How do we deal with people who kill not only themselves but children?
Appalling and atrocious as the Manchester Arena bombing was – for what kind of monsters deliberately target children? – we need to appreciate, nevertheless, that your enemy too has a narrative, misguided as that narrative might be. If you wish to defeat him or to make peace with him you need to understand what that narrative is and why he does what he does. This is in no way to condone terrorism. We would rightly say that such terrorist acts are a totally unwarranted attack on our culture and our values. We must recognize that they would say exactly the same thing but the other way round. For us the British Empire is as remote as 1066. But for many of the people we colonized the wounds of the injustices they believe – rightly or wrongly – to have been inflicted upon them – for all such backward over the shoulder half-looks at history over-simplify – are as raw and fresh as if they had been administered yesterday. Indeed, the roots of the bilious disaffection of Islamic fundamentalists go back so far as the crusades, poisonous roots so deep they are now almost impossible to dig out. How unwise George Bush was to call his ill-advised War on Terror a crusade.
More recently, it is the aftermath of the First World War that festers in their minds. They believe – and, again, in the mess of history nothing is so straightforward as a burning desire for justice and revenge would have it be – that they were promised a self-governing Arab state in return for helping the allies to defeat the Ottoman Empire. Instead the British signed the Balfour Declaration guaranteeing support for a Zionist state in Palestine, so as to influence American Jewish opinion in order to bring the United States into the world war that at that stage a desperate Britain appeared to be losing, and then through the Sykes-Picot agreement carved up the Middle East entirely in the interests of Britain and France, with no reference whatsoever to the welfare of the people who actually lived, and for thousands of years had lived, in those lands. Imagine how all the retired colonels and majors in Tunbridge Wells and Cheltenham would be re-acting, let alone skinheads in Bradford and Birmingham, if some modern day Saladin had carved up Britain and France entirely in the interests of Islam. How many school children in England have even heard of Sykes-Picot? Every child in Palestine could tell you its terms exactly.
Yet important as the carve up of the Middle East and the creation of Iraq was after the First World, the historical grievance, as they see it, that has most electrified Islamic fundamentalism is the most recent, the invasion of Iraq by Britain and America in 2003. It is hard to over-estimate the foolishness, and the magnitude of its reverberations, of this misguided enterprise. At the time, I wrote to every Labour MP begging them to vote against the war, and what a load of stuffy letters I got back. Ernie Bevan where art thou, let alone Aneurin? A great majority of people in the country could see what a disastrous enterprise this was going to be, and indeed a million of them marched through London to no avail – ‘a million march through London, 49 million stayed at home’ – was a tabloid headline the next day – yet the Members of Parliament at Westminster who had to make the actual decision could not. Quite reasonable people seem to lose their wits when they enter that idiot village. Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether we would do better to go out into the London streets and invite the first 600 people, or however many it is, who were willing to give it a go to form a parliament. You might get a few who had actually lived a life rather than climbed up greasy poles in the Westminster hot house. But back to the Iraq war, why has it aggrieved so many Islamic fundamentalists so much, for after all most of the horrors of the war’s aftermath were not caused by the invaders but by factions of Islam fighting amongst themselves?
British imperialism had indeed often sought to replace native cultures and religions with the western way of life but that had never been the case in the Middle East. But in 2003 many Muslims perceived, and perhaps rightly, that if nineteenth and early twentieth century imperialism in the Middle East had not been so this war was about just that, the McDonaldization of Muslim culture. Sykes-Picot had commandeered their lands. Now, they feared, the west was out to coca-cola their souls. In the nineties a right wing think tank in America called The Project for the New American Century became very influential. Ten of its number went on to become members of George Bush’s cabinet. Its core belief was that American culture was good for the whole world, and in particular that in the coming great struggle between America and China it was essential that the United States became the dominant presence in the Middle East in order to gain control of most of the world’s oil. Without doubt al-Qaida were aware of all this and saw an opportunity, setting an elephant trap that the fools blundered right into. It is ludicrous to think that Bush and Blair actually believed that Saddam actually had weapons of mass destruction, indeed they were forced to hasten the onset of the war lest Hans Blik and his team found conclusively that there were none. Tony Blair, I suspect, was a naïve romantic who really did believe he should use force to free oppressed peoples from tyrants. But George Bush’s motivation, I surmise, was to turn Iraq into a little America, a base for the Project of the New American Century. How good the war was going to be for business. American companies could make huge sums of money by knocking Iraq down and then even more by building it up again.
So how can we deal with people who are so wedded to their cause that they are willing to commit suicide and kill children, and, in a mirror image of the Project for the New American Century, for you so easily become your enemy, now wish to impose sharia law on the whole world? Above all we must convince them that we do not wish to destroy their religion and their culture, as the invasion of 2003 so conclusively convinced them that we do. We should stop interfering in the war in Syria and in Afghanistan. Every drone strike that kills wedding parties serves as justification in the eyes of the fundamentalists for atrocities such as the one in Manchester. Even if ISIS is driven out of Syria they will export even more of their terrorism here. We must get into their warped minds as well as our own. We must learn to love Islam, for the fundamentalists are no more ambassadors for that great religion than the BNP are apostles for Christianity. We must seize the opportunity that now presents itself. The scientists are telling us, now virtually unanimously, that if we go on using fossil fuels, so much of which come from the Middle East, humanity will destroy itself. We must abandon the project to Americanize the world with western values – ameliorated slightly by the Britishness of the BBC and the Archers – and invite Islam and everybody else to join us in saving the world. There is now opportunity for common purpose, for what kind of fools refuse to believe so great a number of scientists who have spent their lives studying their speciality? Most of the ones in Westminster, it seems, for saving the world is no part of their manifestoes. Indeed the Conservative campaign in the 2017 election is well funded by oil companies, and continued support for oil production is in its manifesto a stated policy. Surely 600 ordinary people picked off the street would do better than this? We should say to ISIS we don’t want to destroy your religion and culture, we don’t want to impose neo-colonialism on you, we want to save the world we all commonly inhabit. See, we are beating our swords into pv tiles and off shore windfarms.