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This out-of-date New York Times map may give a more accurate sense of the real IS territory: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

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.

Black and White?

It has to be one of the more bizarre stories of the year.  Rachel Dolezal, the pale-skinned former president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, has been accused of misrepresenting her race.  For years, she has claimed to be black, and has built a career on that reality.  Now her parents have come forward to say that her genetic heritage is European, with no black blood at all.  Indeed as a teenager she was blonde and freckled.  She has been labelled a “con artist” and accused of putting on “blackface“.

The genetic facts seem inarguable, and Ms Dolezal does not dispute them.  Yet she continues to consider herself black. On NBC’s Today show:

Interviewer: Let me just ask you the question in simple terms again… Are you an African-American woman?

Dolezal: (nodding) I identify as black.

In another interview on NBC, she said, “I definitely am not white.  I’m more black than I am white. That’s the accurate answer from my truth”.

How can this be?  Can white people simply choose to be black?  Plenty, from Ali G to Eminem, have adopted black character and performance traits, but Dolezal is going way beyond that.

Liberal instincts might lead one to say, “If she wants to call herself black, why should we stop her?”  On the other hand, a number of African-Americans have objected on the grounds that a white person should not just adopt a black identity for a while and then drop it when it’s no longer convenient.  “She says she’s black, but we don’t know if she’s always black. Is she black when she’s purchasing a home? Talking to the police? Or is she black only when vying for a role where lived experience would help her odds?” writes Jamelle Bouie in Slate.  Could a black person choose to be white when pulled over by the cops or seeking a mortgage?

But Dolezal protests that her choice to be black is a profound and irreversible one. “I was actually identified when I was doing human rights work in north Idaho as first transracial,” she said.  So is this akin to people of one gender choosing to adopt another, a practice that has now gained widespread acceptance?  Is transracial the new transgender?  Could Dolezal spark a trend of race-swapping that might break down further the racial divide that still haunts America?

The fact that commentators are still debating Dolezal’s claims implies that this is not a clear-cut, black & white case.  More than a few seem to think she may have grounds for her self-identification as black.  Which suggests that it is not only Ms Dolezal’s reality that has been reshaped but the very meaning of race.

“We’ve cut the deficit by a third… or is it a half?”

The Conservatives have launched a campaign poster declaring “THE DEFICIT HALVED”.  This is odd, as up until a few weeks ago they had been telling us they’d cut the deficit by a third.

To quote the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson, who drew attention to this shameless reshaping of British economic reality, “In the first six months of 2010 the government borrowed an extra £65.9 billion. In the first six months of 2014 year, it was £44.2 billion – so down by a third.”

Then how did our honest leaders come up with the “deficit halved” claim?  Easy.  They just redefined the word “deficit”.  To most of us, the deficit is a cash figure: the money the government has to borrow to pay for public spending not covered by taxes etc.  It is the amount we add to our national debt each year.  Now, magically, it means something different: “deficit” is apparently shorthand for “deficit as a percentage of GDP”.  And as GDP has risen over the last five years (it could hardly have done otherwise), this convenient ratio has fallen faster than the actual cash value of the deficit.

Tories will argue that the ratio is what matters in practice – the cash figure is meaningless unless you know how big is the economy that is incurring the resulting debt.  But that doesn’t make their pre-election definition-fiddling any less sneaky.

Terrorists, nation states and other Middle East beings

Flag of Islamic State

Flag of Islamic State

Here’s a standard representation of what’s going on in the Middle East right now: a terrorist group is killing civilians and the nation state that it threatens is struggling to deal with it, so the US and other Western powers feel obliged to intervene. We could be talking about Islamic State and Iraq, but the same words could also be used to sum up the confrontation between Hamas and Israel playing out in Gaza. Yet what both of these cases demonstrate is the inadequacy of these traditional terms. Simply labelling Hamas and Islamic State as terrorist groups does not encourage insightful analysis of these desperate situations. Equally, the very concept of the nation state is being tested to the limit in this turbulent region. We need better, more nuanced conceptions of the major players if we are to respond appropriately to the challenges they pose.

Victims of Belgian terrorism in the Congo, c.1900

Start with Islamic State. On the surface this is a particularly nasty organisation. Everything we hear about them fills us with dread – beheadings, crucifixions, persecution of minorities, mass executions. But to think of them merely as terrorists is dangerously to underestimate them. They are an army, battle-hardened, well resourced, with strong leadership, great communications and a clear vision that inspires many. Yes, they use terrorist tactics, but so have plenty of western nations and organisations. The British have a long history of horrific executions designed to send a message – think of Indian mutineers strapped over the muzzle of a cannon and blown apart. Heads on stakes and severed hands were commonplace in the Belgian Congo, and let’s not forget the many atrocities ordered by German officers within living memory. 

The real test is not the horrendous tactics used by Islamic State to achieve their military goals, but the way they behave once they are firmly in control. Thousands fled Mosul when ISIS, as it then was, rolled into town. But reports from the city suggest that life has almost returned to normal. Residents have been surprised by the moderation shown by their new rulers. The world looked on aghast as Islamic State captured the strategically vital Mosul Dam, but against many expectations they did not blow it up – even when they knew they were about to lose control of it to Kurdish forces. They behaved, one might almost say, responsibly.

This is in no way an apology for Islamic State, whom I sincerely hope will be wiped from the face of the earth before long. My point is that it does us no good to think of them solely as “terrorists”. They are perhaps closer to the Huns, the Magyars, the Mongols or Nazi Germany – a terrifyingly effective military force using extreme methods to subjugate large numbers in a short space of time. Their desire to convert those they subjugate to Sunni Islam does not make them terrorists any more than the British determination to make so many distant people subjects of Queen Victoria.

Hamas is similarly complicated. They are the group the people of Gaza trust most to run their affairs. That is to say, they won a democratic election. They are more than just terrorists. Yet they cannot be said to be a governing party to the same extent as Israel’s Likud, for they have so much less power over the land they govern. They do not control Gaza’s airspace, borders or imports, and they have extremely limited resources. Moreover they lack the financial link most political parties have with the people they represent – the majority of Hamas’ funding comes from other Arab governments and individuals, often with a strong anti-Israel agenda.  So Hamas is a democratically-elected paramilitary organisation funded by foreigners that has to operate within very narrow parameters to achieve a goal (Palestinian statehood) that many around the world support. And yes, they target civilians (as the British and American air forces did in World War 2 and Vietnam).

Symbol of a nation state? Iraqi Kurdistan's Pechmerga

Symbol of a nation state? Iraqi Kurdistan’s Pechmerga

Then there are the nation states, many of which don’t fit our traditional understanding of the term. Iraq’s government no longer controls large swathes of the country; the same is true for Syria: neither one exercises sovereignty over their own people and lands, thereby failing one of the most basic tests of statehood. Meanwhile, an alternative state has emerged in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, with a powerful army and a strong sense of its own national identity. Other states such as the US do not recognize Iraqi Kurdistan as a nation state – indeed it has not yet claimed to be one – and yet they are allying with it and treating it very much like a nation state. Israel itself has long been a paradox of a state – a land full of Arabs, run by Jews, with de facto control over large areas of territory that theoretically belong to other countries. Meanwhile, the Palestinian state does not technically exist, even though we have a very clear sense of where it should be and which people should be citizens of it.

The variability in statehood matters enormously both in terms of capability and culpability. A state that cannot control its own cities and armed forces cannot be relied upon to act on international agreements or obligations as other states would. This is particularly true of Syria and Iraq, and also to some degree of Lebanon and Yemen. But equally a state that lacks full control cannot be blamed for some of the things done by its own organisations and people. The state of Israel is highly capable and is consequently fully accountable for the actions of its settlers and armed forces, in a way that the severely constrained Palestinian proto-state cannot be.

The point is that if we do not recognise the exact nature of each entity with a role to play in the Middle East – putting them instead in out-dated boxes labelled “terrorists” or “states” – we cannot possibly work out the best way to approach them, support them, isolate them, negotiate with them or fight them. If the Middle East is a chess board, we need to acknowledge that the pieces are not simply black or white but have a range of characteristics, capabilities and limitations – they are knights and bishops and pawns and queens. Each entity must be viewed and dealt with in a unique way. As US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently said of Islamic State, “This is beyond anything we’ve seen.” The reality that will eventually emerge in the Middle East depends critically upon how we choose to describe its constituent parts today.

Leaning in and reshaping reality

In explaining the origins of her timely and influential book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg recalls the prevailing assumption throughout many organisations in recent years that the battle for gender equality had been won and women could now expect to be judged and promoted just the same as men.

“People just thought, ‘Oh yeah, women are doing great!’ And I’m looking around, and every year there are fewer women in the room.”

By her analysis of the historical data, women made great progress for several decades but that progress stalled ten years ago. Women currently hold fewer than 6% of the top CEO jobs in any country. Women represent a minority in every government, NGO and industry.  In the US, 75% of workers in the non-profit sector are women, but only 21% of the big non-profits are run by women.  Yes, there are practical challenges for women with children, but that’s not enough to explain the imbalance.  Her conclusion: we still choose leaders based on their gender and we still put barriers in the way of professional women.

I too was guilty of the lazy assumption she identified, perhaps because I grew up in Thatcher’s Britain, and because in consulting and publishing women do tend to thrive. But it’s also the case that the leadership teams and executive committees I work with across Europe and America tend to be around 90% male. Aside from in HR and Comms roles, women are dreadfully represented at the tops of most organisations.

So Sandberg’s realisation that our perception of reality had become distorted and needed to be reshaped resonates with me. We had let ourselves be misled by an old (and possibly outdated) truth — that opportunities for women are improving — into missing a more important competing truth — that we still have a long way to go.