IPR Blog

Expert analysis, debates and comments on topical policy-relevant issues

Topic: Security and defence

A purpose in life acts as an antidote to adversity

📥  Evidence and policymaking, Security and defence

Professor Bill Durodié is Professor and Chair of International Relations in the University of Bath's Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies.

‘Despair is suffering without meaning’ proffered the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl in an interview once. In his most famous work ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, he paraphrased Nietzsche to the effect that: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how’. So, in gauging how the people of Manchester and across the UK pursue their lives in the trail of the nihilistic act of destruction following a concert there last Monday, as well as in the aftermath of other recent attacks, it ought to be to the question of meaning and purpose that we all turn.



I once interviewed two Singaporean citizens subsequent to their returning home from Mumbai after the incidents there in November 2008. Ten supposed affiliates of a Pakistani Islamist group had pursued a coordinated series of bombings and murderous attacks across the City over a period of four days, killing 164 people and wounding 308.  The company the Singaporeans worked for asked me to do this to offer support – if any were needed – beyond that to be provided by their government.

I thought long and hard about how best to go about the task and determined to keep my questions simple and objective: When did you fly out? What were you there for? What did you do that day? When did you first notice something was wrong? What did you do then? What happened next? How did you get out? At the end I left an opening for them to contact me again should they want to.

Many imagine that asking: ‘Were you affected by anything you experienced?’ might have been somewhat more sensitive. But in whatever way they would have answered, the power of suggestion could then readily have elicited manifestations of psychosomatic trauma in them at a later date. Our minds work in mysterious ways. Singapore suffered its first ever fatality at the hands of terrorists during those attacks and so the media were keeping the matter salient in the popular imagination. It was to their credit that they did so in a considerably less protracted, shrill or emotional way than I have witnessed elsewhere after similar incidents.

Both of my respondents had spent many hours cooped up in their rooms at one of the hotels attacked, the Oberoi, before being freed. One had focused variously on his faith and on his family during his time there. The other had made some rather dangerous, if somewhat understandable, decisions – first trying to escape down a smoke-filled stairwell and then almost being unable to find his way back to his room before trying to smash the window open with an armchair and ultimately lacerating his leg on the fractured glass while trying to kick it out. Oddly maybe, it was the need to stop the bleeding from this wound that then allowed him to remain calm and collected over the ensuing hours.

Frankl proposed that it is down to each individual to attribute an appropriate meaning to situations of adversity and that nobody else can do it for them, however well intentioned. We may offer too much support and sympathy at such times. Calls from loved ones, concerned employers, government agents wanting to support their citizens and all manner of other professionals engaged by all of these, let alone the media, can cause additional stress and confusion during an emergency, as well as, in many instances, perpetuating suffering long after it.

‘Whatever you do, don’t give your name to any journalist’ my friend Simon Wessely would aver following the London bombings in 2005. ‘They’ll never let it drop and will call you on every anniversary thereafter’. I guess he knew what he was talking about seeing as he is now President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. People can and do forget. For many that really is the best option. Short-term anxieties rarely last.

Of course, participating in communal events like a mass vigil may seem positive to others, though I suspect that these will mostly not have been those most directly caught up in the incidents. Surveys showed inordinate numbers of people across the US claiming to have been affected by 9/11, even when their only exposure had been through the medium of television. Well-meaning as such gatherings and online statements of condolences may be, these can also be superficial and self-serving. Some turn it into an identity. We live in the age of virtue signalling, after all. And if the best response to such incidents is to go about our lives as normal, as politicians assert at such times, then this is hardly normal.

Another friend of mine, sociologist Frank Furedi, pointed out to me once that if the Israeli state held a few days of national mourning after every terror incident there, as the Spanish government did after the train bombs in Madrid of 2002, then at times it could be almost permanently closed down. Like it or not the Jewish people have had to habituate to the circumstances they are in, supported maybe by a narrative of being God’s chosen people (irrespective of truth) and of having endured suffering throughout their history. Of course, Palestinians also suffer there and their way of explaining this to themselves has also been through a narrative of resistance and future liberation.

At the beginning of 2001, before the attacks on New York and Washington, there had been a series of throw-back incidents in Northern Ireland from a time before the peace process there. For weeks, hundreds of Loyalist protestors tried to stop young Catholic schoolgirls from traversing their Protestant enclave to reach the Holy Cross Primary School in Belfast. They hurled abuse, as well as urine-filled balloons and improvised grenades, at them. Police and soldiers had had to escort the parents and terrified children through.

The school, as was already a growing norm then, offered the families counselling. There was no indication of what type of therapy this was to be or whether there would ever be any follow-up to verify if it had worked, so I later commissioned research to assess its effects. What my collaborator discovered was that the girls most affected and offered up for support had been those with younger parents. These had been less able to situate the incidents within the political framework of the long-standing ‘Troubles’. To them, the violence appeared simply mindless and random. But this also left their daughters unarmed conceptually.

Encouragingly, there appear to be plenty in Manchester and beyond who are not so afraid of articulating why what happened there did, and who are keen to show their defiance. Their framing may be rudimentary. It is certainly far less equivocal than that of the authorities who appear, as the British journalist Brendan O’Neill has noted, simply to offer vapid appeals for unity and harmony. But to not be angry at these events, argues O’Neill, is to be dead already.

Amazingly, at the height of the Mumbai attacks, one of the perpetrators used the mobile phone of someone he had just killed to conduct a live interview with newscasters at India TV. When the anchors asked him in succession for his demands, he was heard putting the phone down and asking another of the attackers what these were. Almost nine years on, no-one has yet articulated these. Not even those held to have planned and controlled those events from afar. That the so-called terrorists today have no explicit agenda or purpose is surely the element we should be exploiting the most. That is, so long as we are clear about our own.

This article originally appeared in The Weekend Australian.

You can also listen to him discuss this issue in an interview with BBC World Service's Newshour Extra here.


Do Warnings Work?

📥  Evidence and policymaking, Health, Security and defence

Professor Bill Durodié is Professor and Chair of International Relations in the University of Bath's Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies. The narrative presented here was supported by an award from the Gerda Henkel Stiftung under their Special Programme 'Security, Society and the State'.

It is commonly asserted that the first duty of government is to protect its citizens. But one of the challenges confronting authorities that produce advice and issue alerts is the extent to which precautionary messages have become an integral part of our cultural landscape in recent times. From public health to counter-terrorism, climate change to child safety, a profusion of agencies – both official and unofficial – are constantly seeking to raise our awareness and modify our behaviour whether we know it or not. This may be done with the best of intentions – but we should be mindful of where that may lead.



Issuing a warning presumes negative outcomes if it is not heeded. Accordingly, it transfers a degree of responsibility to recipients who may not have sought such counsel – or been consulted. Indeed, these may come to interpret it as a mechanism to deflect blame and accountability. And, aside from the intended response – presumed appropriate by those imparting the information – others may dispute the evidence presented, its interpretation, and the intentions behind these, as evidenced by acts of complacency and defiance.

Such negative consequences – deemed maladaptive by politicians and officials who have swallowed the psychologised lexicon of our times – reveal an important truth in our supposedly post-truth societies, and that is that people are not driven by evidence alone. Addressing their core values and beliefs is more critical to motivating change and achieving influence. This requires respecting their moral independence and recognising the importance of ideas. Process and data-driven, protectionist paternalism, on the other hand, reflects a low view of human beings, which is readily self-defeating.

Altering our choice architecture, as some describe it, encourages self-fulfilling prophecies that interfere with our autonomy and undermine consent in the name of improving welfare or keeping us safe. And while there is a wealth of literature regarding such interventions and their purported effectiveness, most relates to single cases or relies largely on precedent – such as preparing for terror attacks or controlling tobacco use – rather than examining the implicit assumptions and the wider, societal consequences of such approaches.

Responses like overreaction, habituation and fatigue derive not so much from specific instances of warning as from the cumulative impact of a cultural proclivity to issue such guidance. This latter, in its turn, speaks to the growing disconnect between those providing advice – even if at arm’s length from the state (thereby inducing a limited sense of civic engagement) – and those charged with living by it. To a self-consciously isolated political class, proffering instructions and regulating behaviour appears to offer direction and legitimacy in an age bereft of their having any broader social vision.

Yet, reflecting on the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office provision of travel advisories before and after the 2002 Bali bombings, the distinguished Professor of War Studies Lawrence Freedman noted how such guidance ‘is bound to be incomplete and uncertain’. ‘[I]t is unclear’, he continued, ‘what can be achieved through general exhortations’. Far more important to averting accusations of complacency or alarmism on the part of government – ‘the sins of omission and commission’, as he put it – is the need to impart and share in a sense of strategic framing with the public. We might call this politics.

In his 2002 speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, the then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, advised how intelligence on possible security threats crossed his desk ‘all the time’. Only some was reliable. The remainder included misinformation and gossip. He sought to distinguish between specific intelligence, suggestive intelligence and acting ‘on the basis of a general warning’, which would effectively ‘be doing [the terrorists’] job for them’.

Blair explained how there was a balance to be struck and a judgement to be made ‘day by day, week by week’ in order not to shut down society. He noted that keeping citizens alert, vigilant and cooperative would test ‘not just our ability to fight, but … our belief in our own way of life’. In doing so, he implicitly pointed to the need for wider critical engagement and our having a sense of collective purpose beyond the immediacy of any threat.

But nudging people to act without their conscious support and endlessly raising awareness about all manner of presumed risks and adverse behaviours precludes both of these essential elements. Indeed, when some suggest that the general population are inherently ignorant, not qualified or too immature, or that they cannot be relied on to handle complex evidence to determine matters for their own good (an argument as old as Plato), they display a considerable complacency of their own, as well as an unwillingness to engage and inability to inspire a broader constituency to affect change.

People can only become more knowledgeable, mature and reliable when they participate actively in matters of consequence. There can be no shared sense of social purpose if citizens are not treated as adults. Otherwise, official pronouncements come across as the disengaged exhortations of remote authorities, and warnings – as with the increasingly graphic images on cigarette packets – simply become the background noise of the self-righteous.

The refusal to be inoculated against H1N1 pandemic influenza once a vaccine was developed for it in 2009, for example, did not stem from social media propagation of ‘rumours’ and ‘speculation’ on ‘volatile’ public opinion as some supposed. Rather, and more damagingly still, it was a conscious rejection led by healthcare workers themselves, informed by their own experience of the virus, and inured to the declarations of senior officials who announced that ‘it really is all of humanity that is under threat’, as well as those who responded uncritically in accordance, developing models where none applied.

The language of warnings has shifted over the years from articulating threats, which could promote individual responsibility, to simply eliciting desired behaviours. Indeed, the proliferation of biological metaphors – ideas go viral, individuals are vulnerable, activities are addictive – reflects the demise of any wider moral or political outlook. But encouraging a responsive sensitivity and tacit acceptance by evoking negative emotions can readily backfire. It is unlikely to generate a critical culture or social solidarity.

So – do warnings work? It depends. Facts alone do not motivate many. It is how they are interpreted that matters. And the framing of these today often dismisses our agency and promotes a powerful sense of determinism. The Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahnemann noted how ‘[t]here are domains in which expertise is not possible’. Decision-making – like democracy – is a moral choice in which we are all equals.

Not everything of value has a value and few things that are worthy have a worth. That is why the sole pursuit of evidence and data by those in authority, with a view to inducing acceptance and behaviour change, fails to inspire those who seek more to life than the mere protection of the state. Where are the ideas and ideals capable of leading us beyond a narrow, existential concern for our own well-being and towards a broader appreciation of the potential of the collective human project?

This piece also appeared on The Policy Space.


The World in 2050 and Beyond: Part 3 - Science and Policy

📥  Evidence and policymaking, Science and research policy, Security and defence

Lord Rees of Ludlow is Astronomer Royal at the University of Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy, and founder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. This blog post, the third in a three-part series, is based on a lecture he gave at the IPR on 9 February. Read the first part here, and the second part here.

Even in the 'concertina-ed' timeline that astronomers envisage – extending billions of years into the future, as well as into the past – this century may be a defining era. The century when humans jump-start the transition to electronic (and potentially immortal) entities that eventually spread their influence far beyond the Earth, and far transcend our limitations. Or – to take a darker view – the century where our follies could foreclose this immense future potential.



One lesson I’d draw from these existential threats is this. We fret unduly about small risks – air crashes, carcinogens in food, low radiation doses, etc. But we’re in denial about some newly emergent threats, which may seem improbable but whose consequences could be globally devastating. Some of these are environmental, others are the potential downsides of novel technologies.

So how can scientists concerned about these issues – or indeed about the social impact of any scientific advances – gain traction with policy-makers?

Some scientists, of course, have a formal advisory role to government. Back in World War II, Winston Churchill valued scientists' advice, but famously kept them "on tap, not on top". It is indeed the elected politicians who should make decisions. But scientific advisers should be prepared to challenge decision-makers, and help them navigate the uncertainties.

President Obama recognised this. He opined that scientists' advice should be heeded "even when it is inconvenient – indeed, especially when it is inconvenient". He appointed John Holdren, from Harvard, as his science adviser, and a ‘dream team’ of others were given top posts, including the Nobel physicist Steve Chu. They had a predictably frustrating time, but John Holdren 'hung in there' for Obama’s full eight years. And of course we’re anxious about what will happen under the new regime!

Their British counterparts, from Solly Zuckerman to Mark Walport, have it slightly easier. The interface with government is smoother, the respect for evidence is stronger, and the rapport between scientists and legislators is certainly better.

For instance, dialogue with parliamentarians led, despite divergent ethical stances, to a generally-admired legal framework on embryos and stem cells – a contrast to what happened in the US. And the HFEA offers another fine precedent.

But we've had failures too: the GM crop debate was left too late – to a time when opinion was already polarised between eco-campaigners on the one side and commercial interests on the other.

There are habitual grumbles that it’s hard for advisors to gain sufficient traction. This isn’t surprising. For politicians, the focus is on the urgent and parochial – and getting re-elected. The issues that attract their attention are those that get headlined in the media, and fill their in-box.

So scientists might have more leverage on politicians indirectly – by campaigning, so that the public and the media amplify their voice, for example – rather than via more official and direct channels. They can engage by involvement with NGOs, via blogging and journalism, or through political activity. There’s scope for campaigners on all the issues I’ve mentioned, and indeed many others. For instance, the ‘genetic code’ pioneer John Sulston campaigns for affordable drugs for Africa.

And I think religious leaders have a role. I’m on the council of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (which is itself an ecumenical body: its members represent all faiths or none). Max Perutz, for instance, was in a group of four who acted as emissaries of the Pope to promote arms control. And recently, my economist colleague Partha Dasgupta, along with Ram Ramanathan, a climate scientist – two lapsed Hindus! – achieved great leverage by laying the groundwork for the Papal encyclical on climate and environment.

There’s no gainsaying the Catholic Church’s global reach – nor its long-term perspective, nor its concern for the world’s poor. The Encyclical emphasised our responsibility to the developing world, and to future generations. In the lead-up to the Paris conference it had a substantial and timely influence on voters and leaders in Latin America, Africa and East Asia (even perhaps in the US Republican Party).

Science is a universal culture, spanning all nations and faiths. So scientists confront fewer impediments to straddling political divides. The Pugwash Conferences did this in the Cold War – and the governing board of Sesame, a physics project in Jordan, gets Israelis and Iranians around the same table today.

Of course, most of these challenges are global. Coping with potential shortages of food, water, resources – and the transition to low carbon energy – can’t be affected by each nation separately. Nor can threat reduction. For instance, whether or not a pandemic gets global grip may hinge on how quickly a Vietnamese poultry farmer can report any strange sickness. Indeed, a key issue is whether nations need to give up more sovereignty to new organisations along the lines of the IAEA, WHO, etc., And whether national academies, The World Academy of Sciences, and similar bodies should get more involved.

Universities are among the most international of our institutions, and they have a special role. Academics are privileged to have influence over successive generations of students. Indeed, younger people, who expect to survive most of the century, are more anxious about long-term issues, and more prepared to support ‘effective altruism’ and other causes.

Universities are highly international institutions. We should use their convening power to gather experts together to address the world's problems. That’s why some of us in Cambridge (with an international advisory group) have set up the Centre for the Study of Existential Risks, with a focus on the more extreme ‘low probability/high consequence’ threats that might confront us. They surely deserve expert analysis in order to assess which can be dismissed firmly as science fiction, and which should be on the ‘risk register’; to consider how to enhance resilience against the more credible ones; and to warn against technological developments that could run out of control. Even if we reduced these risks by only a tiny percentage, the stakes are so high that we’ll have earned our keep. A wise mantra is that ‘the unfamiliar is not the same as the improbable’.

I think scientists should all be prepared to divert some of their efforts towards public policy, and engage with individuals from government, business, and NGOs. There is in the US, incidentally, one distinctive format for such engagement that has no real parallel here. This is the JASON group. It was founded in the 1960s with support from the Pentagon. It involves top-rank academic scientists – in the early days they were mainly physicists, but the group now embraces other fields. They’re bankrolled by the Defense Department, but it’s a matter of principle that they choose their own new members. Some – Dick Garwin and Freeman Dyson, for instance – have been members since the 1960s. The JASONs spend about 6 weeks together in the summer, with other meetings during the year. It’s a serious commitment. The sociology and ‘chemistry’ of such a group hasn’t been fully replicated anywhere else. Perhaps we should try to do so in the UK, not for the military but in civilian areas – the remit of DEFRA, for instance, or the Department of Transport. The challenge is to assemble a group of really top-rank scientists who enjoy cross-disciplinary discourse and tossing ideas around. It won’t ‘take off’ unless they dedicate substantial time to it – and unless the group addresses the kind of problems that play to their strengths.

So to sum up, I think we can truly be techno-optimists. The innovations that will drive economic advance, information technology, biotech and nanotech, can boost the developing as well as the developed world – but there’s a depressing gap between what we could do and what actually happens. Will richer countries recognise that it's in their own interest for the developing world fully to share the benefits of globalisation? Can nations sustain effective but non-repressive governance in the face of threats from small groups with high-tech expertise? And – above all – can our institutions prioritise projects that are long-term in political perspectives, even if a mere instant in the history of our planet?

We’re all on this crowded world together. Our responsibility – to our children, to the poorest, and to our stewardship of life’s diversity – surely demands that we don’t leave a depleted and hazardous world. I give the last word to the eloquent biologist Peter Medawar:

“The bells that toll for mankind are [...] like the bells of Alpine cattle. They are attached to our own necks, and it must be our fault if they do not make a tuneful and melodious sound.”


For more information on Lord Rees' IPR lecture, please see our writeup here.


The World in 2050 and Beyond: Part 2 - Technological Errors and Terrors

📥  Evidence and policymaking, Science and research policy, Security and defence

Lord Rees of Ludlow is Astronomer Royal at the University of Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy, and founder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. This blog post, the second in a three-part series, is based on a lecture he gave at the IPR on 9 February. Read the first part here.

I think we should be evangelists for new technologies – without them the world can’t provide food, and sustainable energy, for an expanding and more demanding population. But we need wisely-directed technology. Indeed, many are anxious that it’s advancing so fast that we may not properly cope with it – and that we’ll have a bumpy ride through this century.



Let me expand on these concerns.

Our world increasingly depends on elaborate networks: electric-power grids, air traffic control, international finance, globally-dispersed manufacturing, and so forth. Unless these networks are highly resilient, their benefits could be outweighed by catastrophic (albeit rare) breakdowns – real-world analogues of what happened in 2008 to the financial system. Our cities would be paralysed without electricity. Supermarket shelves would be empty within days if supply chains were disrupted. Air travel could spread a pandemic worldwide within a week, causing the gravest havoc in the shambolic megacities of the developing world. And social media can spread panic and rumour, and economic contagion, literally at the speed of light.

To guard against the downsides of such an interconnected world plainly requires international collaboration. For instance, whether or not a pandemic gets global grip may hinge on how quickly a Vietnamese poultry farmer can report any strange sickness.

Advances in microbiology – diagnostics, vaccines and antibiotics – offer prospects of containing pandemics. But the same research has controversial aspects. For instance, in 2012, groups in Wisconsin and in Holland showed that it was surprisingly easy to make the influenza virus both more virulent and transmissible – to some, this was a scary portent of things to come. In 2014 the US federal government decided to cease funding these so-called ‘gain of function’ experiments.

The new CRISPR-cas technique for gene-editing is hugely promising, but there are ethical concerns raised by Chinese experiments on human embryos and by possible unintended consequences of ‘gene drive’ programmes.

Back in the early days of recombinant DNA research, a group of biologists met in Asilomar, California, and agreed guidelines on what experiments should and shouldn’t be done. This seemingly encouraging precedent has triggered several meetings to discuss recent developments in the same spirit. But today, 40 years after Asilomar, the research community is far more broadly international, and more influenced by commercial pressures. I’d worry that whatever regulations are imposed, on prudential or ethical grounds, can’t be enforced worldwide – any more than the drug laws can, or the tax laws. Whatever can be done will be done by someone, somewhere.

And that’s a nightmare. Whereas an atomic bomb can’t be built without large scale special-purpose facilities, biotech involves small-scale dual-use equipment. Indeed, biohacking is burgeoning even as a hobby and competitive game.

We know all too well that technical expertise doesn’t guarantee balanced rationality. The global village will have its village idiots and they’ll have global range. The rising empowerment of tech-savvy groups (or even individuals), by bio as well as cyber technology will pose an intractable challenge to governments and aggravate the tension between freedom, privacy and security.

Concerns about bioerror and bioterror are relatively near-term – within 10 or 15 years. What about 2050 and beyond?

The smartphone, the web and their ancillaries are already crucial to our networked lives. But they would have seemed magic even 20 years ago. So, looking several decades ahead, we must keep our minds open – or at least ajar – to transformative advances that may now seem science fiction.

On the bio front, the great physicist Freeman Dyson conjectures a time when children will be able to design and create new organisms just as routinely as his generation played with chemistry sets. If it becomes possible to ‘play God on a kitchen table’ (as it were), our ecology (and even our species) may not long survive unscathed.

And what about another transformative technology: robotics and artificial intelligence (AI)?

There have been exciting advances in what’s called generalised machine learning: Deep Mind (a small London company now bought up by Google) has just achieved a remarkable feat – its computer has beaten the world champion in a game of Go. Meanwhile, Carnegie-Mellon University has developed a machine that can bluff and calculate as well as the best human players of poker.

Of course it’s 20 years since IBM's 'Deep Blue' beat Kasparov, the world chess champion. But Deep Blue was programmed in detail by expert players. In contrast, the machines that play Go and poker gained expertise by absorbing huge numbers of games and playing against themselves. Their designers don’t themselves know how the machines make seemingly insightful decisions.

The speed of computers allows them to succeed by ‘brute force’ methods. They learn to identify dogs, cats and human faces by ‘crunching’ through millions of images – not the way babies learn. They learn to translate by reading millions of pages of (for example) multilingual European Union documents (they never get bored!).

But advances are patchy. Robots are still clumsier than a child in moving pieces on a real chessboard. They can’t tie your shoelaces or cut old people’s toenails. But sensor technology, speech recognition, information searches and so forth are advancing apace.

They won’t just take over manual work (indeed plumbing and gardening will be among the hardest jobs to automate), but routine legal work (conveyancing and suchlike), medical diagnostics and even surgery.

Can robots cope with emergencies? For instance, if an obstruction suddenly appears on a crowded highway, can Google’s driverless car discriminate whether it’s a paper bag, a dog or a child? The likely answer is that its judgement will never be perfect, but will be better than the average driver – machine errors will occur, but not as often as human error. But when accidents do occur, they will create a legal minefield. Who should be held responsible – the ‘driver’, the owner, or the designer?

The big social and economic question is this: will this ‘second machine age’ be like earlier disruptive technologies – the car, for instance – and create as many jobs as it destroys? Or is it really different this time?

The money ‘earned’ by robots could generate huge wealth for an elite. But to preserve a healthy society will require massive redistribution to ensure that everyone has at least a ‘living wage’. A further challenge will be to create and upgrade public service jobs where the human element is crucial – carers for young and old, custodians, gardeners in public parks and so on – jobs which are now undervalued, but in huge demand.

But let’s look further ahead.

If robots could observe and interpret their environment as adeptly as we do, they would truly be perceived as intelligent beings, to which (or to whom) we can relate. Such machines pervade popular culture —in movies like Her, Transcendence and Ex Machina.

Do we have obligations towards them? We worry if our fellow-humans, and even animals, can’t fulfil their natural potential. Should we feel guilty if our robots are under-employed or bored?

What if a machine developed a mind of its own? Would it stay docile, or ‘go rogue’? If it could infiltrate the internet – and the internet of things – it could manipulate the rest of the world. It may have goals utterly orthogonal to human wishes, or even treat humans as an encumbrance.

Some AI pundits take this seriously, and think the field already needs guidelines – just as biotech does. But others regard these concerns as premature, and worry less about artificial intelligence than about real stupidity.

Be that as it may, it’s likely that society will be transformed by autonomous robots, even though the jury’s out on whether they’ll be ‘idiot savants’ or display superhuman capabilities.

There’s disagreement about the route towards human-level intelligence. Some think we should emulate nature, and reverse-engineer the human brain. Others say that’s as misguided as designing flying machine by copying how birds flap their wings. And philosophers debate whether “consciousness” is special to the wet, organic brains of humans, apes and dogs — so that robots, even if their intellects seem superhuman, will still lack self-awareness or inner life.

Ray Kurzweil, now working at Google, argues that once machines have surpassed human capabilities, they could themselves design and assemble a new generation of even more powerful ones – an intelligence explosion. He thinks that humans could transcend biology by merging with computers. In old-style spiritualist parlance, they would 'go over to the other side'.

Kurzweil is a prominent proponent of this so-called ‘singularity’. But he’s worried that it may not happen in his lifetime. So he wants his body frozen until this nirvana is reached. I was once interviewed by a group of 'cryonic' enthusiasts – based in California – called the 'society for the abolition of involuntary death'. They will freeze your body, so that when immortality’s on offer you can be resurrected or your brain downloaded.

I told them I'd rather end my days in an English churchyard than a Californian refrigerator. They derided me as a 'deathist' – really old fashioned.

I was surprised to find that three academics in this country had gone in for cryonics. Two had paid the full whack; the third has taken the cut-price option of wanting just his head frozen. I was glad they were from Oxford, not from Cambridge – or Bath.

But of course, research on ageing is being seriously prioritised. Will the benefits be incremental? Or is ageing a ‘disease’ that can be cured? Dramatic life-extension would plainly be a real wild card in population projections, with huge social ramifications. But it may happen, along with human enhancement in other forms.

And now a digression into my special interest – space. This is where robots surely have a future.

During this century the whole solar system will be explored by flotillas of miniaturised probes – far more advanced than ESA’s Rosetta, or the NASA probe that transmitted amazing pictures from Pluto, which is 10,000 times further away than the moon. These two instruments were designed and built 15 years ago. Think how much better we could do today. And later this century giant robotic fabricators may build vast lightweight structures floating in space (gossamer-thin radio reflectors or solar energy collectors, for instance) using raw materials mined from the Moon or asteroids.

Robotic advances will erode the practical case for human spaceflight. Nonetheless, I hope people will follow the robots into deep space, though it will be as risk-seeking adventurers rather than for practical goals. The most promising developments are spearheaded by private companies. SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, who also makes Tesla electric cars, has launched unmanned payloads and docked with the Space Station – and has recently achieved a soft recovery of the rocket’s first stage, rendering it reusable. Musk hopes soon to offer orbital flights to paying customers.

Wealthy adventurers are already signing up for a week-long trip round the far side of the Moon – voyaging further from Earth than anyone has been before (but avoiding the greater challenge of a Moon landing and blast-off). I’m told they’ve sold a ticket for the second flight – but not for the first.

We should surely acclaim these private enterprise efforts in space; they can tolerate higher risks than a western government could impose on publicly-funded bodies, and thereby cut costs compared to NASA or the ESA. But these they should be promoted as adventures or extreme sports – the phrase ‘space tourism’ should be avoided. It lulls people into unrealistic confidence.

By 2100 courageous pioneers in the mould of (say) the British adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes – or Felix Baumgartner, who broke the sound barrier in freefall from a high-altitude balloon – may have established ‘bases’ independent from the Earth, on Mars, or maybe on asteroids. Musk himself (aged 45) says he wants to die on Mars – but not on impact.

But don’t ever expect mass emigration from Earth. Nowhere in our solar system offers an environment even as clement as the Antarctic or the top of Everest. It’s a dangerous delusion to think that space offers an escape from Earth's problems. There’s no ‘Planet B’.

Indeed, Space is an inherently hostile environment for humans. For that reason, even though we may wish to regulate genetic and cyborg technology on Earth, we should surely wish the space pioneers good luck in using all such techniques to adapt to alien conditions. This might be the first step towards divergence into a new species: the beginning of the post-human era. And it would also ensure that advanced life would survive, even if the worst conceivable catastrophe befell our planet.

As an astronomer I’m sometimes asked: ‘does contemplation of huge expanses of space and time affect your everyday life?’ Well, having spent much of my life among astronomers, I have to tell you that they’re not especially serene, and fret as much as anyone about what happens next week or tomorrow. But they do bring one special perspective – an awareness of the far future. Let me explain.

The stupendous timespans of the evolutionary past are now part of common culture (outside ‘fundamentalist’ circles, at any rate). But most people still tend to regard humans as the culmination of the evolutionary tree. That hardly seems credible to an astronomer. Our Sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it's got 6 billion more before the fuel runs out, and the expanding universe will continue – perhaps forever. To quote Woody Allen, eternity is very long, especially towards the end. So we may not even be at the half-way stage of evolution.

It may take just decades to develop human-level AI – or it may take centuries. Be that as it may, it’s but an instant compared to the cosmic future stretching ahead.

There must be chemical and metabolic limits to the size and processing power of ‘wet’ organic brains. Maybe we’re close to these already. But fewer limits constrain electronic computers (still less, perhaps, quantum computers); for these, the potential for further development could be as dramatic as the evolution from pre-Cambrian organisms to humans. So, by any definition of ‘thinking’, the amount and intensity that’s done by organic human-type brains will be utterly swamped by the future cogitations of AI.

Moreover, the Earth’s environment may suit us ‘organics’ – but interplanetary and interstellar space may be the preferred arena where robotic fabricators will have the grandest scope for construction, and where non-biological ‘brains’ may develop greater powers than humans can even imagine.

I’ve no time to speculate further beyond the flakey fringe – perhaps a good thing! So let me conclude by focusing back more closely on the here and now.

For more information on Lord Rees' IPR lecture, please see our writeup here.


Who wants to be superior? The psychogenesis of xenophobia and radical Islam in Germany

📥  Racism and the far right, Security and defence

Dr Alim Baluch is Teaching Fellow in German Politics & Society at the University of Bath's Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies.

In July 2016, Germany was struck to the core by a wave of terrorist attacks; two were carried out in the name of radical Islam, and the most devastating one, the Munich massacre, in the name of right-wing extremism. Islamophobia and attacks on refugee homes are on the rise as right-wing Germans fear for their imagined national character. In last week’s state election in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Merkel’s home state), the right-wing xenophobic party Alternative for Germany (AfD) amassed a larger share of the votes than Merkel’s CDU. 21% had voted for a party which states in its program that Islam does not belong to Germany.



Many cosmopolitan Germans are deeply troubled by the current shift to the right – even among their Turkish neighbours and friends, many of whom support president Erdoğan, whose religious conservatism has turned into right-wing authoritarianism. There are even German Turks and former refugees who reproduce anti-refugee rhetoric, expressing fear that the recent arrivals may spoil the reputation of all Muslims.

Muslims in Germany are concerned about the anti-Muslim discourse, the fear of further jihadist attacks with potentially devastating consequences for their daily lives and, maybe most terrifyingly, young teenagers running away from home to Syria in order to join IS. The enemy is out there and, potentially, in one’s own family. Trust is good, but surveillance is better; there have been numerous cases of Muslim parents reporting their children to the police.

Germany is witnessing a vicious circle of fear and hostilities that can be subsumed under the notions of Islamism and Islamophobia (although both terms are not without critique, they are nonetheless used in this piece to make basic assumptions accessible). While xenophobia in Britain, for instance, is much more diverse, given the strong fear of Central and Eastern European migrants, German xenophobia is increasingly focussed on Islam, implicitly imagined as a coherent social and ideological block.

Mecklenburg-Vorpommern election results

Mecklenburg-Vorpommern election results

This blog post seeks to embed these developments into the theoretical framework of the Iranian sociologist Dawud Gholamasad (former Chair in sociology at the University of Hannover, who also taught at Oxford University between 1999 and 2003). The entire theoretical edifice, though not the historical background, of this post is based on his work – particularly on a seminal piece written in German and published on his website.

In the following, I will use Gholamasad’s process sociological perspective to discuss why hateful ideology is so attractive to a specific form of mental suffering that cannot be explained by individual trauma and childhood experience alone. History matters; culture matters; and religion matters – but not in the naively simplistic way Islamophobes have in mind.

I will attempt to make Gholamasad’s theoretical arguments more accessible by delving into history and the long-term developments that have led to an ideology of lost superiority. These long-term historic developments are not only a sequence of facts but have a profound impact on self-worth regulations of individuals in various societal settings. Finally, I will return to the context of recent violent attacks in Germany that, I will argue, are based on reasserting the remembered ideologies of superiority.

Gholamasad points out that the condition of possibility (not the cause) of Islamism – as well as Islamophobia – lies in self-worth related cognitive schemes of egocentric human beings. In other words, we unconsciously assess the differential between the apparent reality and the ideologically self-reinforcing ideal.

Islamism and Islamophobia can be best understood as aspirations to narrow the painful gap between reality and the imagined ideal. The reader may be aware of the more-or-less conscious assumptions of Western/white superiority that often underlie political discourse. What is less well-known is the Islamic version of implicit supremacy, which is rooted in an inherited sense of entitlement to superiority.

Certainly until the fall of Al-Andalus in the late 15th Century, the Muslim world had a strong sense of superiority over the non-Muslim world – including Europe. Indeed, the big caliphates of the Middle Ages were superior in natural sciences and medicine, and – just like Europe in the following centuries – that Islamic scientific superiority and military power also translated into the cynical exploitation and slavery of the 'others'. From the 9th Century on, 'white' Europeans were taken as slaves. But the reality was much more complex than this may sound.

The Arab rulers of Andalusia showed little interest in expanding their European power base further north. This allowed for more-or-less peaceful trade relations with Northerners who supplied them with slaves caught in what is now Northern Germany. The target area of slave hunters moved further east in the following two hundred years. Initially, these slaves were often Saxons who had not yet converted to Christianity (ironically, their British descendants would later create the biggest slave trade in human history).

The self-perception of Muslim supremacy had profound implications that cannot be underestimated. To further illustrate this point, we should take a step back and view the macro picture of the early history of Islam, a religion founded by members of seemingly insignificant desert tribes. This early period was characterised by a rapid expansion over half of the inhabited Eurasian world, a success which must have even surprised the followers of Islam themselves.

To understand Gholamasad’s notion of an inter-generationally remembered entitlement to superiority (there is also a British and a Turkish variety), picture an Ummayad caliph asking himself: “How on earth is it possible that we are so successful?” The answer seemed obvious: “Allah wants it. We have the right religious belief. We are unstoppable.”

This sense of superiority was engrained in the self-worth of the Muslim elite and even the wider Muslim population could tap into the self-worth supply which comes with the common group charisma of the ummah. The remembered claim to superiority as a condition of possibility for maintaining self-worth was passed on and on from one generation to the next. This superiority was manifest in the Muslim world’s ability to control the non-Muslim world, more so than vice versa. By the 15th Century, however, power relations between what was imagined as Islam and what was imagined as Christian Europe had shifted towards the latter. Christian kingdoms and empires had attained scientific and military superiority over their Muslim rivals and this superiority would increase dramatically over the coming centuries.

The disillusion of the Muslim world

The reality of the inferiority of the Muslim world in terms of control vis-à-vis the Western world did not sink in immediately. It is this delay which Norbert Elias (1991) calls the drag effect of the social habitus, ie. when the cognitive patterns and self-worth regulation of individuals have not caught up with political and social developments. This drag effect can lead to emotional pain and social conflict.

The realisation of Western superiority was further impeded by an Ottoman Empire pulling above its weight and finally navigating its slowly sinking ship between the rocks of far superior European empires. Surprisingly, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire – which was the last big caliphate (and thus main representative of Sunni Islam) – in the 1920s came as a shock to the literate Muslim world. The cleavage between the self-worth oriented demand for superiority and the bleak political realities of the 20th and 21st Centuries generated the potential for an emotional pain that was exacerbated by Western military interventions terrorising entire nations. The “Why are we so successful?” was turned around into “What happened to us? Why are we so inferior?”

Given the traditional fatalism of Islam, the answer had to be: “Allah wants it. He is punishing us.”

The intergenerational system of self-worth regulation was malfunctioning. But if God was punishing Muslims then the question was why, and it was radical Islam which presented the most impactful answer: “Because we have abandoned him. To regain our vested right, we have to return to the old ways.”

The end of the Ottoman Empire and its secular modernisation shattered all illusions. The painful powerlessness of the 20th Century was felt by a section of the Muslim world that was literate, religious and reflected upon the new political realities perceived as a lost power struggle between Islam and Christendom. It is therefore not necessarily a coincidence that political Islam was born in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It was in the periphery of the fallen empire that the Egyptian school teacher Hassan al-Bannah established a religious political movement, the Muslim brotherhood, in the 1920s.

Like any other political movement, political Islam is chiliastic. This means that it is based on the expectation of a paradise which is yet to come. In secular ideologies, this paradise takes the form of a perfect world. For national socialists, for instance, this would be the 1000-Year Reich. All the brutality and mass murder would be committed to bring about a just and peaceful world, a world that can only be established once the enemies are exterminated. This is not to say that chiliasm is necessarily pursued by violent means. Environmentalism and communism are chiliastic movements as well. The struggle can take more or less peaceful forms.

According to Gholamasad, traditional Muslim chiliasm is quietist, ie. fatalistic. The world may be unjust and, for some unknown reason, Allah lets Christians and atheists control this modern world – but there is nothing one can do about it. Accordingly, everything is Allah’s will. This attitude was conducive to augmenting self-worth gratification in a time of expansion and superiority and boosted the identification with Islam as a superior political project even further. However, the degree of emotional attachment to Islam as a relational category vis-à-vis a non-Islamic world indicates the potential for emotional suffering in a world in which this metaphysical object of identification is in decline. Since the 1920s, quietism has been notably challenged – with far-reaching consequences.

Chiliastic quietism shifted towards chiliastic activism. Thus, what is often referred to as Islamism or radical Islam is a modern phenomenon. The new activist Islam considers the old quietist passivity as precisely the reason for the dire state of affairs. Quietism can therefore be perceived as a sin. The fatalistic Muslim is hence seen as a non-Muslim, an obstacle or even an enemy who raises children in a counter-productive way.

It is no longer good enough to wait for the afterlife; a just world according to Allah’s will has to be fought for. No sacrifice is too big. The shameful passivity of the forefathers, it is argued, has allowed the Muslim world to be taken over by corrupt and sinful rulers, making the homelands vulnerable to Western looting of natural resources and military operations (to use this euphemism) that have killed hundreds of thousands. IS supporters consider organised violent activism to be the only way to reverse the emotionally painful downfall and humiliation of the Islamic world and avenge the military crimes of Western governments. Western military operations are the conditions of possibility but not the cause of IS-style radicalism. They further fuel and radicalise the still-ongoing shift towards chiliastic activism, and encourage an openness to ever more violent means.

A Perfect Storm of Necrophilic Self-worth regulation

"The time has passed when you would come to our lands and kill our women and children. God willing, you will be attacked in every street, every village, every city and every airport.”
Source: Zeit.de [translation].

17-year-old refugee Riaz Khan Ahmadzai from Afghanistan had videotaped himself announcing violence in the name of Daesh. He was not just a lone wolf; he was indeed in contact with the infamous organisation that encouraged him to use a vehicle as a weapon. But the teenager reminded his contacts that he did not own a driver’s license. Instead, he informed them of a different plan, namely that he would enter a train with a knife and a hatchet to attack the first passengers he would encounter – whoever they may be. The random victims of 18 July happened to be a family of tourists from Hong Kong. The 62-year-old father and his daughter’s boyfriend suffered life-threatening injuries. After stopping in Würzburg, the attacker left the train. Upon encountering a 51-year-old woman walking her dog, he hit her in the face with the hatchet. Shortly afterwards he was fatally shot by the police.

Process sociology helps us to fathom the emotional pain of violent extremists. It demonstrates that our mind is a communication system in a dynamic network of communicative relations. Our thoughts, emotions and conversations (ie. our individualised social habitus) can only be understood as self-worth oriented processes. Everything we do is relational; it is directed at others. Gholamasad’s research is based upon Elias’ concept of figuration (Elias 1978, 1991). Humans are fundamentally directed towards others and seek to attach valencies, which can be understood as emotional needs. These valencies are attached through establishing emotionally rewarding relationships with others, a network of family, friends, colleagues and maybe even imagined entities.


The figurational model according to Norbert Elias. Diagram taken from Elias, N. 1978. What is Sociology? New York, Columbia University Press.

The figurational model according to Norbert Elias. Diagram taken from Elias, N. 1978. What is Sociology? New York, Columbia University Press.

In a world that is perceived as inherently unjust, a world in which a young person is denied a gratifying network of self-worth inducing emotional bonds (ie. attaching valencies), he/she is likely to be more receptive to a narrative of injustice done to a group that is imagined to be entitled to supremacy. The discrepancy between the group’s reality and its rightful place taps into the emotional suffering of its potential recruits.

If the imagined order cannot be restored, the martyr’s contribution can be perceived as a meaningful way of tackling emotional suffering and injustice and helping the imagined ‘we group’, whether this may be the ummah, the Aryan race or another group. Extreme violence and upholding self-sacrifice as a virtue is an indicator of the degree of painful incongruence between the ideal and reality. In this respect, the Islamist narrative is different from – but also similar to – the national socialist narrative.

The Northern European nativism of Anders Breivik corresponds to the regional nativism of the Taliban and the pan-Islamic nativism of IS, a nativism based on the idea that the we group is under attack by intruders who are dangerous and destructive and can only be defeated by ruthless determination. Any devoted Sunni Muslim can be part of this we group, whether it is an Indonesian activist or a German convert.

Another dichotomy which helps explain the social psychological processes that lead us to hateful ideology and death cults is the distinction between necrophilia and biophilia. Necrophilia is a general affinity to death and destruction; biophilia is the affinity to a life of stable emotional bonds of positive reinforcement with fellow human beings as well as non-human nature.

Only a few days after the attacks of Munich and the Würzburg attack, the suicide bomber and Syrian refugee Mohammed Daleel – who injured 15 in the idyllic Bavarian town of Anspach – shocked Germany to the core. His story offers plenty of material to be exploited by the far right. He was staying in a hotel, and he was a refugee in contact with Isis. But the German TV audience also learned that he was mentally unstable and had previously attempted to commit suicide. The 27-year-old was about to be deported to Bulgaria according to the Dublin Agreement.

IS is inherently necrophilic, as are right-wing extremist fantasies of leaving refugees to drown in the Mediterranean – cynically suggesting that this may save lives in the long run. The worst possible outcome of the refugee crisis for Germany is a mutually reinforcing escalation of pars pro toto distortions, ie. mistaking a dangerous minority as typical representatives of a vague category of people encompassing millions.

The distorted view of “the West” is so focused on anti-Islam rhetoric and violence that all Westerners are part and parcel of an anti-Islam block. By that logic, all Western civilians are fair game. Accordingly, they are believed to hate Islam – and they voted for governments that supported war in Libya and Syria.

Likewise, all Muslims are viewed as followers of a barbaric ideology because the Quran itself is conceived of as inspiring the faithful to be violent, while conveniently ignoring similar passages in both testaments of the bible. These oversimplifications ignore the much more interesting change in the structure of Islamic chiliasm and emerging new-wave activist neo-Nazism, as seen in the extreme examples of Anders Breivik and the terrorists of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) who murdered mainly Turkish immigrants across Germany.

The Munich attacker Ali David Sonboly whose Iranian descent was neatly incorporated into his self-perception as being a German of truly Aryan descent (given that the Aryan people actually live in Iran) was a right-wing extremist. Sonboly was a bullied teenager from Munich who fatally shot 9 people who were of migrant background before committing suicide.

This example demonstrates not only the destructive potential of unattached valencies, but also that his emotional pain was susceptible to an ideological vessel which could just as well have taken the form of radical Islam.

It is therefore shallow and misleading to consider ideology as a cause for violence; violence does not need an ideology. There is no such determinism. The various chiliastic narratives of denied greatness and injustice which can only be overcome by necrophilic activism are merely options amongst a wider array of possibilities, of which some are more applicable than others according to the individual case. Empirical research is needed that focuses on the underlying emotional demand.

Given that many Syrian refugees are deeply traumatised, building a healthy biophile figuration of affective bonds in an alien environment while overcoming trauma is an important challenge. It is one that demands help from the state as well as citizens that goes far beyond the initial willkommenskultur.

Unfortunately, many German citizens already feel disenfranchised themselves by the increasing casualisation of the job market and low pay at a time when rents are already rising dramatically – even without the recent refugee immigration. Following the terrorist attacks, more and more Germans are turning away from their new neighbours. Young Germans are becoming more vulnerable to self-worth regulation based upon right-wing nativism.

In light of this, it is crucial that Germany invests a great deal of resources into therapy for traumatised refugees, language training, social integration and transforming the job market to benefit everyone living in Germany – including the already existing German precariat. This might just help prevent viewing refugees merely as potential terrorists and a further descent in the race to the bottom.

The more Europeans feel threatened in their self-worth, be it by the European Union, immigration, austerity or disintegration of their emotional bonds, the more they are likely to support ideologies of threatened superiority. Viewing Islam as primitive and barbaric provides a powerful and self-worth producing narrative which further threatens the healthy self-worth regulation of Muslims. A vicious circle indeed.



Elias, N. 1991. The Society of Individuals. London, Basil Blackwell.

Elias, N. 1978. What is Sociology? New York, Columbia University Press.

Gholamasad, D. 2015. Wie und warum sich Islamismus und Islamophobie gegenseitig als de-zivilisierende Aspekte der Demokratisierung in Europa gegenseitig hochschaukeln. Gholamasad.jimdo.com.

http://gholamasad.jimdo.com/artikel/wie-und-warum-sich-islamismus-und-islamophobie-gegenseitig-als-de-zivilisierende-aspekte-der-demokratisierung-in-europa-gegenseitig-hochschaukeln/ [retrieved on 08.08. 2016.


Defending the indefensible: France, the burkini affair and the further mainstreaming of racism

📥  Racism and the far right, Security and defence

Dr Aurelien Mondon is Senior Lecturer in French and Comparative Politics at the University of Bath. His research focuses predominantly on elite discourse and the mainstreaming of far-right politics, particularly through the use of populism and racism.

In the aftermath of the Nice attack on 14 July 2016 and the murder of a priest in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray on 26 July, the burkini became headline material in France when on 28 July, the mayor of Cannes introduced a ban preventing ‘access to beaches and for swimming … to anyone not wearing appropriate clothing, respectful of moral standards and secularism’.



Thirty-one communes passed a law banning the wearing of ‘religious clothing’ on their beaches. Of course, this ban really did not target all religions, but was a direct attack against women wearing so-called burkinis – and by extension acted as yet further stigmatisation of anyone associated with Islam.

As had been the case with regard to discussing the place of Islam in France, this debate has been very much one-sided. Politicians on both sides of the political spectrum have jockeyed for position to demonstrate who would be toughest against what they all saw as a threat; Prime Minister Manuel Valls described the burkini as ‘an affirmation in the public space of a political islamism’, while former president Nicolas Sarkozy denounced it as a ‘provocation’ in support of radical Islam.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the self-appointed left-wing alternative to the government, felt necessary to single out and essentialise Islam, noting that, while there are bigger issues to deal with, ‘all religions are a problem when it comes to the equality between men and women. With Islam, it is maybe more visible’ – for him too, the burkini is a ‘provocation’ linked to ‘a Salafist religious offensive’.

The reaction to the burkini bans beyond France was overwhelmingly negative. Photos of a woman being forced to undress on a beach surrounded by armed policemen went viral and were widely criticised in other countries, allowing for their more ‘reasonable’ forms of Islamophobia to be ignored in the face of such shameless manoeuvres.

The ban was initially upheld by the administrative tribunal of Nice before being suspended by the State Council. The decision stated what should have been obvious from the beginning, but had become impossible to consider in French politics in 2016: the ban ‘constituted a serious and manifestly illegal infringement of fundamental liberties’. It reminded mayors that the law ‘may only restrict freedoms if there are confirmed risks’, something which clearly was not the case. Despite such strong words, politicians from both sides have continued to surf the Islamophobic wave in France, calling for a blanket ban, with Sarkozy demanding that the constitution be changed to allow such a law to be passed.

Yet the ‘burkini affair’ is very much the tip of the iceberg, as the situation in France in the aftermath of the attacks has become increasingly difficult for anyone associated with Islam, no matter how loosely. Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015, French Muslim communities have been placed in a constant state of suspicion and borne the brunt of the state of emergency. Beyond recent events, Islamophobic actions and reactions have been deeply rooted in France’s secular hypocrisy.

Defending the indefensible

While many have mentioned the state of shock and fear France has been in following the string of horrific attacks over the past two years, such an argument to justify the latest ban is moot as Islamophobic and liberticidal laws have in fact been commonplace in France for decades. The very act of unveiling a Muslim woman should have resonated as a dire warning to politicians as it was reminiscent of some of the darkest hours of French history. This poster, published in Algeria in the 1950s, shows that French propaganda there was often based on similar ideas.



The 2004 law banning the hijab in schools and the burqa in public spaces demonstrated the willingness of the French state to deny agency to Muslim women and girls on the basis that their religion made agency impossible in the first place. Listening to these women was unnecessary; the country of the Rights of Man knew best what was right for its women.

While countless laws and polemics have directly targeted loosely-defined Muslim communities in France, many of the defenders of such laws and anti-Muslim sentiment in general have argued that their stance is not based on a racist argument: it is merely about religion. Anyone who has ever denounced Islamophobia in our societies will have been confronted by a barrage of repetitive arguments about what is written in the Quran and the ‘fact’ that hating Islam is reasonable, not a ‘phobia’ (see the comments in this article).

Yet, while this theological twist has allowed many to posit themselves as progressive secularists, their claims with regard to Islam and Muslims today are for the most part rooted in typical forms of racism. Islamophobes and anti-Muslim racists, be they anonymous commentators, far-right activists or mainstream pundits, have in common their stigmatisation of anyone deemed to be part of some kind of essentialised identity.

One is applied ‘Muslimness’, and this implies certain innate beliefs/attributes. One is Muslim and, as such, innately suspicious; in turn, this makes it plausible and indeed reasonable to preclude ‘them’ from fundamental rights. In line with traditional forms of racism, it is by removing the humanity of Muslims, proved in this case by their understood innate inadaptability to fantasised (western) civilised ideals, that it becomes possible to implement laws curtailing freedoms we would never accept being removed from ‘us’.

The burkini affair is one of the most obvious examples of such racist actions based on a pseudo-liberal justification and whipped up by the elite to create tensions within French society. A semblance of belonging to a religion shared by more than a billion people in the form of a garment was enough for some French municipalities to find those wearing a burkini guilty of harbouring the potential of some insidious crime. As Saïd Bouamama pointedly noted, and as was already the case with the hijab in 2004 and the Burqa in 2011, the number of burkinis on French beaches was inversely proportionate to its media coverage:

"Every citizen is summoned to have an opinion, even though most have never seen anyone wearing such clothing. They discover this bathing suit through a preliminary question: what is it hiding? The consequence is thus the overvisibility of the burkini."

As the suspicious nature of the burkini becomes internalised through its disproportionate media coverage, it becomes possible and indeed advisable for authorities to publicly humiliate women and justify the removal of their agency with regard to their choice of clothing or practice of religion – agency enjoyed by others around them and protected by the constitution. The message: be like us or be not.

While supporters of such bans often claim pseudo-feminist motives, the result is always the further isolation and segregation of women. The racist rationale behind such laws is all the more obvious as burkinis had no links with any of the terrorist attacks or propaganda in France or elsewhere. Yet even if burkinis had been used in heinous acts such as those perpetrated in France in the recent past, punishing all those wearing this piece of cloth would have remained a racist act as it would have assumed the equation of burkini to Islam and of Islam to terrorism.

Yet anti-Muslim racism is much more insidious and widespread. In much of the west currently, being Muslim or simply appearing a certain way – whether through your clothing, the way you look, or the name you bear – is enough to invite a barrage of discrimination. Commonly, those deemed Muslim find it more difficult to find a home or a job than their peers with a similar educational background. While this has been very well documented, it has been internalised and accepted as unavoidable, as other forms of discrimination have been. In this racist narrative, it is crucial to stress that the Muslim signifier does not have to come from the individual herself.

A particular version of Muslimness, defined by the onlooker in a position of power, not the bearer of the identity, is imposed onto people through various types of generalisation, misperception and stigmatisation, such as the so-called secular and anti-terrorist laws, but also through the media coverage of Islam.

In this narrative, Muslims – whether they be defined by religion, name or appearance – are branded as such by those in various positions of power and prevented from expressing their individuality and agency as they become nothing more than what ‘we’ believe Islam is: a homogenous and impending threat. In this hegemonic narrative, the agency of Muslims as individuals is not acknowledged in its diversity but imposed in a homogenised manner, preventing any discussion from taking place.

Any denunciation of this racism or rebellion against it is automatically rebutted as being supportive of radical Islamism and thus discarded – or even punished. Just as ‘they’ are essentialised as backwards, sexist and violent, ‘we’ are essentialised as civilised, egalitarian and the defenders of human rights.

Political capital

Friday’s State Council decision should be seen as a dire warning for France. While the liberticidal laws against the hijab and burqa were ultimately passed in France, the fact that this one was repealed (for now at least) is a clear sign that yet another line has been crossed in France’s descent towards increasingly racist and even fascistic politics.

And yet French politicians have so far continued to fuel the racist sentiment they have played a major role in creating to divert the attention away from their failure to act in other areas. As the stigmatisation of Muslim communities in France has become naturalised through the openly violent state of emergency measures or the more insidious discriminatory practices in day-to-day activities (work, school, housing, etc.), emancipatory politics appear increasingly out of reach.

In the current political context, Muslims are not considered to be political and economic actors whose position with regard to growing inequalities and insecurity could place them within the political category of French worker. Instead, they are separated, marginalised, and used as a decoy allowing for the perpetuation of a deeply distrusted system – in France, 9 out of 10 respondents to polls declare they do not trust politicians.

As the presidential election campaign ramps up, it seems that Islam will be at the centre of the debates, and that such debates will only relate to the scale of the suspicion to be placed on Islam and anyone related to it. In this cacophony, Marine Le Pen remains suspiciously quiet, no doubt enjoying the mainstreaming of much of her party’s ideas and a return to mainstream politics openly based on a race.

This short article, first published on openDemocracy, is part of a larger project studying the rise and interaction of liberal and illiberal Islamophobias in France, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Islamophobia(s) in the aftermath of the Nice attack

📥  Racism and the far right, Security and defence

Dr Aurelien Mondon is Senior Lecturer in French and Comparative Politics at the University of Bath. His research focuses predominantly on elite discourse and the mainstreaming of far right politics, particularly through the use of populism and racism. Dr Aaron Winter is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of East London.

On the 14th of July 2016, the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice ended in carnage. Eighty-four people were killed when Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel drove his truck through a crowd of bystanders: men, women and children, who had gathered on the Promenades des Anglais to watch the fireworks. Within hours, the French media and politicians denounced yet another ‘Islamist terrorist’ attack, despite the lack of evidence present at this early stage. Even though it appears increasingly that Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s links to terrorism and IS were indeed tenuous at best, Islam, once more in the spotlight in France and Muslim communities in the country (and wider Europe), remains under collective suspicion and the target of fear and hate.


Islamophobia in France is nothing new, from its colonial heritage to the more recent focus on terrorism. In the years since 9/11, Islam, Muslims and, closely linked, the issue of Islamophobia, have become central to public, policy and research debates and agendas in France as well as in Europe and the wider West (Levey and Modood 2008; Morey and Yaqin 2011). Various surveys have shown in recent years that ‘anti-Muslim biases’ (Taras 2013, 426-31) have been prevalent across much of Europe (for a more thorough overview in France, see (Hajjat and Mohammed 2013, 37-68) and in Britain and the United States, see (Kundnani 2014)). Many have argued that this trend has increased, as have anti-Muslim hate crimes, in France and elsewhere, in the immediate aftermath of terrorist attacks in the past 18 months (LeMonde.fr July 17 2015; Mark November 18 2015; Al-Othman December 1 2015).


bayualam / Shutterstock.com

While some repercussions took the form of traditional far-right hate and violence, what we have witnessed recently in France - and which has been consolidated in the wake of the first attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 - is a form of Islamophobia or anti-Muslim hate that, far from traditional racism, appears liberal and progressive, attacking Islam in the name of secularism and free speech (as well as women’s rights in the case of banning the hijab and burka (Delphy 2006; 2015)). These features make it more acceptable in mainstream French society, as it hijacks once progressive concepts such as the Republic, laïcité and the popular motto Liberté, égalité, fraternité. This has allowed parties on the far right, such as the Front National, to normalise their neo-racist discourse as much of their criticism of Islam could now be couched in mainstream terms (Mondon 2014; 2015).

The intersection between traditional far-right forms of racism and the subtler mainstream Islamophobia, which has become increasingly prevalent in our societies, has been the basis of our current research project (Mondon & Winter 2015, 2016). The aim of the present article is to illuminate the current situation in France using part of the theoretical framework we are currently developing. Our research argues that to understand the changing nature and articulations of, as well as debates about, Islamophobia in the current context, it is necessary to understand it in the plural, and in particular to differentiate between what we have called its illiberal and liberal forms.

The distinction between the two forms of Islamophobia we identify begins with what appears to be an analytical distinction and disagreement, albeit a functional one. The main debate amongst academics, and within the media and civil society (for different reasons from understanding to hate), has been whether Islamophobia is about religion or race, based on whether Islam relates to a race/people or religion/belief system. This is less about definitions than whether anti-Muslim discourses and rhetoric are a form of racism and unacceptable or about belief and thus acceptable. As such, it is not really about what Islam is or Muslims are, but how the definition allows people to say certain things about it and avoid less palatable ones. While many scholars and activists, as well as Muslims on the sharp end of Islamophobia, see it as a form of racism directed at a people and often based on physical or cultural markers and signifiers (to use the traditional understanding), the religious argument does provide a convenient cover for those wishing to argue that they are attacking a belief and not people or ‘race’. In a mainstream context where racism is allegedly unacceptable and associated with the far right, this focus allows Islamophobes to wriggle out of or deflect such charges, as well as permitting the far right to recast themselves as legitimate and mainstream through simple rephrasing. In this context, it is thus not surprising to hear prominent mainstream commentator Elisabeth Badinter declare: ‘we should not be afraid to be called Islamophobes’. Obviously, defining and seeing Islamophobia only through the prism of religion ignores many of these and others issues, processes and effects, most notably racialisation (Meer and Modood 2009; Garner and Selod 2015). It is in fact particularly functional and politically expedient in so-called liberal secular societies such as France, Britain and, to a lesser extent, the US, where criticism of religion is considered a healthy and necessary practice to allow for freedom of thought and expression, and central to the conception of the nation and national identity, as the case of France highlights particularly well. Muslims are not French, not because of who they are, but because of what their beliefs are believed to be and the values this imagined and caricatural belief system prevents them from accepting. This is where the distinction and intersections of the liberal and illiberal qualities of Islamophobia become particularly relevant.

The illiberal type of Islamophobia or ‘anti-Muslim’ hate, is closest to traditional racism based around exclusivist, essentialised notions and concepts of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and religion, as well as identity itself, and is commonly associated with the far right and authoritarian treatment of minority groups and rights. It presents Islam as monolithic and innately threatening and inferior (in terms of ‘race’ if not also culture). Like traditional forms of racism, it views Muslimness as an immutable characteristic (akin to biology), Muslims, and not just Islam as a religion, as a problem, and can be seen for example in calls for repatriation, genocide or violence against Muslims and mosques. As such, it falls outside the remits of what is considered acceptable in the hegemonic discourse and apart from the most ideologically-focused groups on the right, most have tried to distance themselves from such labels. Yet this type of Islamophobia is essential to allow for the very existence of the liberal form as it acts as a unifier within mainstream society: it binds the norm within boundaries by drawing a clear line of demarcation between the extreme and the norm. It is the construction and containment of a clearly delineated type of Islamophobia at the margins of the political spectrum, one which falls outside of the liberal ideal because of its essentialism, unmediated call for violence, total rejection and open discrimination, which make it possible for subtler forms of Islamophobia to enter the mainstream discourse due their apparent allegiance to liberal democratic rules.

Liberal Islamophobia is based on the construction of a pseudo-progressive binary and narrative. It creates a loosely defined Muslim culture and community inherently opposed to some of the core values espoused in a mythical, essentialised, culturally homogenous, superior and enlightened West, or specific western nation, based on specific examples where the West embodies progress, such as democracy, human rights, free speech, gender and sexual equality and rights, and ironically tolerance. As David Theo Goldberg (2006, 345) argues, ‘Islam is taken in the dominant European imaginary to represent a collection of lacks: of freedom; of a disposition of scientific inquiry; of civility and manners; of love of life; of human worth; of equal respect for women and gay people’. Criticism of Islam and Muslims is praised as an example and defence of liberal free speech. Nowhere is this clearer than with the example of Charlie Hebdo, with its satirical cartoons of the Prophet, designed to express free speech and provoke to prove the point about a fantasised version of Islam and Muslims’ backwardness.

Of course, the construction of a liberal West standing unified behind equality and freedom willfully ignores the tensions within liberalism itself in terms of the legacy(ies) of the Enlightenment, universalism, racism, colonialism, imperialism and patriarchy, as well as increasing inequalities and curtailment of freedoms within the ‘West’. Liberal Islamophobia thus acts as a decoy to provide ‘Us’ with a righteous sense of self as the defenders of a more progressive vision of the world, and displace tensions, failures and inadequacies inherent to our societies onto Islam. This is particularly important and even ironic considering that much of the Muslim population in France and other European countries originally come from former colonies - such as the Nice attacker, who was from Tunisia - and have been subjected to racisms that both represent a reaction to the loss of empire and reassert the racist colonial schema of the civilised versus the primitive.

The two forms of Islamophobia though are not mutually exclusive, as they both target and scapegoat Islam and Muslims, and the liberal form fails to adequately conceal or erase the racism and other contractions in liberalism and the enlightenment project. More explicitly, the Charlie Hebdo attack did not just create an opportunity for liberal opposition to Islam, but led to a rise in illiberal hate crimes and violence. In addition to that, the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ sentiment expressed in the aftermath by world leaders - many of whom would lead a march through Paris in solidarity despite leading states with repressive laws, including France, which would enact a state of emergency, and engaged in aggressive and imperialist militarism - exposed the hypocrisy if not lie of such liberal framing and rhetoric. Subsequent attacks in France in November 2015 and July 2016 would see an assertion of the more aggressive illiberalism form from hate crimes within civil society to securitisation and authoritarian repressive state measures.

Islamophobia(s) in the Context of the Nice attack

Despite the liberal framing and rhetoric, it has been common for Islamist terrorist attacks to be couched by the mainstream western media and some opportunistic politicians and commentators as being part of a broader clash of civilisations between fantasised visions of Islam and the West. This was very much the prevalent narrative after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015: the ‘West’ represented freedom of speech and progress in line with liberal Islamophobia. ‘Islam’ (and anyone loosely defined as Muslim) was caricatured as censorious and retrograde. No space was left for nuance or the shortcomings of the ‘West’ with regard to freedom of speech in increasingly unequal societies. After the November attacks in which 130 were killed, most politicians reiterated that France was ‘at war’. Prime Minister Manuel Valls went as far as discussing the ‘enemy within’ – a phrase with clear connotations with the Second World War. Still reminiscent of France’s darkest hours, prominent politicians on the right called for any suspect to be imprisoned without trial in ‘interment camps’. The attacks on the Bataclan and wider sites of Parisian nightlife in November 2015 were taken by some to represent an attack on the liberal culture and lifestyle of the young in France by Muslims opposed to drinking, mixed gender socialising, dancing and social pleasure itself. Yet, these events lacked the specificity and iconic symbol of Charlie Hebdo. Instead, repeated attacks and a growing fear, comfort with hate and security measures have hardened politicians, the press and public opinion.

On the 14th of July, within hours of event, terrorism and not the defence of so-called liberal values became the focus as François Hollande declared that this was ‘an attack whose terrorist quality cannot be denied… it is the whole of France that is under the terrorist threat’. As demonstrated by Le Monde, the ‘Islamist terrorist’ line remained the preferred explanation for French politicians (and much of the media in France and beyond) for days, despite conflicting evidence which should have suggested a much more cautious approach. While, as these lines are written, the links between Lahouaiej Bouhlel and so-called Islamic State remain ‘unproven’ - and, in fact, increasingly tenuous - the French Minister of the Interior continued to defend on the 18th of July what, at that stage, was mere speculation: the modus operandi was reminiscent of IS and, while the attacker seemed to suffer from various mental health issues, he had been ‘quickly radicalised’ despite no evidence being presented to the public. Of course, this is not to say that this official explanation is not the correct one, but that in the absence of publicly available evidence, one should expect more caution on the part of public servants, particularly in such a delicate context. This simplistic coverage has led opportunistic and demagogic politicians to demand ever more stringent measures to fight terrorism, but also to the further stigmatisation of the Muslim communities in France. This also has acted as a diversion away from real issues. The state of emergency and the call for more policing have been criticised as ineffective as they not only curtail the civil liberties of all but also ignore the root causes affecting millions in France and potentially driving a handful to committing terrorist attacks. In February 2016, Amnesty International denounced the state of emergency, highlighting that only one person had been arrested on terrorism charges out of 3210 often violent interventions. Such policies and the associated rhetoric are likely to feed into IS’s propaganda machine as they will no doubt highlight the unfair treatment Muslims are subjected to in France. While most Muslims will ignore such simplistic calls, it will only take one person to answer them to send us further down this infernal spiral of an eye for an eye.

In this context Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right Front National, kept mostly quiet in the aftermath of the attacks. As mainstream politicians outbid each other in a race towards securitisation and suspicion, at the expense of civil liberties and fostering further discrimination of Muslim communities, Le Pen has steered away from polemical grounds and simply claimed that mainstream politicians had failed in their duty to protect their citizens. Instead of taking the necessary step back which should be expected by politicians in a democracy, the government and opposition jumped to radical conclusions early on and called for an escalation of the war against terrorism, playing right in the hand of both so-called Islamic State and the far right and its demand for ever more stringent laws on civil liberties and against immigrants and minorities. Such reactions have further legitimised Islamophobia in France and freed the actions of those espousing its most illiberal forms.

This short article, first published on e-ir.info, is part of a larger project studying the rise and interaction of liberal and illiberal Islamophobias in France, the United States and the United Kingdom.


Al-Othman, Hannah. December 1 2015. “Anti-Muslim hate crimes in London more than triple in the wake of Paris attacks.” Evening Standard. London.

Delphy, Christine. 2006. “Antisexisme ou antiracisme? un faux dilemme.” Nouvelles Questions Féministes 26 (1): 59-83.

———. 2015. Separate and dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror. London: Verso.

Garner, Steve, and Saher Selod. 2015. “The Racialization of Muslims: Empirical Studies of Islamophobia.” Critical Sociology 41 (1):9-19.

Goldberg, David Theo. 2006. “Racial Europeanization.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 29 (2):331-64.

Hajjat, Abdellali, and Marwan Mohammed. 2013. Islamophobie. Comment les élites françaises construisent le “problème musulman”. Paris: La Découverte.

Khiabany, Gholam, and Milly Williamson. 2011. “Muslim Women and Veiled Threats: From ‘Civilising Mission’ to ‘Clash of Civilisations’.” Pointing the Finger: Islam and Muslims in the British Media, edited by Julian Petley and Robin Richardson. Oxford: One World.

Kundnani, Arun. 2014. The Muslims are coming: Islamophobia, Extremism and the domestic war on terror. London: Verso.

LeMonde.fr. July 17 2015. “Les actes islamophobes et antisémites en nette progression au premier semestre en France.” Le Monde. Paris.

Levey, Geoffrey Brahm and Tariq Modood (eds.). 2008. Secularism, Religion and Multicultural Citizenship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mark, Michelle. November 18 2015. “Anti-muslim hate crimes have spiked after every major terrorist attack: after paris, muslims speak out against islamophobia.” International Business Times.

Meer, Nasar, and Tariq Modood. 2009. “Refutations of racism in the “Muslim Question”.” Patterns of Prejudice 43 (3/4):332–51.

Mondon, Aurelien. 2014. “The Front National in the Twenty-First Century: From Pariah to Republican Democratic Contender?” Modern & Contemporary France: 1-20. doi: 10.1080/09639489.2013.872093.

———. 2015. “The French secular hypocrisy: the extreme right, the Republic and the battle for hegemony.” Patterns of Prejudice 49 (4): 1-22. doi: 10.1080/0031322X.2015.1069063.

Mondon, Aurelien & Winter, Aaron (2015), Breaking taboos or strengthening the status quo – Islamophobia in the name of liberalism in France and America, BSA conference – manuscript currently under review

Morey, Peter, and Amina Yaqin. 2011. Framing Muslims: Stereotyping and Representation after 9/11. Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Taras, Raymond. 2013. “‘Islamophobia never stands still’: race, religion, and culture.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 36 (3): 417-33.


Professor David Galbreath on: Security in, secure out: Brexit’s impact on security and defence policy

📥  Brexit, European politics, Security and defence

Professor David Galbreath, Professor of International Security,  Associate Dean (Research)

A more secure Britain?

On the morning of 21 March 2016, terrorists struck Brussels airport and metro system in coordinated attacks to intimidate and demoralise. Opponents and proponents of Brexit grabbed the events to prove their point: outside we are less coordinated against a transnational problem, while inside we are subject to the challenges of free mobility that the EU’s Schengen zone presents to a borderless Europe. The UK already maintains its own borders and remains outside the Schengen zone; however, the UK has been a victim of ‘home grown’ terrorists, such as the 7/7 bombers, as well as the long history of IRA attacks.

Presently, national military and police intelligence networks are not dependent on the EU, though they may be enhanced by the EU, such as through Europol. Cooperation with other European security institutions is not determined by membership of the EU. For instance, Europol has strong working relationships with many external international partners, such as Canada and Norway. Brexit would not threaten intelligence and cross-jurisdiction cooperation. At the same time, it is equally the case that police and security agency work would be made no easier through Brexit. As might be expected, the necessities of national security are asserted whether a country is an EU member or not. Being in or out may have major effects on many areas of life, but national security is unlikely to be one of them, at least in the short term.

Why is this the case?

Traditionally, the most developed areas of European policy have been in areas involving the single market, in terms of trade, goods, services and more recently finance. As a result of several hostage and terrorist events in the early 1970s, the so-called TREVI group was established between member-state interior and justice ministers in 1975. The focus of the group was counter-terrorism but eventually extended to other areas of cross-border policing. From the Maastricht Treaty (1993) until the Lisbon Treaty (2007) this area of policy sat within the so-called Third Pillar of Justice and Home Affairs (latterly referred to as ‘Police and Judicial Co-operation in Criminal Matters’. Of the three pillars, the Third Pillar was the most inter-governmental and thus not orientated towards further integration. While the Lisbon Treaty abolished the pillar system, policing and judicial affairs have remained, by and large, inter-governmental platforms of policy cooperation and coordination. In other words, the European Commission has not sought to intervene in national policing and judicial systems, unlike say the Council of Europe (an altogether different international organisation from the EU).

Rather, European cooperation in the areas of policing has often been problematised by differences between national agencies and policing cultures. While Europol is established to coordinate member-state responses to cross-border activities such as drugs and organised crime, there are considerable national barriers, rather than EU barriers, to further cooperation and presumably a more effective approach.

In as much as counter-terrorism remains the primary concern for member-states, the EU has a limited role to play in terms of providing a space for national governments to come together to agree on the terms and conditions of the threats of extremist politics. However, there are other organisations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) who also have a counter-terrorism mandate in Europe and beyond. The EU is one arrangement amongst many that seeks to enhance cooperation in security and judicial matters. At the same time, the EU is the only organisation that seeks to eliminate the barriers to cooperation as it has done in many cases for trade, labour and currency. One might argue going forward that the nature of the EU’s integration makes for a more orchestrated response to trans-national threats to the UK and Europe. Let us look at this in more detail.

Trans-national threats and UK security

If we look at the UK’s 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), we can see that the UK government and security agencies are concerned with issues that threaten the region, if not the world. In addition to highlighting traditional defence policy, the SDSR also highlights combating extremism and terrorism, cyber-attacks, serious and organised crime, and threats to infrastructure. As these issues have developed over time, the UK has worked together with the EU, as well as other partners, to establish institutions and agencies that offer a more coordinated approach to what are essentially trans-national problems. In all of these cases, the myriad threats to UK national security come from abroad and are not aimed at the UK alone. As world politics has become more trans-national, so has the way that the UK and the EU do security.

What are the implications of this? Policing, intelligence and military officials have seen the EU become an important part of their portfolio since the 1980s. As the foreign policy scholar Professor Christopher Hill has argued, European policy has become ubiquitous for UK departments and agencies as they seek to engage with the problems that face the UK and Europe. To see this as simply the EU intervening in UK policy areas across the board is misleading because this is to ignore the effort that successive UK governments have taken to enable the EU to do regional security better, especially in areas that do not concern territorial defence (the preserve of NATO). As world politics has changed, the EU has become an important part of the UK’s ability to shape regional security policy.

Yet the EU itself lacks weight in dealing with difficult policy areas such as refugees, the Middle-East peace process, a resurgent Russia, trans-national organised crime or climate change. Across these areas the EU member-states have deemed that they themselves are responsible for responding to crises, to the effect of showing the EU as a poor regional security actor.

However, I would go further to say that the EU provides an opportunity for further cooperation and, even in some cases, integration of security policy for issues that threaten the UK and Europe. National security imperatives will go beyond the political rhetoric of Brexit and beyond.


Brussels, Britain and Brexit

The attacks in Brussels press us to think about whether Britain would be more secure and resilient to crises in or out of the EU. The leader of UK Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage, responded to the bombings by saying that the free movement of people also means the ‘free movement of Kalashnikovs’. Home Secretary Theresa May responded in Parliament that European policy, intelligence and military cooperation are important for Britain’s own security, pointing specifically on numerous occasions to European Arrest Warrants as a prime example. As already discussed, the reality is that being in or out of the EU may have little impact on Britain’s national security, though it would most definitely have impacts on other areas. Such an argument was set out by Sir Richard Dearlove who has said that Brexit would have a negligible impact on UK security, other than it would enable limits on the number of EU citizens coming into the country (as Britain already has independent control of its borders for all others).

However, the focus on national sovereignty versus EU member status is misleading because in an ever-increasing globalised and trans-national world, the benefits of both are lower. Perhaps even more importantly for the UK, the main sources of political violence are those who are born and raised in Britain. While there is a trans-national quality to their indoctrination, their threat to public safety is not impacted by debates about borders. They are very local problems that will not cease with the settlement of the Brexit referendum.

In conclusion, the EU has been a nascent security actor on behalf of the UK and its other member-states for more than three decades. I have argued here that international terrorism, as well as many other security issues, are part of much larger trans-national threats that require a trans-national response. As it stands, the EU does not have a robust response to many of these problems and thus Brexit would have marginal short term effects on the UK’s ability to protect itself, in either direction. However, it is equally clear that the Euro-Atlantic Area needs a more robust coordinated response to such threats. With a changing political atmosphere in the US, and a NATO that has been fighting successive war after war in the Former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and North Africa, the alternatives to the EU are becoming less and less able to take on such a robust response to such threats.

The UK thus will decide whether it will be at the centre of this development along with France, Germany, Italy and other EU member-states, or on the periphery seeking to balance a national approach with a trans-national approach for trans-national problems.

This blog post is part of a new IPR Series – all related to the BREXIT debate and the EU Referendum. This collection of commissioned blog posts will be published as an IPR Policy Brief in May 2016. Sign up to the IPR blog to get the latest blog posts, or to our mailing list to receive invitations to our events and copies of our Policy Briefs.