Edinburgh International Book Festival
25th August 2017
Today’s event here in the Garden Theatre was another one of those that punches above its weight. Sometimes the events with big ‘name’ writers can descend into chit-chat, which is entertaining in itself but can be froth rather than strong coffee. Events featuring distinguished academics or experts within a specialised field who do not, however, necessarily have the glitz and glamour of a celeb, are often where there is much more substance. Judge the weight of the two main speakers. Richard English is Professor of Politics at Queen’s University Belfast, and Distinguished Professorial Fellow in the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, and Fellow of so many other august bodies that our chairman, Australian broadcaster Michael Williams, had to apologise for not reading all of them out as we only had an hour available. Alongside, but by no means playing second fiddle, was Mark Muller Stuart QC, a distinguished Human Rights lawyer and expert in the ways in which negotiations with terrorists take place. The event itself shared its title with that of Professor English’s recent book – Does Terrorism Work?
Just a quick word about the way Michael Williams carried out his function. I had a chance to talk to him afterwards, and I commented that it had been bold to inject humour into the proceedings. For example, when he invited questions from the audience, he appealed for a female questioner, because so far, with three men talking on the stage, it had been ‘a sausage-fest’. He told me that he had seen his function as providing the ‘air’ in which the two main participants moved and operated. In fact this levity, almost flippancy, was no bad thing, as it prevented the whole event from going beyond seriousness into sombreness.
Michael first steered the talk to the issue of why it was necessary to ask this question – whether terrorism worked – at all, and Richard English was able to respond with a detailed yet condensed twofold answer. Terrorism, he said, is a way that people use to bring about socio-political change, and we can’t claim to understand the phenomenon of terrorism until we know whether it achieves that change, so there is an analytical value to the question. The practical value is that we are only able to respond appropriately to terrorism if we understand the ways in which it does or does not do what its practitioners intend it to do. Richard English was quick to state that of course it is not a popular question to ask – one reviewer described his book as “morally repellant” – and that the whole issue of ‘terrorism’ is often useful to people other than its practitioners, for example thrusting the label of ‘terrorism’ on a particular group can be an efficient way of closing down debate and suppressing discussion.
Mark Muller Stuart, in talking about how ‘non-state mediation’ came about, cited the post-9/11 ‘with-us-or-against-us’ paradigm put in place by President Bush and Tony Blair MP, which outsourced the definition of terrorism from the international community to individual states. The result of this was that it saw the definitions broaden to include any and all groups who used violence, or considered its necessity, to effect socio-political change. This in turn threw up all kinds of questions about issues such as the right to self-determination, which is defined under international law, and for which some leeway exists in that international law when it comes to resistance to oppression. This whole situation closed down the possibility of states or groups of states being involved directly in negotiations with movements they had outlawed, and made it necessary for those negotiations to be carried out in private by a body not associated with any state.
This was the substance of only the first ten minutes of the event, which will give you some idea of its intensity. Both main speakers talked very rapidly, but crucially they were clear-thinking and articulate, which means that nothing was lost, nothing passed the audience by.
I won’t attempt to summarise the rest of the session, but I will mention a couple of items that were brought up. Firstly Richard English made the point that research has indicated that the overwhelming majority of people who practice terrorism are, to all intents and purposes, normal, rational people – people with homes and families, with daily lives – rather than some kind of psychopath. They see, rightly or wrongly, violence as the only way to achieve a definite political aim. Far from being people to whom, according to the rhetoric of those they oppose, there is no point in or no moral justification for talking, it is often possible to end a campaign of violence without giving a terrorist group what it wants – Northern Ireland and the Basque region of Spain being two examples – but conceding something that the terrorists’ supposed constituency can be content with. A group such as ISIS, on whom there is much current media focus, is atypical, but that very media focus obscures the reality of other groups.
Secondly, in answer to a question from the audience about the female fighters in the cause of Kurdish Liberation, the point was made that the motivation behind their participation was often complex, and ranged from a belief in the cause itself to a wish to escape from a traditional life back home.
Both Richard English’s book Does Terrorism Work? and Mark Muller Stuart’s Storm In The Desert, about Britain’s intervention in Libya, are weighty, and neither is particularly cheap. But I now have a copy of each and I will reach for them. Several of Professor English’s lectures are available on YouTube, but I have decided to offer a link to a shorter piece by Mark Muller Stuart which he delivered to an audience in Glasgow last year.
This has been my last event at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, I enjoyed it and the whole Festival immensely, and I’m already looking forward to more of the same next year.
Reviewed by Paul Thompson