The struggle against Daesh will be won or lost in cyberspace

This is a long post in response to David Cameron’s speech, delivered yesterday at the Ninestiles school in Birmingham, about dealing with and countering extremism;  and also to his support for further air strikes against Daesh in Syria.

David Cameron’s speech is one of the best he has ever given – which is not a particularly high accolade. On much of the diagnosis I agree with him wholeheartedly.  Where I disagree is on the prescription. Much of his plan will make things worse.


I argue the case that the struggle against Daesh will be won or lost in cyberspace, and not on the battlefields of the Middle East. A military solution there will only entail more loss of life and more suffering. It is in cyberspace that the critical battles will be fought: on two grounds: the battle for ideas, and the battle for the command and control infrastructure. The battle for ideas is the one that must be won; but the battle for the command and control infrastructure is the most exciting. On  both of these grounds, the West’s defences are lacking, its thinking constrained by the very military metaphor I am employing.  Cameron, and the West – like Daesh – fall into the trap of believing that battles of ideas can be won by military means – whether in cyberspace or on the ground. They cannot: they win or lose purely on the merits of the ideas themselves.


The war against Daesh is part of a larger struggle that is already defining the first half of this century  as the two world wars defined the first half of the last. Then it was empires against ideals, kings against republics, Germany against France, might against modernity. Now it is East against West, Islamism against what? against Christianity? against capitalism? against liberalism? against secularism? Against us, against our wooly universal values of freedom, secularism and democracy. Our enemy is what the fanatics at the heart of the movement see as Islam, not the Islam practised by most Muslims.  It is what David Cameron describes as Islamic Extremism, and while we are the enemy of its practitioners, its enemy is our liberty.

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama announced The End of History, the triumph of liberal democracy over socialism.   Fukuyama was describing the events that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.  It was an important victory in the battle for free expression – but it was not the end of history, nor the inevitable success of capitalism over socialism.   The Soviet Union was a regime so afraid of ideas that every typewriter and  photocopier had to be registered with the authorities: but it was videotapes rather than the samizdat press that undermined it .   Throughout the final quarter of the twentieth century, authoritarianism was in retreat: the military dictators of Latin America as much as the communist ones of Eastern Europe being replaced by relatively liberal democracies.  Both communism and anti-communist militarism have been discredited as justifications for repression, but in the first half of the twenty-first century, Islam is being repurposed for the task.

It is not Islam’s fault that some people are hijacking it for the purposes of implementing repression. Nor is this hijacking purely the work of the daeshbags and others who believe what they are doing is somehow Islamic – the Taleban, what remains of al Quaeda, Boko Haram. It is just as beneficial to the West’s military-industrial complex to have an enemy to replace socialism. On both sides there are groups that benefit from conflict and who are using an ancient religious divide to foster it. That is to say, the frontline of the struggle that matters does not run between Islam and the West, but between those who would resolve matters with violence and repression, and those who choose the resolution of ideas on their merits, in a world where ideas and people are free.

Ideas are discredited, never destroyed.

The existence of the class of idea that Cameron calls “non-violent extremism” is an inevitable consequence  of free expression. Some truly terrible ideas get out and about and are expressed.  Most of them involve some censorship of countervailing ideas.  The only effective way of dealing with them is to make our own countervailing ideas better – to win the argument on the merits, by letting all ideas compete for what global marketers like to call mindshare so the bad ones are discredited. This is an old argument and it needs to be made again and again, because there are always people who will try to censor ideas they do not like. Censorship strengthens a bad idea.

Non-violent extremism is best addressed by allowing it to be freely and openly expressed, so that it is  discredited by its own contradictions.  Cameron’s attack on the expression of non-violent extremism is the second biggest mistake we can make in dealing with it.

Military intervention will fail

The biggest mistake is to address it with military force.  This is also what Cameron is proposing to do, in extending air strikes to Daesh bases in territory to the northwest of the Sykes-Picot line (that is, in the part of the world we decided in 1915 should be called Syria). Even the armchair generals agree that it is not likely to be particularly effective: they are calling for  tanks on the ground.  A sufficiently large tank force might be able to inflict military defeats on Daesh in the Levant, but it will be a very costly skirmish that could yet lose us the greater struggle.

The recent history of military intervention by the west is not even chequered: it is almost all failure. Two modest successes – Sierra Leone and Kosovo – stand against a depressing catalogue of failure. Of the others, the best result has been the long stalemate in Afghanistan. Libya, Iraq, Somalia and Bosnia were failures; the latter two’s emergence into relative liberty only occurring long after the military withdrew to lick their wounds.  In Vietnam, a generation earlier, vastly superior American military expenditure and hardware failed to defeat the Vietcong and the brutality of the war strengthened the very bad idea that was Soviet communism.

Choosing favourite proxies on the ground to support with weapons and training is equally dangerous. It has certainly helped the emergence of Daesh in Syria, as the west assumed that any enemy of Assad must be a friend of ours.  By focusing our diplomatic efforts on regime change rather than on conflict resolution we have helped to solidify Assad’s grip on power and hardened the divides in that country which was once a beacon of interfaith tolerance in the region. The inspiring Boys’ Own stories of the courage of the women and men of the Kurdish YPG in the battle for Kobane are a distraction, misleading us down the route of a military solution. This is a battle of ideas; there is no military solution.

Islam isn’t a bad idea

At the heart of Islam is a really rather beautiful idea. It’s the idea that there’s One God, for the whole world, not lots of different Gods for different communities.  One God, One Love, One World.  You don’t have to believe in the idea to appreciate its power and its beauty. It’s the idea that made Islam traditionally so tolerant of others – particularly other “people of the book”. The bundle of bad ideas we do have to discredit and defeat includes the murderous doctrines that drive Daesh, which are absolutely antithetical to the universal inclusiveness of Islam.

Communities count

Cameron is, however, right to say that we need to build strong, tolerant multifaith communities at home as well as abroad.  Such communities are witnesses for universal peace.  It is, therefore, regrettable that much of what he prescribes – both within his Birmingham speech and as wider Conservative policy, is calculated to undermine them.  Cuts in welfare aimed at larger families will disproportionately affect Muslim families and leave young men to grow up in the very conditions of deprivation that lead to alienation.  The obligations and encouragement to report extremism are more likely to provoke a defensive closing-in of communities.  Grassing-up your family or neighbour has never been a core British value.

So if not Cameron’s prescription – a revamped Prevent as a Tory Stasi operating in Muslim communities – what then? What can the Government do, what can we as citizens do, and what – in particular – can good Muslims do?

Support interfaith work.

As it happens, the Muslim community in Britain is already doing a lot. Interfaith work between many of our faith communities is growing.  During this year’s challenging Ramadan fast, a group called The Big Iftar invited people to share with Muslims the iftar night-time meal at their local mosque.  I am ashamed to say that I didn’t manage to go to one at mine.  The heartwarming story of the Bradford reform synagogue, saved by its local Muslim community is another great example. These things are happening all over the country, quietly and prayerfully as communities understand that their common humanity is reflected in their common God.  The secular community tends to be rather dismissive of faith, but it too needs to join the interfaith movement with love and respect: respect for humanity is the common feature of all the world’s great religions, and it’s shared by secular humanists.

Deal with racism , doh!

In his speech, Mr Cameron said,

"Over generations, we have built something extraordinary in Britain – a successful 
multi-racial, multi-faith democracy. It’s open, diverse, welcoming 
– these characteristics are as British as queuing and talking about the weather".

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The project to build the utopia Mr Cameron describes is far from complete. We are building such a thing. We are leading the world and doing it more successfully than most, but there is still a very long way to go. We won’t succeed unless we neutralise the toxic racism that still permeates British society. Countless academic studies show that, despite legislation, racism,  sexism and classism still influence housing, education and employment.  The evidence is clear that the colour of your skin (as well as  the shape of your genitals and the sound of your voice ) has a disproportionate effect on your life-chances.

Populist anti-migrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, which does win votes, is highly destructive of the sort of equal society we need. It undermines everything done to tackle racism by providing a subconscious justification for the natural prejudices that need anti-racist effort to challenge. It helps to alienate many people with a Muslim, migrant heritage and undermines anti-racism work.

Embrace jihad

It is not for nothing that I used the word “struggle” in the title to this piece. It is as direct a translation as possible of the Arabic jihad;  far better than “holy war”.  Muslims identify the greater jihad as the perpetual struggle between good and evil, between Allah and Satan, in which Muslims engage in their daily lives as they try to live in virtue.  Daesh would like to see the great jihad as being the battle they are fighting, but it isn’t. However, the struggle to resolve conflict wherever it occurs is part of the great jihad.

Create attractive youth opportunities

There have always been, and there will always be, disaffected youth. There will be fewer of them if there are more opportunities for all young people – and that does not mean opportunities to become a corporate drone, a wage-slave in major organisation. It is simplistic, to imply that all extremists come from the alienated fringes of society, but the fact that many of the most notorious terrorists have had prosperous backgrounds does not discredit the notion that repression and alienation contributes to the pursuit of extremism.

Replace “moderate Muslim” with “good ” or “devout Muslim”.

A good Muslim is one who serves Allah and the ummah without violence.  A good Muslim will never engage in forced marriage, fgm or other unIslamic practices; a good Muslim will also pray five times a day and observe the fast in Ramadan.  Britain welcomes good Muslims and should make life easy for them to pursue the dictates of their faith. “Moderate Muslim” implies something half-hearted. What else makes a good Muslim is a matter for debate in the community – we kuffars can’t get involved, but we can be quite clear that good Muslims are also good Britons.

But most of all: engage the battle of ideas in cyberspace.

Cameron made much of conspiracy theories in his speech.  The weakness of all conspiracy theories is that they assume the existence of a much cleverer cadre of privileged conspiracists. Those familiar with real life know that anything that can be explained by a conspiracy can be much more convincingly explained by a cockup.  Nevertheless, conspiracies have mileage. Were Daesh  a Zionist conspiracy to discredit Islam, it would be working very well. Every beheading video the daeshbags release discredits Islam a little more.   Either it is a Zionist conspiracy, and the Zionists are very clever – or it isn’t, and the daeshbags are really stupid.    Likewise the use of Anjem Choudhury as a regular Muslim TV talking head looks to many Muslims to be a similarly dastardly Zionist plot: he is a terrible advertisement for the faith.  But there are more mundane explanations both for Daesh and for Mr Choudhury’s frequent television appearances.

At the start of this post, I suggested that the struggle in cyberspace will be engaged on two grounds: the battle for ideas, and the technical battle for command and control. Daesh would love to be able to hack  into the West’s drone control networks; the West feels it needs to be able to intercept and read Daesh’s internal communications.  Probably, neither will happen: strong cryptography will protect both. But Daesh, unlike its extremist predecessor al Quaeda, seems to be far more capable of exploiting technology. It’s important that we in the west both maintain superior cryptanalytic skills and do not delude ourselves that we can use legislation to insert back doors  or otherwise cripple crypto technology that is already out there.  If we ban Whatsapp and Snapchat, the daeshbags will use them anyway.

Not that we cannot, but that we must.


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