The Prime Minister has hardly communicated energy in the fight against Islamist extremism with his yo yoing holiday plans but it’s not his physical location that matters most – it is the lack of a strong and clear plan to fight the battle in which we are engaged.
The ISIS killing spree targeting Christians, Yazidis and fellow Muslims, and the brutal horrific murder of American journalist James Foley should leave us in no doubt, if there was any in the first place, that we have to face up to the threat posed by the ideology which drives these actions.
The Prime Minister terms this a generational struggle. He is right about that. Yet he cannot bring himself to will the means to fight it because government decision making is imprisoned by the past, in particular by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and by the Prime Minister’s immediate decision following last year’s Parliamentary vote on Syria to take the option of military intervention off the table.
Public opinion in both the UK and the US is war weary for understandable reasons. Many lives have been lost and many brave young servicemen and women have suffered life altering injuries as a result of long military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet opting out of this battle is neither possible nor in the end desirable because we have to defend our way of life, stand up for our freedoms and combat an ideology of mass murder based on a gross perversion of faith. We don’t have a choice about whether to engage in this fight. If we don’t go to it, it is coming to us.
In that regard, the government’s decision a couple of years ago to abolish Control Orders and give terror suspects in the UK new freedoms to move around the country and access the internet – and to put a sunset clause on the weakened regime even if the threat level posed by the person had not changed – now looks even more reckless and irresponsible than it did at the time.
The wrong analysis led to the wrong policy. The Government came to office believing that the laws of the land posed a threat to our liberty. But while security and liberty always have to be carefully balanced it is not the law of the land – heavily scrutinised by parliament and the judiciary – which poses a threat to our freedoms. That threat is posed by the ideology which saw James Foley beheaded on the internet and which would inspire the people who carried out this crime to target people in this country too.
It is estimated that hundreds of young British Muslims are in Syria or Iraq, fed a daily diet of hatred towards the democratic tolerance of the country in which they were born and which gave them much. But the values of their country are nowhere to be seen in what they are doing now. “Convert or die” could not be further removed from the spirit of a country like the UK where people are free to go to the mosque on Friday, others to the synagogue on Saturday, others to church on Sunday, or, as many choose, not to bother with organised religion at all.
Real as the threat is, there is an unwillingness which crosses boundaries of left and right to go beyond the delivery of aid to the victims as a response. British policy is gripped by a mood that says short of an invading army scaling the cliffs of Dover, because of our recent past, military intervention can’t be the answer and in any case is unlikely to be approved by Parliament or the public. This is reflected in the mantra repeated at the beginning of virtually every government statement in recent days that whatever happens there will not be boots on the ground.
This is informed by the notion that somehow what we do governs what the jihadists do. But the extremism that drives what we are seeing has its own agenda, outwith any policy the West has. September 11th happened two years before the invasion of Iraq. There has been no Western military intervention in Syria yet that is where the virulent extremism that drives ISIS is strongest. It’s not always about us. But it does affect us and threaten us and that is why we must understand and respond.
We cannot define the struggle we are in and then not will the means to fight it. We have to loosen the grip of the mood that is imprisoning our policy and free ourselves to use every means at our disposal to fight the extremism that drives ISIS – both domestically and internationally. To do so does not mean there will be a repeat of the Iraq invasion of 2003 but ruling options out or refusing to reconsider domestic mistakes in legislative change is inhibiting us in responding to the threat we face.
Humanitarian help for those driven from their homes by the newly declared Islamic State is certainly essential. And the UK is rightly proud of its record in this arena. But bottles of water and tents alone are not enough for those staring down the barrel of a gun.
It is time to close the gap between analysis of the problem and equipping ourselves to deal with it. This gap is created by fear that the Iraq war and last year’s decision on Syria means anything more than aid for the victims of ISIS must be off the table. But we have to stop looking back and match what is happening here and now with both the resolve and the means to combat it.
This article first appeared on Labour Uncut on 22nd August