This week in the UK has seen an understandable focus on the Parliamentary debate concerning the bombing of ISIS/Islamic State/Daesh positions in Syria. The decision to commit UK air power as part of the international coalition followed a ten hour debate in the House of Commons and a free vote.
MPs voted by 397 to 223 in favour of sending Tornado and Typhoon jets to seek out Isis targets in Syria. Less than an hour later, jets were scrambled from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus bombing the Omar oilfield. Additional jets and support aircraft have been arriving during the course of the last 12 hours.
Whatever your view on the outcome of the vote, the process must surely be an improvement on the run up to previous ‘wars’. In those cases (most notably Iraq), forces were committed by the Prime minister using prerogative powers. Having watched large portions of the debate, I was at least encouraged by the quality of some of the debate of both sides of the argument. At least decisions of this magnitude are being taken by the elected commons.
That said, much has been made about the bombing of positions in Syria. I certainly don’t seek to reduce the significance of committing UK air power to another conflict. However, I am increasingly worried that this is just another step in a range of events which has remarkable similarities to the run up to global conflicts.
As significant a step as the bombing of Syria by UK forces is, it may be worth putting the current coalition activities against ISIS in context against other conflicts. It doesn’t diminish the importance of the decision, but it does raise another question. In none of the other conflicts all of which had much heavier air force engagement were any won without significant ground forces being committed.
The decision to send RAF planes to Syria can be seen as an almost inexorable progression towards ground forces being the next logical step. In that sense, this week’s decision is important but merely a precursor to a far greater commitment and escalation.
Important as engaging in a new conflict is, I can’t help but see some wider similarities with a gradual reduction in civil liberties, labelling of minorities and increasingly blunt instruments being applied in the name of security.
Looking at the first world war, there was an increasing reluctance in the UK to be seen as being of German descent. Thousands of families Anglicised their names to be seen as more socially acceptable. Perhaps the most notable being King George V. His proclamation of 1917 changing the House of Hanover and Saxe-Coburg Gotha to the House of Windsor. Worryingly, the first signs of Muslim families Anglicising their names was seen as early as 2002 following the attack on the twin towers.
More recently the same phenomenon has been observed in Europe and Canada. In his recent book Muslims in Australia, author Nahid Kabir notes the same process happening in Australia.
Of course, many other actions were taken against minorities in the run up to World War II. At least we don’t have those extreme measures being carried out – or do we?
At the outbreak of World War II there were around 80,000 potential enemy aliens in Britain who, it was feared, could be spies, or willing to assist Britain’s enemies in the event of an invasion. All Germans and Austrians over the age of 16 were called before special tribunals and were divided into one of three groups:
‘A’ – high security risks, numbering just under 600, who were immediately interned;
‘B’ – ‘doubtful cases’, numbering around 6,500, who were supervised and subject to restrictions;
‘C’ – ‘no security risk’, numbering around 64,000, who were left at liberty. More than 55,000 of category ‘C’ were recognised as refugees from Nazi oppression. The vast majority of these were Jewish.
Although no such steps have been taken in the UK or elsewhere, there is a worrying trend emerging in some quarters. U.S. Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump recently called for a register of all Muslims resident in the United States to be created.
The next step was the simplistic thinking from some in the first and second world wars that all Germans were a national security threat and should be excluded from Allied countries.
How far away from that thinking is the Twitter comment issued by Donald Trump on 19th November in which he said “Eight Syrians were just caught on the southern border trying to get into the U.S. ISIS maybe? I told you so. WE NEED A BIG & BEAUTIFUL WALL!”
Of course the views of one radical politician don’t indicate a groundswell of opinion. However, the fact that he feels confident enough to voice such thoughts is in itself telling.
In the run up to World War II the Dutch Government required citizens to register their religion. Similarly, pre war Germany required leading non Christian leaders to register with the State. These laws and requirements were some of the first ‘impositions on personal liberties’ to be swept away in post war reconstruction and during the founding of the embryonic European project.
Given this it is perhaps troubling that the UK Government is consulting on legislative changes requiring religious leaders of all nominations to register with the State. I certainly don’t seek to encourage or defend religious extremists of any creed, but I would be one of the first to defend anyone’s right to the freedom of religious belief (or lack thereof).
Those families with Germanic sounding names often found their shops and premises subject to attacks and isolation. This became so problematic that many of the families wrote their nationality on their premises to avoid attack and victimisation.
Whilst it appears these tactics were often successful it shows a deeply ingrained air of mistrust and suspicion which can have done nothing to build social cohesion and inclusion.
A recent rally in Madrid showing support for the victims of attacks in Paris showed some worrying parallels. A young Muslim woman held a card in an act she described as silent reassurance. It read ‘Keep calm. I’m Muslim not a terrorist.”
None of these incidents in isolation mark an indication of immediate conflict. However, it does worry me that a number of these together show striking similarities with the descent to major conflicts of the past.
I fear that steps taken this week will ultimately lead to ground forces being committed in the medium term. I have no idea whether it will make the people of the UK or elsewhere any safer. However, I fear this is merely the start of something far more complex.
My hope is that we have learned some of the lessons of past global conflicts and we can recognise that ISIS doesn’t equate to Muslim and not all liberties are worth sacrificing in the name of security.