Bishop of Chester says soft power crucial to future UK influence in Middle East

On 4th July 2017 Lord Howell of Guildford moved “that this House takes note of the Report from the International Relations Committee The Middle East: Time for a New Realism (2nd Report, Session 2016–17 HL Paper 159).” The Bishop of Chester, Rt Revd Peter Forster, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, in my contribution to our debate on these complex matters, I will comment on two areas. I do so with great appreciation for the report, so comprehensively introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Howell. It is full of excellent, empirical detail. We ought also to pay attention to certain overarching factors or narratives.

For my first point, I go back 30 years to the excellent BBC series presented by the historian John Roberts, “The Triumph of the West”. A book of that ​title was published to accompany the series. I reread it recently and thought how perceptive and prescient it was. Perhaps politically correct censors would not allow the title these days, but John Roberts’ compelling thesis was that the essential message of contemporary history was the dominance and penetration of western civilisation, driven on by the power unleashed by modern science. The term “globalisation” had yet to be coined, but in part of course it names the phenomenon. Modern science derives from western European civilisation from the 16th century onwards and carries many of the implicit assumptions of our culture. John Roberts’ name is not as well known these days as it should be. I knew him a little because he was a history don and later warden of my old college, Merton, although in those days I was an unreconstructed and perhaps even reprobate chemist. Sadly, he died prematurely but his works are still worth reading again, as I say.

Modern rejection of western civilisation, often presented in what I agree is a false Islamic guise, can probably best be seen as a kick-back against the very triumph and hegemony of that which it protests against. Of course, ironies abound, as when the report says that the IS/Daesh conquest of Mosul in 2014 was enabled in part by 40,000 tweets on Twitter in one day by the conquering forces. They use the products of western civilisation in their very protest against it. Unless we understand better the underlying dynamics of what is driving events, our political responses are likely to be either ineffective or even counterproductive. Although the term “culture wars” can be overplayed, there is a significant element of truth in that description of what is going on today, focused in a particular way in the Middle East.

Secondly, and following on from this, we need to recognise, as the report does, that our reaction to the various events we call the Arab spring was far too naive, simplistic and, indeed, optimistic. The report calls our reaction “muddled”. We were too optimistic that the Iraq war would usher in modern, western standards of democracy and human rights. We were much too optimistic in our backing of the original protest and rebel groups in Syria, as we are gradually coming to realise. In saying this, I recognise the monstrous character of the behaviour of Saddam Hussein and of President Assad—certainly of the forces under his control. But despite the appalling dimensions to their character and behaviour, we also need to acknowledge the downside of the chaos in Iraq since the end of the war and in Syria since the uprising began there. In Iraq, for example, it is estimated that more than three-quarters of the Christian population has either fled abroad or been killed.

Warnings went unheeded. I used to be a member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, which comprises about 150 representatives from around the global Church. I recall six or seven years ago the anguish of two Syrian Christian leaders at the support of western Governments for the anti-Assad forces. Despite his other failings, Assad had protected the minority communities in Syria, and they feared that this protection would disappear, which is exactly what has happened. The experience of the substantial Christian communities in Syria has been a sad and sorry tale of displacement and persecution. The report touches on ​these matters, but I think it could more honestly and fully acknowledge the—entirely well-motivated—failures of western policy in Syria, not least in relation to other religious minorities.

I have said nothing about the Israeli dimension to the situation, although Israel is the country in the area that I know best. I have visited it half a dozen or more times while I have been a Bishop and I have taken more than 500 people from my diocese on pilgrimage visits there, including more than 100 just a few weeks ago. We will be debating Israel tomorrow in relation to the Balfour Declaration, but let me tie it in in this way: Israel represents—or presents itself as—a highly economically successful, militarily sophisticated and powerful western state. That is how it actually impacts when one goes there. In its own way, it testifies to the triumph of the West in the midst of Arab and Muslim cultures that can find this very difficult to accept and accommodate. Our policies in the Middle East need to take a careful and sophisticated account of these underlying cultural and, yes, religious issues. The religious side could be overplayed, but I think the report tends to underplay it.

My conclusion, which the report echoes here and there, is that our future influence in the region will rely much more on soft power than coercive or military approaches, with education and aid to the fore. Indeed, quite a lot of our foreign aid already goes to the region, but education has been underplayed in what the report calls a “transactional” emphasis in our relationships with the countries of the region, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, has just so clearly explained. Somehow we and other western countries need to appear less “in the face”—if I may put it that way—of the countries of the Middle East, seeking less cultural dominance, as it is perceived by them, and a greater spirit of collaboration as the countries of the area evolve in our irreversibly global world.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)… Another consequence has been the spread of a murderous ideology that has no respect for the sanctity of human life, a point referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester earlier today. Perhaps the Select Committee could use a future report to examine our response to outright genocide and the slaughter of the region’s minorities. A region without diversity and without minorities will of course also be a far worse place for the majority too.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con):…Many of the challenges are long standing. Their roots reach back decades, perhaps even centuries. Some reflect challenges faced in many parts of the world such as a feeling of disempowerment, particularly among young people, as we have heard today from the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, among others, and demands for better governance and economic opportunities to meet people’s hopes and aspirations. These were some of the underlying issues that led to the so-called Arab spring in 2011 but by 2017, as we have heard, the early shoots of hope have long withered away. The issues were bubbling away under the surface but the Arab spring still came as a surprise to many inside and outside the region. As pointed out by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, hindsight is a wonderful thing and the reactions to it might have been somewhat different.



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