In early 2014, while Western leaders were not paying close attention, the Islamic State took control of Fallujah, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria. President Obama denigrated them as a "junior varsity" team, but former British Prime Minister Tony Blair saw them as a far more serious threat:
"The threat of this radical Islam is not abating. It is growing. It is spreading across the world. It is destabilising 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." -- Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, current Mideast peace envoy, in a speech called "Why the Middle East Matters." The full text of his speech is worth reading. It has sparked an interesting debate on the present and future of the Middle East.
I agreed with Blair that a) the Middle East matters; and b) radical Islam is a dangerous ideology. But like Obama, I was skeptical of the long-term threat of ISIS. I wondered if Blair, like his Cold War predecessors who perceived Soviet, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, European, American, Asian and African communism as a united and monolithic force, fully grasped the many differences and conflicts within radical Islam. Rigid ideologues easily fragment; they can spend more time fighting each other than fighting their perceived enemy.
In retrospect, Blair accurately estimated the threat of ISIS. Obama and I under-estimated it, at least in the short run.
Let's review the history of the last 35 years. One version of radical Islam got its start in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Afghanistan as a violent reaction to the Soviet invasion and the Russians' attempt to turn the country into a Soviet satellite. Back then, during the Cold War, the West -- including the US CIA -- cheered on, fomented, and supported the mujahideen who declared jihad against the Soviets. Ronald Reagan even invited Afghani jihadists to the White House for a photo opportunity. What Americans didn't seem to understand back then was that mujahideen, a precursor to the Taliban, were a reactionary force that resented all Western attempts to control their country. In retrospect, the West could have avoided a decade-long war in Afghanistan if the Soviets had kept radical Islamists at bay, or if the Islamists directed their ire solely at the Soviets.
"It may seem hard to believe today, but for decades the United States was in fact a major patron, indeed in some respects the major patron, of earlier incarnations" of radical, militant Islam, in order to use all possible resources in waging the Cold War, wrote Rashid Khalidi, an American historian of the Middle East at Columbia University. "The Cold War was over, but its tragic sequels, its toxic debris, and its unexploded mines continued to cause great harm, in ways largely unrecognized in American discourse."
During the same period-- early 1980s -- a separate branch of Islamic radicals -- Shia from Iran -- sought to export the Iranian revolution, first to Iraq, where an eight-year war caused terrible devastation to both countries, and then to Lebanon, in the form of aid to Hezbollah, a group that vowed to destroy Israel and democratic elements within Lebanon. Hezbollah and its sponsor, Iran, were integrally involved in the Lebanese civil war.
Another branch of radical Islam came from the Wahabi Movement, a purist branch of Sunni Islam, rooted in Saudi Arabia. Despite its anti-modernist similarities to the Shia revolutionaries of Iran, the Wahabis were and remain highly antagonistic towards Iran and to the Shias, as well as to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. James North on the progressive Jewish blog, Mondoweiss.net, points out that "Saudi Arabia hates the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, enthusiastically endorsed its overthrow, and is spending billions to prop up the military regime that replaced it."
The Muslim Brotherhood did have some moderate elements willing to work within a democratic system and to share power. It won a fragmented election in Egypt in 2012 and attempted to govern the country. But a year later, in the midst of vehement public protests against the failures of the regime to address the economy and develop democratic coalitions, the Egyptian military intervened, staged a coup d'etat, installed their own leader, and is now engaged in a harsh public crackdown on anyone even remotely associated with the Brotherhood. Human rights organizations assert that hundreds if not thousands of innocents have been killed. As Patrick Cockburn pointed out at Counterpunch.org:
Human Rights Watch says that the Egyptian authorities now show “zero tolerance for any form of dissent, arresting and prosecuting journalists, demonstrators and academics, for peacefully expressing their views.” In reality, events in Egypt can only encourage recruitment by jihadi al-Qa’ida-type movements which will argue that the fate of the Brotherhood, which tried to take power democratically, shows that elections are a charade and the only way forward is through violence. Click.
The Financial Times has uncovered “Egypt’s black holes,” in which “thousands of government opponents have disappeared into secret jails...radicalising a new generation of jihadis.” The Egyptian government has condemned more than 500 individuals to the death penalty, many without due process or an opportunity for legal defense.
Since the Muslim Brotherhood is no longer tolerated in Egypt, adherents may indeed seek to engage in terrorism in Egypt or export jihad to other countries such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
The two tangible proposals coming out of Blair's speech were 1) strong support for the military government of Egypt because it seeks to crush the Brotherhood and restore stability to the country; and 2) support for the rebellion against Bashir Assad in Syria.
John Wight, a UK writer for the RT Network, notes the "cognitive dissonance" in Blair's speech. In calling for aid to Syria's rebels, Blair fails to note that most of the rebellion is made up of Islamic extremists. "He can’t have it both ways," Wight says. "He can’t be against radical Islam on the one hand, yet call for those governments and peoples that are engaged in a life and death struggle against radical Islam to be defeated on the other."
I would add to Blair's contradictions his advocracy of more democracy in the Middle East, but at the same time he supports the anti-democratic government of Egypt, and calls for alliances with Russia and China against Islamic fundamentalists.
Blair himself has a certain responsibility for the rise of radical Islam. The ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, which he strongly supported, flamed the flames of Islamic fundamentalism. It moved into power vacuums in Iraq and Syria. As the Financial Times noted in its critique of Blair's speech, by his current logic, he would now support a tyrant like Saddam Hussein.
In the case of radical, violent extremism, its root causes are profound economic and social dislocation (that may result from war, occupation, massive unemployment and forced population migrations) or psychological alienation (that may result from repression or policies of discrimination and exclusion).Seen in this light, the causes for the growth of the particular extremism that concerns Mr Blair can be as varied as his own war in Iraq, or the West’s silence in the face of Israel’s humiliating treatment of Palestinians, or Russian and Chinese oppression of their minority Muslim communities, or the failure of Europe to successfully absorb and fully include Muslims as equal citizens in their societies. Since acknowledgement of these realities might prove to be a bitter pill to swallow, Mr Blair finds it easier and better to blame the victims.
Read more: http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/why-the-middle-east-matters-and-why-tony-blair-doesnt#full#ixzz313Nv0EPa