"If we aren't in combat again within the next five years I will be most surprised. And as ever it will be forced onto reluctant politicians, and we'll be forced onto the back foot and not as properly prepared for it as we could be if they took the initiative."
The terrible events in Tunisia have brought his warning into focus. But whether or not one accepts the timescale Lord Richards envisages, the parallels between our current struggle against violent Islamist groups and the run up to the Second World War have been increasingly evident for some time. The 1979 Iranian Islamist revolution galvanised Islamists into believing that they could create a pure Islamist state with strict shari’a enforced on all, from which they could then seek to achieve their goal of enforcing Islamic government and shari’a across the world, where necessary by means of violence. What we have seen since then is increasingly radical Islamist groups engaged in violence not only against governments they regard as insufficiently Islamic in their own countries but also against the west. This is not just ISIS in Iraq and Syria, it is Boko Haram in west Africa, al Shabab in East Africa, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Jemaah Islamiyah in SE Asia and many others.
Lord Richard’s parallel with the lead up Second World War is a helpful one for three reasons. First, during the 1930s there were many British people sympathetic to Fascism, who at the outbreak of WW2 had to choose which side they were really on. That is a sobering parallel to remember when we rightly encourage British Muslims to wholeheartedly reject Islamism; Secondly, General Richards is reminding us that we have to be ready for war – both politically and militarily. At the moment I suspect, as General Richards suggests, we are closer to the md 1930s than we care to admit; Thirdly, whilst Islamism and Nazi Fascism are clearly different the challenge that they make to the very basis of our civilization actually has striking parallels. Let me illustrate, starting with the Iranian revolution which is still seen as an inspirational event by Islamists:
1. The use of summary justice which Khomeini instituted as a means of establishing the authority of his own rule. Between 1981-85 his revolutionary courts had, like Hitler’s Gestapo, conducted summary trails and executed 8,000 opponents of the revolution.
2. The employment of organised gangs of thugs known as Hizbollah, which, like the Nazi SA ‘Brown Shirts’, intimidated supporters of other groups such as members of left wing organisations.
3. The formation of the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps whose role, like that of the Nazi SS, was both military and ideological.
4. The recruitment of children from the age of 10 into an ideological military organisation (the Basij) who were then used as canon fodder on the battle field, just as the Hitler Youth had recruited children from the age of 10 in order to train them for the military.
5. An ideology that aims at world domination and rule. The Iranian constitution gives the Revolutionary Guards a specific role of defending the revolution at home and spreading it overseas – which is why they founded the Islamist terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Islamism has moved on since Iranian revolution, it is constantly developing, so let me add a few more parallels with Nazi ideology and practice from the wider Islamist world
6. Slave labour. The latest development has been the reintroduction of slavery in the last three years by both IS and Boko Haram, a feature that had been largely eradicated from the Islamic world under western influence, with Mauritania being the last country to formally abolish it in 1981.
7. ‘Cleansing’ of the land from those judged to be impure. Those of other faiths who refuse to convert may be killed or driven into exile. Witness the attempts by Boko Haram to drive Christians out of not only Northern Nigeria, but now also the country’s Middle Belt, with similar actions enacted by IS in Northern Iraq and Syria. Whilst Christians may be sometimes be offered dhimmi status (second class citizenship that excludes them from power and imposes jizya an additional taxation on them) this option is not offered to non monotheists such as the Yezidis.
8. Extreme anti Semitism. In fact Islamists still quote from some of the same anti Jewish propaganda that was popularised by the Nazis such as the nineteenth century Russian forgery the Protocols of the elders of Zion that purports to be a Jewish plot to take over the world.
As I have said, the parallels are not exact, one would not expect them to be. But they are sufficient to be disturbing and mean that we really should take seriously General Richards’ wake up call.
In the last 200 years there have been times when the historic values of the English speaking peoples have faced an existential threat to their very survival. We faced such a threat from revolutionary France and Napoleon that after two decades of struggle culminated in the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. We faced another such threat from Nazi fascist ideology in the 1930s and 40s.
Churchill led us to continue the fight against the Nazis when others urged appeasement and negotiation. He understood clearly that the historic values and freedoms that our country had developed since the time of Alfred the Great and our very identity as a nation were under threat. It was these values that he termed ‘civilisation’ to the House of Commons in June 1940 on the eve of the Battle of Britain:
I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions.
The challenge from General Richard’s wake up call is whether we will similarly recognise and rise to the challenge.