Stability. Security. The peace of mind that comes from being able to get a decent job and provide for your family, in a country that you feel has a good future ahead of it and that treats people fairly. In a nutshell, that is what people in Britain want – and what the government I lead is dedicated to building.
Britain – our economy, our security, our future – must come first. After a deep and damaging recession, and our involvement in long and difficult conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is hardly surprising that so many people say to me when seeing the tragedies unfolding on their television screens: “Yes, let’s help with aid, but let’s not get any more involved.”
I agree that we should avoid sending armies to fight or occupy. But we need to recognise that the brighter future we long for requires a long-term plan for our security as well as for our economy. True security will only be achieved if we use all our resources – aid, diplomacy, our military prowess – to help bring about a more stable world. Today, when every nation is so immediately interconnected, we cannot turn a blind eye and assume that there will not be a cost for us if we do.
The creation of an extremist caliphate in the heart of Iraq and extending into Syria is not a problem miles away from home. Nor is it a problem that should be defined by a war 10 years ago. It is our concern here and now. Because if we do not act to stem the onslaught of this exceptionally dangerous terrorist movement, it will only grow stronger until it can target us on the streets of Britain. We already know that it has the murderous intent. Indeed, the first Isil-inspired terrorist acts on the continent of Europe have already taken place.
Our first priority has of course been to deal with the acute humanitarian crisis in Iraq. We should be proud of the role that our brave armed services and aid workers have played in the international effort. British citizens have risked their lives to get 80 tons of vital supplies to the Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar. It is right that we use our aid programme to respond rapidly to a situation like this: Britain has given £13 million to support the aid effort. We also helped to plan a detailed international rescue operation and we remain ready and flexible to respond to the ongoing challenges in or around Dahuk, where more than 450,000 people have increased the population by 50%.
But a humanitarian response alone is not enough. We also need a broader political, diplomatic and security response. For that, we must understand the true nature of the threat we face. We should be clear: this is not the “War on Terror”, nor is it a war of religions. It is a struggle for decency, tolerance and moderation in our modern world. It is a battle against a poisonous ideology that is condemned by all faiths and by all faith leaders, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim.
Of course there is conflict between Shias and Sunnis, but that is the wrong way to see what is really happening. What we are witnessing is actually a battle between Islam on the one hand and extremists who want to abuse Islam on the other. These extremists, often funded by fanatics living far away from the battlefields, pervert the Islamic faith as a way of justifying their warped and barbaric ideology – and they do so not just in Iraq and Syria but right across the world, from Boko Haram and al-Shabaab to the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
So this threat cannot simply be removed by airstrikes alone. We need a tough, intelligent and patient long-term approach that can defeat the terrorist threat at source.
First, we need a firm security response, whether that is military action to go after the terrorists, international co-operation on intelligence and counter-terrorism or uncompromising action against terrorists at home. On Friday we agreed with our European partners that we will provide equipment directly to the Kurdish forces; we are now identifying what we might supply, from body armour to specialist counter-explosive equipment. We have also secured a United Nations Security Council resolution to disrupt the flows of finance to Isil, sanction those who are seeking to recruit for it and encourage countries to do all they can to prevent foreign fighters joining the extremist cause.
Here in Britain we have recently introduced stronger powers through our Immigration Act to deprive naturalised Britons of their citizenship if they are suspected of being involved in terrorist activities. We have taken down 28,000 pieces of terrorist-related material from the web, including 46 Isil-related videos. And I have also discussed the police response to this growing threat of extremism with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe. The position is clear. If people are walking around with Isil flags or trying to recruit people to their terrorist cause, they will be arrested and their materials will be seized. We are a tolerant people, but no tolerance should allow the room for this sort of poisonous extremism in our country.
Alongside a tough security response, there must also be an intelligent political response. We know that terrorist organisations thrive where there is political instability and weak or dysfunctional political institutions. So we must support the building blocks of democracy – the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the rights of minorities, free media and association and a proper place in society for the army. None of these things can be imposed by the West. Every country must make its own way. But we can and must play a valuable role in supporting them to do that.
Isil militants have exploited the absence of a unified and representative government in Baghdad. So we strongly welcome the opportunity of a new start with Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi. I spoke to him earlier this week and assured him that we will support any attempts to forge a genuinely inclusive government that can unite all Iraqi communities – Sunnis, Shias and Kurds – against the common enemy of Isil, which threatens the way of life of them all.
The international community will rally around this new government. But Iraq’s neighbours in the region are equally vital. So we must work with countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the UAE, Egypt and Turkey against these extremist forces, and perhaps even with Iran, which could choose this moment to engage with the international community against this shared threat. I want Britain to play a leading role in this diplomatic effort. So we will be appointing a Special Representative to the Kurdistan Regional Government and using the Nato Summit in Wales and the United Nations General Assembly in New York to help rally support across the international community.
Finally, while being tough and intelligent, we must also be patient and resolute. We are in the middle of a generational struggle against a poisonous and extremist ideology, which I believe we will be fighting for the rest of my political lifetime. We face in Isil a new threat that is single-minded, determined and unflinching in pursuit of its objectives. Already it controls not just thousands of minds, but thousands of square miles of territory, sweeping aside much of the boundary between Iraq and Syria to carve out its so-called caliphate. It makes no secret of its expansionist aims. Even today it has the ancient city of Aleppo firmly within its sights. And it boasts of its designs on Jordan and Lebanon, and right up to the Turkish border. If it succeeds, we would be facing a terrorist state on the shores of the Mediterranean and bordering a Nato member.
This is a clear danger to Europe and to our security. It is a daunting challenge. But it is not an invincible one, as long as we are now ready and able to summon up the political will to defend our own values and way of life with the same determination, courage and tenacity as we have faced danger before in our history. That is how much is at stake here: we have no choice but to rise to the challenge.