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Time for a long, cool look in the mirror


According to the Oxford dictionary ‘the mass extermination of human beings, especially  of a particular race or nation.’ Despite the opinions voiced, or rather shouted, in some corners, this is not what is happening in Gaza but it is what is happening in Iraq. The world looked away in Germany, in Rwanda, in the Balkans and in south Sudan. In Nigeria we huffed and puffed during the Biafran war. We put our hands in our pockets as we watched pictures of children starving to death and somehow thought that that was all we needed to do. Apart from selling arms to both sides, of course. We are looking away in eastern Ukraine. We have paid the price for looking away in the past and we cannot afford the price of looking away now. It is true to say that past sins return to haunt us, specifically the sin of standing back and watching whilst atrocities are committed.

It is our fault:

There is no getting away from it. In the UK and across Europe people are commemorating the one hundred years since the outbreak of the First World War. A less eye-catching number is the just short of seventy-nine years since the ‘official’ outbreak of the Second World War. Those two generations, those societies, whatever the rights and wrongs of the wars and whichever side they fought on, measured up. We don’t.

The experts speak:

And as usual, with some notable exceptions,  most of them are talking utter rubbish. As an old Australian friend of mine was fond of saying, ‘an expert is an ex-spurt’.

Our fault, you mean us?

I’m afraid so. Us. You and me– us. In 2003 we collectively decided to take the moral high ground. Nothing wrong with that, it’s just that if you take the moral high ground you can’t be choosey. We decided that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who needed overthrowing to prevent him committing any further genocidal attacks on certain sections of Iraqi society, specifically the Marsh Arabs in the south of Iraq and the Kurds in the north. For a variety of reasons, some obviously false even at the time, we decided that Iraq was the place to take the moral high ground. Forget what was happening in some places in Africa, the ‘experts’ decided that Iraq was THE place to act. Many of them knowingly lied at the time. Others, in a position to challenge those lies, were guilty of allowing them  to go unchallenged, of putting their careers first. Well that is the way of things. People have to put food on the table for their families but please, have the decency to not pop up later and say ‘I told you so’.

We went to war and very predictably, we won. After that, our performance was pretty lamentable. Wrong decisions were taken, brave men and women lost their lives–both coalition forces and Iraqis–but eventually a peace of sorts was established. A form of civil society was established. The Iraqi people rejected extremism and the future looked promising. We had pulled the rabbit out of the hat and then what happened? We bottled out, collectively we bottled out. Easy for me to say, I wasn’t on the ground in Iraq. I hadn’t lost a son or daughter, father or mother, or a close friend. We needed to be in Iraq for the long-haul. We had rebuilt countries before, Germany, Japan, South Korea. We knew what needed to be done and we failed to do it. In short, we cut and ran at the first opportunity, congratulating ourselves on a job well done. Except the job wasn’t finished–in fact we’d botched it. We snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

It is a religious war:

Don’t anticipate what I am going to say. This is not a rant about Islam. Like all religions it has it’s good and bad aspects. It has it’s fanatics, zealots and those who misconstrue the central message of the religion. There is a religious war taking place today in the Middle East. Yes it is pitting Muslim against Jew but far more destructively, it is pitting Muslim against Muslim. It is not, as Ms Diana Darke wrote in the conclusion of her article in the Sunday Times of the 10th August,

Proof, if ever it were needed, that this conflict is less about religion than about water, oil and power.

The title of her piece was

Oil and water, not religion, are fuelling the ISIS campaign to wipe out minorities

The title was correct, her conclusions were not. Just as some one thousand four hundred years ago a spark ignited a new religion which swept throughout the arabian peninsula and eventually reached the gates of Vienna, so a spark has ignited a new interpretation of that religion which threatens to engulf the modern arabian peninsula and in time might well reach the modern equivalent of the gates of Vienna. Oil may well allow the IS (Islamic State) to purchase arms and to frighten the West. Control of water resources may well give them an effective weapon, one which they can use to either deprive large areas of Iraq of that necessary commodity or to inundate those same areas if they choose, but neither oil nor water are what this war is about–not what fuelled it.

If we fail to take on board that what is happening in the Middle East–the current war in Iraq, the war in Syria and yes, the hostility between the Arabs and Israel, then we will ultimately pay a higher price than the one we must pay now.

What to do?

Before considering that let us take a look at one possible future if we simply wring our hands and do nothing.

The IS has a particular interpretation of Islam and it is not one shared by the majority of Muslims, either Sunni or Shia. Ignoring for a moment the genocidal intent, what are the aims of the IS? Simply put, it is to re-establish the caliphate that came into being after the death of Muhammad in 632 CE. To greatly simplify things, Islam started out with a ‘convert or die’ policy which quite rapidly evolved into a ‘convert or pay more tax’ policy. It was realised that conversions at the point of a sword are rarely sincere, and as armies have to be paid, fed and equipped, tax revenues were needed. Some things never change–that is as true today as it was then.

Western readers can be forgiven for equating Islamic states–Islamic not Islamist–with obscenely wealthy, extended royal families and everybody else. Interestingly, although Islam is not necessarily against royal families per se, it is against the automatic inheritance of power. The son of a successful ruler might well be the best man for the job when his father dies, but it is not a given. In the early years of Islam there were several caliphs chosen by what could be termed as popular acclaim. Don’t think of this as some sort of democracy, it wasn’t. Then as now, politics is politics, but there was for several generations a process of choosing rulers by acclaim rather than by who wielded the strongest sword. It didn’t last and eventually led to the split between Sunni and Shia. The origins of that split can be dated to 680 CE, with the death in battle of Husayn ibn Ali, the only living grandson of Muhammad.

It is not my intention to give any more history, but readers must understand what I have written above. It is an old axiom that ‘who controls Mecca controls the Islamic World’. The medium-term aim of IS thus becomes clear. It is nothing less than the sweeping-away of the old order and an establishment of a new. What must follow from the present situation is either IS effectively conquer the entire arabian peninsular or they have to be stopped. If they succeed, what follows?

It might be tempting to say ‘well, after all this is an Arab problem’. I suppose it is possible that IS might become more liberal and outward looking, but that would not occur for many years, if at all. All over Europe (and the UK) people are being fed horror stories about radical Islam and how it is pervading the very fabric of our society. In most cases this is merely being whipped-up by a media anxious to outdo each other in attention-grabbing headlines and by some politicians anxious to gain power or to hold on to it. There is much hand-wringing about the radicalisation of  Muslim youth and how can this be prevented. The first thing to realise is that whilst to label it radicalisation might be accurate it is far more important to understand that many Muslims–by no means a majority or even close to it–are inspired by what is happening in Iraq. It represents to them a return to the roots of Islam, never mind that this is only superficially true. Religious fervour, mixed with adventure, mixed with the sense of a real purpose in life–a heady mix for young men and some young women. The reality is that some who have gone to fight with IS will be revolted by the reality of what is happening and reject that vision of the future. Some will go along with it and be prepared to bide their time, feeling that they have ‘done their bit’ whilst others will  return to their homelands and seek to work for the establishment of a society based on a warped view of Islam rather than one based on Western liberalism. How to prevent that happening is a moot point–probably the stern application of existing laws rather than a hurriedly-enacted raft of ill thought-out emergency regulations. The Muslim community also needs to take a long, cool look in the mirror because the tide of public opinion is slowly, glacially even, turning against them. Mainly fueled by ignorance, it must be said, but they are not doing themselves any favours. Jews in Europe are frequently accused of harping on about the Holocaust and using that as an excuse for much imagined behaviour.  The Muslim community in Europe is running the risk of being labelled extreme Islamists and they need to decide pretty quickly exactly where they do stand and make it clear. Being a hated, discriminated-against minority is not a comfortable place to be  and the situation is not helped by attacks on the Jewish community, most of which I suspect but am unable to provide figures to support my view, are carried out by some elements of the Muslim community. Eventually, European societies will pass collective judgement on the minorities within their societies and that judgement will be based on which minority is closer to the Western liberal view and causes the least trouble for the majority. It might not be fair or balanced but that is what is going to happen. My message to Muslim friends and the Muslim community at large is ‘don’t go there’. Six million deaths prove that being visibly different and having a different way of life is not necessarily a recipe for a happy coexistence. The same can be said for assimilation, so calls to ban veils and ‘Islamic dress’ are not the answer either. I suppose the answer is to lead your own life according to your lights and respect the rights of others to follow their way of life. I don’t mean ‘keep your head down and hope for the best’, I mean lead your life according to way you see fit, modify your way of life if it conflicts with the majority view and accept that others can lead their lives as they see fit.

We are where we are:

It seems clear to me that IS must be stopped, and quickly, both for short-term reasons and longer-term ones. It cannot be done by air strikes alone and nor can it be left to the Iraqis to ‘sort themselves out’. What is being done now–very limited air strikes and humanitarian  aid–is fine in the immediacy of the situation but the West needs to engage in some very serious joined-up thinking. There is no negotiating with IS, as I said their aim is the destruction of the old order in Arabia. Much the same vis a vis the aim of Hamas with regard to Israel . If they could do in Israel what IS is doing in Iraq then believe me, some at least of them would. others of course would not and it is those who Israel must engage with politically.

Yes, stopping IS will involve  ‘boots on the ground’. There is a growing conviction amongst some military analysts that the first step is to support the Peshmerga, the Kurdish army if you like to put it like that, and to target airstrikes against the IS forces. This will involve what used to be called ‘forward air observers’ being in-situ, on the ground. There is no way round it. If the West delays then amongst other problems will be the IS forces hiding themselves amongst the civilian populations of the towns they now control. I will admit to a  slight desire for schadenfreude. I would like to see the West grapple with the same problem that Israel faces in Gaza BUT that would cost innocent lives and it can be avoided if firm action is taken now.

It is a shame, a tragedy , that there is a weak man in the White House. Well meaning perhaps but weak certainly. Now is not the time to be improving your golf–the World, never mind the Yazidis, does not have the luxury of time and decisive action must be taken. Soon. There is  hand-wringing about the possibility of further military involvement in Iraq and much is made of the UK parliament’s refusal to endorse British military action against Syria. I have written previously that it is my belief that that refusal came about because of the lack of a cohesive plan and parliamentary memories went back to the 2003 invasion when not only was parliament lied to but there was no plan for the peace, subsequent to the military victory. A Mr. Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign relations was quoted in the Sunday Times of the 10th August as saying

No matter what the United States does, the Iraq conflict is likely to become a long, ugly, ethno-sectarian civil war whose duration could easily run for another 7-10 years.

Even if he were correct, and the Iraqi Sunni populations successful rejection of al-Qaeda in 2007/08 suggests that he is not, can we really afford to let events take their course? If the First World War taught us the dangers of sleep-walking into a war then the Second World War teaches us the dangers of not confronting evil when it thumbs its nose at us.

. Like it or not, America is still the paramount military and economic power and now is not the time for them to review their options. George W Bush, 43rd president of the United States, said that history would judge him. I suspect that history will be far kinder to him than to his successor, unless that successor now stands up to be counted.

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