The Age of Unreason; Nationalism and Jihad in the 21st Century
By Lara Marlowe
The Hubert Butler Annual Lecture, Kilkenny Arts Festival, 8 August 2015
Good evening ladies and gentlemen.
I am honored and humbled to have been invited to deliver the Hubert Butler Annual Lecture. The lucidity, humanity and eloquence of Hubert Butler’s writings are a model for all journalists. If he were here today, I feel certain that Hubert Butler would offer profound insights into the progression of nationalism in Europe and jihadism in the Middle East, the topics I have chosen to address.
It’s always dangerous to speak for the dead, but I have a hunch that Hubert Butler might agree when I say that nationalism and religion, so often the scourges of humanity in the past, are in danger of blighting our young century.
How is it that the rising ideologies of the moment are populist nationalism in Europe and jihadism in the Middle East? This is, as French leaders have begun repeating, a crisis of meaning. We desperately need the “new way of thinking” and “new normative framework” that President Michael D Higgins has called for.
Obviously, one cannot compare the genocidal killers of Islamic State with political parties who participate in European elections. The French National Front and other extreme right-wing groups in Europe do not massacre their opponents, rape, crucify or sell captives into slavery, as Islamic State does.
But the extreme right and Islamic fundamentalists reinforce each other. Jihadist attacks fuel Islamophobia, while the rise of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim parties strengthens the conviction of Muslims that there is no place for them in Europe, creating an added incentive to thousands of young Muslims to join the jihad.
After “black Friday,” June 26, when Islamic State carried out or inspired massacres in Kuwait, Kobane and Sousse, as well as the beheading of a French transport executive near Lyon, the National Front leader Marine Le Pen demanded the immediate expulsion of “all foreigners SUSPECTED of Islamic fundamentalism” – not foreigners “charged” or “convicted,” but merely “suspected”.
Eighteen to 35 year-olds from economically deprived backgrounds constitute a bottomless reservoir of recruits for the extreme right and the jihadists. On both sides, recruits seek to reaffirm what they view as a threatened identity.
“On est chez nous” – “This is OUR home” – is the chant most heard at National Front rallies. Recruits to jihad are often converts, or what one might call “born again” Muslims, the children of non-practicing North African immigrants who feel at home neither in France nor in their parents’ country.
Génération Identitaire is a French right-wing youth group that is close to the National Front. Its website claims it constitutes the “first line of resistance… against the uniformisation of peoples and cultures, against the tidal wave of mass immigration.”
The youth group says it’s at war “Against all those who want to tear out our roots and make us forget who we are. Our ideal is reconquest.”
Both the extreme right and jihadists live in the past. Islamic State fighters mockingly refer to their enemies as “moderns,” and they’re determined to wage war in the extremely violent manner of the 7thcentury.
Charles Martel, the Frankish leader who turned back the Muslims at the battle of Poitiers in 732, is a symbol for right-wing French groups who believe their country is again the victim of a Muslim invasion. In 2012, Génération Identitaire occupied the building site of a mosque in Poitiers, in the name of Charles Martel.
The EU’s inability to stand up to Vladimir Putin or resolve the Greek crisis, economic austerity and anxiety over globalisation, have strengthened left-wing populists as well as the far right. But Brussel’s failure to address the disintegration of the Middle East and the influx of migrants – many of whom are fleeing the war in Syria -- are a particular boon to extreme right-wing movements.
The National Front, founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen 43 years ago, is the grand-daddy of them all. It enjoys the support of 25 to 30 per cent of the French electorate, and polls show that Le Pen’s daughter Marine, who took over the party in 2011, is likely to make it to the run-off in the 2017 presidential election.
It is not yet clear whether the King Lear-like drama which has seen Marine Le Pen attempt to expel her father from the party he founded will affect her presidential chances.
When the extreme right-wing “Europe of Nations and Freedom” bloc formed in the EU parliament on June 16, Marine Le Pen naturally assumed leadership. France, which three centuries ago gave Europe the philosophers of the Enlightenment, is again leading, but this time in the elaboration of a xenophobic, racist and anti-European ideology.
Mainstream French parties appear pathetically inadequate to counter its influence. “The National Front gives the impresson of being battle ready,” Pascal Perrineau, the political scientist and a leading expert on the party, told me. “It has a leader, a programme and it’s united to an extent that eludes other parties.”
When she launched her parliamentary group in Strasbourg, Le Pen accused the European Union of “working to destroy the nation” and promised that “we are here to defend our people.” Geert Wilders, her cohort from the Dutch Freedom Party, promised to fight what he called the “Islamisation” of Europe.
More than half the MEPs in the 39-strong bloc are from the National Front. Other parties include the Italian Northern League, the Austrian FPO or Freedom Party, formerly led by the late Jorg Haider, the Belgian Flaams Belang and Poland’s Congress of the New Right.
It took more than a year for the extreme right-wing MEPs to come together, because they did not want to be associated with groups they considered more extreme than themselves. Ukip leader Nigel Farage refused to ally himself with Marine Le Pen because of the Front’s past reputation for anti-Semitism, though a former member of Ukip joined Le Pen’s bloc. Le Pen excluded the Hungarian extreme right group Jobbik, and the Greek Golden Dawn.
Marine Le Pen has pursued a constant policy of “dédiabolisation” or “un-demonising” to make the National Front acceptable to voters frightened by the party’s scandalous reputation. In 2013, she even threatened to sue Libération and Le Monde newspapers for labelling the National Front “extreme right”. Her father lost a similar lawsuit 20 years ago.
Yet the party’s policies and history clearly place it to the far right of the political spectrum. It was founded as an alliance of the neo-fascist group Ordre nouveau, second World War Nazi collaborators and supporters of the OAS – the extremist group that violently opposed independence for Algeria. The original National Front allied itself with Italian neo-fascists who had followed Mussolini, adopting their symbol of a tri-colour flame.
When Marine Le Pen took over the party, she said she “assumed (its) heritage.” She replaced her father’s anti-Semitic provocations with condemnation of political Islam, which is more acceptable in today’s France. Yet the Front retains the markers of the extreme right: its denunciation of the “system” and elites; its commitment to establishing a national “preference” or “priority” that would discriminate against non-citizens; the determination to pull France out of the euro zone and the EU, and especially its opposition to immigration.
Across Europe, extreme right-wing parties clamour for “zero immigration”. According to the International Organisation for Migration, 190,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean this year. More than 2,000 drowned, including perhaps 200 on a fishing boat rescued by the LÉ Niamh this week.
Some evenings, up to 2,200 migrants try to enter the Channel Tunnel, and Eurostar says it has stopped 37,000 this year. Nine have died in or near the tunnel.
Far from inspiring compassion, these statistics are fodder for the National Front’s propaganda machine, which blames both the French government and the EU for the “invasion”.
The National Front has a history of supporting the Arab dictatorships whose collapse helped create the refugee crisis. Jean-Marie Le Pen flaunted his friendship with Saddam Hussein. Marine Le Pen supports Bashar al-Assad, and recently travelled to Egypt to endorse the regime of Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who deposed the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi. Le Pen says it was a mistake for France to help overthrow Moammar Gadafy.
Le Pen was accompanied on her journey to Cairo by Aymeric Chauprade, a National Front ideologue whom she had reprimanded for speaking of an Islamist “fifth column” in France. Chauprade earlier published a book titled “Chronicle of the Clash of Civilisations”.
Christian Estrosi, the right-wing mayor of Nice and a close associate of the former president Nicolas Sarkozy, also claims there’s an “Islamist fifth column” in France. Estrosi denounces “the continuing replacement of one population by another,” a favourite theme of the National Front.
Sarkozy and his newly renamed “Les Républicains” are trying to “steal” National Front voters by mimicking its rhetoric. It’s a dangerous undertaking, as Denmark’s former Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt learned in recent elections.
Other Danish parties fell over themselves in the effort to imitate the anti-immigrant, extreme right-wing Danish People’s Party or DF. Thorning-Schmidt’s social democrats promised more strict asylum rules and told immigrants, “If you come to Denmark you have to work”. She lost office, while the People’s Party won 21.4 per cent of the vote, its highest score ever.
The concept of a “Clash of Civilisations” found favour with the right as soon as it was enunciated by the Harvard professor Samuel Huntington in 1992. It was revived in the aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities, and is increasingly cited in connection with the rise of Islamic State.
Huntington was responding to “The End of History,” an article and book by one of his former students, Francis Fukuyama. Fukuyama naively believed that following the end of the Cold War, the entire world would enjoy liberal democracy and the market economy.
Huntington predicted that, on the contrary, the confrontation between capitalism and communism would be replaced by a “Clash of Civilisations” in which opposing cultural and religious identities would be the main source of conflict.
Huntington was pilloried by left-wing intellectuals, who thought he was cheerleading for the clash. The great Palestinian thinker Edward Said called Huntington’s theory “the purest invidious racism, a sort of parody of Hitlerian science directed today against Arabs and Muslims.” Noam Chomsky said the US would use the theory to justify “any atrocities that they want to carry out.”
The “Clash of Civilisations” remains a loaded and controversial term. Following the June 26th “black Friday” attacks by Islamic State, the French prime minister Manuel Valls said, “We cannot lose this war because ultimately it’s a war of civilisation. It is our society, our civilisation, whose values we are defending.” The right applauded, while Valls’s socialist comrades groaned.
Since this is an arts festival, I hope you will allow me a small digression regarding William Butler Yeats’s apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming,” which for me conjures up the war in Syria and Iraq.
Like the “twelver” Shia Muslims and American Evangelical Christians, Islamic State believes the world will end, sooner rather than later, in a huge battle in Jerusalem.
Yeats believed in a theory of history involving 2000 year cycles, one of which began at the birth of Christ – the first coming – to be succeeded by a cycle of violence beginning in 2000 – the second coming. Hence the “rough beast, its hour come round at last” slouching towards Bethlehem.
The lion’s body with a head of a man in “The Second Coming” resembles the Mesopotamian sculptures hacked to pieces by Islamic State, as well as animals described by John the Apostle in the Book of Revelation.
In his book “Four Years: 1887-1891,” Yeats described a mental image that came to him while working with cardboard symbols created by the British occultist MacGregor Mathers: “A desert and a black Titan raising himself up by his hands from the middle of a heap of ancient ruins.” I don’t need to remind you that Islamic State fighters dress in black and occupy thousands of ancient ruins.
In yet another description resonant of the war in Syria and Iraq, Yeats wrote in the introduction to his play, “The Resurrection”: “I began to imagine as always at my left side just out of the range of the sight, a brazen winged beast that I associated with laughing, ecstatic destruction.” LAUGHING, ECSTATIC DESTRUCTION. In a footnote, he says the beast was “afterwards described in my poem ‘The Second Coming’.”
Prescience? Prophecy? Coincidence? I cannot say, but I found the parallels fascinating, and I wanted to share them with you.
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So how did the “rough beast” of Islamic State seize one third of Iraq and half of Syria, an area the size of the United Kingdom, in just over a year? Like the rise of extreme right-wing nationalist parties in Europe, its advent is the result of a history of failed politics.
Post second World War secular Arab nationalism peaked in 1958, when Syria briefly merged with Egypt. The 1967 Arab-Israeli war dealt a body blow to Arab nationalism. Not only were Arab dictators unable to confront Israel or achieve justice for Palestine, they terrorised, tortured and impoverished their own populations.
Islamic fundamentalism appeared the only alternative to oppressed and frustrated Arabs. The 2013 coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt ended any illusions that Islamists would be allowed to take power through democratic elections. The West has been helpless to stop the wave of chaos unleashed by George W Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and compounded by the revolts of the “Arab Spring”.
The “caliphate” proclaimed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on June 29, 2014 is a police state born of the union between Sunni Muslim extremists and former Ba’athists from Saddam Hussein’s intelligence services. It rules over six million Sunnis, many of whom welcomed it as a liberator from the governments in Baghdad and Damascus. This new “Sunnistan” has spawned cells as far away as Nigeria and Central Asia. This year, it inspired massacres in France and Tunisia.
Perhaps the most apt description of Islamic State is to be found in Hubert Butler’s “The Invader Wore Slippers,” in which Butler defined Ante Pavelic’s fascist Croatia as “the extraordinary alliance of religion and crime.” (Thanks to Johnny Gogan of Bandit Films for bringing that quote to my attention.)
Islamic State’s mastery of social media ensures that Muslims the world over can vicariously experience jihad on an hour to hour basis. Some 22,000 have flocked to northern Syria, from 110 countries.
Gone are the days when al-Qaeda spent years preparing made-for-television extravaganzas like the destruction of the Twin Towers. Autonomous cells or “lone wolves” like the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston and Ahmedy Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers in Paris choose their targets and timing, in the hope of pleasing jihadist leaders whom they’ve never seen and from whom they require no instructions.
Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed “caliph” of Islamic State, stepped into the void left by Sunni clergy who were discredited through their association with the Arab dictators. Armed with a doctorate in Islamic studies, Baghdadi fills his speeches with quotes from the Koran, justifying the group’s ultra-violence.
Everywhere there is a void, Islamic State steps into it: in the Syrian desert; in disintegrating Libya, in northeastern Nigeria where its affiliate, Boko Haram, also specialises in rape, kidnapping and massacres.
Perhaps because religion counts so little in Western society, analysts tend to dismiss the religious underpinnings of Islamic State as sloppy exploitation of ancient texts by a group of psychopathic killers. On the contrary, their deeds are rooted in the literal interpretation of the Koran, the author and academic Graeme Wood maintained in a ground-breaking article in Atlantic Magazine.
Wood quotes Professor Bernard Haykel of Princeton University, a leading expert on Islamic State ideology: “Slavery, crucifixion and beheadings are not something that freakish (jihadists) are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition.” They are “smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day,” Haykel says.
While Europe was in the dark ages, the Muslim word excelled in art, literature, medicine and mathematics. In the 13th century, a fundamentalist preacher in Baghdad called Ibn Hanbal began massacring Shia. Five centuries later, Ibn Abd al Wahhab – the founder of Saudi Wahhabism -- renewed the strict, conservative strain of Islam. Now Islamic State wants to take Muslims back to the 7th century.
The jihadists of Islamic State have built their reputation for extreme violence by posting snuff videos on social media. To list only a few: the beheading of US and British hostages, invariably clad in Guantanamo-style orange jumpsuits; the Khmer Rouge-like mass execution of up to 1,700 Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, many of them shot as they lay face down in a mass grave; the immolation of a Jordanian pilot in a cage; the drowning of a dozen men, filmed by an underwater camera as they were lowered in a cage into a pool…
These images are so effective that both Iraqi and Syrian soldiers have fled in advance of Islamic State troops, abandoning the cities of Mosul and Palmyra to the jihadis. Should the West ever deploy ground troops against Islamic State, there is no guarantee their soldiers would be any braver in the face of such barbarity.
Islamic State has so far concentrated on killing other Arabs whom it deems apostates -- Shia Muslims, Kurds, Christians, Yazidis… It nonetheless believes in confrontation with the West. Sheikh Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, the chief spokesman for Islamic State, has sworn the group will “conquer your Rome, break your crosses and enslave your women.” If his generation is unable to achieve this, al-Adnani warned, “Then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves in the slave market.”
Islamic State’s magazine, “Dabiq,” debated whether the Yazidis it captured last year should be executed as lapsed Muslims, since their religion contains elements of Islam, or sold as slaves because they are non-believers. In the event, Yazidi women were sold as slaves, for between $500 and $2,000 each.
Dabiq, the name of the magazine, was taken from the Syrian town near the border with Turkey where Islamic State believes it will “burn the crusader army” at the beginning of the “end of days.” In the final battle in Jerusalem, 5,000 fighters from the “caliphate” will face an anti-Messiah from eastern Iran called Dajjal. Jesus – the Prophet Issa in Islam – will return to earth, impale Dajjal and lead the Muslims to victory.
Islamic State is the successor to al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was founded by the Jordanian Abu Musab al Zarqawi to combat the US invasion. (Zarqawi was killed by US forces in 2006.) Although Islamic State has existed in its present iteration for only a year, many of its fighters have at least 12 years combat experience.
There was already tension between al-Qaeda and what became Islamic State because Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor, objected to Zarqawi’s fervour for takfir or excommunication, and the massacre of Shia.
Al-Qaeda has usually focused on the “far enemy” – the United States – while Islamic State preferred to kill the “near enemy” or local “apostates” first.
The two broke definitively in the spring of 2013, when Baghadi refused an order from Zawahiri to place himself under the command of the al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria. Islamic State and al-Nusra are now at war with each other.
By grouping prisoners at Camp Bucca, in southern Iraq, the US planted the seeds of the Islamic state. Western intelligence believe two-thirds of Islamic State leaders met each other at Camp Bucca, Baghdadi and Saddam’s former intelligence officers among them. A Red Cross official who visited the camp told the French magazine Le Point that US soldiers at Bucca realised they were “creating Frankenstein” by holding these men together, but the US military hierarchy did not want to hear about it.
Guantanamo, too, has been a school for jihad. The prison in Cuba still holds 116 Muslims. Nasir al Wahishi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen who was killed by a US drone in June, had been a prisoner there. His successor, Qasim al-Raymi, has a brother imprisoned at Guantanamo. Brahim Benchekroun, a Moroccan jihadist leader who was killed last year in Syria, had also been a prisoner at Guantanamo.
Unlike al Qaeda, Islamic State brooks no dissent. Mourad Benchellali is a Frenchman who trained with al-Qaeda in Kandahar, was captured by US forces and taken to Guantanamo. Benchellali told me: “It was possible to tell the al-Qaeda guys in Afghanistan there were things you didn’t agree with. With a guy from Islamic State, if you tell him you don’t agree, he cuts your head off.”
Al-Qaeda never tried to secure territory, except as rear bases or training camps. Not only does Islamic state use artillery, massed forces and tanks to seize and hold territory; it is building a state, complete with civil servants, tax collectors, and a welfare system that provides housing, healthcare and education.
Thirteen months ago, Baghdadi appealed for judges, doctors, engineers and people with military and administrative experience to come to northern Syria. “Rush, O Muslims to your state,” he said. “O Muslims everywhere, whoever is capable of performing hijrah (emigration) to the Islamic State, then let him do so, because hijrah to the land of Islam is obligatory.”
The mother of a young Frenchman who converted to Islam and joined the jihad in Syria told me she saw a parallel between Islamic State’s determination to build a country from scratch and the Israeli experience of calling on Jews from around the world to “make aliyah” to Israel.
There’s a generation gap between al-Qaeda, whose leader Zawahiri is 63 years-old, and Islamic State. Baghdadi is 44. Al-Qaeda’s videos tend to be sermons by grey-bearded sheikhs. Those posted by Islamic State show extreme violence which appeals to young recruits.
President Barack Obama announced US military operations against Islamic State exactly one year ago yesterday (August 7, 2014). A few months earlier, he had mocked the group as “team B” to al-Qaeda.
The US has failed at the most basic requirement of war, which is to know your enemy. “We have not defeated the idea,” US Major General Michael Nagata, head of special operations for the US in the Middle East, told the New York Times last December. “We do not even understand the idea.”
With the exception of Eisenhower stopping the absurd Anglo-Franco-Israeli Suez adventure in 1956, and last month’s deal on the Iranian nulear programme, US involvement in the Middle East has been an unmitigated disaster. The war on Islamic State is unlikely to be an exception.
The last four US presidents have bombed Iraq. The US has invaded, occupied and or bombed at least 14 Muslim countries since 1980. The list, in chronological order, was drawn up by Professor Andrew Bacevich of Columbia University: Iran, Libya, Lebanon, Kuwait, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Kosovo, Yemen, Pakistan and Syria. Four of these countries have been attacked at least three times by the US.
The US has been relatively successful at “regime change” – at dislodging Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Gadafy in Libya and the Taliban in Afghanistan – but it has failed miserably at the “nation-building” which was supposed to follow.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on July 31st that the US has carried out 5,800 bombing raids against Islamic State. That works out to an average of 16 per day, compared to 800 airstrikes daily against Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. One can only conclude that Washington is not serious about eradicating Islamic State.
One year of bombing by the US-led coalition has killed at least 459 civilians in Iraq and Syria, according to a report released on August 3rd by Airwars, a research group tracking the war on Islamic State.
Horrified as we must be by Islamic State’s savagery, it’s important to keep a sense of perspective, in the week marking the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, which caused the deaths of 140,000 Japanese. Saudi Arabia, a staunch ally of the US and Europe, still beheads prisoners. France last used the guillotine to decapitate a convict in 1977.
In my long career as a journalist, I have twice seen decapitated civilians. The first was a baby held up by a Fijian UN soldier in Cana, southern Lebanon, in 1996. Its head had been sliced off diagonally by an Israeli proximity shell. The second was a man whose head lay near his body in a grassy field in Kosovo, after the US mistakenly bombed a refugee convoy in 1999.
The coalition against Islamic State vaunts 64 member countries, at least on paper. But it is fraught with so many absurdities that I won’t have time to recount them all.
Here are a few:
Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, all nominally coalition members, support the Islamist Jesh al-Fatah (or Army of Conquest) in Syria, one of whose chief components is the al-Nusra front, which is loyal to al Qaeda. The same countries are far less worried about fighting Islamic State than they are about overthrowing Bashar al-Assad.
When a suicide bombing claimed by Islamic State killed 32 people in Suruc, Turkey, on July 20, Ankara finally agreed to allow the US to use Incirlik airbase. The Nato ally promised to attack Islamic State, but instead used its new commitment to wage war on the Kurds who have been Washington’s chief ally on the ground in Syria.
So two US allies in the war on Islamic State – Turkey and the Kurds – are fighting each other. Likewise, the US is de facto allied with Iranian revolutionary guards who are fighting Islamic State in Iraq, but in theory opposes the Iranian revolutionary guards who are defending Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
There’s a persistent temptation in Western capitals to side with Assad against the jihadists. Four years after Obama said Assad must go, Washington refuses to sanction any attacks against him. The Americans will not allow a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians from Assad’s air force. Nor will they allow the handful of “moderate” Syrian rebels they’ve trained, at a cost estimated at $2.7 mn each, to fight Assad.
When Mosul fell to Islamic State on June 10, 2014, the Iraqi Shia Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani declared a jihad. So the war in Iraq and Syria is in fact a double jihad, both Sunni and Shia, and the frontline in the war between the two main families of Islam.
Yemen, where more than 3,000 people have been slaughtered in four months, is the other main battlefield in the Sunni-Shia war. In Yemen, the Saudi air force is indiscrimnately bombing Houthi rebels, whom the Saudis accuse of being aligned with Iran. Al-Qaeda and Islamic State have also stepped into that fray.
With his country at war in Yemen and the Middle East in flames, the Saudi King Salman, age 79, just went off to holiday on the Côte d’Azur, with a 1,000-strong entourage. Salman angered the local French community by temporarily privatising the beach in front of his palace, so he and his entourage left early for another palace, in Morocco.
Outrageous as King Salman’s behaviour might seem, Western leaders are hardly behaving more responsibly. They should be making every effort to mediate between Sunni and Shia, to avert an all-out war. Instead, they are fuelling the Sunni-Shia arms race. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the US sold $1.2 bn worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia last year, while France sold $175 mn.
Is there any way to stop Islamic State? One often feels, as WB Yeats wrote, that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Military analysts are nearly unanimous in saying it will take ground troops to dislodge Islamic State. That certainly isn’t in the cards at the moment. The lack of political will to eradicate Islamic State, and the absence of a plan for what might replace it, are for the time being insuperable obstacles.
If they want to staunch the flow of recruits to Islamic State, countries with significant Muslim populations must make greater efforts to integrate them. They must avoid the disputes over headscarves and halal food which alienate Muslims and strengthen the extreme right. Ultimately, France, and perhaps some of its neighbours, may be forced to follow the US example of affirmative action in education, housing and employment. That may be the only way to overcome the prejudice and segregation that drive young Muslims into the arms of Islamic State.
Nor is there any point in punishing returning jihadis by seizing their passports and imprisoning them. Benchellali, the former al-Qaeda trainee and Guantanamo prisoner, testified before the French senate: “Confiscate passports? They burn them themselves in front of cameras. Withdraw their French nationality? They leave because they haven’t felt French for a long time.” Former recruits like Benchellali are ideally placed to disduade young Muslims from rushing off to the war.
European governments also need to allow an alternative to jihad, a legitimate way of relieving the frustration of European Muslims who are outraged at the treatment of their co-religionists in Syria, the Israeli-occupied territories and elsewhere, perhaps through humanitarian work.
I’ve mentioned the urgent need to reconcile Sunni and Shia Muslims. Western governments must resist the temptation to support Arab dictators – that was what got us into this mess is the first place.
There is one step the US could take to slow the disintegration of the Arab world, if only it had the courage. Not only has Barack Obama totally abandoned Palestine, he’s preventing the feeble attempts of others to address the problem. President Francois Hollande told a correspondents’ dinner in late July that France gave up a plan to field a UN Security Council resolution that would recognise Palestine, because the US made it clear it would use its veto.
If the US and Europe ceased treating Israel as if it were above international law, their arguments against Islamic State would be infinitely more powerful. One US vote in the Security Council against Israel’s continuing confiscation of Palestinian land would do more than anything else to restore US credibility, and to rally Arab Muslims against the expansion of Islamic State.