Friday, 15 August 2014

Labour risks being on the wrong side of history over Islamism

No-one could exactly accuse President Obama of rushing into military action to deal with the resurgent Islamists of ISIS in Iraq, currently massacring local Christians and Yazidis. No, if there were a perfect illustration for the phrase “dragged kicking and screaming”, this would surely be it.

But Iraq’s apparent political and military meltdown is, ironically, drawing the “troops out” Obama administration – and could yet conceivably draw our own – into some kind of ring-fenced, belated rear-guard action in the Middle East. Whatever the rights and wrongs of any such action might be, the cause is, again, the phenomenon which has dominated the first decade-and-a-half of this century’s foreign policy and may yet come to dominate the rest of it: jihadism, the extreme version of political Islam.

As the years have worn on from 9/11 and 7/7, it has been easy for the world to retreat into the comfortable delusion that the threat has gone. It has not. Taking a bit longer in the airport security queue has not made everyone safe. Islamist terrorism is still happening, just not on our shores. And the fundamental problem is not Islam per se, of course; it is Islam as the basis for an illiberal form of politics and government.

If further evidence were needed of how Islamism seems destined always to end in some kind of madness, then it could certainly be provided by recent events in Gaza, where Hamas has spent recent weeks using civilians as human shields. Or in Nigeria, where Boko Haram is busy kidnapping its schoolgirls for use as slaves, as our politicians take decisive action to fight them via, er, Twitter.

But it’s not just such visibly extreme Islamism; look closer to home, to a “moderate” administration governing a historical ally of the West, where Turkey’s government has been slowly sliding into an increasingly unpleasant authoritarianism. If you want an indication of the current direction of a country which had previously made great strides towards modernisation, try reading recent comments by deputy prime minister Bülent Arınç, who recently opined that “women should not laugh in public”. This from the “acceptable face” of Islamism.

Last Sunday his boss, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was elected Turkey’s executive president, having altered the constitution to get around the prohibition on serving three terms as prime minister. Turkey’s founder Ataturk, who worked so hard to keep the country’s government constitutionally secular, must be turning in his grave.

In short, Erdogan has “done a Putin” in order to carry on governing, presumably indefinitely (he was once memorably quoted as saying that democracy for him was like a bus ride: when he reached his stop, he’d get off). There seems little doubt that Turkey will now become, like Putin’s Russia, ever less free and democratic as the years go by.

From its extreme to its moderate forms, we struggle to find a single example of Islamism in power which has allowed any kind of liberal democracy to flourish.

Meanwhile, where is Labour? Criticising David Cameron over Gaza and making supportive noises towards the somewhat dubious Baroness Warsi, the government’s resident Clare Short (both of whom, interestingly, only seemed to discover their principles rather late in the day). And best not mention Syria, where Labour had a starring role in the studied inaction that has largely led to where we are now with ISIS.

It may not be until Obama leaves office in two years that a sea-change in foreign policy will finally come; it may just come before. But neither is the quasi-isolationist status quo sustainable: thanks to its farcical “red lines”, Putin is laughing at the US and so is Assad. Most importantly ISIS, an organisation many describe as worse than Al-Qaeda, were that even meaningful, has been allowed to flourish in the shadow of the developed world’s indifference.

This is not the time for any politician to put narrow domestic, party or identity politics first. As the evidence mounts up and with an agonising slowness, it seems that world is finally realising it has got it wrong on dealing with the threat which Islamism poses to its values of liberalism and democracy, not to mention its very security.

And there is one corollary to that for Labour, which has consistently opposed confronting that threat: it risks one day being on the wrong side of history.

This post first published at Labour Uncut and selected for Progress' What We're Reading

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