How to defeat Islamic State


Malcolm Nance

I make some big claims for the power of competing truths to shape the reality of politics, climate change, economics and much else besides.  But could competing truths help do what the US and other Western militaries seem unable to do: defeat and destroy Islamic State?

Malcolm Nance is an American counter-terrorism expert, a former naval officer, spy and torture-resistance instructor who became famous in 2007 for writing that “waterboarding is torture… period.”  He has now published a book,  Defeating ISIS, in which he argues that we should be using ideology to fight ideology, recasting how the many Muslims who support and supply Islamic State (IS) see the organization.

Currently, Islamic State is able to claim it really is a state because on the map of the Middle East it seems to control a large swathe of territory across northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq:


That landmass is bigger than many recognised states, and for the people who live within it, Islamic State is the unchallenged sovereign power. But in fact, as Nance points out, Islamic State really controls a “constellation” of towns and cities in otherwise largely uninhabited desert, linked by roads and other lines of communication.  His point is better (but still not perfectly) illustrated in this map:


This out-of-date New York Times map may give a more accurate sense of the real IS territory:


Nance argues that we can “disrupt the narrative” of Islamic State being “this oval of a nation state that has been carved out of” Iraq and Syria, by breaking those lines of communications.  He reckons this could be done by parachuting in small insurgent forces to take over particular stretches of highway; then, when IS fighters are forced to come out of the towns to combat those insurgents, using aerial bombardment to obliterate them.  IS would thus be revealed to control only a string of municipalities, not a broad territory.

Having challenged the “State” part of Islamic State’s identity, Nance goes on to challenge the “Islamic” part.  He sees IS not as radical Islamic extremists like Hezbollah, but as an Islamic cult.  And he defines cultism as the “corruption of a mainstream religion for personal or political purposes”. He sets out numerous ways in which Islamic State doctrine departs from traditional Islam, including the practice of Takfir, the declaration that someone is an unbeliever and is no longer Muslim (with perilous consequences for that individual’s health).  Nance argues that, through the “megaphone” of mainstream Islam, anti-IS forces should be broadcasting the message that “ISIS’s belief system endangers your soul” and that “having contact with them is like having contact with demons”.   By challenging the Islamic credentials of IS, Nance believes, we can starve them of popular support and so undermine the foundations of their power.

The Economist last week explored a similar vein, with an article subtitled “Can the beliefs that feed terrorism be changed”?  A jihadist, the writer suggests, sees the world divided into two categories of places:

  • Dar al-Islam, the realm where Islam prevails
  • Dar al-Harb, where the enemies of Islam are found

Under such a binary framework, the jihadist will have little qualm about attacking those not living in Dar al-Islam.  But in Islam, other options exist beyond these two categories, including:

  • Dar al-Dawa: the “abode of invitation”, where Islam can be freely practised even though it is not the majority faith
  • Dar al-Ahd: the “abode of contract”, a place that lives in established peace with Muslims

Given these further options, the susceptible jihadist or IS sympathiser might look at the West, with its generally liberal attitude to faith and religious practice, through a quite different lens.

Both The Economist and Malcolm Nance also advocate likening Islamic State to an ancient Islamic sect, the Khawarij (meaning “the outsiders”), a group that assassinated a caliph and practised Takfir. According to Nance, members of Islamic State really hate being compared to the Khawarij – and that must be a good thing.


To stay or to status quo

Britain is a conservative place, they say, so when in doubt the electorate will tend to stick with the status quo.  For the EU Referendum, the assumption has been that the Remain campaign has the advantage.  We’re all too confused by claims and counter-claims about the pros and cons of Brexit, so in the end we’ll settle for what we know.

Recognising this conservative bias, the Leave campaign is trying hard to reshape our definition of the status quo.  Staying in the EU, they claim, is the riskier gamble, because the EU is changing so radically.  The status quo is a free trade zone with cooperation between European states on security, the environment and other supra-national issues.  We can have all that by leaving the EU, they promise.  Leave = Status Quo.  On the other hand, if we vote to stay in the EU we will be subjected to a process of ever greater political integration and ultimately we will find ourselves in a very different (and possibly unpleasant) place.  Remain = Leap into the Dark.

It is a bold campaign that seeks to redefine the status quo, but so far the Outers are doing a good job of it. The response from the Remain campaign should be: “Possibly.  But if the EU status quo really does change that much, we can always vote to leave at a later stage.”  We should be judging whether we want to be part of the EU as it is now, not as it might be in some version of the future.

Britain’s weak negotiating position in Europe

As we draw closer to the UK’s referendum on leaving the EU, the economic arguments for and against Brexit are becoming clearer.  A favourite europhile argument is that half our exports go to the EU, and we mustn’t jeopardise that trade by leaving the single market.  The eurosceptics have a very compelling response, brilliant in its simplicity:

We buy more from the rest of the EU than the EU buys from us (think of all those BMWs and bottles of French wine), so the EU will want to maintain the same free trade relationship with us even if we leave.

This makes complete sense.  It suggests we hold the stronger negotiating position thanks to our EU imports.  It’s an easily understood truth that is regularly deployed by Nigel Farage and other eurosceptics.

But as the Economist points out this week, there is a competing truth to consider:

The EU takes almost half of British exports, whereas Britain takes less than 10% of the EU’s.

Now who has the power?

The first truth refers to the absolute value of our imports and exports; but the more relevant truth, as far as a negotiation is concerned, is the relative importance of those imports and exports to each party.  Bluntly, the EU is an awful lot bigger than the UK, and isn’t going to care nearly so much if trade breaks down.  Of course, it’s in everyone’s interest to maintain free trade, but if other factors complicate EU calculations – such as our general awkwardness – then the EU is much better placed to walk away from the negotiating table than we are.

If you do the work, does it matter what you’re designated?

The California Labor Commissioner recently ruled that an Uber driver was an employee, not an independent contractor.  The chairwoman of New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission took the opposite view.  The issue is now being considered by more than one US court, with some Uber drivers suing for employee status in order to gain extra rights and benefits.  TaskRabbit, Lyft and AirBnB may soon face similar demands.  The law, it seems, is not clear, opening up the opportunity to fiddle with definitions and thereby shape employment reality.

The so-called “freelance economy” is not the only story challenging our conception of what it means to be an employee.  Before Uber came along and disrupted everything, 88% of taxi drivers were already contractors.  FedEx and McDonalds have recently been accused of misclassifying thousands of workers in order to avoid labour law requirements, taxes and benefits.  Microsoft did something similar in the 1990s.  In the UK and elsewhere, laws are frequently enacted and amended to address the tax implications of professional workers turning themselves into limited companies which are then hired by their former employers.  Over 1,500 BBC workers, including Jeremy Paxman and Anne Robinson, were found to be using service companies, saving the broadcaster from paying national insurance contributions.  Zero-hours contracts have become a toxic issue in British politics.

Governments need to be able to collect payroll tax, but if tax codes are well crafted it should be irrelevant whether it is paid by the employer or the worker.  If Uber is forced to designate its drivers as employees and start paying social security contributions, then they will simply pay the drivers less.  This should have no impact on the take-home pay of law-abiding drivers who have been paying their own self-employed taxes and levies.  As the Economist puts it, “conventional economics says the burden of a tax cannot be altered just by changing which party writes the cheque.”  The same could be true for pension contributions and health insurance: there’s no reason in a well-functioning market why the sensible freelancer can’t make the same provisions as an employer from their higher wage packet.

As new business models proliferate and go global, national lawmakers will struggle to keep up.  So what should they focus on?  Probably not the labels.  People need stable paid work, pensions and insurance against misfortune; governments need taxes.  So long as these can be achieved in one way or another, it may not matter whether we are employees, contractors, franchisees or freelancers.

Is a false memory a true memory?

Fans of crime fiction and keen observers of the law courts will be familiar with the idea of False Memory Syndrome (FMS). Witnesses and crime victims make statements that turn out to be untrue — not, it seems, because they were lying, but because they genuinely seemed to remember something that hadn’t happened.  In quite a few cases, these false memories appear to have been suggested by psychotherapists, counsellors, police interviewers and other professionals seeking to help troubled individuals remember difficult circumstances.  So serious have the resulting miscarriages of justice been that victims of FMS have set up the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and the British False Memory Society.  Examples of false memories of sexual abuse are discussed in this article.

As this is a blog devoted to competing truths, one might think false memories need not concern us.  They are, surely, by definition not true.  Yet in a fascinating Radio 4 documentary, Past Imperfect, FMS expert Professor Elizabeth Loftus challenged this basic conception of false memories: “Memory does not work like a video-recording device, where you just record the event and play it back later.  It’s a little bit more like a Wikipedia page, where you can go in there and change it… but so can other people.”  All memories are “reconstructive”, because our brains aren’t designed to capture every detail of an event, but rather to recall the broad brushstrokes and then fill in the detail in a plausible manner.  Do you really remember what your daughter was wearing and which way she was looking when she spoke her first word? Even if you can picture it, you may not be right.  Inevitably, most memories will include some distortions, which means false memory is not black and white: some memories will be more accurate than others, but a false memory is as real as any other memory you hold.  It is a fragment of your mind and therefore a kind of truth.

Certainly, false memories have real consequences.  Several researchers have shown they can reliably implant false memories in the lab, making their guinea pigs believe they have seen or done things — even in the very recent past – which they have not.  This can lead to significant behaviour modification.  For example, a subject implanted with a false memory of getting sick from eating turkey became significantly less keen on the meat.  Some researchers suggest this kind of false memory could be deployed to steer us away from poor nutritional choices: if you can be convinced you were once made ill by fatty, sugary foods, you may be more likely to choose fresh vegetables in the future.  Would you rather your child had obesity or a few benign false memories, asks one advocate.  Needless to say, this is a very slippery slope.

False memories, like other competing truths, can fundamentally shape our realities — and could be used to manipulate our beliefs and actions.  Whether or not you view false memories as “true”, they are manifestly real enough to take seriously.

The cost of a pint of milk

British dairy farmers are having a tough year. The global oversupply of milk has pushed down prices to the point where many farmers, their representatives and their political champions are coming out with this statement:

Supermarkets are paying farmers less for a pint of milk than it costs to produce

While not wishing to downplay the commercial difficulties many farmers face, we have to challenge such oversimplification.  Every farm has different costs of production, depending on their size, level of automation, location, staffing, debt etc.  For each farm, a dedicated accountant might be able to work out the full cost of that pint of milk (factoring in a percentage of all fixed costs and interest payments), but they would also be interested in the marginal cost (the cost to produce one extra pint) which would be much lower.

For some large, automated farms, milk production will still be fully profitable, even with the low prices currently on offer.  For others, it may be loss-making if one factors in all sunk costs, yet it is still worth producing milk and selling it to stingy supermarkets because the marginal cost of production is low.  Meanwhile a few unfortunate farmers may actually be losing money with every pint they sell, if their marginal cost is above the offered price.

Supply and Demand

P is Price and Q is Quantity. The intersection of the Supply and Demand curves determines the market price and quantity of products that will be sold.

The idea that different producers have different costs of production (just as different purchasers are willing to pay different prices for their product) is fundamental to microeconomics.  These different producers with their different costs form the supply curve which, where it intersects with the purchasers’ demand curve, determines the price a product ought to command. The reason milk is cheap is that enough producers, globally, have achieved a sufficiently low cost of production to shift the supply curve down relative to the demand curve.  If that is hard to understand, look at it this way: the price of milk is what it is because enough farmers are able to produce it for less than that price.  In other words, the quote at the top is nonsense.

One of the consequences of the supply curve in free markets is that those producers who are consistently lodged at the upper end — above the point of intersection with the demand curve — go out of business.  It happens in all other industries, so it would be surprising if it did not happen in farming.  It is this process which is playing itself out in protests at supermarkets and in the headlines of our newspapers.  It’s not pleasant, but it’s the essence of capitalism and it has useful outcomes such as greater efficiency and lower prices for consumers.

Of course, we may not like the way in which farmers achieve lower costs and stay at the profitable end of the supply curve: factory farming, poor treatment of animals, growth hormones and so on.  In which case we should be willing to pay extra for premium brands or categories of milk that avoid these practices.  Equally, if we want to keep cows on the pastures of British farms, we will need to buy British milk, even if it costs more.  In other words, we need to buy from a different supply curve, representing a different product.

But we shouldn’t fall into the trap of believing that there is a single cost of production for milk.

A matter of life or death in the Congo

US Embassy in Leopoldville/Kinshasa

US Embassy in Leopoldville/Kinshasa

In his book, Chief of Station, Congo, Larry Devlin — the CIA’s man in Leopoldville (Kinshasa) during the early years of Congolese independence, and an operative who knew a thing or two about shaping reality — recounts a remarkable diplomatic incident. The United States had established an embassy in the brand new country, but had not yet provided a troop of Marines to guard it.  With mutinous Congolese soldiers rampaging about the streets, many of them — following years of Belgian misrule — intent on humiliating or harming any white man they encountered, it was a very dangerous time.  Expecting trouble, the ambassador and Devlin armed themselves with grenades and firearms, but they knew they were hopelessly vulnerable in the glass-fronted embassy.

So when a jeep full of soldiers turned into the embassy driveway one morning and aimed a fifty-calibre machine gun at the front door, they were understandably alarmed.  The gunner tried to fire, but the machine gun jammed.  Devlin was about to throw a grenade at the jeep, but the ambassador stopped him.  He went out into the driveway, ignoring the rifles pointed at him, and said, “Thank God, you’ve come to protect us from the Belgians.  We’ve been waiting for hours for the Congolese army to defend us.  The Belgians could be here at any minute.”

Remarkably, the soldiers put down their weapons and, in Devlin’s words, “agreed they had indeed come to protect us”.  They even followed the ambassador’s suggestion and set up a defensive post at the end of the street.

With a few well-chosen words, the ambassador reshaped reality for those riotous soldiers in what was probably a matter of life and death.