How the British State Went to War with the Islamic State

Remembrance Day ceremonies at Episkopi Garrison, Cyprus. Flickr/Defence Images/SAC Helen Rimmer

Blowback is not proof of failure. Reprisal is not defeat.

Two brutal new attacks, a sterile old debate. Islamists slaughter civilians, some of them children, and cue a familiar argument about why. Is it because of who we are, Britain or the West? Or is the root cause rather what we do? It turns out that the two concepts of “being” and “doing” are hard to separate, and this battle of reductionisms won’t help us much. Britain needs to go beyond it. The country and its allies are at war with the Islamic State, objectively if not in full consciousness. Wars normally trigger retaliations. Blowback, like the Manchester attack, is not proof of failure. Reprisal is not defeat. The harder reality is something elected leaders rarely acknowledge: they cannot realistically promise safety. The true bargain on offer, an agonizing one, is that those people are asked to risk increased vulnerability to violence in exchange for a long-term effort to contain and suppress a dangerous movement. The potential for atrocities is not an aberration but built into the war’s logic.

Terrorist motivation, or “why they want to blow us up,” is an old question. The Manchester and London attacks, and their timing, the election season, have blown fresh life into it. Some say it is about “being.” The “being” case goes as follows: the Islamic State, its imitators and affiliates, strike because they hate their victims, the parent society of those victims and that society’s democratic freedoms. In the case of Manchester in particular, they point to a specific pattern, the jihadis’ (and that jihadi’s) loathing of young emancipated women, dancing for pleasure and their preying on children. Terrorism is ultimately caused by terrorists, as agents with little structure in the background. British prime minister Theresa May leads the charge, accusing those who attribute such attacks to other causes of making excuses. A curious authoritarian anti-politics infuses this argument. Violence for a cause is the ultimate political act, so it is hard to keep politics out of it. Yet politicians across the spectrum say that now is not the time for politics, nor should people politicize the issue. Even though democratic liberty is supposedly the engine of the terrorists’ hostility, people must suspend democratic politics, and even though freedom to disagree is at stake, people are urged to remain “united.” Prime Minister May denounces her opponents for exploiting the attack politically, even as she wraps herself in the Union Jack and the mantle of “strength” and hints at new powers for the state.

To underline its causal argument, the “being” camp cherry-picks statements from the killers, and their movement. It isn’t hard to find virulent quotes where Islamists denounce the infidel and their manifold sins, their corruption and blasphemy. Those who attribute Islamist violence to rage against the essence of liberal western societies—against civilization itself—point out the long, eclectic and expanding list of their victims and targets, many having nothing to do with western strategic culpability: Coptic Christians, Japanese aid workers, crucified children, the enslaved Yazidi women, fellow Muslims, the UN headquarters in Baghdad, Palmyran temples and Buddhist statues. It’s not even true that the West routinely fights against Muslims. Western states have undertaken a number of wars in alliance with—or on behalf of—Muslim-majority populations, from aiding the resistance to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan to intervening on their side in Bosnia and Kosovo. Aggrieved jihadis might cite the medieval crusades, but their greatest contemporary opponent, the United States, didn’t even exist to take part. Beneath foreign-policy grievances lies existential rage, or so the argument goes, and the Islamic State is nourished by a pure and indiscriminate hostility. Like the ladies who visited Dr. Johnson and congratulated him for omitting foul language from the dictionary, they crave grievances, and will find them. The root cause, as Mark Steyn once quipped, is that we are all infidels. Notice the structure of this argument: though we must resist violent Islamists who mean us harm, including by force, their violence is built-in, constant, noninteractive and causally unrelated to ours. Western error is largely irrelevant.

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