The royal family of the United States takes some heat as the fate of American health care hangs on a few votes. President Trump once said that when it comes to health insurance, he would cover everyone. He lied. Meanwhile the crown prince of America, Jared Kushner, and Mohammed Bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia, play house with foreign policy. This week on the podcast: Intercept columnist and Al Jazeera host Mehdi Hasan fills in for Jeremy Scahill. With the Muslim travel ban heading to the Supreme Court, Intercept reporter Murtaza Hussain and Palestinian author and journalist Rula Jebreal discuss the global consequences of the House of Trump’s meddling in the Middle East. British historian Tom Holland joins Mehdi for a heated debate on the role of Islam within the Islamic State — is religion the motivation behind terrorist attacks, or is it merely used as a justification after the fact? Plus, actor Bill Camp reprises his role as the “SIGINT Philosopher,” the failed novelist turned newsletter columnist for the NSA, and answers an ethical question. Spoiler: It involves Captain Jack Sparrow.
President Donald J. Trump: My fellow Americans, millions of families across our nation are suffering under the disaster known as Obamacare. But now, that’s changed! I’ve just raised the stakes. Go with our plan. It’s the best of the best.
Female Speaker: Tens of millions of people losing their health insurance.
DJT: There’s nothing better than that!
Male Speaker: A minimum of 22 million people.
DJT: It’s going to be terrific.
Senator Al Franken: One to 2,000 people will die.
DJT: Treat yourself to the very, very best life has to offer.
Male Speaker: In some ways, it’s more evil. In some ways, it’s even dumber.
Senator Elizabeth Warren: These cuts are blood money. People will die.
DJT: It’s going to be terrific. You’re gonna be very, very happy. And I mean that in every sense of the word.
[“Call the Doctor,” J.J. Cale]
Somebody call for a doctor
I think I’m sick
Ain’t had my medicine in over a week
My mind’s fine
But my body feels weak
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
Mehdi Hasan: I’m Mehdi Hasan, sitting in for Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., and this episode 21 of Intercepted.
DJT: I am going to take care of everybody. I’m — I don’t care if it costs me votes or not. Everybody’s gonna be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now. And I’m not gonna cut Medicare or Medicaid. Save Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security without cuts. Have to do it.
MH: Donald Trump said that when it comes to health insurance, he would cover everyone; that he wouldn’t let people die in the street because they lacked access to affordable health care; that he wouldn’t cut Medicaid.
Lies, lies, and more lies.
But for once, it isn’t Trump’s serial fabrications that bother me so much. They’re a given. They’re baked in. Nor is it the sheer cynicism of the Republican leadership in the Senate, which decided Tuesday to delay the vote on its controversial and so-called healthcare bill.
No, what really bothers me is how unnecessarily confusing and complicated and distorted this whole debate is. Again, I’m not just talking about the lies. I’m not just referring to Republicans going on national television and lying about the fact that Medicaid isn’t being cut, when this bill, according to the experts, will usher in “the largest single reduction in a social insurance program in our nation’s history.” I’m not just referring to Republicans going on TV to say no one will be losing their insurance, when the independent Congressional budget office said on Monday that 22 million could be stripped of their health insurance by 2026.
Bernie Sanders: If the bill passed today in the House and became law, thousands of Americans would die because they would no longer have access to healthcare.
MH: I’m talking about Democrats having failed to find the language to make the case for universal healthcare — having failed to find the right words to even make the case for Obamacare. And look, yeah, Obamacare is now more popular than it’s ever been, but that’s only because Trumpcare, if you can even call it that, is so manifestly, blatantly, brazenly bad, awful, inhumane. Up until last week, in fact, there had never been a single poll, which showed a majority of Americans supported Obamacare. And can you blame them, when every time Obamacare is mentioned, even by Democrats, you get a mouthful of irritating jargon?
Jonathan Tasini: The only way to solve the healthcare crisis in general is to go to a single-payer Medicare for all system.
Bernie Sanders: A Medicare for all single-payer system.
Michael Moore: A Medicare of all single-payer.
Kevin Corke: Public option.
Nancy Pelosi: Public option.
Paul Gigot Individual mandate.
MH: How many Americans know and understand what an individual mandate is, or even give a damn about what it is? The level of yawn-inducing technical terms associated with the healthcare debate in this country is just astonishing, as is the lack of imagination. Even on the left, you have people calling for Medicare-for-all. Seriously? That’s the best they can come up with? Medicare-for-all? Wow, catchy.
The alternative to that, by the way, is single-payer. Single-payer? I mean, kill me now. Who comes up with these names? How about the public option? The public option to do what?
Look, guaranteeing healthcare for all your citizens should not be so complicated. Everyone else in the Western world has managed to pull it off without the kind of controversy and divisiveness we see here in the U.S. I’m from the U.K. — maybe the accent gave me away — where the government-funded National Health Service, the NHS, is more popular with the British public than both the Royal Family and the Armed Forces. And I’m convinced that’s because it’s always been clear to the British public what the NHS is and what it stands for. It was founded in 1948 on three core principles: that it meets the needs of everyone; that it be free at the point of delivery; and that it be based on need, not ability to pay. So, you even have conservative prime ministers in the U.K. like David Cameron forced to sing its praise.
David Cameron: Conservatives rely on the NHS, work in the NHS, volunteer to help the NHS up and down the country. This party wants to improve the National Health Service for everyone.
MH: Back in February, President Trump was mocked when he said:
DJT: Nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated.
MH: Now, put the “nobody knew” to one side, which is a typically absurd Trump statement, but take a step back. Why is healthcare such an —
DJT: Unbelievably complex subject.
MH: If the rest of the industrialized countries can guarantee healthcare to all their citizens, why can’t the United States? If the rest of the West treats healthcare as a right, not a privilege, why doesn’t the United States?
DJT: We have a failing healthcare. I shouldn’t say this to our great gentlemen or my friend from Australia, ‘cause you have better healthcare than we do. But we’re going to have great healthcare.
MH: If Australia and Canada and the U.K. can offer viable and popular models of free healthcare for all, why shouldn’t the United States? Now, Republicans may have been forced to postpone a vote on their healthcare bill, but Donald Trump has already had his big win of the week. On Monday, the Supreme Court voted unanimously to bring back a partial version of his travel ban until they’re ready to adjudicate on the whole thing in October. You remember the travel ban. It’s the Muslim ban which Trump says isn’t a Muslim ban, even though he’s the one who said this just 18 months ago.
DJT: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and completely shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on. [Crowd cheering]
MH: Now, a lot of defenders of the ban say it can’t be a Muslim ban because so many Muslim majority countries are excluded from it. But that raises another issue. If national security and counterterrorism are what’s behind this ban, why are countries like Saudi Arabia, which produced 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11, not on the ban list too?
Joining me to discuss this are Rula Jebreal, foreign policy analyst, journalist, best-selling author, who’s in Beirut; and The Intercept’s very own Murtaza Hussain, who’s in New York. Murtaza, Rula, thanks for joining me on Intercepted. Murtaza, the travel ban is partially back. Not fully back. It’s gonna be adjudicated on in October, say the Supreme Court. What’s gonna happen in October? There’s gonna be a lot of activism, I know, especially from critics of the ban, which President Trump is now calling a suspension in his latest statement. What’s gonna happen come October, do you think?
Murtaza Hussain: Well, as you recall, when the ban was first rolled out, there were huge protests at airports. Very inspiring scenes, which went viral throughout the world and actually pushed back against the narrative that the United States is defined by this administration. Clearly, as people showed, it was not. I think what you’ll see now, given that there’s quite a lot of lead time before the ban is litigated again, is you’ll see a lot of legal activism. Already lawyers and legal NGOs are preparing to challenge the ban strictly on judicial grounds. But it remains to be seen how they’ll rule in the end. We still have a lot of time at that period, and a lot could happen between now and then, too. Things could happen. There could be a terrorist attack, which Trump makes — uses to politicize the entire process around whether they get the ban.
MH: Or they could lose a justice from the Supreme Court between now and then.
Murtaza H: Absolutely.
MH: Anthony Kennedy, the famous swing voter on the court, is considering quitting too. So lucky, old Donald Trump — another gift for him. He may get to appoint yet another Supreme Court justice in his first year in office.
Murtaza H: Right. And we can expect that that justice will not be someone who’s favorable to progressive views —
MH: [Laughs] I think that’s an understatement.
Murtaza H: Right.
MH: Rula, how disappointed were you by Monday morning’s Supreme Court decision?
Rula Jebreal: I am currently on — in Beirut. Yesterday, I spent the day on the Syrian/Lebanese border with refugees in one of the I , 200 refugee camps. And I spent the day with children, with women, with orphans, with widows. They were horrified, obviously, and they couldn’t understand why they were on the travel ban while their country for years had financed extremists to fight the regime, and while they couldn’t understand why themselves were on the ban. They felt that they were the victim. They feel that the world has abandoned them. But above all, they feel — they don’t understand why other countries, the countries that gave the United States 15 of the 19 hijackers, Saudi Arabia, is not on the ban. What I saw, a lot of resentment towards the United States, resentment towards the people who did nothing, not even lifted one finger, to help them.
MH: Murtaza, Rula mentioned kind of the stats and then the number of people who’ve been doing some of the killings and where they’re from. It’s a fact, isn’t it, that from these six countries on the travel ban, that Syria, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Libya, not a single national from any of these countries has carried out a fatal terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11?
Murtaza H: Right. That’s what makes it so risible, the idea that this is about security. It’s clearly not about security. So, I think the better way to look at this is a travel ban or a Muslim ban, it’s a ban of Muslims, as Trump promised in his election campaign, but only Muslims we can afford to ban. So, the ones —
Murtaza H: Who are not buying tons of our weapons.
RJ: Not —
MH: Arash Karami the Al-Monitor journalist, tweeted earlier this week, “It’s not a Muslim ban, it’s a Muslim countries that don’t buy weapons from the U.S. ban.”
Murtaza H: Right, exactly. Exactly.
JR: Exactly. Precisely. If Americans think that this is about national security, they are delusional. Trump is basically sending a message: “I don’t want the poor. I don’t want these countries that are war zone.” But what you are doing, you are gifting these kids to all these radical groups.
MH: And you mentioned kind of the massive refugee crisis there is in the world. I saw a stat earlier this week that the United States has taken in 50 percent, I believe, fewer refugees than they did previously under Trump. In fact, it was a Trump official, one of his social media guys, who was trumpeting this fact on social media, that — Murtaza, they just don’t care, do they? I mean, in a sense, you and me and Rula and others can kind of, you know, gnash our teeth and wail about how unfair it all is, but for these guys, it just bounces off. I mean, for them, it’s great. Yeah, we’re not taking any refugees, and who cares?
Murtaza H: No, they’re reveling in the fact that they’re not taking any refugees, which — it’s really disappointing. It’s sort of the abdication of the at least stated role that the United States has aspired to over the past several decades of being welcoming towards refugees. Even very conservative administrations like Ronald Reagan’s administration had a very forthcoming and welcoming policy towards refugees because they saw it as a justification for American exceptionalism and a sign of American confidence and strength. I think that as that confidence has decreased, there’s been greater insularity. There’s been greater paranoia. And now it’s manifested in this administration, which is extremely xenophobic and extremely hostile to very poor, weak, and desperate people — the people America normally gets prestige out of helping. It’s making a show out of humiliating and adding to these peoples’ woe, and I think it’s a sign of general malaise in the political climate in the U.S.
MH: Donald Trump makes you miss Ronald Reagan, eh? That speaks volumes.
MH: Rula, is this a Muslim ban? Because a lot of people would say, well, it’s not a Muslim ban because it’s only a minority of Muslims in the world who are being targeted by it. What would you say to them?
RJ: Yeah, of course it’s a Muslim ban. It’s an absolute Muslim ban. This is a war on diversity and on otherness. And it starts with the poor, it starts with the refugees. It starts on every level. Even the healthcare bill, it’s resemble — something like banning them from hospitals. Now they’re banning basically simple poor people who are desperate from war zones to enter America. This has nothing to do with national security. This has all to do with white supremacists.
MH: And Murtaza, this is gonna be just talking about the Supreme Court. Rula mentioned the court. The ban itself is partially revived. It’s not a full ban. It’s a ban on anyone who cannot prove or have a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States. If you’re related to someone in the U.S., if you have a job offer from someone in the U.S., or you’re gonna be a student at a university in the U.S., you should still be able to get in from one of those six countries in theory, though it’s gonna be a bureaucratic nightmare, isn’t it, Murtaza?
Murtaza H: Absolutely. And as we saw with the first rollout of the ban, whole categories of people were targeted who technically, according to the letter of the law, somewhat ambiguous, but they should not have been targeted. And things are articulated at a legal level, but the implementation for people on — you know, at customs and airports, and how they actually carry out this policy, could be very different. And it’s gonna be a huge nightmare and headache for a lot of people. But more importantly, regardless of, you know, some people are able to — will be able to get in. The most vulnerable people will not, refugees. Secondly, it just sends the same message to the world that America is no longer a welcoming place to vast swaths of the planet.
MH: Which is a deeply depressing message. Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the justices who wanted to bring back the whole ban, not just a partial ban — he wrote that, you know, people would try and get around this with fake relationships, which is always a worry on the right. That people would try to have fake relationships to try and get ‘round this executive order. And I’m kind of thinking about the whole debate in the ‘80s and ‘90s about green cards, which you’ll remember well. Do you remember the movie “Green Card” with Gerard Depardieu and Andie MacDowell?
Green Card Trailer:
Narrator: Two total strangers who entered into a marriage of convenience.
Female Speaker: I now pronounce you man and wife.
Male Speaker: Brontë, is this true?
Andie MacDowell: Yes, but it’s not the way you think.
Narrator: They thought they’d never have to see each other again, until.
Male Speaker: I’m with the investigation department of the INS.
Andie MacDowell: The what?
Male Speaker: The immigration service.
Narrator: The government changed everything.
MH: Are we gonna have a Hollywood version of that called “The Muslim Ban,” where someone tries to get married to try and get ‘round coming in from Syria? Or, I mean, we can laugh about this, but as you say, millions of people are heavily affected by this. It’s gonna be a lot of innocent people who are gonna be blocked from coming into the U.S. And Trump, by the way, guys, is emboldened. I mean, he’s put out a statement saying he’s delighted by all this. You know, he used to call judges, “so-called judges,” but I’m sure he’s very, very, very, very pleased with this Supreme Court verdict.
RJ: Yeah, the United States, it’s no more the country of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Actually, the United States slogan today should be, “Give me your white, give me your money, give me your, your wealth, give me your weapons,” and give me what makes Donald Trump very, very pleased, and that’s all — what is it about? It’s pleasing a thug and a tyrant who is sitting in the White House and has no clue how this will actually embolden extremists and tyrant in the Middle East who will use this to crack down even more, further on their people.
MH: Had the ban not been brought back, a lot of people on the left were worried that if there was a terrorist attack in the U.S., and thank God, there hasn’t been once since Trump was elected president — not by Muslims, anyways. Had there been a terrorist attack by “jihadists,” he would have said, “See? It’s because you didn’t allow me my ban.” Now, God forbid, if there’s a terrorist attack, what’s he — who’s he gonna blame it on next? Because he’s got his — he’s got his — is he gonna say because it was a partial ban, this happened?
RJ: Barack Obama.
Murtaza H: Barack Obama, yeah.
MH: Yeah, okay. That’s always the fallback.
Murtaza H: He’s kind of got a win-win situation because of this because as you said, if the ban had not been in place, he could say, well, because the ban was stopped, this happened. But if the ban is in place, which it is now, at least partially, he can say, “Well, actually, the ban is not enough. This proves that we need even harsher policies to stop this threat because the ban as it currently exists didn’t stop it.”
MH: Or if there isn’t an attack, he can say, “See, it’s because of the ban, see?” He wins — he wins in lots of scenarios, sadly.
Murtaza H: He wins in any scenario. And only because he’s able to package it in a certain way, which he undoubtedly will do.
MH: How much of the reason for the Saudis, or the Egyptians, or the Pakistanis — I mean, let’s not forget, the San Bernardino attacker was from Pakistan. How is it that these countries have been able to stay off all of these lists and bans and sanctions, even though, you know, to the naked eye, they look like they’re more connected to “terrorist” groups and terrorist ideologies in some of the countries on this ban? How have they managed to pull that off? Because they’re of geopolitical value, or because they’re good at lobbying in D.C., or what?
Murtaza H: Well, I think first and foremost, the seven countries which were targeted were countries identified by Obama for stricter entry and exit protocols, even before Trump came to office. So, they’re very much low-hanging fruit. The infrastructure was already there to target these countries. They have hostile relations with the United States and so forth. Other countries, you know — it was said, around the time the ban was first being debated by Trump’s DHS head that, you know, we will add further countries going down the line. So, I wouldn’t actually say that these countries are not gonna be targeted in the future. They’ve indicated they —
MH: Oh, come on, Murtaza. Saudi Arabia’s never gonna be put on any ban list. You know that.
Murtaza H: Saudi Arabia, no. But Pakistan, for instance, or, you know —
RJ: Not even Pakistan, actually. This is — I know for sure from my conversation with many people in the region, especially in the Gulf, the Pakistani — their name was in the first list. They called Mattis, General Mattis, and they called some people in the Pentagon, and they promised them, if there name will be on the list, they will basically ban America from using any operation, any base in Pakistan, or even will cooperate with them on anything. So, basically, they were bullied into taking off that name. That has happened. So, Syria has no way to bully Trump or to pay him. Yemen has no way to bully Trump or to pay him. All these other countries that are on the ban, they are not with — they don’t have any capabilities. They don’t have any military bases. They don’t have any Trump Towers or Trump Hotels. They don’t have any leverage.
MH: Although, Rula, Qatar has a — one of the biggest U.S. military bases in the world. Well, in the region, at least. CENTCOM in Doha, I think 10,000 troops. And yet, that didn’t stop Trump from throwing Qatar under the bus when the Saudis asked him to.
RJ: Yeah, but basically, there’s — and this exposes how dumb the president of the United States, and ignorant, and how the Saudis are very good at, and they played him. He was manipulated, big-time, by the Saudis. While they were dancing with the swords, they basically, they were deciding at that time that Qatar has to become a province of Saudi Arabia. Not because Qatar has done anything out of the usual, but because simply, they have different views. Who killed the Arab Spring? And the principal of the Arab Spring were Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. The whole idea of freedom, democracy, and social justice, they hated it so much that they poured millions of dollars to basically overthrow Morsi in Egypt, and basically shut down. Otherwise, the demands on that list that they sent to Qatar wouldn’t be demands about deporting individual editors and shutting down Al Jazeera. It’s about shutting down free speech and every reformist in the region. That what is it about.
MH: Well, they have this super competent new Crown Prince. We’re told in the U.S. media, in the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times, that he’s this brilliant young man, 31-year-old Mohammad Bin Salman, MBS. He’s gonna privatize the entire Saudi economy. He’s gonna rejuvenate the kingdom. He’s probably gonna let women drive as soon as he’s king. He’s gonna lead a new pro-Western alliance in the region. What do you say to those op-ed writers who tell us such good things about this new Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia?
Murtaza H: Well, you know, under his guidance, he’s been leading the Yemen War, but he’s also been tasked with putting together this alliance. He’s been so bad at allegedly getting Sunni Muslims on Saudi Arabia’s side that the only two countries which are really on their side are the Emirates and Israel.
Murtaza H: This is the Sunni alliance of these two countries, for the most part.
MH: Israel’s a new honorary Sunni country.
RJ: The Muslim NA— they call it the Sunni NATO. Israel, the Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. If I may jump in on this —
RJ: Young, as they call him, brilliant. I don’t know how did they assess his brilliance, since he’s only a 31-year-old, and for two years, he waged wars that destabilized further the region and emboldened more and more al Qaeda and their affiliate. But regarding this prince, usually — and this is what always happen. Usually, there is an established relationship between the Crown Prince and the Pentagon. They usually study abroad. This guy never studied abroad. This guy basically had a personal relationship with Jared Kushner. This is how America’s foreign policy is decided today. If the king, basically the ruler —
MH: The house of Trump and the house of Saud.
MH: It’s two families.
RJ: The ruling family in America and the ruling family in Saudi Arabia get along?
MH: Prince Jared and Prince Mohamed.
RJ: Exactly. Then basically, things can be done and changed. But it’s opening up basically some kind of Game of Thrones in Saudi Arabia and the war that they are waging outside. There’s also a war at home. The reality of this Crown Prince, two years ago, when somebody was asking about women driving, he said, “Oh yeah, the country is not ready yet.” And I remember very well, people were mocking him on social media. And that’s why now you go to prison if you mock this guy on social media in the Emirates and in Saudi Arabia. And they would say, “Well, dude, welcome to the 21st century. Take your time.”
MH: Rula, Jared Kushner, the prince from the house of Trump, was visiting the Middle East last week. He sat down with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel. He went and saw President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. Reports later emerged that it was a very awkward meeting between Kushner and Abbas. There was talk that even — that Trump doesn’t want to do Middle East peace anymore since Kushner came back from the region. What on earth was a 36-year-old former property developer, son-in law of the President, whose family are invested in illegal settlements in the West Bank — what on earth is he doing acting as a peace envoy for the United States of America?
RJ: Well, actually, my Palestinian sources tell me that he was acting as he was Bibi’s spokesperson and advisor. He was basically telling the Palestinian, already discredited, Authority that they need to capitulate totally, allow more settlements, and allow Israel to do whatever they wanted in the occupied territory, and they basically need to give up and recognize the Jewish state. Not even Israel, which, you know, the Palestinian Authority recognized Israel already in the ‘80s. But they want — he was insisting on recognizing it as a Jewish state. The argument against the Jewish state is not only Jews are living inside Israel. There’s two million Palestinians who are citizens. So, what he wanted, basically to create a system where we, as Palestinians, Israelis, we consider ourself second and third-class citizens. And we not only accept and embrace it in favor of a superior race called the Jewish majority — this is what ended the conversation between Abbas and Jared Kushner. And I think Abbas, who was delusional for two seconds thinking that Trump might really want to go and want to have some kind of a legacy in the history as the man that brokered the peace deal, understood that it was a game. And he should have understood it way before.
MH: But Rula, how many times — how many times will Palestinian leaders go to the United States or welcome envoys from the United States and assume that anything’s actually going to change?
RJ: Well, until we have this corrupt, inept, old authority that is the kind of way they think.
MH: In the West Bank.
RJ: Because in the West Bank, exactly, they’re really still thinking that the United States is a fair broker. Somehow, someday, one day, somebody will come. They have no other leverage. The only leverage as Palestinians, and they know it. The Israelis, and that’s why they’re insisting on the Jewish state. The only leverage, it’s one country already. We know that. The fight should be for equal rights. One man, one vote. Israel wants to be called democracy, not tribal state like Saudi Arabia and other areas, or not ethnocracy, or not apartheid, as recently —
MH: You’re saying push — you’re saying push for a one binational state for everyone to live in.
RJ: One binational state full of rights for everybody. And guess what? Actually, Trump is our ally in this. If he wants one state, I think we should take it. I want one state too.
MH: But he said that at that press conference with Netanyahu in the White House.
RJ: Exactly. And Netanyahu, I think — sorry.
MH: Didn’t he say, “I’m not bothered whether it’s two states or one state?”
RJ: Exactly. And he — but Netanyahu was — I’m sure he had nightmares after that, thinking, oh my god, this guy is so crazy that he’s willing to push for that idea. But what Netanyahu and Trump were not talking about, and this is the thing that’s being discussed now. And somebody should have raised it with Kushner. Fine, you wanted to recognize Israel and tell Israelis to take it all? Take it all, my darling. However, give us our voting rights. Give us equality. Give us democracy. I want to see this administration saying no to that.
MH: Rula Jebreal, Murtaza Hussein, than you for being on Intercepted.
RJ: Thank you for having us. Thank you.
Murtaza H: Thank you.
MH: Rula Jebreal is an author, journalist, and foreign policy analyst. She spoke to us from Beirut. And Murtaza Hussein is a reporter at The Intercept.
MH: Up next, I’ll be speaking with a controversial British writer and historian who says you can’t take the Islam out of the Islamic state. Stay with us.
MH: I’m Mehdi Hasan, filling in for Jeremy Scahill this week, and we’re back here on Intercepted.
Amy Goodman: Meanwhile, in Baghdad, Iraq, ISIS has claimed responsibility for a car bomb that killed at least 16 people and wounded 75 others when it ripped through an ice cream parlor Tuesday.
MH: In recent weeks, we’ve seen ISIS direct or at least inspire horrific attacks on civilians across the world, from Kabul to Tehran to London and Manchester in the U.K. Now, every time there’s an ISIS attack, especially in the West, much of the media, especially the rightwing media, are keen to cast the blame on Islam and on Muslims.
Fox News Red Eye: Have you ever noticed, every time there’s an attack, and it happened right after Paris as well, is it — there’s a rush by the progressives to say, “But they’re not Muslims.”
FN: They’re not Muslims.
FN: It’s true.
FN: They’re violent and they’re terrorists, but that’s not — that’s not —
FN: Well, let me ask you, Mike, Well, those guys think they’re the true believers, and they’re doing it because they believe in the —
FN: Right. And that’s the truth.
MH: The British writer and historian Tom Holland has a more measured and nuanced approach, but someone might say his own argument about the links between ISIS and Islam are not that dissimilar to those deployed by FOX News types.
Tom Holland: We have seen the Islamic state in Syria and Iraq draw on scripture to justify maimings, beheadings, slavery, and genocide. We have seen cartoonists murdered in Paris on a charge of insulting Mohammed. And of course, we have the persistent and steady drumbeat in the back of our heads of Islamist plots constantly being foiled.
MH: Holland also says jihadists see themselves as devout Muslims, as “paragons of righteous behavior.” I spoke to Tom Holland recently, and began by asking him how he squares his view with the many real world examples of ISIS fighters in France, in Belgium, in the U.K. who were petty criminals, drug dealers, addicts, with the two guys from Birmingham, England who bought “Islam for Dummies” and “The Koran for Dummies” before going out to fight in Syria, with ISIS’s own leaked recruitment documents, which show a whopping 70 percent of recruits have any knowledge of Islam whatsoever.
Tom Holland: Often, particularly the Western fighters, the narrative is that they were lost, that they were smoking weed that they were fighting, that they were sleeping around. And then suddenly, they had this transformative understanding of God’s purpose. And that’s an absolutely familiar narrative, not just from Islam, from Christianity, from all kinds of conversion. That they were lost and they were found — Amazing Grace. I mean it’s the same kind of idea. So, of course, if you believe that God has saved you, of course you’re going to go and try and find out about God, and try and find out more about it. But if we’re talking about Islamic state, the Western fighters are a minority. The driving force is very much from the Levant, from the Middle East.
MH: Yes, but the study I cited, Tom, was not about Western fighters. It was about ISIS recruits in general, are not the most informed of —
TH: Okay. Well, you’re asking how do I — how do I — what evidence do I have? What evidence do I have? I recently — I made a film that was for Channel 4 here in Britain that was broadcast a couple of weeks ago called “The Origins of Violence.” And what I was interested in, one of the questions that I was asking in that, was why Christians and Yazidis were treated differently by ISIS? And so, I went to the frontline, and I spoke to Christians and to Yazidis who has been — had dealings with ISIS. And I spoke to a Yazidi woman who said that, as she was raped, an Iraqi ISIS fighter quoted the sword verse at her as a justification for what he was doing. Now, it’s perfectly possible to say that that is, you know, a grotesque spin on it. Nevertheless, we wanted to hear from someone who could speak, if not for ISIS, then from the Salafi jihadist tradition. And so, we interviewed a man called Abu Sayyaf, who is a leading Salafist in Jordan. He was in prison with al Zarqawi who many people say was the founder of ISIS. And —
MH: Who was also a thug, not a scholar of any kind.
TH: Yes, absolutely a thug. But Abu Sayyaf is indeed a scholar. And almost every phrase that he has echoes hadiths, echoes phrases from the Koran. And I asked him — you know, I told him what the Yazidi woman had said, and I asked him, “were ISIS justified in killing Yazidi men and enslaving Yazidi women?” And he said, no, they weren’t. And I thought, oh, well, that’s cleared up. And he said, “They weren’t because they were not justified in calling the Caliphate.” And so, then I said, “Well, if they — you know, if the Caliphate was justified, then would they be justified in treating the Yazidis as they did?” And he said, “Absolutely,” and he referred to them as mushrikeen, equating them with the Ayatollahs of Mecca, and —
MH: But Tom, I’m not disputing that there people out there who hold these horrific views.
TH: But Mehdi, he could not be more Islamic. I mean, this is a scholar who’s devoted his life —
MH: Well, no. Come on, Tom. Tom, I’ve read — I’ve read your articles where you say that Western leaders and politicians should not pronounce on what is and what isn’t Islamic, and now you’re telling me that some “jihadi scholar” that you met could not be more Islamic. What qualifies you to say that?
TH: Well, the fact that he’s devoted his entire life to the study of Islam.
MH: [Laughs] Well, so have lots of people. You know very well, Tom.
TH: Well, listen, so, Mehdi, what’s —
MH: I don’t need to read to you the various statements of scholars from Al-Azhar, from Saudi Arabia, from Salafist Saudi Arabia, from across the world, who’ve universally denounced ISIS’s interpretation of Islam. My point is more about the motivations, to come back to the fighter you mentioned who cited the Koran as he raped an innocent woman. Disgusting behavior. But I wouldn’t disagree with your description of it as a justification. I think you and I can agree he’s using it to justify his crimes. But of course, every kind of “terrorist” has some sort of justification. That doesn’t mean it’s why they do it. You know, people go out and commit horrible acts, horrible violence, and unless you’re a psychopath, you don’t want to admit that you’re doing it for no reason, or because you’re a violent person. You want to give it some moral patina. You want to give it some justification after the event. So, that’s my point about the people not — you know, your point about reading the text and going out. I’m saying my position is: That they’re not religious before they get there, as it were. They’re not interested in the actual religion, or the beliefs, or the theology. But once they’re doing what they’re doing, of course they’re gonna look for justifications after the event. And most terrorism scholars, Tom, as you know, don’t say that religion or theology is the main motivating factor. They do cite it in much more to do with identity crises and social factors and political factors.
TH: Well, these — the fighters in ISIS are drawing on the Koran, are drawing on the example of Mohammed, not because these are definitive understandings of them, not because — of course, I entirely accept that they are — Muslims around the world are appalled by them. Nevertheless, there is —
MH: It’s not just they’re appalled, Tom.
TH: Well, but —
MH: Sorry, go on.
TH: I think the issue here is what we mean by Islam. I think — I mean, I think that if you are a Muslim, as you are, you have a sense of Islam as something that exists in a kind of ideal form, maybe in the mind of God. That there is such a thing as real Islam, as true Islam, as authentic Islam. I —
MH: The normative Islam, I think is a fair way of describing it.
TH: No, no. Okay, but the moment you say normative, there also — that also implies that there are kind of heretical forms, that there are extreme forms, but they’re still Islamic.
MH: Yeah, and that’s why I wouldn’t say that they’re — I’ve never been one of those who says ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. I don’t think either of us disagree that they draw on the Koran or they draw on scripture. I don’t think that’s the argument. I — my point is, the motivating factor, what’s leading people to join ISIS, what’s helped the rise of ISIS — if you want to defeat ISIS, religion is not the arena where the debate should be taking place. For example, if it’s about religion and a religious ideology, why didn’t ISIS arise in Indonesia, which is the most populous Muslim country in the world? Why didn’t it arise in Saudi Arabia, the most Salifist, most ideological Muslim country in the world? There’s a reason why it was born in Iraq and Syria, two countries ravaged by war, misgovernance, foreign intervention, all sorts of horrors, which produces horrific groups.
TH: Well, I don’t dispute that. And I mean — and the point is that if you are going through turmoil through — whether it be on the geopolitical level or on the individual level, the ideology that you reach for to clothe what may be your resentments, your anger, your frustrations, is incredibly telling. These people are not, for instance, turning to Marxism. They are not turning to nationalism.
MH: But hold on. On that very note — on that very note, it’s interesting you should raise Marxism. And you talked earlier on about, you know, transformation and being born again. The argument of a lot of terrorism acts — so, people like Olivier Roy, who I’m sure you know in France, who says, “This is not the radicalization of Islam. This is the Islamicization of radicalism.”
MH: His argument is that, you know, modern jihadist terrorism has nothing to do with, you know, the Ottoman Empire or the history of Wahhabism. It actually shares a lot in common with modern forms of dissent.
MH: He says, “It’s an avatar of ultra-leftist radicalism in many ways.”
TH: Yes, but — yeah.
MH: Targeting U.S. imperialism. You know, the same people who are going out to fight the jihad, a lot of them are converts, Tom, as you know. White converts to Islam. 20, 30 years ago, they may have joined socialist or communist groups. A hundred years ago, they would have joined anarchist groups. We’ve always had violent young men who are looking to justify their violence —
MH: In ideological terms.
TH: But why are they not now? And what is it within Islam that is so appealing to them? Why are they not converting to Christianity? Why are they — What is it within Islam — which is specifically —
MH: But Tom, that works both ways. Why is it only happening now? Why is ISIS not around 100, 200, 300, 400 years ago?
TH: Well —
MH: Why is this some very modern phenomenon to do with the crisis in the Middle East, very much so?
TH: Okay. Well, this sense of there being a crisis, and that people look back to the beginnings of Islam to try and find a solution to the crisis that they face is one that has been ongoing for 300 years. And obviously, whenever there is a particular crisis, so there is a particular spike in this kind of response to it. And so, ISIS is very distinctively 21st century, yes. But it is also, it seems to me, part of a continuum that reaches at least back to the 18th century. Why is it happening now? Well, it’s happening now because, as you said, Iraq and Syria —
TH: Are —
TH: Yes, yes, but politics is the incubator of religious convulsion, of religious reform and upheaval and transformation. I think a further aspect, which I think fascinatingly provides an echo of the Christian Reformation, is that the spike in jihadism eerily coincides with the rise of the Internet. And what the Internet has done is to make accessible in a multitude of vernaculars, not just the Koran, but vast collections of hadiths. And so essentially, people who, as you say, are not scholars, but who want to justify what they do, can go online and can look stuff up, and can find anything — and the parallel there —
MH: Yes, that’s true. Although on the other hand, again, I would remind you that a lot of the — no, I agree with that. That is true. There’s definitely a kind of cut and paste Koran. I always point out that Islamophobes and jihadists have a lot in common. They both kind of selectively quote scripture with no actual basis in scholarship. But one thing I would add to that, I would go a step further and say, okay, that’s true in some cases. But what about the evidence which I cited at the start, and I’ll cite again as we come to a close, which is a lot of these people who you’re saying, you know, they’re going online and all that, there’s actually not that much evidence that they are interested in the actual religious arguments. You know, Demos, the British think tank, did a two-year study of convicted terrorists in Britain and Canada, and they found that not only do they have shallow conception of Islam, their degree of interest “in the actual teachings of the Koran was fairly minimal.” And this is what I’m trying to get to with you. Could we at least agree that, okay, the founders of ISIS, the Baghdadis of the world, they may or may not be interested in some hadith from the seventh century —
TH: Well, he has —
MH: But the recruits, the foot soldiers —
TH: I mean, let’s remember, he has a doctorate in Islamic studies. I mean, he —
MH: Oh, come on, Tom. His doctorate is — do you know what his doctorate’s in? Do know what his PhD is in? I always hear this Baghdadi has a PhD. Do you know what it’s in, Tom?
TH: Tell me.
MH: It’s in — his PhD is in a poem about how to read the Koran. It’s not in any kind of serious scholarship. It’s from the university in Iraq that no one had ever heard of.
TH: Well, it sounds quite Islamic to me.
MH: Until the invasion of Iraq. I mean, and most of the founding fathers of jihadism, as you know, were not Islamic scholars. Bin Laden’s an engineer. Zawahiri’s a doctor.
TH: Yes, yes.
MH: Hassan al-Banna was a teacher.
TH: Yes, yes.
MH: Sayyid Qutb was in education. That’s the truth.
TH: And the echo there is absolutely of the Protestant Reformation, in which the leaders of the Protestant Reformation were tinkers, were tailors, were people who were regarded by the cardinals, by the theologians of the Catholic church with utter contempt because they were absolutely not familiar with these great traditions that the church had taught over many centuries. The situation is exactly analogous. But these jihadi leaders, and indeed, many of the foot soldiers, their response to that is to turn ‘round and say, “Well, look what your scholarship has done. Look where it has led Islam. That’s why we need to pull down this cladding. We need to trample down the nettles, and we need to get back to the unadulterated, unadorned primal Islam” —
MH: But Tom.
TH: Of Mohammed —
MH: But Tom, sorry to cut you off.
TH: And the ancestors.
MH: The point I was trying to make is maybe we can find some common ground. Would you at least agree at the organizations, their leaders on the ground, the Baghdadis of this world, may be interested in scripture and religion, etc., in some shape or form, but there’s a separation between them and the recruits, who are clearly, at least to my mind, the guys you’re seeing blowing stuff up in Paris or London, have every little interest in, very little knowledge in, very little background in the faith? Could we at least separate those two things out? Would you agree that that’s a fair division?
TH: I absolutely agree that they are ignorant and contemptuous of everything that makes Islamic civilization so potent, so beautiful, so inspiring. They do not care about that. What they are drawing on is, I think, a form of mingled supremacism and self-pity. And they cite verses — absolutely, again, I agree, out of context, maybe. But they cite verses that justify them as warriors of God, and particularly as superior to non-Muslims. And this seems to me the concept that is absolutely key to the foot soldiers, many of whom are deracinated, from immigrant backgrounds, feel alienated, obviously, from the mainstream societies in which they live. What they are getting is a sense of themselves as Muslims being superior to non-Muslims. And when that curdles and goes peculiarly toxic, it ends up giving them the sense that they are justified in killing non-Muslims, and that this will get them to heaven. And I have no doubt that the murderers who ran amok in London on London Bridge and in Borough Market believe that they’re going to heaven. I have no doubt that the guy who blew up young girls at a pop concert in Manchester thought as he pulled the trigger that he is going to heaven. That seems to be an utterly —
MH: But let me ask you this.
TH: An utterly religious and indeed Islamic motivation.
MH: Let me ask you this as a final question. If it is — if it is a religious motivation, if it is a religious debate in a religious context that we need to acknowledge much more, what would need to change? Let’s say — let’s say we concede, yes, it’s Islam. I agree with you that Islam’s to blame, Islam’s the driver. A version of Islam is at the core of all of this. What would you change? What would you expect Muslims to do to prevent this kind of violence from happening?
TH: Well, I [laughs] I don’t know because I think that, you know, you look at the Christian Reformation. It took about two centuries for it to blow itself out. I think that no solution to this is going to be adequate that does not draw on what is noblest and most specific within Islam itself. And, you know, your anger, your pain at this is absolutely expressive of that. But I think that that can only be put to that end if it is first acknowledged that these guys are authentically expressive of religious motivation and religious traditions, because only when you acknowledge the sickness can you go about finding the cure.
MH: No, I agree. I agree with that. It’s just that where we disagree is on the sickness. I think acknowledging that is difficult for a lot of us who look at the evidence and don’t see the religious motivations, and don’t see the religious justifications as any kind of genuine justifications. And my worry is — my worry is that, you know, we all go on about religion, religion, religion, and meanwhile, all of those political incubators that you mentioned or ignored, which are the real drivers of all of this. And we — and we are distracted from the problem at hand, and the threat actually grows while we pointlessly talk about reforming in Islam, which has already been reformed in many ways. And some would argue that ISIS is a product of various reformations of Islam.
TH: Well, I think — I think, you know, if we’re talking about the Reformation in the Protestant sense, I think that ISIS are absolutely expressive of a reformation in that sense. But can I just — I mean, from a personal level, I am from a Christian background. And one of the things that I find incredibly painful is the role that the Gospels played in the Holocaust that — that’s not to say that they were responsible, but clearly, the strain of anti-Semitism that was a part of the church’s teachings and which derived from the very core of the New Testament was something that Christians in the wake of the Holocaust had to face up to. And both the Catholic Church and most of the Protestant churches made an effort in the wake of the Holocaust to deal with that issue on the most fundamental theological level. And I think that there are elements within the Koran that likewise have to be looked at. Because like it or not, there are verses within the Koran that are being used to justify the most appalling crimes, and —
MH: Yes, no doubt. And I think at the beginning, I think I said I agreed with you. I think when it comes to the justifications, there’s no doubt that Islamic justifications are being offered, Koranic justifications are being offered. I think that that’s where we definitely agree. And I’m not one of those who says this has nothing to do with Islam. But I would end by saying this. In my view, Tom, it’s — the violent reading of the Koran is not what’s leading to political violence. It’s political violence that’s leading to a violent reading of the Koran. I think that’s where we disagree, is what comes first is where I think we disagree. But Tom Holland, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you very much for joining me.
TH: Thank you.
MH: Tom Holland is a British writer and historian, and author of the book “In the Shadow of the Sword.”
MH: To end today’s show, we’re going to leave you some advice from the SIGINT Philosopher. The Philosopher was a columnist in the NSA’s internal newsletter called SIDtoday, or Signals Intelligence Directorate Today, which The Intercept received through documents leaked by Edward Snowden. In real life, the philosopher was a language analyst with the NSA. He’s essentially a failed novelist who became a spy, and well, this column was as close as he was ever going to get to fulfilling that dream. Today, the Philosopher tries to answer the ethical question of how one follows a policy set forth by their superiors with which they disagree. Spoiler: It involves Captain Jack Sparrow.
Bill Camp: The SIGINT Philosopher. Lessons for civil servants from the American Civil War that don’t concern killing vampires.
I’m an enthusiast of the American Civil War. I’m not proud of this, as I long held that the Civil War was the lone preserve of aging, bearded, paunchy men named [redacted], who would make up for their lack of charisma by memorizing the entire order of battle for Longstreet’s wing at Chancellorsville, or reenacting Chickamauga on the weekends with paintball guns. But eventually, it got to me. It’s hard to resist the compelling nature of the crucible of our nation’s history, especially when I live within two hours of a dozen of the most important battles. I may have even been seen celebrating the 150th anniversary of Antietam in September at Sharpsburg. Not as a reenactor, although I do have an excellent beard.
As I’ve begun to read a little deeper into the war, I can’t help but think that if I had been an advisor to Lincoln at the outset of war in 1861, I’d have probably told him that trying to win such a war was insane. I think I’d have advised him that it was folly to try and fight a war to make a nation as large as the South agree to rejoin the union. Questions I’d have raised might have included: “How will you raise an army? Who will lead it when so many of the best officers are from the South? How will you raise taxes to support it when you have a population that hates taxes? What if Europe intercedes? And what if, by some miracle, we can win this war? How will we govern a people who do not want to be governed, and who may continue a low-level resistance forever?”
My reasoning would have been based on a pragmatic philosophy that I have spent a lot of time developing, and which I can elucidate eloquently. Not as eloquently, though, as Jack Sparrow elucidates the same philosophy when he hits Will Turner upside the head and tells him, “The only thing in this world that matters is what I can do and what I can’t do.” For all my well-reasoned dissent, though, the advice I’d have given Lincoln would have been wrong.
We are all experts, or at least very well informed, about the issues we work. And there is a good chance that, as an expert, you may find that you disagree with our national policy on the issue you work. If you are an expert in information security, maybe you think our cybersecurity posture is weak. If you’re an expert in Zendian foreign policy, maybe you think we’re talking too hawkish or too soft a stance on the Zendian arms embargo. We probably all have something we know a lot about that is being handled at a higher level in a manner we’re not entirely happy about. This can cause great cognitive dissonance for us, because we may feel our work is being used to help the government follow a policy we feel is bad. Such cognitive dissonance isn’t new. U.S. Grant, the great hero of the Civil War, first earned his bona fides in the Mexican-American War. He wasn’t entirely thrilled about his role in that war, though. He once called the conflict “the most unjust war a powerful nation ever inflicted upon a weaker one.”
So, how do we reconcile ourselves to being cogs in a machine we think is damaging our own best interests? Many people may answer this with two versions of, “It’s not my responsibility.” You can take the less noble of the two versions of this and simply say, “It’s above my pay grade. And as long as I’m getting paid, it’s on someone else if they mess up.” The higher form of this sentiment might say, “I may not like what decision-makers are doing, but my oath is to uphold the Constitution. And as long as those decision-makers are operating constitutionally, I will put my own feelings aside and support them.”
The Civil War has helped me to see two other ways I might reconcile my misgivings. First, I realized that as hard as it is to believe, I might actually be wrong. I’d have been wrong about the Civil War, although I’d have had brilliant reasons for being wrong. It is possible that, as much as I know about the subject I am an expert in, I still might have managed to just be wrong. Secondly, I realized that sometimes, you can be wrong and still get away with it if you commit to the wrong thing with enough determination. Legendary baseball pitcher Greg Maddux was once asked about how he became such a brilliant, foxy pitcher, always throwing the pitch that fooled the batters. He said he wasn’t really a genius, but that if you throw the pitch you mean to throw in the right location at the right speed, it doesn’t usually even matter if it’s the right pitch. You’ll still usually get a good result and end up looking like a genius.
No Civil War figure demonstrated this successful commitment to the wrong idea more than Confederate general Robert E. Lee. His campaigns are a study of foolhardiness that worked for the better part of two years. Time and again, he would buck all military wisdom, attack against greater forces, attack with his flank exposed, attack when Venus was aligned with Pluto. Attack, attack, attack. It worked for so long, in part because even though his plans may not have always been very wise, he and everyone in his command believed they would work and committed to making them work.
So, I try to be a good lieutenant and good civil servant of even the policies I think are misguided. Perhaps I will be wrong; or perhaps, if I support a poor policy well enough, I can make that policy look like it was a good one all along. At the very least, I can always take solace that I have a really cool beard.
MH: That was actor Bill Camp as the SIGINT Philosopher.
MH: And that does it for this week’s show. If you want to get in touch, you can find us on Twitter @Intercepted, and if you haven’t yet, please subscribe to this podcast so you don’t miss a single episode. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We’re distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro, and our executive producer is Leital Molad. Rick Kwan mixed the show. We had production assistance from Elise Swain. Our music was composed by DJ Spooky. Intercepted is off next week. Jeremy Scahill will be back July 12th. I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can check out my weekly column at theintercept.com, and you can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan.
DJT: I understand steaks. It’s my favorite food.