Middle East

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:37 pm on 31st March 2004.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 3:37 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. I agree with her totally about the critical importance of the subjects we are discussing today; namely, developments in the Middle East. It is a measure of our times that almost every current issue, domestic and international, seems to lead back to developments in the Middle East at the moment. I can scarcely think of one that does not.

Whether it is global terrorism, domestic terrorism, Al'Qaeda, divisions in Europe and chronic anti-Americanism, the Iraq war or the political fortunes of President Bush or, indeed, for that matter, the fortunes of our own Prime Minister, the Israel/Palestine conflict, about which the noble Baroness just spoke so movingly, and which is still spiralling downwards, the state of affairs in Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya or any of the Mahgreb countries, or the overall alleged confrontation—one that I do not believe really exists—between Islam and western civilisation, in every case the trail leads back to the Middle East labyrinth.

Of course, it does not even stop there for the same thing goes for current debates about weapons of mass destruction and nuclear proliferation. It applies to questions about the reform of the United Nations, which is now deeply mired in the oil-for-food scandal with Iraq. It applies obviously to OPEC and to key questions about oil and gas markets and prices and, therefore, to the whole world economy. All these are directly related to Middle East affairs and Middle East developments. Indeed, even history itself is being re-opened as arguments rage around us from the British imperial role back to the Crusades and, indeed, to the story of Islam in Europe long before that.

It is no wonder that it is extremely difficult to decide in this debate on which aspects to focus. In making my selection I can make a confession straight away, which is that I am determined to be on the optimistic side about the whole Middle East region. Despite all the horrors, I believe that the case for hope and therefore for pressing on with current efforts is broadly the right one to make. I know it is obviously very hard to be optimistic in face of the sheer horrors that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, has described: the horrors of the suicide bombing, which I see is now brought to a new low point of evil by Hamas with the ultimate sickness of using young children to wear explosives; or when faced with the ill judged killing of Sheikh Yassin, however much blood was on his hands as a Hamas leader—and there obviously was some; or to be positive after the Ashura slaughter at Karbala in Iraq, or indeed the equally appalling slaughter in Madrid which had Al'Qaeda's fingerprints on it.

I know, too, that the debate will continue—maybe not this afternoon, or maybe it will—about the question of whether the original coalition invasion of Iraq was right, legal, or well timed, or whether the arguments deployed by the Prime Minister at the time were wise or not so wise. I personally think that the invasion was right, but I am not so sure about the arguments that were used; I think they had the wrong emphasis. But to me it is just common sense that the renaissance of a better Middle East has to begin, and had to begin, with the removal of Saddam Hussein, a tyrant who spread instability and hate throughout the entire region, besides killing his own people in Stalinist numbers—many of them killed by gas and poison weapons. The world is unquestionably a better place without him in power. I believe we will yet live to see the Middle East region in all its aspects—including those to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict—a better place as well.

We are all constantly assured—by those who claim to know—that there is no connection and never was between Saddam and Iraq on the one hand, and the promotion of global terrorism and the stirring up of the Arab-Israeli conflict on the other. I believe that evidence may well show otherwise. What about Ansar al-Islam, which is a killer organisation to whom Saddam gave ample space and which undoubtedly had loose Al'Qaeda links? Was not the whole terrorist network of the region undoubtedly set to run through Baghdad even if its origins were in the training camps of Afghanistan? Was not money from Baghdad helping to fuel the hatred and bitterness which has led to the disaster that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, has rightly described in the Arab-Israeli conflict?

But now—after Iraq, but still facing the horrors in that conflict—we are where we are. Whatever the past arguments, I want briefly to offer two propositions on which we should base our next steps forward, because forward it is that we have go. The first is that although it will take far more time than the impatient media experts and commentators will allow or even understand, Iraq will slowly over several years come good as a peaceful, prosperous and pluralist society, provided that the coalition stays firm and committed. If I am asked why I am so sure of that, the answer is because there are strong signs of recovery already. Of course we just get the news of the horrors and deaths—that is inevitable—but behind the grim headlines the facts are quite different.

Today, a year after the Iraq invasion, the majority of children in Iraq are back at school with better-paid teachers, often in better schools; hospitals are all open and many are re-equipped; Baghdad's streets are crowded and the wheels of commerce are spinning; a new financial and banking system is up and running; shrewd investors are already putting in their money; there are 100,000 Iraqi policemen back on the streets and the numbers are rising fast; and there are also contingents of Iraqi soldiers working under the coalition command to restore stability.

Experts all predicted that there would be civil war between the factions, but despite grave provocation that has not happened. The vast majority on all sides, including the Kurds, want to keep Iraq united. All the big players in the region want the same thing. Experts also said that there would be a massive refugee problem and widespread starvation; none of that has happened either. The infrastructure investment is roaring ahead and I hope that we get a good, decent share of it. Electricity production is said to be higher now than it was under Saddam. Waterways are being cleared, sabotage is falling and oil exports are overtaking pre-war levels.

Are not all the signs that, despite many of the poisonous difficulties, other Arab states are drawing some of the right lessons: that sponsoring terrorism does not pay and that reform in the direction of pluralism and democracy, plus integration with the global market system—each country at its own pace, no uniform pattern—is the path that pays? That surely is the lesson that is being learnt in Tehran, in Damascus, in Tripoli and in Cairo, and, in a different form, in Riyadh, as well as up through the Gulf States?

Of course little of this gets reported, but what it adds up to is that the long-term vision of a more stable Arab region is not just a mad American dream. With the exception, I admit, of the Israel-Palestine struggle, it really could be that in the next few years the Middle East hotbed of terror and Islamic fanaticism could become the more prosperous, democratic, engaged and tolerant Islamic world it certainly is fully capable of being. It may even be that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, is right—she often is on these things—that there is some hope even in the misery of the Palestine question. It certainly continues to baffle me that the powerful Jewish community in the United States—most of whom are enlightened people who realise the dangers of Israeli extremism and the dangers of the Sharon policy, which may well destroy his country and not save it—seem so quiet and so ineffective in bringing their political weight to bear. I hope that they change their view and carry forward the right case for Israel and not the wrong case for Israel which so often seems to come to the fore.

That brings me to my second proposition, because there are plenty of people around who deny that democracy and stability can ever break out in the whole of the Middle East region. Both at the radical end of Islam and outside it there are plenty of voices saying that Islam and democracy cannot live together, that they are incompatible. I believe that that depends on what one means by "Islam" and what one means by "democracy".

Islam is not just a contained system of governance ordained and directed by Allah, as the radical extremists who distort the Koran and the divine texts wrongly keep arguing. Similarly, democracy is not just about majority rule and votes—as some people rather closer to home appear to believe as well. Moderate Islam is perfectly suited to operating alongside democracy, tolerance, pluralism and indeed the high-tech age—all within the Islam rubric. Democracy is certainly not just an exclusive western model, or a single formula; it has been rightly called "a contested system", and it is about constitutionalism and the rule of law as much as it is about votes. That I believe is something that all wiser Muslims understand and welcome when surveying the Middle Eastern scene.

We have to build on the links with moderate Islam, and we have to now build hard and fast. I would just add that I believe that that starts very largely not in the Middle East but at home. London, with a million Muslims, I am told, is one of the larger Muslim cities of the world. Because we are still an open society we allow all kinds of extreme, radical, fanatical Islamic expression in this country of a kind which would certainly never be permitted in most Islamic lands and Islamic societies. So that makes it all the more important that now—particularly now—we unite with the vast majority of Muslims who reject all that extremism and denounce it as superficial, as it is, and a distortion of the Koran, as it is, and who want to be both British and Muslim, and who deplore and reject terrorism in all forms or as a solution to the Palestine tragedy or any other conflict.

Arab-Israel conflict may be one of the worst poisons in the Middle East well. But terrorism and Western hatred have, I think, still deeper roots and are based on deeper misunderstandings, by both sides, which we have allowed to develop. These we can overcome by understanding how Islam can work perfectly well together with modernity. Indeed, it may even provide a better grounding for the information technology revolution and modern industrial patterns than crumbling Western values. As I said, we can overcome that by working with and learning from, and not patronising, separating or fencing off, the Islamic community here in our own country.

As I suspect today's debate will show, the Middle East problems are as many-sided and as seemingly intractable as ever. They will take years to calm down, let alone solve. My contribution to this debate is to say that we can start here at home, and that we should do so with vigour, hope and confidence.