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This time the crocodile won′t wait

In retrospect, it seems oafish of Neville Chamberlain, Britain's prime minister in 1938, to have betrayed Czechoslovakia to Nazi rule in return for the empty promise of peace. Yet an overwhelming English majority looked with horror on the prospect of confrontation with Germany and a new world war, until Adolf Hitler forced England's hand by invading Poland. "The appeaser hopes the crocodile will eat him last," said Winston Churchill. Today's crocodiles may not be so patient.

Opposing voices in 1938 rang lonely and shrill, and just as shrill today sounds Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips in her portrayal of an emasculated Britain ashamed of its own national identity and anxious to appease the "clerical fascism" of the jihadis. That will change, perhaps even before the print is quite dry on her new book. She warns that the West faces a religious war with Islam. I concur, and recommend Londonistan as indispensable background.

Britain, Phillips warns, is reaping what it has sown. A large minority of British Muslims are disaffected at best and seditiousat worst. Phillips cites a 2004 Home Office survey finding that 26% of British Muslims felt no loyalty to Britain, 13% supported terrorism, and about 1% (up to 20,000 individuals) were "actively engaged" in terrorism or support for terrorism.

Another poll found that 32% of British Muslims agreed that "Western society is decadent and immoral and that Muslims should seek to bring it to an end". In the event of a violent collision between the West and Iran, for example, civil conflict might arise in Britain on a scale resembling that in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.

Phillips accuses British security services with complicity in the gestation of a terrorist apparatus in London. Her documentation of overt terrorist activity centered in London is exhaustive, and raises the question of why the open scandal was tolerated. Saudi, Algerian and Egyptian requests for extradition of suspected terrorists were refused, and Arab diplomats vented their frustration over British recalcitrance in public.

A cynically narrow concept of national interest guided this policy, she argues, charging that MI6 (Military Intelligence Section 6, now officially known as the Secret Intelligence Service) believed "that if the Islamists were being left undisturbed to conduct their activities on the assumption that they would not then attack Britain".

But that can explain only part of the story, and Phillips searches for deeper causes of Britain's cowardice. "Denial" is a recurrent theme. She cites an unnamed "foreign intelligence source" as follows:

During the 1990s, many attempts were made to enlighten the British about what was happening. But they refused to see this problem as having a religious character. If this was a religious problem, it became a religious confrontation - and the specter of a religious war was too horrendous. A religious war is different from any other war because you are dealing with absolute beliefs and the room for compromise is very limited. Religious wars are very protracted and bloody, and often end up with a very high toll of lives.

That is not denial, though, but revulsion. The British establishment may have recoiled in horror from the prospect of religious war precisely because it has sufficient institutional memory to know just what such wars entail. Religious war, however, is precisely what it will have, on the worst possible terms, and with an extensive fifth column in place.

Successful manipulation of religious conflict is a lost art. Cardinal Richelieu and his successor Jules Mazarin kept the Thirty Years' War aflame in Germany by subsidizing new entrants into the fray, notably Sweden's Gustavus Adolphus (King Gustavus II), deploying French forces when proxies were not available.

The carnage claimed the lives of more than half of the German speakers and left France the dominant power in continental Europe until 1870. On a smaller scale, Britain played such divide-and-conquer games throughout its imperial history, most obviously by transplanting Scottish Protestants to Northern Ireland. Some in India read malice aforethought into the 1947 partition of the sub-continent. Britain no longer has malefactors with the iron stomach and broad culture of a T E Lawrence or a Sir Richard Burton to undertake such projects.

Phillips soft-pedals the imperial sins for which today's problems are part payment. As Phillips observes, the legacy of Britain's imperial past in the form of Northern Ireland distracted the security services' attention from the Islamist threat:

Instead of studying the Middle East as a cause for concern, they were staring across the Irish Sea at Northern Ireland, where a terrorist insurrection against the UK had been in progress since the 1970s. The mindset, on both sides of the Atlantic, was that terrorism was tied to discrete grievances against individual states. And with the end of the Cold War, the notion of a global threat rooted in ideology was assumed to be dead and buried.

But the Northern Ireland disaster was more than a distraction. Britain has a glorious past, and its role in defining individual rights and representative democracy is central to the success of the West. But real crimes can be laid at Britain's doorstep, including the mistreatment of the Irish over centuries. That does not excuse the thuggishness of the Irish Republicans, but it does help explain the moral palsy that afflicts today's British establishment.

Former US president Jimmy Carter's ability to see the better side of his country's worst enemies comes to mind. In this month's issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Mark Bowden reports that Carter forbade the Delta Force commandos to use deadly forces against the kidnappers of American hostages in Tehran in the ill-fated 1980 rescue attempt.

In his ignorance and provincialism, Carter could not see any conflict in terms other than the black-white confrontation during the US South in the 1960s. Palestinians, Iranians, or other self-defined victims of Western imperialism are the blacks of Selma in the diminutive mind of the former president. But the civil-rights movement in the United States brooks no comparison to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was a Christian-led movement appealing to the conscience of other Christians under the law of the land, and succeeded with minimal loss of life.

Black and white Baptists made their peace in the US South a generation ago. Protestants and Catholics yet might make peace in Northern Ireland. But that is an entirely different matter, says Phillips: "True, the IRA [Irish Republican Army] were Catholics and their adversaries were Protestants. But their cause was not Catholicism. It was a united Ireland. They did not want to impose the authority of the pope upon Britain ... There is simply no comparison to the agenda of the Islamists who want to defeat the West in the name of Islam."

The institution that should understand this best, namely the Church of England, seems most eager to liquidate itself. Notes Phillips: "In America, the churches have been in the forefront of the defense of Western values. Some of the strongest support for Israel comes from evangelical Christians. In Britain, by contrast, the Church of England has been in the forefront of the retreat from the Judeo-Christian heritage."

The Archbishop of York, the black Ugandan Dr John Sentamu, praises the British Empire and the culture it spread around the world, whereas the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, apologizes for taking "cultural captives" through the export of English hymns and liturgy. Sadly, the "cultural captives", mainly black African converts, are all that is left of the C of E. Its evangelical wing, represented by former archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey - a vocal critic of Islam in the past two years - cannot compete with dissenting churches, and the High Anglican side barely breathes.

It is a bit late in time for a national church. The Roman Catholic Church can make a case that Benedict XVI has the right to head a universal church by virtue of his apostolic succession from St Peter, and thus can forgive sins in Jesus' own stead. But why should Queen Elizabeth II, much less the overtly Islamophile Prince Charles, enjoy this privilege? Perhaps the moment is ripe for the remnants of English Catholicism to join the Roman Church, and for British Protestants to find their way to more robust dissenting denominations.

In any case, Western liberalism, including the sexual habits of English curates, does not appeal to Muslims. On the contrary, Phillips says:

British Muslims are overwhelmingly horrified and disgusted by the louche and dissolute behavior of a Britain that has torn up the notion of respectability. They observe the alcoholism, drug abuse and pornography, the breakdown of family life and the encouragement of promiscuity, and find themselves there in opposition to their host society's guiding values. What they are recoiling from, of course, is the breakdown of Western values. After a visit to the United States in 1948, Sayed Qutb wrote: "Humanity today is living in a large brothel!"

Revulsion and contempt color Muslim attitudes toward the British leftists who most desire to appease them. That is not a recipe for co-existence but for escalation, as last year's subway bombings should have made clear. But the issue now is not terrorism but rather outright war.

The British authorities may have turned a blind eye to terrorism directed against others, and may even have dragged their feet at confronting the terrorist threat at home that erupted in the July 7, 2005, subway bombings. Terrorism is dreadful but, like many nasty things, one can develop a tolerance for it. Now it is not merely terrorism that the West confronts but a strategic debacle of intolerable proportions in the form of Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons.

In that sense Melanie Phillips' book comes too late, for it reports a set of circumstances shortly to be overthrown by events. She is writing about 1938, and we are entering 1939, when the West will have to respond to an external challenge in a way that it never could to an internal threat. Britain will have the religious war it sought to dodge.

Londonistan by Melanie Phillips. Encounter Books: New York 2006. ISBN: 1594031444. Price: US$25.95, 213 pages.

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