Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Looking away only leads to greater danger

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.


Hopi Sen is a Labour blogger who writes here, is a contributing editor to Progress, and writes a fortnightly column for ProgressOnline here


Photo: Twitter (Bloomberg)

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Hopi Sen

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  • Oh what a load of nonsense. Imagine the view from the Kremlin:- we had a client in Afghanistant fighting Islamists, we had a client in Serbia fighting Islamists, we had a client in Iraq fighting Islamists, we had a client in Libya fighting Islamists, we have a client in Syria fighting Islamists….

    Or the flip side – any oppressed people in the world from the rohinga to the CAR are to be abandoned and ignored if they have any crescents on any headed paper. We should encourage the BJP in India? A military coup in Turkey?

    Or the bigger picture – some people in caves in Somalia and Yemen are bigger long term challenges than the CCCP, the financial system or indeed climate change.

    This is just shilling on behalf of a brutal dictatorship, in an attempt to dissuade the Obama administration from taking any action when they rig an election and then massacre (another) couple of 10,000s

  • There is one part of this that I found jarring and I think it points to a wider problem with the argument. The development of Kurdistan – alluded to in the article – is a historical development. It is linked to ethnic identity dating back centuries and a shared history of oppression culminating in the Anfal campaign in the late 1980s. This is why that Kurdistan is dominated by nationalist parties. In short the development in Kurdistan is a result of internal dynamics that by and large are beyond the reach of external forces – even in the period after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. So saying that we create “the space for non-extremist, pluralistic visions of Islam to emerge” just feels wrong. We can do things. We can choose to topple dictators or leave them be. We can bomb places and ignore others. But ultimately we don’t get to decide what the outcomes are. One of the lessons of Iraq is surely that we over estimated our power and underestimated the residual power of the communities that we were dealing with.

  • I thought Turkey was the most intriguing gap in Blair’s speech. If I read him correctly, I think his strong desire would be for a government like Turkey’s but one that didn’t eventually fall into the black hole islamist-derived governments tend to do. it’s why to begin with at least, the hop was that Morsi would ‘work’. Yet when it doesn’t, you get a huge problem.

    I’m not sure which Brutal dictatorship you mean in the last para – Russia, presumably? If so, I’m a bit confused by what we should be doing – surely aggressive intervention over Ukraine is off the table already? Further I don’t quite follow the argument that working with Russia and China on islamism means concessions on Ukraine. I can see the reverse, If we were to do more for Ukraine, wouldn’t it actually increase our negotiating leverage on Syria, as they’d be at least forced to prioritise?

  • It’s a very good point. I think the argument I was groping towards (and I confess I’m no Kerdistan expert) is that an environment where factors like ethnic identity, shared history and so on predominate is in itself a sign of progress – that for all the flaws and contradictions in such a polity, it is at least one that contains within it a governing idea that requires a degree of pluralism – that recognises the possibility of valid and needed alternative viewpoints. that’s why i say ‘the space for’ rather than ‘the imposition of’

  • The party’s position last year on Syria was one of looking the other way and sitting on one’s hands; in the 21st century a dictator used his state apparatus to gas many, many families including children when they were sleeping. The slaughter in Syria has gone on on. This was a pivotal moment for our party because we then diverged from the government’s of France, USA, Denmark and our own UK government. We helped block an international effort to help stop the hell of Syria ; we hid behind Putin and Assad. Now, nearly a year on and it’s got far worse and the world is a far more dangerous place. When you ignore atrocities & terror, placate dictators especially in Europe like Putin and close to Europe like Assad you are just sinking down into a lower notch of civilisation. That’s what we did in the worst atrocity of this century. For me it will always be Labour’s worst act.

  • Even the Israilies cannot defeat the Hezbolah and you want British troops to invade and die so that you can feel comfortable. Ed Miliband did the right thing last year when he prevented any intervention by non Islamic people where Islamic people are fighting other Islamic people. This is in the Quran, no Islamic person shall seek help from a non Islamic person when engaged in a dispute with another Islamic person. Leave them to get on with solving their own disputes. They left Oliver Cromwell and Charles I to get on with 9 years of Civil War in Britain between 1642 and 1651.

  • No mention was ever made of our troops entering Syria; We would have used American air power (etc.,) to deal with the gassing of civilians/crimes against humanity and also no fly zones. We did similar in Libya. Where do you draw the line if not slaughter by gas and millions starving in war zone…When ?

  • I guess Tonys hands must have started to get dry from all the bloodshed and he needs some more, I wait for that day when he and all that aided and abetted him are tried and found guilty for their war crimes, locked up and the keys thrown away

  • Air power and no fly zones are the first steps, as they were in Libya. What then? We actually sent troops into Libya but they managed to achieve their limited objectives without casualties (as far as I know). The same would not happen in Syria where the Russians have an active interest in keeping the current regime in power. I draw the line at any involvement of UK forces where it is not in the direct interests of the UK that any of our forces be placed in harms way. And that includes the Ukraine.

  • Well we don’t need to, as their target is toppling Middle-East governments. IT’S NOT OUR FIGHT. Why send British military forces and money to prop up Arab dictators? Let them be overthrown!

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