Patrick Cockburn on Islamic State and Neel Mukherjee on ‘The Lives of Others’

Patrick Cockburn is currently Middle East correspondent for The Independent newspaper in the UK and has written three books on Iraq’s recent history. He delivered a fascinating but chilling lecture on Islamic State at the Arms Hotel on Saturday morning.  Included here are the main points of his lecture.

Patrick is just back from the Iraqi city of Mosul which was captured on the 10th June last year. Although he didn’t venture into Islamic State itself, he spoke with people who have come from the region.  His latest book The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution was written in the months prior to the fall of Mosul. The activities of the terror group had gone largely unnoticed prior to June 2014 and it wasn’t until the city fell that the world started to take notice. The attention then ebbed away towards the end of last year when people seemed to think that allied airstrikes were having an effect and that Islamic State were running out of money. But this is not the case and they continue to thrive.

Why was the world caught by surprise?  People weren’t used to the horrific videos shared across social media of beheadings and live burnings, such as that of the captured Jordanian pilot.  Islamic State made and posted these videos to show power and defiance, and to project terror. The Iraqi army is now severely depleted with possibly less than 10,000 troops.  Why is the Iraqi army so ineffective? If you wanted to be a commander in that army it cost money. You had to buy your way into it, with most sums going into the pockets of its officers. Islamic State is therefore operating in a dysfunctional Iraq and a weak Syria.

What’s it like inside Islamic State?  It’s a cult, a sect, with young men conscripted in. Highly effective and organised, they go from door to door asking for ID cards and taking note of unmarried women who they may deem suitable to marry their fighters.

Who are Islamic State? They are Sunni Muslims who have come out of the extreme branch of Sunni Wahhibism, a core of whom are deeply religious. Other Muslims, Yazidis, Christians and Zoroastrians are all targets. They control every aspect of life even down to what games people are allowed play. Physical education courses now consist of jihadi training and the virtues of martyrdom.

Islamic State pay wages to recruits, as well as food, fuel etc., and in a place where there are no other jobs it can be quite an attractive option. The disunity of their enemies and general chaos of the region is a crucial factor in why they have survived and continue to thrive.

Neel Mukherjee in conversation with Martin Doyle

Neel Mukherjee was interviewed by Martin Doyle from the Irish Times in St John’s Theatre.

Neel feels he is part of a new generation of Indian writers who have dealt with post colonial baggage and have moved on. He wrote about empire in his first novel A Life Apart but it’s not a topic he thinks he’s going to revisit. He’s very opposed to authors setting limits of interpretation to their books but doesn’t feel his second novel The Lives of Others fits this category.

Neel has written about how England liberated him into writing more freely about homosexuality. The main protagonist in A Life Apart is a young and lonely gay man who has moved to England for a better life. He wrote about homosexuality in A Life Apart because it was his first book and he found it came easily, but he’s not interested in writing about homosexuality as an issue and knows many writers who already do it so well, such as our own Colm Tóibín.

He’s very interested in titles and for him the title of the book always comes first. The title of The Lives of Others came from the James Salter epigraph: ‘How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?’ He was re-reading Salter’s Light Years to teach a class when that sentence leaped out at him and gave him the entire metaphorical ruling for the whole novel.

He wanted the The Lives of Others to be a window, comparing it to holding up a pane of glass into a different world. Certain books can be a mirror in which the writer sees himself, but he’s not interested in doing that.

Questions were opened to the audience for the last 10 minutes of the event. One of the questions was: “Is The Lives of Others part of the Bengali tradition or is it a book that you could write only because you left India?

“India has twenty-five languages and I fall into a much loathed category in India called IWE or Indian Writers in English,” he answered. “Those who write in the vernacular languages see IWE as living in places such as New York and London and getting fat advances, whereas the vernacular literatures are neglected. So there’s a very big politics of resentment going on, which is not entirely unjustified. I suppose I fit into the IWE tradition because I write in English.”