There has been a tendency to see the conflicts happening in different parts of the world as unconnected, as driven by a collection of separate, essentially localized disputes. So we respond to each in its own way, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. We have not yet a sense of a unifying core of strategic analysis leading to a set of actions that are governed by that core and that have coherence on a global scale.
“Governments are not NGOs. We have to represent and advance broad strategic interests in defence of our values,” Blair contends. “We should not make the mistake of dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood as if it were merely an Arab version of the Christian Democrats. It isn’t and there is little sign it ever will be.”
What is happening in Syria, Iraq, and across the Middle East; and what is happening in Pakistan, Nigeria, Mali, or in parts of Russia or in the Xinjiang province of China or in multiple other parts of the globe, are linked. They form different parts of one struggle. They all have their individual aspects. They all have unique dimensions. It would be odd if it weren’t so. But they have one huge and central element in common: extremism based on an interpretation of Islam which represents a clear ideology that, even if loosely at times, is shared by all these different groups of extremists.
So in every case there are distinct factors. Some are to do with long standing grievances over territory, or ethnic and tribal differences. Some are protests against central Governments and policies of repression. Some involve a dispute over the ownership and management of resources. But to deny as a result of these distinct factors, the common factor of religious extremism and of a particular ideology associated with the extremism, is wrong as a piece of analysis and dangerous in its consequences for policy…..
The ideologies of the 20th century which caused such distress and conflict also manifested themselves in existing grievances and disputes in a variety of different ways and situations. But there is no doubt that the common factor of shared ideology crucially impacted both the manner in which conflicts arose and the vehemence with which they were conducted. Revolutionary communism had many faces. So did fascism. But their essential ideological character played a defining part in how the history of the 20th C was written, the alliances that were formed, the spheres of influence created. We have to see this ideology born out of a perversion of religious faith, in the same way.
The Challenge is a Spectrum not Simply a Fringe
This argument goes to the heart of the scale of the challenge and why we find it so hard to comprehend it, let alone defeat it. The problem is not that we’re facing a fringe of crazy people, a sort of weird cult confined to a few fanatics. If it was, we could probably root it out, kill or imprison its leaders, deter its followers and close the doors to new recruits.
The problem is that we’re facing a spectrum of opinion based on a world view which stretches far further into parts of Muslim society. At the furthest end is the fringe. But at the other end are those who may completely oppose some of the things the fringe does and who would never themselves dream of committing acts of violence, but who unfortunately share certain elements of the fanatic’s world view. These elements comprise, inter alia: a belief in religious exclusivity not merely in spiritual but in temporal terms; a desire to re-shape society according to a set of social and political norms, based on religious belief about Islam, wholly at odds with the way the rest of the world has developed, for example in relation to attitudes to women; a view of the West, particularly the USA, that is innately hostile and regards it essentially as the enemy, not only in policy but in culture and way of living.
The problem is that we’re facing a spectrum of opinion based on a world view which stretches far further into parts of Muslim society.
This Islamism – a politicisation of religion to an intense and all-encompassing degree – is not confined to a fringe. It is an ideology (and a theology derived from Salafist thinking) taught and preached every day to millions, actually to tens of millions, in some mosques, certain madrassas, and in formal and informal education systems the world over.
It is the spectrum that helps create the fringe. A large part of Western policy – and something I remember so well fighting in Government – is based on the belief that we can compromise with the spectrum in the hope of marginalising the fringe. This is a fateful error. All we do is to legitimise the spectrum, which then gives ideological oxygen to the fringe.
Support Modern-minded Muslim Opinion
One of the tragic myths of the past years has been the idea in the West – almost like a new Orientalism – that Arabs in particular and even Muslims in general are irredeemably lost in the mire of religious and ethnic dispute, that their mind-set is incompatible with democracy, that the whole thing is really about Shia vs Sunni, that they’re condemned by some invincible force of history to be in conflict and mayhem.
You still hear people say ‘Arabs think this’ or ‘the feeling in the Muslim world is that’. This is no more accurate than saying ‘the British think this’ or ‘Christians think that’. The fact is that opinion on most issues in the West is divided. There is a plethora of views. It is no different today in the Arab or Muslim world.
The true significance of the so-called Arab Spring – in reality a series of revolutions across the region – has not been properly understood in the West. Having been initially naive about the ease with which societies creaking under oppressive regimes and out of date institutions could make the transition to modernity, we’re now in danger of making the opposite mistake, believing that the instability that has followed these revolutions shows the inherent incapability of those societies to adapt and change.
What we’re actually witnessing is an agonising, immensely challenging but profound transition away from the past to the future. The regimes ultimately collapsed under the weight of their own contradictions, the biggest one being the contradiction between the need for a modern economy and well educated workforce in societies of burgeoning populations; and the reality of a system totally unsuited to such an economy and the absence of such education.
Islamism often became the way that people protested against the regime under which they were groaning. When the old order passed away or came under attack, there was then a struggle between those who wanted a modern economy and society to come into being and those who wanted to turn instead to a religiously based order.
This is still the essential battle.