Last Wednesday, Tony Blair, the former British prime minister turned Middle East peace envoy, announced a new war. In a speech before a London audience, he warned about the threat of a “radicalized and politicized view of Islam,” a threat that was “growing” and “spreading across the world.” The West, he lamented, has been “curiously reluctant to acknowledge it and powerless to counter it effectively.” He chided Western commentators for their “willful” insistence on seeing “local or historic reasons,” when it was “really about Islam.” He derided the naiveté that leads some to “distinguish between those who violate the law and those we simply disagree with.” The ideology itself, he concluded, was “dangerous and corrosive.”
Blair’s speech was a warmed-over retailing of neoconservative doyen Bernard Lewis’ ossified prescriptions. It was an attempt to pathologize political behavior, to use culture in place of social, economic or political causes. If violence can be described as Islamic and if Islam is inherently violent, what need is there to understand?
In confusing cause and effect, religion and radical politics, Blair, the soi-disant child of European Enlightenment, continued a post-9/11 war on logic he initiated with U.S. President George W. Bush. But his self-interested assault proved no more successful than his war in Iraq. It couldn’t overcome the immovable force of facts.
It is true that there has been a rise in radical Islamism. But its causes are myriad, mainly political. Before the Iraq War, the U.K.’s Joint Intelligence Committee had warned Blair that the invasion would make violent blowback inevitable. Afterward, the head of MI5 confirmed that the war had “increased the terrorist threat” and “provided an arena for the jihad.” There is a reason radical Islamism hasn’t endangered Sweden or Norway. Its target isn’t “our freedoms” or “our Western values.” It is a response, however misguided, to a real injustice.
For Blair, denying context is a political necessity. Islamism is not a new phenomenon, nor is it geographically delimited. It comes in various colors and shades — from Western Africa to Southeast Asia. It can sometimes take violent form, but it isn’t defined by that. If the determining factor in radicalization were Islam, there would be a uniform distribution in Islamist violence across time and space. But the violence has waxed and waned in response to specific stimuli. Empirical research by the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism has shown, for example, that “more than 95 percent of all suicide attacks are in response to foreign occupation.” Blair aided two, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and enables a third, in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.
Over a decade has passed since Blair rode pillion with Bush into the unprovoked war with Iraq. The war caused at least half a million deaths. For six years before the war, Blair backed a sanctions regime that two former U.N. humanitarian coordinators for Iraq described as genocidal.
Blair’s crude self-interest prevents him from noticing the Gulf monarchies that better exemplify the tendencies he is lamenting. They, after all, still butter his bread.
In the 11 years since, Blair has claimed that he warred for the Iraqis’ own good. The Iraqis, however, were not so discerning. They used it, he claims, as an opportunity to slit one another’s throats. The deaths may have been foretold, but Blair accepts no responsibility for the consequences. The invaders’ attempt to divide and conquer may have spurred the bloodletting, but Blair insists he would be absolved by his good intentions.
Such solipsism in politics is a function of power. Blair’s power was limited, so he rode the coattails of imperial America. But weakness was the least of his failings: His impoverished imagination and vaulting ambition were always the bigger evils. He knew the Iraq War would be a disaster. He even tried to dissuade Bush. But given the choice between losing favor with the White House and endorsing a calamity, he chose what was best for Tony Blair.
Bush has since traded his bludgeon for a brush, but Blair has ambition and greed. Where the patrician Bush could afford the dignity of retirement, the parvenu Blair has dime and day to seize. The world for Blair is an oyster, and his rapier is probing cracks. Overly solicitous of thy neighbor’s wife, he may have cost himself a mogul, but he has picked up tyrants and despots in turn. These associations have to be laundered.
The war on terrorism was a boon for the world’s rogues. After 9/11 many portrayed their local adversaries as part of a global terrorist threat — Russia, the Chechens; China, the Uyghurs; Israel, the Palestinians. This, writes Islam scholar Akbar Ahmed, allowed them “to both justify their oppressive policies and to ingratiate themselves with the United States and the international system.”
The serviceability of the rhetoric has endured. Abdel Fattah El Sisi franchised it in Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Blair supports Sisi and dropped Gaddafi and Assad only after they lost their ability to benefit him. (Indeed, before things went awry, he considered knighting Assad.) His speech was a gift to them all.
Blair’s neoconservative instincts dispose him to intervention in Syria; but his anti-Islamic prejudice impels him to seek stalemate, even Assad’s preservation. Blair’s crude self-interest prevents him from noticing the Gulf monarchies that better exemplify the tendencies he is lamenting. They, after all, still butter his bread. He allied himself with ruthless Central Asian strongmen while in office, turning a blind eye to their torture and repression. Now he actively services them.
Blair, in short, is as qualified to speak on Islam’s failings as Jimmy Savile might have been on youth delinquency. The pandemonium that he evidences for Islam’s failings is largely his own creation.
The chorus that once approved his every move is dwindling. The embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Chinese Communist Party’s repression is something few can stomach. In the Middle East, Blair is a butt of innumerable jokes. His message has, however, resonated with Britain’s far-right English Defence League and the pro-settler Clarion Project. Having forfeited his old constituency, Blair may be gaining a new one.
Blair has his Styx to cross. He has to endure the reproach of half a million dead Iraqis. For the Catholic convert, confession might have promised absolution. But the facile confidence man believes he can trick Charon with counterfeit currency. He thinks making scapegoats will divert attention and buy him passage. The ferry, however, has yet to depart, and the ride will be rocky indeed.