The truth about Islamic State that no one wants to hear

August 25, 2014 at 12:57 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Today’s post is one of obligation rather than enjoyment. It needs saying, but it won’t be popular. It’s about Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL or however we’re currently translating what they call themselves: the repellent gang of criminals currently terrorising large swathes of the Middle East.

Not that the Western media would care half as much if that were all they were doing: but one of them, who has very publicly murdered an American journalist, has a British accent. He and a sizeable cohort of other alienated young men have gone off to fight for Islamic State; and we’re petrified that they’ll come back and start terrorising us.

It’s not the first time that young Brits have gone off to fight abroad. Many participated in the Spanish Civil War, for example, and we now see them as heroes; but that was different. For one thing, it didn’t involve the West’s long-time least favourite ideology: militant Islam.

Now, I’m a Western non-expert brought up in a still partly Christian culture and indoctrinated early on with the scientific belief system, so this is an outsider’s perspective, but as far as I can see the Islamic State ideology bears about as much relation to mainstream Islam as the Lord’s Resistance Army bears to mainstream Christianity. (An example of which is the quiet dignity under torment of James Foley’s family). In fact, to the untrained eye Islamic State looks rather a lot like the LRA, that deranged cult, especially in its members’ apparent conviction that they should kill anyone who doesn’t think like they do.

You don’t need a religion to believe that it’s OK to kill people, of course. But in this case, religion – very narrowly defined, quite likely by a person or persons of doubtful mental health – seems to be the marker being used to separate the saved from the massacred.

And guess what, we’re busy applying markers of our own. Viz. Philip Hammond, UK defence secretary: “This is a poison, a cancer, what’s going on in Iraq and Syria, and it risks spreading”.

Well, yes. Cancers do that, unless you in turn do some pretty nasty things to them. Like blitzing them with – er – poisons, or cutting them out. Calling Islamic State a cancer begs the question: what form of surgery is the defence secretary contemplating and how many British soldiers will die during the operation?

So here’s the unpopular message. Islamic State, like that other revolting entity Soylent Green, is made out of people. People like us, with devices and desires like us, who have somehow come to believe that the best thing they can do in life is commit atrocities.

Except you can bet that very few of them will actually believe that. Instead, they’ll believe that what they’re doing is a way to prove themselves, or a vile necessity, or justified vengeance, or self-defence, or even the only way to save themselves from a situation much nastier than they’d expected. Quite possibly some of the young Brits who went out to Syria and Iraq went for the adventure, or because someone they admired – someone they felt cared for them – asked them to go and implied they’d be cowards if they didn’t. Young men are terribly vulnerable to that kind of pressure. But it’s also likely that some went because they wanted to help, and then found themselves trapped and coerced by leaders who could see the propaganda value of having these foreign fighters on their side.

If you think of these ‘Jihadi Johns’ as terrorists, the instinctive response is to try and eliminate them. But that’s not an option, for several reasons. Firstly, we can’t find them all. Secondly, if we just summarily dispatch them, their younger brothers, cousins, best mates etc will be so enraged that we’ll have effectively bred a whole new clutch of enemies. We’ve seen Israel and Hamas pursuing this policy for years. Has it solved the Israel-Palestine conflict? No. (Has either side shown much sign of learning the obvious lesson? Again, no.) Furthermore, indiscriminate killing’s against the rules – the same rules which make the UK a generally law-abiding (and therefore extremely desirable) place to live.

If on the other hand you think of the Islamic State fighters as people, some of whom at least may not have gone out intending to kill innocents, then you start to see possible ways of starting to defuse the threat they pose, by draining their support. (Some of these are already being advocated, or even done, despite their lack of appeal to the media, because, I hope, many of those set over us don’t actually believe the rhetoric they feed to the tabloids.) For example:

  • Stop blathering on about ‘terrorists’. UK politicians these days are cagey about using the term ‘evil’, if only because it brings them such scorn from many quarters. But they hardly need it, since ‘terrorist’ now fills the gap – and has inherited much of the glamour and excitement of the older term, among people still immature enough to find violence exciting. Far better to make it seem childish, cowardly and contemptible – which killing unarmed innocents is, after all.
  • Give them an escape route – make it easier for those who are out of their depth and want to get away from Islamic State to do so. Have we done this? Or are we threatening to put them all in prison, whether or not they’ve actually committed atrocities?
  • Stick religiously to the rule of law. Don’t call them terrorists; instead refer – if you can, with weary patience – to criminals. Murderous criminals, yes, but we’ve come across those before. Make it clear that you, unlike their masters, will treat everyone fairly, however severe their crimes. State the punishments clearly, and by all means make them harsh; but state too that they will not be arbitrarily handed out, and that families and friends will not be made to suffer. And keep your promises.
  • Work on deradicalisation. The key is, again, to offer a way back to a decent life, albeit with strict terms and conditions. Boxing people into a corner is not going to encourage them to stop supporting Islamic State.
  • Ask some serious questions about why young men, and especially some young Muslims, feel the need to do this. Is society really as unfair and disrespectful to them as they seem to believe, or are their expectations unrealistic? If the latter, where do those expectations come from, and can we change them? Is the UK as fair in its foreign policy as it likes to pretend, or is perfidious Albion still being somewhat hypocritical? Why don’t these people have a stake in the UK? If they want respect, can we give it to them – or at least to the vast majority of them who don’t go off on bloodthirsty rampages? If those who do are being inflamed by tales of our past misdeeds, can we do anything to show we’re publicly sorry for past brutality – and will come down hard on anyone who does it again?
  • When you have some answers, act accordingly, and put some serious political will into the effort.

Once you think of the enemy as human, strategies for dealing with him open up. They involve a lot of effort, some of it painful and much of it counter-intuitive. But they have two great advantages over blitzing him, his neighbours and his kids. (Or demonising him, which makes the blitzing more probable – whatever the government says about “no boots on the ground”.) These strategies are a lot less striking, from a media perspective, and they make our leaders look much less aggressively heroic; but they reduce the risk of British soldiers dying. And, unlike aggressive heroism, they might reduce the risk to civilians too.


If this post has resonated with you, and you would like to know more, my book Cruelty offers more information.


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