Manchester, London Bridge, Nice, Berlin. The list goes on.
Jeremy Corbyn recently stated that the rising threat of terrorism could be directly traced to British foreign policy and intervention in the Middle East. Is this true? Could all of these atrocities have been prevented if Britain had not been involved in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan? It’s time to analyse if there is any evidence for his assertion.
I will begin by stating that I am member of the Labour party and a Corbyn supporter. I am also an internationalist and believe in the efficacy of the United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Rule of Law. I am uncomfortable with extra judicial killing whoever is the perpetrator. I am not, however, a pacifist. The world is not a utopia. Violent ideologies have to be confronted, sometimes with force. To think otherwise is naïve.
The recent terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom and continental Europe were all committed by people committed to Islamist ideals, uncomfortable but true. They drew inspiration from the barbarous medieval ideology of Islamic State (IS), who also claimed responsibility (although there is often no direct link). Innocent people were maimed and killed. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the attacks threaten to curtail hard won civil liberties and shatter the tolerance that has enabled the development of multi-cultural societies. In stressful times it is difficult to examine motives and ideology dispassionately and to contextualise events, but Jeremy Corbyn’s comments are a necessary beginning.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was not an international treaty, therefore it was not binding unless incorporated into the domestic law or constitutions of individual countries. It was the final political and moral achievement of the victorious allies of the Second World War. It essentially tried to espouse inherent rights that we all share, to articulate a common humanity. There was an implicit expectation that this would restrict the sovereignty of the nation state. However, the nation state was the entity that was recognised in international law. Especially during the Cold War, human rights were superseded by ideology. Alliances of expediency was the established principle. Democratic countries as well as the Soviet Union overthrew democracies and supported genocidal wars. Both camps were guilty of imperialism that had no respect for human rights. The UN structure was incapable of mitigating the politics of confrontation. Into this confabulation was thrown the issue of Palestine.
The Christian West and Islamic Middle East had been in conflict for many centuries and it is not necessary to examine this history for the purposes of this article. It is however important to recognise that political and religious Islam became radicalised and fused over the issue of Palestine. In his exposition concerning the foundation of Israel, Professor John Quigley shows how the UN was manipulated by equivocation and lies by the Zionist founders. He concludes that ‘the Zionist prevarication has created and perpetuated a situation of injustice and instability that has had hugely negative consequences in Palestine and beyond’. Hamas and Hezbollah are both children of this conflict. Muslims saw the West ignore the legitimate rights of the Palestinians to resist occupation, fail to recognise democratic elections, ignore UN resolutions and support the brutal suppression of an entire people. It is true that Hamas has fired missiles from inside populated areas but the UN has also published evidence that Israel too has used human shields in both Gaza and in the conflict in Lebanon.
It is important to mention here that though Israel has committed this atrocity (and others to be discussed shortly), their infraction is not on the level of that of the Extremists in this particular regard, nor is such behaviour reflected in the practices of other Western powers. It is not Western forces who routinely fire missiles from school buildings, it is not Western forces who have corralled and used innocent women and children en masse as human shields and it is not the West who deliberately target innocent people and seek to increase civilian casualties. This categorically does not excuse the murder by the West of innocent people, any and all such lives lost are a tragedy and all innocent lives taken are a stain on our species, however, in a guerrilla conflict such as there will always be casualties; the difference is that only one side is deliberately and consistently using innocent people as targets. Though Israel has used human shields, an inexcusable action which must be addressed, other Western powers definitively have not, but the tactic is used and recommended across all Extremist terrorist groups from IS to Al Qaeda via Hamas all the way to Boko Haram in Nigeria.
The expulsion to refugee camps also provided scant protection as the massacre at Sabra and Shatila illustrate. It is worth speculating if these atrocities had been committed by for example Russia, would the reactions in the West would have been the same? Hamas, through Sheikh Yassin, before his assassination, also offered Israel a ten year truce (Hudna) but because there was no political advantage in accepting the offer it was declined. More recently, British foreign policy has again supplied a reason for Muslims to believe in the West’s duplicity. In 2006 the UN called for an immediate end to the invasion of Lebanon by Israel, Tony Blair refused explaining that though he could do so, he would not. A million people were displaced, property destroyed and many people injured and killed. Israel and the West again claimed that Hezbollah were using human shields. The UN in this instance firmly disagreed and was backed up by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. However, the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem once again confirmed that the IDF was using human shields in Gaza. More recently not a word of protest was issued when the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was overthrown in a military coup. These foreign policy decisions have understandably given rise to extreme resentment. The West have become involved in Muslim politics and coupled with unequivocal support for Israel this has contributed to Muslim anger that some have taken to the extreme. The progressive failure of secular politics over many years has led to ever more extreme expressions of anger.
It is not just by failing to deal with the Palestinian problem that foreign policy failure has made the UK less safe. The UK’s unfailing support for countries of the Middle East, from Saudi Arabia to Kuwait that fund and support extremism, including Islamic State is disgraceful. Diplomatic and economic interests are put above Britain’s national security. Innocent citizens are threatened by this despotic support of extremism. Theresa May is currently refusing to publish a government report into this funding. It is widely believed it names Saudi Arabia specifically as a one of if not the major funder of terrorism in the region. This is a scandalous failure of democracy when inconvenient truths are hidden by representative politicians. Brave British service men and women are risking their lives in Syria whilst the UK government arms and supports the very people who are funding the terrorists that they are attempting to defeat. A German intelligence report has already confirmed Saudi complicity. It was Saudi Arabia that gave the world the toxic barbarism of Wahhabism and Salafism and aggressively funded its expansion, it is Saudi Arabia that has been a lead cause in perpetuating Muslim on Muslim violence in the region and it is Saudi Arabia that had the nerve to cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar for the funding of ‘Iranian backed terrorist organisations’; this move was not one to combat terrorism, this was a hypocritical political move to stop the “wrong kind of terrorism”.
Western inaction on Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest blind spots when it comes to combating terrorist atrocities, but it is a deliberate blind spot. The best way to cut down on the influence of the House of Saud is to remove our dependence on oil but in the mean time we must be clear that the relationship is two way; yes we need their oil but they also need a market to sell it to. Cut them off at source through economic policy and by funding renewable energy research and above all, stop selling them arms and stop dancing to their tune, I’m talking directly to you Donald.
Human Rights are Universal and must be viewed on a human level, a level that transcends race, religion and nationality, where someone is denied those rights through fear, oppression or coercion it is the duty of the civilised world to make sure that the balance is redressed. People should not be forced to change their behaviour or personality if it harms no-one else, women are as entitled to vote, drive and be educated as men and all people regardless of gender, sexuality, religion or race deserve the same treatment before the law. In many nations all of this and more is denied through active oppression. It speaks volumes that Iran has the second largest number of sex change operations in the world and thousands of people are forced to change their gender because their sexuality is illegal and punishable by death. This oppression is vile and needs to be challenged, to ignore it would be morally corrupt.
That is in essence the moral argument for Western intervention in the region. I will say that I am not naïve enough to believe that this was the prevailing reason for Western intervention in either Afghanistan or Iraq but it is most certainly the reason which carries the most weight for morally supporting military intervention in regions where the population has been subjected to vicious oppression by such backward ideologues.
It is worth noting here that Russia has not been subjected to terrorist attacks from Islamic State and yet has arguably a more aggressive presence in the region and against terrorist groups (particularly in Syria) than the West. This is not to say that Russia has not suffered at the hands of this kind of terrorism, they have, but the atrocities committed on their people (Beslan School etc.) were primarily committed by the Chechens, based in Chechnya; within Russian borders. Russian immigration policy is much more stringent than European Union policy and thus the possibility of influx via Turkey or the Mediterranean is significantly reduced, this is also assisted by obvious geographic differences. The Russian online world is also far more heavily policed and it is therefore more difficult to distribute and view radicalising material. Though this seems to have been at least a contributing factor in keeping Russia safe from ISIS it is not something that the West should be replicating; to give up civil liberties and liberal values in the name of security does not work long term and is in essence acceding to the demands of the terrorists; they despise our way of life and by stopping doing what we would normally do and living the way we want to we would be gradually shaping societies to fit with their warped world view.
So, returning to the question that begun this discussion, Is Jeremy Corbyn right? Yes, I believe historically and currently the foreign policy of the UK and the West in general has and does contribute to innocent people being targeted. The Declaration of Human Rights was not binding except for what is called Jus cogens (compelling law). This referred to issues such as slavery, torture, genocide, wars of aggression and crimes against humanity. Western governments have all been guilty of either perpetrating or turning a blind eye to some of these crimes, mostly against Muslims. Torture, rendition, imprisonment without trial can all be laid at the door of the United States. Britain allowed rendition and was complicit in wars of aggression. Most of these actions were covert because their illegality was absolute. These are lines that we should have never crossed. We should have brought justice to the Palestinians by respecting the UN and supporting a solution based on secular politics, but we prevaricated and failed because of a narrow and short sighted world view. Extremism filled the vacuum. That being said, we are where we are. I believe Islamic State is the enemy of decent and religious Muslims everywhere who make up the vast majority of the 1.2 billion believers. It is a medieval interpretation of scripture that shows no respect for women or human dignity. It is not amenable to compromise and negotiation and therefore must be confronted by force. Foreign policy must change toward the Arab states funding this poison as part of a coordinated strategy to bring about the demise of this vicious death cult. Finally, we must no longer speak in euphemisms about this issue, we need to address this head on in our discourse and provide accurate and evidenced counter-narratives to that which these groups put out, the West is to blame for the rising tide of Extremism, but to simply say this and only this would be to excuse and justify the despicable actions committed by these groups on innocent people. Unless we do this, any further intervention will slot into their narrative regardless of how well intentioned, in this instance, Western action may be.
I fear that we have missed so many opportunities to engage with the less violent manifestations of the Islamic world that although we may remove Islamic State from the land they occupy, their extremism and threat to innocent civilians both at home and in the Middle East will endure.
 John Quigley, The International Diplomacy of Israel’s Founders: Deception at the United Nations in the Quest for Palestine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016) p. 235.