Former Chief of Defence Staff Lord Richards has just said Britain must stop “sleepwalking” and prepare to tackle Muslim extremism as seriously as it planned for the Second World War. Concerning the threat from Islamic State (IS), General Richards added:
“If we aren’t in combat again within the next five years I will be most surprised. And as ever it will be forced onto reluctant politicians, and we’ll be forced onto the back foot and not as properly prepared for it as we could be if they took the initiative.”
The terrible events in Tunisia have brought his warning into focus. But whether or not one accepts the timescale Lord Richards envisages, the parallels between our current struggle against violent Islamist groups and the run up to the Second World War have been increasingly evident for some time.
The 1979 Iranian Islamist Revolution galvanised Islamists into believing that they could create a pure Islamist state with strict shari’a enforced on all, from which they could then seek to achieve their goal of enforcing shari’a across the world, where necessary by means of violence. What we have seen since then is increasingly radical Islamist groups engaged in violence not only against governments they regard as insufficiently Islamic in their own countries, but also against the West. This is not just IS in Iraq and Syria, it is Boko Haram in West Africa, al Shabab in East Africa, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Jemaah Islamiyah in SE Asia and many others.
Lord Richard’s parallel with the lead up Second World War is a helpful one for three reasons.
First, during the 1930s there were many British people sympathetic to Fascism, who at the outbreak of WW2 had to choose which side they were really on. That is a sobering parallel to remember when we rightly encourage British Muslims to wholeheartedly reject Islamism;
Secondly, General Richards is reminding us that we have to be ready for war – both politically and militarily. At the moment I suspect, as the former Chief of Defence Staff suggests, we are closer to the md 1930s than we care to admit;
Thirdly, whilst Islamism and Nazi Fascism are clearly different, the challenge that they make to the very basis of our civilization actually has striking parallels.
Let me illustrate, starting with the Iranian Revolution which is still seen as an inspirational event by Islamists:
As I have said, the parallels are not exact, one would not expect them to be. But they are sufficient to be disturbing and mean that we really should take General Richards’ wake up call seriously.
In the last 200 years there have been times when the historic values of the English speaking peoples have faced an existential threat to their very survival. We faced such a threat from revolutionary France and Napoleon that after two decades of struggle culminated in the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. We faced another such threat from Nazi and other Fascist ideology in the 1930s and 40s.
During this time Churchill led us to continue the fight against the Nazis when others urged appeasement and negotiation. He understood clearly that the historic values and freedoms that our country had developed since the time of Alfred the Great and our very identity as a nation were under threat. It was these values that he termed ‘civilisation’ in his speech to the House of Commons in June 1940 on the eve of the Battle of Britain:
“I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions…”
The challenge from General Richard’s wake up call is whether we will similarly recognise and rise to the challenge now.