How would Churchill have answered the Islamist threat?

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    How would Churchill have answered the Islamist threat?
    Ben Macintyre


    NEVER IN THE field of human conflict was one man so widely quoted by so many. John F. Kennedy once observed that Winston Churchill “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”. Today, facing a new enemy, that powerful army of oratory is marching off to war again.

    Churchill is embedded in Tony Blair’s rhetoric, and behind every reference to the “Blitz spirit”. A brooding, bulldog bust of Churchill is prominently displayed in the Oval Office by George W. Bush, while Eliot Cohen’s stirring account of Churchill’s wartime leadership is required reading in the White House.

    For the Right, Churchill is the hero who stood up to tyranny when others looked away, the personification of the Anglo-American alliance: Osama bin Laden is linked, often simplistically, to Hitler, and those who fail to sign up enthusiastically for the War on Terror are therefore labelled appeasers. To some on the Left, however, Churchill is himself the tyrant, the arch-imperialist who drew the borders of Iraq (which he did), and advocated using poison gas on Arab tribes (which he did not — he favoured tear gas specifically to limit the bloodshed).

    The tug-of-war over his reputation would have come as no surprise to Churchill. He knew that it was the historian’s privilege to shape the future, as well as to record the past, and once remarked that he would ensure his place in history, because he intended to write it; historians, politicians and pundits are still writing it, and never more urgently than at times of national insecurity.

    Churchill had an uncanny ability to frame emotional tumult, personal sacrifice and human conflict in a unique form of political poetry that was instantly timeless. His words from February 1934 seem grimly appropriate: “I have lived through a period when one looked forward, as we do now, with anxiety and uncertainty to what would happen in the future . . . Suddenly something did happen: tremendous, swift, overpowering, irresistible.”

    It is reasonable to ask what Churchill, a man so acutely aware of his own historical legacy, might have made of the worst terrorist attack on British soil. He would, I think, have snorted at the facile comparisons between the deaths caused by the attacks of 7/7 and the pounding, nightly horror of the Blitz. But he would surely have commended the “business as usual” attitude of most Londoners, and the outpouring of resistance on the internet, with its spontaneous black humour.

    From a broader perspective, he might well have backed the invasion of Afghanistan and the toppling of the Taleban, an identifiable regime with a putrid ideology posing an imminent danger to British subjects. I am less convinced that he would have supported the war in Iraq. At the time of the Mesopotamia campaign in 1917, Churchill had seen the British Army march on Baghdad to take control of the oilfields and topple a brutal regime, only to become embroiled in a bloody quagmire. Churchill also knew that the “highest moral value” attaches to striking the second blow, to responding to provocation: he would not, I believe, have started a pre-emptive war. (Saddam was another avid Churchill fan: “We will fight them on the streets, from the rooftops, house to house . . . ” he told George Galloway, shortly before running away to hide in a hole in the ground.)

    For such a determined personality, Churchill could be maddeningly inconsistent. Yet on the issue of Islamic fundamentalism, his views were pungent, precise and astonishingly prescient. In The River War, his account of the reconquest of the Sudan that ended in the battle of Omdurman in 1898, Churchill anticipated many of the themes that preoccupy us today: the nature of terrorism, Islamic fanaticism and the clash of civilisations between the Islamic world and the West.

    “Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytising faith,” he wrote after going into battle himself against the Dervishes, the followers of the Mahdi, the self-proclaimed prophet of Islam who had launched a mass rebellion to drive the infidels out of Egypt. Churchill writes as an enthusiastic imperialist, comparing the “fanatical frenzy” of the Mahdi’s followers to rabid dogs. But his analysis is more nuanced than the language suggests. He understood that extremism flourished amid the “fearful fatalistic apathy” in the Muslim world — precisely the apathy that Britain’s Muslim communities must now urgently combat. Rather than condemn the Dervishes as mere lunatics (as many of his contemporaries did), he sought to understand their suicidal bravery through the “mighty stimulus of fanaticism”.

    In a passage that presages his staunch resistance to Nazism 40 years later, he wrote: “I hope that if evil days should come upon our own country, and the last army which a collapsing Empire could interpose between London and the invader were dissolving in rout and ruin, that there would be some . . . who would not care to accustom themselves to a new order of things and tamely survive the disaster.”

    For in the end, Churchill saw the Sudan campaign as a conflict between barbarity and civilisation. Of the battle of Omdurman he wrote: “Civilisation — elsewhere sympathetic, merciful, tolerant, ready to discuss or argue, eager to avoid violence, to submit to law, to effect compromise — here advanced with an expression of inexorable sternness.”

    That, undoubtedly, would have been Churchill’s response to the suicide bombings in London: these are not disasters to be “tamely survived” but an immoral assault on civilised values, to be fought with “inexorable sternness”.

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,1068-1704794,00.html
     

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