by Ian McKenzie
I like Dan Hannan. I rarely agree with him, many of his views are politically toxic, but I respect him. He’s a right-wing Conservative, self-described as coming from the Whig tradition, and he’s an MEP. He was a high profile supporter of the People’s Pledge, the campaign for an In-Out referendum on the EU, and I was its Director. We used to do a little double act banter at fund-raising dinners: he would do the highbrow politics and the Euroscepticism; I would do the lowbrow campaigning and the Europhilia. He wants the UK to leave the EU; I want us to stay a member.
Dan is extremely good company and the most dangerous sort of political opponent there is: he understands your position better than you do and he respects it. He is well read, well prepared and unfailingly polite. If the Trots had done their Trotskyism Dan Hannan style, they’d be running the Labour Party by now.
Because I take Dan seriously, it was with some sadness that I read his reaction to the Charlie Hebdo murders, and I scribble this blog post with considerable trepidation.
He introduces several dichotomies: we are asked to believe that the Charlie massacre was not as an act of holy war but merely a crime; the perpetrators concerned not soldiers, but common criminals, not religious zealots but pathetic figures. And then, rather strangely, he suggests the public policy response to Islamism should be to ignore its stated rationale as mere self-description, and subject it to ridicule. Seriousness or ridicule are his choices.
First, let’s dispose of the most obvious point. Crime is rarely amusing, especially for the victims. Crimes as heinous as those committed at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket caused near universal shock, anger and weeping but not as far as I am aware any laughter except maybe among the ranks of the religious zealots planning the caliphate chuckling away at their latest advance.
Is there a more serious reaction to these false dichotomies? Of course there is: it’s our old friend the Third Way. What if, instead of opposing categories, all of these things were true? Suppose Paris was an act of holy war committed by common criminals, by pathetic religious zealots? Can we not laugh at their ridiculousness and properly prepare ourselves against the next attack? I laugh out loud (rare these days) every time I watch Four Lions but it still makes me fearful. The film is caricature for sure, but distortion for amusement or political point-making is nonetheless distortion of an existing reality. Four lions is caricature, not a cartoon show.
And try to meet Dan half way though I have, I cannot for the life of me see any humour in the gunning down of Jewish people simply because they were Jewish. European anti-Semitism is back in the saddle and its walk has become a canter. It is very, very frightening indeed. And I am not Jewish. I try, but cannot succeed in imagining what it must be like to feel unsafe in my own country, as that community must be.
There were some who reacted to the Paris murders with regimented horror quickly followed by an attempt at least partially to blame the victims. The killings were obviously wrong, you understand, but it’s downright insulting to represent the founder of a world religion in a cartoon and we all ought to be more tolerant. The grievance industry was at full production. I was reminded of the famous sketch by Attila the Stockbroker called Contributory Negligence. It’s the story of a judge who has let a rapist off with a fine blaming his victim’s so-called negligence, and then picks up a hitchhiker on his way home from court. Let’s not blame Charlie Hebdo or the Jews. Really, let’s not. It’s so early 1940s and we’re supposed to be more civilised these days.
Having shed their own yoke of monotheistic religion and turned on a few lights, there is an assumption made by many decent western liberals that if only they were to shine a bit of this light into the darker recesses of Islamism it would help. As Dan Hannan puts it: “let’s remind them that we offer something better”.
I understand the desire to cool hot heads and calm frayed nerves. All very laudable. The mob in full flow is terrifying. But please, enough wishful thinking. These bloodthirsty religious thugs are killing people, tens of thousands of people, and committing unspeakable acts to those left alive. They’ve taken over huge swathes of the Middle East and control vast oil revenues and modern armies. Hannan asks us to “scour away any sense that they represent a threat to the state”. His evidence is a seven year-old leaked security report telling us no to worry. First, might it be that complacency in the past contributed to the rise of Islamism here? Second, the UK state might not be existentially threatened just yet, but ISIS isn’t just a threat to several states in the Middle East, it’s effectively running one right now. And our state institutions needn’t be under imminent danger for the populace to be threatened. The threat is not merely dispositional; it is existential and manifest in dozens of places.
In just a couple of days a couple of weeks ago, a group of journalists, Jews out shopping and 2,000 Nigerians were slaughtered in the coldest of cold blood. The policy response to those events has to be something better than mere mockery, dutifully extolling the virtues of our way of life and hoping for the best. Theocratic fascists do not have a problem understanding our way of life. They fully understand it. It is the precise reason why they act as they do. There is a very stark and simple incompatibilism, a clash of cultures. They are waging war on Reason. The barbarians are upon us, people, and chuckling won’t save us.
Ian McKenzie is a Labour activist and former Special Adviser to Ann Taylor and John Prescott