How to stop the Islamic State brainwashing your children!

Do you have children and do you worry what the internet does to their tender minds? Well, fret not. The internet has been an established feature of social life for nearly 20 years now. That’s long enough for an entire generation of children to reach adulthood. But if the internet has been turning young people into a bunch of promiscuous, violent yobs then there is not much evidence for it. In much of the Western world, young people, confounding the low expectations of moralists, have been behaving better. In the UK, both teenage pregnancies and youth crime rates continue to fall. That is not to say that there are not problems. It’s tough being young, in many respects. Just think about how hard it is to get on the housing ladder – but that has nothing to do with the internet.

Still, there is no better target for adult moralists than the internet. Nicky Morgan, the UK Education Secretary   has demanded that schools in England must set online filters and monitor pupils’ internet use under plans to protect them from radicalisation.  Ministers are worried that extremists could target school children via computers. According to Mrs Morgan, some pupils had been able to access information about Islamic State at school.

Well, if they have, then so what? Pupils can access information about Islamic State for all manner of places. They hear about them on the evening news or maybe even on Newsround, the BBC’s long-standing news service for children. They might even be able to access this information from a computer at school. Does it matter if they do it at school or through Newsround? What do we fear will happen if they access it? That they’ll become suicide bombers? Why is it assumed that the Islamic State has such a lure for children?

Earlier in 2015 three East London schoolgirls of Bengali descent decided to run off to Syria, to join the Islamic State. It appears that Morgan’s proposals – a classic government knee-jerk reaction – are inspired by this example. We don’t know why the girls – on the verge of being young adults – decided to do what they did. It may well be they were inspired by an online recruiter but the girls’ former school’s principal has stated that the girls could not access social media from their school’s computers.

But we are missing the point. We are making all the wrong assumptions and asking all the wrong questions. We are assuming that the girls were ‘infected’ by an idea, that the internet was the vector of that idea and that, when so infected, they were no longer responsible for what they were doing. If only they were kept away from the source of the infection, all would have been well.

The assumption is that children are empty vessels, free of their own motivations. All extremists have to do is to come along and fill it. That assumption is false. Those girls were not automatons – they assented to an idea. We are asking the wrong question when we obsess about where they encountered the idea.  The question is what made them susceptible to that idea in the first place. What was the power of that idea? What appeal did it have to cause them to abandon their families for the hell-hole of a Syrian warzone?

Prevention is no doubt far better than cure. Mrs Morgan’s idea of prevention, to keep ‘our children safe’, is to insulate them from radical ideas. This is not going to work. There are only two ways it could work. One is to shut down the internet and ban all electronics.  The second is to develop an intensive system of prophylactic surveillance which in all likelihood would be directed against ethnic minorities, i.e. Muslims, carrying the implicit stigma that they cannot be trusted. The resulting resentment this will generate will create more problems than it solves.

Whether at school, at home, or on the street, children are going to encounter bad ideas. Or bad ideas are going to encounter them. The price of preventing this through yet more surveillance – as there is not enough surveillance already – is going to be too high to be worth pursuing.

What we should be doing is teaching critical thinking skills, to resist the lure of bad ideas. Teach children how to think. Give them examples of diseased thought systems against which to sharpen their wits. That means, teach them about the existence of extremist ideas in order to combat them. Don’t pretend movements like IS do not exist. Understand and critique the ideas. The same goes for other pernicious ideas that we want to keep children away from. Teach the holocaust in schools but teach holocaust denial, too, in order to learn the difference between genuine and pseudo-history.

This idea of prevention doesn’t pretend that no one will slip through the net. Despite our best efforts, some will be radicalised and there is nothing we can do about that. The better way – not the perfect way – is to combat bad ideas with better ideas. Children don’t need to be protected from adult realities. They need to be taught how to prepare for them.

Reza Pankhurst and the Dream of the Caliphate


This post discusses some of the issues raised in my review on Amazon of Reza Pankhurst’s book, the Inevitable Caliphate.

The book has many merits, not least in providing me, as a secular atheist, an insight into what political Islamists are thinking about when they call for the restoration of a caliphate. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, there have been lots of questions asked about whether Islam and liberal democracy are compatible. In this book, Pankhurst doesn’t answer this question. For him, it’s not even worth asking. Islam provides an alternative ‘paradigm’, both to understand the world and how to act in it. When Islamists denounce tyrants they are not calling for a liberal democratic replacement. They want an Islamic alternative because they think it is superior to liberal democracy. When they say Islam is the solution, they mean it.

Pankhurst, at least not in this book, is not as blunt as this. His book is lathered with academic terms like ‘discourse’, ‘paradigms’ ‘hegemony’ which makes him sound evasive. Nonetheless, my guess is that, were he to be pressed for an answer, ‘Is Islam compatible with liberal democracy or not?’ then he would reply: ‘’No, it is not but it does not matter. To even ask the question is to assume that Islam has to ‘justify’ itself against a liberal democratic yardstick. In fact, why don’t we turn the question around? Is liberal democracy compatible with the requirements of Islam, of Sharia law, which we think God has commanded all humanity to live by?”

I could be putting words in his mouth. One has to try to infer what he thinks from his discussion of the thought of an organisation with which he has been linked, Hizb ut-Tahrir, which openly calls for the restoration of the caliphate. Pankhurst spent time in an Egyptian jail, where he was  tortured, on account of his alleged affiliation with it. Whether or not he was a member, his sympathies with the organisation’s aims are overt throughout the book. However, the focus here is not on unmasking Pankhurst. Hizb is legal in United Kingdom. Pankhurst has never advocated violence to achieve its aims. Amnesty International UK did nothing amiss in adopting him as a Prisoner of Conscience.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t serious issues to be had with Hizb’s value system, values which Pankhurst shares. On the face of it, as Pankhurst describes on page 99 of his book, the proposed scheme for the caliphate’s accomplishment seems reasonable enough. Liberation of Muslims means first of all an ‘intellectual liberation’ from colonialism. For this to be achieved, a ‘public consensus’ needs to be forged, agreeing that Islam becomes the ‘reference point’ for all societal relationships. At this point, society would ‘demand’ that the State applies Sharia to regulate social relationships in accordance with Islam, through the caliphate government.

There need be no coercion or violence in this. The caliphate is not imposed. It arises from consensus. Pankhurst thinks that there is empirical evidence to suggest that this consensus is half-way to being achieved, citing poll evidence to suggest that Muslims do indeed want to live united, under the auspices of an Islamic State.

It’s a neat scheme but it overlooks many messy realities. For one thing, the consensus which is supposed to pave the way for the peaceful imposition of the caliphate, is to be attained among Sunni Muslims only. What about Israel? What about Shias? What about non-Muslim minorities like Arab Christians, who lived in ‘Muslim’ lands long before the Muslims arrived? These people would not want to live under Sharia. They would either have to be forced to live under it or forced to leave.

More to the point, how is consensus to be obtained among the Sunni majority? The Sunni-Shia divide is not the only fault line in the Middle East. Sunnis themselves are divided. Islam is but one allegiance, albeit a crucial one but it stands in competition with other allegiances, to class, region, tribe, nation, family, to name just a few. One notes that the so-called ‘artificial’ borders of contemporary Islamic countries show remarkable resilience. Iraqi insurgents killed each other as well as Americans but not to abolish Iraq. Aside from the Islamic State, Assad’s Syrian opponents are fighting for a Syria without Assad. Some fight for a Syria ruled by Sharia but not to do away with Syria and have it merged with a Pan-Islamic entity. Turkish Sunnis are not going to surrender their Turkish identity, an identity which the borders of modern Turkey do much to define. Egypt’s stature in the Muslim world is, in part, because of its pre-Islamic inheritance of an ancient civilisation predating Islam by millennia. It’s by no means clear that a caliphate can overcome these competing demands of loyalty.

The problems with Pankhurst scheme are not just located in the real world but in the scheme itself. Pankhurst sounds reasonable enough when he talks of the need to achieve consensus to lay the foundations for such a state. However, there is plenty of room here for coercion of the recalcitrant. Remember Hizb aims to establish a ‘new opinion’ to demand that living under an Islamic order is not just permissible but mandatory:

‘Therefore if people in an area are “bonded” by a public opinion in which Islamic thoughts and emotions were dominant, believing that Islam should be the sole regulator [of society] … and awarding sole legitimacy towards the Shari’a even though individuals in that society may remain irreligious in their personal conduct, the natural next step would be to establish a system which would enforce and protect that regulation and consequently reform individuals in that society. It is at this point that Hizb would then seek to engineer through either mobilising popular support or by calling on the military establishment to enforce a change in power, in line with public opinion.’ (pp. 113-14)

What this sounds like is an Islamic version of the tyranny of the majority. Not all people have to be persuaded just so long as sufficient number are so convinced as to overawe any doubters. There is no room for freedom of conscience or dissent in this scheme. Pankhurst goes on to write that, for Taqiudeen Al-Nabahani, the founder of the movement, it is not the individual that reforms society but society that reforms the individual.

But when one reflects on this, one realises that what we have is here is not a tyranny of the majority in the sense that the majority of the persuaded impose their will on the unpersuaded. Individuals do not change first and then consent to have the new order imposed. They consent to have the new order imposed on them and forced to change. Even if they are irreligious in their conduct, they agree to be ‘bonded’ by Shari’a and reformed according to its strictures. This sounds more like the tyranny of the minority over the majority, who somehow are meant to submit to whatever it is the minority thinks is good for them. Who is to decide what Shari’a is – and then compel others to ‘reform’ in order to live by it? How is reform to be achieved? With what means? For all this talk of ‘liberating’ Muslims from intellectual colonialism, does this mean liberation from modern forms of political organisation that originated in the West, like the state, and organised militaries armed with weapons invented in the west, which Hizb might call upon to enforce the new Islamic order (Shari’a under the shadow of an F-16 jet?)?

I cannot tell whether Pankhurst’ equivocation on the question of coercion in his scheme is down to disingenuousness or because he has not thought things through. I don’t find it plausible that a thinker who is assiduous and fastidious in his style of argument can have failed to notice what the implications of his scheme are. Either way, the conceptual and practical obstacles to realising Hizb’s dream are formidable.

Apart from this, his thinking – though he may well deny this – has parallels in Western thought, such as the Platonic idea of the philosopher king. If this is true, then other Western thinkers should have something to say to him about the limitations of such thought. The sum of the West, he seems to insinuate, is Guantanamo Bay.

This is a man for whom Amnesty International pleaded, on the basis of universal secular values like human rights, ideas that originated in the West. Though he thanks Amnesty International in the acknowledgements section there is no discussion of what this organisation and the values it expresses mean for his analysis. In his strict, stark partition between ‘paradigms’ (where does this word originate from, by the way?), there appears to be no need for Muslim thinkers to learn from what Western theorists have to say about ‘checks and balances’, ‘separation of powers’, the ‘rule of law’ and what these terms mean for the practical exercise of power.

Instead, it seems a restoration of cardinal Islamic virtues expressed in Sharia will simply obviate the need to consider these matters. One wonders if there is room, in this ideal political order, for an organisation like Amnesty International. One suspects not.

What we have instead is an Islamic version of the ‘Garden of Eden’ myth. The problems are down to departing from the true path of classical virtue. But, pernicious as Western foreign policy, corrupt regimes etc. have been, it is not possible to overlook that one of the root causes of the maladies afflicting the Islamic world is the persistence of faith, or at least an ossified version of it, especially its effect on education, such as the wholesale rejection of Darwinism, the prevalence of anti-Semitism, conspiratorial thinking and the like. Even if the reign of the four rightly-guided ones was everything it was cracked up to be, it doesn’t follow that such a model is worthy of emulation now, in a world that bears no resemblance to its original incarnation in the 7th and 8th Centuries. Even if Pankhurst and Hizb were to see their dream fulfilled, it doesn’t follow that that they will have found the solution. In the meantime, pursuing such a dream will continue to cause more problems than it solves.


Hilary Benn

After Hilary Benn’s impassioned speech in last night’s Parliamentary debate on Syria, I saw a comment somewhere on Facebook from one of the ‘anti-war’ left that wondered which oil company had ‘bought’ Hilary Benn.

The answer of course is none. He made an impassioned speech which set out ideas and principles. Now, you can agree or disagree. Fair enough. But to write them off, on an utterly unfounded assumption that he was bought, is simply an expression of bigotry and stupidity. That remark was uttered not because that person wanted to think and analyse but because they want to be accepted among right thinking circles.

This makes me think the main reason why Labour will lose in 2020. It’s the inability of many of the supporters of its current leader to accept that their opponents are as morally-motivated as they are. Failing to see this, they resort to abuse, name-calling and stigmatising all opponents as ‘Tory-lite’ etc. This way of thinking owes more to religion than politics and it’s a recipe for defeat because it will repel others. That much the left should have learned by now.

But none so blind as he who cannot see. I note that a lot of people in the wake of last night’s vote are bandying around that quote about those who fail to learn the lessons of history are bound to repeat itself (that remark incidentally was made by a conservative philosopher). Indeed. And the much of the left in this country simply refuses to learn.

Pilger’s Root Causes of Terrorism – Part III

We saw in Parts I and II what Pilger thinks the root causes of terrorism are. Now for his supposed solution, and what we can do about it.

His proposed solution is two-fold. First, call a truce:

‘Across the world, from Northern Ireland to Nepal, those regarding each other as terrorists and heretics have faced each other across a table … A truce – however difficult to negotiate and achieve – is the only way out of this maze; otherwise, the atrocities in Paris and Beirut will be repeated. Together with a truce, the leading perpetrators and overseers of violence in the Middle East — the Americans and Europeans – must themselves “de-radicalise” and demonstrate a good faith to alienated Muslim communities everywhere, including those at home.’

Second, end arms sales to Israel and recognise Palestine:

‘There should be an immediate cessation of all shipments of war materials to Israel and recognition of the State of Palestine. The issue of Palestine is the region’s most festering open wound, and the oft-stated justification for the rise of Islamic extremism. Osama bin Laden made that clear. Palestine also offers hope. Give justice to the Palestinians and you begin to change the world around them.’

The first proposal is wishful thinking par excellence. There is not a chance in hell of any true being called. None of the combatants are interested in a truce. His call appeared on the day that Russian officials conceded the IS downed a Russian airliner over Sinai, leaving Putin swearing vengeance. Hezbollah is unlikely to take the bombing of their supporters in Beirut lying down (but perhaps the bombing in Beirut and the destruction of the Russian airliner are ‘payback’ for supporting Assad?). Assad has showed no sign of any interest in any truce, even when it looked like his back was to the wall a couple of years ago; he is even less interested now, with the Russians covering his back. ISIS itself is not interested in a truce. Pilger’s call is vain, in both senses of the word.

If a truce is not feasible, then what about addressing the broader context like Palestine? Pilger’s proposal to end arms flows to Israel defies logic. Arms flows to Israel are not the root cause of ISIL’s rise, still less the Paris atrocities. Why would cutting off arms flows to Israel do anything to bring the mayhem in Syria to an end? Recognising Palestine? ISIL is not fighting for Palestinian recognition. It is fighting to restore the Caliphate, not for a two-state solution for Palestine. There is no place in this project for Israel, even an Israel back inside its pre-1967 borders. Perhaps we can quote Al-Baghdadi (quoted in Jason Burke’s Article in Prospect Magazine, 30 Aug 2015):

“The Muslims were defeated after the fall of their caliphate,” al-Baghdadi wrote. “Then their state ceased to exist, so the unbelievers were able to weaken and humiliate the Muslims, dominate them in every region, plunder their wealth and resources, and rob them of their rights. They accomplished this by attacking and occupying their lands, placing their treacherous agents in power to rule the Muslims with an iron fist, and spreading dazzling and deceptive slogans such as civilisation, peace, coexistence, freedom, democracy, secularism, Baathism, nationalism and patriotism, among other falsehoods.”

That’s a long list of grievances. I doubt that ending arms flows to Israel or recognising Palestine is going to assuage those. Nonetheless, how about his suggestion to deal with Muslim ‘alienation’ by ‘demonstrate[ing] a good faith to … Muslim communities everywhere, including those at home …’ There is, after all, a link between the war in Iraq and terrorism. But where is the comparison between Iraq and Syria here? Pilger talks much about Muslim anger against the West for what it has done in the Middle East. In Iraq, we reaped the Jihadi whirlwind when we overthrew Saddam. That made a lot of Muslims angry. But what is making many Muslims angry about Syria? The answer should be obvious but it’s not the one he offers. It’s not because we overthrew a dictator and killed lots of Muslims. The dictator is still there and he is killing lots of Muslims, with a lot of help from his friends.

I am astonished that he does not acknowledge this. According to King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 11,000 fighters from 74 nations had gone to Syria, mostly to join ISIS. This is biggest trans-national Jihadi mobilisation since the Afghan war on the 1980s, bigger than Bosnia and much bigger than Iraq (presumably because many of the anti-American insurgents were Shia). If that is so, if we want to show good faith to (Sunni) Muslims then we could do it by bombing Assad. If we want to show bad faith – then bomb his most effective opponents: ISIS.

As it happens, I do not think we should bomb Assad and I have serious reservations about whether bombing will work against ISIS but this is not the point I am making here. Whatever we do will be wrong. In Afghanistan, we backed Islamic insurgents against the Soviet Union. That was wrong. In Bosnia, we stood by (did not bomb) while Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats slaughtered Bosnia Muslims. That was wrong.

We are condemned for backing dictators like Gaddafi and Saddam and then condemned for overthrowing them. With Assad, what to do? Overthrow him and risk another Iraq and Libya, and have radical Islamists step into the vacuum? Back him, then, like we are backing the Egyptian Junta or as we once backed Saddam and a whole plethora of tyrants and risk making the problem worse, causing states to collapse and Jihadists to get in anyway? As the Al-Baghdadi quote shows, the list of grievances is wide, the threshold for taking offence low.

Pilger overlooks the significance of the Shia-Sunni divide across the Islamic World generally. This split is absolutely crucial if one is to understand the rise of ISIS, which is replete with blood curdling denunciations of the Shia. For starters, the deaths of 200 million Shia are an essential prerequisite to the establishment of paradise. If you leave the Sunni-Shia split out, then you cannot even begin to understand what this conflict is about.

Pilger simply ignores this. Again, he might want to read Patrick Cockburn, whose analysis of the IS, in his ‘The Rise of Islamic State’ if flawed and partial, at least identifies one of the roots of their rise: the oppression of Iraqi Sunnis under a post-Saddam Iraqi Shia-dominated state, a state made possible by the US-UK invasion – in other words, a sectarian state. That this state has been underwritten by Iran, the foremost Shia power, has also contributed to the rise of the ISIS (incidentally, one example of foreign interference that is glossed over in Cockburn’s account).

It is not that the West does not bear a significant proportion of the responsibility for the mess in the Middle East but this is not what Pilger is saying: he is saying that we bear all of it. He denies, without good reason, Assad’s violent repression of protests in 2011 contributed to the mess his country is in, that Hezbollah and Iranian intervention, a Shia guerrilla movement and a Shia power, has exacerbated Sunni resentment in the Middle East generally.

He uses the word ‘sociopathic’ to describe people like Francois Hollande but not the killers that ran amok in Paris on Friday 13 November – who are barely mentioned at all. His invective reaches the sort of heights we saw in ISIS’ claim of responsibility for those attacks (Hollande as the ‘imbecile’ of France). One thing can be said of Hollande: he is unlikely to take such offence to want to saw off Pilger’s head and film it.

It won’t come as any surprise to learn that the solutions he proposes are weak because his analysis that precedes them is weak. What are my solutions? I don’t have any. I did not write this post to get us out of the maze but only to identify where some of the dead ends are. All I can say is that I am not without hope. There are two things that we might draw comfort from. The first is the fall in birth rates in the Muslim world and the second is the slow rise of secularism and unbelief in the same. But more on those matters some other time. For now, with a sigh of relief, I take leave of John Pilger.