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Three Great Speeches of 2015

A foreign policy for 2016

Paul Berman
December 29, 2015
Photos: (L-R) Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images; YouTube; Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images
Photos: (L-R) Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images; YouTube; Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images
Photos: (L-R) Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images; YouTube; Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images
Photos: (L-R) Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images; YouTube; Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

My own awards for splendid achievements of 2015 go to three speeches on the topic of Islamist terror and democratic values—European speeches in each instance, which, if you group them together, have a quintuple value. To wit: the speeches put America’s politicians to shame. They discuss the political quandary with a precision that we have not seen during the last couple of American administrations. They vibrate with emotions that we likewise have not seen. They display a stirring disdain for euphemism. And they invoke (in the case of two of the speeches) principles of a wholly admirable political left that Americans have absolutely not seen.

Three great speeches of 2015, then, beginning with one by a conservative:

Cameron’s Great Speech

This was by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, delivered at the Ninestiles School in Birmingham, England, in July. Cameron paid tribute to the British Muslims and their contributions to British society. He distinguished neatly between the religion of Islam and the political movement known as Islamism. Anti-Muslim bigots are not unknown in British life, and Cameron is their enemy. But he is also the enemy of a doctrine that he is willing to name (you will notice that, in all three of the speeches that I am celebrating, the orators share none of the modern taste for euphemism), which is Islamist extremism.

The heart of Cameron’s speech:

What we are fighting, in Islamist extremism, is an ideology. It is an extreme doctrine. And like any extreme doctrine, it is subversive. At its furthest end it seeks to destroy nation-states to invent its own barbaric realm. And it often backs violence to achieve this aim—mostly violence against fellow Muslims—who don’t subscribe to its sick worldview.

But you don’t have to support violence to subscribe to certain intolerant ideas which create a climate in which extremists can flourish—ideas which are hostile to basic liberal values such as democracy, freedom and sexual equality. Ideas which actively promote discrimination, sectarianism and segregation. Ideas—like those of the despicable far right—which privilege one identity to the detriment of the rights and freedoms of others. And ideas also based on conspiracy: that Jews exercise malevolent power; or that Western powers, in concert with Israel, are deliberately humiliating Muslims, because they aim to destroy Islam. In this warped worldview, such conclusions are reached—that 9/11 was actually inspired by Mossad to provoke the invasion of Afghanistan; that British security services knew about 7/7, but didn’t do anything about it because they wanted to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash.

And like so many ideologies that have existed before—whether fascist or communist—many people, especially young people, are being drawn to it. We need to understand why it is proving so attractive.

Some argue it’s because of historic injustices and recent wars, or because of poverty and hardship. This argument, what I call the grievance justification, must be challenged.

So when people say “it’s because of the involvement in the Iraq War that people are attacking the West,” we should remind them: 9/11—the biggest loss of life of British citizens in a terrorist attack—happened before the Iraq War.

When they say that these are wronged Muslims getting revenge on their Western wrongdoers, let’s remind them: from Kosovo to Somalia, countries like Britain have stepped in to save Muslim people from massacres—it’s groups like ISIL, Al Qaeda and Boko Haram that are the ones murdering Muslims.

Now others might say: it’s because terrorists are driven to their actions by poverty. But that ignores the fact that many of these terrorists have had the full advantages of prosperous families or a Western university education.

Now let me be clear, I am not saying these issues aren’t important. But let’s not delude ourselves. We could deal with all these issues—and some people in our country and elsewhere would still be drawn to Islamist extremism.

No—we must be clear. The root cause of the threat we face is the extremist ideology itself.

Cameron elaborated on the linkage between nonviolent Islamism and the violent version:

You don’t have to believe in barbaric violence to be drawn to the ideology. No-one becomes a terrorist from a standing start. It starts with a process of radicalisation. When you look in detail at the backgrounds of those convicted of terrorist offences, it is clear that many of them were first influenced by what some would call non-violent extremists.

It may begin with hearing about the so-called Jewish conspiracy and then develop into hostility to the West and fundamental liberal values, before finally becoming a cultish attachment to death. Put another way, the extremist world view is the gateway, and violence is the ultimate destination.

Just now, in December, Cameron has added to this speech by issuing a government paper on the Muslim Brotherhood, the “Muslim Brotherhood Review,” declaring the Brotherhood to be a political movement whose values, in certain instances, are at odds with British values—a movement whose claims to have renounced violence and terror cannot be regarded as altogether straightforward. Is the British paper correct on these matters? In the United States, the State Department and a good many journalists have sometimes taken a more generous view of the Muslim Brotherhood. But I think Cameron and the British report are fundamentally correct—which can only mean that American policy during the last dozen years or so has now and then rested on (can anyone doubt this?) fallacious assumptions.

Read the British paper for yourself, here.

Valls’ Great Speech

A second great speech of 2015 was delivered by Manuel Valls, the Socialist prime minister of France, to the National Assembly on Jan. 13. This was a few days after the Islamist attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher supermarket—a moment of fear.

Valls: “The first subject we must deal with, clearly, is the fight against anti-Semitism.” The first subject: a point that hardly anyone has wished to acknowledge. Why the first? “History has shown us that a reawakening of anti-Semitism is a symptom of a crisis of democracy, a crisis of the Republic.”

He posed a series of indignant rhetorical questions:

How can we accept that in France—the land of the emancipation of the Jews two centuries ago, but also, 70 years ago, one of the lands of their martyrdom—how can we accept that shouts of “Death to the Jews!” can be heard in our streets? How can we accept the acts I have just recalled? How can we accept that French people can be murdered because they are Jewish? How can we accept that a Tunisian citizen sent to France to be protected can be killed while going to buy his bread for the Sabbath because he is a Jew? It is not acceptable.

I say to the national community, whose reaction has perhaps been insufficient, and I say to our French Jewish compatriots, that this time we cannot accept—that we must also rebel. We must make the true diagnosis: There is an anti-Semitism that people call historical, going back many centuries. But above all there is this new anti-Semitism, born in our neighborhoods against the backdrop of the Internet, satellite dishes, abject poverty, and hatred of the State of Israel, advocating hatred of the Jew and of all Jews. We must say this! We must utter the words to combat this unacceptable anti-Semitism!

These were lucid remarks, but also they were passionate remarks. The Anti-Defamation League put the prime minister’s speech on Youtube with English sub-titles, and, if you want to appreciate the full meaning of the speech, you should call it up and listen and watch. Those rhetorical questions and exclamatory phrases do not roll gently from the podium. No, Valls has begun to shout. Here is an angrier speech than anyone in the United States has delivered—a more passionate speech even than Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey (who is America’s finest orator on these themes) has managed to deliver. Valls’ audience responds, too.

You, too, will respond:

Is there something demagogic perhaps in the crackling tone of the prime minister’s voice? I think that, on the contrary, some things cannot properly be expressed if they are not expressed angrily.

Benn’s Great Speech

The third great speech of 2015 was delivered in the British parliament on Dec. 2, a few weeks ago, by Hilary Benn, the Labour Party’s shadow foreign secretary. The election of Jeremy Corbyn this year in the Labour Party primary may have left an impression that, in Britain, the political left has retreated entirely from its internationalist principles of yore, not to mention from common sense. Corbyn, after all, has managed to label Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends.” But Hilary Benn represents a different and older tradition within the party, which Corbyn has not been able to defeat.

Benn observed that, at the United Nations, a resolution has called for action in Syria. He observed that, in France, President François Hollande, “the leader of our sister Socialist party” (Benn gestured at this point to the Labourites sitting behind him, hitting the word socialist in order to emphasize the left-wing virtues of his argument) has asked for help in the struggle against the Islamic State. And Benn called for the United Kingdom to join in the military campaign against the Islamic State, not just in Iraq, where it is already participating, but in Syria. In this respect, he was offering support to Cameron. But he wished to make clear that, in doing so, he was not departing from principles of the left. On the contrary!

The peroration was the striking part. He addressed it the Labour Party:

Now, Mr Speaker, I hope the House will bear with me if I direct my closing remarks to my Labour friends and colleagues on this side of the House. As a party, we have always been defined by our internationalism. We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have and we never should walk by on the other side of the road. And we are here faced by fascists. Not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us here tonight, and all of the people that we represent. They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt. And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. And it is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists and trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It’s why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. And my view, Mr Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria.

This kind of left, antifascist and antitotalitarian, has somehow remained on its feet all along in France, which is why the French Socialist Party has proved to be reliably militant against the Islamist movement. In the English-speaking countries, though, a good many people on the left have for many years gone marching in a different direction entirely. In the United Kingdom, Benn’s father, the late Tony Benn, was for a long time pretty much the leader of the wayward march. But Hilary Benn, the son, is a throwback to the older tradition. He is a fine orator, too. Among my readers is there perhaps a Democratic Party politician with left-leaning inclinations? Someone dreaming of the vice-presidency? Or of still higher office? Are there Democrats who faintly recall that, back in the days of Harry Truman, American liberalism (and American socialism) used to be militant on the international stage? Those readers will want to listen to Hilary Benn deliver his magnificent oration:

In sum, three speeches of 2015: Calling for a condemnation of the Islamist ideology and not just of Islamism’s wilder extremes; calling for a passionate hostility to anti-Semitism; and calling for a revitalization of the ideals of the anti-fascist left of long ago. Three speeches without parallel in the United States—speeches that offer to the United States and the world an alternative outlook, suitable for the more thoughtful Republicans, who ought to identify with Cameron, and doubly suitable for liberal Democrats, who ought to see in Valls and Benn, the socialists, a model of clarity.


To read more of Paul Berman’s essays and criticism for Tablet magazine, click here.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.

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