Like many a “hawkish” liberal before him, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair crossed over to the dark side of neo-conservatism. This was on display last week in a keynote address Blair delivered at Bloomberg’s London headquarters. After reading and rereading the speech, “Why the Middle East Matters”, I was struck by how similar it was to the “agitprop” used by George W. Bush in the lead-up to the Iraq war.
Like Bush, Blair began and ended his Bloomberg speech on an alarmist note, designed to mobilize the public by preying on fear. Troubled that in the post-Iraq war era, public opinion in the West has become weary and wary of any further Middle East adventures, he sought to frighten his audience into joining the fight against what he called this century’s “biggest threat to global security”— radical, extremist Islam. In near hysterical language he warned that this “radicalized and politicized view of Islam…is growing. It is spreading across the world…And in the face of this threat we seem…powerless to counter it effectively.” In the stark, apocalyptic Manichean language, so-loved by the neo-cons, Blair terms this conflict between good and evil as “the essential battle” of our time— one in which “we must take a side.”
Why does it matter that we engage this fight and defeat radical Islam in the Middle East? Blair posits four reasons: oil, its proximity to Europe, Israel, and the future of Islam. It is this last item that receives the lion’s share of Blair’s attention as he fixates on the conflict between those in the Muslim world who hold a tolerant view of religion and those who motivated by extremist tendencies.
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For Blair, the Middle East is the epicenter of this dangerous extremism. It was Arab Muslims who created it and it was they who exported it to the world. He goes on to claim that when extremist Islam is found in other places, among, for example, Indonesians, Malaysians or European Muslims, they “didn’t originate these ideas …they imported them” from the Middle East.
As has become the pattern favored by neo-conservatives, Blair makes a perfunctory effort to establish that he is not speaking about Islam, as such, only its extremist currents. But in the end, his condemnation is so sweeping that he appears to be conflating the Arab World, Islam, and extremism. And while he suggests that conflicts in each region should be understood in their own unique context, Blair makes no bones about the fact that, for him, at the root of each of these conflicts is the very same radical Islam.
All of this leads Blair to the conclusion that the Middle East does, in fact, matter for the West since turmoil within that region and extremism exported from the Middle East poses a threat to oil, Israel, and the security of Europe. His recommendation: “we must”, he says, “take sides” and join the fight against Islamic extremism. So urgent is his need to wage this “essential battle” that Blair proposes partnering with Russia and China whom, he says, are facing the same threat. He even suggests supporting the Assad government in order to defeat extremists who are gaining ground in that country’s long war.
What I found particularly striking about the entire speech, were Blair’s extraordinary efforts to absolve himself from the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and from the West’s unprincipled and failed approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace-making. For Blair, the reason why the efforts to liberate Iraq and Afghanistan failed to produce democracies was because of extremist and intolerant Islam. And the reason why the Middle East peace process has failed? Once again, he suggests that the culprit is radical Islam.
Such facile nonsense may allow Blair to sleep at night, but it neither explains the reasons for the West’s failures, nor does it explain the root causes of extremism or how to deal with it.
Furthermore, by suggesting that the extremist ideas were simply imported and taught, Blair ignores the actual causes of such movements. The notion that an ideology is “imported” is but a trite observation that Blair attempts to elevate to a profound conclusion. In no way does it explain why this ideology, or any other ideology, gains ground and finds receptive audiences in parts of the Middle East, Asia, and Europe.
A simple lesson for Blair to learn is that just because an idea exists or is preached from a pulpit or podium, in no way guarantees that it will find adherents. For any idea system to spread, it is necessary for conditions to exist that render audiences responsive to its message. In the case of radical, violent extremism, its root causes are: profound economic and/or social dislocation (that may result from war, occupation, massive unemployment, and forced population migrations) or psychological alienation (that may result from repression or policies of discrimination and exclusion).
Seen in this light, the causes for the growth of the particular extremism that concerns Tony Blair can be as varied as his own war in Iraq, or the West’s silence in the face of Israel’s humiliating treatment of Palestinians, or Russia’s and China’s oppression of their minority Muslim communities, or the failure of Europe to successfully absorb and fully include Muslims as equal citizens in their societies. Since acknowledgment of these realities might prove to be a bitter pill to swallow, Blair finds it easier and better to blame the victims.
In the end, what is most troubling about Blair’s speech is that on one level he is right about the existence of crises and challenges facing the people of the Middle East but because he ignores the root causes of these crises and proposes nothing more than another round of the “Clash of Civilizations”, no good will come of it. It is obvious that the people of the Middle East need to defeat intolerant and violent extremism. But what they need from the West in order to win this war are healthy doses of justice, capacity building, and investment in the region’s human capital. But with Blair focused on oil, Israel, Europe’s security, and the ideological battle within Islam – the human dimension of this conflict and the human needs that must be met in order to defeat extremism appear not to be on his agenda.