As the world recoils in horror from the murderous sectarianism of ISIS and the videos showing the brutal killing of innocent hostages, Britain is faced with a decision on how to respond and in particular whether military intervention should be part of that response.
In this debate, past decisions on military intervention, especially the 2003 war in Iraq, cast a long shadow. The long shadow is not just about the merits of that decision. It is also because of a longer term view held by some that believes it is our actions that are the driving force behind violent Islamist extremism.
There is a legitimate debate to be had about the rights and wrongs of past actions but it is a dangerous misconception to see Islamic extremism as always being a consequence of what we in the West do or don’t do.
No doubt there are actions we have taken which have angered jihadists, perhaps even encouraged others to join them, but we must not forget that the attack on the World Trade Centre took place two years before the war in Iraq.
Or that the tragedy in Syria which has been unfolding for three years with terrible human costs has become a byword for non-intervention militarily (except by non-Western forces). Yet it is Syria, where there has been no Western military intervention, which is the heart of ISIS and the new global headquarters for violent jihadists.
Foreign policy is not simply a case of action by the powerful and reaction by the powerless. It does not take place in a world where some countries are adults and other countries and movements are children. It takes place in a world of adults and adults, where people are responsible for their own actions and where extremist movements have a logic and momentum of their own.
Put bluntly, it’s not always about us.
Understanding this is important because the tendency to see everything through the lens of our own past actions also implies that we can somehow opt out of this struggle, that if we lie low and don’t offend the jihadists, maybe they will leave us alone. But we can’t, and they won’t.
It is time to stop looking over our shoulders. “Out damned spot” is no basis for taking crucial foreign policy decisions or responding to the situation we face now. Of course we should learn from the past, but we must not be imprisoned by it.
The Prime Minister is right to define this as a generational struggle. But definition only takes us half way. We also have to will the means to respond. If that means reassessing our approach to de-radicalisation and preventing people becoming involved in extremism in the first place then let’s do it. If that means reversing irresponsible policy decisions like watering down control orders, then we should do it. And if it means matching our humanitarian and diplomatic efforts overseas with a willingness to use military force if necessary, then that is also what we should do.
At the heart of this must be a strong defence of what we stand for: a democratic country where power changes hands peacefully on the basis of election results; freedom of speech; freedom of religion; the rule of law. These may seem obvious freedoms because we are used to them, but they are the very antithesis of the jihadist mantra, “convert or die”, and it is crucial that we defend these freedoms against those who hate everything this country stands for.
Islam is not the problem. Millions of Muslims in the UK practice their religion freely and in peace causing no harm to anyone. The problem is the strand of fundamentalist religious thinking which rejects co-existence with others, which says there is only one truth and all must accept it. We live in a country where people are free to attend the mosque on a Friday, others the synagogue on Saturday, others church on Sunday, and many none of the above. Britain’s values and freedoms are precious, fundamental to our way of life and well worth defending. It’s time for politics to exercise leadership as well as analysis in that fight.
This article first appeared in the House Magazine on Wednesday 24th September: