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4th October 2015

What should we do in the Middle East?

Ben Farren looks at the underlying issues that the rise of IS has brought to the forefront of Western strategy

IS are best known for the release of incredibly violent videos in which their enemies—journalists, combatants, non-believing civilians—are maimed, tortured, or executed.

They are a group dedicated to violent offensive jihad (struggle) against non-believers, and they are strict literalists in their beliefs. They are becoming a potent force not just in the ideological discourse, but in the world of international relations too. As the group has moved and expanded, its influence has sunk deeper, transforming from an external threat to a state-like institution: Running schools, providing insurance, and enforcing laws.

Far from being a hidden group of bandits in the desert or the mountains, IS and their leaders find themselves in control of cities, the most influential being Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. Crossing this threshold from outlaws to lawgivers has solidified them as a threat impossible to ignore.

This is no longer a fringe group. IS is a major threat in the Arab region, and unlike other groups, we don’t have to guess what it would do if it had power. IS kidnaps and trains children to be fighters in its war and will continue to do so. Millions of lives are already ruined and will continue to be. What are we doing about it, and is it enough?

Many of the squeamish left, either out of fear of repercussions or genuine care for the implications of extreme violence, show resistance to military intervention being part of the solution. This response, while shared by myself, might not be entirely helpful or the best practice.

Would we say now that we did the wrong thing by going to war with Germany and the Axis forces? If they had kept attacking and attacking does it at some point become self-defence? When does signing mutual defence agreements with allies not supersede moral aversion to violence? These are incredibly difficult questions with tough answers.

Our government has been part of a coalition which has undertaken air strikes in Iraq against IS targets. These air strikes have, according to experts, not been enough to have any real effect. Far fewer strikes have taken place in Iraq than occurred in the NATO strikes in Yugoslavia, an intervention regarded as somewhat successful in relation to others.

Ostensibly to stop genocide, this quick bombing campaign killed about 500 civilians, and if a proportional number were attached to the conflicts in the Middle East I’m quite sure they would face considerably less criticism. One may quite fairly take the view that one civilian death is too many, but some find it hard to justify a hands off, non-interventionist approach to genocide.

The situation in the Middle East may well escalate to this. We must think hard about long-term solutions to these problems including the focus on the education of women, of children, and of the implementation of legitimate and widely recognised democracy.

Far from the turbulence of the Middle East, we and our government have a responsibility to protect our citizens from terrorism. From the UK, 1,500 people are suspected to have joined IS in order to fight or to support the fight. The question is: How do we stop them?

The government’s effort for counter-terrorism is called CONTEST, which features four strands: Prevent, Pursue, Protect, and Prepare. The first of these intends to prevent terrorism. This is by far the most difficult strand to get right and is the one which has faced the most criticism.

Someone who is determined to go and join the fight in Syria or Iraq after seeing IS’s videos is someone who may not be within the purview of Prevent. Indeed, a far more achievable and worthwhile task might be to start younger. As Deborah Asamoah’s piece will say elsewhere, racism does not seem to be naturally prevalent in small children, nor I would wager is violent hatred and fear of ‘the other’.

Schools are a great place to teach children about fundamental human values like respect and dignity, which come irrespective of religion or ideology. A problem may arise where they hear this message at school, alongside a very different one at home or from friends. This problem is shared by Muslims, Christians and all other religious or spiritual groups.

No matter which values are taught to you in school, your home environment is irreproducible. For any subject matter; economics, religion, cultural norms, or technological advancement, generational gaps are prevalent, and it can be very difficult to challenge an unspoken status quo.

For example, my mother always finds it baffling that the parents of these young people who go to Syria just didn’t seem to know what was going on, had no inkling that their kid was about to join the most overtly brutal terrorist group in the world.

If we start talking to Year 7s and 8s about these issues in the hope that they will be our first generation to have zero extremists, we will not know until they are of age. The Prevent strategy started in 2011; these 12-year-olds will turn twenty in 2019, so how can we pass any meaningful judgement until then? The only hope is a long-term change to hearts and minds so these problems of extremism are no longer ignored—a colossal task perhaps too difficult for Theresa May, or any Home Secretary.

As is evident, we have to talk about and consider these matters carefully, walking the tightropes of Islamophobia, fact and opinion, such as quelling the myths of assuming the majority of Muslims are terrorists, and the majority of terrorists are Muslims. Sometimes people talk to each other with very different assumptions about the nature of problems, and conflicts bubble up therein which are difficult to resolve. We must avoid this.

If the IS problem is to be ‘solved’, there will be multiple prongs in the solution, and they will be held by many people. A solution must be found, but this is difficult to fit into one press release, one newspaper article, or one government programme: Complex problems require complex solutions.

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