Tourists can stay clear, unlike those living with terror
The intensity and scale of Islamist terrorism is getting worse. It was only in June that we were horrified by 38 dead in a beach hotel in Sousse, Tunisia. Now the black box from the downed Russian tourist jet, with its reported recording of an explosion, seems to confirm the findings of British and American intelligence: that a terrorist bomb destroyed the plane 23 minutes after it took off from Sharm el-Sheikh airport. Up to 20,000 British holidaymakers are in limbo as flights home are suspended.
It is part of a litany of dreadful incidents. Recall the acid attacks on women tourists in Zanzibar or the terror that engulfed Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall. Yet the magnitude of this latest crime suggests a tipping point. Islamist terrorism, with its horrifying images of beheaded hostages, or indiscriminate killing everywhere from Nigeria to Syria, is no longer something sadly to shake your head over as the TV pictures speed by.
The mounting wave of violence, and the perpetrators’ barbaric indifference to the deaths of innocents, is beginning to change our mental map of the world. Be careful as a westerner where you go for that winter suntan or exotic diving trip. The wrong choice could cost you, if not your life, then a considerable amount of time and money. It is a mood of closure that, however understandable, has dangerous ramifications.
Yet the facts speak. There is a lengthening list of destinations to which western governments advise us not to travel. Flights to Libya, Somalia, Iraq, Crimea and eastern Ukraine, among other countries, are prohibited by the Americans, while there are restrictions to Mali, southern Sudan, Kenya, Congo, Iran and Afghanistan. Now add Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh to the list.
A growing and vast arc of the world’s territory from North through the Middle East to Iran and Afghanistan is becoming off-limits – you travel there at your peril. It may be true that the probability of being a victim of terrorism is low and that the vast majority of the hundreds of millions of Muslims living in these countries are as horrified by the capture of their religion by crazed zealots as we in the west are. But who would voluntarily now holiday in Tunisia, Sharm el-Sheikh or Zanzibar – or even spend time in the Middle East if it could be avoided?
There is a progressive erosion of trust. Airport security is one obvious flashpoint. In countries where the rule of law is insecure, transparency minimal and democratic accountability non-existent, can a western traveller be confident that the security checks are uncompromised? Equally, you could be forgiven for asking whether you can trust the apparently friendly tour guide, beach attendant or restaurateur. Any one of them could be tempted by the vast ransom money offered by groups such as Isis for western hostages.
Nor is it just western tourists beginning to vote with their feet. The inhabitants of the worst affected countries are fleeing the mayhem, inducing the greatest humanitarian challenge in since the second world war.
Herein is the risk. The tourists’ instinct simply to stay clear, compounded by the mind-boggling scale of the refugee crisis, is closing down the options of our governments. The causes of the terrorism seem so intractable that to engage with the issue is to invite defeat and so inflict political damage on those who try. Instead there is a hunkering down – increasing the temptation to close borders – and a growing readiness to set aside the principles of liberty and permit mass surveillance. Witness last week’s investigatory powers bill.
But engage we must. Apart from the amorality of standing aside while hundreds of millions of people plunge ever deeper into violence and isolation, there is our own self-interest to consider. Already we have a refugee crisis, but there is worse ahead. Without change, the risk grows that a dirty nuclear device will be exploded in a western capital in the next 10 to 15 years.
The starting point for a response must be twofold, as Karen Armstrong argues in her powerful new book, . First, it is crucial to recognise there is nothing inherent in Islam that disposes it to mindless barbaric violence. Indeed, she notes that one of the characteristics of many jihadi terrorists is that they have not been brought up as “proper” Muslims; they are people from the margins of society who have no real understanding of the religion in whose name they act.
Second, terrorism is fuelled by poverty and injustice. Economist Paul Collier has identified 50 countries in which a billion people live with either stagnating or falling incomes: it is no accident that so many are recruiting sergeants for Islamist terrorism. In The , Collier calls for a multi-pronged assault to generate economic development – creating functioning, rule-of-law, accountable states, giving preferential export access to western markets, focusing development aid on the poorest and using western force, if necessary, to impose peace.
Too much conflict and terrorism, he wrote before Syria and Libya unravelled to prove his point, is the result of a vicious circle of violence begetting violence. In response, western governments have to build states, create peace and simulate the kind of smart interdependence between the private and public sectors that has underpinned every development miracle – from postwar Europe to Asia today. Yet such compassionate hard-headedness – that is neither wildly free market nor statist – seems beyond us.
To its credit, the Cameron government has sustained the aid budget, but it is hardly spent with the imagination or energy Collier demands. But then, neither is anybody else’s. With the EU commission forecasting that while Islamist terrorism continues its upsurge, what Europe really should be talking about is a monumental aid, trade and state-building plan for the Middle East – along with an insistence that Israel start doing something – rather than simply talking about peace.
Nor can Britain escape these dilemmas if it leaves the EU. Engagement with terrorism, engagement with the poverty of the bottom billion and engagement with Europe as an instrument of collective response are all interlinked. The core Eurosceptic propositions – that Britain is best off alone and that all things European are bad – has moved from being irritatingly xenophobic to positively dangerous.
Of course engagement might not work as well as it needs to. But disengagement, for all its temptations, is guaranteed to fail. The tragedy is that what should be an easy choice has become so very, very difficult. Terrorism must not be allowed such a victory.