Like the old Leninists, Isil truly believes only it can defeat the conspiracy that runs the world. There is no possible common ground
The Telegraph (July 6) — David Cameron calls Isil an “existential threat” to the Western way of life. On the face of it, that seems ridiculous. How could a bunch of relatively poor, ill-armed fanatics and psychopaths conceivably topple what remains the most dominant civilisation since the Roman Empire?
In physical terms, they can’t (yet). We in the West have much more money, many more weapons (though here in Britain, we have been doing our best to weaken ourselves militarily) and greatly superior technology. While Islamist fanatics can murder 30 British tourists on a North African beach, we can probably intercept enough of them here to keep their activities below a certain level.
But consider the Tunisian effect. “Only” 38 people died, but each death spreads its stain. First, it traumatises the survivors, the victims’ families and even the nation – hence our minute’s silence yesterday. Next, it wounds the host country. The moderate, hospitable Muslim feels endangered; the extremist feels empowered. The entire tourist industry is hit; Western money disappears, Western links are weakened.
The West’s behaviour towards Islamism in general has resembled that of tourists. More than any other mass occupation, tourism is subject to fear. Its object is peaceful relaxation. If your chosen resort suddenly becomes the scene of violence, you try to get the first plane home. You know little about the source of the trouble: you just want to escape. For far too long, we in the West have done too much for a quiet life. Fear has worked, which is why terrorism is so called.
In the early years after September 11 2001, I found myself embroiled in numerous arguments with British politicians, senior police officers and “securocrats” who put forward these fear-based arguments. These atrocities happened in America, they said, because the US was too big and “provocative”: it wouldn’t happen among “our” Muslims. The answer, they went on, was to placate Muslims by praising their peaceful intentions, punishing “Islamophobia” and empowering their “community leaders”, often with government money. They were almost uncritical about Muslim leaders – their denunciations of Jews or homosexuals, their subordination of women, their calls for sharia – so long as they did not perpetrate violence.
As editor of this newspaper at the time, I was approached to sign a “pledge to British Muslims”, and was in the minority who refused. The topsy-turvy idea was that the non-Muslim majority should apologise to those from whose ranks terrorism was coming. There was even a semi-successful attempt by the Muslim Council of Britain to ban the phrase “Islamic terrorism” from the media.
This approach took a knock after 7/7, when some of “our” Muslims, mostly from Leeds, blew up themselves and others – 52 dead in all – in the Tube and on a London bus. But still most of our public authorities and media pressed on, trying to be nicer and nicer. To our collective shame, all main British media outlets refused to publish the Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, although they were utterly harmless by any normal British standard. We even tried to pass a sort of blasphemy law criminalising those who insulted Islam.
Time has worked against this craven approach. Nowadays, it is more likely to be Russell Brand (see yesterday’s outburst), not a politician, who blames the slaughter at Sousse on our foreign policy. Given the overwhelming evidence that the young men who kill are usually run by cells and almost always inspired by web incitements, there is much less talk of “lone wolves”. Few now believe that we can concede our way out of trouble. As Tony Blair, who is working on another of his essays on the subject, is formulating it, the appeasement of the unappeasable is, by definition, pointless.
Islamism is unappeasable because it is a doctrine, not a set of demands. Like Marxism-Leninism (whose methods it imitates), it purports to prove that a conspiracy runs the world. The anti-Muslim capitalist forces – America, Britain, the Jews – and the “hypocrites”, the corrupt regimes that run so many Muslim states, conspire to prevent the true Islamic state arising. In this crazy but coherent account, it becomes possible to believe, as millions of Muslims apparently do, that it was the Jews who bombed the World Trade Centre.
Colonialism, the Islamist story runs, is not dead. The humiliation of Muslims is part of its continuing purpose. The modern nation state has no legitimacy and divides Muslims. The only just form of rule is the restoration of the caliphate which the West destroyed. The role of devout Muslims, like the “leading rule of the party” in Leninism, is to be the vanguard.
From this, two things follow. The first is that Islamism, though not the same thing as Islam itself, will have a strong pull on discontented Muslims. It allows grievance to brandish the scimitar of righteousness. It is really a political doctrine about power, but its pseudo-holiness drags in believers. This means that the extremists are, to use another Blair phrase, part of “a spectrum not a fringe”.
The second is that the distinction between violent and non-violent extremism is merely operational. Islamists feel morally free to achieve their aims peacefully or violently, publicly or secretly, whichever suits. They follow a revolutionary doctrine, so there are no moderates. Islamism is declaredly determined to overthrow our way of life. Recent years prove its determination is matched by actions almost every day, almost everywhere. Like the Bolsheviks between 1905 and 1917, Islamists have moved fast from ranting to ruling, and they preach their creed globally. The phrase “existential threat” fits.
This is what Mr Cameron understands. In the Coalition, he was actively resisted by his own appointed minister, Sayeed Warsi, and by his partners, the Liberal Democrats. He was passively resisted by the more Arabist side of his party and by many government institutions – the Foreign Office, most senior police officers, many educational establishments, some in the various counter-terrorist agencies. On its website, as this column reminds readers from time to time, the Security Service, MI5, insists that it does not investigate “subversion”, as it did in the Cold War. Yesterday afternoon, it posted a new sentence anxiously emphasising that the Security Service Act of 1989 had created a “much more clearly defined function” which keeps it out of all this mucky stuff.
Officialdom remains uncomfortable with that word “subversion”. But it will have to get used to the word “entryism”, which will appear in the Government’s forthcoming counter-extremism strategy. Now, with his overall majority, the Prime Minister is unexpectedly free, and fired up. He will soon say more about how the transmission of a little-challenged “narrative” of hatred drives frustrated young men to violence even when it does not explicitly incite them to kill. It is not paranoid to say that there is a deadly enemy within, and not intolerant to want to defeat it.