Wars and rumours of wars

The message coming from France is reasonably predicatable – France is at war.

However, I am unconvinced that states can win a war against ideas. Although Isis is very much a real body of people intent on doing harm through wicked acts, Isis is not so much a group of people as a group of ideas. It is the coherence of those ideas which makes it possible for Isis to attract people to commit its barbarous acts.

The lack of knowledge and thinking in the West about Isis and similar religiously inspired terrorist movements frightens me very deeply.

We know from our own history that one of the best ways to spread ideas is to persecute those who hold them. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church and all that. Bombing those sympathetic to Isis may lead to short-term military gains but it will also spread those ideas, ideas which feed off resentment against the West in the first place.

There has been a huge amout of effort in the last 48 hours that has gone into putting out a coherent statement that these acts have nothing to do with Islam. And it is true – these acts have nothing to do with the Islam that I know locally in Glasgow, with Muslim friends or with those who are trying to seek sanctuary in this country as refugees. However, the existance of Isis is very much to do with religion and is proof positive of just how bad things can get when religion goes wrong.

One sees from time to time the vacuous statements of those who exploit situations such as this to argue that as religion is the cause of all this then religion itself should be wiped out. However, I think that there are multiple causes for all this, many of which go back to the real colonialism of years ago alongside the neocolonialism of the actions of elite states such as the UK in our own day. Poverty, instability and injustice stoke the fires of resentment that allow extremism to flourish. Some might well take the view that religion is the cause of all this but an argument can just as easily be made that extreme fundamentalism flourishes precisely where moderate religious voices have been silenced. Attacking moderate religous people for being religious seems to me to be more likely to result in extremism flourishing rather than being overcome.

Yet, even as we stand alongside one another we are deeply ignorant of one another and the ignorance that we have makes it very hard to have any meaningful dialogue with one another. I know why I get told about the five pillars of Islam whenever I go to a Muslim event – it is because most non-Muslims are so completely and utterly ignorant of that faith that you have to start somewhere. But the consequence is that we struggle to have a very meaningful conversation about things that do really matter.

Do we believe in the fundamental equality of men and women or don’t we? Do we believe in freedom of expression or don’t we? Do we believe that blasphemy laws are appropriate to a modern society or don’t we? How do you deal with offensive humour? How should each of the religions (my own included) deal with its own internal contradictions and sectarianism? These are all things that need rather a lot of conversation. There is a lot to talk about and few venues for that conversation.

For me, the clear narrative that Isis have needs to be challenged by a much clearer narrative of the kind of society that we want to have in the West. We need ideals to fight for not just enemies to fight against.

And what do we really want? Do we settle for mere tolerance of one another. Do we want to recommit ourselves to multiculturalism? Do we have the wisdom and discernment to be able to argue for a gently secular state that allows all to thrive rather than the fundamentalist delusions of some of today’s secularist voices? There are different Islams in the world. There are different secularisms. There are different Christianities.

Are there a set of British/Scottish/Western values that we can all articulate? Fair play, cricket and a stiff upper lip are not going to win these battles. At the very time that we need to rally behind the human rights cause that might bring us together, we have politicians in power trying to undermine the Human Rights Act.

What kind of society do we believe in? What kind of society do we think is worth fighting for. A very great deal of thinking needs to be done to work out the answer to that question. Wars and rumours of wars seem to be coming our way. They will be won or lost not merely by the strength of our military might but by the world we chose to believe can be created.

Now is the time to think.

We are more likely to win with shock and awe thinking than shock and awe bombing.


  1. Another beautiful and eminently sensible blogpost, Kelvin. Though, I’m trying to think of Scottish values. “Fair play, cricket and a stiff upper lip” being famous *English* prep school virtues (though Anglo-Saxon territory was mostly won through betrayal of hospitality anathema to the Celts, countries the English colonised beat them at their own game, and the Japanese have a lot more self-control than English football hooligans abroad and loutish lords throughout history). It’s just not on to rewrite UK cultural/ colonial history in this manner. The ancient rivalries on these islands have been devious and twisted and the evils we’ve done to each other are only outweighed by the havoc we’ve combined to wreak abroad. And all of our history only proves your main point: attempt to counter values with the sword and they will thrive despite you. For good, or for ill.

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