Margot James is MP for Stourbridge and PPS to William Hague, Leader of the House of Commons.
Almost a hundred years ago, at the same time as Sykes and Picot were drawing up national boundaries in the Middle East to be “administered” by Britain and France, the British Government was promising the leader of the Hashemites, and guardian of the holy places of Mecca, an independent Arab state in return for Arab support against Turkey in the Great War.
As the Islamic state unfolds along the borders of Syria and Northern Iraq, it is worth remembering that the Arabs expected to be governing themselves in an area as big as Syria (including Lebanon), Jordan and Palestine. The precedent for a country of this size goes back to the seventh century when Syria was divided in to the four districts of Damascus, Homs, Palestine and Jordan, prior to its period of autonomous self-government within the Ottoman Empire.
Although Isis are focussed on Northern Iraq and Syria there is little doubt that they will expand into the other parts of historic greater Syria unless checked. The methods of Isis are so barbaric, their manpower, military and financial resources so substantial, that the other regional powers are no match for them without Western support.
Initially their focus will be on securing territorial gains and then expanding within the Middle East. Unchecked, the history of fundamentalism shows us, there is no doubt whatsoever that Isis will then Western targets.
The limited US military strikes have slowed the Isis advance and bought time, which the President has used to bring political pressure to bear on the government in Iraq. The new government led by Dr al-Abadi is set to be more inclusive and less sectarian. This is the only way to stem the support, tacit or otherwise, Isis have enjoyed from Sunni tribes in the north of the country.
Such is the appeal of this murderous Caliphate to disaffected male Muslim youth across the Middle East and beyond, our response must be based on outreach and greater understanding, as well as on military intervention. The latter should always be conducted in conjunction with legitimate forces within the Islamic world.
The West has been far too dismissive of Arab grievances over the years. The double-dealing referred to in the first paragraph of this article set the stage for years of bitterness. After the Great War we reneged on our promise to the Arabs whilst keeping our promise to the Jews. What did we expect by way of a response?
That Arab leaders played their cards disastrously badly over the emergence of the state of Israel, and for years afterwards, does not alter the fact that the Jews were promised a home in Palestine, not a Jewish Palestine.
What should our objectives be given these new developments? I suggest that we need to focus on the need to:
- Fulfil our moral responsibilities in the region by confronting Isis and supporting the forces of moderation in the region. (Mindful that Britain and France were governing most of the Middle East less than seventy years ago, with consequences that are still with us).
- Increase aid in the region and take in our fair share of refugees, they cannot all continue to be absorbed by Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon on top of existing Syrian refugees.
- Prevent further spread of militant ideology, especially among young Muslims in Britain.
The government have announced new measures to make it more difficult for British fundamentalists to travel to Syria and Iraq. It is likely that other recommendations made by the Extremist Taskforce set up by the Prime Minister in response to the terrible murder of Lee Rigby will be brought in to law. I shall have no hesitation in voting for the measures the Home Secretary will be proposing in the next few months, including the strengthening of Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (T-Pims).
I shall also make the case for improved integration and understanding. This is difficult and challenging but it must be a priority. Such activities are essential in the campaign to reduce the numbers of young men who plan to travel to fight and acquire terrorist skills. Social cohesion is also crucial to the intelligence services in order to obtain vital information from responsible members of the Muslim population.
Integration at the neighbourhood level needs to be organised around some clear principles and goals. It is worth considering what fuels extremism. In some cases it is ideology and a reaction to what is seen as Western decadence. In others it is a growing sense of grievance. The attraction of marching with Isis, to those who feel downtrodden by a society that constantly criticises their way of life, is likely to trump new laws and other restrictions that are necessary but can be counterproductive.
There is an understandable, but unhelpful, irritation among many in the host population at what is seen as Muslim exceptionalism. Muslims are the newcomers, the argument goes, yet they expect the rest of society to bend to their way of life. This causes a great deal of resentment and fuels the anti-Islamic feeling that breeds further insecurity on the part of Muslims in a vicious circle.
There are conflicts inherent in a society which values freedom and equality with a conservative interpretation of Islam, never mind a fundamentalist version. We need to tackle these conflicts openly and honestly so Muslims know where they stand, and know that they will have the decent majority of British citizens behind them when they lead peaceful and constructive lives.
Isis are a grave threat to world peace and, in their barbarism, a truly Satanic force which must be confronted by the rest of humanity. We have the measure of fundamentalist Islam even if we are still working out how to respond.
As Austen Chamberlain said of Hitler’s Germany: “For a people who believe in nothing but force, force is the only answer.” I am afraid that this will turn out to be true of the war declared by Isis on all those who do not share their narrow and warped interpretation of Islam; and on all women and girls, of whatever faith or none. Although military solutions are far from enough, it is very unlikely that we will be able to maintain our freedoms, without utilising our military strength as part of a much broader strategy.