One of Tony Blair’s chief complaints about the west’s debate on Islamic extremism is an almost wilful refusal to engage with it as a clear and present danger. Instead of considering the issue of extremism directly, he argues that the commentary classes of the west prefer to debate almost anything else.
In this light, fevered and real debates over the divide between Sunni and Shia, the complexities of intervention, or the hypocrisies of the west itself can simply be an evasion from the core question of whether extremist Islam arising from the Middle East is a real global threat, and if so, what should be done about it. By placing significant but second order issues first, we duck real problems.
The reaction to Blair’s speech will likely demonstrate his thesis here. The British left, and British ‘realists’ will combine to condemn his prescription, but ignore his arguments. For one group, it will be Blair’s record that draws criticism. For others it will be the realpolitik elements of his strategy, primarily the willingness to work with Russia and China in this single area of shared interest.
While it will be dryly amusing to see those who have sought western reconciliation with Russian strategic interests in Ukraine, arguing that Blair’s advocacy of engagement with Russia over religious extremism represents a moral failing of the first order, this should not blind us to the fact that Blair’s argument is almost deliberately uncomfortable.
While Blair’s reference to working with Russia and China on extremist Islam clearly does not preclude disagreements over Ukraine – and the British media focus here is overstated – there is a real broader question: what does a willingness to work with totalitarian and nationalist leaderships in Beijing and Moscow say about our priorities for human rights and democracy? If radical Islam is the problem, what are we willing to accept as a solution?
This is most visible in Blair’s approach to Egypt. Blair couches the crucial western choice as between an open, pluralist view of religion, and a closed off extremism. Yet there is more than one version of pluralism. I doubt many humanitarian interventionists see Sisi’s Egypt as pluralist.
Instead the liberal approach would be that the repression of the military seems likely to provoke greater extremism, or if not, then great misery and bloodshed in the process.
Blair disagrees, seeing Egypt’s military as the best available ally for stability.
In the end, for Blair, it comes down to priorities. This is nothing new, of course. Churchill told parliament he would be willing to praise the devil himself if it meant defeating Germany. To secure this, Churchill gave Stalin much, the cold warrior of the future conceding the ground he would later contest. Is this speech Blair’s version of Churchill’s deal with the devil as much as it is his Fulton, as Denis MacShane suggests?
In this harsh light of priorities and choices, one of the most significant parts of the speech is Blair’s willingness to deal with both Iran and Assad to secure external stability. He explicitly renounces regime change in Tehran as a western policy objective, and accepts that Assad, a genocidal user of chemical weapons, could retain power in Damascus – both deals offered on the condition that the export of extremism is halted.
This is, ironically, more or less the position Blair’s left and ‘realist’ critics have been demanding we adopt, but for very different reasons.
For Blair’s prescriptions represent a shift in method, not in objective. If religious extremism is the real enemy, then Blair’s argument is that we need to create a stability in the middle east that will allow us to tackle the root causes of this extremism.
There is limited appetite for direct intervention, because it is hard, only ever a partial success and even these partial successes have a heavy domestic price.
On the other hand, a hands off approach, as we have shown in Syria and Libya since the overthrow of Gaddaffi*, has led only to chaos, so pragmatic engagement it must be.
Therefore if Iran’s regime is willing to be contained, it can be tolerated. If Assad will halt his violence, he will be preserved, all in the interest in creating the space for non-extremist, pluralistic visions of Islam to emerge and prove their worth, as it has, perhaps, in Kurdistan. (There is an echo here of Blair’s own engagement with Libya, willing to do a deal with a dictator if only he would stay contained.)
Similarly, if Egypt, Algeria and Libya can be helped to a similar position, so much the better, but wherever it is found, the export of extremism must be stopped. Nowhere is this more clear than in Blair’s subtle but clear reference to Saudi Arabia. If propagating religious extremism is truly the enemy, then not only must old enemies be engaged, but old allies challenged.
For many years, one of the strongest attacks on western policy in the Middle East has been the refusal to engage with Saudi originated religious extremism. Blair’s speech implicitly accepts the point, arguing that the west must insist on an end to this internal encouragement of extremism, not least because there are Saudi forces willing to back such a process, but needing an outside spur to do so.
Whether or not this is over-optimistic, it is heartening to see even a coded reference to Saudi religious theology role as an incubator of extremism from a major western figure.
Blair’s speech represents a tough, provocative challenge. If we accept that his analysis that religious extremism is a significant challenge to the pluralistic society, and it is hard not to, then he demands that we do not refuse to get involved in the struggle, as this refusal leads, as it has in Syria, not to peace but to chaos, murder and greater extremism.
If we do not like some of the prescriptions for engagement Blair offers – whether the alliance with Egypt’s military, the acceptance of Assad, the toleration of Khameni’s Iran, with its executions and its repression – then he forces us to offer an alternative.
That alternative may vary, but one thing is certain: Blair is right that looking away will only lead to greater danger. You may dissent from Blair’s proposed policy of engagement. What you cannot do is argue no engagement is needed.
*Libya here is an interesting case. Blair in office was willing to work with Gaddafi, yet during the Arab spring believed intervention was needed on humanitarian terms. In Britain, those who criticised that intervention tended also to criticise the previous engagement as hypocritical realpolitik. Blair’s argument now is that having intervened, it is pointless to now act as if we have no responsibility. The criticism, again, seems focused on that all these choices are wrong. There seems little interest in offering a programme of what should be done.
Photo: Twitter (Bloomberg)
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