Plain Speaking

“The new Islamist Terror of the 21st century has so far exacted a global death toll at least in the hundreds of thousands, most of them civilians.”

Manchester Square
November 14, 2015: The Eiffel Tower turns its lights out in memoriam to the victims of the terrorist attacks the night before (©Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The most striking thing about that speech — the one given by Hilary Benn in the Commons Syria debate on December 2 — was not that it gave dozens of Labour MPs the courage to rebel against the party line laid down by Jeremy Corbyn, nor that it catapulted this hitherto most shadowy of shadow Foreign Secretaries into the role of Labour leader-in-waiting. It was not even the reminder that great oratory still matters in politics — especially when it comes from an unexpected quarter, the orator in this case having been accustomed all his life to belittling comparisons with his father, Tony Benn. No, it was the revelation that words with a strong moral charge (“fascist” and “evil”), when applied to Islamic State, still have the power to shock, just as the appeal to a sense of duty (“time for us to do our bit”) can still inspire.

In his peroration, which was specifically addressed to his own party, seated behind him, Mr Benn used the f-word twice: “And we are here faced by fascists. Not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in this chamber tonight, and all of the people that we represent. They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt. And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated.” He then reminded his colleagues of their forebears’ resistance to Franco, Mussolini and Hitler. (Never mind that from 1931 to 1935 Labour was led by the pacifist George Lansbury and the party voted against conscription as late as April 1939, four months before war broke out.) Mr Benn ended with a straightforward moral choice, cast in a very British idiom: “And my view, Mr Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria.”

Churchill himself could not have put it better. It was refreshing to see and hear the electric effect that such old-fashioned language can still have. If we are to defeat the enemies of Western civilisation, we have to find the right words and ideas. When George W. Bush used the terms “Islamofascism” and “Islamic fascists” in 2006, he provoked protests from American Muslim organisations. No Western politician has used them since. But the ideology of jihadist organisations such as Islamic State has a great deal in common with fascism — not least its implacable hostility to the West. Historians have even found direct historical connections between the Nazis and the rise of Islamism. And so when Hilary Benn called the IS butchers “fascists” and their ideology “evil”, he struck a chord.

In this New Year double issue, we have highlighted different aspects of what we call “the new Terror”. There is an obvious allusion to the original Terreur of the French Revolution, which saw the guillotining of thousands in Paris and massacres of up to half of the entire civilian population in the Vendée region. Then there was the Great Terror under Stalin, which according to the authoritative estimates of the late Robert Conquest killed up to two million. Though the word “Terror” is not usually applied to Nazi Germany, the “New Order of Europe” stepped up repression to a genocidal level. Terror under Hitler ceased to be a matter of purges and pogroms and instead became the means by which humanity itself was to be racially purified. 

The new Islamist Terror of the 21st century has so far exacted a global death toll at least in the hundreds of thousands, most of them civilians. This Islamist Terror differs from the French and Russian ones in that most of the casualties are inflicted by terrorist organisations rather than a state apparatus, although some of these groups have taken on state functions and, conversely, some regimes (notably Assad’s) have resorted to terrorist tactics. What makes the new Terror comparable to those of the past, however, is that Islamist organisations use terrorism to crush resistance to their revolutionary ideology. The caliphate set up by Islamic State makes claims to universal jurisdiction that in some respects exceed those of revolutionary France, Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany. The use of terror not only to intimidate the Muslim world, but also non-Muslims in the West, goes beyond Communist subversion practised during the Cold War. The new Terror is the vanguard of an anti-Western imperialism, intended to make Islam dominant not only as a religion but also as a political system.

In so doing, however, the terrorists are altering the reputation of Islam, just as the Terror overshadowed the French and Russian revolutions. 

What is to be done? In the face of attacks such as that on Paris in November, it is tempting to abandon all hope of solutions. That, though, would be a counsel of despair. The West in general, and Europe in particular, are quite capable of defending themselves. What we lack are not the financial or even military resources, but the motivation and inspiration to resist the new Terror. It is here that Hilary Benn’s speech is so significant. It shows that even on the Left, which has in general been reluctant to stand up and be counted, there are grounds for hope. And it suggests that in making the case against the new Terror, politicians and other public figures would be wise to return to a simpler, clearer, morally unequivocal vocabulary. If offence is given in the cause of confronting evil, let the offended ponder whose interests are served by taking offence. Perhaps it is time for them, too, to do their bit — not only for Syria, but for Western civilisation.