To those many of us in Britain who loathe Tony Blair and the disastrous legacy of his horribly misconceived “Third Way”, it always comes as a bit of a shock to hear our cringe-inducing ex-Prime Minister stand up on the international stage and say something truly worthwhile.
One such moment is the speech he delivered at Bloomberg’s London office on the contentious subject of radical Islam.
Here’s one of the passages which shows that Blair totally (or – as we’ll see in a moment – almost but not quite totally) gets it. It’s on the subject of all those voices in the media and politics who find a way of excusing the worst excesses of Islamism.
“However for the purposes of this speech, two fascinating things stand out for me. The first is the absolutely rooted desire on the part of Western commentators to analyse these issues as disparate rather than united by common elements. They go to extraordinary lengths to say why, in every individual case, there are multiple reasons for understanding that this is not really about Islam, it is not really about religion; there are local or historic reasons which explain what is happening. There is a wish to eliminate the obvious common factor in a way that is almost wilful. Now of course as I have said, there is always a context that is unique to each situation. There will naturally be a host of local factors that play a part in creating the issue. But it is bizarre to ignore the fact the principal actors in all situations, express themselves through the medium of religious identity or that in ideological terms, there is a powerful unifying factor based on a particular world view of religion and its place in politics and society.
“The second thing is that there is a deep desire to separate the political ideology represented by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood from the actions of extremists including acts of terrorism. This stems from a completely laudable sense that we must always distinguish between those who violate the law and those we simply disagree with.”
The attitude he describes certainly prevailed in liberal circles at the time of 9/11 (“America must ask itself why it is so hated”) and despite the numerous atrocities committed in the name of the “religion of peace” since, from the beheading of Nick Berg to the Mumbai massacre to the killing and near-decapitation on the London streets of drummer Lee Rigby, it remains remarkably prevalent today.
It is refreshing to hear any politician of any hue speak so forthrightly on the subject. To hear a statesman of Tony Blair’s stature say it is truly a breath of fresh air.
What’s even braver, in a way, is for Blair to have admitted – albeit tentatively – the liberal interventionism that he and George W Bush began after 9/11 hasn’t quite worked out in the way we all might have hoped.
“So we look at the issue of intervention or not and seem baffled. We change the regimes in Afghanistan and in Iraq, put soldiers on the ground in order to help build the country, a process which a majority of people in both countries immediately participated in, through the elections. But that proved immensely difficult and bloody.
“We change the regime in Libya through air power, we don’t commit forces on the ground, again the people initially respond well, but now Libya is a mess and a mess that is de-stabilising everywhere around it, (apart from Algeria partly because Algeria already went through a conflict precisely around the issue of Islamism in which thousands lost their lives.)”
Actually, he’s being a little generous towards his own legacy here. Certainly, as far as Britain was concerned, the Iraq operation was an abject disaster – especially towards the end when Britain’s military was roundly humiliated at Basra airport by a bunch of ragged insurgents (whom British appeasement policy had failed to appease) and had to retreat from the country with its tail between its legs. The Afghanistan operation – which the Blair government also initiated – was hardly more successful.
Nevertheless, at least he has come half way to admitting what remarkably few politicians will not: that our well-intentioned meddling and our attempts to bring peace and prosperity and liberal democracy to the Islamic world are not working. And that – this is the contentious point – a good chunk of the fault lies within the nature of Islam itself. It is an unreformed religion which refuses to adapt to the modern world.
“It is that there is a Titanic struggle going on within the region between those who want the region to embrace the modern world – politically, socially and economically – and those who instead want to create a politics of religious difference and exclusivity. This is the battle. This is the distorting feature. This is what makes intervention so fraught but non- intervention equally so. This is what complicates the process of political evolution. This is what makes it so hard for democracy to take root. This is what, irrespective of the problems on the Israeli side, divides Palestinian politics and constrains their leadership.”
Just so, Tony. Just so.
But there is, nonetheless, a flaw in Blair’s analysis. It’s good as far as it goes – but as the Henry Jackson Society’s Douglas Murray, one of the leading experts on Islamist extremism, argues here – it doesn’t go quite far enough.
The key passage is this one:
“At the root of the crisis lies a radicalised and politicised view of Islam, an ideology that distorts and warps Islam’s true message. The threat of this radical Islam is not abating. It is growing. It is spreading across the world. It is de-stabilising communities and even nations. It is undermining the possibility of peaceful co-existence in an era of globalisation. And in the face of this threat we seem curiously reluctant to acknowledge it and powerless to counter it effectively.”
As Murray says, it’s so nearly there: not least in its assertion that Islamism is as dangerous – or possibly even more of a threat – than it was in 9/11. It is certainly more widespread – as we see, for example, in the shocking recent case of the 190 schoolgirls abducted in Nigeria by the Islamist terror group Boko Haram. But there are still some things that Blair dare not say because, though they may be true, they are politically unpalatable.
Here, argues Murray, is what Blair should have said if he’d dared:
“At the root of the crisis lies a radicalised and politicised view of Islam, an ideology that – while obviously the worst version of Islam going – nevertheless has a long tradition. The extremists do not make their claims based on some wild misreading, but on a plausible reading of the texts and traditions which have existed within the religion since its founding. In order to confront this, and defeat the extremists, we cannot simply pretend that these problems do not exist. Non-Muslims must be unafraid to point them out and to say that there are extremist attitudes which remain permissible in mainstream Islam – such as the second-class status of women, the mandating of death for those who leave Islam – which go wholly against our own most deeply held beliefs. And it is vital that Muslims do everything they can to face up to the challenges which these extreme elements pose within their faith. Rather than denying that these questions of interpretation exist, or brushing them under the carpet, it is incumbent upon Muslims everywhere to do everything they can to anathematise and stigmatise the extremists and to chase them and their readings out of the religion. Muslims must face up to the problems of the tradition and overcome them, rather than deny that they exist. The process of denial only emboldens and strengthens the extremists while simultaneously making it easier for some non-Muslims to crudely and cruelly lump all Muslims in the extremist camp. This is a matter of urgency. The threat of this radical Islam is not abating. It is growing. It is spreading across the world. It is de-stabilising communities and even nations. It is undermining the possibility of peaceful co-existence in an era of globalisation. And in the face of this threat we seem curiously reluctant to acknowledge it and powerless to counter it effectively.”
Still, for all that, it was a fine speech. Blair gets it. If only the current batch of world leaders did.