x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Why the Middle East matters – and why Blair doesn’t

Tony Blair is wrong to blame militant Islam when it is a symptom of injustice rather than a cause of problems in itself, writes James Zogby.

Like many “hawkish” liberals before him, Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, appears to have crossed over to the dark side of neoconservatism. This much was on display in a keynote address entitled “Why the Middle East Matters” that Mr Blair delivered recently in London. I was struck by how similar his speech was to the agitprop used by George W Bush in the lead-up to the American-led invasion of Iraq.

Mr Blair began and ended on an alarmist note. Troubled that public opinion in the West has become wary of any further Middle East adventures, he sought to frighten his audience into joining the fight against what he called the “biggest threat” to global security – extremist Islam.

He warned that this “radicalised and politicised 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 language loved by the neocons, Mr Blair terms this conflict as “the essential battle” of our time – one in which “we must take a side”.

Why does it matter that we defeat radical Islam in the Middle East? Mr 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 Mr 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 are motivated by extremist tendencies.

For Mr Blair, the Middle East is the epicentre 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 elsewhere in the world, it is imported from the Middle East.

Mr Blair made a perfunctory effort to establish that he was not speaking about Islam, 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.

All of this leads Mr Blair to the conclusion that the Middle East does, in fact, matter for the West since turmoil and extremism poses a threat to oil, Israel and the security of Europe. His recommendation: “We must take sides”.

So urgent is his need to wage this battle that Mr Blair proposes partnering with Russia and China which, he says, are facing the same threat.

What I found particularly striking about the speech were Mr 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 peacemaking.

For Mr Blair, the reason why the efforts to liberate Iraq and Afghanistan failed to produce democracies was because of 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 Mr Blair to sleep at night, but it neither explains the reasons for the West’s failures, nor does it suggest how to deal with such extremism.

Furthermore, the notion that extremist ideas were simply imported is a trite observation elevated to a conclusion. In no way does it spell out why this ideology gains ground and finds receptive audiences in parts of the Middle East, Asia and Europe. Just because an idea exists or is preached from a pulpit or podium, there is no guarantee it will find widespread support.

For any idea 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 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 Mr 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 Russian and Chinese 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 acknowledgement of these realities might prove to be a bitter pill to swallow, Mr Blair finds it easier and better to blame the victims.

In the end, what is most troubling about Mr 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 Civilisations”, 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 Mr 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.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa