The terrorist group Islamic State caught the world by surprise in June 2014 when it declared a caliphate in the heart of the Middle East. Within a few months, like an avenging fire, it had scorched across Syria and much of Iraq, carving out an empire stretching more than 400 miles from Aleppo to the Iraqi town of Sulaiman Bek, which lies just 60 miles from the Iranian border.
IS, or Isis, or Da’esh, seemed unstoppable but it has now been pushed back, possibly decisively. Since 2014, it has lost an estimated 45,000 jihadists, as well as control of key towns and resources. Its enemies – Kurds, Iraqi troops and Shia militias – are in Iraq’s second city, Mosul, and are advancing on the group’s de facto Syrian capital, Raqqa. But, as the Labour MP Liam Byrne points out in this timely book, the fight against Isis and its brutal ideology has many fronts. Isis is obsessed with controlling territory and creating a global caliphate. But it existed for many years without territory. With its war on the world going badly, its digital caliphate is becoming ever more important.
In his wide-ranging and discursive study, Byrne concentrates on what is perhaps the most significant fight of all: the “battle of ideas”. His journey has taken him to northern Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. He makes his most interesting discoveries, however, in his own constituency of Birmingham Hodge Hill, where Muslims boast the highest share of the population (52 per cent) of any area in the UK.
Byrne concludes that Isis and other jihadi groups such as Boko Haram and al-Qaeda are fundamentally heretical by nature. Essentially they are death cults, with as much relevance to most Muslims as David Koresh and Jim Jones had to “mainstream” Christians. Ironically, Isis claims to espouse the purest form of Islam, pursued in the 7th century by the Prophet Muhammad. Thus, it believes that it has the power to excommunicate apostates, an act known as takfir, and the right to exterminate them. This has metastasised into genocide, as Christians, Kurds, Yazidis and, above all, Muslims in the Middle East can attest.
Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the group, which then called itself alQaeda, morphed with Saddam Hussein’s avowedly secular Ba’ath Party. In effect, this was the merger of a terrorist group and an embittered terror apparatus. The objective of Isis was to trigger conflict between Iraq’s Shia majority, which came to power after the invasion, and the Sunni minority, which had hitherto ruled the roost. The group’s global aim was to foment division between Muslims and everyone else.
Byrne believes the British government is making a critical mistake in its methods of combating home-grown extremism. It has bought in to a “clash of civilisations” doctrine that makes Islam the problem. In the UK, counter-extremism programmes such as Prevent are based on a “conveyor belt” theory that identifies religious conservatism as the trigger for radicalisation. But Byrne, citing security and academic sources, argues that anger and resentment, often engendered by a sense of marginalisation, are more powerful factors: “. . . the starting point for radicalisation may in fact be rage rather than religion”. Jihadists have often created their own version of Islam after conducting rudimentary research online; two Birmingham men convicted of fighting in Syria ordered copies of Islam for Dummies on Amazon before leaving for the front line.
We should – at the very least – recognise the true nature of the extremist threat we face. The US president-elect’s declared solutions to dealing with Isis include bombing “the shit out of ’em” and barring all Muslims from entering his country. Reason and rationality may seem in short supply these days, but they have a habit of returning once people tire of the dispiriting alternatives. In the meantime, we could do worse than reach for Byrne’s excellent, revealing and clear-sighted book.
Andrew Hosken is a BBC reporter and the author of “Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State” (Oneworld)
Black Flag Down: Counter-Extremism, Defeating Isis and Winning the Battle of Ideas by Liam Byrne is published by Biteback (258pp, £12.99)
Liam Byrne and Michael Gove will discuss Isis, Islamist terror and the “battle of ideas” with the NS contributing writer Shiraz Maher on 12 December in London. To book tickets visit newstatesman.co.uk/events or call 020 3096 5789
This article appears in the 30 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage