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Is it really foreign policy, stupid?

This is a guest post by Garvan Walshe

The trilby hat and mackintosh once served to disguise an agent at a time when all other men wore coats and hats, then came to be his uniform. So it was with the blacked-out face shapes and letters used to designate senior intelligence officers. But now the mystery is itself alluring: obscurity no longer provides security. Now MI5 has equipped itself with a website. Now it’s Director General has given – perish the thought – an interview to the press.

The Guardian informed us that that the top spook had issued a warning:

“Israeli attacks on Gaza give extremists more ideological ammunition”


“the Afghan conflict and its outcome has a ‘direct impact’ on UK domestic security.”

The Pope is also Catholic.

But the Guardian selected those parts of the interview that bolster a narrative which we read interminably in its opinion pages. We have no record of the whole text, but its extracts and its characterisation of conflicts that began with attacks by Hamas on Israeli civilians and by Al Qaeda on Americans give a very different picture from those quoted by The Times

It holds that “foreign policy” is or is chiefly responsible for Islamist radicalism and violence. Of course, it’s not just any foreign policy, but a particular kind of foreign policy. And it so happens that the foreign policy that Islamists are held to object to is also the foreign policy that part of the Western left dislikes.

This isn’t true. Islamists opposed the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. They wanted more, not less, military intervention in Bosnia; they appeared genuinely neutral in the summer’s Russia-Georgia war. Asked whether they favoured Putin – hanmer of Grozny – or Sakashvilli, allly of the United States they would have probably appropriated Henry Kissinger’s plaintive words “It’s a pity they can’t both lose.”

This part of the left believes that political morality can be reduced to one sentence of Foucault: virtue is to speak truth to power. And since power is America, virtue is to be anti-American.

Islamists on the other hand are in favour of themselves alone. If they can co-operate with the Vulgar Foucaultist Left that’s all to the good. But the time will come, they believe, when they can do without the VLF as Khomeini found he could liquidate Iran’s Tudeh (communist) party.

But this “It’s foreign policy, stupid” argument – that the way to deal with the radicalisation must always be to change the policy, not contest the arguments that the radicalisers make – is more pernicious. It treats Muslims as though they aren’t like the rest of us, amost as if they are robots on which Islamist radicalising messages act as commands. For the VLF this is self-serving – they think they have hit on the ultimate argument to persuade people who don’t share the opinions of the New Left Review editorial board to adopt its policies.

But its effect is to reinforce the dangerous belief, already gaining far too much ground that Muslims are different, that they have “two heads”, there is something inherently undemocratic about Islam; that a believing Muslim cannot also be a committed liberal or proud Westerner.

Even crude opinion polls show that most Muslims don’t fit the angry caricature- most British Muslims support a two-state solution; even if many no doubt sympathise with Hamas in the current Gaza war; though they opposed the invasion of Afghanistan, they don’t want Western troops to leave the country to the Taliban.

These positions are not consistent (poll responses rarely are), but if they see established organs of liberal opinion endorsing the populism with to which they are constantly exposed, it isn’t reasonable to expect them to have confronted that inconsistency. They deserve better.

Stop assuming that the radicals speak for all Muslims. Refute their arguments and reject the irresponsible hyperbole of people like Ken Livingstone (who made an entirely false comparison of Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto). The stakes are too high.