Sunday, 24 January 2010
The debate beyond Wootton Bassett
Ignore Islam4UK's self-serving provocation - instead, let's have the open public discussion we need on the war in Afghanistan.
When I was invited to appear on Question Time at Wootton Bassett, I did feel a hesitation because of the programme's location. I was very mindful of the fact that this is where every soldier who has been killed is honoured and where respects are paid. Regardless of where you stand politically, their loss is a very real and human tragedy for their families.
But these are more than personal tragedies. Our soldiers and military families put their trust in the politicians who send them into battle. They trust them to tell the truth. The political tragedy is that, once again, we are fighting a war that is based on lies and that will not make us safe.
So it is necessary to hold our politicians to account for their decisions. And that debate should not be silenced. There is a subtext that if you support our troops, then you have to support the war itself; because if you question the purpose of the occupation, then you are accused not only of being unpatriotic, but also even of endangering the troops by undermining morale. That silencing of debate leaves a huge vacuum in our politics, because all three parties back the line that we have to get behind the troops and "finish the job".
There is also a double standard also about deaths in Afghanistan. On the one hand, with the parades in Wootton Bassett we congratulate ourselves that we're so civilised that no loss goes unmourned; yet, if you're Afghan, no one even counts your death. From British politicians there's absolutely no acknowledgment of Afghan people's suffering, or the fact that their lives are not better-off because of the west's intervention - although that is the lie that continues to be told. Thousands have been killed and seven million made refugees, but that's not on anybody's radar.
This dignified and serious debate is the last thing on the mind of Anjem Choudary and Islam4UK. He is a bigot whose goal in life is to provoke division. He engages in these provocations because he is deeply hostile to any coming together of Muslims and non-Muslims. For him, the fact that a majority of the British people - Muslim and non-Muslim - oppose the war in Afghanistan is not something to be celebrated, but is something to be feared.
If we are genuinely concerned about the troops, as we are about the Afghan people, we must have an open debate about why we are in Afghanistan and whether we should pull out. Instead, the airwaves are dominated by the rantings of a marginal provocateur.
My experience on Question Time confirms to me the need for a genuinely open political debate, conducted with seriousness and sensitivity. I wasn't surprised to be received at first in silence, given the programme's pro-war bias, but by the end, people were saying that the majority was behind me. I do trust the conscience of ordinary British people, even if I am cynical about our political leadership.