Woolwich: It’s about time the left spoke out against religious fanaticism

There seems to be a reluctance to admit that there are worse things in the world than the British establishment. This is hamstringing the left's response

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It’s hard to get away from the impression that in some quarters the horrific murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich last week is something of a distraction from other more agreeable concerns.

There appears to be a feeling among some on the left that the subject has been suddenly yet uncomfortably changed, and opposition to David Cameron’s coalition must now be tempered with an admission, however slight, that not everything bad that happens in Britain is the fault of the coalition and the cuts.

This has meant that together with descriptions of the barbaric killing of an off duty soldier as little more than an ‘isolated incident’, denunciations of the crime have been book-ended with murmurings about British foreign policy.

As Ken Livingstone put it in an interview with Russia Today last week: “If you invade other people’s countries, there will be a comeback”.

In other words, in order to be politically intelligible, the beheading of a British soldier in broad daylight in our own capital city must be framed in terms of what ‘we’ did to provoke it.

If this sounds to you like masochism that’s because it is. As the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner has noted, when asked who is to blame for some particularly egregious atrocity or violation of human rights, the Western liberal’s response is increasingly reducible to two short words: "we are".

Threat remains

Even for those who believe that the reaction of the British and American governments to the 9/11 attacks was justified, in recent years it has become fashionable to imagine that the fight against Islamist terror is largely over. The relative peace in Britain, combined with the death of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, have glossed over the sheer number of attacks foiled by the British intelligence services in recent years before they have come to fruition, adding to the feeling that the worst was behind us some time ago.

The result has predictably been complacency. In recent years jihadists waging ‘holy war’ have become a problem those less fortunate than us situated in faraway places have had to combat and pick up the tab for.

Together with the ascendancy of a right-wing coalition in Britain, this has allowed progressives to return to bread and butter (and less uncomfortable) challenges such as holding our own government to account for chipping away at the institutions of a decent society. Through the eyes of our politicians, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis the duty of Western consumers has been to get their countries’ economies back on track by spending the money that they have and borrowing for those things which they cannot afford.

Living standards, house prices and debt have replaced ID cards, Afghanistan and extraordinary rendition as the preoccupations of the electorate. Terrorism was a problem for the previous intake of politicians to sort out, not this one, who have a global financial crisis to rectify. 

And yet despite there being no terror ‘spectaculars’ on British soil in recent years, globally Islamism is in many ways stronger than it has been for a decade. Extremism has made significant geographic inroads since 2011 and is in the ascendancy in those areas of the world which are generally ignored by Western policymakers and the public alike, with disastrous consequences. As Maajid Nawaz, executive director of counter-extremism think tank Quilliam has pointed out, since the death of Bin Laden there has been “a fully-fledged global jihadist insurgency”.

“A territory the size of France came under jihadist control in sub-Saharan Mali. Jihadists are resurgent in Libya and other North African countries. In Yemen the Abyan province, as well as chunks of land in the southwest of the country, came under direct jihadist rule,” Nawaz says.

In other words, clerical fascism didn’t disappear with the entrance of a black President to the White House and the reinvention of Tony Blair as a go-to man for central Asian autocrats. In Britain our intelligence services have simply been very affective at sniffing out terror plots before they’ve been enacted in all their bloody horror. We the public have also become rather good at ignoring unsuccessful plots and putting to the backs of our minds the possibility that our intelligence agencies will miss someone at some point.

Wrong enemy

What remains a mystery, however, is why the left still struggles to recognise an enemy when it is staring it fixedly in the face. It's seems an obvious point to make but it is one that many ‘progressives’ this past week have been seemingly incapable of grasping let alone saying out loud: fascists are neither exclusively white nor strictly Western. By all means join a counter demonstration to oppose the racist English Defence League, but don’t forget how this all started: an innocent man was murdered in London by someone whose ideology probably makes your average EDL goon sound like the Dalai Lama.

Taking the suspected assailant at his word and blaming British foreign policy for last Wednesday’s attack is, as Norman Geras has pointed out, a bit like accepting a rapist’s version of events when he claims that he sexually violated a woman because he was ‘provoked’ by the clothes she was wearing. If you accept the view that British troops in ‘Arab lands’ are ultimately the cause of Islamist terror, you are also confronted with the awkward question of what to do about girls education, gay rights and women drinking alcohol and visiting nightclubs, because those things seem to set off a murderous rage in the jihadists too. Come to think of it, so do just about all the things that make life worth living.

Why, then, can’t we on the left drop the excuses and treat clerical fascism as robustly as we treat the white far-right?

I suspect the answer is an uncomfortable one: perhaps this would require an admission that there are worse forces in the world than the British establishment.

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