Bishop of Coventry on ISIS and UK Military Action in Iraq

“Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that when a madman came down the street swinging an axe it was our duty to not just apply plasters to the injured but to stop the madman with whatever means were expedient” – Bishop of Coventry, 26/9/14

Parliament was recalled on Friday 26th September 2014 in order to debate UK involvement in military action against ISIS/ISIL, following a request for assistance from the Government of Iraq. In the debate that took place in the House of Lords the Bishop of Coventry, Rt Rev Christopher Cocksworth, gave the following speech:

13.10 Bishop of Coventry

The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, referred your Lordships’ House a few moments ago to the parallel in the 1930s and 1940s in Europe. I should like to draw on one figure from that period which I found helpful in thinking about the matters before us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that when a madman came down the street swinging an axe it was our duty to not just apply plasters to the injured but to stop the madman with whatever means were expedient.

The Government are seeking to join with others to stop the madman swinging the axe of cruelty, and we agree that stopped he must be. The question is: what are the expedient means for doing so? In facing that dilemma, I have four areas of questions for the Government, which reinforce some of those that have already been asked. First, is the Government’s objective of crushing and destroying ISIS and its ideology a reasonable one? Will we be any more successful in destroying ISIS than we have been in crushing al-Qaeda? Can an ideology ever be wiped out? I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that we should seek a more achievable military objective. It should be focused on binding the madman’s arms so that his powers may be disarmed by dismantling the ideology by which he thrives and by the more powerful weapons of truth, justice and compassion, to which those more senior than me have referred. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, made it clear that one cannot bomb an ideology.

Secondly, as other noble Lords have noted—most clearly the noble Baroness, Lady Morris—one of the weapons that will degrade the ideology of ISIS is the building of an inclusive and functional Iraqi Government. As the United Nations Secretary-General said earlier this week:

“Missiles may kill terrorists, but good governance kills terrorism”.

What more can the Minister tell us about Her Majesty’s Government’s efforts to achieve that end?

Thirdly, if the Prime Minister is right that this is a generational struggle, how can we ensure that the mission does not creep beyond that which is right? In trying to stop the madman, how are we to stop ourselves from being caught up in the sort of escalation of violence that causes us to be seen, as we have been seen all too often in the past, as madmen swinging our own axes for our own ends rather than seeking to save lives, most of them Muslim, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said? How, in the heat of a long battle, will we assess whether our cause and intention remain justifiable, our objectives limited, and our means legal and proportionate, and that they do not destroy the lives of non-combatants? How do we ensure that we do not defeat cruelty with cruelty?

Fourthly, given the transnational character of ISIS, its stronghold in Syria and the complexities of military involvement in Syria, what is the Government’s assessment of the present convergence of interests against ISIS? Does the Minister agree that we may have a temporary window of opportunity to reinvigorate international efforts for a political resolution of the underlying crisis in Syria?

I end with a comment from Coventry’s history; a city that another madman slashed to the ground with terrifying force in 1940. A voice from the wilderness of Coventry’s devastated cathedral cried, “Father forgive!”—not just forgive them but forgive us all. It was a shocking confession of the complicity that we all bear in the history of the alienation and anger between peoples and nations that give the madman the energy that fuels his violence. If our Government believe that they are justified in using violence to stop violence, let them never, and let us never, put our trust in chariots and horses to resolve the deep problems that the world faces today. If they have a part to play, it is simply to position us to work for the things that make for peace.