Corbyn: Not a Terrorist Sympathiser but Still Questionable

Corbyn may not be an outright terror apologist. He is still an easily exploitable enabler.

The idea that Jeremy Corbyn is a terrorist sympathiser has been a long running attack point for his enemies. In the aftermath of the recent terrorist attack in Manchester, the Labour Party leader’s views on foreign and security policy have received renewed focus following a speech outlining his perspective and the changes a Labour government would make to anti-terrorism strategy.

Explanation is not justification

In particular, controversy has been provoked by Corbyn’s implication that the ‘war on terror’ and Western military interventions has fuelled the increase in terrorism has provoked:

“Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.”

This perspective is actually not all that controversial. Similar arguments have been made by figures across the political spectrum, including some of the critics of Corbyn’s comments. The notion that at least some military interventions, and certain anti-terror measures, have served as recruitment tools for extremist organisations is obvious to the point of triteness.

Nevertheless, lazy employment of this analysis has often gone hand-in-hand with apologist attempts to play down the agency and responsibility of individual terrorists, and to diminish the importance of the ideology of militant Islamism. These views are also not infrequently associated with tasteless whataboutery and moral equivalence obsessiveness. To Corbyn’s credit, in this speech at least, he specifically tried to distance himself from such ideas:

‘Those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone. Over the past fifteen years or so, a sub-culture of often suicidal violence has developed amongst a tiny minority of, mainly young, men, falsely drawing authority from Islamic beliefs and often nurtured in a prison system in urgent need of resources and reform. And no rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week’s massacre.’

However, there is every reason to remain sceptical of Corbyn. Whilst saying that Corbyn “sides with Britain’s enemies” may be something of an exaggeration, it is important to remember that his perspective, and that of his closest allies, is fundamentally informed by a far-left “anti-imperialist” worldview, which is not so much “pro-terror” (and I suspect that Corbyn, at least, is genuine in his pacifism) as anti-Western.

Being anti-atrocity is not enough

Corbyn was the chair of the Stop the War coalition between 2011 and 2015. Initially set up as a broad-church movement in opposition to the Iraq War, StWC sadly degenerated into an ugly early manifestation of the regressive left. The most vivid manifestations of this include the hypocritical refusal to condemn the actions of Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad in Syria and comments made about the 2015 Paris terror attacks. Similarly, the Morning Star, Britain’s “last communist newspaper”, notoriously referred to the Syrian government’s military offensive in Aleppo as a “liberation”. Corbyn, who has contributed to the Morning Star since 1982, refused to condemn or cease buying the paper.

Corbyn’s long-running association and engagement with Islamic extremists and terrorist groups should also be noted. It is certainly unlikely that Corbyn is actively sympathetic to their ideas. It does, however, remain a damning indictment of his naivety and his commitment to a perspective that unquestioningly views the world through a nuance-devoid prism of imperialist-capitalist power structures. Intentionally or not, such unsophisticated liberationist ideology can easily slip into, or at least enable or serve as a springboard for, much uglier tendencies. Being charitable, Corbyn’s fawning over Chavism and his assessment of Fidel Castro as a “champion of social justice” (for all his “flaws”) can be seen in this light.

Corbyn’s links with the IRA should be seen in this light. His (eventual) condemnation of their bombing campaign is probably not the flip-flop it appears to be. As noted, I think Corbyn is a sincere pacifist who, to his credit, abhors all violence. Still, his engagement with Sinn Fein in the 1980s and 1990s should not be whitewashed as him facilitating the peace process. Whilst Corbyn may have opposed the IRA’s means, he was always very much in favour of their ends. Whilst this meant he was probably genuinely encouraging peaceful dialogue, his opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement indicates that his commitment to a peaceful resolution was strongly mitigated by partisanship. It is also worth noting that the idea that Corbyn played any kind of important role in the peace process is, at best, rather an exaggeration.

Judge him by the company he keeps

Corbyn’s own record aside, it is also necessary to scrutinise the less than laudable views of his closest allies. John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor and a long-time friend and associate of Corbyn, has been quite up-front regarding his IRA sympathies:

“It’s about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle. It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table. The peace we have now is due to the action of the IRA.” 

McDonnell also has a record of condoning and vicariously immersing himself in violent protest against austerity and holding blasé attitudes about the “opportunities” presented by financial crises. McDonnell is clearly not a pacifist or even a humanist, and has a history of fantasising about violence. Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary and another long-time Corbyn comrade, went somewhat further in declaring her support for the IRA. In comments she apparently does not regret making, Abbott once stated that, “every defeat of the British state is a victory for all of us”. More recently, Abbott claimed that Chairman Mao did “more good than harm”. By way of comparison, Amber Rudd has never, to my knowledge, made similar claims about Mussolini or Franco.

Easily the most objectionable and unpleasant of Corbyn’s core team is Seumas Milne, Opposition Executive Director of Strategy and Communications. As a columnist for The Guardian, Milne has a long record of defending the USSR and Stalin. Milne has also characterised Islamist guerrilla insurgencies in Iraq as a “classic resistance movement” and Iraqis who worked with the occupying US forces as “quislings”. He has also explicitly outright defended terrorist attacks by Hamas and has denied that al-Qaeda has any ideological motive other than, really quite reasonable, anti-imperialism. Whilst calling Corbyn a “terrorist sympathiser” may be excessive, it is an entirely appropriate label for Milne.

Irresponsible enabling is still dangerous

The fact that Corbyn has no problem with keeping these figures and other extremists in his inner circle is troubling. Even if their views are not entirely in line with Corbyn’s, their positions are indicative of his naivety and simple-mindedness. A similar assessment should be made of his engagement with terrorists and Islamists, as well as his continued reverence for brutal dictators.

For Corbyn, and the far-left tradition he comes from, everything ultimately comes back to the struggle against the imperialist-capitalist oppressor. Further, his own pacifism and incredible naivety means he believes that, no matter how extreme your opponents are, a reasonable compromise is always available (except with Israel and the US, presumably). The idea that we can sit down and talk to ISIS is a stark expression of this. Corbyn may not be a terrorist sympathiser, but he remains entirely unequipped to stand up for a Western liberal world order that he almost certainly views as fundamentally illegitimate.


Blogger, activist and former philosophy student at The University of Edinburgh

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