The most important war in the Middle East may be online


We are reminded every day that this is a region racked by conflict and instability. The Syrian people are battling for an alternative to the barrel bombs of Assad and the box office barbarism of ISIS. Millions have had to flee their homes, and face a perilous struggle for survival. Libya and Yemen are in turmoil.

Those who want a fair and secure outcome between Palestine and Israel are on the defensive. And the verdict is not yet in on whether Iran’s moderates are able to seize ground from Iranian hardliners as a result of the nuclear deal, or whether the IRGC will be given a free hand to disrupt and terrorise.

This is a worrying mix. And so it may sound strange to say that the frontlines of the battle that matters most are not drawn on a map. The real global dividing line of the 21st century is between the coexisters – those who believe in tolerance and understanding across boundaries, race, culture, religion – and the wall builders.

Donald Trump is the most vocal of those on the wrong side of this argument, who think the answer to the challenges of the 21st century is a bigger wall. But many others agree, albeit for different reasons. Not least ISIS, who target what they call the “greyzone” that they detest so much, where ideas and faiths interact. The Middle East is the epicenter of this argument.

And this battle will be fought online as much as offline. It is a battle of values and ideology. It is a battle of mindset – for tolerance, open minds and coexistence. And it is a battle for opportunity – not least for the jobs and growth needed to help the Middle East succeed in the 21st century. All of that requires us to mobilise the most powerful weapon yet invented – the internet.

Those in the frontline for tolerance and coexistence now have to reclaim these tools and win the battle for digital territory

Tom Fletcher

Social media

To win this battle, the coexisters need to marshall their forces. Online as offline, we need to be louder and more determined in our arguments than the opponents seeking to divide the region. We need to be using these new tools, including social media, to establish partnerships with those from other cultures. Because the sad reality is that digital technology will also allow those opposed to basic liberties a platform to suppress them, promote their atrocities, and recruit their footsoldiers.

Authoritarian regimes will crack down on digital freedom, and turn it against activists. Social media campaigns will also be used to fuel extremism and polarise debate – the modern equivalent of the use of hate radio during the Rwanda genocide.

The technology works for us. We don’t work for the technology. Too often social media doesn’t just record conflict, but drives it. Those in the frontline for tolerance and coexistence now have to reclaim these tools, and win the battle for digital territory.

We also need to make the case for online freedoms of expression – you don’t have to be pro Twitter to be pro freedom, but you can’t be anti Twitter and pro freedom. The Arab world missed out on the Enlightenment because the Ottoman Empire banned the printing press.

I hope that it will not make the same mistake with the internet. We need a genuine global debate about digital rights, tackling the toughest issues around trust and transparency. We need to find the balance between freedom of expression and the rights of others, between liberty and security.

And we need to present a positive alternative to the wall builders. The internet cannot only be about breaking things, but must be about building together the solutions we need to the economic, political and demographic challenges we face.

The most practical task facing the coexisters is to get millions across the Middle East into quality education, and away from poverty and radicalization. But we also have to equip those arguing for tolerance with the skills and tools to win – part of our effort at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi.

Nowhere is fleet footed, savvy digital diplomacy needed more than in the online and offline war with ISIS and its offshoots. For a gang that seeks to return to the 11th century, they have no qualms about using the technology that embodies the modernity they claim to despise.

They seek to monopolise the horror genre for the internet age, and they believe they are better at social media than the rest of us. Their drive by, unstructured approach has displaced the clumsier and lengthier speeches of al-Qaeda – even terrorists get disrupted.

Technological change is unstoppable. If we understand its potential to unite as well as divide, the overall effect of the internet is going to be hugely positive. It is better ultimately to have too much information than too little. But all this extraordinary change is not painless. We should acknowledge the victims, and find ensure that connectivity reduces rather than increases inequality.

But first each of us has to decide: are we with the coexisters, or the wall builders? And are we using our smartphone superpower to win that argument, or are we ceding ground to those who will consign the Middle East to a lost century?
Prof. Tom Fletcher CMG is a former UK Ambassador, who now teaches at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy and NY University, and campaigns for educational opportunity and the creative industries. His ‘Naked Diplomacy: Power and Statecraft in the Digital Age’ launches this week in the Middle East, and is available on Amazon.