Our Prime Minister has promised a “full spectrum response” to the recent terrorist outrage in Tunisia. It is legitimate to ask just what is he proposing to do. As it is, two recent developments, such as his suggestion we call ISIS something other than ISIS
and having a one minute silence, have met with a less than enthusiastic response in certain quarters.
What action should our government take? Everyone accepts that there is nothing one can do to stop a lone terrorist shooting defenceless tourists on their sunloungers, and that airport style security on beaches is a non-starter. But this does not mean that we are helpless against terrorism. Far from it.
It may be worthwhile, first of all, to consider what we cannot do. We cannot negotiate with Islamism, because it has no demands that we can satisfy. This has been pretty clear ever since Al Qaeda destroyed the Twin Towers. These people have no negotiating position: they are no asking for concessions, but for unconditional surrender. Moreover, they hate us and appeasing them is hardly likely to work, and fighting them is hardly going to make them hate us more.
From the above it is obvious that the only option available to us is to resist ISIS (or whatever the latest brand name of Islamic terrorism is) in such a way that we win and they lose. Appeasement won’t work, and containment, which seems to be the current policy, is too dangerous.
Victory will come through some sort of combination of hard power and soft power. Distressingly, our government seems unable to use either.
Consider the first. We should be fighting ISIS on the ground. Yet we are told that a bombing campaign in Syria will take months to organise. The Kurds are able to defeat ISIS, but we cannot effectively supply them with weapons. Moreover, the government of Syria is implacably opposed to ISIS and has no quarrel with us, but we cannot support them.
Not only do we fail to supply and support ISIS’s enemies, we are friends with their friends – the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The network of alliances and enmities that governs the Middle East gives ISIS its opportunity to flourish. Full clarity and cohesion in foreign policy is perhaps too much to hope for, but a degree more clarity than we have at present might be useful, and not impossible.
What about soft power? Here the situation is just as gloomy. Let us remember Osama bin Laden and his famous saying about strong and weak horses, and how people always support the stronger horse. In that ISIS is able to walk into Palmyra and Ramadi, it looks like the stronger horse, and thus people back it. The moment ISIS starts to lose, then this situation will change, and the ISIS backers the world over will feel their enthusiasm wane. The fact that ISIS is seen to be winning, and that we seem so helpless before it, gives it a huge propaganda coup.
Accounts of life from within ISIS-land, which are understandably hard to come by, paint a gloomy picture. Nevertheless, these accounts raise important questions. How is ISIS able to organise the simulacrum of a state – that is to keep people supplied with food, water, electricity, weapons and internet connections – given that it is supposed to be an outlaw state? We read of the jihadi brides going shopping in Raqqa. Who is supplying these shops? Who supplies Raqqa with water? Cutting off the water supply to your enemy is a standard tactic in warfare. Are we unable to do it?
In both worlds wars Parliament gave government special powers, the most famous of which, in World War II, led to the internment of enemy aliens as well as dangerous people of British nationality, under the notorious Regulation 18B. It is doubtful that our Parliament would agree to the suspension of Habeas Corpus, but there is no need for this. There are plenty of ISIS sympathisers in Britain. We know who they are, as they are not reticent. They are adept at using the law to subvert the rule of law. The government has had only limited success in curbing their activities. Isn’t there an easier approach? Can’t it simply call their bluff and invite them to move to the Islamic State, which they profess to admire so much? If they, and as many of their supporters as possible, go, so much the better for us, and the worse for ISIS. If they fail to go, their credibility is bound to be damaged.
Finally, we need a credible theological response to the claims of Islamism. This is perhaps the simplest part, and yet the one part of any “full spectrum response” that David Cameron and his colleagues seem least keen to confront. It is really a debate about the nature of God. Does God demand that we crucify, burn alive, throw off a high building, or otherwise kill sinners? And does God give us the competence to judge sinners and carry out such punishments? No, and again, no. Who or what could inspire humanity to act so inhumanely? Not God. The claim that ISIS is some sort of nihilistic death cult has some truth to it. In fact, most Catholics have little difficulty in recognising it as such, but would go further. ISIS is the work of Satan. To call it such is to invite all people of goodwill to disown it, as well as reminding ourselves that pacts with the Devil never bring about any good.
Our leaders still have not confronted the threat of Islamism, over a decade since the September 11 atrocity. Tunisia is just another milestone in the long, hard, path to enlightenment. Let us hope they learn soon.