On Wednesday 23 April 2014 Tony Blair delivered a keynote speech on “Why the Middle East Matters”. I was amazed. Not just by his neo-conservatist thinking. I never expected him to have obtained the ability to get rid of his own ignorance. It’s not his fault he was not raised with more conscience of the World or having received propagandized history in his white-privileged education. His belief that ‘Western modern principles’ – whatever that may be – are the best way to govern and be governed is his right. I may think otherwise, and I sure do hope many others uphold different values than Blair’s. But what struck me most is his reasoning. It is so bad, narrow-minded, arrogant and hypocrite, it strikes me knowing that some actually take him serious. Now I know that politicians are not the smartest creatures. And I also know that most likely he did not even write his speech himself but bureaucratic subordinates were given the dirty task to match rhetoric with political interests. Yet fact that his speech reached spheres of influence and institutions of power with interest, confirms to me once more that the British Empire is proud for what is has done to the world, enjoys its violent hegemony and is ambitious to continue spreading its ideology of white-capital supremacy – with force and manipulation.
After reading his speech a couple more times – hoping to perceive it more nuanced and having allowed my emotions to slither for some time – I realized silence is not my preferred mode of reaction. I am a free citizen. Listen or not, but I disagree and wish to speak against, so I shall.
Hence, as simplistic and invalid Blair reasons, as straightforward and sound I shall respond. Yet no worries, I will retort in a similar language so that his intended audience (the brainwashable privileged patriots) is capable of understanding my comments. Let’s be honest, academia do not appeal as much to (potential) revolutionaries as furious activists. By no means am I stating that the latter are less intelligent than the former. On the contrary. I believe activist possess a double power: capability of well reasoned argumentation and ability to convey their message in human language. Neither I possess of high quality but I will take the challenge to counter Blair with a little feedback.
So Blair starts off by agreeing that people will reasonably question for what purpose the UK should engage in the Middle East. Allow me to briefly answer his question: perhaps because humanity deserves the entire international community to pay more than lip-service to the millions of civilians who are oppressed, murdered, tortured, enslaved and forced to flee their homes by power structures once put in place by the British Empire – and its allies – itself. Just think of the Balfour Declaration and the clash this created between the Jews and de Palestinians, who were both promised the same piece of territory. The aftermath of this betrayal – for both parties – is obvious. For Blair to state that Israel is one of four reasons why the Middle East matters, is hence of no surprise. What I find arrogant is that he explains the position of Israel as vulnerable and places the UK as some sort of hero, capable of ‘protecting’ it from being pulled into the regional conflict. As if Israel should be grateful. Mr. Blair, reread your history. Did you forget how the promised land was in fact a false promise, how the Jews were asked to fight along with the Alliance but granted fake hope in return? Did you forget how your Empire set up the Arabs and the Jews against each other and then left in 1948? And how about the 1920 Iraqi revolution…was it not the puppet leaders installed by the British against which the Iraqi people revolted (because they no longer wanted to be suppressed by imperial overlords). And did Churchill not answer the request of the people by sending in RAF unleashing waves of atrocities and killing over 9.000 people – with some ‘good gassing’ and terror bombing. I am sure Blair did not mean these events when at the beginning of his speech he said “we have been through painful engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq”.
So, the Middle East is on fire. We can all see that. According to Blair “at the root of the crisis lies a radicalized and politicized view of Islam”. That radical Islam (whichever interpretation we give to it) plays a role in the various struggles, is obvious. But let’s take a step back and look at what lies at the root cause of this rage and apparent need to unify under a particular ideology to fight? Is it the ideology itself that is so appealing for people to join, kill and die for? Or is it the lack of any alternative form of expressing grievance, dissatisfaction about decades – centuries even – of oppression, discrimination and deprivation of freedom, a last resort when no other land, ideology or government accepts your basic human right as an individual or ensures peaceful co-existence? Violence does not justify violence. But events such as Abu Ghraib in Iraq, the use of cluster bombs in Afghanistan, persistent discrimination of Muslims in Europe, Israel’s ongoing construction of illegal settlements and the international community not taking sufficient measures against this, the hypocrite attitude in relation to Saudi-Arabia and the failure to bring justice to the people of Syria – to name a few – do, in my opinion, explain why some individuals feel solidarity with politicized Islamic factions and are inclined to concur. Again, no violence is initially just, I believe. What bothers me is the simplistic reasoning of Blair where he refuses to address question why radical Islam “is spreading across the world” and what the UK can – and should – do – and have done – about it.
Blair gives four reasons he believes the Middle East to be of importance to the UK. His first is ‘energy’. I’m sorry – but does his priority in itself not foster rage? I am not a great supporter of capitalism I must admit, but to dare to explicitly state that oil is the main reason to care about the situation in the Middle East is simply outrageous and disrespectful. How about starting with a humanitarian cause?
His second reason is not of any humanitarian order either but again a matter of pure self-interest: ‘stability on European soil’. Not only does he escape – again – the responsibility of Europe in having played a role – at minimum – in the current instability in the Middle East, he also escapes Europe’s responsibility at present. If we are such a globalized world, interdependently interested in a properly functioning global economy – as he himself explains in his first reason – then do we not altogether also have a role to play in upholding humanitarian stability? Disregard of political or economic interests, is it morally explicable to extract oil and other natural resources from the most war-torn countries and conflict ridden areas but deviate from engagement when humans suffer?
His third reason for keeping an eye on the Middle East is ‘Israel’. Believe me, Israel does not need the UK. On the contrary, history has proven that the UK has brought Israel no good. It’s the UK which has an interest in staying friends with those who determine the power-balance in the region – the US, China and Russia. Let’s not forget, the UNSC would be even more dysfunctional if the UK does not play strategic with the ‘Israel card’. Blair knows it. Without tactically balancing the interests of these three powers the UK is nothing more than an island of little global significance.
His final reason is that “in the Middle East the future of Islam will be decided”. Again, how simplistic. Muslims the world all over are concerned with the Middle East and also shape the extent to which they mingle politics – in the Middle East and in the ‘West’ – with their religious affiliation. Take Syria. Assad is the last person on this planet that deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as human rights, democracy, freedom, peace and all those values Tony claims radical Islam does not uphold – unlike his ‘modern West’. And yet, what is being done to protect these innocent civilians? Nothing! Moreover, governments worldwide expect their own civilians to watch the war (and the Geneva talks and global summits) as if it is an entertaining reality show and switch to Mr. Bean when the broadcast is over. When individuals do – unlike their governments – feel it is their responsibility to protect, to help, to stand up and support the opposition, they are labeled as potential radicals. Many of these individuals – yet far from the majority – are European-born Muslims who do not differentiate between their European citizenship and Islamic belief per se. These identities can co-exist and are not mutually exclusive. But when European Muslims over and over again are considered outlaws of the European community, remain to be seen as immigrants or second-class citizens and accused of treason because they also feel a sense of brotherhood with human beings across the European border, they receive the label as radical Islamist and potential threat to Europe. Is it that these Muslims determine the interpretation of Islam? Or is it the prejudice of European leaders of their own citizens which push Muslims to affiliate more with a politicized interpretation of Islam? Again, I do not assert that Islam, Islamism, radicalization or politics are not essential components which shape the struggles in the Middle East. I simply want to point out that Blair’s assumption is incomplete and ignorant and hence inadequate (most likely even counter-effective) to reason from.
And who exactly does Blair mean when he speaks of ‘them’? “They have in common a struggle around the issue of the rightful place of religion, and in particular Islam, in politics” he says. One, please explain ‘they’. Two, is it not inherent to the entire political discourse to question the place of religion? Don’t we in Europe – during every election period, be it local, national or European – reflect on the notion of secularism? Is there even a European agreement on the place of religion in politics? Can there even be an agreed upon ‘right place’? I think both history and philosophy tell us this debate will continue to exist as long as there is something called ‘politics’ and something called ‘religion’.
Blair doesn’t seem to understand a bit of Islamic thought in general (yet feels comfortable speaking of “a proper teaching of the Koran”). Even extremists have a much broader and complex approach to ‘their’ ideology than it being a single truth which needs to be defended by exterminating all other-minded. Indeed, just like any other political thought, some take it to the extreme and wish for no other mindset to be upheld but their own. But such factions constitute a minority. Also in extremist groups, coalitions are often formed with other parties, be it similar in ideology or in complete contrast. Egypt’s El Nour party and its collaboration with first the Muslim Brotherhood and later the army-led government is an example of how Islamist parties are at the core a political actor defining their strategy and position within the larger political playing field, one also played by non-religious parties. Another extreme example is ISIS in Syria and it’s collaboration with Assad. And how could Tony forget the clearest example of where ideological beliefs, no matter how extreme, were put aside for a superior goal: the collaboration of Al Qaeda and the West in their joint effort to fight the Russians. No matter how radical – extremist groups do not simply belief in a single truth, stake or enemy. It all depends. Play your cards wisely I suggest.
Blair continues his account on Islamic extremism as an outward threat by explaining the role of ‘exporting their ideology’ over the rest of the world and how “we seem blind to the enormous global impact such teaching has had and is having”. He does receive some credit for recognizing the dangers of exporting – by force – an ideology, and how imposing its execution on others has extreme (violent) repercussions in various layers of society and which reach far into the future. Blair knows this all too well, I would presume. British colonial rule – based on an ideology of capitalism, white-supremacism and Christianity – is by far the best example of this. Imagine another ideology would compete with that of his Empire. “Fortunately” he goes on, “those people [are] not a majority”. Well, Mr. Blair, if there is one thing we learned from British colonial rule and capital domination than it is that it is not a democratic undertaking. Till today, an elite group of capitalists are in control of the world’s resources despite the opposition and suffering of the majority of the world. Does ‘we are the 99%’ ring a bell?
So after 3 pages of theoretic rhetoric and flawed reasoning he gives some examples of the world today. This is his tribute to the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring “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.” Seriously. This is his account? That the authoritarian governments in place were religiously tolerant? No they were not. They were sufficiently liberal and loyal to Western governments, constrained by Bretton-Woods conditions and conveniently corrupt for the West to ignore their intolerance (at minimum) of human rights. They appeared tolerant to the passive and indifferent attitude of their electorate – which happened to consist predominantly of Muslims, but that is not the same as religious tolerance. Did Ben-Ali not ban Ennahda, put restrictions on Mosques, beards and headscarves and was the Muslim Brotherhood not pushed underground by Mubarak? Can we call Assad’s slaughter of religious minority groups tolerant? And did all those governments protect Christians sufficiently in practicing their religion? These are just a few obvious examples but these authoritarian governments managed to spread their intolerance into all sorts of layers and aspects of society – from discrimination in schools, maltreatment of workers and inciting violence and division among its own population. So no, they were not religiously tolerant (neither is Saudi-Arabia but hey, they got oil so Blair doesn’t mind). Despite the religious intolerance of the autocrats, the uprising in the Arab world arose from different sources of dissatisfaction. All of society wanted these dictators to leave and they were not inspired by a religious ideology. They called for’ bread, freedom and social justice’, no one screamed ‘beard, hijab and halal meat’. Blair seems surprised they wanted to “throw off a government they don’t like”? Should they like them? The entire West should not have liked them in the first place. At least, from a human and moral perspective. But Blair has made it clear, the interests lay economic stability – for Europe. In that sense, I totally understand his favoring of Mubarak over Morsi. But then be bluntly straight about it and don’t cowardly hide behind ideology and principles of democracy.
Speaking of democracy, let Blair explain what this means: “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”. Remember his definition for a second. Let me first turn to his arrogant view of how the West responded to the 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”
Bemused and bewildered. The civil servant who wrote this sure favors alliteration but lacks empathy. What did Blair’s ‘we’ expect? The people to favor the same type of change the West envisioned? Clearly the people no longer wanted corrupt puppet leaders as the West installed, protected their throne and supported institution which function in every possible way against the values of democracy – principles Tony does not speak of – such as justice, equality, accountability and division of power. How can a population be expected to operate democratically if the entire system obstructs democratic governance? Obviously elections are a mere façade when all institutions – the constitution, the judiciary, legislative powers and economic institutions – represent autocratic rule.
This is Blair’s opinion on Egypt: “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.”
This is where I turn back to his definition of ‘democracy’. Did he not say that “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”. Now Morsi ain’t exactly my idol but people in Egypt put their view, Morsi won (albeit the entire electoral system could be contested but let’s be honest, would it also be contested if the victory was gained by Shafiq or Hamdeen?). So now tell me…does this justify the removal of a democratically elected leader and, moreover, the support of a military regime? The revolt of 30 June 2013 may be legitimately regarded as a motion of no confidence or impeachment – after all, the institution which would in a functioning democratic system do this job would be parliament, which had no power to do so at that time. If there is no people’s representation, than the streets are – in my opinion – a valid alternative. So when the people called for the resignation of Morsi – or new elections – I believe it to be a respectable request. But the means through which this happened and the consequential hijacking of this demand by a military regime stands in stark contrast to the democratic change the people are entitled to shape – themselves. Not top down. And especially not for external interests. If the West so desperately wants to help, then assist the people (and I emphasize the people) in reforming the institutions within which the game of democracy can be fairly played and protected by and for the electorate (again, I emphasize the electorate). If the UK dares to speak about the Muslim Brotherhood in relation to democratic principles and institutions, then I would love to also hear a word – or two – on the death verdict of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, the arrest and hostage of Morsi and the trial of Mubarak.
Then Syria. My heart bleeds and I am ashamed to be a European citizen when I hear Blair say “the only way forward is to conclude the best agreement possible even if it means in the interim President Assad stays for a period”. How dare Blair speak of values and principles if he even considers Assad’s remaining in power a solution, acknowledging that he is responsible for “millions displaced, a death toll approximating that of Iraq, with no end in sight and huge risks to regional stability”. And he goes on: “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” … The words “should even this not be acceptable to him” creates spontaneous feelings of disgust, rage, shame and sadness. ‘Acceptable’? Does Blair truly mean he deems Assad’s desire one entitled to be respected, complied with? Assad has no right whatsoever to even be asked his preference. And then Blair is surprised that with such a tone, such an open, respectable, and submissive approach to Assad some people seek solidarity with opposition groups and increase affiliation with Islamist parties? I find it quite understandable when one refuses to be a bystander of his corrupt, hypocrite and arrogant government which collaborate with the most evil forces on this planet.
A little reflection will do you good Mr. Blair. Look back at the role of the British Empire over the last centuries and you may understand why the Middle East is in conflict. Think about the current position of the international community – the reluctance to take measures against violent regimes – and you may understand why people are taking matters into their own hands rather than passively watching the crisis unfold. Gain some insight into your policies at home, how European governments fail to fully include their Muslim citizens in society and protect them against discrimination, and you may understand why some chose to sympathize with those who do acknowledge the religious element of their identity. Educate yourself and analyze more in depth the interdependence and complexity of democratic governance, politics, religion, conflict and grievance before you so ardently claim what is right and wrong and export your invalid reasoning against a self-constructed threat.
The Middle East matters. First and foremost because human-beings inhabit the region who are entitled to the same human rights as every other human-being on this planet. All other reasons may be contested and are subject to ideological preference. But even so, let’s at least be fair in our reasoning when we state our opinion. It is the minimum we owe humanity.
As I said – I don’t know if anyone will read or care what I have to say about Tony Blair’s keynote speech. But in my opinion silence legitimizes violence, and so I speak – as a free, European Muslim citizen.