Speeches

Washington Institute for Near East Policy 2010 Scholar-Statesman Award acceptance speech

The following speech was given by Quartet Representative Tony Blair at the Plaza Hotel, New York where he was awarded the 2010 Scholar-Staesman Award by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy

- CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY-

The warnings of past days of terrorist attacks in Europe remind us the security threat is still very much with us.

The extremism remains alive. We see it in the bombs in Baghdad or Kabul, but also in terrorist acts in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Kashmir, Chechnya; across swathes of the Middle East and beyond. The past ten years have seen 150,000 die in the Mindanao dispute in the Philippines.

The policy choices from 9/11 onwards were and are immensely difficult. Eventually they come down to: Do we confront this extremist ideology in order to change it; or do we manage it and hope, in time, it changes itself? I still find this judgement hard to make. On balance, however, I don’t believe that it can be benignly managed out of existence. Its roots are too deep, its narrative too pervasive.

I believe we need a revolution in our thinking. I do not think it is possible to defeat the extremism without defeating the narrative that nurtures it.

And there’s the rub. The practitioners of extremism are small in number. The adherents of the narrative stretch far broader into parts of mainstream thinking.

What is the narrative? It is that Islam is basically oppressed by the West; disrespected and treated unfairly; that the military action we took post 9/11 was against countries because they are Muslim; and that in the Middle East we ignore the injustice done to the Palestinians in our desire to support Israel, because the Palestinians are Muslims, and the Israelis Jews.

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.

When Pastor Jones was going to burn the Koran, he was rightly and roundly condemned for it, by everyone from President Obama down. But what intrigued me was why such 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 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.

What we should be doing, instead, is confronting the narrative head on, forming an alliance across the faiths and across the divides of culture and civilisation to defeat it. President Obama gave the template for this, brilliantly, in his Cairo speech. We need to act on it. We should point out, with vigour, that in Kosovo America and Britain went to the aid of Kosovan Muslims and not because they were Muslims but because they were a people in distress. That 9/11 was an utterly unprovoked attack on all who share civilised values. That in Iraq and Afghanistan, whatever you think of the original action, we enabled the people to choose their Government, they did so and the terrorism that seeks to destabilise both countries is not about so-called ‘liberation from occupation’ but about attacking fellow Muslims just because they want the same freedoms as us. That though of course there can be many legitimate criticisms of Israeli policy, Israel has a clear right to exist, terrorism is the enemy of peace and that the biggest funders of the Palestinians this year, with half the money going to Gaza, will be the United States and the European Union.

So we push forward the peace between Israel and Palestine as Secretary Clinton, Senator Mitchell and all of us are working for. It is not the source of extremism, but progress there removes much of the poison, which the extremists use. But let us be firm about the basis of such a plan. A viable state of Palestine that offers the Palestinian people the dignity and justice of statehood. A secure state of Israel because Israel’s security is not a strategic interest only of Israelis but of all of us.

We should make it crystal clear to Iran: acquiring a nuclear weapon is unacceptable not just to America but to the civilised world. And if people say, why should India or France have a nuclear bomb but not Iran, I say go and read the speech of Iran’s President to the United Nations just days ago here in New York, and tell me that is someone you want with a nuclear bomb.

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.

So we must act with resolution and also with intelligence. Sometimes the policy choice is presented as a struggle between principle and pragmatism. In reality, principles without a practical plan result in inefficacy. But pragmatism unless driven by principle, can result in avoiding the challenge rather than answering it. At stake in this challenge are the values of the civilised world, those that unite people of all faiths and none. Needed is a plan to defend them effectively. But the plan will be better if motivated and imbued with the principles we believe in.