Iraqi soldiers from the Abbas Unit, travel along a dirt road in Jurf al Sakhr, 60 kilometers southwest of Baghdad, on August 10, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The US and the UK can’t defeat ISIS – Arab states have to take the lead

The destruction of this caliphate must come from a Muslim-led force. 

On Friday last week, as he became the fourth US president in succession to authorise airstrikes in Iraq, Barack Obama effectively said the world's most powerful terrorist group, ISIS, was an Arab problem and that regional leaders would have to deal with it.

"The nature of this [ISIL / ISIS] problem is not one that the US military can solve," he said, offering the clearest indication of his thinking. "[W]e can then be one of many countries that deal with the broader problem that ISIL poses," he said during the press conference, but the US was not going to take the lead.

Over the last year ISIS has captured territory that is now larger than Great Britain. It is among the fastest-growing and richest terrorist groups of all time. After initially funding its efforts with extortion, smuggling and private donations, it literally struck gold in June when it made off with $400m in cash and gold from the central bank in Mosul. Since then it has also captured oil fields and earns up to £3m a day by selling the resource on the black market. The group also has a modernised arsenal from the weapons and vehicles it has captured from the Iraqi army. Even the well-trained and feared Kurdish forces are being pushed back in places.

The plight of Iraq’s minorities, especially the Yazidis, has struck a chord strong enough to raise demands that the USA and UK should intervene to help such groups and destroy ISIS. I don’t say this as a blind anti-interventionist - I supported the invasion of Afghanistan to get rid of the Taliban and heavy military intervention in Syria to avoid a humanitarian crisis - but such a course of action would be foolhardy and counter-productive. On this, President Obama is absolutely right: the problem posed by ISIS cannot be solved by US military.

A wide-scale military operation spear-headed by the US or UK to defeat ISIS is doomed to failure. In fact they welcome the prospect. "Don’t be cowards and attack us with drones," a spokesman for the group told Vice News. "Instead send your soldiers, the ones we humiliated in Iraq. We will humiliate them everywhere, god willing," he added. ISIS would love the United States and UK to invade with soldiers or to step up aerial bombardment across the country.

There are two key reasons why I oppose such action. Firstly, aerial bombardment won’t make much difference, and may well lead to extensive civilian casualties. ISIS are well-versed in fighting an established army - in Syria - and constantly move around equipment and people. In case of (a highly unlikely) ground war, they would bog down American and British troops in a costly and draining ground war stretching over years, if not decades.

To reiterate, ISIS aren’t a rag-tag bunch of rebels hiding in caves, as al-Qaeda is largely reduced to now. It is a well-equipped urban guerilla army fighting on several different fronts and winning in most of them. While Saddam Hussain’s army barely put up a fight against American troops, the warriors of Islamic State would relish fighting them on their holy land.

A western-led attack on ISIS would also be counter-productive because of the inevitable blowback. The establishment of a caliphate has not just made ISIS more attractive than al-Qaeda, it also puts us in a deep quandary. To put it bluntly, the US or UK cannot be seen as cheerleading the destruction of the most successful caliphate in recent times.

It doesn’t matter how many imams or Muslims across the world have distanced themselves from ISIS, the destruction of this caliphate must come from a Muslim-led force. Otherwise the symbolism is such that we would be fending off terrorist attacks forever. To offer one example of their popularity - while not one Indian Muslim has been found fighting with al-Qaeda (in a country with the world’s second largest Muslim population), ISIS has not only inspired imams but attracted four Indian Muslim fighters already. The symbolism of a caliphate cannot be underestimated, and neither can the symbolism of its destruction.

I suspect Obama knows this. This is why there is hesitation across the American and British administrations, and why he said Arab leaders had to lead the charge against ISIS instead. The airstrikes authorised by Obama last week were limited, solely to help Kurdish armed forces fighting ISIS in northern Iraq. The British government isn’t even debating the prospect of joining its ally in these airstrikes and Labour opposes any such action outright.

There’s a reason, too, why we can afford to take a step back from this conflict. In contrast to al-Qaeda, the focus of the Islamic State is inward. It wants to consolidate territory across the Middle East before it takes on the might of the United States. It’s ironic that Saudi Arabia, which sponsored Wahhabism for decades, is now threatened by a group based on its ideology. We should let it deal with the consequences.

Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.