Yesterday it was Sydney. Today it is Peshawar. Yesterday a coffee shop. Today a school. Yesterday a lone gunman. Today a gang of them. If anybody wondered about the global and diffuse nature of the challenge that Islamic fundamentalism poses, the last 24 hours have given another demonstration of the problem.
Yet what is amazing, after all these years, is how unconcerned many people remain with working out what is going on. How could the Taliban have chosen to attack a school in Peshawar? Why did Boko Haram steal the Nigerian schoolgirls? Why did the Sydney attacker fly that flag? Why do Isis fly theirs? The Western world in particular seems to be made up of not only exceptionally slow, but actually reluctant, learners.
This week there is a new book out by the renowned scholar of Islam, Patrick Sookhdeo (I have had the honour of writing the introduction). It is called ‘Dawa: the Islamic strategy for reshaping the modern world'. It not only lays out what Islamic fundamentalists around the world are trying to do, but how a coalition of Muslims and non-Muslims can come together to defeat them. It is, I would suggest, fairly vital reading to educate people about what is going on. But that brings me to one other point.
A considerable – and growing – number of people worldwide now recognise that Muslims and non-Muslims are involved in a war against the literalists and fundamentalists within the Muslim religion. It is a war that is likely to continue for many decades to come, and the propaganda war, as much as the actual war, matters.
Which brings me to this morning’s Daily Mail front page. Last week the Democrat party in the US issued a deeply uninformed and damaging report which they appear to have hoped would damage the previous Republican administration. In fact this wildly misjudged report turns out simply to have done what anybody outside the Democrat high command could have predicted it would do – and done incalculable damage to the United States.
In the UK there is a similar movement – from left and right – to attempt the same manoeuvre on the last Labour government. From the left, the Guardian is clamouring for some kind of inquiry into British ‘complicity’ in purported CIA actions. From the right, the Daily Mail demands the same (and is today attacking Ed Millband for refusing to back such an inquiry). And I have a question for people pushing this.
Let us pretend that every allegation everybody captured on every foreign battlefield has ever made against the CIA and Britain’s security services is true. Let us pretend that every Islamist who claims to have been mistreated by the CIA was indeed mistreated in exactly the way they say and that much of the media has so unwisely parroted. This is not, I stress, remotely true. But let us pretend that it is. What do they think the effect of this tub-thumping will be in the larger war? There is a time and means by which vital national self-examination can be done. But now? Like this?
I hate making the second world war comparison, but it seems to be the only conflict you can rely on people knowing anything about. So let me make the obvious comparison. Most people in the UK know about the bombing of Dresden. A considerable debate continues to rage over whether or not that bombing was strategically necessary or not. Some people say it constituted a war crime. Others say ‘Who are we to judge if the commanders of the day thought it necessary in those extraordinary circumstances?’
But imagine if while the second world war was still being fought, the Guardian and Daily Mail of their day spent the weeks and months after the bombing of Dresden drumming up calls for an inquiry into the actions of the Prime Minister, security service and armed forces of the day. Imagine that day after day, while the war was still going on, the front pages of British newspapers were given over to calling for investigations into possible human rights abuses and war-crimes of this kind? What would the effect have been? Would it have saved one life or made anyone behave better? Or would it have had the effect, day after day, of demoralising the side that was actually in the right? Would it not, surely, have had the effect of persuading British people that perhaps the war they were in was not worth fighting? That, after all, didn’t we behave pretty badly ourselves? And in the final analysis are we not almost as bad as our enemies? Are we not, in fact, just as bad as the Nazis, making there nothing much worth fighting over? Of course the answer would have been then, as much as it is now, ‘No’. But the effect on public morale and confidence would have been serious and potentially shattering. It would have helped us to lose and our enemies to win.
The current war is very different from the second world war. Our enemy is not so very different. But the casualties to date are infinitely lower and most populations around the world do not yet face anything like the threat that they faced back then. But this war is also several times longer already. And to a greater extent than any previous war in history, it is being played out as much in terms of public opinion via the media (witness the Sydney gunman's use of Facebook and YouTube) as in the cafes of Sydney and the schools of Northern Pakistan. The drip-drip of negative news could do some good. Or it could, if sustained for long enough, result in a stultifying and morally appalling form of equivalence and despair from here and America.
Which is why today is also a day when it is worth remembering that, no, we are not ‘just as bad as them’. British and American troops do not go into schools and deliberately gun down students. In fact, in recent years, British and American soldiers have been gunned down in Afghanistan and Iraq while trying to protect Muslim children going to school in safety, in spite of the extremists from their own religion. That is a truth worth keeping in mind. But it is a truth that is slipping, in the face of a concerted campaign. A campaign which may be political and partisan at one end, but which is - at the other end - simple drum-beating by civilisation's enemies.