Imagine that it is 2010, that the invasion of Iraq had never happened, and that Saddam Hussein is still in place – like Muammar Gaddafi, his fellow dictator, in Libya. In this parallel universe, Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian vendor who set himself on fire in protest against the corruption of the authorities, still does so: after all, why should the continuing presence of a dictator in Iraq make any difference to his plight or his decision? The Arab Spring or Islamist Winter or regional upheaval or whatever you want to call it still follows: Ben Ali in Tunisia, Gaddafi in Libya, Mubarak in Egypt – all are overthrown. The ripples of regional anger and protest reach Syria. Anti-government grafitti is still scrawled on the walls of Daraa. Young people are arrested and tortured by the authorities in response, and civil strife tears the country apart – just as it has in real life and real time.
In such an alternative world, it is impossible to imagine that Saddam, with a war raging on his border, could have insulated Iraq from it – or from the wider gales that were howling that year. After all, the religious tensions present in Syria and elsewhere were also present in Iraq: there were Shi’ite uprisings against the dictator in both 1991 and 1999. Shi’ite uprisings against Saddam would have been encouraged by Iran. Saddam would have striven to maintain his Sunni-majority regime, and the Shi’ite rebels would have gained Syrian as well as Iranian backing. The two Ba’athist regimes, in Damascus and Baghdad respectively, would thus have found themselves on different sides of the Sunni-Shi’ite struggle that is dividing the house of Islam. Iraq wouldn’t have Nouri al-Maliki and it might not have ISIS. But its condition might be no better and would probably be even worse: it is hard to see how fully-fledged civil war could have been staved off.
The West can perhaps be blamed for empowering one side in that struggle between Muslim and Muslim: by backing and arming the Saudi-backed jihadis in Afghanistan, it helped to strengthen the Wahabi/Salafi strand within Sunni Islam that has so weakened the classical, traditional form of the religion. Indeed, Britain itself can be judged to have been at fault by helping to build up the power of the House of Saud in the first place: the modern Sunni world would be very different had it not seized control of Islam’s holiest places. But my alternative history of Iraq helps to make a vital point – namely, that the liberal democracies are not always or even usually the villain of the piece. It was the return of Ruhollah Khomenei to Iran, the imposition of the Vilayat-e Faqih, and Iran’s sponsorship of revolutionary Shi’ism abroard, that turn Shi’ism on its head and made the clash with Wahabi fanaticism inevitable. Neither America nor Britain can plausibly be faulted for that.
The war between the two would have raged in any event, regardless of the American and British-led invasion on Iraq. And the uprisings in the Middle East would still have happened – the protests against the poverty and corruption that have blighted the region for so long, and which have more to do with its failure to create stable prosperity than the inheritance of western imperialism. (Anyone who doubts it should study the comparative growth rates of the Far East and Middle East.) In short, the western liberal democracies will always be held responsible for middle eastern failure, at least by those in the region who don’t want to face up to its flaws and those outside it whose believe that everything is always the West’s fault – and whose claim that a settlement between Israel and Palestine would bring peace to the region is now completely discredited. If the West intervenes militarily, it is blamed (as with Iraq). If it doesn’t intervene militarily, it is blamed, too (as with Syria). So what to do?
The first point to grasp is that we cannot insulate ourselves from Islam’s civil war, and that while Shi’ite extremism is a threat to the region, Sunni extremism is a one here at home: suicide bombers killed over 50 people on 7/7 in 2005; two terrorists murdered Lee Rigby last year. In between, there has been the attack on Glasgow airport and a mass of terror trials, which continue. (The authorities wanted to hold one which is due to take place soon wholly in secret.) It doesn’t follow that we should take sides in that war – by providing the Assad regime in Syria with conventional weapons or conniving in Iran acquiring nuclear ones. But it does follow that we should identify the main challenge to our own national security and liberal norms: the belief in an Islamic state that treats those who live in it on the basis of religion – not a common citizenship. A variant on this theme is enclaves governed by so-called “shariah law” – such as those proclaimed by posters in parts of East London.
The symptoms are various – extremist preachers in Universities or on the net or in schools (one of them, Shady al-Suleiman, spoke in Birmingham school embroiled in the “Trojan Horse” controversy); the radicalisation of prisoners towards extremism; the targeting by extremist groups of grants from local authorities; attempts by Islamist organisations to proclaim themselves as the authentic voice of British Muslims, which no poll has ever found them to be. The challenges that all this collectively poses to government are inter-departmental, which is why it requires a more co-ordinated response than to date – headed by Downing Street. Second, the lesson of the last 15 years is that our capacity to act abroad is limited. We can make broadcasts, promote democracy, implement sanctions, find allies, arm them (if we believe the arms won’t go astray), send in special forces, and bomb targets – in roughly that order of ascending difficulty. This is how Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan operated during the Cold War.
What they didn’t do is send group troops into countries with very different cultures from ours, and attempt to impose liberal democracy by force of arms, together with the doctrines of human rights that come with it. George Bush and Tony Blair took a different course, and did not succeed. The West has been taught a painful lesson about the limits of its power – and budgets: we are still running a deficit of over £100 billion. Whatever happens next in Iraq and Afghanistan, there can be no question of deploying ground troops. Third and last, government needs to carry British Muslims with it in meeting the challenge of Islamist extremism abroad and – especially – at home. This is scarcely mission impossible. Support for terror groups such as Al Qaeda or ISIS is extremely low. British troops are no longer in Afghanistan or Iraq. Most British Muslims want simply to get on with their lives – like nearly everyone else. A solution to the problem based on security alone would be much harder to achieve.