France, in President Hollande’s words, is now at war with IS. And that’s the way I think most of us in the UK feel as well.
War challenges us, challenges our humanity.
As I’ve often made clear in this blog, I aspire to time for quiet and reflection, for a life made more simple, where there’s time for close observation on the one hand, and time to rest in the sweep of the days and seasons on the other. It could be open country, or Kew Gardens, where we wandered recently amid cacti and orchids, or music …. in the way Autumn Leaves and its gentle melancholy accompanied me along the Camino.
How to combine a more reflective life with a political engagement, and with all the issues of everyday life, that’s the challenge I set myself.
When I returned from the Camino and read up on all the events of the month I’d been away I was grateful for the fact that nothing untoward had happened. Crises continuing, but nothing like the events of last Friday.
That shattered all calm. Anger and grief, and a desire for retribution, took over. But the enemy is elusive. It will take wisdom and detachment to find solutions. And also understanding other points of view – not the IS standpoint, which is beyond ordinary understanding, but the causes that lie behind their rise and their ability to recruit.
How to avoid giving IS a victory and closing national borders? Remember – they are already in our midst and terrorists will funds ways of circumventing closed borders. IS has recruited readily among local populations in the UK, France, Belgium and elsewhere, where there’s unemployment, a lack of opportunity, alienation, exacerbated by anti-Islamic sentiment. Integrating those populations into wider society has to be a high priority, and it will be achieved by providing opportunities (no mean challenge, I accept), not by further cutting benefits.
Improved security along the EU’s external border is vital, not least shared databases. But closing that border, separating Europe off from the Arab and wider Islamic world – leaving them to fight their own wars – misses the point that they are our wars too. Populations intermix, resources and manufactures are traded and shared, and given our long involvement exploiting and influencing the region we have a moral responsibility too. More than that – the Arab world is not homogeneous – the difference between the before 2010 relatively mild and secular version of Islam practised in Syria and the Wahhabi variant in Saudi Arabia is vast. Iran despite the ayatollahs has a strong secular and western-focused culture, especially among the younger generations, and in the cities. The enmity between Sunni and Shia, between Saudi Arabia and Iran, is another matter: nonetheless populations have lived adjacent to one another in Syria and Iraq since the seventh century.
But when a central authority is taken out, and ideologues and hotheads find space to operate, chaos and civil war ensues, as happened in the Balkans twenty years ago, post Tito, and in Iraq after 2003. Scrapping both army and police in Iraq was a tragic mistake, so too, and more controversially, imagining that a Western-inspired democratic revolution could transform a region with little tradition of genuine democracy.
The law of unintended consequences worked to brutal effect.
I’m also well aware that under the Damascus and Baghdad caliphates, and in medieval Spain, Islam inspired a remarkable civilization, intellectual and artistic – and tolerant, with Muslims, Jews and Christian living side by side for many centuries.
First and foremost now we have to act decisively to take out IS, with the West and Russia combining, not just in military action, but in a solution which will involve huge compromises but can lead, I believe, to an end to hostilities between Assad’s forces and the original western-backed rebel forces. Sykes and Picot drew the original Syrian border in 1916. The USA, Russia, France, the UK, and others, will have to decide how Syria divides and is governed as part of a post-war settlement. There may be multiple authorities, and that may be all that can be achieved in the short and medium term.
The refugee crisis requires safe havens financially supported by all the countries of Europe within the countries of entry, and plans to facilitate and finance repatriation at the earliest opportunity. Some Syrians may want to stay in Germany, but Syria has been and can be – will be – again a remarkable country. So much of our civilisation and our values, our culture and our morality, comes from that part of the world, and their people could one day rise again to the heights their forebears achieved. That has to be their aim – and our aim.
(I’m adding here a quote from Barrack Obama, which I read after I’d uploaded this blog, and with which I wholeheartedly agree: ‘It is very important that we do not close our hearts and start equating the issue of refugees with terrorism.’)
No-one in the West can easily conjure solutions to the enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Shia and Sunni. But take out IS in Syria and Iraq as a warzone, and destroy that sense of invincibility IS have enjoyed, then potential recruits to other battlegrounds in Yemen, Somalia, Egypt and elsewhere may think twice, and local populations left to live again side by side, as they have for centuries.
Likewise if IS is destroyed, its triumphalism punctured, and its followers in France, Britain and other countries of western Europe realise that violence and martyrdom are a fool’s game, then we can focus again on what we’ve failed to deal with over the last thirty and more years – the growing alienation of many young people in the Muslim communities in our midst.
It’s another area where skill and understanding will be required, and where closed minds and bigotry must be opposed at every turn.
We are all one people.