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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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The age of hyper-terrorism

Jihadis, spectacular mass-casualty attacks and the myth of an apocalyptic new world order.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on 13 February, the French prime minister, Manuel Valls, announced the arrival of an age of unprecedented terror. “We have entered . . . a new era characterised by the lasting presence of ‘hyper-terrorism’ . . . There will be attacks. Large-scale attacks. It’s a certainty. This hyper-terrorism is here to stay. The force of the ideological fascination is formidable, and if we have changed era it is because this hyper-terrorism is in the heart of our societies.”

The attacks on Brussels Airport and on a Metro station during rush hour in the Belgian capital on 22 March show the extreme difficulty of protecting soft targets in open societies. Some will argue that, harbouring a much higher proportion of jihadis than other European countries, Belgium has once again been shown to be a black hole in European security. As it took four months to apprehend Salah Abdeslam, the chief surviving suspect in the November 2015 Paris attacks, who was hiding in plain sight in the Brussels borough of Molenbeek, that suggestion may not be unreasonable. But the danger is not confined to any single country, and these atrocities will surely not be the last.

The conditions that produced the co-ordinated assault on Paris and Brussels have not changed. One of the triggers for the attacks has been setbacks for Isis on the ground in Syria. Since Palmyra – until now a symbol of the seemingly unstoppable advance of Isis – has been retaken by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russian firepower, there must be a prospect of further mass-casualty operations against European cities. Linking guerrilla-style warfare with spectacular urban terror is one of the group’s trademarks and a feature of the hyper-terrorism that it practises. Occurring only four days after Belgian police finally captured Abdeslam, the Brussels attacks may have been acts of reprisal or defiance. The two suicide bombers whom Belgian law-enforcement officials have named as the perpetrators of the airport attack were already under suspicion for involvement in the November attacks in Paris. Whatever occasioned the most recent actions, Isis has claimed responsibility for all of these atro­cities, and will go on practising its brand of terrorism in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Unlike the IRA, hyper-terrorists are moved not by the prospect of achieving any concrete goals but by apocalyptic myths of a new world. Because this vision is unrealisable, hyper-terrorism will continue in some form for as long as the groups that practise it continue to function as effective forces.

Yet if hyper-terrorism seems sure to be a lasting presence, this is not just because of current conflicts in Syria and Iraq. The roots of violent jihadism lie in aspects of contemporary life that prevailing theories of modernisation – which have guided the West’s disastrous interventions in Muslim-majority countries – ignore or deny. According to these theories, Islamic societies are engaged in a struggle to catch up with the West. The journey may be long and arduous but there is no alternative. To modernise means to replicate the course of development that culminated in the liberal-democratic nation state. Once this process has been repeated in Islamic societies, the jihadist threat will diminish and eventually disappear.

Some such theory informs the faddish discourse of radicalisation, which tells us that people join Isis and similar jihadist groups because they have been brainwashed. Indoctrinated into extremist beliefs, they embark on a career of savagery and terror that they would never otherwise have envisioned. Prised out from their own societies, they then throw away their lives in the service of a suicide cult. But it is a cult that has set itself against the modern world, and all it can do is revel in nihilistic violence.

This is a frightening picture, but it is also decidedly optimistic. If the young men and women who leave the London suburbs and the banlieue of Paris to fight in Syria or Iraq have been indoctrinated, the problem can be solved by re-educating them. Like children who have been abducted by a freakish sect, they can be deprogrammed and reintegrated into the mainstream. In this comforting story, jihadism is a roadblock standing in the way of what Barack Obama has called “the arc of history”. Liberal values show the direction in which all of humankind wants to move. Once the roadblock has been removed, the normal course of progress can resume.

One difficulty with this reassuring story is that it passes over the role of Western policies in creating the conditions from which Isis emerged. Much of the ruling elite of Isis was recruited from the secular Ba’ath Party, in the vacuum the Americans created when they dismantled the state of Iraq shortly after invading the country. Equally, the Western policy of promoting regime change in Syria has had the effect of strengthening Isis (in part by relying on exaggerated or non-existent “moderate forces”). And toppling Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya has created a zone of anarchy from which jihadists can operate freely, and through which hundreds of thousands more desperate migrants may flow into Europe this summer.

But there is a still larger flaw in the ­ruling narrative, in which terrorism will wither away as the Middle East modernises. The belief that underpins Western policies, which holds that the overthrow of despots allows a popular embrace of liberal values, is groundless. Liberal democracy is not the modern norm and everything else a temporary aberration. The modern world has been as fertile in producing tyrannies as democracies, if not more so, and there is no reason why this should cease to be the case in future.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has been followed not by any sort of liberal regime, but by a hypermodern autocracy that has achieved high levels of popular support by promoting Russian nationalism and Orthodoxy through skilful use of the media. Demonstrating a capacity for framing and implementing policies with defined and realisable goals that no Western government has displayed in the Middle East, it is this autocracy that, with a short, sharply focused and easily renewed military intervention, has secured the power to dictate the terms of any possible peace in Syria. Again, post-Mao China is not moving towards becoming a Western-style economy or polity. Market reform, which everyone in the West expected would continue, is being set aside in order to consolidate the power of Xi Jinping and the Communist Party. Each of these regimes faces large challenges – Russia the risk of a long period of low oil prices, China the hazards of economic slowdown. But in neither case is there any reason to suppose they will respond with policies of liberalisation: an increase in authoritarian repression (not necessarily unpopular) is far more likely.

Meanwhile, Western institutions – supposedly the endpoint of a global process of development – are also mutating. A type of illiberal democracy is on the march in post-communist Europe, while the European Union is in a state of paralysis and even disintegration. In these circumstances, the belief that liberal values are on “the right side of history” is an expression of blind faith.

The dangers of this faith are illustrated in Western policies towards Saudi ­Arabia – the country that has been at the centre of global jihadism. Liberals rail against Western policies that allowed the Saudi ambassador to join the march in support of Charlie Hebdo in Paris and enabled a Saudi representative to have a key role on the Human Rights Council at the UN. Certainly there is an element of black comedy in a regime that sentences a peaceful blogger to a thousand lashes and that denies elementary freedoms to its female population being touted as an authority on human rights. But this evident absurdity masks a more intractable truth, which liberals deny: there is no realistic prospect of human rights being respected in Saudi Arabia at any time in the foreseeable future. If the House of Saud is toppled, it will be replaced by something worse – a state of anarchy, followed by a regime that would enforce theocracy and promote jihadism more wholeheartedly and ruthlessly than the Saudis have done.

***

The role of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in promoting Wahhabism – a variant of Sunni fundamentalism that emerged in the desert region of Najd during the 18th century – is not in doubt. Nor are the affinities between the teachings of Wahhabism’s founder, Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92), and the most extreme jihadist movements today. ‘Abd al-Wahhab condemned the Islam of his day as decadent and impure. Practices such as Sufism and reverence for saints were idolatrous; anyone involved in them was not a Muslim but an infidel who could lawfully be killed. When the Ibn Saud clan adopted ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s teaching in the 1740s, this was the doctrine it accepted.

The genealogy of jihadist thinking is complex and includes important strands derived from radical Western ideologies such as Leninism and fascism. There are many varieties of jihadism, whose origins and identities are intensely contested, both by scholars and by the very groups. Some have described Isis as Salafist-jihadist – one of a host of groups holding to a fundamentalist version of Islam that were radicalised by the war in Afghanistan and joined conflicts in Iraq, Syria, the Russian Caucasus and elsewhere. Like al-Qaeda before it, Isis is a hybrid expressing many ideas and forces. Even so, there are many points of contact between ultra-fundamentalist Wahhabism and the ideas driving groups such as Isis.

Wahhabism might have remained a marginal current within Islam were it not for two events: the appropriation of ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s teaching as the theological source of state authority when the present Saudi kingdom was founded in the 1930s, and the oil wealth it accumulated in the second half of the 20th century, which has been used to export Wahhabism throughout the Muslim world, and to countries beyond it – including Belgium, where Saudi-funded Salafists have been active in many mosques.

The commitment to Wahhabism is essential in legitimating the Saudi state. It is also pivotal in the Saudi conflict with Shia Iran. Adhering to rival versions of Islam, the two states are locked in an escalating struggle for hegemony in the Middle East. But Western geopolitical strategies have played a part in enabling the Saudi state to serve as a channel for jihadism. When in February 1945 the then Saudi monarch, Abdul Aziz, met Franklin D Roosevelt on an American warship in the course of the president’s return from the Yalta Conference, the Saudi state became an integral part of the postwar Western power structure.

As an ally of the West, the kingdom has secured the flow of oil in exchange for a guarantee of its own security – a mutually advantageous arrangement, but one that has had some unfortunate consequences. By turning a blind eye to ways in which funds flowing from Saudi Arabia have promoted the beliefs that fuel jihadist movements (and also failing to admit the role of Pakistan, another supposed ally, in backing the Taliban in Afghanistan), Western governments ensured that the “war on terror” that followed the 11 September 2001 attacks would be a gruesome fiasco. (Fifteen of the 19 militants who carried out the 9/11 attacks were Saudi.)

The Saudi case is instructive for several reasons. For one thing, it demonstrates the continuing potency of religion in politics and war. Endemic conflict in the Middle East has many different sources, including inheritances from European colonialism, the follies of recent Western policies and geopolitical rivalries between the major regional powers. Even so, these conflicts are also wars of religion.

According to prevailing theories, when societies modernise they become more secular; over time, religious faith becomes a private matter. But this is to generalise from a highly specific history. Originating in the European wars of religion, secularisation is a late offshoot of Judaism and Christianity. (Nothing like the separation of church and state existed in ancient Greece or Rome, which lacked the idea of “religion” as a distinct sphere of life.) While Islam has produced regimes of pluralism and toleration, such as the one that existed in the Ottoman empire when Europe was still blighted by religious wars and persecution, there is no reason for thinking that Muslim cultures are going to embrace secularisation or liberal values, even over the long run. Attempting to export these practices and values to countries with very different histories has predictably counterproductive results.

***

The Saudi case is also instructive in demonstrating the vanity of liberal hopes of reform. The kingdom can no more be reconstituted on a liberal model than could Iraq, Libya or Syria. In every case, the regime and the state are closely intertwined: if you overthrow one, you destroy the other. In the Saudi case, the House of Saud is the Saudi state – the product of a strategic bargain between the ruling dynasty and Wahhabism. The predictable result of any attempt at reform would be to threaten this pact. At that point, Isis or some successor Salafist-jihadist group would step in as the embodiment of true Wahhabism. The monster the Saudis have fed would then ­devour them.

This is a danger of which the new Saudi king, Salman, seems all too aware, and may account for Saudi Arabia’s untypically direct involvement in Yemen and threats to put boots on the ground in Syria. There is a mood of mounting panic beneath these and other Saudi policies. Levering down the oil price through oversupply may be a tool in the Saudis’ attempt to maintain market share by bankrupting the US shale industry. But it is also a response to the re-emergence of Iran as an energy superpower. Burning rapidly through the surplus wealth that has helped the Saudis to buy off fundamentalist forces, it is a risky tactic. As the former diplomat John Jenkins wrote in this magazine last year, the Saudis feel besieged on all sides. In these circumstances, the kingdom’s ruling dynasty is not going to compound the dangers it faces by implementing liberal reforms that could undermine the basis of its very existence.

When they insist that the future for the Middle East lies in moving towards liberal democracy, progressive thinkers demonstrate a refusal to learn from history – and not only that of the Middle East. Where some sort of democracy can be found in the region – as in Iran and the rump state of Iraq – it is of an illiberal variety that promotes sectarianism. The regimes of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Carlos Menem in Argentina were democratic inasmuch as they recognised the will of the people as expressed in elections to be the ultimate source of political authority; but they also recognised few limitations on the powers of government. Illiberal democracy is a recurring feature of modern political life which is now under­going a resurgence.

Nineteenth-century liberals recognised that democracy comes in various forms, and dreaded the version advocated by Rousseau, in which an inspired lawgiver interprets and implements the will of the people. Nowadays such fears are dismissed as elitist. But the old-fashioned liberals grasped a vital truth: popular government has no necessary connection with the freedom of individuals or minorities. Of course, liberals today will say this can be remedied by installing the rule of constitutional rights. Such systems are fragile, however, and count for nothing when large sections of society are indifferent or actively hostile to liberal values. Where this is the case, democracy means not much more than the tyranny of the majority.

In Europe the dissociation of democracy from liberalism is a rising trend. Until recently it was possible to view Viktor Orbán’s regime in Hungary – even though he has described it as an illiberal democracy akin to those of Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey – as a one-off affair. Since the election of the Law and Justice party in Poland last October, that is no longer possible. Orbán has used various devices – including announcing a referendum, which he will undoubtedly win, authorising him to reject EU migrant quotas – to transform the Hungarian political system into a type of democratic authoritarianism.

The new Polish regime has gone further, altering beyond recognition institutions that were put in place in the country after the fall of communism. The political independence of the constitutional court, the judiciary and the civil service has been curtailed and pluralism in the media attacked. Echoes of a dark past can be heard in reports that the government is considering stripping Princeton’s distinguished, Polish-born Holocaust scholar Jan Tomasz Gross of the Order of Merit because he has noted the participation of parts of the Polish population in anti-Semitic mass murders during the years of Nazi occupation.

Linking illiberal democracy in Europe with developments in the Middle East, Turkey, under the leadership of Erdogan, has swung towards popular authoritarianism, clamping down on freedom in the media and expanding his powers as president to enable greater control of the machinery of state. Brussels condemns these developments but is powerless to do anything about them. Indeed, the deal to block migrant flows that Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, is promoting with Turkey would strengthen Erdogan’s power – without in any way changing Turkey from a semi-failed state that treats the Kurds as a greater threat than Isis. Whatever pretensions the EU may have had as a guarantor of liberal values have been shown to be practically worthless.

The shift to illiberal democracy in Europe (and in the United States, through the rise of Donald Trump) has a number of causes, but the migrant crisis is the most powerful one. Merkel’s declaration that migrants were welcome was at first lauded by liberals throughout the world, while the refusal by post-communist countries to accept EU migrant quotas provoked indignation in Brussels. Yet the progressive states of Scandinavia are little different: Sweden is apparently ready now to reject large numbers of asylum applications and deport many of those who have already arrived. There is a logic to these responses that liberals are unwilling to understand. Open borders, liberal democracy and highly developed welfare states are not simultaneously sustainable. Except where it adjoined the Romanov and Ottoman empires, pre-1914 Europe could be largely borderless because democracy was limited and the welfare state only just beginning. In Britain, controls on immigration were put in place with the Aliens Act 1905. But in continental Europe the chief drivers of immigration control were the First World War and the ensuing rise of self-determining nation states from the ruins of collapsed empires.

Today, large-scale immigration comes up against resistance from majorities that see migrants as threats to welfare provision (and their wage levels). Lacking democratic legitimacy, having no effective control over its perimeter borders and responsible for savage rollbacks in welfare as part of its austerity policies, the EU is finding that this is a trilemma it is incapable of resolving. As a result, the task has fallen to national governments, which have responded by closing borders or introducing emergency controls. It will not be surprising if Germany – following Merkel’s noble-sounding but ill-judged declaration, which empowered the far right in regional elections in March – soon follows suit.

The advance of illiberal democracy in post-communist Europe is part of a larger shift. A continent-wide process of “Orbán­isation” is under way, in which power is leaking away from the EU. Schengen has in effect collapsed, and given that reinstating it would increase flows of migrants to a degree that cannot be democratically legitimated, it will surely not return. However, closing Europe’s borders now will not prevent further terrorist attacks. Thousands of jihadist militants, battle-hardened in Iraq and Syria, may already have slipped into European countries. European institutions lack the capacities that are needed to monitor these flows and take effective action. Given the disintegrative forces that are at work in the European Union, this is not a fully soluble problem.

***

Europe is ill-prepared to deal with hyper-terrorism, but the phenomenon is hardly unprecedented. Modern history abounds with violence fuelled by apocalyptic myths, not always explicitly religious in nature. When in his 1907 novel, The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad depicted the hyper-terrorist of his day, he presented the reader with the Professor, a cere­bral fanatic who announces “doctorally” that the only way humankind can be roused from ignorance and lethargy is through acts of sheer terror. “Madness and despair!” he cries. “Give me that for a lever, and I’ll move the world.” Dedicated to reason and science, the Professor has concluded that both reform and the seizure of power in a conventional revolution are futile. Yet a new world is within reach if terror is applied methodically, and with a ruthless ferocity that seems insane.

Conrad’s Professor and his fellow revolutionists were representative of their time. Especially in Russia, where the casualties (mostly tsarist officials) numbered in the many thousands, the early years of the 20th century were marked by a type of spectacular violence that has striking affinities with the hyper-terrorism of today. Granted, there are important differences. The anarchists did not target the civilian population as Isis does. The myths that possessed anarchists in their campaigns of assassination were not religious; they were secular myths of social transformation. Most importantly, early-20th-century anarchism never acquired a mass base. Violent jihadist movements cannot claim the support of a majority of Muslims anywhere in the world. In the regions it has conquered so far in Iraq and Syria as well as Libya, Isis rules by instilling fear. But no other jihadist organisation so successfully combines ultra-violent fundamentalism with hypermodern propaganda methods and the business structures of a global criminal cartel. It is not unrealistic to think that, in some contexts – a destabilised Saudi Arabia, for instance – a group like Isis could attract significant popular support.

Although liberal thinkers believe that terror declines as societies modernise, the reality is that terror and modernisation have more often gone hand in hand. The aim of the Jacobin terror in revolutionary France was the creation of a modern state. If the violent suppression of the peasant revolt in the Vendée is included, the casualties ran into the hundreds of thousands.

Lenin avowedly followed the Jacobin example when he used the Cheka to create a modern state in Russia. One of the factors that distinguished Nazism and fascism from conventional tyrannies was the belief that a new society could be fashioned by the  systematic use of terror. Violent jihadism has more in common with these modern totalitarian movements than is commonly supposed.

The terrorist threat in Europe today seems unique only because these precedents have been largely forgotten by many people. Calling jihadist violence nihilistic is a symptom of this amnesia. At present, “nihilism” is a vacuous concept whose function is to block out from awareness any evil that cannot be fitted into the ruling progressive narrative. The effect is to underestimate the gravity of the danger. The next wave of hyper-terrorism will not be diverted by education campaigns or by mind-changing therapies. Uncovering members of jihadist networks and those who sponsor and recruit them is a vital task – one that may have been significantly advanced by the reported leak to German intelligence and Western media of Isis documents giving away the identities of more than 20,000 recruits. But the greater danger is of whole societies descending into deeper and more intractable conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Turkey, possible upheaval in Saudi Arabia, and other large-scale convulsions that cannot be foreseen. In these conditions, if Isis weakens in coming years it will not be long before new jihadist groups take its place.

Hyper-terrorism today is the product of an interaction of tangled geopolitical conflicts with the resurgence of apocalyptic religion. Dealing with the threat requires an understanding of this combustible mix. The narrative of modernisation that imagines terrorism can be countered by exporting Western institutions impedes any clear perception of the scale of the threat. The ongoing attacks that are now certain continue a history of violence that has shaped the modern world. If hyper-terrorism is here to stay, one reason is that it never went away.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The terror trail