Extremism: David Cameron’s bad idea


This Monday, David Cameron announced that the fight against extremism was ‘the struggle of our generation’. Cameron’s assault on ‘extremism’ reminds me of George W. Bush’s war on ‘terror’. Both served the purpose of giving a rather vacuous head of a conservative government a reason to exist. Both used large and dubious abstractions to mobilise consensus for their current enthusiasms. Specifically, David Cameron is trying to do two things: to silence or make disreputable the expression of certain opinions: and to involve us further in military action to destroy Daesh (also known as Islamic State, or under the ominously nomadic acronyms ISIS or ISIL ) – something he has already covertly done, without Parliamentary approval and in contempt of democratic process, by allowing ‘embedded’ British troops to be involved in attacks in Syria.

We have a problem. Daesh is horrible, and many young people in this country are attracted to it. The first place we need to deal with this is at the level of ideas. We need to say clearly and simply why Daesh is horrible. Unfortunately, our prevailing political language is not up to the task: it relies on concepts such as ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ which are, in the bureaucratic argot of the day, not fit for purpose. And one reason why we do so is that if we used more accurate language our hypocrisy would be laid bare; we are very often practising or condoning many of the very things we condemn in Daesh.

Confucius is said to have said that the first thing in government is to get names right. ‘Where names are not right, what is said does not sound reasonable’ (Analects 13.3 trans. D.C.Lau). Just so: our politicians use corrupted language and miss the target.

‘Extremism’ is a silly word. The truth is not always in the middle. The prevailing (and, I think true) wisdom of the present on votes for women, votes for all men, the rights of homosexuals, the wrong of slavery, is the extremism of the past. That politicians such as Tony Blair and David Cameron find this term so useful is a sign either that they are not very intelligent or that they choose not to appear so. (Of course the word, stupid as it is, has multiple uses: it can and will be used to target the left).

‘Terrorism’ is not much better, for four reasons. First, it is applicable under British law only if one thinks that Daesh is not a legitimate state – exactly what is at issue. Secondly, it is generally used as if terrorism were a worse evil than war; often it is used to justify war. But even small wars usually kill more people than the largest terrorist atrocities that we have yet seen.

Thirdly, our official language on terrorism can claim only an ersatz consensus. Our laws on terrorism are in conflict not only with ‘extremists’ but with mainstream opinion. Most people think (as I do) that there are circumstances under which citizens may be justified in taking up arms against the state; Claus von Stauffenberg’s attempt to kill Hitler in 1944, and German citizens’ dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 are, I think, widely admired. Many people also defend or even celebrate historical wars of national liberation – in the USA, for instance, or in Ireland.  So the question is not whether missile attacks or suicide bombings (one of Cameron’s litmus tests for extremism) are acts of ‘terrorism’ but whether the Palestinian situation is such as to justify them or to make it inappropriate for outsiders to condemn them. I don’t believe so, but the debate exists; it can be silenced, but to silence a debate is not to win it.

Fourthly, calling someone a terrorist or writing an organisation off as a ‘terrorist organisation’ does not settle the question whether the cause for which they fight is just. It is a usage designed to ignore problems, not to solve them.

What better words are there ? Let’s consider four: theocracy, human rights, genocide and aggression.

Daesh is a theocracy. I don’t like theocracies; as a sceptic selectively influenced by Buddhism, I have no reason to. The reduction of theocracy is one of the great liberal achievements, even though theocracy hangs on rather more than vestigially in our culture. It gives me adequate reason to reject Daesh. But it won’t do the whole job, for two reasons.

First, we lend considerable support to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states with a strong theocratic element; we are (probably rightly) cosying up to Iran. Israel requires all candidates for the Knesset to support the Jewish identity of the state; an Arab who wanted a wholly neutral secular state would not be allowed to stand. Moreover, theocracies differ; Daesh really is nastier than most and we need to say why.

Secondly, the condemnation of theocracy is not going to command a consensus in our country any time soon. Many Moslems in this country remain attached to the idea of a Caliphate or the practice of sharia law. This needn’t in practice imply any wish to change institutions in this country: it may be an aspiration as vague as the Second Coming of Christ for most Anglicans, (who, unless that Church has changed beyond all recognition, would be rather perplexed if the guy were to show up uninvited). I wish this weren’t true; but it will only be resolved by a discussion– quite possibly taking centuries – among Moslems about  how to interpret and use terms such as ‘caliphate’ and ‘sharia’ in contemporary Islam (a discussion that is certainly occurring with the term ‘jihad’, where many scholars argue that the spiritual sense is primary). Calling anyone who favours a caliphate in principle an ‘extremist’ short-circuits this process and is not going to help.

Daesh abuse human rights. This is true and needs to be said, because the idea of human rights has purchase in surprising places. Being more concrete may help: many people who reject the global idea of ‘human rights’ abhor the rape, slavery and massacres that Daesh has been conducting. One good practical idea is getting women who have been the victims of Daesh to talk to school pupils in this country: see http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/13/trojan-horse-school-islamic-state-propaganda .

But the use of human rights to justify military action against Daesh ignores an extremely unpleasant truth. Daesh is also protecting many people from human rights abuses. Law-abiding, conservative Sunni Moslems in Syria and Iraq may well be safer under Daesh than facing either Assad’s government or the Shiite militias which the Iraqi government we support appears to be unleashing because it doesn’t have a properly functioning army. There is every reason to publicise and condemn the massacres, slavery and rape perpetrated by Daesh; but attacking them may unleash even worse horrors. Our own record on human rights in the Middle East and our willingness to turn a blind eye when it suits us do not help.

Daesh have at least arguably perpetrated genocide under the terms of the Genocide Convention. I think this is useful and important, because genocide is a significant category in international law and is so egregious it is hard to defend. It gives a strong and serious reason to provide assistance fast to groups such as the Kurds and Yazidis when they are under attack. But here too, it is not clear that military attacks on Daesh in its core territories will help. And we do not have a good record on genocide; when the case of Rwanda came before the UN Security Council in 1994 Britain blocked its recognition as genocide.

Daesh, if viewed as a legitimate government and hence not (legally) terrorists, are international aggressors and thereby a threat to us. Here we are on strong ground. We have every reason to want to prevent Daesh from sending jihadis our way or getting their hands on nuclear materials. The risk of an ‘Islamist’ nuclear weapon is not zero. But the danger is not to be simply identified with Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Daesh is perfectly capable of leapfrogging and showing up where not expected; they clearly want to emulate the speed and surprise of the early Islamic conquests (for a good narrative history, see Hugh Kennedy’s  ‘The great Arab conquests’, see here). And the danger is more diffuse than Daesh in any case. Uzbekistan, for instance, has a lot of uranium, an autocratic government, and could explode at any time. We need to ask whether by continuing our hitherto disastrous military adventures in the Middle East we are not risking bringing about that which we are keen to prevent. And we need to ask whether Daesh are capable of evolving in a less aggressive direction – something that is very hard to predict.

People who support military action generally label the alternative ‘doing nothing’. There is plenty we can do against Daesh short of bombing them. But first, we need to get our thinking right, in three ways. The first thing would be to start being careful with our language. The second might be to be just a little honest about our motives. We might even feel embarrassed enough to try to change them, thought here is no guarantee. But British hypocrisy about motives is distinctive: American governments at least tend to admit that their economic interests are involved, and when they talk of freedom, they are quite open that they mean capitalism as much as democracy. And the third thing would be to be open about the causes of the hostility we face.

The last two of these are linked. David Cameron denies that grievances cause terrorism on the grounds that 9/11 predated Iraq. But there is abundant evidence that Osama Bin Laden was targeting America because of the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia. Religious ideology alone does not explain most of the attacks on the West; you need specific grievances as well.

The extremists, we are told, deal in conspiracy theories. David Cameron’s recent speech muddies the waters by implying that these are usually anti-Semitic. Now there are certainly many very nasty anti-Jewish conspiracy theories around (I have read somewhere that Egyptian school textbooks teach the authenticity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion). But there are also excellent reasons to believe that our actions in the Middle East have been mainly motivated by economic interests for decades; sometimes egregiously, as in the intervention that put the Shah of Iran in power, and sometimes in a more confused way. Why, for instance, are we supporting the current Saudi incursion of Yemen ? Does the answer have anything to do with arms and oil contracts and the importance of BP in British pension portfolios ? Or with a security deal buying Saudi action against Daesh in return for a sphere of influence in Yemen ? To pretend that all our actions in the Middle East can be taken at face value is to pretend to be stupid. Maybe David Cameron doesn’t have to pretend; more likely, he is relying on the stupidity he attributes to the voter. But until we start telling a little more truth about Daesh and about our own motives, we are not going to persuade the people we need to persuade.