Islamists and liberals, making Hay without David, and my visit to church

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

I have a shocking confession. After absorbing the main details of the horrific killing of a British soldier in Woolwich, south London, I have largely ignored the media coverage, skipping newspaper pages and broadcast bulletins. Almost as though this were a royal wedding or jubilee, the press and political response seemed scripted in advance. The murderers were “inspired” by “hate preachers” who should be “kicked out”. They were initially thought to be unknown to the security services, but soon turned out to have been under surveillance for years, leading to accusations of MI5 “blunders”.

It took the police too long to arrive at the murder scene. However, Cobra, the body that deals with “national crises”, was instantly convened and the Prime Minister hastened back from Paris, only to blot his copybook by then taking a holiday. (As it’s 128 years since Gladstone was berated for going to the theatre apparently after hearing of General Gordon’s fate in Khartoum, politicians should have learned their lesson by now.) Bans on TV appearances by Islamist sympathisers and more powers to monitor mobile-phone and internet use were demanded. Universities were invited to “crack down” on “campus extremists”. A “task force” was established.

Several members of the British public behaved heroically, notably a woman who, serendipitously, was a mother-of-two and a Cub Scout leader. Less serendipitously, she had a foreign name and a French birth certificate. Otherwise, everybody played their preordained role to perfection.

Don’t mention the war

Anybody who dared mention deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen, particularly victims of drone strikes, was shouted down. I agree with Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian: this is dangerous territory. Even if British and American troops have violated human rights, that does not justify “radicalised” Muslims butchering men in London, any more than the post-1918 treatment of Germany justified “radicalised” Germans joining the Nazis.

But since 9/11, western media and politicians have colluded with Islamists in raising criminals to the status of holy warriors and proclaiming existential threats to “our way of life”. We deplore harshly illiberal Islamic societies and try to make them to join the global community of liberal democracies. Islamists deplore what they see as our overly liberal societies and aim to make us join a global caliphate. Some young men don’t need many excuses for going to war; think of how Britons were persuaded to enlist in 1914. Politicians and the media are as culpable as the dreaded “hate preachers” in providing excuses for Lee Rigby’s killers.

Arms meltdown in Syria

At least Islamists are consistent in their deranged jihadist mission. In their jihad on behalf of liberal democracy, however, our governments are just muddled. The opposition to President Assad of Syria includes Islamists who would instal a regime even nastier than his. No doubt British and French advocates of lifting the arms embargo believe, in defiance of sense and historical evidence, that weapons can be delivered exclusively to “good” oppositionists. But surely they could have predicted that Russia, which faces more proximate threats from Islam than we do, would respond by delivering anti-aircraft missiles to Assad’s regime. One longs to help alleviate Syrian suffering, but nothing is achieved by allowing both sides access to more arms.

The two stooges

I hold no brief for David Goodhart – who, in his languid Etonian manner, mocks my shortage of teeth when we meet – but I think it outrageous that he should be banned from the Hay literary festival by its director, Peter Florence. Goodhart, formerly of Prospect, argues in a recent book that immigration should be restricted if we are to maintain the values of solidarity that underpin the welfare state. As I argued in an NSleader when he first stated his views in 2004, Goodhart isn’t wicked, just wrong. He is not a racist, but a Little Englander living on a fantasy island of abstract concepts.

Florence took exception to Goodhart’s claim that “most of us prefer our own kind”. In the narrow sense Goodhart intended, that may still just be true but it becomes increasingly meaningless as, thanks to growing numbers born to parents of differing racial, cultural and national backgrounds, more become uncertain what “kind” they are. As a general statement, however, it seems incontrovertible: I guess Etonians with full sets of teeth prefer other Etonians similarly endowed. Goodhart is a fool, but Florence a bigger one.

The value of superstition

As an atheist, I should dislike church services, yet I was charmed by an old friend’s High Anglican funeral on the Welsh borders. My friend, whose ambitions veered between novel-writing and banking when we were students, became a vicar, and a traditionalist one, at that. (His younger relatives were astonished by my revelation that when he spotted a dog collar, he used to giggle: “There goes a representative of the age of superstition.”) Perhaps it was because he died in the sure and certain hope of resurrection that his funeral had an air of cheerful serenity. But I couldn’t help reflecting that the Church of England has been burying all sorts for several hundred years and that must explain why its funerals are more satisfying than humanist ones.


Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians