes,  it had guns, bullets and slaughter. His second story lasted only five words yet was far more tragic. Those second stories never get told.

When Did It Become All About Us?

As I write, the #KONY2012 phenomenon is sweeping the Twitter-verse taking our Facebook timelines  along for the ride. On April 20th you might well be waking up to your city plastered with photos of a man who despite a generation long campaign of murder, kidnapping and rape, has mostly gone unknown among our popular culture. A 30 minute documentary from American NGO Invisible Children calling on young people everywhere to ‘make Joseph Kony famous’ has been an unprecedented success in terms of raising awareness and causing a swell in popular interest about the long running conflict.  The film paints Joseph Kony as the monster he is – the bad guy – and that the problem we face is that our governments won’t do anything about him unless we make it impossible for them not to. If we succeed in persuading them to act – we become the good guys. As this campaign gathers steam however, so has the criticism. The issues most touted lies beyond the style, beyond the immediate story and beyond the fuzzy feeling of being part of something special. This issomething special, no doubt about that, but what that something exactly is remains difficult to pin down.

Let’s take a moment to reflect. We watched this video, well produced, we liked the music. The kid was cute. Compelling idea. For me, it ticked all the boxes it could have possibly ticked in terms aesthetic appeal. Now what? Link it across my streams, watch the ‘likes’ rack up, perhaps join a few friends in painting the town red on April 20th. If you were to ask me why? I would genuinely say I believe it to be right. That I don’t want to live in a world where a man like Joseph Kony does what he does without consequence. But then, when did it all become about us?

My point is that when you stick up a photo of a wretched, evil man and tell me I can stop him doing this to a young woman, then hold up a photo of the young woman, lips sliced off, limbs butchered and rendered stubs, I’m going to agree with you. Sure, absolutely, yes, let’s stop him. My considerations then follow the narrative laid out for me and so too with the compelling call to action which is to be part of a global meme, and thus history.

I happen to believe, however, that how you do something is just as important as what you do.

When Doing Something Is Not Better Than Doing Nothing

There has been a wealth of writing about Invisible Children, some vitriolic, others fair minded criticism of its role as an NGO. It seems to have a development as well as a campaign element at it’s core and it is this uneasy balance that has garnered most of the heat. When CODOC were in Uganda in 2010 we had the opportunity to speak to many NGO’s on the ground. There is incredible work being carried out in collaboration with local communities to bring northern Uganda back from the brink. Many of those we spoke to were happy to stay out of the limelight; they ‘did development, not flashmobs’ they would tell us. It would be safe to say, however, that there was a healthy scepticism of IC and what they felt translated from the campaigns and the reality behind the ‘calls to action’. Campaigning for troops on the ground for example, whether in an advisory capacity or not, should flag up concerns among those who had called their congressmen and governors to do something in their name.

This piece of legislation in particular, promoted by IC among college campuses and advocacy rally’s calls on the US government to help  militarily eliminate the LRA. Dwell on this, for a moment. The LRA is reported to be 90% made up of abducted children – military defeat would mean engaging in combat and targeting of the very victims of this war; these children are the LRA. The UPDF by the way are also connected to atrocities committed during the conflict. The legislation also gives no hint as to a time frame for US military withdrawal from Uganda. I’m not sure what those college kids were signing but would they really have signed up for that to be carried out in their name?  Forgive me, but if I were to break it down for a five year old, I would say: More Guns In Africa Are A Bad Idea. Lets Not Do That.

Film is a powerful platform to get a message across. It is absolutely natural and indeed honest that we wish to do something substantial to help. When we are offered a way to do it, it’s also natural that we respond in a way that we think might make a difference. But making a difference to what end? The #makekonyfamous campaign is a good idea, and those that call it naive and tasteless ought to dial it down. Taste depends on whose asking. I happen to think a Holocaust Memorial where visitors get given a bracelet with a number on it upon entry and then get told if they have ‘died’ or not by the exit is pretty tasteless, but that happens. The problem is not with the style it’s with the substance – at the very least misleading, at the worst it could be dangerous. At the same time, it really is on us – not the plucky guys from Invisible Children – who are at fault. No-one forces us to hashtag anything, we do it by our own volition and thus the responsibility ultimately lies with us.

Voices From The Ground

The final point I would make is that we have a tendency to get wrapped up in our own experience and sometimes that can fuel a personal drive to help – IC’s backstory in this instance is well documented and should be commended – we here at CODOC are all about the personal take. But when it goes to the extent that this gets in the way of truly listening to those who actually live the horrors of which we only get snapshots of day in day out, that is when we become the bad guys. The problem with only having a singular narrative is that our opinions suddenly exist in an echo chamber. Words and slogans come back to us amplified and reaffirm our own held convictions, however hollow. We desperately need to step back from paternalistic instincts to help an ‘ailing Africa’. These people are strong and have a spirit unlike any I have witnessed. The very fibres of CODOC were wrought under those Ugandan skies and the people have left a deep, deep impact on our own perspectives on how best we can collaborate with them. Dialling a complex and nuanced issue to bare essentials absolutely works to get the point across in immediacy but without fully engaging with the responsibility of action – we could end up hurting those we seek to help.

In 2010 we spent a month with the Acholi people of northern Uganda, listening to their stories. We came away struck by their capacity to forgive. The Acholi speak softly, even timidly about themselves, their stories and their land. What hope do their voices have against the clamour of our own? If you’d like to help, watch the two clips below of our documentary ‘Forgive Me Mother’, and make up your own mind.

Please do spread the word for KONY2012, by all means write letters, email and make a noise. Painting the night sounds good to me – just do so with an informed opinion. I’d like to direct you to two sources that have been of immense value in terms of highlighting the underlying issues: Resolution:Possible (friends of ours) and The Enough Project. Start there.

January 16, 2012No Comments

Interviewing Guatemala’s President Molina

Guatemala has a history that reads of passive, unequal, bordered societies, apathetic to powers manipulating its whims. A phantom state now exists, sucking up all its limited resources, a funnel in full view, siphoning moneys into pockets unknown. Everyone knows, no-one speaks, only shrugs of malcontent. After so much subjection is it no wonder small voices calling for democracy, accountability and fundamental institutions are swatted away by bullies, drug-lords and jack boots while lawmen look the other way?

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January 6, 20122 Comments

Freedom Of Speech In Guatemala

At it's initiation CODOC had a mission which transposed two inter-dependent dynamics at it's heart. To combine smart, direct storytelling with a distinct aesthetic together with an honest, transparent approach to journalism. Our first film, a feature documentary on Sri Lanka's civil war had just won us an award and by the end of the year we were given the opportunity to take our concept to an international broadcaster.

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December 10, 2010No Comments

On Northern Uganda: Documenting Scar Tissue In Uganda

I had a rare moment of reflection tonight. While the Lady packs her copious yuletide surprises I went through all the material we shot in Northern Uganda. The reels are all stored - nameless - on a hard-drive we affectionately named 'Matooke'. Clicking through each file feels like a digital carousel brimming with snapshots of stories waiting to be told. I feel that when Heidi gets the time to dust off the ferris wheel and takes that ride it'll yield some kind of soaring beauty.

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July 25, 2010No Comments

Uganda – “Oh Kampala”


Kampala, Uganda

By now I have become accustomed to dusty capitals of the developing world. Dirty, people swamps where time no longer exists in the languid lazy haze of village life but exists in a funk where everyone is chasing more of it. One foot out of the bus from Gulu and a hundred hungry faces greet us ushering us this way and that, to this cab or the other - each swearing blind that the hostel we are to stay at is in a part of town they know like the back of their grabby hands. A world away in the remote areas we spent the last few weeks, we grew to hate roosters and their clucking - jarring shrieks among a calm quietude of the dewy forests. Now the chickens and hens run around our feet but their clucks are lost among the clatter of people, money and incessant urgency. A million mutato taxi vans converge into chaos on the busiest roads, motorbikes seem to squeeze pedestrians into huddled moving masses.

We were greeted by a friendly little Ugandana man who had biro-scrawled a Heidi Lindvall meeting card at the bus station. We piled our bags into a beat up Datsun but after repeated efforts to push the jalopy into ignition we were reduced to lugging our suitcases into a second car which sped away to our 'destination'. Now our hostel is peculiar, signs on our bathroom doors indicate where we can deposit our used condoms. Hmm. Might our hostel be some sort of upmarket destination of ill-repute? The warm showers and the locality to fast internet access begs us stay put. I will not use the soap.

We only have two nights in Kampala, I am relieved to report. We have made contact with our interviewee at Unicef so we should get around to meeting him tomorrow afternoon. Beyond that we will sample the food and head to Cairo on Wednesday where we are bound to run into more grabby hands - but a much needed break awaits, our bones are weary and our shoulders are rippled with stress.

London this time next week.

July 24, 2010No Comments

Uganda – “Principled Approach”


Gulu, Uganda

Offline for a week spent under mosquito nets, swinging in hammocks in a pitch dark mud hut in Northern Uganda. We spent time with formerly abducted young women. Most were used as mules, wives or sex slaves by the top commanders in L.R.A whilst hidden in Southern Sudan. This was before they were flushed out and fled to the DRC where they now hide-out. The interviews conducted here were nothing short of extraordinary. We spent the week listening and recording stories of incredible hardship softly spoken from some of the strongest women I have ever met. The Childvoice International centre provided us with a perfect nurturing environment where questions submitted by our reporter Heidi could be answered in confidence with support. As I have mentioned here before, our sojourn into Africa would priovide us with a testing ground for our principled approach to journalism and documetnary making, where we put the emotional integrity of our subjects before anything else. What we found here re-affirms our commitment to pursuing an approach where the recording the stories we find here would not entail the manipulation of the storytellers. We have heard stories where this has happened here before, where the tears of the African weakest have been used to pursue a means to satisfy a hunger for the linear narrative. Every interviewee we have spoken to so far I have felt that our persistence in our approach has paid off.

We are in Gulu now, back in a dusty town with sit-down toilets and warm-(ish) showers. We are trying to set up an interview with Unicef in Kampala, where we are to travel tomorrow morning. This has proven difficult as the Afrian Union Summit has heightened security around Kampala and thus the doors to orginizations have been closed on the very days we are set to arrive. We will keep trying.

I crave my mothers cooking.