Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Black Flag Down

Counter Extremism, Defeating ISIS, and Winning the Battle of Ideas

Full disclosure: I met Liam Byrne to discuss his ideas for his new book Black Flag Down: Counter Extremism, Defeating ISIS, and Winning the Battle of Ideas. He has an excellent grasp of detail. I have huge respect for his record of public service. As a thinker, he asks important questions on all sorts of major global challenges. But on this issue I fear his answers as a member of parliament are held hostage by the political reality of ‘I serve the biggest Muslim constituency in Britain.’ There should be no such thing as a ‘Muslim constituency’ in our country.

Byrne’s characteristically colourful narrative ranges from the cheap Tesco biscuits in his meetings, the ‘sagacious face’ of a Peshmerga fighter, to the three miles that separate Bethlehem and Jerusalem. But, sadly, he misses the big picture and, like many other intelligent people in public life, overlooks the traps set for him by Islamists in the United Kingdom and around the world.

Gaetano Mosca wrote about an organised minority controlling the discourse of a disorganized majority. Just as trade unionists are infiltrated by hard-left ideologues, Islamist extremists often overtake Muslim organisations in Britain. They then set the terms of debate and discussion within ‘the community’. Their biggest current gripe is against the government’s preventing extremism strategy. As author he amplifies that political grievance and joins the bandwagon with his book calling to scrap Prevent.

This is motivated by a desire to help his constituents, but he fails to see that he is failing both them and their country’s concerns for security. Around the world Muslims are under attack from extremists. They are murdered for not following the literalism and totalitarianism of the jihadis and their political enablers, the Islamists. Byrne rightly identifies this urgent challenge, but wrongly asserts that our present government misunderstands this.

The Prevent agenda was a Labour policy innovation, but Byrne blames David Cameron for a ‘conveyor belt’ theory of extremism. That this agenda is controversial among Islamist-influenced communities is an excellent sign of success. Who in their right mind wants to allow for extremists and terrorists to go unchallenged?

Byrne is right to see that there is a ‘clash within a civilisation’, but he does not see how his policy prescription on Prevent aids the wrong side. He is right to highlight Magna Carta and universal values of freedom, pluralism, liberty, and equality, but attacks Cameron for standing up for these values.

This book is an important opportunity to ask the tough questions that allow for a centre-left response to extremism. The book is notable for what it calls for, but also what it avoids. He avoids asking why there are more than 80 sharia courts in Britain. Why was there so much fear of ‘the Turks’ during the Brexit campaign? Why are white, working-class communities fearful of Muslim refugees? Why are children aged four and upwards wearing hijabs in our schools? Who votes for ‘community leaders’?

Too often the author does not probe the causes, instead focusing on the consequences. We should not be sensitive about the sensitivities of extremists. What we need is a less homogenous ‘community’ approach and one that helps all parts of this country towards a more cohesive country. Scrapping Prevent will not help us in that aim.


Ed Husain is a senior advisor at the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics. He tweets at @Ed_Husain


Counter Extremism, Defeating ISIS, and Winning the Battle of Ideas

Liam Byrne | Biteback | 272pp | £12.99


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Ed Husain

is author of The Islamist and a senior advisor at the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics

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