Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Tony Blair and the narrative of terror

I'm not Tony Blair's biggest fan, not by a long way, but he's not always wrong. Even when he's right, however, he invariably manages to draw the wrong conclusions.

His latest speech, delivered to a Washington foreign affairs think-tank that had just given him a prize as a "scholar-statesman" (like Gladstone, presumably, or the emperor Marcus Aurelius), concerned his favourite subject of what to do about the Terrorist Menace and the extreme Islamist politic-religious world-view which inspires many (but not all) of the terrorists. In some ways it was an impressive oration. He made some good points. Unfortunately, his fixation on "faith" as the answer to everything let him down yet again.

My solution to all this has always been to concentrate on foiling actual plots and let the ideology take care of itself. The fact that many Muslim-majority countries, and Muslim communities in the West, have become infected with paranoid, self-pitying and reactionary ideas based on a particular view of Islam and of history is inconvenient, but it is not really any of our business. Provided that they're not actually planning to blow anything up, if people want to think that "the West" has it in for Islam and that everything they don't like, from corrupt governments to female emancipation, is Our Fault - well, let them. It's a bizarre way of thinking, but then so is Scientology.

Blair, however, has long been convinced that arguing against this ideology - whether held by terrorists, proto-terrorists, terrorist sympathisers or "non-violent Islamists" - is the best and only way of defeating terrorism. "I do not think it is possible to defeat the extremism without defeating the narrative that nurtures it," he says. In making this case, he does put a finger on what is wrong with the rival view (associated with people such as the ex-spy Alastair Crooke and many in the British foreign office) that the strategy towards "non-violent extremism" should be one of appeasement, accommodation, even tacit support. He says:

The irony is that the many Muslims who believe passionately in co-existence and tolerance, are not empowered but frequently disempowered by our refusal to confront the narrative. We think if we sympathise with the narrative – that essentially this extremism has arisen as a result, partly, of our actions, we meet it half way, we help the modernisers to be more persuasive. We don’t. We indulge it and we weaken them. Worse, a reaction springs up amongst our people that we are pandering to this narrative and they start to resent Muslims as a whole. This is because implicit in this indulgence is an acceptance of the argument that Islam and, for want of a better term, ‘The West’ are in conflict.

This is, of course, true. The problem, though, is not merely that Blair's own actions - invading Iraq, most notably - have done more to reinforce "the narrative" than any number of anti-imperialist pamphlets by self-hating Western intellectuals could ever do. It's that his own solution - "confronting the narrative head on, forming an alliance across the faiths and across the divides of culture and civilisation" - tends to end up looking remarkably like the strategy of appeasement he claims to disapprove.

Partly, that is because the very process of engaging constructively with another point of view entails accepting the validity of at least some of its analysis. Blair speaks warmly of Barack Obama's speech in Cairo, which he calls a "brilliant template" for the dialogue he supports. But the president's platitude-laden speech was in many ways ill-judged, indeed dangerous. In an effort to stroke his audience's collective ego, he made a number of bizarre historical claims (for example, that Muslims invented printing and discovered the magnetic compass) and, more seriously, betrayed the very principles he claims to represent. He boasted about the right of women in the United States to wear the hijab while saying nothing about the forced veiling of women in Iran, Saudi Arabia or (under Western noses) Afghanistan and southern Iraq. He confused (as Blair often does) the religion of Islam with the totality of life in Muslim countries and among Muslim communities - something much to the liking of conservative (and even "moderate") Sharia scholars, no doubt, but also patronising and damaging to the lives and aspirations of millions of people who, while Muslim, are not obsessed with their religion. We have long since ceased talking of Europe and America as "the Christian world"; while to describe China, Japan and Korea as "the Confucian world" would be just plain silly. So why not forget about "the Muslim world" as well?

Worst of all, Obama was unable to follow up his warm words with any radical change in US foreign policy (how could he?) with the result that many who applauded him in 2009 are now feeling short-changed. The speech achieved a rare double effect, confirming many at home in their suspicion of him as an appeaser while reinforcing the "narrative" that Western leaders (even the initially different-looking Obama) are hypocritical and speak with forked tongue. The president might as well have punched himself in both eyes.

But that's what inevitably happens when Western politicians blunder into the mental landscape of Islamists, whose nuances - and even basic principles - necessarily elude them. Blair himself yesterday mentioned the recent example of Pastor Jones and his (abandoned) Koran-burning stunt. He wondered why

condemnation was necessary (and, by the way, it was necessary). Suppose an Imam, with thirty followers, in Karachi was to burn a bible. I can barely imagine a murmur of protest. It wouldn’t be necessary for the President of Pakistan to condemn it because no one here would remotely consider he supported it.

The point Blair misses, of course, is that official condemnation of Pastor Jones and his aborted bonfire, far from being necessary, merely drew attention to the Florida fundamentalist and turned what would probably have gone ignored into a global media event, a trial of strength between one man and the government of the world's only superpower - not to mention a demonstration of Western "tolerance" in action. Once General Petraeus and the White House had alerted the world to the supposed danger of mass protests, it became necessary to stop the event. Several Korans were burnt publicly on September 11th this year, in fact - including one in England. Yet these incidents were overlooked, by governments, by the media - and, most significantly perhaps, by the violent protesters who did not materialise.

For Tony Blair, confronting extremist ideology has usually entailed lecturing Muslims (and others) about "the true nature of Islam", a hazy, rosy-tinted vision based on a reading of the Koran as selective as that of any Islamist ideologue and on cultivating the company of "moderate" scholars whose worldview (like the worldview of any religious leaders or, for that matter, of Tony Blair) is premised on an absurdly inflated view of the importance of religion. Ultimately, these questions are political, not religious and will not be resolved by politicians doing God. Once upon a time, Blair seemed to understand this - or, at any rate, Alastair Campbell did.

He's on a hiding to nothing here, as he must at some level realise. He admits, for example, that while "the practitioners of extremism are small in number, [t]he adherents of the narrative stretch far broader into parts of mainstream thinking." He says:

It is a narrative that now has vast numbers of assembled websites, blogs and organisations. Of course many of those that agree with it abhor the terrorism. But as the support across the Middle East for the Muslim Brotherhood shows, far too many buy into far too much of the analysis of the extremists, if not their methodology.

But if only a small number support terrorism (and an even smaller number actually become terrorists) while the vast majority of those who accept the "analysis" of the extremists (presumably he's thinking of people like Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Ken Livingstone's old friend) are content just to think badly of the West - well, why is this Tony Blair's problem? Or ours? The problem of rare, religiously motivated murders of abortionists is not to be answered by tackling head-on the "analysis" of the religious organisation to which Tony Blair belongs. An ideology or religious belief should be discussed, dismissed or argued with on its own terms, not on the basis of what a few isolated nutters then do with it. Terrorists may share the analysis of more mainstream Muslim haters of the West, but that is not what makes them terrorists. If it were, then there would be many millions of suicide bombers, and Al Qaeda spectaculars such as 9/11 would be of daily occurrence. I would go further. If Blair is right about the importance of ideology, we should perhaps be asking what it is about Islamist extremism that discourages its adherents from strapping bombs to themselves. I'd say that was the real mystery.

In any case, in his self-chosen battle against Islamism, Tony Blair has a serious problem. He knows what it is, but can only bring himself to hint at the source of the trouble. Here's what he said:

Finally, we should wake up to the absurdity of our surprise at the prevalence of this extremism. Look at the funds it receives. Examine the education systems that succour it. And then measure, over the years, the paucity of our counter-attack in the name of peaceful co-existence. We have been outspent, outmanoeuvred and out-strategised.

By whom have we been "outspent, outmanoeuvred and out-strategised"? Where does most of the money he speaks of come from? Saudi Arabia, perhaps? He doesn't say. I wonder why not.

[On that last point, see also this first-rate analysis by Richard Wilson]