‘The Sound of Dial-Up Internet Meant Positive Things’: In Conversation with Dr Malik Dahlan

Molly Bolding 29 March 2019
Image Credit: CMENAF

Professor Dr Malik Dahlan is the Chaired Professor of International Law and Public Policy at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), where he teaches Energy Law and Geopolitics as well as supervising PhDs on trade, ethics and Islamic law. Among his numerous titles he is also the Principal of Institution Quraysh for Law & Policy (iQ); a Senior Research Fellow of the Rand Corporation; the International Chair of the Advisory Board of Riverstone; and a GCC qualified lawyer. I sat down with Prof Dahlan ahead of his talk at Gonville and Caius College as part of a MENAF event, which was co-hosted in the Bateman Auditorium by Professor Brendan Simm’s Forum on Geopolitics.

During my research I had stumbled across the fact that Prof Dahlan’s other roles until recently included working as the regional lawyer for Twitter in the Middle East – an intriguing job.
“The funny thing is with that role, although it was the jewel of the crown of my practice as a lawyer, I couldn’t share it in public – so it was a confidential role, which I treasured very much. It was critical because it came right after the Arab Spring period of 2011, and the amount of pressure that came towards social media as a result – because of the media, because of the revolutions, because of the uprisings – there were more legal pressures, more political pressures channelled through social media. I believe that social media today has become – I wouldn’t say the ‘final battleground’ – but indeed one of the most critical battle spaces for us to deal with. This is not necessarily about how these spaces are being used by terrorist groups like ISIS and others, but also as the outlet of ingenuity and enablement of persons such as Mr Trump…”

I probed the idea of labelling online media as a “battle space”, considering the amount of good that can and has come from social media alongside the reality of inciting harmful behaviours. I wondered whether the danger he saw came from a kind of ideological clash of words or from the potential for literal violence it posed.
“So when I think of a battle space, as refer to the the idea of a ‘negative space’ in my book; the inverse of that is a ‘positive space’, spaces that are meant to be useful and positive end up being distorted. There was a time, certainly when I was younger, when you knew that the sound of the dial-up for the internet meant joy, it meant positive things. Today? The internet is controversial and not necessarily too positive and indeed is being misused. We are living in so-called ‘post-truth world’ where data can be misused and manipulated, trolling, botting and so on. Most dangerously, data is being used to negatively misguide the public. The Rand Corporation produced a full report on ‘truth decay’, a phenomenon that has a destructive ability to affect liberal democracies in the West. So is it more damaging to attack or bomb a city or is it more damaging to destroy a whole socioeconomic fabric of a society by leading them to Brexit? These are big questions that we still have to think about, and that’s the new battle space that social media and the internet is presenting.”

Much of Prof Dahlan’s view on Brexit seemed to echo that of a previous interviewee of mine – Professor Harold Koh – and I posited this comparison to him. Certainly, the idea that Brexit is an unavoidable political conversation topic was clear here, as well as the likelihood that any kind of Brexit is inherently going to change the way in which we think about how nations interact with one another. As another lawyer from a non-European background, I figured Prof Dahlan might have a similar perspective on the issue.
He sighed deeply before he spoke. “Brexit is an occurence…it’s a manifestation of what is ultimately distortions of populist politics in some form or another. It is a manipulation of the growing distrust in institutions that we once believed in; a lack of education for the public…but we can draw on similar parallels that you would see in the US with some such occurrences. But I think there is something more fundamental that is happening. And even though I am from the Middle East – I’m from Mecca – I believe that Western governments, for many years now, have taken Western liberal democratic values for granted. Values are what’s at stake here – in other words, when you look at how there is systematic (foreign) manipulation of data and information, that directly contributes to the infringement on democratic rights and on democratic values and the rule of law. These values may not be fundamental to authoritarian regimes, such as China, for example, who can monitor a person’s data and interactions. That’s what they call the ‘Social Credit System’. However, when such actions become transnational, you enter one of the realms of international relations theory that’s rising, where we’re no longer dealing with traditional power structures. In other words it’s not about about ‘hard power’, ‘soft power’, or even ‘smart power’ – it’s the emergence of what is called now ‘sharp power’, a term coined in November 2017 by the National Endowment for Democracy. Sharp power effectively means the employment of subversive methods to project power, through social media and through the internet and so on and so forth, to dictate or change the discourse of some democratic society. We need to be aware of this new form of power, and vigilant, and we need to know what the outlets are that are actually being used to make those changes.”

I remarked on the youth of these apparent dangers – the fundamental realisations that are occurring today are the result of actions or policies that are perhaps only five or ten years old. Nonetheless, I was recalled to a comment from a TV interview Prof Dahlan had given in 2011 with CNA, about the Bahrani uprising, where he said that it was, at least in part, “a generational revolution”.

“I think I do [agree with what I said at the time], absolutely, and what I’ll say is that future [generational revolutions] may not necessarily be the Arab Spring per se, but the modalities that we just discussed – social media or the digital space – is also a function of how a generation deals with political discourse. What is happening and what we are going to continue to see is a lot more [of the same], and that continuation is going to affect how we try to canonise or codify some of the conventions we used to use. I still believe the importance of an inter-generational dialogue as will be the most important form of social engagement of this age. The big question for lawyers like me is what is our obligation as one generation, and what do we actually owe to the next generation? That’s what we call inter-generational equity. We can start with climate change as the most obvious problem we will have to mitigate in the coming years.”

My final question brought us back round to the reason for Prof Dahlan’s visit to the University – the launch of his book, The Hijaz: The First Islamic State. I had been waiting to ask the obvious question: why that subtitle, with all of it’s conventionally sinister media connotations?
His reply came with a smooth chuckle. “My publisher wanted it that way,” he laughed, “despite my best abilities to try to have a more, I guess, explanatory subtitle. It does speak to a lot of different things, including the self-determination aspirations, the Islamic movements such as Daesh calling for a return to a ‘golden age’, but also, seeing The Hijaz as where we see legitimacy residing. Sometimes being the first, is also the last, which is the argument I make – [Hijaz was] a state that only lasted for 40 years – statehood moved on since then. Polities and constitutions need to evolve, and find in humanity inspiration rather than dogma and doctrine, and I guess this goes back to these generational themes – that we need to allow next iterations of politics and policies to inform what needs to be done. I do believe that The Hijaz, as a missing Islamic narrative, as a part of Arabia that’s been buried, is seen as a positive space, a heritage of all of mankind, to build bridges at a time of growing fear and hate.”

Check out Dr Dahlan’s book, Hijaz: The First Islamic State, here and in all good bookstores!