Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am very grateful that I succeeded in getting this debate—a brief debate on a very deep and important subject, particularly at this very moment. I am most grateful to all those participating in it, particularly my noble friend for coming here. I embarrass her deliberately by saying that she is an incredibly hard-working Minister with far too many tasks, and I am grateful that she is fitting this one in as well. I am equally grateful to the Leader of the Opposition for attending and herself responding to this debate.
Just over a week ago, in a searing moment of immensely chilling import, the West as a whole realised yet again just how futile and tragic had been the originally illegal US-UK invasion of Iraq 11 years ago. Although it had to be later certificated ex post by a hog-tied and embarrassed United Nations, the invasion had left a broken country with many thousands of innocent civilians killed. The Daily Mirror yesterday, referring to Tony Blair, estimated the total now to be 650,000 since the invasion. It left a judicially murdered dictator, a demolished professional army and a deliberately wrecked civil service infrastructure. Never before, even including the humiliating defeat of the US in Vietnam, had the United States looked so incompetent in its government and military structures.
I remember with some pride that we as an entire political party marched officially with a million and a half people down Piccadilly to try to stop that wretched invasion. Blair ignored those passionate entreaties, and has for ever lost his reputation as a formerly very effective and distinguished national leader.
We must all have enormous sympathy now for the efforts of President Obama to deal with this subject. Of course, the publication of the Chilcot report later this year will throw what I guess will be an ominous light on the crafty dealings between President Bush and Prime Minister Blair on why they went to war: the US spluttering indignantly about the threat of a French veto—the first ever major one, if they were to exercise it—against the background of more than 30 American vetoes since 1968, allowing increasingly extreme Israeli Governments of growing right-wing tendency to flout international law at will in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Indeed, we are all now led to believe that there has been meddling at the highest level between Washington and London to stop enormous amounts of revelations about the Bush-Blair conversations in the Chilcot report text. I ask myself whether they would also reveal details of collusion between other countries in the Middle East—Saudi Arabia perhaps; I do not know—as occurred in the Suez debacle, when the US, with a virtuous President, stopped Britain and France from geopolitical insanity.
More recently, we were able to witness common sense at last in resisting the strident calls for western military intervention in Syria—less wisdom, of course, in handling Libya, where another dictator ended up murdered without even a show trial, and the usual complete paralysis now over what is happening in Egypt. Meanwhile, the sinister expansion of militant jihadism has been fuelled not least by the geopolitical blunders of the western powers, who have all too often found it impossible not to interfere in the wrong way in other people’s countries, relentlessly telling them what to do as if our democracies were both perfect and powerful.
The latest situation in Iraq is terrifying. I hope that there is no worse news on the military side today; I have not had a chance to see the morning news yet. Least of all can the West ever intervene successfully in what is a medieval struggle between militant and vicious Sunni and Shia factions, whose mindsets are literally unfathomable to occidental minds. Only a part of this imbroglio can be blamed on the USA and its unusually obsequious acolytes, of which the UK is usually one, sadly. The Americans themselves perceive, as we all do, how starkly the isolation of Iran for many reckless reasons was such an enormous blunder by the West. It must have had endless well intentioned senior State Department officials weeping with frustration. Once again, we need to thank President Obama warmly for his valiant efforts to achieve a settlement, aided by a moderate Iranian head of government.
If the geopolitical wreckage is huge, the solutions are very difficult to perceive. Just how does the West help the sea of moderate, peaceful citizens in these hapless and tragic Arabian countries who surely want democracy to arrive to help them but are not experienced in bringing it about, particularly as our record of intervention has been so negative for them? Above all, I am sure, we grieve for the fate of women and children in these tragedies. Only little Tunisia, a small country, seems to be progressing as a good example, if the good will is there.
I agree with David Aaronovitch, who wrote in the Times last Thursday about the “brave journalists” covering these conflict areas and that,
“it is practically impossible to get a good idea of what goes on in areas ‘controlled’ by groups such as Isis”.
In the mean time, the growth of militant jihadism of both Sunni and Shia varieties is spreading not only in the full conflict zones such as Syria and now, alas, Iraq. It is gaining ground in the Muslim areas of west Africa, perhaps slightly more slowly in the Maghreb countries, and of course among Muslim communities in western and some Asian countries, as well, of course, as in Kenya, Nigeria and Pakistan.
Above all, it remains to be seen how this will play out in Afghanistan, where western intervention was at its most supine and foolish. I am glad that British forces are now leaving at long last. The USA was obsessed with the equally unwise invasion by the Soviet Union of that complex country and worked with the previous generation of Taliban to drive the Russians out—ironically ending, at the same time, the best civil society that women with jobs and children in schools had ever enjoyed in that sad country. In the infamous film “Charlie Wilson’s War”, those in Hollywood conveniently failed to mention the Taliban at all, yet their country is now fighting the Taliban.
President Obama has at last espoused non-direct intervention, although even in his second term he has to wrap up the rhetoric in case the wrong people in Washington and elsewhere seek to undermine and make mischief. I fervently pray that this will be the permanent American doctrine from now on, replacing Theodore Rooseveltian imperialism with modern international self-restraint and a devotion to the genuine wishes of the whole UN, not just to partial and limited lobbies nagging the Security Council endlessly. We must for ever remember the startlingly sagacious warning of President Eisenhower in his valedictory: “Beware the inexorable rise of the military-industrial complex”. His advice was totally ignored for reasons of oil, money, imperialism and the helping of the rise of the aggressive form of Zionism which is letting down the marvellous country of Israel itself.
No longer can we therefore leave all this chaos in the febrile hands of one country, let alone the USA. A major problem right now is handling the Iraqi PM, Mr al-Maliki, who has apparently been far too fierce as a partisan and authoritarian Shia leader. He is deeply unpopular as well with many Iraqis who are not very political, such as the Sunni minority and a lot of people in the Kurdish entity. Some locals think that human rights are more abused nowadays than they were by Saddam Hussein. Incidentally, on the only visit that I have paid to Iraq, in 1988, he was then the chief friend of the USA—so much so that we recall that the Americans publicly declared that the Halabja killings had been done by the Iranian regime since Iran was then the devil, as it was later. Saddam himself was a client of the US and the UK. Who in the Middle East and elsewhere, I wonder, persuaded them to change their minds about this person?
All this confusion and cynical manoeuvring leaves the broad public of the western countries in a state of total bewilderment. Having accepted with some reluctance the need to fight al-Qaeda after 9/11, the outrage in America which gave us all enormous sympathy for the United States, they now see other groups with strange names springing up both in the ghastly Syrian civil war and elsewhere. The trouble is that we all rush to denounce them as terrorists—for those who wish to offend, there is an even worse description—but we never bother to ask what they want of their own countries and of the West. I do not recall a single TV or radio programme where a senior Taliban person has been allowed to air their views on the western media. We know that the Taliban, all too brutally, discourages women from having human rights and equality, but is this hyperbole from the western media as well? Is there any rationale to it? Why do we not know? We are ignorant of the facts. We urgently need to secure further guidance and information from Turkey in this multifaceted contextual struggle. I take no pleasure in echoing the conclusion of many western observers that somehow the errors and blunders of the West have spurred on the spread of the jihadi impetus. That conclusion seems unfair to a well intentioned western society, but we need to probe its depths.
However, we can start with some initiatives. For a start, the UN, especially its Security Council, can no longer be the plaything of the leading powers in the old historical context. I want to say something at the risk of offending other people who, like myself, are long-standing friends of Israel: I have been a friend of Israel ever since I went there in 1970 and it is a fabulous country with a wonderful people, but they are increasingly badly let down on foreign policy and policies towards Palestine by an increasingly extreme, right-wing Government, sadly doing the wrong things and making the wrong decisions. I say that even now, after the tragic kidnapping of the three young Israeli seminary students; I hope that they will be released as soon as possible, but the way to deal with that is not the way in which the Israeli Government are doing it.
The Palestinians must have their place in the sun and we should respect, not denounce, their common Government of technocrats and Hamas. The quartet has been hopeless in this sense for many years; it has simply betrayed the Palestinians, whose elections have been postponed for far too long by President Abbas. After all, Palestine cannot be the only country in the world literally without its own Government and elections. The UN has to respond if this tragic situation continues.
We also need to accept that the eventual outcome in Syria will be the Syrians’ decision, not ours, and that President Assad is as legitimate, unfortunately, as most leaders in Arabia. The US seems never to criticise Saudi Arabia despite appalling human rights abuses there, especially those visited on women. I hope fervently that the UN will act to halt the mass executions now threatened by the courts in Egypt. Has the US said anything about this?
New elections must now surely be held in Iraq to seek to secure a moderate sectarian outcome, which will need to be supervised by the UN in what is still a broken country. I hope too that the European Union will try to play a greater role in helping Arabia out of its agonies, first of all having apologised for being so hopeless in the quartet set-up, as the EU can now earn more respect in the area than, sadly, the US does—despite Obama’s heroic efforts, for which we should wish him well.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for getting time to introduce this subject. I am going to take a very different stance from him. I spoke in the two debates that we had on Syria on 1 July and 29 August last year. I think that we are witnessing one of the biggest tragedies for Muslims in the world. Let us forget about the idea that we are responsible for everything bad in the whole world, and we should forget about asking, “What are we going to do about solving the problem now?”. This tragedy has been going on for about 40 years, if not since the Sykes-Picot affair of 1917.
Modernity has been a challenge to Islam. There have been different responses to it, especially since the three defeats that the secular and socialist Arab Governments faced against Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973. There has been a revival of fundamentalism, a return to religion, and within that we have noticed the rise of Islamism, which is more of an enemy of Muslim majority states than of anyone else. The Islamists’ whole programme has been to undermine civilian Governments of Muslim majority nations, whether they be democratic or authoritarian. This latest phase of the tragedy has been going on since the Syrian civil war started. I remember saying in the two previous debates that this was bound to spill over into Iraq. It is a Sunni/Shia war, and Sunni/Shia wars are not something that any western nation, with whatever intention, can solve.
My concern is not what we did or did not do. My concern is whether the world can somehow devise a way of saving the civilian population who are currently suffering a lot of misery. There are refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan because of the Syrian war. The latest phase of the war in Iraq is causing a lot of misery. Obviously we are reluctant to intervene as western nations. No one has a desire to maintain the international order, as we did. That will has gone. We did not intervene in Syria, and we are not going to intervene in Iraq. We are not going to send armies. We might not even bomb the place.
However, we have a duty to protect to human lives. The question is what are we doing on that. I do not think we can go around saying, “The good guys are Iran and the Iraqi Shias, and the bad guys are the jihadists who are the Sunnis”. That is the wrong way of looking at the problem. The problem is a human tragedy and it has to be prevented to the extent that we can through humanitarian efforts, peacemaking efforts and rehabilitation efforts.
One presumes that the United Nations should be somewhere in the centre of the action. Until now, in the public discussions that we have seen, the United Nations has not been mentioned. The United Nations Security Council failed to do anything in the Syrian case because there was a conflict of interest among the permanent members. It is very much the responsibility of our Government and any other Governments who have force in the United Nations to start a big proposal to do something about humanitarian aid and the protection of the civil population because this war is not going to stop any time soon. To the extent that we can reduce harm or people’s misery, we should do so. What are the Government doing about that?
Right now, this problem may look like it is in Syria and Iraq, but it has reached as far as Pakistan. In Pakistan, the battle going on between the Taliban in the north-west and the democratically elected Government has just entered a new phase. At the same time there is a tremendous Shia/Sunni conflict going on in Pakistan. It happened in Karachi not all that ago, and it goes on. Whether these jihadists are a danger to us is a separate question. The question right now is about what can we do as members of the international community to reduce suffering, solve the refugee problem, alleviate the situation and along the way, if we can, propose a solution to the political problem.
I shall repeat what I said once before. The noble Baroness has rejected the suggestion twice, so I am expecting a third rejection, but the world needs a general conference on all the Middle Eastern countries’ problems: the problems of Iran and Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Kurdistan, the Shia/Sunni conflict and the Israel/Palestine problem. All those problems are interconnected—we have not taken that seriously. We have taken them piecemeal. That may or may not happen. I feel the more urgent task is to devise a strategy for relieving suffering. If we can do that, we will have done our best.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, on securing this timely debate. I want to look at the Motion as it is set out. It concerns,
“the assessment of the threat from the spread of militant aggressive jihadism in the Middle East”.
I take the point that our priority is the humanitarian challenge, with so much chaos and destruction. We must invite the Minister to make every constructive response she can to that challenge.
I will talk about the dramatic advance of ISIS and the danger of the collapse of the Iraqi state. Of course, some of the problems stem from what could be called poor government and a lack of common good, diversity and military organisation. However, we must confront a deeper issue. As we have heard, ISIS is transnational. It is not just in one place; we have heard that its kind of jihadism extends to Pakistan. ISIS does not fight a war but operates through acts of terror, which is a very different way of trying to resolve disputes. There is a danger that this is setting up a model of battlegrounds of terror within existing states, without any way of trying to sort that out—things just rise up from below.
What is at issue is the future of the state as a political organisation. ISIS has a totally different set of values. It sees itself as the embryo of what it might call an Islamic state but is challenging the notion of a political state as one that holds together diversity. It says instead that there is only one way to have a state, which is on a much narrower basis. That is a dangerous pitch to make in a world of increasing diversity and pluralism. It sees this Islamic state emerging from the actions of small bands of fighting scholars. That is why we see these frightening interrogations of captives about their faith. It is a bold bid for a totally different understanding of political organisation; not a state that holds together diversity, works with it and puts humanitarian needs first, but a version of a state that is narrow, uncompromising and brutal in its desire for conformity.
That political question raises some important issues which I invite the Minister to address. Is the policy of funding moderate opposition in Syria working? Do we need greater international co-operation across this whole area, as the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, suggested? Could more be done to engage with Gulf states about the funding of this kind of extremism?
I offer one brief comment about foreign fighters caught up in the jihadist movement. It is estimated that there are 12,000 foreign fighters from 78 countries. The word on the street in Derby, where I work, is that people from our community are fighting there; some have come back and then returned. I can understand the Prime Minister and others talking about the danger that that kind of involvement in this anti-political movement could bring into our own country. However, I offer a word of caution about the way we express that risk and danger. In the Netherlands, they have a sophisticated debriefing system so that when people come back they are not immediately confronted as criminals but engaged with, and there is an exploration of what they are about and where they are going. I tell noble Lords from my own experience that if we are too heavy-handed we risk further radicalising families and communities at the grass roots, if some of their young are treated without any notion of a trial or evidence—all those British things that we try to stand for. We must handle this matter very carefully. We must have evidence if we are to criminalise people and we must try to engage with the issue they have got caught up in, which runs counter to the state as we know it, rather than trying simply to fight back and crush them as they would crush other people.
Finally, I ask the Minister: what is the role of the local community, not just the Government, in addressing this aggressive phenomenon? How can we help young Muslims engage in democratic debate about politics? A lot of the energy comes from feeling excluded from that possibility. Have any lessons been learnt about the unforeseen consequences of the way in which we conduct foreign policy? Can we think critically and creatively about ourselves and how we conduct foreign policy? If it is having this effect, are there lessons to be learnt about how we present it? I also have a question that is significant to the work in which I am involved: what is the future of European Islam in the mix, across the world? We hear a lot of voices speaking for all kinds of Islamic approaches to faith. There is in Europe a sophisticated, engaged and rich tradition of Islamic thinking and practice. Are we able to engage that voice more creatively in the debate?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for securing this debate, and congratulate him on introducing it with such eloquence. Rightly, he referred to the war on Iraq. I shall not talk about that at length, but I will begin by saying that, although Mr Blair led us into the war, the Conservative Party had already agreed to support it. Therefore, it was not merely the Government or the Labour Party; the two major parties agreed on that. It is also rather pathetic and saddening to see ex-Ministers falling over each other, trying to tell us that they regret that mistake. That is depressing for two obvious reasons.
First, if they were capable of making that kind of mistake, because of which hundreds of thousands of people were killed, can they ever be trusted to make sensible judgments in political life? In classical Athens, there was a tradition that if a politician misguided his people or was guilty of an egregious mistake of that kind, he would be sent into exile, because he was unfit to be a fellow citizen. We should find some way of dealing with people who are capable of making that kind of mistake. Secondly, if they could make that kind of mistake, why did they do so? It is no use telling us that Mr Blair lied—he said the same thing to all of us, and some of us were simply not taken in. We opposed the war in Iraq at the time, and some of us felt so strongly that we almost resigned our party Whip. All that suggests that nobody misled innocent people. Those leaders were prepared to believe certain things and were simply willing accomplices to what was going on.
Having got the question of Iraq off my chest, I turn to the question we are debating today. Since the early 1980s, it has been a practice for Muslims to go to foreign theatres of war to support those sides with which they sympathise. That started with Afghanistan when the Soviets were involved there, then spread to Iraq a few years later and has now spread to Syria, and at every stage the numbers have increased. In Afghanistan, the number of foreign Muslims who fought there was around 3,000 to 4,000. In Syria today, the number is estimated to be about 11,000, and although some are leaving, others are coming in. Those who leave do not outnumber those who come in, so the number remains pretty much the same. It is estimated that, of the 11,000 foreign Muslims who are fighting in Syria, about 400 are Britons.
That is not the end of the story. With the turmoil in Egypt, I expect that something worse will happen. The army has declared war—not a virtual war, but a real one—on the Muslim Brotherhood. That simply will not work. The Muslim Brotherhood has global appeal among Muslims and, being highly ideologically motivated, it will not be crushed or put aside as easily as others might. Therefore, as far as I can gaze into my crystal ball, in two or three years’ time, we will see a situation in Egypt that will be no different from what we now see in Syria and Iraq. That will pose some very acute problems, because Egypt is one of the largest countries in the Middle East and faces some very acute problems.
Those who fight abroad get good training; they are angry because they have gone through the suffering of fighting in a war and they build up global networks. When they return home, therefore, they pose a danger—although not necessarily. It is a mistake to think that, when those who have fought in Syria come back, they will necessarily engage in terrorist activities. If I think of students with whom I have had some dealings, sometimes the opposite happens. Having fought in a war in Syria, Iraq or elsewhere, they have seen enough suffering and do not want to be involved any more, or their family put pressure on them not to. Nevertheless, generally, when people who have fought in wars abroad come home, they have a slight tendency to be part of a certain network and to engage in terrorist activities in the domestic sphere. The two recent cases bear this out. The 29 year-old Mehdi Nemmouche, who shot and killed three people at a Jewish museum in Belgium, had been in Syria for more than a year. In our country, Mashudur Choudhury, who was convicted of terror offences in Syria, had of course been there.
MI5 informs us that about half of its casework involves preventing Syria-related terrorist activities. About 200 Britons have returned from Syria and we are told that dozens of them are suspected and have been arrested. Even if all these conflicts—including the one that I foresee in Egypt—were to end tomorrow, the world in which we live would not be stable. Historical memories of the wars that were initiated by the West, historical memories of the shady business deals in which we engaged in Iraq and elsewhere and memories of the humiliation we inflicted on a lot of people, not only in Abu Ghraib but in lots of other places, will linger, and rightly so. How can one expect people to forget what they have seen and what they have heard? As long as these memories last, we cannot afford to assume our world is entirely safe simply because that world over there is safe. It is not safe now; it was not safe for 40 years, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said. During those 40 years we did lots of things we should not have done.
That is the situation and the question is what our response should be. In the minute and a half I have at my disposal, I want to prescribe my remedy. New wars, limited or unlimited, will not help. The kind of thing that Mr Blair has been trying to press upon our attention will only exacerbate the situation. We should provide help when that is asked for—that is right—but at the same time we should remember that we should not get caught up in domestic rivalry and domestic conflict. If the Government make a complete mess of the situation and alienate people and there is a civil war, as in Syria, and they ask us to help against ISIS, we need to be careful that we are not being manipulated.
Secondly, we must keep a keen eye on the terrorist activities in Britain but should not presume that everybody who has been to Syria, Iraq or elsewhere is necessarily a potential terrorist. That can lead to heavy-handed activities and could alienate the Muslims.
Thirdly, we should do nothing to demonise the entire Muslim community or to alienate it in a variety of ways, as we have tended to do, as in the case of schools in Birmingham. Ofsted produced one report and two or three months later there was a completely opposite kind of report. There is also the constant mistake of equating conservative views with extremism. This is only done in relation to Muslim schools. What about other faith schools where similar things might be going on? Those of us with some experience would know that it does. To single out a particular community and its schools can create an estranged, deeply alienated, deeply bitter community, and that is to store up trouble for the future.
Finally, unless the problems in the Middle East are brought under control—not solved; they will not be solved—we will not be able to find much peace there or here. If they are going to be dissolved, that cannot be done bilaterally by the Americans linking up with the Iranians in order to counter the Iraqis. That game has been going on for the past 40 years and it has not taken us anywhere. We should be thinking in terms of some kind of regional conference where all the parties involved are represented, where we can work out some kind of mechanism for conflict resolution and where we can lay down certain principles which no side would violate, whatever its grievances. Then we can think of an Arab peacekeeping force or an Arab reconciliation commission of the kind we have seen in other parts of the world. In other words, we need to decentralise the way these things function, try to organise a regional conference within a global context and aim for a long-term strategy based on good sense and wisdom, which I am afraid has been so rare in the past few years.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for securing this timely and important debate. It is my pleasure to follow such distinguished and learned noble Lords. I put down my name in this debate to seek some knowledge. I am neither an Arab nor indigenous English, and jihadism for me is difficult to understand, as “jihad” is in Arabic and “Islamism” is in English. What does it really mean? As I read it in the Koran, jihad means “struggle for justice”, and it has two main categories. First, there is the inner struggle against evil, bad habits and temptations, and to strive for good deeds. The struggle for justice means a jihad against poverty, illiteracy, sexual violence—and, yes, there is a concept of a just war, where people are suffering from brutal regimes. Some scholars say that it is a duty to rescue people from that situation. I am sure that this does not mean individuals from Croydon or Luton who could go and declare jihad.
Sadly, words like jihadism and Islamism are used to describe despicable violent extremists and terrorists who proclaim to be Muslims. Let us have a look at two examples. ISIS, of which we know little, although it is much talked about, is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi but is made up of members of the Baathist party, former Saddam Hussein soldiers, militant Sunni fighters and Sunni youth, who have suffered from poverty and alienation, and terrorists. None of them has the same causes or beliefs, but they have two main enemies—the Maliki regime and the Assad regime.
Then we have Boko Haram, a terrorist organisation that commits the most heinous crimes. The word Boko means western culture and Haram means forbidden—so it means rejection of western culture. Then there are the terrorists in Pakistan, Tehreek-e-Taliban, which attacked the Karachi airport; all those fighters were from Uzbekistan. They are no representatives of Islam or Muslims, just as the Lords Resistance Army is not representative of Christians, nor are the RSS or VHP representatives of the great Hindu religion, nor is the Buddhist 969 movement in Burma or the activities of Buddhist monk Gnanasara in Sri Lanka, whose organisation Bodu Bala Sena, or BBS, has allegedly killed seven Muslims, including a child with a sword, in the past two days.
Professor Hossein Askari of George Washington University conducted a research into 208 nations and states. He said that Muslim countries used religion as an instrument of state control. He said:
“We must emphasize that many countries that profess Islam and are called Islamic are unjust, corrupt, and underdeveloped and are in fact not ‘Islamic’ by any stretch of the imagination”.
He went on to say:
“Looking at an index of Economic Islamicity, or how closely the policies and achievements of countries reflect Islamic economic teachings—Ireland, Denmark, Luxembourg, Sweden, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Singapore, Finland, Norway, and Belgium round up the first 10”.
The nearest Muslim country is represented at 33, Malaysia, with Kuwait at 48. He added:
“If a country, society, or community displays characteristics such as unelected, corrupt, oppressive, and unjust rulers, inequality before the law, unequal opportunities for human development, absence of freedom of choice (including that of religion), opulence alongside poverty, force, and aggression as the instruments of conflict resolution as opposed to dialogue and reconciliation, and, above all, the prevalence of injustice of any kind, it is prima facie evidence that it is not an Islamic community”.
I hope that we have learnt that we cannot impose our form of democracy and expect other cultures and tribes to follow it, as was experienced by Mr Bush and Mr Blair in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are just experiencing the fallout in Libya after Colonel Gaddafi’s downfall.
The French rejected the legitimate elections won by the Islamic FIS Party in Algeria in 1991, the Americans refused to accept Hamas in Palestine and a large part of the world rejected the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. My point is that the international community withheld recognition of legitimate elections even while it accepted Sisi in Egypt, as well as sheikhdoms and kingdoms in the Middle East, as legitimate Governments. These are political struggles that require political solutions and invasions or bombings do not result in long-term solutions.
I was in Iraq last year and met many leaders. I also met the Speaker of the Iraqi Assembly, who told me about the isolation of the Sunni community, how Maliki had ignored the Sunnis in the north, and how he thought it was the Shias who were siphoning off all the wealth and had all the power. In most Arab countries, including Iraq, there is rough justice. If you look at some of their judicial systems, you find that confession-based evidence, forced through torture, is a norm.
Finally, at the risk of losing friends, I fear that unless we engage Saudi Arabia and Iran in all these states from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen to Lebanon, we may, unfortunately, see an even longer period of sectarian violence than Europe experienced during the 30-year war in the 17th century.
We should not feel threatened by any economic or trade organisation between Muslim states because in my view, if Europe can be at peace due to the creation of a common market, there is a huge potential for the Muslim world to create peace. There is potential for $4 trillion a year business between it and the rest of the world, and peace among 1.5 billion people, as well as the rest of the world.
My Lords, in tabling this debate the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, was clearly following the advice of Pierre Trudeau, who said:
“The essential ingredient of politics is timing”.
This was an important topic when the QSD was tabled but now it is uppermost in much of the world’s mind. I say to my noble friend that, in this debate, I interpret jihadism as the right reverend Prelate did.
Although the jihadist maelstrom is centred on the Middle East, it is also part of a global uprising by extremists in other countries further east and in Africa. It attracts young Muslims from the West and from south-east Asia as well as from the countries where the violence and atrocities are being perpetrated.
Today we have heard many shocking facts and figures, especially in relation to Syria and to Iraq, whose integrity as well as security is under threat. The brutality and atrocities have intensified as individuals, families, communities and countries are torn apart. ISIS is a threat to all citizens in Iraq: Sunnis, Shias and non-Muslims, including Christians. There are reports of ISIS members killing 12 Sunni scholars who refused to pledge allegiance to them, and they have burned many churches and killed members of the Christian community.
I hope that there is still an opportunity for the citizens of Iraq to unite and defeat the jihadists. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a Shia scholar revered by all sections of Iraqi society, has called for Iraqi citizens to put their religious differences aside and fight to save their country from falling into the hands of ISIS.
Sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims is undermining the stability of the entire region, and the impact on the whole world is potentially great. The Muslim world can deliver great things. However, as my right honourable friend Ed Miliband stated in the other place yesterday, we need to focus on other countries in the Middle East which have a huge responsibility for igniting sectarian tensions in the region. Their roles have been centred round providing support both financially and militarily.
We need to pay attention to monitoring hate preachers online, and especially ISIS Twitter accounts that have been promoting their cause. The tools of the 21st century which we use to improve the quality of our lives and the connectedness of our world, including the internet and social media, are now used also by ISIS to rally support and appeal to young men and Muslims in various parts of the world to protest or to travel to Iraq to fight.
The world view of ISIS is vehemently anti-Western. I was interested in the right reverend Prelate’s comments about the state. ISIS is estimated to have 2,000 recruits from Europe. On Monday, the Foreign Secretary said that approximately 400 British nationals might be fighting in Syria, including some with ISIS, the insurgent force which is now attacking Iraq. Two men who were under criminal investigation appear to have absconded from the UK, intending to join jihadists in Syria. Yesterday, No.10 said that 65 people have been arrested in the past 18 months for Syria-related jihadist activities. I pay tribute to our police and security forces.
The Prime Minister said that ISIS fighters are not only threatening the Government in Baghdad but plotting terror attacks on the UK. As the BBC pointed out, it would take just one order from a commander to send some jihadists back to Britain to carry out an attack. Even without such an order, who knows what might be in the minds of radicalised young fighters when they return to this country? However, I accept that we have to deal with them very carefully. It was interesting to hear about what is being done in Holland.
This is a deeply disturbing situation. Many of us will have heard vox pops with young Muslims who say that they would like to go and fight with their Muslim brothers in Syria and Iraq, and some talk about wanting to fight against America. These are young British Muslims, not in work, education or training. Many of them do not realise that it is Muslims fighting against Muslims. We need to understand that the Muslim community is made up of different sects with each adopting a different set of beliefs. Historically in Britain they have lived in harmony, but recent events stemming from the Middle East are causing widespread concern. There is a real threat of sectarianism reaching our shores due to many factors, including the trickle-down effect of Middle East politics and the role of hate preachers and terrorist accounts on social media.
In anticipation of this threat, an understanding needs to be built around the language and vocabulary associated with hostile sectarian views and the activities of individuals, both here in the UK and abroad, who are purposefully dividing communities. As well as keeping an eye on the activities of jihadists online, we need to give greater support to community cohesion initiatives that exist to counteract the negative influences on other platforms, on which their hateful and divisive views are advocated.
Although we cannot control the increasingly sectarian conflict outside our borders, we need to engage in a more positive and constructive dialogue with the Muslim community, and engage it in our political system. This includes ensuring that different parts of the British Muslim community continue to work together, with an attempt to put aside international differences and co-operate on promoting interfaith values. A fine example of this is the unity statement signed last year by British Muslim leaders from different sects affirming their commitment to working side by side. Moreover, we must be dedicated to promoting our values, which include tolerance, respect and the appreciation of a diverse society.
The humanitarian threat is clearly great. The Government’s announcement of £5 million is welcome, but the number of refugees in the region has now reached a completely intolerable level not only for those who have been displaced or had to flee their country but for the regions and countries that have received them either in camps or in communities. As many as 500,000 men, women and children have fled their homes in the past week in the wake of escalating violence in Iraq. Many families reported leaving to protect their daughters, fearing sexual violence, kidnappings and forced marriage. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Foreign Secretary, the Government and campaigners for their work on this issue. The present situation is deplorable for those who have fled, but their future must also seem fraught with fear and insecurity. What hope of an education and jobs for their children?
This is not a matter for political disagreement. We must continue to work together to find solutions in our home and foreign policy that will address these extraordinarily complex, interrelated problems that affect our communities, our country and our world.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Dykes for a timely debate and I thank him and other noble Lords for their wide-ranging contributions. I cannot think of another debate that I both fear and relish answering in equal measure. As the Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as the Minister responsible for communities and faith domestically, as a British Muslim with Sunni and Shia roots, and as someone who was fiercely against the Iraq invasion in 2003, many of the issues raised come to the fore in answering this debate.
Her Majesty’s Government are deeply concerned by the spread of militant groups in the Middle East. Only this week there was a reported massacre of 1,700 Shia air force recruits by ISIL. The sexual violence that was perpetrated in this conflict was further evidence of the brutality of militant extremist groups in the region. These groups are killing large numbers of innocent civilians, displacing many more from their homes and stoking sectarian violence across the Middle East. We have heard examples of that from noble Lords.
This debate has no simple answer because the problems and challenges are not simple. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, referred to the challenges as a sectarian dispute—the oft-quoted Sunni-Shia dimension. I disagree with that simplistic analysis. The vast majority of Sunnis are as appalled as everyone else at the conduct of ISIL—a group that even al-Qaeda distanced itself from last year. Where I do agree with him is that not everything can be distilled to a very simplistic view that everything is either the fault of western intervention or the fault of western non-intervention. It is right that regional responsibility should be taken for what we are seeing.
Overspill from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq risks destabilising the wider Middle East. However, the prime responsibility lies with regional states, which need to work together, because they are all at risk in various ways if this matter is not resolved. We must use our diplomacy to encourage regional co-operation. The strongest way to do that is to encourage, support and challenge Governments in the Middle East to be truly reflective of the people who make up their nations. We have seen this in Iraq, where the Government have to be representative of all sects, all religions and both men and women to make people feel that they are part of a nation state.
The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, gave his detailed analysis of the extent of the problem and how it poses a threat to the United Kingdom. Her Majesty’s Government are also concerned about the potential for violent groups in the Middle East to present a threat to the United Kingdom. As the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs stated earlier this week, we estimate that the number of UK-linked individuals who have travelled to Syria to fight is approximately 400. Not all of them are fighting alongside extremist groups, but inevitably some are fighting with ISIL. We are working with community and faith leaders and charities to better understand and tackle the issues of UK-linked individuals travelling overseas to fight.
The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, asked how we are dealing with this problem and about the Government responses. Our priority is to dissuade people from travelling to areas of conflict in the first place. Our Prevent strategy includes work to identify and support individuals who are at risk of radicalisation. However, extremists should be in no doubt that we are prepared to take action to protect national security. That includes confiscating passports, not allowing people to travel and prosecuting those who break the law. The intelligence agencies and the police are working to identify and disrupt potential threats. That includes the UK border police interviewing individuals who are under suspicion of being involved in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby raised an important point: how do we deal with these individuals, either before they go out or when they come back? How do we ensure the broader Muslim community is kept on board during this time? Noble Lords may be aware of Pew research and Gallup polls that show the British Muslim community’s trust in institutions, including the judiciary and Parliament, is higher than that of other groups. It is important that we preserve that element of trust, belief in the rule of law and sense of fairness that are fundamental British values. The research shows British Muslims are already signed up to those British values.
It is important that the role of the community is not underestimated. That could be mums—including mums who have lost sons to extremism—working together and talking about the impact that travelling overseas will have on the lives of their families. We must also show young Muslims—I think the right reverend Prelate asked this question—that they must engage in this through a democratic debate. You do that by showing that democracy works.
The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, referred to the situation in Birmingham schools. We must make sure that in this process we do not lose the governors, those who have become involved in parent teacher associations and those who have become teachers. These are the very people whom many, including me, have been encouraging over the past decade to get involved in the process. We must not do anything to disengage people from the process; we must keep encouraging them to engage.
I was also asked how we do foreign policy. We do it consistently and in a principled way, and we make sure that we are transparent. Of course, something that successive Governments probably have not done so well is communicate what we do and how we do it. When we hear young Muslims, as we did on Radio 4 yesterday, say that they have to go out to fight alongside their Muslim brothers and sisters, it is clear that they have no sense that both sides in the dispute are Muslims. I think that we have a role in communicating that.
The right reverend Prelate asked: what is the future of European Islam? The only way that I can reference that is by using an analogy that I have used many times. Islam is like a river and it takes the colour of the bed over which it flows. It is not culturally or geographically specific. Therefore, Chinese Muslims will look very different from North African Muslims, Pakistani Muslims and European Muslims. The bed over which European Islam will flow is Europe.
Of course, Iraq is a serious issue. Territorial gains have been made by ISIL. It has unfortunately benefited from the ongoing conflict in Syria and is now able to operate in both countries across a very porous border. ISIL is seeking to impose its rule on people using violence and extortion, and it is stoking sectarian violence throughout the Middle East. Our wish is for the people of Iraq to live in a peaceful, stable and secure environment, and the actions of ISIL are in direct contradiction to this. Our objective is to see a prosperous and stable Iraq. As well as a strong security response by the Iraqi forces, there needs to be a strong, inclusive political solution.
We have also responded by providing humanitarian support. Noble Lords may be aware that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs informed the House of Commons on Monday that the United Kingdom is providing £2 million to NGOs for emergency relief following ISIL’s advances, and £1 million to the UNHCR for mobile protection teams and to establish camps. On 18 June, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced an additional £2 million to bring the UK’s contribution up to £5 million in humanitarian assistance.
The Syrian conflict—which, again, was referred to by a number of noble Lords—is not, and has never been, primarily about terrorism. At its heart, it is a struggle between, on the one hand, the Syrian people and their desire for the basic rights of freedom and dignity, and, on the other, a regime which has responded to these legitimate demands with escalating violence and brutality. As a result, Syria has become the number one destination for many extremist fighters anywhere in the world, and it poses a threat to the region and beyond.
The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, spoke about the definition of “jihad”. He raised an important point about using accurate and measured language in trying to find a solution to these matters. It is a subject that I spoke about earlier this year in a speech at the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat. To fight for freedom of religion or belief wherever it may be and whichever religion an individual chooses to follow or, indeed, not to follow is a government priority. Dare I say that making freedom of religion and belief my own human rights priority is my jihad?
In relation to sectarianism and religious intolerance fuelling the Middle East, we and our allies are committed to continuing to work with regional partners to counter this. We will not allow the violence of a minority to threaten the safety and security of those living within the region and further afield, including in the United Kingdom. We will use the full range of UK counterterrorism powers to tackle the supporters of terrorist activity linked to the region.
We will also continue to tackle the political and humanitarian issues that are fundamental to conflict prevention in many parts of the world. We will of course continue to make sure that we stem the flow of funds to terrorists—to which, again, the right reverend Prelate referred—and keep looking for effective ways to stop individuals from bypassing current laws on terrorist finance.
It is clear from today’s debate that there is no easy solution to these incredibly challenging problems. They have to be dealt with in many ways: for example, through political dialogue; support for regimes; encouraging regimes to be representative of all people in their states; making sure that British Muslim communities are kept on board during this process; and ensuring that we use measured language. Ultimately, we need to ensure that what we are looking for is a solution. It is those basic premises that will help us find a solution to an incredibly complex problem.
I thank my noble friend Lord Dykes once again for introducing this timely debate.