Black Flag Down: Counter-Terrorism, Defeating ISIS and Winning the Battle of Ideas
by Liam Byrne
Biteback Publishing, 2016, 272 pages, £12.99
Liam Byrne, former British Labour cabinet minister and author of Black Flag Down: Counter-Terrorism, Defeating ISIS and Winning the Battle of Ideas, has been a harsh critic of President Trump, describing him as a megalomaniac “trumpeting anti-Muslim hate speech”. Byrne, who sought the opinions of Muslims in his inner-city Birmingham constituency, extensively interviewed British intelligence and police officers and even spent time in Iraq, prefers the softly, softly PC approach in “bringing down the black flag of extremism”. His Black Flag Down is an almost plausible account of how the Battle of Ideas might be won in this era of the global jihad.
Black Flag Down positions itself as a sensible and practical response to radical Islamic terrorism, although Liam Byrne would not label the phenomenon beyond calling it “violent extremism”. Any attempt to connect Islam with the atrocities perpetrated by Salafi jihadism, from the Islamic State group and Al Qaeda to Al Shabaab, Ansar al-Sharia and Boko Haram, is straight-out wrong. Additionally, it can only be unhelpful in the Battle of Ideas, the key to winning our confrontation with what Byrne does, at least, agree is a global insurgency (if not a global jihad).
Not that Black Flag Down undervalues the role of the military, security and counter-intelligence in defeating terrorism. Byrne champions the role of security agencies in monitoring the terrorist recruiters and thwarting attempts to co-opt young Muslims in the United Kingdom for their nefarious cause. By February 2016, the Islamic State group, according to the statistics in Black Flag Down, was boasting that it operated 10,000 Facebook accounts and 5000 Twitter profiles. The sheer scale of digital communication among the British general public is overwhelming, with Scotland Yard’s figures indicating that every minute of the day some 3.3 million Facebook posts, 342,000 tweets, 41,000 Instagram photos and 120 hours of video to YouTube are uploaded. As Byrne says: “Try policing that.” The longer-term answer, in his opinion, is not policing but self-policing. It is more important to train Muslim parents “to spot the warning signs in their children’s online habits” rather than “fight the last war against extremist preachers in the backrooms of mosques”.
This will obviously come as cold comfort to the British victims of radical Islamic terrorism—I mean violent extremism—in the short period since the publication of Black Flag Down. In March this year, we recall, a jihadist drove a four-wheel-drive into a crowd of pedestrians on London Bridge, killing four people, before going on a knife rampage and slaughtering a policeman. Two months later, a suicide bomber killed twenty-two people and injured dozens more at the conclusion of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester. On June 3, three radical Islamic terrorists drove into a crowd of pedestrians on London Bridge, before going on a knife rampage resulting in eight dead and dozens wounded. And then, on June 19, an anti-Muslim fanatic drove his car into a crowd of worshippers outside a London mosque, killing one person and injuring nine others. People have a right to know why this kind of carnage is happening in Britain, not to mention the atrocities perpetrated in Nice, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Sydney, San Bernardino, Orlando and Barcelona.
Liam Byrne has been a leading figure in calling for the British government to crack down on global tech companies that allow terrorist organisations to spread their propaganda. He might even be able to take some credit for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in July this year, announcing plans to introduce into Parliament laws that would compel businesses such as Apple and Facebook to release encrypted data to assist urgent counter-terrorism operations: “Encryption is vital for information security but the privacy of the terrorist must never trump the personal security of Australians. We cannot allow the internet to be an ungoverned space.” But even Byrne—if not Turnbull—would acknowledge that increased security, online and off, is not an all-encompassing remedy for terrorism.
Paradoxically, perhaps, the central contention in Black Flag Down is not what people in Britain (and the West) should do but rather what we must avoid doing. For Liam Byrne, the thing we must shun is making a connection between any aspect of Islam and violent extremism. Thus, in one of the crucial chapters in the book, “The Fork in the Road”, Byrne derides former British Prime Minister David Cameron’s opinion, expressed in the aftermath of the slaughter of Lee Rigby in 2013, that there is a connection between “conservative” Islam and violent extremism:
For some young people, it is as if there is a conveyor belt to radicalisation that has poisoned their minds with sick and perverted ideas. We need to dismantle that process at every stage—in schools, colleges and universities, on the internet, in our prisons and wherever it takes place …
Byrne refers to a “leaked” 2008 MI5 report that disputes the idea that there was any “single pathway” to the committing of atrocities. Black Flag Down employs this detail to argue that it is “a sense of grievance” transmuting into something more like “moral outrage” that drives a young person into the arms of the terrorist recruiting networks.
There is something of a Catch-22 in Black Flag Down’s line of reasoning—Don’t associate my religion with violence or I will turn violent on you. There is, also, the problem that Byrne, Labour member for Hodge Hill, a constituency in East Birmingham with a high proportion of Muslim voters, is quick to malign any critic of Islam as “Islamophobic”. Furthermore, because the neighbourhood mosque is invariably a place of “social justice”, the more that young Muslims frequent it, the less likely they will be lured into bogus do-it-yourself violent organisations that have distorted the message of peace and reconciliation: that is, genuine Islam, as espoused by the local imam.
One of the tenets of the Islamophobia charge, a concept first devised by the Muslim Brotherhood, is the assertion that anyone who criticises any facet of Islam makes the mistake of treating Islam as a single monolithic entity. Ironically, this censuring of a Western-style or scholarly examination of Islam, which requires the freedom to discern and discriminate based on facts and reality as they emerge, means treating Islamic practices as a single monolithic entity. It is an absurd proposition, as anyone who has not lost their common sense to PC rectitude knows. Most of us, these days, have friends and colleagues with a Muslim background; some frequent a mosque and some do not, while others are apostates and, in certain cases, Christian converts. The one unmistakable common denominator, at least amongst the Muslims and former Muslims of my acquaintance, is that (a) they are fully assimilated into Australia’s modern Western societal codes and (b) they are not, to put it mildly, apologists for every aspect of Islam. Does that make them Islamophobic?
The Pakistani-born comedian Sami Shah is an instructive example of a Muslim-born immigrant now integrated into Western mores. His entertaining and accessible new tome, The Islamic Republic of Australia, calls into question the case for mollification advanced by Liam Byrne. First up, the local mosque, according to Sami Shah, is not necessarily a bulwark of social justice, the treatment of women being a case in point: “Every Muslim man I interviewed … brought up women and feminism on his own, and none offered promising points of view.” Second, Sami Shah, not a conservative by any stretch of the imagination, turns out to have a better take on free speech in a Western society than a politician who sits in the House of Commons: “Free speech is meant to be for all Australians—and this means everyone gets to say what they want to say, whether many of us want to hear them say it or not.”
Liam Byrne also acknowledges the importance of freedom of speech, and yet he levels the charge of Islamophobia at anyone wishing to critique facets of Islam. The Labour parliamentarian’s belief in freedom is manacled to his notions of “mutual respect” and “tolerance” that allow “people to be what they want to be” in our current politically-correct landscape. Because Byrne treats Islam as a single monolithic entity—truly, the Religion of Peace—any scepticism about the intentions of those who fly under the Islamic banner can only be “hate speech”. It is also, according to Black Flag Down, counter-productive in the Battle of Ideas. Since religious strictures per se have nothing to do with terrorism, to suggest otherwise, as David Cameron (and Donald Trump) do, only encourages young Muslims to feel aggrieved and, as a consequence, susceptible to the siren call of Islamic State recruiters.
But what about the Religion of War? Black Flag Down demonstrates an awareness that Salafi jihadists, such as the Islamic State, use Koranic justification for violence: “One analysis found that justifications from the Quran, Hadith (stories from the life of Muhammed) or other scholarship appear in almost all its propaganda.” He also notes that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Sayyid Qutb has been recognised as “the philosopher of Islamic State”. He also has misgivings about the outsized presence of Wahhabi Islam worldwide, which included the building of some 1500 mosques across the globe in the aftermath of the oil crisis in the 1970s and the dramatic increase in Saudi wealth. Nevertheless, Byrne reassures us, all these movements are not authentic, traditional or even “conservative” Islam and proof of this is that they are more of a peril to Muslims living in the Middle East than Westerners.
That may be so, but does it mean we should have to tolerate them in our midst? Liam Byrne has been known to sharply rebuke Islamic preachers expressing sympathy for “violent extremism” but this, like his call for greater digital security, or Malcolm Turnbull’s new crowd-safety protocol, does not get to the heart of the matter in the Battle of Ideas. Our danger is compounded by the fact that money from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE has been flooding the world with a hard-line version of Sunni supremacism/separatism. India’s intelligence agencies, according to a report prepared in July by Tom Wilson for the Henry Jackson Society, “Foreign Funded Islamist Extremism in the UK”, estimate that between 2013 and 2015 Saudi Arabia “sent $250 million dollars, as well as thousands of clerics, to India with the purpose of establishing Wahhabi mosques and seminaries”. The same pattern has been replicated in countries as disparate as Indonesia and Australia.
Wahhabi-Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood emphatically differentiate themselves from Salafi jihadism (the Islamic State et al) and, in many ways, they are in competition with each other. But their biggest difference is of tactics, not goals. The Wahhabis and the Muslim Brotherhood mostly pursue civilisational jihad while, for the Salafi jihadists, violence is a sacred duty. In all cases, however, everything fundamental to the West, from equal opportunity for women and homosexual rights to freedom of speech and secular governance, is on their hate list. Salafism, in all of its manifestations, is at war with Western civilisation and yet, as Tom Wilson’s report shows, the authorities in the United Kingdom have been largely blind to foreign-funded Islamic extremism in the United Kingdom and, we could add, Australia.
But how do we distinguish between “conservative” Islam and “Islamist extremism” when, as Robert G. Rabil argues, Islamic revivalism “cloaks itself in the sanctity of the sacred and the history of ‘authentic’ Islam as applied to the first four rightly guided caliphs”. Liam Byrne’s denigration of anyone attempting to address this complex problem as “Islamophobic” is no help at all in the Battle of Ideas. Rabil, in the article “How Muslim Extremists Exploit European Liberalism”, acknowledges that Islamic extremism has a hold on only a minority of British mosques, but that its influence continues to grow and can be felt in a religious landscape that is not a single monolithic entity. There are, for example, 121 Salafi and eight Muslim Brotherhood-associated mosques: “a significant number of these mosques have a capacity of over three thousand, making them not only large religious venues, but also centres for social and cultural activities”. There are also missionary organisations such Hizb-ut-Tahrir that openly seek to “restore the caliphate as a prerequisite to unify Muslims and apply Islamic law”.
Not to be overlooked are the many Saudi-funded schools in the United Kingdom. The sectarianism of these institutions—that is, their capacity to generate “a sense of grievance” in young Muslims rather than ameliorate it—can be found in recent disclosures about the disconcerting history of our own Islamic College of South Australia (ICOSA). The authors of a state government report claim the ICOSA based much of its curriculum on Saudi textbooks which, among other things, malign Western civilisation and insist that Islamic law is superior to Western law and that it should be implemented. As for the status of women: “Man and woman are two distinct species created by Allah.” The idea of Sunni supremacism is contrasted with the moral inferiority of Western civilisation: “Islam is based upon values and spirituality whereas the other is based on materialism and rationalism.” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is no ally of the Saudis—in fact, he’s quite opposite to them—but are we surprised that his lurid regime has used Saudi-Wahhabi texts for “educating” the young in his would-be caliphate?
The Battle of Ideas will not be won by shutting down debate. Sami Shah emphasises that freedom of speech means not only allowing one side of the argument to speak. British Muslim Maajid Nawaz, founder of the Quilliam Foundation, an organisation pledged to combat extremism among Muslims in the United Kingdom, would endorse that sentiment. Nawaz, who might be described as a small “l” liberal, has been criticised from every political direction. He is against typecasting Muslims as a single monolithic entity but asserts that PC pandering does a very good job of achieving that end on its own. It was the Left, in the form of America’s Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), that last year placed him on a list of fifteen “anti-Muslim extremists”. Charging an independent thinker, Muslim or otherwise, with the crime of Islamophobia seems decidedly Orwellian. Nawaz recently signalled his intention to sue the SPLC, a prospect that presages a genuine Battle of Ideas in a way that Black Flag Down never does.
At least Liam Byrne concedes, in the chapter “The Home We Build Together”, that “a sense of grievance” exists not just among Muslims. He cites a report that purportedly captures the complaints of UKIP supporters: “You can’t fly a St George’s flag any more; you can’t call Christmas Christmas; you can’t wear an England shirt in the bus … you can’t speak up about these things because you’ll be called a racist.” To prevent “a sense of grievance” turning into “moral outrage”, Byrne recommends that St George’s Day be celebrated in England as a special holiday based “on the successful example of Australia’s annual Australia Day”. He appears unaware that our local PC brigade is turning on Australia Day with a vengeance. Not only have the Islamic revivalists declared war on the West but our very own ruling elites have joined them. This is the arena in which the Battle of Ideas will be won or lost, and not through Liam Byrne’s version of appeasement.
Daryl McCann is a regular contributor. He has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au, and he tweets at @dosakamccann.