Malheureusement, Nous Ne Sommes Pas Tous Charlie 2: Rules of Engagement

by David Stevens and Kieron O’Hara

Last week in this blog, we argued that goods such as belonging and commitment were the chief drivers of extremist groups, alongside a rejection of mainstream thinking. In a book which appears next month, The Devil’s Long Tail, we claim that suppressing ideological messages in the hope of preventing radicalisation is simply not effective, as they are not the chief motivators of such people, and furthermore that the emergence of the web hasn’t changed this calculation.

Nevertheless, this kind of thinking pervades the anti-extremist drive. In the UK, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has just written to over 1,000 Islamic leaders to suggest that “There is a need to lay out more clearly than ever before what being a British Muslim means today: proud of your faith and proud of your country.” One assumes that a would-be jihadi might struggle to assent to this proposition – and if he or she heard it from an Imam at the local mosque, then he or she might well assume that this message was mere government propaganda.

Promoting moderate messages or censoring radical (but non-violent) views, or endorsing ‘official’ versions of faiths will empty the churches and provide grist to the mills of those who peddle fire and brimstone. Government is best served by concentrating on those who threaten violence regardless of the motive (religious or not) that drives it. Radical views and beliefs are a natural part of any free religious environment, and all but the tiniest minority of those adherents would ever dream of adopting violence as a means to achieve their ends, then seeking to counter the ‘evil ideology’ of religious radicalism is not simply looking for that needle in the haystack, it’s actually a red herring. The cure for radicalism is debate; the cure for violence is policing.

Many people who have criticised this rather silly approach follow Britain’s former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in laying the blame on the Internet:

“the truth is that Islamism, like all modern global political movements, is actually a global phenomenon transmitted by the internet and transmitted by social media, so I would be surprised if the Muslim community did not say: ‘You are asking of us something that is not actually under our control”.

Although the costs of participation are lowered online, if a group wants to get any kind of political or religious sway in society it will eventually have to engage with others offline; its members cannot talk just to themselves, gazing into their navels. And, when it does engage, then it has to make its case in a language that others will find attractive or be persuaded by. Inevitably, this will mean it moderates. If it doesn’t, it will likely remain out in the cold, and occupy, at best, a very marginal position (which may indeed suit the hardcore radicals).

What, then, should governments do regarding online radicalization? There are many things that might be tried, and their freedom of action is only curtailed if:

  • They want to preserve their democratic credentials.
  • They want to preserve the utility of the Internet and the Web for the population at large and for specialist sectors such as academe and e-commerce.
  • They want their citizens to retain trust in the Internet.
  • They want the Internet to remain as secure as possible.
  • They want to act effectively.

Governments can implement almost any policy, as long as they do not mind being undemocratic, curtailing liberty, slowing down the Internet and turning their citizens away from it, and wasting their time with measures that will not work. However, as governments are likely to want to uphold the five conditions above, their hands will be tied quite tightly. This is not a bad thing. Mass surveillance, inserting cryptographical backdoors, acting for the sake of acting, and driving radical discussion underground are all counterproductive. There is no ‘solution’ to the problem of violent extremism – the violent are always with us – but equally governments can refrain from making the problem worse, and from having a negative effect on civil society and the Internet. What should they do then? Here are some suggestions from our book:

1. Be patient and realistic. The media, including online media, thrive on immediacy and problems, with the result that governments are pressured into declaring immediate solutions. Violent extremism is not a problem that will go away quickly, and also not something that can be dealt with through grand gestures.

2. Ideas are not the cause of terrorism: include those with hostile views of the mainstream in dialogue. Marginalizing radical voices within a democratic polity simply reinforces the oppositional tension that helps radical groups cohere.

3. Consider the goods that extremist groups provide. In many cases these tend to be non-corrupt, effective and sensitive public services, and the group solidarity that many people seek. Hence an important aim for governments should be to ensure a range of goods provided by the state, non-governmental organisations and the commercial market that compete with the goods provided by extreme groups, to render the sacrifices pointless and the benefits nugatory.

4. If you smoke democratic ideals, inhale them too. Sometimes they are inconvenient, but governments, and those who aspire to government, should emphasise their importance and be prepared to debate with anyone who explicitly or implicitly denies them.

5. Respect nuance: do not be Manichaean. By labelling radical groups as part of an axis of evil, a democratic government is clearly accepting the extremists’ framing of the position (though with differing views about where good and evil lie).

6. Find consensus. Where there is no strong consensus against a particular set of beliefs, or a particular type of action, then global action is unlikely to happen. Where democrats have demonstrably betrayed their own ideals, as often in the US war on terror, they will not be taken seriously internationally. For democrats, the moral high ground is vital for consensus-formation betraying democratic principles, even for the purposes of security and counterterrorism, is self-defeating in the long run.

7. Do not blame the Web. It is a mistake to assume that the web plays a causal role in extremism. Terrorists use all sorts of public goods, such as transport networks; we do not assume these goods have causal powers and try to restrict their use. We should certainly expect terrorists to use the web, social media, email, smartphones and other such innovations as it makes sense for them to do so. The only way to prevent terrorists using digital networked technologies is to prevent a vast number of innocent people from using them too.

8. Do not kill the Web. The web thrives on decentralisation, freedom and lack of regulation. The bottlenecks that regulation inevitably creates could strangle the web. Private-sector actors, particularly commercial ones, should be required to obey the law, but not police the Internet.

9. Forget the needle: love your haystack. As security expert Bruce Schneier points out, if you want to find the needle in the haystack, the last thing you need is more hay. Contrary to the recent assertions of the head of MI5 and the head of the committee responsible for MI5’s oversight, we need careful, targeted, accountable intelligence-gathering – not sweeping surveillance of everyone (counterterrorism theatre at its worst, generating more data than anyone knows what to do with). The policing appropriate to the Internet age is closer to the intelligence-led policing of old, and the apparent gold mine of a vast quantity of data about our online activities will simply undermine relations between communities, individuals, technology providers, the police and the state. In other words, the terrorists would have succeeded in bringing chaos to their enemies.

Leave a Reply