How many more atrocities must Western societies endure before the question of what to do about radical Islam is taken seriously?
There is a convention in British journalism that whenever the House of Commons holds a long debate on a matter of war, it is said to have “risen to the occasion”. MPs are then ordinarily reported to have shown the depth, breadth and “considerable experience” of the House. But the day-long debate in December over whether British planes should join the multinational coalition against Islamic State in Syria showed no such thing. It showed a deracinated, easily distracted and strikingly fearful chamber — in other words a chamber that perfectly reflected the nation at large.
Not the least of the bad signs was how self-absorbed the House had become. Rather than debating the serious issue of international terrorism or putting British pilots in harm’s way over Syria, opposition parties repeatedly complained about a reported remark of the Prime Minister’s on the eve of the debate when he was said to have described those opposed to Britain joining air strikes against IS in Syria as “terrorist sympathisers”. Given that the Labour party is now led by two men who have spent decades supporting, honouring and hosting terrorist groups ranging from the IRA to Hamas and Hezbollah this description was not such an outrageous fiction as Labour MPs among others portrayed it to be. Nevertheless, each took it in turns to express their hurt over the nomenclature.
But even this did not exemplify the self-absorption of the House so much as its preening wordplay over what to call the enemy. Not three weeks after IS’s men had slaughtered 130 people and wounded many more in Paris, the House of Commons seemed less concerned over how to avenge our friends in France (or our own citizens slaughtered by IS months earlier on a beach in Tunisia) than they were about avoiding offence. This was personified in the form of a new and otherwise obscure Conservative MP called Rehman Chishti. In response to the rise of IS this young member has been trying to make his name by petitioning politicians, the media and especially the BBC, to call IS “Daesh”. The fact that “Daesh” simply means IS in Arabic makes it a fatuous demand. The claim that IS dislike being called Daesh because it sounds like something rude in Arabic makes it pathetic. Perhaps Chishti and Co think we can “bait” IS into submission?
So up he popped during the Prime Minister’s opening statement and was credited by Mr Cameron with persuading him that it is indeed “time to join our key ally France, the Arab League, and other members of the international community in using as frequently as possible the terminology Daesh rather than ISIL”. Equally importantly the government instructed all of its members to refer to the group by this new formulation — a formulation which had the advantage of giving everyone an instant patina of knowledge. Many needed it.
During the debate the Scottish National Party leader in Westminster, Angus Robertson (representing a grouping whose foreign policy thinking has rarely stretched beyond Berwick-upon-Tweed), struggled to demonstrate much insight, but right on cue gave way again to Chishti. He honoured Chishti’s campaign, and noted across the floor what an important intervention it was. From thenceforth almost everybody talked of “Daesh” or “ISIL-Daesh”. Some tried a vaguely Arabic accent, as though pretending they could speak Arabic. Others, aspiring to the same impression, satisfied everyone with a glottal stop. All were aware that were they to err they might not only provoke the jack-in-the-box Chishti but the ire of the whole House. Paris had burned and in response Westminster quibbled.
Within days even the debate’s high points were more visibly low points. The most impassioned and impressive speech of the day was given by Hilary Benn, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, speaking and voting against his party leader in voting for air strikes against IS in Syria. During his speech Benn appealed not only to the internationalist tradition of the Labour party but also to its anti-fascist tradition: IS were fascists, he said, therefore Labour should vote to bomb IS. Across the political spectrum the following day’s papers praised this speech as demonstrating not simply the qualities needed to lead a political party but the qualities of a potential prime minister. Few wondered why the rhetorical guns of Hitler and Franco — the heaviest weaponry in the arsenal of the British Left — had been deployed to argue for a handful of planes to join a single-digit percentile of missions across a border that no longer exists. Why the grandiosity? Why the sense of make-or-break over something so comparatively straightforward? As so often, it was the language that gave it away, and the fearfulness with which MPs used their words which showed what lay beneath.
Almost a decade ago Martin Amis asked the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, whether he and other European leaders ever discussed the issue of growing Muslim demographics in Europe. “It’s a subterranean conversation,” was Blair’s response. But even subterranean conversations have a habit of occasionally breaking above the surface. Two years ago, in the pages of the Guardian, some of those fears made a rare such break. The private views of a number of senior figures at the Ministry of Defence were leaked to the left-wing paper. These expressed serious concern that “in an increasingly multicultural Britain” and “an increasingly diverse nation” there was a growing “resistance” to seeing British troops deployed, particularly in countries “from which UK citizens, or their families, once came”. British involvement in the Middle East and elsewhere was, in other words, becoming impossible because of what was happening demographically at home in the UK.
It is especially worth keeping this in mind today because of the phrase François Hollande used after the attacks in Paris. The President of the Republic declared France to be at war “both at home and abroad”. And so she is, and so we may well all be. But in 21st-century Europe, home and abroad are not such different things as they once were, and fighting a war in the skies above abroad is the easy part. Fighting the war at home is the difficult part. Because what do you do when the fastest-growing population in your country is a population which produces even a small percentage of a problem — a problem which whether we like the fact or not must obviously get numerically larger the larger that population grows?
One can of course try to tiptoe around this, and in Britain’s great parliamentary debate even the smarter and more experienced MPs did so. The former Defence Secretary Liam Fox may have a reputation as a rare hawk in British politics, but in an unpersuasive and almost apologetic speech even he spent his time making sure to stress, for instance, that the first and largest number of IS’s victims are Muslims (a point made, as it always is, as though it were the first time it had been made). This is true of course, but in the wake of the attacks in Paris and Tunisia it is also a deeply beseeching point to make.Perhaps this is now the only acceptable way to justify an attack on a group such as IS. Nobody seemed as keen to stress that the first victims of IS in Paris had simply been of any creed or none enjoying a night out at a restaurant, the football or a concert. Nobody made a priority of preventing IS’s ethnic cleansing of Christians. True, while rallying the Labour benches Hilary Benn was concerned to stress the group’s persecution of gays and older Yazidi women. But to single out these atrocities amid the vast panoply of IS barbarism says too much about our own priorities and too little about IS barbarism.
Whenever that key issue of Muslim demographics does bubble up in our country it is always shut down with the same fervour and pique. Whenever it is reported that Mohammed was the most popular name for new-born British boys each year the story is dismissed on some technicality. Too many variants of the name were included or not enough variants was usually the mask for the real response which was, “Shut up.” When, in 2015, Mohammed became unarguably the most popular boy’s name in Britain the only acceptable response suddenly turned into: “So what. That’s cool.” But underneath this the public, like the present generation of politicians, knows that it is not entirely cool. Or at least not something without significant ramifications.
Predictions are a dangerous thing. But allow me to make one. Ten years ago nobody but a few of us crazy right-wing nut-jobs wanted to mention anything critical about Saudi Arabia or Iran, Wahhabism or Khomeinism. And nobody but nobody wanted to say anything about Islam other than that it was an obviously and demonstrably peaceful religion.
All this, I notice, has recently begun to change somewhat. Today you can turn on the television any day and see people talking about all these things who ten years ago were busily calling everyone who did so a racist. Those who were here first shall get no apology and should expect none. It was all too predictable.
But perhaps it gives me the right to make another prediction. Which is that at some point in the next ten years it will be possible to say, while not being regarded as a right-wing maniac, that the beliefs of the people in a country and the number of people with those beliefs will influence the make-up, behaviour and actions of that country.
Currently we are in one of our interim periods of denial. The care being taken to change the name by which we call IS is just one demonstration of this. Such attempts to decouple the activities of IS from the beliefs of Islam as a whole are principally being done for a domestic audience, not to woo away the hordes of IS fighters already in Syria and Iraq. But why might we think the domestic audience needs such placating?
One reason is the facts. In a poll carried out by the BBC after the Charlie Hebdo attack last January, 27 per cent of British Muslims polled said they had “some sympathy” for the motives behind the Paris attacks. In the wake of the November attacks in Paris, the Sun carried out a poll whose findings claimed that one in five British Muslims has “sympathy for ISIS”. This poll was subjected to justified scrutiny, for not least among the poll’s flaws was that the questions related to attitudes towards those who go out to fight in Syria. A proportion of those who expressed support for these may well have been thinking of those who go out to fight with other factions in Syria and even those who go out to fight against IS with Kurdish groups among others.
But the response to the Sun poll was in fact the same response that now comes after any and all such negative stories. Far more energy is expended refuting the story than in addressing a legitimate problem. Because, although one in five British Muslims don’t sympathise with IS, quite a number clearly do. But this is a pattern. After last January’s terror attacks the attention of European publics and governments turned for a week by a claim about “no-go zones” made by a Fox News guest expert. So much time was spent ridiculing Fox News that nobody had much time to consider whether Europe did have no-go zones. We learned again in November that it did — in France, Belgium, Sweden and elsewhere across Europe. But these are not the stories we want to hear. And so we find new ones.
So after every terrorist attack now we learn of a “good news” story. After the attack on a café in Sydney a year ago the hashtag #illridewithyou became the good news story — the result of a story of a Muslim Australian woman on public transport allegedly removing her headscarf in fear after the attack. Australians tweeted “I’ll ride with you” to show that they would protect all of Australia’s Muslims from the other Australians who would otherwise brutalise them. The story of the woman taking off her headscarf turned out to be made up. Nevertheless, thousands of Australians tweeted “I’ll ride with you” and so the murder of, among others, café owner Tori Johnson (made to kneel on the floor and then shot in the back of the head) had a happy ending.
Three nights after the Commons managed to approve air strikes in Syria by the RAF, a man reportedly wielding a knife at Leytonstone Tube station in London and screaming that his actions were revenge for Syria allegedly stabbed a musician. Fortunately for the media worldwide and for social media in particular, one of the less traumatised passers-by was caught on camera shouting “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv” at the man, who has now been charged with attempted murder. This immediately “trended” on Twitter and became a top story on most news sites and a front-page headline in the next day’s newspapers around the world, said to epitomise the wisdom and stoicism of Londoners. While the victim was recovering in hospital everybody else got to move on to the joy of Muslims condemning this now allegedly “non-Muslim” attacker.
Worst was in the wake of November’s atrocity in Paris when the story went around from the Wall Street Journal to the Huffington Post and the Daily Mail that one of the suicide bombers at the Stade de France football stadium had been stopped and turned away by a Muslim security guard called Zouheir. The story was reported around the world and heralded across social media. Amid a night of bloodshed which allegedly had nothing to do with Islam here was a security guard who had everything to do with Islam saving hundreds of lives. This seemed such a good meme that it became one of the most popular “stories” of the night on Twitter. Except that it turned out — as the BBC was unusual in being good enough to concede — that the tale was fabricated. There was a guard in the stadium of unknown religion called Zouheir but he had been elsewhere on the night and had not seen any bombers. He had relayed part of a colleague’s story to a reporter. Why had this all become about him? For the simple reason that people wanted it to be.
The point is that all these things are varieties of self-distraction. They are things we have set up to stop us coming to the conclusions based on the evidence before us. Parliament discusses sending a few planes to bomb IS, but is aware that this minimal action could cause maximal pain at home. The media reports the terrorist attacks while scouring to find a news story that will show Muslims in a good light.
Many worthy sentiments may be mixed up in all this. But at the root of them, living through them and watching this doubt from the top to the bottom, it is hard not to reflect that we are living in the in-between years. At some point the atrocities will come here again and only then will we again be able to see that these years were largely wasted.