The debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday was about deploying UK forces and weaponry in Syria; but the MPs themselves managed to deploy plenty of colourful language. Murderous, monstrous, medieval, mad, homicidal, death cult – at times it almost looked like a competition to see who could come up with the most condemnatory description – preferably involving at least a couple of alliterative ’m’s.
It’s generally easier to justify killing people if they can first be demonised and made into something ‘other’. It’s a technique which has long been used against the ‘enemy’, whoever he may be at any particular time. But serving the needs of those who seek to solve problems by aerial bombardment is not the same thing as serving the need to build a more peaceful world. When it comes to defeating an ideology, demonization is as blunt an instrument as a bomb.
Some MPs – including Hilary Benn whose ‘summing up’ was almost the exact opposite of my understanding of the meaning of the term – deployed the ever-useful word ‘fascist’ to describe IS.
It’s true of course that IS (which, for reasons that I don’t pretend to understand, is a term which apparently may only ever be used if preceded by the words “so-called”, in a classic example of the way in which the BBC in particular use language to present a viewpoint rather than merely the facts) tolerate no dissent or alternative views. And it’s true that fascists tend to take a similar position. But it isn’t only fascists who take that position; and nor is such a position a necessary and inevitable concomitant of fascism. It is not, in short, an adequate reason for determining that any individual or group is a fascist.
Labelling people is never any substitute for debate; indeed, it is often an obstacle to rational debate. And ultimately, debate and the presentation of alternative ideas are necessary steps in defeating any set of ideas. That’s not to say that there’s any hope or prospect of rational debate with the leaders of IS, so-called or not. But not all its supporters or fighters are absolutists. There are all sorts of reasons why some people have thrown in (or might be tempted to do so) their lot with an absolutist leadership. Amongst those reasons are perceived or actual past injustices and conflicts, and religious differences internal to Islam.
Any meaningful long term strategy to defeat IS must surely include attempts at dialogue and understanding with those less absolutist supporters and potential supporters. It’s likely to be a lengthy and frustrating process. But bombing them with high-tech munitions – or simply labelling them with ever more pejorative insults – looks more likely to be counter-productive in the long run.
Perhaps it might help at least a little if we were to examine some of our own, fairly recent in historical terms, cultural norms. We suffer from a prevailing attitude of short-termism, of demanding results and demanding them now. In politics, the horizon rarely stretches further than the next election – and sometimes no further than tomorrow’s headline. We’re used to rapid change.
But human history – real human history in its grand sweep of movements and ideas – doesn’t work that way. Change may sometimes appear sudden, but analysis invariably reveals that the roots of even very sudden change go back a long way. I agree with the wish of most of the world to see the defeat of the sort of absolutism which underpins movements like IS. But the idea that that can be done quickly or militarily doesn’t sit easily with my understanding of human history.