The first and most surprising thing I have to say about Tony Blair's speech in Chicago yesterday is that I agreed with much of it. It is easy to mock Blair the Faith obsessive, pumped full of hubris, still justifying foreign interventions, such as that in Iraq, despite the terrible consequences with which we are all familiar. Easy, too, to take apart the vacuousness of his whole faith "project", his belief that religious dialogue will somehow prove central to 21st century politics, his presumptuous chiding of the Pope for neglecting the "core vote", or his hypocrisy is talking about inter-religious harmony while he implemented, under the slogan "war on terror", policies that did far more to divide than to unite the world community. I have said it before, and will no doubt say it again. Not today, though. To day I come to praise Tony, not to bury him. For the most part, anyway.
I know, that doesn't sound like the Heresiarch you're used to. But what else can one say faced with insights of blinding clarity like this?
Of course, each arena of conflict has its own particular characteristics, its own origins in political or territorial disputes, its own claims and counter-claims of injustice. Of course the solution in each case will be in many respects different. But it is time to wrench ourselves out of a state of denial. There is one major factor in common. In each conflict there are those deeply engaged in it, who argue that they are fighting in the true name of Islam.
"War on terror" has never been a very helpful phrase, both because it is nonsensical (terrorism is not even an ideology, it's a technique) and because it conflates very different things, from violent insurgency in Afghanistan or Pakistan - civil war, almost - to the vain delusions of a handful of nutty daydreamers and frustrated adolescents in Bradford. Yet it is equally absurd to try and pretend, as some do, that the religious presumptions of the Islamists are incidental or contingent to their basically political aims.
Religion, belief that what they are seeking to do is the will of God - and the self-righteousness and fervant motivation that it brings with it - this is what drives the Islamist movement. They offer certainty in an uncertain world, hope to the hopeless, power to the powerless.
Yes, they are delusional. Yes, their desire to return the world to an imagined medieval paradise is stupid and reactionary. Yes (as Blair also admits) the principal victims of their rabid ideology are Muslims living in Muslim countries. But that's not the point. Their beliefs are honest and deeply-felt. Their movement is longstanding and successful. They represent the most dynamic, coherent and (via Saudi Arabia) most well-funded stream of Islam today. That is why they have not just proved immune to the "war on terror", they have thrived on it.
This didn't start on 11th September 2001, or shortly before it. The roots aren't near the surface. It was in the 1970s that Pakistan's leadership decided to re-define itself through religious conviction. The storming of the Holy Mosque in Mecca took place years ago. Al Qaida began in earnest in the 1980s. In many Arab and Muslim nations, there was more tolerance and less religiosity in the 1960s, than today. The doctrinal roots of this growing movement can be traced even further back to the period in the late 19th and early 20th century where modernising and moderate clerics and thinkers were slowly but surely pushed aside by the hard-line dogma of those, whose cultural and theological credentials were often dubious, but whose appeal lay in the simplicity of the message.
Blair correctly notes that the chief targets of Islamists are the rulers of Muslim countries. This is no "clash of civilisations". It is, rather, a clash within a civilisation. We in the West suffer, at most, from the leakage of this intra-Islamic clash - because of the support the US and other western countries provide for the corrupt and undemocratic rulers of Muslim majority countries, and because of the presence of increasing Muslim minorities within western countries, above all in Europe. The cry that "they hate our way of life", heard so often from George W Bush, is rather beside the point. They despise our way of life. Their religious leadership sermonise against our decadence, the tawdry, pornified culture which they can contrast with the purity of patriarchal respect that is their societal ideal, the booze and the trash television which is, in their considered opinion, all that western civilisation has to offer. But their ostentatious dislike of the West does not mean that they wish to destroy us, merely that they do not want our decadence to pollute their countries. Really, it's not about us, it's about them.
Blair's main purpose in this speech was to restate the case for intervention against these forces, both by opposing them militarily and by working with those who "who believe deeply in Islam but also who believe in peaceful co-existence". The occasion was the tenth anniversary of the speech he made ten years ago in the same city on the same theme. That earlier oration ought to be compulsory reading for anyone who still believes that he took Britain into war with Iraq merely as George W Bush's poodle. He was among the principal cheerleaders. That he pushed so hard for UN authorisation was the result not of his doubts but in his deep belief in international intervention, argued for most clearly in the original Chicago speech and in the speech he made to the Labour party conference in the aftermath of 9/11. "I still believe that those who oppress and brutalise their citizens are better put out of power than kept in it," he says now, utterly unrepentent.
On diagnosing the source of the terror threat in a significant, indeed spreading, interpretation of Islam, Tony Blair is right. He is also right to note that the Islamist movement has "successfully inculcated a sense of victimhood in the Islamic world, that stretches far beyond the extremes":
So powerful has this become that it has severely warped the debate even in many parts of the non-Islamic world, where frequently commentators, while naturally condemning the terrorism, nevertheless imply that, to an extent, the West's foreign policy has helped 'cause' it.
This masochistic desire to abase ourselves before the extremists, to refuse to stand up for our basic principles of morality and human rights, to self-flagellate every time someone else attacks us, this self-hatred, is especially pervasive on the political Left, and (for some reason) in the security services. From the pro-Hamas ramblings of Seumas Milne at the Guardian to ex-spook Alastair Crooke's Conflicts Forum, which aims to "recognise resistance", this type of thinking is dangerously prevalent. And the principal victims of this moral defeatism, of course, are the progressive forces within Islam. As Blair stresses, "the responsibility for terrorism lies with the terrorist and no-one else. This has to be proclaimed vigorously by us; but also upheld and shouted from the rooftops from within Islam itself."
Blair goes on to criticise "the delusion of believing that there is any alternative to waging this struggle to its conclusion".
The ideology we are fighting is not based on justice. That is a cause we can understand. And world-wide these groups are adept, certainly, at using causes that indeed are about justice, like Palestine. Their cause, at its core, however, is not about the pursuit of values that we can relate to; but in pursuit of values that directly contradict our way of life. They don't believe in democracy, equality or freedom. They will espouse, tactically, any of these values if necessary. But at heart what they want is a society and state run on their view of Islam. They are not pluralists. They are the antithesis of pluralism.
When someone of Blair's prominence points this out, we should welcome it.
That does not, however, mean that the interventionist foreign policy associated with the Blair/Bush years is the correct way to deal with the threat. The situation in Afghanistan and, increasingly, in Pakistan suggests the opposite.
Blair being Blair, of course, he is unable to stop there. He goes on to redefine Islam in his own image, and expect Muslims to follow his lead. He says:
The tragedy of this is that the authentic basis of Islam, as laid down in the Qur'an, is progressive, humanitarian, sees knowledge and scientific advance as a duty, which is why for centuries Islam was the fount of so much invention and innovation. Fundamental Islam is actually the opposite of what the extremists preach.
This is where Tonly Blair and I, after that brief unaccustomed agreement, part company. Blair's enthusiasm for Islam - coupled with the belief that he is better able to define its true nature than the majority of the world's Muslims, including most leading Islamic clerics - is one of the most puzzling aspects of his admittedly very strange psychology. Despite all evidence to the contrary, he appears to believe that Islam is little more than a theological interpretation of New Labour. Has he not noticed the intense pressure coming from the governments of the Islamist Conference to make criticism of Islam an international crime comparable to genocide or torture? Few of them are dominated by Islamists.
Blair always makes a great deal of his reading of the Koran, and the inspiration he finds in it. In his recent interview with Johann Hari for a gay magazine, which became notorious for its criticism of the Pope, he described the Koran as "an extraordinary, progressive – revolutionarily progressive – document for its time". I, too, have attempted to read the Koran, but I cannot find the enlightened modernity praised by Blair. Far from it.
I won't trot out the violent verses that, taken out of context, provide ammunition for jihadists and Islamophobes alike. The Koran isn't all, or even mainly, a call to religious violence. But to view it as some sort of leftist-liberal manifesto is utterly absurd. It is both ignorant and unfair to the Koran itself, which is very clear about its own priorities. It presents itself as a return to the pure faith of Abraham. It addresses itself to the Arabs, who are exhorted to turn away from paganism and submit to Allah. But it also contains strong critiques of both Judaism and Christianity: theological, rather than social, critiques.
Needless to say, there are good principles to be found there. But I've never read in the Koran anything that wasn't said, much better, a thousand years before. What has Blair discovered? His enthusiasm for Islam goes far beyond the niceties of interfaith dialogue. Nor does he seem to have equally awestruck reverence for any other religion, even his own. Blair sees in the Koran things that no-one else, Muslim or otherwise, has ever been able to detect there, or wanted to. It's weird.
But now I seem to be embarked on my usual Blair-bashing. And I promised I wouldn't. So I'll leave you with this thought, which I can wholeheartedly endorse:
We have to re-discover some confidence and conviction in who we are, how far we've come and what we believe in. By the way, I think this even about the economic crisis. It is severe. It's going to be really, really hard. But we will get through it and not by abandoning the market or open economic system but by learning our lessons and adjusting the system in a way that makes it better. But on any basis, this system has delivered amazing leaps forward in prosperity for our citizens and we shouldn't, amongst the gloom, forget it.
I never thought I'd say it, but I could almost learn to love Tony.
The theatre at Palmyra
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