Everyday terror: the bomb-making factory set up by 7/7 bombers in a council flat bedroom in Leeds. Photo: July 7 Inquests/PA
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David Selbourne: The challenge of Islam

The author was asked by John Kerry to write a briefing paper on the Islamist threat. He explains here what he told the US secretary of state and why he feels progressives have allowed themselves to be silenced by frightened self-censorship and the stifling of debate. Read Mona Siddiqui’s response to the piece, The Arabisation of Islam, here.

The In Anemas gas plant, Algeria, seen from the air. It was attacked by Islamists in January 2013.


A beheading in Woolwich, a suicide bomb in Beijing, a blown-up marathon in Boston, a shooting in the head of a young Pakistani girl seeking education, a destroyed shopping mall in Nairobi – and so it continues, in the name of Islam, from south London to Timbuktu. It is time to take stock, especially on the left, since these things are part of the world’s daily round.

Leave aside the parrot-cry of “Islamophobia” for a moment. I will return to it. Leave aside, too, the pretences that it is all beyond comprehension. “Progressives” might ask instead: what do Kabul, Karachi, Kashmir, Kunming and a Kansas airport have in common? Is it that they all begin with “K”? Yes. But all of them have been sites of recent Islamist or, in the case of Kansas, of wannabe-Islamist, attacks; at Wichita Airport planned by a Muslim convert ready to blow himself up, and others, “in support of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”. “We cannot stop lone wolves,” a British counterterrorism expert told us after Woolwich. Are they “lone”? Of course not.

A gas facility in southern Algeria, a hospital in Yemen, an Egyptian police convoy in the Sinai – it’s complex all right – a New Year’s party in the southern Philippines, a railway station in the Caucasus, a bus terminal in Nigeria’s capital, and on and on, have all been hit by jihadis, with hostages taken, suicide belts detonated, cars and trucks exploded, and bodies blown to bits. And Flight MH370? Perhaps. In other places – in Red Square and Times Square, in Jakarta and New Delhi, in Amman and who-knows-where in Britain – attacks have been thwarted. But in 2013 some 18 countries got it in the neck (so to speak) from Islam’s holy warriors.

There are battlefields and battlefields in this conflict. Some are theatres of actual or potential civil war, most often when Sunnis and Shias are at each other’s throats on behalf, respectively, of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Other battlefields are in failed or failing Muslim states, others again where the “infidel” has unwisely intruded upon and assaulted Muslim lands. At the same time, weapons and warriors are in constant movement in Islam’s cause across dis­solving national boundaries, many of them of western colonialism’s creation. And in India, with its 175 million Muslims, their mujahedin will be in action soon enough if Hindu nationalists come to power this month.

Jihadist groups, from Pakistan to the Philippines, also fight each other. But for the most part they are consolidating and expanding – often as affiliates of al-Qaeda – in the Arabian Peninsula, in the Maghreb, in Somalia and Kenya, in Iraq and Syria, in Gaza, in Bangladesh and in south-east Asia. There are separatist or secessionist Islamic insurgencies, too, from Russia’s Caucasus to north-west China, in southern Thailand, in Burma, in northern Nigeria and in divided Kashmir.

Warriors for Islam, believing that they are under “infidel” threat, today range an increasingly frontier-less world. That’s “globalisation” too. A car-bombing in New York – which failed – was planned by a Pakistani-American trained in a tribal area of northern Waziristan. Many would-be warriors from western countries learned their skills from Taliban instructors, going on to fight in Iraq as they now fight in Syria. There, ubiquitous “Bearers of the Sword” and “Defenders of the Faith” from Britain and France, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, Indonesia and Kazakhstan, and even Uighurs from Chinese Xinjiang, are to be found armed to the teeth in the battle against Assad while being trained for future combat in their countries of origin.

In the Islamist merry-go-round, jihadis from Libya – after the country’s collapse – went on to Syria, Tunisian holy warriors crossed into Mali, Egyptian and Canadian Muslim fighters were among the attackers on the refinery in Algeria, and Somalis from Minnesota have returned home to join al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda affiliate that carried out the Kenyan mall attack. Ugandan Islamists are in eastern Congo, and a Malaysian army captain was linked to two of the 9/11 hijackers. Beat this? No.

It is not “Islamophobia” that registers these facts. Instead, there is an objective historical need, and duty, to record radical Islam’s many-sided and determined advance upon the “infidel” world. Most still do not know what manner of force – the millions of peaceful Muslims notwithstanding – has struck it. And, with its own arms and ethics, it will continue to do so, perhaps till kingdom come.

Here US and western defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq – what else were they? – weigh heavily in the scale of things. In Afghanistan, despite the loss of many thousands of lives and at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, with huge waste and corruption by military contractors and with reliance on unsavoury local satraps, the Taliban remain active throughout the land. Even the US-trained Afghan army is riddled with their supporters. Yet American illusion has seen victory in the coming retreat, and in defeat a “mission accomplished”, in David Cameron’s absurd judgement.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan, set to recover from yet another western incursion into its land, has entered a long-term security pact with Iran. Similarly in Iraq, years of death and destruction and billions in reconstruction grants mostly lost to local and US corruption have left no stable government nor a reliable western ally. Instead, there is an intensifying Shia-Sunni civil war, with thousands of dead in 2013, while al-Qaeda insurgents have reconquered areas in western Iraq previously “captured” – another illusion – by US marines.

The complexities (and double-games) of the Islamic world are a labyrinth for the “infidel”. It is a labyrinth that western reason, such as it now is, has never mastered, and that it cannot master now with hellfire missiles and unmanned drones.

After all, the political wing of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood calls itself the “Freedom and Justice” party – well, yes and no, and it certainly offers little freedom or justice to women. Again, some of the Gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia included, pose as western allies and host US air and naval bases but give covert support to selected jihadist groups. And what does the western illus­ionist make of the fact that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, and are said to have had covert financial and logistical support from Saudi diplomats and intelligence officials?

The labyrinth of nuclear-armed Pakistan is denser. Struggling with its own jihadist insurgency in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, it is attempting peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, yet there is growing Islamist radicalism in the ranks of the Pakistani army itself. The Pakistani intelligence agencies also play their own games – and are accused of sheltering some of the Afghan Taliban – while Pakistan’s parliament condemned the US raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. In this labyrinth, there are other elements that will for ever be beyond US and western mastery now; the influence of China – the main source of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons – is growing in the region.

There is little in all this for “progressives” to cheer. Yet the left continues covertly to celebrate US foreign policy blunders and defeats, while the naive see jihadists as a minority of “fanatics”. It is not so simple. To add to the confusion, President Obama’s stances, however well intentioned, have made their own contribution to the Islamic renaissance. Or as he expressed it in a speech in Cairo in June 2009, America and Islam “share common principles . . . of justice and progress, tolerance” – tolerance? – “and the dignity of all human beings”.


Everyday terror: the bomb-making factory set up by 7/7 bombers in a council flat bedroom in Leeds. Photo: July 7 Inquests/PA


The west and the US, frightened by their defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq, have lost their way in Assad’s Syria. Here the Muslim labyrinth is particularly dense. For Syria is an Iranian client state, backed by Russia and even North Korea, which is trying to fight off al-Qaeda-linked holy warriors from every corner of the Muslim (and non-Muslim) world, while a political alliance opposed to Bashar al-Assad tries to make its voice heard amid the carnage.

All the while, less-than-notable “world statesmen” have dithered over what aid to give to the anti-Assad forces, and wavered over whether to launch a military strike against Syria’s ruler. Between them, they have surrendered influence (as in Egypt) to Russia, able by skilful manoeuvre simultaneously to support Assad while moving to relieve him of his chemical weapons. As the Syrian civil war deepens, with over 150,000 dead and more than two million refugees, there have even been incoherent western attempts to treat secretly both with Assad over security co-operation and with the jihadist gangs, as heads roll in radical Islamic style and peace talks fail.

Wearied or sickened by all this? Yes. But it is the fate of the impotent western powers that is being determined by it. For the “jihad” is advancing in Syria to the eastern Mediterranean seaboard, while the muez­zin’s call to an increasingly ardent faith grows more insistent throughout the Islamic world.

In Shia Iran, memories of the historic Persian empire are quickening as Tehran’s foes flail around in the face of its ayatollahs’ ambitions and wiles. Above all, Iran has got the west on the ropes with its nuclear programme. The interim “freeze” to its uranium enrichment activities was not what it seemed; on Iranian TV on 21 February Behrouz Kamalvandi, of the national Atomic Energy Organisation, declared that the country’s nuclear commitments were “temporary and non-obligatory”. Iran still has a stockpile of enriched uranium, and still has tens of thousands of centrifuges, with nuclear research continuing, including on new advanced centrifuges. A “freeze” on further enrichment up to weapons grade, and a “downgrading” of some of its existing stockpile to less potent levels, were more tokens than substance. It left Iran usefully on the cusp of producing a nuclear weapon within a very short time, if (or when) it chooses, while it can continue to develop and test ballistic missiles.

It was also, yet again, a “deal” obtained from western weakness, not strength. After all, the alternative was an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations, some now buried too deep for aerial assault, and a new war to be lost after those in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In Iran, the “deal” was rightly hailed by the regime as “a victory over the west”. Or as Iran’s “moderate” president, Hassan Rowhani put it on Twitter on 14 January, “the world powers surrendered to the Iranian nation’s will”. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s “supreme leader”, did not hide the Iranian position. “I am in favour of showing a champion’s leniency,” he declared of the western willingness to compromise with Iran as the Pax Americana wanes in the world.

Nothing could have been lamer than US Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertion during the negotiations that the Iranians had a “choice”: to treat with the world, or to “leave themselves more isolated”. Instead, the US was once more acting in fear and in the impotent name of “outreach” to a foe. But Iran will never be the “strategic partner”of the US as some wishful thinkers hope.

With more than 500 executions, including for “waging war on God”, since the “moderate” Rowhani came to office – more per capita, one might say, than any other country – with its new pact with Afghanistan, its joint naval manoeuvres with Pakistan, its growing influence in Iraq, its behind-the-scenes accords with Russia, its improving relations with Islamising Turkey (and even with Jordan and Morocco), its dominance over Damascus, its ambitions to rule the Gulf and with two warships despatched in January to the Atlantic, Iran’s present course is clear. Moreover, the true secret of the nuclear “deal” was that Iran does not yet need a nuclear weapon, but it did urgently need sanctions relief. With its Revolutionary Guard shipping arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to Hamas in Gaza, it will move on to nuclear weapons in its own good time.

As for Israel, its mere existence, threatened by both Shia and Sunni jihadists, is ready-made to serve radical Islam’s cause. Neither Israel’s belligerence on the one hand nor its seeming desire for a political settlement on the other can abate the proclaimed intent of Hamas, which is funded not only by Iran but also by Turkey and others, to “eliminate” it. Such intransigence is matched by insensate Israeli colonisation, giving further aid to the jihadis’ cause. At the same time, the truth of the Jews’ multi-millennial association – long pre-dating the existence of Islam – with Jerusalem and the “land of Israel” is flatly denied, with Palestinian militants laying claim to the same land as “our land by right”.

Nothing, it seems, can halt the will among some for the extinction of Israel, while Iran’s Khamenei could describe it in November 2013 as the “rabid dog” of the region.

A “Jewish state” is also seen by the holy warrior (and others) as by definition “racist”; with some reason in the case of Jewish zealots. Yet some of us take the notion of a theocratic “Muslim state” governed by Islamic sharia – there are many such states – in our stride. With Israeli security and Palestinian aspiration seemingly irreconcilable, this conflict appears beyond resolution, whether by John Kerry or by any other representative of America’s fading imperium.

After the publication in the US in 2005 of my book The Losing Battle With Islam, Kerry rang me to discuss the arguments in it. When he became secretary of state I told him (with some presumption) that the non-Muslim world is too unaware of what is afoot, hobbled by its wishful thinking and lack of knowledge, and whistling in the dark. In a position paper I wrote for him, I set out a list of the failures that the west, and especially the US, has on its hands. Among them are the failure to recognise the ambition of radical Islam; the failure to condemn the silence of most Muslims at the crimes committed in their names; the failure to respond adequately to the persecution of Christians in many Muslim lands; the failure to grasp the nature of the non-military skills that are being deployed against the non-Muslim world – skills of manoeuvre, skills in deceiving the gullible, skills in making temporary truces in order to gain time (as in Iran); and, perhaps above all, the failure to realise the scale and speed of Islam’s advance.

“If things continue like this,” I told friend Kerry, “the history of our age may one day be written under a caliphate’s supervision.” I added brashly: “Get your aides to read the Quran. Keep political correctors at bay,” and “stop looking for the emergence of Jeffersonian democracies in Muslim lands”. “It has gotten me thinking,” he replied; and after further exchanges, “I agree with a great deal of what you’ve said.”

But in the rising swirl of events, the secretary of state can no more control the incoming tide than could Canute. In perpetual motion, Kerry is disabled by the chaos of indecision and interference in Obama’s White House. He is handicapped by having to make near-simultaneous moves on dozens of Muslim chessboards against generally more cunning opponents.

In the chaos, and like others in the US administration, Kerry called for Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to step down and thus helped open the way for the Muslim Brotherhood before complaining that it had “stolen” the Egyptian election (by ballot-rigging and intimidation). Naivety, masquerading as diplomacy, also led him to compliment Pakistan for its help in tracking down al-Qaeda’s leader. Yet Bin Laden had been protected for years by Pakistan’s own security apparatus. Kerry even “pleaded” with the Iranians to sign up to a nuclear deal.

The word “plead” tells us all we need to know about America’s failing powers. But Kerry has also been buffeted to and fro by vacillation in the White House, excluded from its inner councils – an alternative state department of the mediocre whom Obama prefers to have around him – and has been briefed against to the US press.

His is an unenviable position, despite appearances. For the US to be without a coherent foreign policy strategy in the face of the complexities of the Islamic world’s advance is no surprise. But for it to be quite so disabled points to an unusual degree of confusion in high places.

In August 2013 a White House spokesman declared that al-Qaeda was “severely diminished”. A mere two months later, the director of the FBI announced that “the threat posed by al-Qaeda has become hydra-headed”. Which? And as the Pax Americana recedes into the past, there is always an ostrich – in this case, Obama’s lightweight national security adviser, Susan Rice – to tell the American public that “US leadership”, as it grows frailer and as cuts to its military bite deeper, will “continue to be unrivalled”, and that the US “will remain the most influential, powerful and important country in the world”. Really?

But at the heart of US weakness is Obama himself. In foreign fields, his strategies – in so far as they can be identified – have been dithering, improvised and uncertain. He deserves a measure of sympathy: today’s Islam is the most redoubtable adversary to the American imperium it has ever faced, the challenge of the Comintern included.

In many of its theatres, the complexities, skills and deceits of the Muslim world would have bewildered a Machiavelli. In others, American wishful thinking can reach comic levels. When Bin Laden was killed in May 2011 al-Qaeda, declared Obama, was now a “shadow of its former self”, near “decapacitated”. In May 2012, similar illusions told him that the Taliban’s momentum had been “broken”; in November last year, that Iran’s “most likely paths to a bomb” had been “cut off” or (in faux-macho style) “rolled back”. And so on.

It is the wishful thinking of a man who is a non-belligerent at heart. In normal times this is a virtue. But these are not normal times: the US is playing a decreasingly significant role in the world’s conflicts, even as Islamist ambition and reach – despite the internecine hatreds in Muslim ranks – break new bounds.

This ambition grows more confident by the day, taking reverses in its stride. In the face of Obama’s risk-aversion (or idleness), Islamists make no bones about their aspiration for “mastership of the world”, as Mohamed Badie, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, put it in December 2011. Muslim (and not merely Islamist) disdain for “the west” is also growing; in July 2012, the speaker of the Iranian parliament des­cribed it as a “dark spot in the present era”.

Such confidence, or arrogance, is easily understood. For these are times in which conversions to Islam in western countries are accelerating. Today, one-quarter of humanity is Muslim. It is a proportion that is rising steadily, making possible a Muslim majority in Russia, for example, by the century’s end. To the marginalised and lost in free societies, Islam increasingly offers an identity, an ethic, and a home. In the eyes of the Muslim Brotherhood, America “does not champion moral and human values” and “cannot lead humanity”. Agree or not, it is clear that “freedom ’n’ liberty”, especially in the form of the “free market” with its crazed impulse to endless “growth”, will turn out one day to have been no match for the faith. Tony Blair’s anxious speech to Bloomberg the other day suggests that the big corporate interests that he represents are beginning to be aware of it.

To the aid of Islam has also come the betrayal by much of today’s left of its notionally humane principles, as Christians are assaulted and murdered (shades of what was done to the Jews in the 1930s) and their churches desecrated and destroyed from Egypt to the Central African Republic, from Iran to Indonesia, and from Pakistan to Nigeria. Islam can kill its own apostates, too; in many Muslim countries denies reciprocity to other faiths in rights of worship; and seeks to prevent reasoned discussion about its beliefs by attempted resort to blasphemy laws.

So where is the old left’s centuries-long espousal of free speech and free thought? Where is the spirit of Tom Paine? The answer is simple. It has been curbed by frightened self-censorship and by the stifling of debate, in a betrayal of the principles for which “progressives” were once prepared to go to the stake. And just as some Jews are too quick to call anti-Zionists “anti-Semites”,
so some leftists are too quick to tar critics of Islam as “Islamophobes”.

To add to such falsehoods come the illusionists of every stripe, with their unknowing, simplistic or false descriptions of Islam as a “religion of peace”. Even today’s Pope – as the Christian faithful were being harried, persecuted or put to the sword in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq and beyond – told the world in November 2013 that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Quran are opposed to every form of violence”. But read the text yourself, and you will see that jihadists can find plenty justification for the acts they commit, even if most Muslims are pacific.

Karl Marx was wiser than the Pope. In March 1854, he wrote that for “Islamism” – the word was already in use – “the Infidel is the enemy” and that the Quran “treats all foreigners as foes”.

The present renaissance of Islam, additionally provoked, as ever, by western aggressions against its lands, is an old story of swift movement and conquest, as in the 7th century. Is something like it stirring again? Perhaps; you decide. In 50 years’ time the world will know for sure.

David Selbourne is a political philosopher and commentator. “The Losing Battle With Islam” is published by Prometheus Books

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State