Tony Blair: Middle East film protests "dangerous and wrong"Monday, Sep 17, 2012 in Office of Tony Blair
Transcript of BBC Radio 4's Sarah Montague interviewing Tony Blair on the Today programme
Tony Blair: Well they do feel that, and you’re right by the way in saying that the problem with this is that you have a small number of real extremists, people who engage in violence, but the narrative goes I’m afraid far deeper which is why this is a big problem and will take a generation to sort out. But, it doesn’t justify the reaction I’m afraid, you see if we look at how we have to engage from the west, I think we need to engage in these ways. We need to be saying to people who are starting with their democracy - democracy is not just a way of voting it’s a way of thinking; the test of a democracy is how you treat the minority as well as how the majority comes to power. It’s about the economy and educating people for an open economy that can function in the modern world, and it’s about a view of religion, which is why the whole issue of religious interfaith and dialogue is so important, it’s about a view of religion that is pluralistic, that says, ‘look, I may be a Christian, I accept you’re a Muslim, we can live together and exist together; it doesn’t mean you are an unbeliever, an infidel because you disagree with me’.
Sarah Montague: You say that the way that governments should react the way that leaders react is to put a lid on it. Yet there’s no sign of that, or limited sign of that, and I wonder how you think the west, the US, Britain, European countries should react to this.
Tony Blair: The way we should react is we’ve got to stand up for forces that are trying to modernise the region, and we shouldn’t take a step back we’ve got to stay engaged so, if you look at what’s happening in any of these countries today, as I say the good news is, you take Libya, yes what happened was terrible and appalling, but actually the Libyan authorities have come out very strongly and denounced it. I think there are within each of these societies, and I see this, day in, day out, there are lots of people, good people, decent people who know that actually the problem isn’t some form of oppression by the west. The problem is they are now undergoing this process of transition and that if they want to reach true and open democracies the only way you do that in the era of globalisation is by people being open to one another and not with a closed and wrong-headed view of religion.
Sarah Montague: When you think about the effect it has had on us and when you look at something like the situation with Salman Rushdie, do you think I mean when we are talking about a film that actually very few people have seen, and very few people have seen it partly because broadcasters around the world have made the decision not to show it, now there are various reasons for that, but do you think in one sense that there is danger that we might be losing the battle for free speech, that we are being limited.
Tony Blair: Well it’s difficult, I mean it’s a very good point, but it’s difficult isn’t it because you don’t want to provoke more violence and do something that is irresponsible. On the other hand, as I said to you, the actual issue here is the reaction; I mean the film is, you know, I don’t encourage anyone particularly to watch it.
Sarah Montague: Have you seen it?
Tony Blair: I actually because I was coming on the programme today thought I should watch at least a few minutes of the trailer, and it is a laughable piece of production. I mean, there’s nobody who could treat that as serious in any shape or form at all.
Sarah Montague: There is an argument from a broadcaster’s point of view you should show it to illustrate that, to show how absurd it is, and yet if a broadcaster did in the west you would condemn them, I imagine.
Tony Blair: Well I don’t think I’d condemn them but I think it’s probably they are taking the right decision. But I think what we shouldn’t do is lose sight of what the real issue is and the real issue is how do people actually think it’s justified to react in a way that ends up in innocent people being killed and you know the tragedy of the American ambassador in Libya is he’s someone who actually supported the liberation of Libya, supported the changes there so you know, no this is a profound problem, it is a problem as I say which is about the struggle of modernisation. The good news is, in the end, the modernisers will win, incidentally, but it will take a long time to do. One other point I’d make is this, because I feel very strongly about this, and part of the reason I set up a Foundation that’s about religious interfaith today, which operates in about twenty different countries. One part of this is about religion, and what the politicians often want to do for totally understandable reasons and I used to feel this myself, is religion’s such a tricky subject for us that we want to stay away from it, but one element of resolving this is about a view of religion that is also open minded and pluralistic, and what you actually require for democracy to function properly is a view of religion which religion has its place but where you have democracy friendly religion as well religion friendly democracy.
Sarah Montague: You seem so sure, well you say that you’re sure the modernisers will win but you look at what’s happening across the Muslim world with embassies closing and the protests and one wonders why you’re so sure.
Tony Blair: Because I think in the end the same spirit that overthrew a lot of these dictatorships is a spirit that in the end is of its essence open minded, and I think the great debate in the world today actually is between the open minded and the closed minded. Those people who see globalisation, the internet, all the possibilities of technology and say look this is a great opportunity and those who hate all this and want to close down in the face of it. And I believe ultimately those people with that open mind will win.
Sarah Montague: And those who say across the Muslim world and elsewhere, who say look Muslims across the world, look at the situation between Israel and the Palestinian territories and they look at the Iraq war, they look at other things that have gone on and there is a justified grievance that the Muslim world has against the west.
Tony Blair: I think it’s very important that we disaggregate some of that, but also don’t allow that argument to gain any more than it’s really got when you analyse it. I mean in respect of Israel and Palestine, look this is a huge issue for people across the whole of the region, but I don’t think we should confuse that or give that as an excuse for what is happening. Yes, we should push forward on the Middle East peace process, it’s enormously important, but the absence of peace should not mean this type of violence. And as for Iraq or indeed Afghanistan, you know, most of the people that have died there have died in sectarian violence, now the truth is both, and you can agree or disagree with the decisions there, but the people of both countries actually want democracy and want neither Saddam Hussein on one side or the Taliban on the other. What we’ve got to do, and this is why it’s important we stay engaged, is we’ve got to be there on the side of those people who want that type of open minded society and help them. Because they need help. They will, in my view, they will in the end win, but we can shorten that struggle and make it a lot less bloody if we’re there supporting them, articulating their case and helping them. One way we do that, by the way, is not allowing this nonsense that somehow this is about an oppression of Muslims by the west because it isn’t true and each time you make that argument you kind of fuel that sense of grievance which itself is part of a narrative that is wrong.
Sarah Montague: And when you make the arguments that you make I wonder how much you are aware of your own reputation and I would point to what Archbishop Desmond Tutu said a couple of weeks ago where he said the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 premised on the lie that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction has destabilised and polarised the world to a greater extent than any other conflict in history.
Tony Blair: Well I think that’s a slightly strange thing to say really, I don’t want to get into too much re-running of that debate which I had with Desmond Tutu over the last few weeks both in South Africa and here but, you know, these judgements are incredibly difficult ones to make morally. If you take what’s happening in Syria today, what is the moral thing to do?
I mean at the moment, by the way, they are just being crushed so we’ve had how many people, 35,000 die in the last 18 months. So, is it moral to intervene or moral not to. I think these decisions are incredibly difficult and I think we’re best to accept that even if people have disagreements they can have disagreements that are genuine and, you know, of good faith you don’t have to call someone a liar if you simply disagree with them. I think if you look at what is happening in Syria today, it’s actually quite interesting in regard to what we’ve just been talking about. Actually, we all know what the real problem is, the problem is when you remove Assad what will come next and will you get the same kind of religious extremism coming in. That’s the reason why there are still some elements in Syria that support Assad. My point is this, the answer to this type of extremism is not repression, the answer, in the end, is an open minded view of democracy.
Sarah Montague: Are we being too accepting of what’s happening in Syria?
Tony Blair: Well I think, you know, what is happening is appalling. Now, what we do about it is another question, but let’s be clear, there are people dying every single day. It’s just not on the news any more.
Sarah Montague: So you would be acting?
Tony Blair: Well, I think we’ve got to look very carefully at what more we can do to ratchet up the pressure on Assad and the regime because I know people say inevitably he will go. I don’t think it is inevitable actually unless we are prepared to make it clear that our support and solidarity for those people that are struggling against what is a very, very brutal repression now, that support will continue. Now how we do that is probably a subject for another day, but I personally think it would be very tragic if we lost sight of what is happening in Syria right now.
Sarah Montague: But from the sounds of it you would be leading to a position where you would be advocating military action.
Tony Blair: Well, I would be advocating ramping up where we are. Now, how you do that whether it’s along the lines of what the Turks have suggested which is you create zones of immunity. These are questions that we should debate, but what I am certainly very alarmed at the prospect of, is the notion that we just kind of leave that now because I think the consequence of that will be very brutal and very bloody for all the people there.