Speaking in Chicago on April 22nd to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, addressed religion and politics in world affairs. The particular religion he focused on was Islam. Early in his speech, Blair stated that “fundamental Islam is the opposite of what extremists preach” and that the Qur’an, Islam’s holy text, is full of progressive, humanitarian principles.
Still, the sense that he was singling out Islam was palpable. Blair noted there are jihadist extremists fighting in not only Afghanistan and Iraq but also in smaller, more remote, rarely heard of regions throughout the world. Blair further noted that jihadist extremists all have three characteristics in common: (1) they are relentless, (2) they believe they are fighting in the name of true Islam, and (3) they use terrorism to create chaos in the world.
Although Blair prefaced his comments with factual statements about Islam and the Qur’an, his remaining comments about Islam, albeit one particular interpretation, were framed in terms of war, battles and a long-term struggle. He further stated that the challenge of confronting jihadist extremists’ interpretations of Islam is the responsibility of Muslims worldwide who practice true Islam. It was disconcerting to hear Islam being praised while, in almost the same breath, there was a call for a long and hard battle against it.
Blair included some questionable assumptions and wrongly called out Islam only. Furthermore, he offered no concrete solutions on how Muslims can practically challenge jihadist extremists.
In analyzing the challenges posed by jihadist extremists Blair made assumptions that were clearly self-serving in the sense that they absolved Western powers of any responsibility for creating environments that ultimately created incubators for extremism. Blair himself identified several policy blunders such as empowering the Taliban to fight the Soviets, ignoring the long-term impacts of having a generation of children educated exclusively in madarasas in rural Pakistan and supporting a dictator in Iraq to keep Iran in check. Blair pointed to these situations as mistakes in policy but still asserted that only the terrorists are responsible for terrorism.
In other words, no matter what the West has done, terrorism cannot be blamed on anyone but the terrorists. This was an applause line that delivered.
While there is no justification for terrorism, it would be wrong to ignore the socio-economic-political factors that push people towards terrorism. For example, having one’s family killed in a missile strike on a residence in Gaza does not justify an aggrieved parent or sibling strapping on explosives and blowing himself up in a vegetable market in Israel. However, understanding the factors that drove the man to become a suicide bomber can help policy makers devise strategies to eliminate the underlying causes of terrorism.
Blair’s speech focused entirely on Islam. Instead, what he should have focused on was extremism. Had his focus been on extremism as a global threat he would have been justified in confronting extremist interpretations of Islam. However, in order to be balanced and accurate in identifying extremism as a global threat to peace and stability, Blair should have looked at extremism in Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism too.
During his speech Blair pointed out that although the Holy Land is a very small parcel relative to other nations, a resolution to the conflict in that region is essential for creating a more peaceful world. This is probably true, and the hold up in achieving peace in the Holy Land is due in part to extremist Jewish ideology that calls for the taking of all the lands that are a part of “Greater Israel”.
Blair conveniently omitted any mention of extremist Christians who are fomenting conflict in the Holy Land in order to accelerate the coming of the Messiah or of fascist Hindus in India who are actively seeking to subjugate India’s Muslim and Christian minorities. Both of these two groups (extremist Christians and fascist Hindus) are as much a threat to global stability as are jihadist extremists.
Blair’s speech identified six solutions to addressing the challenge of jihadist extremists. One of the solutions required Muslims globally to confront extremism within Islam from the inside. This is a good idea, because any efforts by adherents of other faiths to interpret or explain Islam to Muslims would be ill-conceived and poorly received.
But this is easier said than done. Muslims worldwide, in order to confront jihadist extremists’ ideology, must have the space and the resources to put forward a countervailing understanding of what is authentic Islam.
Such a space hardly exists. So many Muslims throughout the world are refugees and are among the poorest of the poor. Afghanistan, Iraq and Somali are among the leading countries of origin of refugees.
The second largest population of Muslims in the world is in India. There are 150 million Muslims in India and they are a marginalized minority. According to a report by Carin Zississ for the Council on Foreign Relations, Muslim literacy rates in India are well below the national average while Indian Muslim poverty rates are only a tad bit higher than low-caste Hindus.
As a consequence, the best hope for combating perverse, extremist interpretations of Islam lay in the West with American and European Muslims. However, Western Muslims seem to be so preoccupied with securing their own status as equal citizens in the face of discrimination and gross civil liberties violations as a result of overreaching, overzealous and unconstitutional laws and law enforcement tactics, that there is little energy, no resources and hardly any credibility to wage such a battle.
Suggesting that Muslims must confront jihadist extremism from within Islam is not a solution. Rather, it is an objective. The solution is the amalgam of means for empowering Muslims to attain this objective.
Some of the components of this solution include: (1) halting the vitriol against and demonizing of Muslims and Islam by politicians and pundits who seek to profit from Muslim-bashing, (2) ending the civil liberties abuses that sap the Muslim communities’ energies, resources and international standing and (3) enabling Muslims through concrete financial assistance to develop the mechanisms for dialogue, civic engagement and a rigorous contextual religious exegeses.
Despite the shortcomings of his speech he still dazzled some of the Muslims in the audience. What probably hooked these Muslims was the conciliatory tone Blair took towards Islam. It is such a rare thing to hear national and international leaders make such statements. These platitudes about Islam clearly beguiled some of the Muslims in the audience, but by and large, the shortcomings in Blair’s policy speech were clear to those who were intent on really hearing his message.
Junaid M. Afeef is a Research Associate at the Institute for Social Policy & Understanding. His articles are available at http://www.ispu.us. He can be reached at junaid.afeef(at)gmail.com.