Ideas and Society Program: Bold Thinking



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Ideas and Society Program:

Bold Thinking




Dr Gwenda Tavan

I would like to begin these proceedings today by acknowledging the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation as the original custodians of this land upon which we meet and to pay my respects to their Aboriginal elders both past and present.
This event has been organised as part of La Trobe's Bold Thinking series in conjunction with La Trobe's Ideas and Society Program a forum which frequently brings together prominent speakers to discuss current issues facing our community.
Our host today is Emeritus Professor Robert Manne who is also a La Trobe Vice-Chancellor's Fellow and convenor of the La Trobe Ideas and Society Program. One of Australia's leading public intellectuals Professor Manne has published many essays, books and edited volumes over the course of his career and has contributed regularly both in print media and broadcasting on Australian and international public affairs.
Our guest Waleed Aly is a broadcaster, academic, lawyer, author, musician and one of Australia's most respected media talents. Having previously worked as a commercial lawyer with experience also in human rights and family law, he is now a lecturer in politics at Monash University working with its Global Terrorism Research Centre. As a spokesman for the Islamic Council of Victoria he frequently commented on Australian Muslim matters in the public realm.
Aly's media roles are varied to say the least, he is co-host of Network 10's The Project which airs five nights a week, he presents The Minefield on ABC Radio National every Thursday morning, he has provided sporting analysis on ABC News 24's The Drum and political analysis on programs like Q&A and BBC World. At the same time his social and political commentary appears regularly in newspapers like The Australian, The Australian Financial Review and The Sydney Morning Herald.
There are many more things I could say about Waleed's career but there isn't enough time. Suffice to say that his versatility, his intellect and passionate commitment to human rights and social justice have made him one of Australia's most respected and trusted public intellectuals. Ladies and gentlemen we are going to begin proceedings very shortly but first of all we'd like to start with a short video.


Video

Introduction

Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Robert Manne and Waleed Aly, thank you.


Professor Robert Manne 7.14

Thank you all for coming, I was very keen to begin today's event with that clip because I feel that Australia is extremely fortunate to have a communicator as gifted as Waleed Aly who I think is now playing a really very significant role in making Australia a more humane place so I'd really like to welcome you with great sincerity, thank you very much. I know how busy you are, but for making the time to come.

Waleed Aly

No worries, thanks for having me.

Robert Manne

So we're going to talk about the issue of Islamic State and its impact in Europe and America but also I'd like to end by talking about its impact, or the impact of these kinds of events on the Muslim community in Australia.
So I'll begin with this question and I suppose in a way I'm addressing you now partly as a commentator and partly as a Muslim. I think there's something quite unprecedented at least in contemporary times that the movement Al-Qaeda, and its successor really Islamic State, claim that even though they are an extreme radical and I agree with you evil ideology, they claim to be speaking as the authentic voice for Islam or for your religion.
I'd just like you to comment in a way on what can be done about that, how can that argument best be countered?

Waleed Aly

Well little can be done about it because the way that Islam is set up is that it's not set up. So there's no organisation, there's no-one in charge. We don’t have a Pope. And so that has amazing benefits by the way, what that means is that speech within the Islamic tradition is constantly open, issues are very rarely, if ever settled finally, there's always constant, quite thorough going debate about things. Which has benefited Islamic history tremendously, but it has a disadvantage and that is that; you can't shut people up and there's no official theologically convincing form of ex-communication, in that someone can just unroll. There's no one to stand up and say, "Sorry you're not in the club anymore", it just doesn't work that way. So there's no real way of stopping people of saying things, making claims, potentially even making them violently. All they're really is that's left over is the contest of ideas.
But here I think we need to be really careful not to overstate. I mean, sorry, that's a really important contest but it's not the only contest. In some ways it's not really about ideas, it's about emotion and identity. So if you look for example at the people who become really attracted to an organisation like ISIS, you are not talking about people who have reached this point after thirty years of theological reflection in some seminary or other. That's not who these people are. They typically have very, very shallow experiences of religion, very shallow religious commitments in that; when I say shallow I mean six months ago they were not religious at all, like it had not even entered their minds. It's a much, much rarer story to find someone who grew up in a religious family, was given religious education from a young age, grew up with that, who ends up in one of these groups. That's really, really rare, particularly in the west.
There are some exceptions to that, perhaps the most famous exception to that; which is not an ISIS exception but previous to that, was Bin Laden. So he's rare in that respect, in that he was religious from a young age. But as far as the people who are being sucked into this movement are concerned, they're not theologically minded people typically. Even the organisation in Syria and Iraq itself is a real mix, we often overlook, we think of it as an outgrowth of Al-Qaeda and sort of that's true, but it's also got a massive chunk of Saddam Hussein's old machinery that when we invaded we excluded from the reconstruction of the Iraqi state and kind of had nowhere to go. And they meet Baghdadi in prison in 2010 I think it was when he was in prison, and they come up with this alliance. So a lot of them are Ba'athists or ex Ba'athists, they were the national secular political movement right.
So trying to understand ISIS in narrowly ideological terms I think can be misleading for that reason and trying to understand their appeal as being the consequence of a religious argument, one side of which is winning or losing at any particular moment, I think is also misleading because there are so many social and identity driven determinants of what makes them attractive that we can really easily gloss over if that's the approach we take.

Robert Manne

Nevertheless can I, I mean privately all my life have been interested in ideology and I've become interested in the ideological aspects even though I agree with you. Olivier Roy in France has made the case as well as you, about the kind of people that are attracted to ISIS and Islamic State. But on the ideology, a term that I think is now used is Salafi Jihadist as a description of the tiny corner of this vast world of Islam.
Do you agree with that term firstly as a way of describing the ideological content of IS? Do you agree?

W

Not entirely, I see where people are going with it in that, if you were to perform some kind of discourse analysis of Al-Qaeda and then ISIS, it's clearly a Jihadist organisation, although one of my colleagues would object to that and say, 'Neo-Jihadist is actually a better description', and there are technical reasons to do with that.
Mainly to do with the fact that when Jihadism emerged from the Middle East it was really about violence against conventional militaries and Neo-Jihadism completely changed that by directing that violence to civilians and they're actually quite different ideas. So that would be his argument, so with that caveat, I'm prepared to say that the Jihadism is clear. The Salafism is clear as well, when ……

Robert Manne

Perhaps you could explain to the audience what Salafism is…

W

I'll do that in a sec, because that's a really complicated point. So let me just say as an ambit claim, the Salafism is clear but there's other stuff in there as well and if you look for example, at the discourse of Bin Laden, he's clearly inspired by a figure like say Qutb who was not a Salafi really, he was an outgrowth of the Brotherhood Movement. The Brotherhood rejected him in the end but he was an outgrowth of that.
As for what Salafism is, it is really complicated. So….

Robert Manne

But you're a great simplifier.

W

Alright, I will simply grandly. How about that?
Salafism effectively, to put it in really inappropriate analogical terms, it's basically a form of Protestantism. So think about it this way, the Islamic tradition was something that grew up over, I guess fourteen hundred years of scholarly interaction and there were all kinds of movements and currents and counter-currents within that. But it was a tradition. And so when you learnt Islamic theology or jurisprudence or whatever it might be, sporadic interpretation, you weren't just dealing with text, you were dealing with an accumulated community of interpretation, right. And different communities of interpretation and the dialogues between them, you were learning a really vast ocean of discourse.
What the Salafis effectively came along and said was, 'that tradition is of limited value and it has lead us away from the pure meaning of the text in certain cases' and the seminal scholar in this regard is a guy by the name of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, which is why sometimes you hear Salafi's referred to as Wahhabis, (but there's a difference), and he was particularly concerned with what he saw, forms of folk religious practice that he thought involved idolatry, (so grave worship or things like that) and he thought that needed purifying. He ran a very strong argument that said; 'we need to get back to text and text is all there is'. At the same time a similar argument was being run in Egypt, in the post-colonial environment which was actually saying that, 'the religious institutions of knowledge in Egypt had kind of collapsed and had sort of become a little bit superstitious and not open enough to modern ideas contained in science or Western philosophy and so on', and this was all part of the modernist movement, but that itself was also a Salafi movement. Because in trying to free themselves from these accumulated interpretations over millennia they said, 'what we need to do is rethink things and go back to the text'.
So these are all Salafi movements, but when we talk in the context to this, what we're really referring to is the more hard-edged stuff that came out of the Wahhabi side of that Salafi movement. And really what it was about, was about just going back to scripture with nothing else. Now the problem with that, is that scripture means nothing without a methodology to interpret it and this is one of the great crises of the modern Muslim world is that it's all scripture, no methodology. So there's no coherence and that's why I object to people describing these people as literalist, because they're not.
Literalism is really interesting, there was a very interesting literalist movement in Moorish Spain, a whole school of thought called the Zahiri School for those playing along at home, and they were hyper-literalist, so literalist that a very celebrated scholar within this school, held that it was permissible for Muslims to eat crackling for example. So pig fat and pig skin.

Robert Manne

Because that hadn't been….

W

The Koran only prohibits the consumption of flesh. So that's how literalist he was and they had a whole school like that and a really interesting school, but they are a million miles away from these guys. So these guys are really selectively literalist. I mean if you want to be really literalist, they should be fighting wars on horseback with swords, but they're not, right.
And they will violate very clear rules of military engagement. One of those rules being warfare, particularly if it's offensive has to be done, it's a State function, not a function of a more vigilante group, so that's one thing. But even little things like the use of fire in punishment. There was a classic - that really well known horrific where ISIS burned alive the Jordanian pilot….

Robert Manne

The Jordanian pilot.

W

The first thing I thought of when I saw that, there is a very specific statement that the Prophet makes where he says, "Never punish by fire." Whatever punishment you are going to dream up, it shouldn't involve fire. And there they are, so there's no literalism in this, it's really very selective.

Robert Manne

You know how they answer that. I've read Dabiq which is their magazine, they answer that by saying, "There's another part of the Koran which says you will meet your enemies by doing the things they do to you" so that is meant to trump the….

W

But this is really interesting right, because Bin Laden ran a similar sort of argument. The logic of 9/11 by the way for those who have not heard this before was, 'Western forces led by the United States or what they would call the Crusader Zionist Alliance, have killed X number of Muslim civilians, (I can't remember the figure they got up to was, let's say it was 3 million) we've now killed 3,000, we've got a long way to go before we reach equality' that was the argument. Obviously a numerical - no literally a numerical argument. I guess they would stop killing civilians once they'd reached the quota. I don't know but that's the implication of what they were saying.

Robert Manne

As long as the Americans had stopped killing?

W

Yeah, Yeah, unless the numbers keep… But the argument was 'Fight them as they fight you', so 'We will do whatever has been done to us'. The thing is, that is a really novel interpretation in Islamic history. It's not really literalist because you've got these other far more explicit on point texts that are literally telling you 'This specifically you cannot do', but I think more importantly, this fleshes out the nature of these sort of groups really well. Really what that amounts to is a kind of Nihilism.
There are no real moral standards, there are no no-go zones really, all it is, is a matter of aping whatever is coming at you and that allows you to have your moral standards set by somebody else and I don't know any theorists of classical Islamic, any Classic Islamic theorists of warfare that would go anywhere near that.


Robert Manne

Within your faith what do you think have been the most important critiques made of the distortion of the faith that is represented by, first Al-Qaeda, then ISIS?

W

Important in what sense I suppose?

Robert Manne

That have had effect - that have had influence?

W

Well, I mean there are lots of things you could point to. For example there was a massive great big tome, it was a point by point refutation of everything ISIS had said, written by a huge committee of Muslim scholars from around the world and it didn't seem to get much attention, certainly not in the media. But it's a fairly substantial body of work with a really diverse range of scholars, now was that influential? I suppose, but the question is: with whom?
I could point alternatively to an argument that, not an argument just a movement that I would probably describe as the fastest growing movement within Muslim communities particularly in the West, which I describe as a kind of Neo-Traditionalist Movement. But I haven't really nailed down my terms to give you a really precise definition of that, but this is led by people like in the United States a really famous scholar by the name of Hamza Yusuf, he's a bit of a rock star. Like if you chuck him into YouTube you'll probably get 3 million videos, he's a very popular very widely disseminated, he's very charismatic, he's a white American of Greek background who converted to Islam when he was a kid. Speaks flawless Arabic, studied traditionally at the feet of scholars in Mauritania under a tree in the desert, and that's not a caricature, that's literally what he did. That sort of guy and he's incredibly charismatic, very popular and he's probably 'the' most influential Muslim scholar in the world today, but you probably haven't heard very much about him? Right, because beyond the Muslim community it's not really…
But he gave a really interesting sermon, just in a mosque on a Friday one day, because he's in California, that's where he's based, in the bay area. And he gave this sermon that was all about of how ISIS is the fulfilment of all these prophesies and they fulfil all the signs that we were given of people who were condemned. And it was one of the most amazing things I've seen, because even though I wasn't familiar with the literature he was quoting, it was just like a checklist of things.
Now that's the most powerful message you could send because this is arguing entirely from within an Islamic framework that these guys stand condemned of themselves. Even a tiny little thing. I mean one of the signs of this group that would emerge was that they would refer to everybody by a nickname that is by the father of somebody, so 'Abu someone' would be all their names. And this is an astonishing thing, because if you look at ISIS everyone involved has one of these. I don't even know if they even have kids necessarily when they're given these names, but they're all given them. So you have people like Abu Khaled al-Cambodi was the Australian guy Neil Prakash who I think died recently, I mean you go through everyone, everyone has one of these things.
Now you go through in tiny little detail in some obscure text somewhere, but this guy because he's an actual scholar and he knows all of this stuff really well, can just pluck all this stuff out and it's riveting to watch whether you buy it or not, it's riveting to watch. But the problem is that none of that stuff, it's not going to solve the problem right? Because who is he talking to? Well he's talking to people who are religiously engaged and he's talking to people who have a real religious interest but as I've said before, a lot of the people who end up being swept up in the ISIS vortex are people who were not religiously interested five minutes ago.

Robert Manne

Yes.

W

So, they're not going to be influenced by that stuff because it's not in their universe until the moment they get sucked into this movement. It doesn't work this way.


Robert Manne

I've called you, what I believe to be a great communicator and I want to anchor this discussion in something very local and very real, which is, all the time one hears people like Andrew Bolt or Andrew Jones and scores and scores of others who have, in a way taken Al-Qaeda and ISIS at face value by suggesting, 'this is what Islam really is'. How do you as a, you've now got a really big audience; The Project, how do you begin to break through; I think you've said enough now for everyone to know how much you know about your faith, the tradition of Islam.
How do you break through what is really, it seems to me as an outsider to all of this, a central problem which is the idea that what is happening in the Islamic State is somehow a faithful representation of one of the world's great religions? I'm asking you as a communicator.

W

How do I do that? But the thing is I don't.

Robert Manne

Well you did.

W

Well, did I? Because after that it was the same old stuff right?


Robert Manne

Well not in one blow.

W

No, but it was. You see I don't know because I don't listen to Sheik Alan Jones very much (laughter)…so I don't really know what they're saying, but it sort of gets back to me and like, apparently there were responses to that basically saying how that was denying the real problem.
There comes a point where the ignorance is so determined and so insincere that I just have no desire or energy to engage it. I just don't because it's not going to convince anybody.

Robert Manne

But isn't your audience young people who are not rusted onto Andrew Bolt?

W

Yeah but I actually think there are very few people listening onto that stuff who aren't rusted on. I mean I think if those sort of voices were even half as relevant as they through they were, we would be living in a very, very different country. There wouldn't be a Labour Government in any jurisdiction in the country, Tony Abbott would be the most popular prime minister in history and he would still be in power and I would not have a job.
None of those things are true, therefore these voices are far more irrelevant than they're often given credit for. That's my local syllogism, you can break it down if you like, but it's kind of how I feel. [applause] Oh no, don't clap, this isn't Oprah, you don't need to do…. [laughter].
So I actually think a lot of these things are really irrelevant and marginal. That said, there is a real problem in that I think a lot of lay people have that general impression. 'Well ISIS, I guess they're the guys, right?' And some of those comes from politicians. What was it, Andrew Hastie who one day sat down and watched sixty videos and declared that he'd figured out that this was all about scripture. Well ok, that's one way to perform exegesis, but, so you do occasionally get these sorts of things. You get Tony Abbott, there needs to be a reprobation sort of concept, you get even sort of Josh Frydenberg jumped on that, so you get that sort of energy going.
But those sort of things are very hard to respond to with details about Islamic scripture because I don't think those positions really come from that. I don't think they come from someone sitting down doing their very best to discern what the sum total of the Islamic interpretative tradition is and what the Koran says here, and what the different Koranic interpreters over history have said about that verse. They're not doing that.
In the same way that the people who sign up to ISIS whether literally or just in a symbolic way from a distance, the same way that they are really just hitching themselves to something that feels good, there's an identity movement at play, I think the opposite impulse is the same. If I can just pin this on one big colossal evil that removes all of the human and social dynamics from consideration and just says, 'here we go, here's a problem, it's this thing called Islam, maybe you haven't heard about it, I'm here to tell you about it' if you can do that that feels great and it renders a complex thing simple.
What's tricky about it is I'm not sure what solutions it yields other than mass forced conversion or genocide or some other form of ethnic cleansing. The solutions never fully articulated, but I think the reason people have that commitment or that sort of world view is because it supports the identity they're crafting and it supports the world view they have more broadly, it's not about terrorism necessarily.

Robert Manne

Can we go on to terrorism?

W

Sure, could we not?

Robert Manne

Well, I want to ask something more specific. I mean, whatever one thinks about Al-Qaeda, they did have one moment of history making impact which was 9/11 and I'm interested in a way, and the response of the United States to that attack was firstly to attack and invade Afghanistan and then for reasons that I've never been able to understand and even people who know a lot more than I do can't understand, the decision to invade Iraq.

Clive Hamilton

I'll explain that later, it's alright. [laughter]

Robert Manne

I asked David Kilcullen this question and he said it was a form of hypnosis that happened, he knew these people. But I wanted to ask you and from the point of view of Muslims and obviously yourself, what impact do you think the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have had in the world?

W

Well, Iraq had much more significant impact than Afghanistan I think, partly because Afghanistan (whether you agree with the war or not) there was at least a coherent defensible narrative you could tell about it.

Robert Manne

That they were providing sanctuary for Al-Qaeda?

Clive Hamilton

Yep. I think there was still a simplistic understanding of the problem and so it has proven since, because what happens in Afghanistan is, we go in and we smash Al-Qaeda's infrastructure – great - and then terrorism increases.
We were out there to get Bin Laden that was the thing, he was the guy. We get him the CEO of terror and then Terror Inc. will end. So we get him and we kill him and then terrorism goes up.
So there's clearly a misdiagnosis going on within this. But, Iraq was the real problem in so many ways, one it created the instability (and not just Iraq, when I say Iraq I don't just mean the invasion I mean, then the handling post invasion of the reconstruction of the country)…

Robert Manne

Yes

W

Because those two things, I think they're actually inseparable, but the instability that that created, the complete alienation of the old regime so that you had all these Ba'athists who were really capable of doing some pretty nasty stuff just at a loose end which ends up expressing itself in the form of ISIS.
There's that on one level, then there's the radicalising effect of Iraq, so what you will often hear in this concept of does Iraq or did the Iraq war inspire more terrorism? Or is it a root cause of terrorism? What you'll hear is, 'Well there was terrorism before 9/11 happened before Iraq, we were attacked before Iraq, Bali etc.' And that's true, Iraq did not create the phenomenon of terrorism, but what it did do was give greater momentum to the engine of radicalisation and that expressed itself in the form of home grown attacks in Western society. That we haven't seen before. 9/11 was not a home grown attack which is why I think in some ways, the London bombings are the more significant attack…

Robert Manne

Uh huh, interesting…

w

… because that's the one where our whole understanding of the phenomenon of terrorism changed. 9/11 was spectacular and it was cinematic and it was confronting in that way, but it was in a bizarre way comprehensible because it was still foreigners that did it. Right, so it was still an external attack. London changed all that.
So all of that and Marc Sageman goes through this in a lot of detail, he's come up with his own theories for where this terrorism comes from and he describes it as the 'Group of Guys Theory', which is the best academic name I've ever heard for anything. But he observes that all of these attacks happened post invasion. Particularly the self-starting ones he's interested in, so not ones where you've got someone in Al-Qaeda funding someone to go out and do something, you're hatching a plan, which Al-Qaeda does very little of by the way. Or quite little.
He's talking about attacks where the people involved had nothing to do with Al-Qaeda really, they didn't necessarily even have training, its DIY terrorism. And there's a whole spate of them beginning really with Madrid which was a massive attack and had nothing to do with Al-Qaeda, and we thought London was an example, (it turned out there was an Al-Qaeda connection but at the time we didn't think that) but there's this massive spate of them and Sageman identifies all of them, he lists them and he says, they all begin from 2004 and everyone involved sights the Iraq war as a major reason.
Now you don't have to take these people at their word but there is a very important sociological correlation going on.

Robert Manne

I had an interesting experience last year when a very senior member of the Howard or public servant who, you couldn't be more senior in the Howard government than he was and I asked him a question which was, do you take any personal responsibility because of the invasion of Iraq in which the Howard government was involved, for the fact that the Islamic State is now in control of considerable areas of Iraq and Syria?
Not only did he not answer me, but he went purple with rage as if it was a kind of improper question.
I wanted to ask you whether you accept my view…

w

Do you want me to go purple with rage?

Robert Manne

No, I want you to agree with me. To accept my view that without the American invasion, the Allied invasion with Britain and Australia along, it's inconceivable that IS would now be in control of parts of the territory of Iraq and Syria?

w

Yeah, I think that's true, but it's not the full story. I think ISIS in the form we now see it doesn't exist without the disaster in Syria which is…..

Robert Manne

…which is nothing to do with….

W

…which is a function of the Iraq war. You could argue and I haven't got to the bottom of this myself, you could argue that it actually had more to do with Western non-intervention than intervention. But there's no doubt that, and this is just a matter of historical record it's not opinion it's just fact, that the groups that accumulated to become ISIS were groups that were created in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq.
I mean Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was never really part of Iraq, I mean it was part of Al-Qaeda, but Al-Qaeda didn't like them very much.

Robert Manne

No but Zarqawi had very bad relations with Osama bin Laden.

W

Yeah Zarqawi and Zawahiri didn't, Bin Laden didn't like what he was doing, Zawahiri didn't like what Zarqawi was doing because he was killing a lot of Shia and that was kind of his main focus. Anyway that's all by the by. There's this letter from Zawahiri to Zarqawi that's entertaining reading if nothing else, which you can probably find on Google, but they were really not the same thing.
But Al-Qaeda in Iraq only arrives because of the invasion. The ousting of, as I say the Ba'athist operatives from the Saddam Hussein regime that only obviously is a function of Iraq, the invasion of Iraq. These people meeting in prison, those sort of other insurgency groups coming together, the insurgency groups had to exist for that to happen and the insurgency groups existed because of the invasion. It's just obvious. And Tony Blair has admitted this.

Robert Manne

So you do agree with me?

W

Well I agree with that yeah, but what I'm not necessarily saying. Yeah but what I don't really think is true, although I haven't concluded on it, is that the invasion of Iraq alone is enough to bring ISIS into existence. I don't think that necessarily would have happened, and I think the Arab uprisings and Bashar al-Assad's response to them. And I don't think people have figured this out. Analysists all the time, it's sort of a well-known thing, but ISIS exists because Bashar al-Assad wanted them to exist. He was very happy for them to exist.


R

One theory is he wanted something worse than him in order to…?

W

Well no, but he said, when all the uprisings happened he said, "You can't trust these protestors they're all terrorists", and they weren't so he set about making sure that eventually they were right.

R

Something he could put his finger on.

W

It's amazing, I've spoken to people in government, our government and other governments who work in this area and the stories they all tell are incredible. Like how certain facilities would be controlled by ISIS and the Assad regime just looks at and goes, 'fine', just playing wide of it. The minute the Free Syrian Army got hold of that same institution it bombed instantly.
They knew who they cared about fighting and they knew who they were happy to nurture and so ISIS didn't really attack Assad and Assad didn't really attack ISIS and that's how they've got this foothold in Syria and that's crucial to the ISIS story. So the war in Iraq was not sufficient but I think it was necessary.

R

Good. You sort of agree. [laughter] Two other big questions before I want to move to contemporary Europe, contemporary America but spend time on the position of Muslims in Australia but two final big questions about IS as I call it now – Islamic State.

W

There's the war on terror and there's the war on what to call the people in the war on terror. [laughter]. It's amazing.

R

That's probably going to be nastier.

W

Yes probably is.

R

The first big question I'm sure everybody here is puzzled and wants an answer to this question. How would you explain the extreme barbarity of Islamic State, not only the be-headings, but putting them on video, trying to show the world beheadings, the desecration of old monuments, the return of sexual slavery and the genocide of say Shiites but also Yazidis which fit the classic definition, the UN's definition of genocide? How is this extreme barbarity best explained or is it inexplicable?

w

I don't think it's inexplicable, I don't actually think it's hard to explain. What is ISIS? And I mean, that's the beginning of understanding it and for me it's pretty clear what it is. It's a state building enterprise, that's David Kilcullen's term for it and it's effectively become a state, but in its genesis that's what it was trying to do it's trying to build a state and then it grabs territory…

R

The Caliphate?

W

Right and then it tries to establish its authority over that territory. So the violence, particularly the really graphic violence is, for me or has to be understood through the prism of them trying to build their state. There are lots of precedents in history for that so I often will describe it, if I'm writing about it, I'll often describe their violence as Jacobean, I have since got an email of an historian of the French Revolution who got angry at me about that because he thinks the Jacobeans are very misunderstood, which is fine. He did admit that his is not a universally accepted view, it was an interesting exchange I just thought I'd reference it so you can't say I didn't consult the literature.
But, Jacobean violence, the idea of Jacobean violence is a really simple one, you as a state, a fledgling state trying to establish your authority, establish your authority by intimidating the population into acquiescence through the most graphic public depictions of violence that you can think of, anybody who does not match either who you want in the state or who is resisting. It's kind of that simple. But that's only part of the violence right?
So the stuff that’s going on internally, the genocides, the beheadings not of Westerners but of Shia and other people that’s what that is. It’s a campaign of intimidation to establish state authority. And so it's actually quite a different thing to what we would classically think of as terrorism, because terrorism is typically non-state actor trying to attack a state actor either to get them to change a policy or to replace them or something like that. This is a group of people who are in control of territory trying to establish their rule over that territory. So they're just borrowing from a very old playbook in that respect.
The other stuff though, so the execution of Western targets particularly with beheadings and so on, that I think does operate more in a mode of classic terrorism, where what you are trying to do is scandalise and radicalise the whole terrain. And the beheadings particularly are not new for this group because, if you believe well we know that ISIS grew out of Al-Qaeda in Iraq which Zarqawi led, and Zarqawi was a big fan of this.
You might remember, I don't know if you do remember but around 2004 there was that spate of beheadings that happened, it was very short lived where they would just take hostages and behead them, aid workers and all sorts of people. And it was very short lived, partly because the response was such repulsion and Al-Qaeda were really angry about it.

R

That's one of the things Zawahiri has against?

W

Yes Zawahiri fires off his letter to Zarqawi partly about this saying, "Everyone's recoiling at this, we're losing the people, we're losing the masses".

R

The hearts and minds.

W

It is a hearts and minds strategy, in some ways this is the problem that Al-Qaeda's hearts and minds strategy was more evolved than ours. But anyway, that was really short lived, so we knew Zarqawi liked doing this sort of thing, so the movement that's grown out of that has really just carried that on, but what they've found is that by doing that, they ensure a huge amount of Western tension, they probably provoke a Western military response, if they can provoke that and it's not calibrated very well then they get more and more recruits and that again is a very old terrorism strategy. You provoke an overreaction so that you can swell your ranks. Really old, really, really common, again it's from a very old playbook.
So they're doing that, and they're also there's a secondary message being sent out which is one of might and strength and power and also unaccountability before the rest of the world. And this is what I think is really important to understand when you see particularly young people in the West joining up to this thing. Because what they're buying into is that narrative, might, power, self-determination – you are in charge and no-one can cross you. So it's like through the performance of this ultraviolence, they're selling a dream of liberation and I'm not putting that too highly, all you need to do is read. You've read Dabiq, it's in there, you read the speeches that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (again another Abu Bakr) you read the speeches that he gives, the speech he gave when they proclaimed the Caliphate, the language is all: 'This day we have removed humiliation from you'.

R

And do you see this as psychological for the young Westerners who, you know the tens of thousands and a lot more than that but…

w

Yes, it's clearly and important part, I wish who knew who said this because I only just read it last week and you want to attribute these things, but whoever it was put it really well, they said; "ISIS is the biggest, baddest gang on the planet and if that's what you're looking for if you want to sign up to something, because it gives you identity, it gives you self-esteem, it gives you all those things, if you want to sign up to that, there's no-one offering a more compelling image, it's powerful.
And that's why I get really, really annoyed, that's why I began that video by saying ISIL's weak, which I think is the bit before you started it, the introduction to it, that's why I began with that. Because it's true in any conventional measure they are weak and their strength comes largely from symbolism, but also strength is like 'the' central pillar of their propaganda. That's the thing, if they're weak they're not attractive.
And yet that's the truth and yet we insist, as a public culture of talking about them in terms that I regard as untrue and the fulfilment of their propaganda. Why we would do - that it beats me. Completely.

R

Something I hadn't intended to ask you but I now intend to because of what you've just said. Does that mean that you would support, I'll give a characterisation of President Obama's military policy which is to hope that Islamic Forces do their fighting on the ground but to use the air capacity of the United States and its Allies to what he calls degrade whatever the Islamic State. Do you support the Obama Military Strategy?

W

Well I think there's no point… My problem with the response to ISIS at the moment is there's no strategy. Right, so there is a military strategy but a military strategy untethered to a political strategy is not a strategy and this is the problem we have. So if you look at what we're doing it's just a holding pattern. We're not really fulfilling the military strategy that you've just articulated, because well it's not like there's armies of ground troops going in there trying to take out ISIS to get rid of them.



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