Why the Middle East Matters - a keynote speech by Tony BlairWednesday, Apr 23, 2014 in Office of Tony Blair, Office of the Quartet Representative
Tony Blair delivered the following speech at Bloomberg London HQ on Wednesday 23 April 2014
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It is unsurprising that public opinion in the UK and elsewhere, resents the notion that we should engage with the politics of the Middle East and beyond. We have been through painful engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq. After 2008, we have had our own domestic anxieties following the financial crisis. And besides if we want to engage, people reasonably ask: where, how and to what purpose?
More recently, Ukraine has served to push the Middle East to the inside pages, with the carnage of Syria featuring somewhat, but the chaos of Libya, whose Government we intervened to change, hardly meriting a mention.
However the Middle East matters. What is presently happening there, still represents the biggest threat to global security of the early 21st C. The region, including the wider area outside its conventional boundary – Pakistan, Afghanistan to the east and North Africa to the west – is in turmoil with no end in sight to the upheaval and any number of potential outcomes from the mildly optimistic to catastrophe.
At the root of the crisis lies a radicalised and politicised view of Islam, an ideology that distorts and warps Islam’s true message. The threat of this radical Islam is not abating. It is growing. It is spreading across the world. It is de-stabilising communities and even nations. It is undermining the possibility of peaceful co-existence in an era of globalisation. And in the face of this threat we seem curiously reluctant to acknowledge it and powerless to counter it effectively.
In this speech I will set out how we should do this, including the recognition that on this issue, whatever our other differences, we should be prepared to reach out and cooperate with the East, and in particular, Russia and China.
The statement that the Middle East ‘matters’, is no longer uncontested. Some say after the shale revolution, the region has declined in significance for energy supplies, at least for the USA. Others say that though they accept that it continues to be a relevant and important region, there are other more pressing problems, most particularly now with Eastern Europe facing a resurgent, nationalist Russia. For the most part, a very common sentiment is that the region may be important but it is ungovernable and therefore impossible and therefore we should let it look after itself.
I would say there are four reasons why the Middle East remains of central importance and cannot be relegated to the second order.
First and most obviously, it is still where a large part of the world’s energy supplies are generated, and whatever the long term implications of the USA energy revolution, the world’s dependence on the Middle East is not going to disappear any time soon. In any event, it has a determining effect on the price of oil; and thus on the stability and working of the global economy.
Secondly, it is right on the doorstep of Europe. The boundary of the EU is a short distance from the Levantine coast. Instability here affects Europe, as does instability in North Africa, in close proximity to Spain and Italy.
Third, in the centre of this maelstrom, is Israel. Its alliance with the USA, its partnership with leading countries of Europe, and the fact that it is a Western democracy, mean that its fate is never going to be a matter of indifference. Over these past years, with considerable skill, the Israelis have also built up relationships with China and with Russia. These aren't the same as their long standing Western alliances but they have significance. Were the Israelis to be pulled into a regional conflict, there is no realistic way that the world could or would want to shrug it off. For the moment, Israel has successfully stayed aloof from the storm around it. But the one thing the last few years has taught us (and them) is that we can expect the unexpected.
Finally and least obvious, is a reason we are curiously reluctant to admit, in part because the admission would throw up some very difficult policy choices. It is in the Middle East that the future of Islam will be decided. By this I mean the future of its relationship with politics. This is controversial because the world of politics is uncomfortable talking about religion; because some will say that really the problems are not religious but political; and even because – it is true – that the largest Muslim populations are to be found outside the region not inside it.
But I assert it nonetheless. I do so because underneath the turmoil and revolution of the past years is one very clear and unambiguous struggle: between those with a modern view of the Middle East, one of pluralistic societies and open economies, where the attitudes and patterns of globalisation are embraced; and, on the other side, those who want to impose an ideology born out of a belief that there is one proper religion and one proper view of it, and that this view should, exclusively, determine the nature of society and the political economy. We might call this latter perspective an ‘Islamist’ view, though one of the frustrating things about this debate is the inadequacy of the terminology and the tendency for any short hand to be capable of misinterpretation, so that you can appear to elide those who support the Islamist ideology with all Muslims.
But wherever you look – from Iraq to Libya to Egypt to Yemen to Lebanon to Syria and then further afield to Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan – this is the essential battle. Of course there are an array of complexities in each case, derived from tribe, tradition and territory. I would not for a moment suggest that these conflicts do not have their own individual characteristics. And the lack of economic opportunity is without doubt a prime proximate cause of the region’s chaos. But there is something frankly odd about the reluctance to accept what is so utterly plain: that they have in common a struggle around the issue of the rightful place of religion, and in particular Islam, in politics.
It is crucially important in this description not to confuse the issue of religion and politics, with the question of religiosity. Many of those totally opposed to the Islamist ideology are absolutely devout Muslims. In fact it is often the most devout who take most exception to what they regard as the distortion of their faith by those who claim to be ardent Muslims whilst acting in a manner wholly in contradiction to the proper teaching of the Koran.
Neither should this be seen in simplistic Sunni/Shia terms. Sometimes the struggle is seen in those terms and sometimes it is right to see it so. But the real battle is against both Sunni and Shia extremism where the majority of people, Sunni or Shia, who are probably perfectly content to live and let live, in the same way that nowadays most Catholics and Protestants do, are caught in a vicious and often literal crossfire between competing exclusivist views of the ‘true’ Islam. Where the two views align, whatever their mutual antagonism, is in the belief that those who think differently are the ‘enemy’ either within or without.
The reason this matters so much is that this ideology is exported around the world. The Middle East is still the epicentre of thought and theology in Islam. Those people, fortunately not a majority, in countries like, for example, Indonesia or Malaysia who espouse a strict Islamist perspective, didn't originate these ideas. They imported them.
For the last 40/50 years, there has been a steady stream of funding, proselytising, organising and promulgating coming out of the Middle East, pushing views of religion that are narrow minded and dangerous. Unfortunately we seem blind to the enormous global impact such teaching has had and is having.
Within the Middle East itself, the result has been horrible, with people often facing a choice between authoritarian Government that is at least religiously tolerant; and the risk that in throwing off the Government they don't like, they end up with a religiously intolerant quasi-theocracy.
Take a step back and analyse the world today: with the possible exception of Latin America (leaving aside Hezbollah in the tri-border area in South America), there is not a region of the world not adversely affected by Islamism and the ideology is growing. The problems of the Mid East and North Africa are obvious. But look at the terror being inflicted in countries – Nigeria, Mali, Central African Republic, Chad and many others – across Sub Saharan Africa. Indeed I would argue that that religious extremism is possibly the single biggest threat to their ability to overcome the massive challenges of development today.
In Central Asia, terrorist attacks are regular occurrences in Russia, whose Muslim population is now over 15%, and radical influences are stretching across the whole of the central part of Northern Asia, reaching even the Western province of Xinjiang in China.
In the Far East, there has been the important breakthrough in resolving the Mindanao dispute in the Philippines, where well over 100,000 people lost their lives in the last decade or so. But elsewhere, in Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Indonesia, there remain real inter-religious challenges and tensions. In the recent Indonesian elections, the Islamic parties received a third of the vote.
The Muslim population in Europe is now over 40m and growing. The Muslim Brotherhood and other organisations are increasingly active and they operate without much investigation or constraint. Recent controversy over schools in Birmingham (and similar allegations in France) show heightened levels of concern about Islamist penetration of our own societies.
All of this you can read about.
However for the purposes of this speech, two fascinating things stand out for me. The first is the absolutely rooted desire on the part of Western commentators to analyse these issues as disparate rather than united by common elements. They go to extraordinary lengths to say why, in every individual case, there are multiple reasons for understanding that this is not really about Islam, it is not really about religion; there are local or historic reasons which explain what is happening. There is a wish to eliminate the obvious common factor in a way that is almost wilful. Now of course as I have said, there is always a context that is unique to each situation. There will naturally be a host of local factors that play a part in creating the issue. But it is bizarre to ignore the fact the principal actors in all situations, express themselves through the medium of religious identity or that in ideological terms, there is a powerful unifying factor based on a particular world view of religion and its place in politics and society.
The second thing is that there is a deep desire to separate the political ideology represented by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood from the actions of extremists including acts of terrorism. This stems from a completely laudable sense that we must always distinguish between those who violate the law and those we simply disagree with.
But laudable though the motives are, which lead us to this distinction, if we're not careful, they also blind us to the fact that the ideology itself is nonetheless dangerous and corrosive; and cannot and should not be treated as a conventional political debate between two opposing views of how society should be governed.
It may well be the case that in particular situations, those who follow a strictly Islamist political agenda neither advocate nor approve of political violence. There are of course a variety of different views within such a broadly described position. But their overall ideology is one which inevitably creates the soil in which such extremism can take root. In many cases, it is clear that they regard themselves as part of a spectrum, with a difference of view as to how to achieve the goals of Islamism, not a difference as to what those goals are; and in certain cases, they will support the use of violence.
At this point it must again be emphasised: it is not Islam itself that gives rise to this ideology. It is an interpretation of Islam, actually a perversion of it which many Muslims abhor. There used to be such interpretations of Christianity which took us years to eradicate from our mainstream politics.
The reason that this ideology is dangerous is that its implementation is incompatible with the modern world – politically, socially, and economically. Why? Because the way the modern world works is through connectivity. Its essential nature is pluralist. It favours the open-minded. Modern economies work through creativity and connections. Democracy cannot function except as a way of thinking as well as voting. You put your view; you may lose; you try to win next time; or you win but you accept that you may lose next time.
That is not the way that the Islamist ideology works. It is not about a competing view of how society or politics should be governed within a common space where you accept other views are equally valid. It is exclusivist in nature. The ultimate goal is not a society which someone else can change after winning an election. It is a society of a fixed polity, governed by religious doctrines that are not changeable but which are, of their essence, unchangeable.
Because the West is so completely unfamiliar with such an ideology –though actually the experience of revolutionary communism or fascism should resonate with older generations – we can't really see the danger properly. We feel almost that if we identify it in these terms, we're being anti-Muslim, a sentiment on which the Islamists cleverly play.
Right now in the Middle East, this is the battle being waged. Of course in each country, it arises in a different form. But in each case, take out the extremist views around religion, and each conflict or challenge becomes infinitely more manageable. This is where, even though at one level the ideology coming out of Shia Iran and that of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood may seem to be different, in reality they amount to the same thing with the same effect – the holding back of the proper political, social and economic advance of the country.
It is this factor that then can explain many of the things that presently we seem to find inexplicable in a way that fuels our desire to dis-engage from the region and beyond it.
So we look at the issue of intervention or not and seem baffled. We change the regimes in Afghanistan and in Iraq, put soldiers on the ground in order to help build the country, a process which a majority of people in both countries immediately participated in, through the elections. But that proved immensely difficult and bloody.
We change the regime in Libya through air power, we don't commit forces on the ground, again the people initially respond well, but now Libya is a mess and a mess that is de-stabilising everywhere around it, (apart from Algeria partly because Algeria already went through a conflict precisely around the issue of Islamism in which thousands lost their lives.)
In Syria, we call for the regime to change, we encourage the Opposition to rise up, but then when Iran activates Hezbollah on the side of Assad, we refrain even from air intervention to give the Opposition a chance. The result is a country in disintegration, millions displaced, a death toll approximating that of Iraq, with no end in sight and huge risks to regional stability.
The impact of this recent history, on Western opinion is a wish at all costs to stay clear of it all.
Then there has been the so-called Arab Spring. At first we jumped in to offer our support to those on the street. We are now bemused and bewildered that it hasn't turned out quite how we expected.
Even in respect of the MEPP there is an audible feeling of dismay, - that as the world around Israel and Palestine went into revolutionary spasm, and the need for progress seemed so plain, the issue in which we have expended extraordinary energy and determination through US Secretary Kerry, still seems as intractable as ever.
Yet the explanation for all of these apparently unresolvable contradictions is staring us in the face.
It is that there is a Titanic struggle going on within the region between those who want the region to embrace the modern world – politically, socially and economically – and those who instead want to create a politics of religious difference and exclusivity. This is the battle. This is the distorting feature. This is what makes intervention so fraught but non- intervention equally so. This is what complicates the process of political evolution. This is what makes it so hard for democracy to take root. This is what, irrespective of the problems on the Israeli side, divides Palestinian politics and constrains their leadership.
The important point for Western opinion is that this is a struggle with two sides. So when we look at the Middle East and beyond it to Pakistan or Iran and elsewhere, it isn't just a vast unfathomable mess with no end in sight and no one worthy of our support. It is in fact a struggle in which our own strategic interests are intimately involved; where there are indeed people we should support and who, ironically, are probably in the majority if only that majority were mobilised, organised and helped.
But what is absolutely necessary is that we first liberate ourselves from our own attitude. We have to take sides. We have to stop treating each country on the basis of whatever seems to make for the easiest life for us at any one time. We have to have an approach to the region that is coherent and sees it as a whole. And above all, we have to commit. We have to engage.
Engagement and commitment are words easy to use. But they only count when they come at a cost. Alliances are forged at moments of common challenge. Partnerships are built through trials shared. There is no engagement that doesn't involve a price. There is no commitment that doesn't mean taking a risk.
In saying this, it does not mean that we have to repeat the enormous commitment of Iraq and Afghanistan. It may well be that in time people come to view the impact of those engagements differently. But there is no need, let alone appetite, to do that.
I completely understand why our people feel they have done enough, more than enough. And when they read of those we have tried to help spurning our help, criticising us, even trying to kill us, they're entitled to feel aggrieved and to say: we're out.
However, as the Afghans who braved everything to vote show us and the Iraqis who will also come out and vote despite all the threats and the inadequacy of the system they now live in, demonstrate, those who spurn our help are only part of the story. There are others whose spirit and determination stay undaunted. And I think of the Egyptians who have been through so much and yet remain with optimism; and the Palestinians who work with me and who, whatever the frustrations, still want and believe in a peaceful solution; and I look at Tunisians and Libyans and Yemenis who are trying to make it all work properly; and I realise this is not a struggle without hope. This is not a mess where everyone is as bad as each other. In other words it matters and there is a side we should be proud to take. There are people to stand beside and who will stand beside us.
But we have to be clear what that side is and why we're taking it. So what does that mean?
It means supporting the principles of religious freedom and open, rule based economies. It means helping those countries whose people wish to embrace those principles to achieve them. Where there has been revolution, we should be on the side of those who support those principles and opposed to those who would thwart them. Where there has not been revolution, we should support the steady evolution towards them.
If we apply those principles to the Middle East, it would mean the following.
Egypt. I start with Egypt not because what is happening in Syria is not more horrifying; but because on the fate of Egypt hangs the future of the region. Here we have to understand plainly what happened. The Muslim Brotherhood Government was not simply a bad Government. It was systematically taking over the traditions and institutions of the country. The revolt of 30 June 2013 was not an ordinary protest. It was the absolutely necessary rescue of a nation. We should support the new Government and help. None of this means that where there are things we disagree strongly with – such as the death sentence on the 500 – that we do not speak out. Plenty of Egyptians have. But it does mean that we show some sensitivity to the fact that over 400 police officers have suffered violent deaths and several hundred soldiers been killed. The next President will face extraordinary challenges. It is massively in our interests that he succeeds. We should mobilise the international community in giving Egypt and its new President as much assistance as we can so that the country gets a chance not to return to the past but to cross over to a better future.
Syria. This is an unmitigated disaster. We are now in a position where both Assad staying and the Opposition taking over seem bad options. The former is responsible for creating this situation. But the truth is that there are so many fissures and problems around elements within the Opposition that people are rightly wary now of any solution that is an outright victory for either side. Repugnant though it may seem, the only way forward is to conclude the best agreement possible even if it means in the interim President Assad stays for a period. Should even this not be acceptable to him, we should consider active measures to help the Opposition and force him to the negotiating table, including no fly zones whilst making it clear that the extremist groups should receive no support from any of the surrounding nations.
Tunisia. Here there have been genuine and positive attempts by the new Government to escape from the dilemmas of the region and to shape a new Constitution. Supporting the new Government should be an absolute priority. As the new President has rightly said for a fraction of what we're offering Ukraine – which of course is the correct thing to do - we could put Tunisia on its feet. We should do so. This would be a very sensible investment.
Libya. We bear a responsibility for what has happened. Their urgent need is for security sector reform. We have made some attempts to do so. But obviously the scale of the task and the complications of the militia make it very hard. But Libya is not Iraq or Afghanistan. It is not impossible to help and NATO has the capability to do so. However reluctant we are to make this commitment, we have to recognise the de-stabilising impact Libya is having at present. If it disintegrates completely, it will affect the whole of the region around it and feed the instability in Sub- Saharan Africa.
Yemen. Again the country is trying to make progress in circumstances that are unimaginably difficult. We are giving support to the new Government. There is a new Constitution. But again they urgently need help with security sector reform and with development.
Iran. We should continue to make it clear, as the Obama administration is rightly doing, that they have to step back from being a nuclear threshold state. The next weeks will be a crucial phase in the negotiation. But I do not favour yielding to their demands for regional influence in return for concessions on their nuclear ambitions. The Iranian Government play a deliberately de-stabilising role across the region. Our goals should not include regime change. Their people will, in the end, have to find their own way to do that. However we should at every opportunity, push back against the use of their power to support extremism.
MEPP. Since becoming Secretary of State, John Kerry has put immense effort into making the peace process work. As we speak, his efforts hang in the balance. Many people said he should not have given such priority to this issue. They are wrong. It remains absolutely core to the region and the world. Not because the Israeli / Palestinian conflict is the cause of our problems. But because solving it would be such a victory for the very forces we should support. Now it may be that after years of it being said that solving this question is the route to solving the regions’ problems, we're about to enter a new phase where solving the region’s problems a critical part of solving the Israeli / Palestinian issue. But the point is that John Kerry’s commitment has not been in vain. He has put himself in an immensely powerful position to drive this forward by virtue of that commitment. He needs our support in doing so.
Elsewhere across the region we should be standing steadfast by our friends and allies as they try to change their own countries in the direction of reform. Whether in Jordan or the Gulf where they're promoting the values of religious tolerance and open, rule based economies, or taking on the forces of reaction in the shape of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, we should be supporting and assisting them.
Finally, we have to elevate the issue of religious extremism to the top of the agenda. All over the world the challenge of defeating this ideology requires active and sustained engagement. Consider this absurdity: that we spend billions of $ on security arrangements and on defence to protect ourselves against the consequences of an ideology that is being advocated in the formal and informal school systems and in civic institutions of the very countries with whom we have intimate security and defence relationships. Some of those countries of course wish to escape from the grip of this ideology. But often it is hard for them to do so within their own political constraints. They need to have this issue out in the open where it then becomes harder for the promotion of this ideology to happen underneath the radar. In other words they need us to make this a core part of the international dialogue in order to force the necessary change within their own societies. This struggle between what we may call the open-minded and the closed-minded is at the heart of whether the 21st C turns in the direction of peaceful co-existence or conflict between people of different cultures.
If we do not act, then we will start to see reactions against radical Islam which will then foster extremism within other faiths. Indeed we see some evidence of this already directed against Muslims in Asia particularly.
When we consider the defining challenges of our time, surely this one should be up there along with the challenge of the environment or economic instability. Add up the deaths around the world now – and even leave out the theatre of the Middle East – and the toll on human life is deplorable. In Nigeria recently and Pakistan alone thousands are now dying in religiously inspired conflict. And quite apart from the actual loss of life, there is the loss of life opportunities for parts of the population mired in backward thinking and reactionary attitudes especially towards girls.
On this issue also, there is a complete identity of interest between East and West. China and Russia have exactly the same desire to defeat this ideology as do the USA and Europe. Here is a subject upon which all the principal nations of the G20 could come together, could agree to act, and could find common ground to common benefit. An international programme to eradicate religious intolerance and prejudice from school systems and informal education systems and from organisations in civic society would have a huge galvanising effect in making unacceptable what is currently ignored or tolerated.
So there is an agenda here in part about the Middle East and its importance; and in part about seeing what is happening there in the context of its impact on the wider world.
This is why I work on the Middle East Peace Process; why I began my Foundation to promote inter-faith dialogue. Why I will do all I can to help governments confronting these issues.
Consider for a moment since 9/11 how our world has changed, how in a myriad of different ways from the security measures we now take for granted to the arenas of conflict that have now continued over a span of years, there is a price being paid in money, life and opportunity for millions. This is not a conventional war. It isn't a struggle between super powers or over territory. But it is real. It is fearsome in its impact. It is growing in its reach. It is a battle about belief and about modernity. It is important because the world through technology and globalisation is pushing us together across boundaries of faith and culture. Unaddressed, the likelihood of conflict increases. Engagement does not always mean military involvement. Commitment does not mean going it alone. But it does mean stirring ourselves. It does mean seeing the struggle for what it is. It does mean taking a side and sticking with it.