The Dangers of Distraction

Every day’s news now is about distraction.  What is the latest outrageous thing somebody has said?  What is the latest outrageous thing somebody has done?  Something happens and everybody is forced into having an opinion about it.

Yet all the while real things go on in the real world often unnoticed.  The situation in Afghanistan is a good example.  Having promised to ‘end the wars’, President Obama’s time in office is coming to an end with all those wars just more complicated and arguably worse than ever.  It’s only Western attention that has left the scene.

In Afghanistan we now see a situation where the Taliban are looking like the moderate opposition.  They are now engaged in a battle with ISIS to be the dominant force in the country.  And it’s not just in Afghanistan that this is playing out.  In Libya and across North and central Africa, through swathes of the Middle East and further afield there is a struggle involving ISIS in country after country which is going largely unreported.

There are obvious reasons for this.  The technical one is that journalists cannot go to most of the places in question.  Libya, like most of Syria, is simply too dangerous to go near.  And it is no journalist’s fault that this is the case.  There are many brave journalists in many countries.  But travelling in ISIS-infested territory, where a journalist is a prize for the group, is not worth any amount of risk.  And there is also the problem of attention.  It is only a month since Paris, and only a week since Britain joined the fight against ISIS in Syria, but already the news has moved on.

At some point soon something will happen again and we will momentarily tear ourselves away from our daily diet of ephemera and chatter and look out at what is actually going on in the world.  But it is likely once again to be temporary.  And it is a shame that our attention cannot hold, because if it did then we could actually sort some of these problems out rather than just keep patching over the wound.


Much ink has been spilled this week about Donald Trump’s comments regarding Muslims. Having decided he would impose a blanket ban on Muslims entering America, the Republican primary frontrunner unhelpfully extended his comments to cover London and Paris too, suggesting that these European capitals could benefit from a similar move.

Defenders of Trump’s position – of which I am not one – have variously suggested that either his position has been misinterpreted, as the ban would only be temporary in nature, or that he only proposed it to open up debate about the issue of Islamist extremism in America. If indeed this was the case, as opposed to the more likely explanation that in common with much of his campaign rhetoric it just popped into his head and seemed like a good idea at the time. Trump would still be wrong.

On the issue of the ban itself, Trump has made the classic mistake about making this whole debate about “The Other” and then labelling that “Other” incorrectly. We are not at war with Muslims. We are at war with Radical Muslims. And all other Muslims are engaged in that same war on our side. Because they are usually the Islamists’ first victims. The very idea of a ban also shows he is not serious about engaging with this civilisational battle of our time. His solution is to try and wish the problem away by pulling up the drawbridge, rather than take the battle to the other side. In this, he shares the approach of those liberals who are equally reticent to do this and suggest that we can avoid attacks from Islamists by not engaging with the world. They are the easy options, but they solve nothing.

Trump has also not succeeded in broadening the conversation, but narrowing it again. After the Paris Attacks in particular, there has been a growing awareness and desire to speak about the true nature of the Islamist threat in Europe, as it has played out once again before our eyes. With one rhetorical flourish, Trump has sent all those politicians and commentators just starting to poke their heads above the parapets to scurry back to the safety of a blanket position decrying his words as they are so outlandish. He has thus encouraged our leaders to once again take the easy option, just as they seemed ready to take the road less trodden.

But worse than this, Trump is playing the Islamists’ game. Their long-term desire has always been to provoke exactly the kind of reaction they have got in order to foster a ‘clash of civilisations’ style scenario pitting all Muslims against everyone else.

We won’t win this war by playing to the extremes. It is only by mainstreaming the idea that Islamism must be countered that we can do so. Donald Trump has made that task much harder than it needed to be.

Dr Alan Mendoza is Executive Director of The Henry Jackson Society

Follow Alan on Twitter: @AlanMendoza

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