We won’t win with weapons of war

Courier article

In a speech about the crisis in the Middle East, which he gave on September 26th, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said “My Lords, a danger of this debate is that we speak only of Iraq and Syria, only of ISIL, and only of armed force. ISIL and its dreadful barbarity are only one example of a global phenomenon… it is also necessary, over time, that any response to ISIL and to this global danger be undertaken on an ideological and religious basis that sets out a more compelling vision, a greater challenge and a more remarkable hope than that offered by ISIL. We must face the fact that for some young Muslims the attractions of jihadism outweigh the materialism of a consumer society… if we struggle against a call to eternal values, however twisted and perverted they may be, without a better story, we will fail in the long term.”

I am delighted after all the years of politically correct pabulum that our overlords normally spout, we have an Archbishop of Canterbury with first-hand experience of Islamic terror who is prepared to speak the plain truth. We are engaged in a profound civilisational struggle, and, put simply, if we solely rely on bombs and guns we will never win – and all the many blessings of our own tolerant civilisation will be snuffed out.

The Archbishop’s central point is that we need ‘a better story’. Much of our discourse, from politicians and the media is frighteningly shallow. “Ooh look, bad guys are chopping heads off, they must be evil, let’s go and bomb them.” We have to engage with these issues at a much deeper level. We need to understand the part that our own society has played in leading up to the present crisis – and by that I do not mean simply referencing previous invasions of Iraq.

After all, there has been warfare between the different societies and nations for rather a long time – has there, indeed, ever been a time of peace? Simply to look at the history between Islam and Christendom, it was born in warfare (Muhammed was a remarkably gifted warrior and general) and that has never changed. Islam expanded militarily, first pushing back and forcibly converting the Eastern Roman Empire and also conquering Spain. The Western European lands pushed back, first with the Crusades (much misunderstood) but then much more substantially after the Industrial Revolution, first with Napoleon’s incursions into Egypt and then the more directly imperial processes through the 19th and 20th Centuries.

One of the most misleading parts of the conventional story that is broadcast is the notion that the terrorists are ‘medieval’, which is a profound calumny of the ways of thinking that lie behind our own delusions of ‘progress’. On the contrary, the forms of Islamic terrorism that so disturb the world today are profoundly Modern. They are intolerant of difference and particularity and excessively intellectually focussed – in other words, they are a form of fundamentalism in just the same way that Christian fundamentalism is, and also in just the same way that the conventional Western understanding of science is (think of Richard Dawkins as the best exemplar of that attitude).

This terrorism is fuelled by the sense that elements of their society which are valued, which are important, which constitute their identity are at risk of being obliterated by the overwhelming force of Western culture. As we are within Western culture, I don’t believe we often ponder just how dominating our technocratic patterns of life are. It is as if people are talking together in a quiet cafe on a street corner, and then a truck comes in with industrial grade amplification and the Rolling Stones start playing a concert out front. The patrons of the cafe are no longer able to think coherently, let alone talk and continue their conversation. Western culture has many things to learn from non-Western societies, things which it once valued but has forgotten. Perhaps we might learn how to turn our own volume down, and start listening to the still, small voice of calm which might – just might – have something to tell us about how to move forward in our present impasse.

However, this might seem to imply not only that Western society is ‘to blame’ for what is presently happening and, worse, that our past behaviour justifies the terrorists. This is not the case. One injustice does not legitimise another. To say that it does is to identify oneself as a ‘barbarian’, that is, one that has neither faith nor civilisation. In just the same way that the present crisis asks profound questions of our Western culture, so too does it ask some very sharp and painful questions of Islamic society. The muslim world is also called to look in the mirror and ask themselves whether they have the resources within their own religious tradition to develop in a more peaceful direction. This is what Pope Benedict discussed in his Regensburg address in 2006, a speech which was inevitably misunderstood by our own pathetically ignorant media, but which repays attention at this time.

After all, there are many strengths and weaknesses in Islamic thought – as with other faiths (and non-faiths!). Why is it that if we look at the world today, the overwhelming majority of conflicts involve Islam, such that there is a ‘ring of fire’ around the muslim world? If we start to list the names it is striking how a remarkable diversity of human contexts has given rise to the repeated expression of a militant Islam which resorts to despicable acts of terror in order to advance what is self-identified as a religious mission. There is Boko Haram in Nigeria, where Christian daughters are kidnapped and sold into ‘marriage’. There is the Taliban, determined to physically eliminate all evidence of other faiths and societies in Afghanistan. There is Hamas, explicitly dedicated to the destruction of the nation state of Israel. There is also ISIS, the enemy which is now being used to justify our continued military intervention in the Middle Eastern oil fields.

If we are to succeed in our struggle for peaceful co-existence then we need to acknowledge that this is a spiritual aim that needs spiritual resources. Clearly, when it comes to discussing the nature of that struggle both the Archbishop and I have well understood commitments that shape how we understand the issues. Yet for the purposes of this column I am very happy to concede it may not be Christianity that we need, it may be something else. What I would insist upon is the need to tell a better story – to share a vision of full human flourishing which includes all human beings simply because they are human beings. I believe that it is the society that can best articulate such a compelling vision that will not simply win this struggle, but will deserve to do so too.