ISIS and the West’s Conflicted Conscience

2014 certainly has been a year of mayhem and menace. In the Northern hemisphere, the summer laze has been rudely interrupted by violent geopolitics: passenger planes shot down; journalists savagely beheaded; and all the blood and tears spilled in Israel and Gaza.

These geographical schisms have their conceptual mirror in the fractured psyche of Western observers.

Though it would take the hardest of hearts not to be moved by the grisly images served up by the media on a daily basis, liberal Western democracies, though sympathetic to the suffering, are torn about exactly what to do about it.

Interventionism is not a popular position. Both the US and the UK declined to enter into the Syrian conflict, and the Iraq war is largely perceived nowadays as gross folly – in fact, many believe, it is to blame for the current chaos in Iraq. Conflict fatigue has set into societies that have seen a fledgling century tarred by endless foreign wars.

The UK has its own demons to face. A sense of unease that the problems of the Middle East are not quite at arms length. Some of the tribal battles of the Orient are being fought on a smaller scale at home too: terror, Islamism, and Anti-Semitism.

In these angsty times, television is a bouquet of jarring juxtapositions. Death and despair follows cheery advertisements for household goods and weekend getaways.

This is Western Liberalism’s deep dilemma: to burrow deeper into the comfort and complacency or challenge the horror?


The fault lines run as follows:


Regarding Iraq, David Cameron has firmly said that the UK “won’t put boots on the ground.” Humanitarian aid will be delivered, but the UK shies from any more of a military commitment than that. Barack Obama too has been reluctant to involve the US militarily, sparking intense debate about the proper role of US power. Though the murder of journalist, James Foley, has opened the possibility of broader US strikes against ISIS (so far limited to the protection of US diplomats and personnel and the exiled Yazidis).


How much intolerance can be tolerated? Should liberal democracies actively confront fascism, whether at home or abroad?


This is closely related to the previous point. Reports of growing Anti-Semitism in European democracies has forced countries like France and the UK to acknowledge the darker aspects of their national psyche.


War, Caution

There is an interesting debate between Douglas Murray and Peter Hitchens on The Spectator’s website. In it they discuss the relative merits/demerits of Western intervention in Iraq. Hitchens, speaking against military intervention, argues that though the West should provide humanitarian aid, it should exercise caution in committing to anything more.

The question isn’t whether the UK or US has the military capacity to intervene effectively, they of course do. The problem is what then? What will the long-term consequences of intervention be? Will it mean another protracted spell in Iraq managing the conflict? And, as Hitchens argues, what of the unforeseen consequences? ISIS being a terrifying example of this. Its manic sadism unleashed by the removal of Saddam Hussein, once a menacing bulwark against sectarianism in the region.

But what are the risks of not intervening? One must be careful not to overstate the capabilities of ISIS, but they certainly pose a threat to the future stability of the region (and possibly globally) with the creation of the caliphate.

Should the West care? (Does it have a choice not to?)

The US has found itself in a curious position since fighting broke out in Syria and Iraq. Its aloof stance has not spared it criticism. It is beginning to understand that it is unable to extricate itself completely. The plight of the Yazidis and Western captives of ISIS like James Foley has put pressure on the US and its allies to do what it can to alleviate their misery. Though the US is often criticised for playing global sheriff, it is a duty it is called to perform again and again.

These mixed messages have contributed to create a type of pained indecision in the West: feeling the moral imperative to do something, but burned by past failures and fear of future ones.

Muscular Liberalism

When discussing Western interventionism (humanitarian or otherwise), one always thinks of Peter and (the late) Christopher Hitchens, brothers, who, over the course of their journalistic careers have offered entirely opposing opinions on the subject. Clashing voices of the western conscience; one exhorting action, the other caution.

Christopher Hitchens, in contrast to his brother, was a very vocal, and controversial, supporter of the Irag War, alienating himself from many of his leftist peers.

By making “freedom” the ultimate goal of the war, Hitchens was able to make a moral case for invading Iraq.

He argued that war was justified in the service of freeing the Iraqi people from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.

Hitchens’s “muscular liberalism” was no doubt informed by his secular humanism and his universalist conception of human rights.

It also led him to denounce what he perceived to be attacks on liberal democracy by sectarian (often religious) interests.

He famously got into a spat on the BBC’s Question Time with Shirley Williams, after she criticized the British Honours Committee for awarding Salman Rushdie a knighthood for literature, after The Satanic Verses controversy, and, according to Williams, (Rushdie had) “offended Muslims everywhere”.

He also vigorously opposed the censorship of the Danish cartoon which depicted the prophet Mohammed, encouraging others, in his Slate column, to do so as well.

Not a dollar of Wahhabi money should be allowed to be spent on opening madrasahs in this country, or in distributing fundamentalist revisions of the Quran in our prison system. Not until, at the very least, churches and synagogues and free-thought libraries are permitted in every country whose ambassador has bullied the Danes. If we have to accept this sickly babble about “respect,” we must at least demand that it is fully reciprocal.”

A Hitchens-inspired liberal democracy positively asserts itself. It is not a passive system which allows for any sort of behaviour – intolerant or undemocratic – it actively opposes such.

Blame the Jews

Is English liberal democracy able to display such moral fortitude? Both Douglas Murray in The Spectator and Brendan O’ Neill in The Telegraph argue not.

O’ Neill writes:

Were you outraged by a Sainsbury’s store’s decision over the weekend to hide away its kosher foods in an attempt to placate anti-Israel protesters? You should have been. For this incident, though seemingly a one-off, speaks to a profound problem in Europe today – the respectable classes’ acquiescence to anti-Semitism; their willingness to accept anti-Semitic sentiment as a fact of life and to shrug it off or, worse, kowtow to it.”

And Murray for The Spectator:

There is a whiff of Weimar in the air in Britain. Barely a week now passes without some further denigration caused by anti-Semitic, sorry, pro-Palestine demonstrators targeting businesses run by Jews/stores selling products produced by the Jewish state. You know, like Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Marks and Spencer, Starbucks and so on. Most of this fairly random targeting of whatever business sounds a bit Jewish goes unnoticed.”

Rising Anti-Semitism in European countries like France and the UK is a true test of how committed these liberal democracies are to defending their values.

Fear of causing offense, anger at Israel and a type of conspiratorial cynicism have caused enormous moral confusion in the West.  Even surrender.

 Robin Gilbert-Jones writes:

The Art of Blowback Tautology

Liberal Westerners often find it difficult, socially awkward or politically incorrect to assert cultural ethical values and, frustratingly, this can often lead to a kind of sloppy relativism for fear of being seen as culturally imperialistic. While this impulse stems from an ostensibly well-meaning and modest premise it can be highly destructive, leading ultimately to an abandonment of principles. Some take it one step further however and assert that, no, not all systems are equivalent, but if they are anti-Western they are at least on the right track.

This could be observed during the initial stages of the crisis in Ukraine and the Crimea when Vladimir Putin’s ghoulish visage was splashed over every paper left, right and centre (literally) and people with supposedly liberal credentials were standing up for him as if he represented some kind of brave, indefatigable underdog. This wave of solidarity tended to follow American criticism of Russian actions whereupon cries of “Western hypocrisy” (mainly from Westerners themselves) flooded social media channels. Let us be clear, the Russian Federation is not some kind of champion of the underdog. Modern Russia has managed to combine the most pernicious features of Tsarist elitism, Stalinist politburo mentality, vulture capitalism, oligarchical excess and Russian Orthodox fascism (with its attendant homophobic and Anti-Semitist impulses). Of course all of this sends a fantastic message on the world stage. All Russia has to do is throw its weight around and wait for a chorus of Western liberals turn the argument against their own culture.

And this is not the first time we are seeing the destructive repercussions of Western self-loathing. It echoes the arguments of those who resisted US intervention in Darfur on the basis that they had done a lot of unpleasant things in Central America, allowing a massively comprehensive genocide to take place unabated, or those who talk about murderous Islamic extremists as if they represent some kind of oppressed civil rights movement. These cases alone should serve as an example of the potential danger of Western moral surrender.



The urge to “do something” is strong, but the willingness to execute on it is weak. Liberal western democracy is currently at a point in its history where it is facing more challenges to its primacy since the height of the Cold War, but is extremely hesitant to defend it. The confident liberal swagger so characteristic of the twentieth century has been replaced with circumspection and conservatism in the twenty-first. “The high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

  Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas 1971)

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