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This out-of-date New York Times map may give a more accurate sense of the real IS territory: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


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.

The meaning of class in Britain

A thoughtful analysis of the English Working Class has just aired on Radio 4. Historian Jon Lawrence struggled with definitions of the traditional class categories.  He observed that, perversely, the English tend to associate being “middle class” with being posh.  Why?  Surely if you’re in the middle, you’re… average (and few would claim that posh means average).  Consequently, people tend to avoid calling themselves middle class.  Equally troublesome is the definition of “working class”.  Lots of British people claim to be working class on the grounds that they work for a living.  Well, you can’t fault that logic, but it’s hardly what the term historically implied.  Are the millionaires of the City or those aristocrats who run wedding businesses out of their stately homes also to be considered working class?

In surveys, when given a straight choice between upper, middle and working class, the majority of British people declare themselves to be working class (see the British Social Attitudes Survey, 2013).  This, despite the assertion of the British Sociological Association that the traditional working class has fallen to just 14% of the total population.  Yet if another option is offered — “lower middle class” — apparently most survey respondents will opt for that.  Average, without the danger of seeming posh.

Change the question and you change the standing of a nation in a second.

Class in Britain is a famously complex and messy business.  Some of us prefer to pretend it no longer exists at all.  But even these few examples show how many different truths are available to anyone wanting to indulge in a little class warfare.

What have the Romanians ever done for us?

English: The UK Border at Heathrow Airport

UK Border at Heathrow Airport (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A study entitled “The Fiscal Effects of Immigration to the UK” has just been published by University College London.  It argues that recent immigrants are less of a burden on the state than British natives, and indeed have made a more positive financial contribution to the UK than the average local.  Welcome news, especially given the hostility to immigrants in certain sectors of the media and British society.

However, this is a fiendishly complex subject and inevitably the headline changes dramatically if different factors are included in the calculation.

For example, most recent immigrants are of working age, and therefore are more likely to be in employment than all our retired natives.  If these immigrants remain in Britain as they age then the state will have to bear considerable future health and pension costs.  The study celebrates the taxes immigrants pay now without considering the later benefits they will justifiably claim if they settle here permanently.

A crude but common complaint against immigrants is that they “steal British jobs”.  Often they are better skilled or more diligent than their native rivals, and employers benefit accordingly, contributing to the UK economy through increased corporation tax, more competitive exports, or cheaper goods and services.  If this economic gain from high performance immigrant labour were factored in to the calculation, the net contribution of immigrants would look even rosier.  But the fact remains that many of the jobs filled by immigrants would otherwise have gone to British natives who must instead depend on the state.  The cost of their unemployment benefits and the loss of their income tax ought to be weighed against the tax contribution of the immigrants who have replaced them.

We should also consider what different workers do with their wages.  Recent immigrants are very likely to send remittances abroad, taking earnings out of the British economy.  The British workers they’ve replaced would have returned a greater proportion of their discretionary expenditure to British businesses (if only the local pub).  There is a multiplier effect whereby for every extra pound spent in the UK economy fractions of that pound will be spent and re-spent, with taxes paid to the state each time; similarly, a pound lost to the economy reduces total economic activity by considerably more than one pound.  Even if she never claims a penny of state welfare, a Pole who (quite reasonably) sends half of her income to her family in Poland is diminishing UK economic activity (and therefore UK tax receipts) if that income would otherwise have gone to a native worker.

This is a highly charged subject, and I should stress that I’m all for immigration into the UK.  We benefit beyond measure culturally, intellectually and creatively from all the energetic, skilled and enterprising people who devote their best years to this wet, grey island.  But putting immigrants on a set of financial weighing scales to prove their value is dangerous.  Too many different truths can be claimed by selectively including or omitting the various complicating factors discussed above.  Make the case for immigration on a purely fiscal basis, and you may well find your opponents come up with a more compelling calculation that tells a very different story.

The thankless task of the consumer affairs regulator

Last night, the Archbishop of Canterbury led a discussion about “Good Banks”.  One of the speakers was John Fingleton, the former CEO of the Office of Fair Trading. Responding to a question about the ethically-spirited Co-op Bank’s recent debt rating downgrade, he observed that while it is true that people say they want “good” banks, it is also true that they don’t tend to support them with their business.  He suggested that a “good bank” might be one that charged a fair fee for current accounts rather than claiming they are free and then recouping its costs through unfair overdraft charges or inappropriate product-pushing.  How many of us would give up our existing free banking to pay a monthly fee at a “good bank”?  Another characteristic of a “good bank” discussed by the panel would be ethical investment choices; if eschewing tobacco and arms investments led ultimately to lower interest rates for savers, would consumers applaud or complain?

Fingleton pointed out that the problem is not unique to the banking industry.  He gave another example from food retail: people say they want corner shops, then do all their shopping at Tesco.

Pity the poor regulators that we expect to safeguard our interests.  They ask us what we want and we give them one truth (we’re not lying, are we, when we say we want good banks?); but they must set the rules and supervise markets in a way that accommodates the competing truth revealed in our self-serving consumer behaviour.

“Consumers are a bit schizophrenic,” said Fingleton.  A useful word for a world of competing truths.

How advertising shapes reality

Advertisements are powerful truths. They tell us what is desirable, what is acceptable… what is normal. The stories and characters they depict are of course usually fictional, but they would not have the commercial impact they do if we did not accept their cultural messages as truths of a sort.

This creative video considers how reality might be different if the ads were different. A neat thought experiment in multiple truths and their far-reaching consequences.

What is a paedophile?

Last week a highly experienced barrister and expert in reproductive rights suggested that the age of consent be lowered to 13.  Barbara Hewson makes various arguments which, not being a lawyer, I won’t attempt to summarise, and with which I don’t necessarily agree.  However I respect any expert’s considered opinion, and given the current moral climate this is a brave one.  So it was a little depressing to witness the inevitable backlash, with so many less informed commentators declaring that Ms Hewson was, in effect, an apologist or even an enabler for paedophiles.

The word “paedophile” carries so much baggage now, it’s worth taking a cold, objective look at it and sorting through some of the competing truths that surround it.  What does it actually mean?

Its origins are Greek: pais (child) and phileō (I love) — “lover of children” perhaps.  Most parents are that, so we’ve clearly strayed a long way from the etymological roots.

How about the dictionary definition?  Collins has it as “a person who is sexually attracted to children”.  Not very useful — this could include other children of the same age.  What 15 year old is not sexually attracted to some other 15 year old?  Chambers is better: “an adult who is sexually attracted to or engages in sexual activity with children”.  But this definition could make many an adult nervous — some remarkably beautiful teenagers are paraded daily on TV, whom plenty of adults might find sexually attractive even though they would never dream of acting on that attraction.  And after all, what are “children”?  The NSPCC, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Department for Children, Schools and Families all seem to define children as “anyone who has not yet reached their 18th birthday”.  Were all the many men who were sexually attracted to the 17-year-old Britney Spears in that memorable …Baby One More Time video in fact paedophiles?

This matters in the world of multiple truths because dictionary definitions are among the most solid of our truths.  Is the Collins definition an untruth just because it differs from the Chambers definition?  Can we pick and choose our dictionary definitions to suit our politics and proclivities?

Lets try a different definition: most medical and psychiatric texts define paedophilia as an abnormal, usually sexual, interest in prepubescent children.  A bit more specific, but what does “prepubescent” mean?  According to the NHS, the average age for a girl to commence puberty is 11; for a boy it’s 12.  But it can be anywhere between 8 and 14.  Puberty lasts up to four years for girls and up to six years for boys.

All these numbers present plenty of opportunities for competing truths to proliferate.  If you take “prepubescent” to mean “before puberty starts”, and you’re concerned with the average case, then only those adults targeting children under 12 are paedophiles.  Hence, Ms Hewson’s recommendation would be of no comfort to them.  If, on the other hand, you define “prepubescent” as “before puberty is complete”, and you’re concerned to protect every last “child”, then you might view someone taking a sexual interest in a not-quite-mature 19-year-old man as a paedophile — even if that person is younger than their “victim”.

Clearly, law-makers have to strike a balance, and the UK’s Sex Offenders Act 1997 defines paedophilia as a sexual relationship between an adult over 18 and a child below 16.  That’s a legal truth it behoves us all to respect whilst subject to UK law.  But we should at the same time recognise it for what it is: an arbitrary line in the sand.  After all, the age of consent in Germany and Austria is 14.  In Spain it’s 13.  Who’s to say we have it right?  For some US states it’s 18.

To complicate matters, a man reviled in Britain as a paedophile today might have stood as a respectable bridegroom in Victorian times. The age of consent was set at 13 in 1875, even though the average age of puberty for girls was then 15.

So whether or not a person is a paedophile depends on both the country and the time in which they live.  There is little objective truth in paedophilia, however horrendous the crimes of predators like Jimmy Savile.

It’s also worth remembering that attitudes towards paedophilia have changed radically in our lifetimes.  In Latin! or Tobacco and Boys (1979), national treasure Stephen Fry was able to write warmly and wittily about a school teacher whisking his 13-year-old pupil/lover off to Morocco, and similar man-boy relationships appear in his later novels.  No one seemed to worry about the child brides of James I (14 years old), Charles I (13 years old), Henry IV (12 years old) or Richard II (6 years old).  And no, I’m not condoning any of this… I’m just noting how moral truths change over the years.

Given how complicated it is to define even its terms, it’s not surprising that the paedophilia debate has grown so ugly and confused.  Pick your truth carefully: it could put someone in prison for a very long time.

This Guardian article explores the subject further