MPs tend to reconcile. The instinct to smooth over difficulties is part
of our make-up. After all, we want to appeal to as many of our voters
as possible. We aim to get elected – and re-elected. This instinct is perhaps especially strong if one’s constituency is
affected by a terror plot and a media tornado, as mine has been during
the last ten days. One speaks words of comfort and seeks to bring
Wycombe has – I’ve said – good community relations. The vast majority
of my Muslim constituents abhor terror. They’re peaceful and
law-abiding. Hostility towards Muslims is reprehensible. Furthermore,
local community leadership is good. Islam has an important role in
modern Britain, and the social traditionalism of Muslims – their
attachment to marriage, to strong family life, to the claims of
religion – has a natural appeal to political conservatives.
All this is no less true for being said often. The Muslim community
(which is overwhelmingly Kashmiri and Pakistani in origin) is well
integrated into the formal life of High Wycombe: councillors who are
Muslims sit for both the main political parties. The town boasted
Britain’s first Conservative Asian Mayor. The Mosque tradition is
moderate. There is a growing Muslim middle class. Employment levels are
high – compared, at least, to Oldham or Burnley, whose visible troubles
we’ve largely avoided. In short, High Wycombe is a success story.
But although this is the truth, it’s not the whole truth. As I write, the beech-filled woods of Micklefield are being searched by police, and homes in quiet streets have been sealed off. The after-shock of 9/11, of 7/7, of Stockwell and Forest Gate and of the tensions between the west and the wider middle east are reverberating through a Conservative-held constituency. This is not unique – though Wycombe contains the highest percentage of Muslim voters of any such seat – but it is, to date, unusual.
The tendency to play down bad tidings, blur differences, and look for good news is not in itself dishonourable. MPs are necessarily local symbols of unity, and reconciliation between Muslim and non-Muslim is one of the great works of our time. But there’s a stark difference between reconciliation and appeasement. Reconciliation is impossible without honesty – without trying to identify the roots of a problem. Appeasement and honesty are ultimately strangers. Seeking to help ease the poisoned relations between Muslim and non-Muslim is a bit like trying to treat an illness as a doctor: one has to diagnose the cause of an illness before seeking to heal it.
The fundamental cause of the difficulties between Muslim and non-Muslim is the ideology of Al Qaeda – which, understood rightly, is not so much an organisation as an idea. Although the background to it is complex, it is in essence simple, and falls into two parts. First, that Muslims are at war with non-Muslims. Second, that the political allegiance of Muslims lies not with the particular countries in which they live, but with the general body of Muslims worldwide: the umma. Bin Laden and the Ayatollahs differ on much, but on this core idea they agree.
Al Qaeda, therefore, is as much a threat to moderate Muslim leaders as to the non-Muslim majority – arguably more so. The message that it preaches to young British Muslims, not only in terrorist training camps abroad but across the internet and in meeting-places at home, is that their leaders are not true Muslims – that they are, in effect, unbelievers, kuffirs. The position of the Muslim moderates is strikingly like that of the SDLP in Northern Ireland, which has, over the past 15 years or so, seen Sinn Fein/IRA shape the political weather and make the electoral running among younger nationalist voters, with consequences that are as yet unclear.
As I write, none of my constituents who are held by police have been charged. If they are charged, they must be presumed innocent unless or until they are found guilty. But regardless of these particular circumstances, there are general lessons for the Conservative Party and for others in the events of recent days.
The first is that the challenge of Al Qaeda is not confined to Labour-held seats. The instinct of too many Conservatives in hedge-lined suburbs and rural villages, confronted by the Al Qaeda ideology, is either, first, to lump all Muslims together as terrorists in a lazy and racist way; second, to seek to give all Muslims everything they ask for or, third, to cross their fingers and hope that Al Qaeda goes away (or, fourth, to do all these at once). We need to do better – to have an accurate diagnosis and rigorous policies. David Cameron set out the right approach last week. It needs further development. What will the party’s full view be of Muslim schools? Of the prosecution of those who preach violence? Of integration within the education system and outside it? Of prescribing groups that are fronts for terror? Of building links with moderate Muslims? Of immigration control? Of using Parliament to communicate our message?
The second lesson is that the arduous and difficult work of reconciliation between Muslim and non-Muslim goes on – bedevilled by misunderstanding, difficulties over language and mutual ignorance. Bin Laden and Islam should no more to be identified than Jim Jones of the “Jonestown” suicide cult and Christianity.
The third is that the challenge of Al Qaeda cannot be ducked or evaded or – in short – appeased. MPs have a duty to communicate to our Muslim constituents a message from our non-Muslim ones (and indeed from us): that all support for terror must be condemned and confronted and rooted out, and that their political loyalty lies with Britain and its way of life – not with the umma. Muslim and non-Muslim alike live under the Crown, not the Caliphate; under common law, not sharia law.
Yes, poverty and exclusion among Muslims in Britain must be fought – but these are not the only or even the main recruiting-sergeants for terror. Yes, hideous mistakes, like Stockwell, will be made – but mistakes are made in all wars, and this is one that Al Qaeda began. Yes, Muslim voices must be heard when foreign policy is made – but our policies must be shaped by British interests first and last, and the expansion of Iran’s influence in the Middle East is hostile to those interests.
Yes, Israel has a duty to strive for a settlement with the Palestinians – but Israel has a right to exist, is an ally, and can scarcely negotiate under present conditions with Hamas, which is sworn to its destruction. Yes, America is flawed and fallible – but it isn’t leading a crusade against Muslims, as its role in Bosnia proved. Yes, the social conservatism of British Muslims has much to teach the rest of us – but the divide between the sacred and secular is clearly marked in modern Britain and the western world: women and gays have clear rights within our common public space, within which the right to free speech is a prized.
The phrase “war on terror” can trip off the tongue too lightly. It conjures up images of police work, security operations, house raids and troop deployment. But modern wars are also fought through information, communications, the media and public relations. The struggle with Al Qaeda is as much one of ideas as of force: in it, the martyrdom DVD is as much a weapon as the suicide bomb, and we fight terror on the internet rather than on the beaches.
This is not so much an abstract “war on terror” as a concrete struggle for the identity and nature of our country – whose value system has been built upon the practice of decency, tolerance and fairness, themselves the shared inheritance of our mainstream political parties. A new battle of ideas is taking place. At its heart are conflicting conceptions of who we are, of how we’re to live together – of what sort of people we want to be. A battle for Britain has begun.