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This out-of-date New York Times map may give a more accurate sense of the real IS territory: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


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.

Voting made simple

The UK General Election is here at last.  Thanks to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, we’ve had plenty of time to prepare.  Years of informal campaigning have provided us with numerous opportunities to assess the character and aspirations of each of the parties.  Yet with just a few hours left, plenty of people are still “undecided”.  Why?  Is it so hard to choose?

Well, yes, and so it should be.  Choosing a government in a representative democracy means choosing where railways will be built, which schools will be renovated, what environmental laws will be passed, who will be Minister for Skills and Equalities, when analogue radio signals will be switched off, and a thousand other non-trivial issues.  A responsible voter might perhaps feel obligated to study the different parties’ various positions on all these issues, weight them for importance, and then calculate a net score that revealed which party most deserved their vote.

Of course, this is deeply unrealistic.  For some voters, the choice really might come down to nothing more substantial than which school a party leader attended, or whether their teeth “look funny”.  Despite all the time we’ve had to consider our options, despite the wealth of information and commentary available, despite the deadly seriousness of a national election, we humans seem largely incapable of basing this vital decision on more than a handful of factors.  Politicians know this and they exacerbate the problem by feeding us binary choices:

Only two people can be prime minister – do you really want to let Ed Miliband into Downing Street?

There’s only one party that can control immigration, because only one party wants to leave the EU.

A vote for the SNP is a vote to keep David Cameron in Number 10.

It’s a choice between a proven long-term economic plan or more chaos from the party that gave us the financial crisis.

The Tories want to privatise the NHS; Labour will protect it.

Only a strong Liberal Democrat coalition partner can restrain a spendthrift Labour government or a brutal Tory government.

Only one party is able to deliver a referendum on Europe.

Let Labour into power, propped up by the SNP, and the security and integrity of the United Kingdom is in jeopardy.

These are the kinds of arguments political parties deploy most of the time.  They know that our short attention spans, our impatient media and our culture of cynicism make more reasoned, complex and nuanced debate ineffective.  So although we will be voting on a many-hued constellation of different issues, events and personalities, our political realities have been whittled down to the banal and simplistic choice between black and white.

Or possibly white and black.

Depending on which school you went to.

Are you still fuel poor?

A classic bit of shaping reality today from the UK government.  The Guardian headline says it all:

Government accused of redefining fuel poverty to bring down figures

The previous definition was: those households that spend more than 10% of their income on fuel “to maintain an adequate level of warmth”

The new definition is: those households that have “above average fuel costs” that would leave them with “a residual income below the official poverty line”

It seems this simple redefinition will reduce the number of fuel poor that the government has to worry about from 3.2 million to 2.4 million.

Not a bad day’s work.

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Rebellious MPs

Philip Cowley, Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham, has been studying what the public want from their MPs.  One important attribute is independence from the party line, as demonstrated by their tendency to rebel in parliamentary votes.  Through survey experiments, he has found that:

  1. the public like MPs who have “rebelled in 10% of votes”, and
  2. the public do not like MPs who are “loyal in 90% of votes”.

Two solid truths, derived from sound survey data, that are mutually contradictory: those who rebel 10% of the time are of course loyal 90% of the time.  These occasionally rebellious MPs are simultaneously liked and hated by the same people for the same behaviour.  The consequences, in terms of their re-election prospects, could be profound.

MPs need to choose their truths carefully on the doorstep.