Blair’s simplistic formula for tackling radical Islam is leading him to support some of the most oppressive forces in the region.
Tony Blair’s speech this week at Bloomberg in London reveals a growing support for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. A decade ago, Blair was justifying wars in the Middle East on the grounds that they would launch a democratic revolution and sweep away Arab despots. In his latest speech he embraced Arab despots whose regimes, he says, are necessary bulwarks against Islamism. Blair’s change in emphasis reflects a wider shift in neoconservative thinking over the past decade, while the underlying analysis remains as flawed as ever.
At the heart of Blair’s argument is a single formula that he uses to explain the politics not only of the Middle East, but of Muslim populations around the world. Muslims everywhere, he says, are caught in an “essential battle” between two ways of thinking about Islam.
In this “Titanic struggle”, one side is modern, pluralistic, and supportive of religious freedom and open economies. On the other side are the “Islamists”, who reject the separation of religion from politics and, like communists and fascists before them, want to impose their particular interpretation on the rest of society.
It is, of course, a hopelessly simplistic formula. Yes, reactionary interpretations of religion must be opposed. But the revolutionary upheavals in the Middle East are ultimately about freedom from authoritarian political structures and the economic marginalisation generated by neoliberal economics (Blair’s “open economies”).
Blair’s formula – derived from neoconservatives such as Bernard Lewis– puts him on the wrong side of this struggle. That’s because the only question for him is the potential power of anti-western Islamists, so he ends up supporting some of the most oppressive forces in the region.
Last summer’s military coup in Egypt that overthrew a democratically elected government is described by Blair as “absolutely necessary”. Thousands of peaceful protesters have since been imprisoned by the regime, including many prominent journalists and intellectuals. Meanwhile, officially sanctioned pop songs pay tribute to army chief Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, and his face beams from posters. Blair says he disagrees with the death sentence on 500 opponents of the regime, but asks us to show “sensitivity” in our criticisms. The Egyptian generals get his support for the simple reason that they have declared war on Islamism. To him, nothing else really matters.
While Blair’s speech lays out recommendations for Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Iran, and Palestine, one country is not even mentioned by name: Saudi Arabia – surely the natural starting point for any genuine campaign against the use of religion for reactionary politics. And the ruling family’s record of domestic repression is unsurpassed. Yet the Saudi regime gets a free pass from Blair.
The Saudi “Islamists”, it seems, are to be embraced if they buy our weapons and keep the oil flowing. This is the return of the old foreign policy formula that neoconservatives criticised after 9/11: stability first, democracy can wait.
On Syria, Blair is right to argue for a strengthened opposition that might force President Assad to the negotiating table. But Blair seems to prefer that Assad remain in power for a period of time, rather than the opposition, with its Islamist elements, enter government. That Assad is also in an alliance with the Islamists of Hezbollah simply points to the superficiality of Blair’s formula as a way of understanding specific contexts.
A decade ago, Blair joined neoconservatives in arguing that Arab despots such as Saddam Hussein needed to be removed from power because of the security threat they represented in a post-9/11 world. Saddam’s ouster was supposed to launch a pro-western democratic transformation across the region. In fact, genuine democratic change in the Middle East, where it has occurred, has been brought about not by external military force but by popular insurrection. Once it became clear that democratic revolutions would not fit the mould of pro-western liberalism and free market economics, neoconservatives decided that the old-guard despots may once again be needed in order to stabilise the region.
Blair’s supporters say he has discovered nuance. But the shift in his latest speech is not towards subtlety but a step back to the rhetoric of stability, and the abandonment of the post-9/11 neoconservative slogan of reordering the world. What remains is the hypocrisy of denouncing an ideology as inherently violent, and then launching a grand ideological war against it that results in far more violence.
This article was originally published on the Guardian website.