Listen to this article
I was in Helsinki when the driver of my taxi asked me whether I had heard about the bombs in London. “No,” I replied anxiously, “what happened?” Once told, I promptly tried to reach members of my family. Two hours later, satisfied that they were alive, I felt relief and guilt over that relief, aware that others would not be so lucky. What I had long expected had finally happened.
I am a Londoner. This city has been my home for three-quarters of my life. I desire no other. It is both a collection of villages and a metropolis. It is the home of Shakespeare’s theatre, the cradle of representative democracy and among the world’s greatest commercial centres. I love it for its tolerance, diversity and vitality. It is cosmopolitanism incarnate. This is the city that defied the Nazis. For absolutists of all kinds, London is the symbol of everything they hate.
We do not yet know who did this deed. But if, as most now assume, it is the work of jihadis, even more if it is the work of home-grown jihadis, then it is a reminder that we are engaged in a long and bitter conflict. It is a conflict that has at least one thing in common with the cold war: it is a battle of ideas. It is a battle between tolerance and religious bigotry, between freedom and despotism, between London’s open society and the Taliban’s closed one.
This is a war we cannot afford to lose. How then should we fight it?
First, we must not change our policies in response to terrorism. Spain responded to the attack of last year by dismissing its government and withdrawing its troops from Iraq. The result was an enormous victory for the terrorists. Britain must not follow suit.
Second, we must continue with our lives. We must not huddle in our homes. We must not hate our neighbours. We must live as we have always done, trusting in the decency of the millions of people with whom we share the city.
Third, we must accept that we cannot be safe. We cannot protect ourselves entirely against all the dangers that confront us. Only by abandoning our way of life, even the city itself, could we hope to do so. What we have to do, instead, is strike a balance between the freedoms we cherish and enhanced security. The greater the potential danger, the more careful we need be. But we must not go too far. Everybody now accepts the extra security needed when flying. But comparable checks when boarding a bus or a train would be intolerable.
Fourth, we must abide by our principles, which are also our chief weapons in the battle of ideas in which we are engaged. We must stick to our belief in the rule of law. To violate our beliefs is to embrace hypocrisy and, thereby, hand a propaganda victory to our enemies. The prison at Guantánamo Bay would need to have been sensationally productive of useful intelligence to offset the damage it has done to trust in US adherence to its often proclaimed values.
Fifth, we must invest heavily in intelligence and in the co-operation needed to obtain it. This will be particularly important within the European Union. The freedom of movement that is the great achievement of the EU can only be combined with adequate security only if each member state co-operates intensely with the others. Equally, efforts must be made to upgrade the capacities of member states to monitor potentially dangerous people operating within their territories.
Sixth, we must act ruthlessly against people engaged in incitement to violence or in grooming young people for terrorism. Where necessary, we must deport or imprison the culprits. To do this, we must monitor what is said even by those who claim to be teachers of religion and act vigorously against those who glorify terrorism. We must not let religion act as a cloak for depravity.
Seventh, we must challenge the Muslims who live alongside us. As Mansoor Ijaz wrote in the Financial Times recently, moderate western Muslims must confront this cancerous jihadi metastasis of their religion. We are imperilled by terrorists who claim to be acting in the name of Islam. Only other Muslims can refute these claims. Peaceful relations among our communities will depend on the willingness of Muslims to challenge their enemy within.
Finally, we must recognise that the underlying struggle is over how Islamic civilisation achieves its reconciliation with modernity. Of the four great civilisations of Eurasia – European, Chinese, Indian and Islamic – it is the last that has found it most difficult to accept the transformation brought about by the first. China and India have now decided to participate in the modern world. Much of the Islamic world – and, above all, the Arab part of it – is failing to do so.
Ultimately, it is this failed modernisation and the incompetence, corruption and tyranny of Islamic governments – many, alas, long supported by the west – that fuels the jihadi movement. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies there are roughly 18,000 al-Qaeda trained terrorists at large. The danger they pose is evident.
Yet we must not delude ourselves into believing that the answer can be found in military action alone. A war against terrorists can be won only if many more are not created in the process of fighting it. Ultimately, the fight is for the hearts and minds of those who support them.
The fact that the justifications given for the Iraq war turned out to be false has, therefore, been a disaster. The blunders that have characterised the war’s aftermath were no less so. But we cannot now withdraw without securing a stable and reasonably democratic outcome.
The US now claims to be promoting democracy throughout the Middle East. The cause is noble. But it must accept the possibly threatening consequences of acting in its support, along with the still more dangerous consequences of now failing to do so.
In the last resort, however, the only possible response is defiance. The enemies of freedom have always underestimated their adversaries. They must be proved to have done so once again. The values that animate London are the only ones on which humanity can build a shared existence. They are the values of freedom and diversity. The jihadi fanatics must be made to understand that they will never destroy them.
Get alerts on London when a new story is published