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Laura Keynes: Secular liberal values were never going to fill Iraq’s power vacuum


There is a depressing inevitability about the takeover of Mosul and Tikrit by jihadist group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant). One American veteran of both Iraq wars writes: “Watching the recent unravelling of Iraq has been disheartening but not surprising.”

He echoes a view common enough among those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan: instability in the Middle East is a result of our failed endgame. Iraqi forces were simply not equipped to handle insurgents after US and UK troops left the region.

Those who supported the US-led invasion of Iraq maintain that the operation would have been a success with more resources: Iraqi forces wouldn’t now be abandoning their posts in the ISIS onslaught if they’d had better training. Those who opposed the invasion said from the start that Bush and Blair lacked a strategic endgame.

To my mind, the wonder wasn’t that we went in without a plan or resources but that Blair genuinely seemed to think secular left-liberal values would readily fill the vacuum left by Arab dictators. He was so convinced that the values of Western secular liberalism would create a national narrative strong enough to withstand counter-insurgency in the Middle East.

The persecution of Christians in Iraq should have been the canary in the mine, alerting secular liberals to the fact that this narrative is not working. Before the invasion there were approximately 300 churches in Iraq. By 2013 just 57 were said to remain.

In practice the values of secular liberalism have failed to protect Iraq’s Christian minority, and that says something. It says that when there are no Christians or Jews left in the Middle East, secular liberals will find an Islamist super-state on the doorstep and Western freedoms next on the jihadi hit list – without quite knowing how it happened.

Secularists may think halting radical Islam requires just a dose of Reason, sitting jihadists down at a roundtable where they can be exposed to different points of view, assured of mutual respect and understanding – those ‘British values’ of tolerance and fairness.

Christians have long been saying this approach is not working: radical Islamists holding guns won’t stop long enough to hear a ‘Can we talk about this?’

As thousands flee Iraqi cities, isn’t it now time to admit secular liberalism protects no-one? It cannot fill the vacuum, and it cannot stand up to jihadists for one simple reason: secular liberalism does not understand faith from the inside. It does not understand what it is to be motivated by faith, whether as a Christian or as a radical Islamist. It consequently underestimates the power of both.

In the wake of the alleged Trojan horse plot, secularists say the answer to the threat of radical Islam is to abolish faith schools and promote secular ‘British’ values. The example of Iraq should tell us that the answer is to support and protect Christians. After all, aren’t British values historically based on Christian values?

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Laura Keynes
Laura Keynes
Dr Keynes is a Cambridge-based academic, writer and critic with two very young children. She writes for Standpoint magazine, the Catholic Herald and The Tablet. Find her on twitter @LMKeynes.

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