In a recent speech Tony Blair argues that the fundamental ideological battle of our time is between Islamic fundamentalists and their democratic opponents:
‘…there is a Titanic struggle going on within the region between those who want the [Middle East] to embrace the modern world – politically, socially and economically – and those who instead want to create a politics of religious difference and exclusivity. This is the battle.’
Many commentators have pointed out that this is at best an oversimplification of the complex difficulties of the Middle East. Another problem with Blair’s analysis, less commonly remarked upon, is its failure to appreciate that Islamic fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon. In his discussion of Islamic fundamentalism, Blair states that ‘there used to be such interpretations of Christianity which took us years to eradicate.’ This gives the impression that Islam just needs to go through the growing up stage which its big sister Christianity completed a while back. This view of things does not bear historical examination.
Although Islam is the younger religion, the wisdom of the classical world was rediscovered by Muslim rather than Christian thinkers. Scholars in the Abbasid Empire during the eighth and ninth centuries were absorbing and reinterpreting the work of Plato and Aristotle when Christian Europe was stuck in the dark ages. Whilst Christian Europe did go through a phase of understanding its religion in violent and fundamentalist terms, resulting in the bloodbaths of the crusades, the same cannot be said of Islam. In the medieval Muslim world there was tolerance and collaboration amongst Jews, Christians and Muslims, reflecting the imperative in the Qur’an that there be no compulsion in matters of religion.
Karen Armstrong writes:
‘Critics of Islam believe that the cult of murderous matrydom is endemic in the religion itself. This is not the case. Apart from the brief incident of the so-called ‘assassin’ movement at the time of the Crusades – for which the Ismaili sect responsible was universally reviled in the Muslim world – it has not been a feature of Islamic history until modern times.’
Armstrong traces Sunni fundamentalism to the concentration camps of the second Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser, in which thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood were imprisoned without trial. During brutal incarceration, formerly moderate Sayyid Qutb developed the ideology of holy war between Muslims on the one hand, and pretty much everyone else – Jews, Christians, communists and capitalists – on the other. This conception of Islam, so often seen in the West as the essence – or at least a common historical version – of Islam, was developed in the twentieth century as a reaction to Western imperialism. By reinforcing these crude battle lines, Blair only entrenches this phony war.
Why does an intelligent man take such a perversely simplistic and historically ignorant view of the situation? I think we can understand the position Blair has reached in terms of his bafflement and frustration with the failure of his earlier ideology of liberal interventionism. It must be hard for Blair to make sense of the fact that, after all the lengths he went to, the situation is so dire in Iraq and Afghanistan. Essentially, Blair seems to blame fundamentalist Islam for the failure of these interventions: ‘This is what complicates the process of political evolution. This is what makes it so hard for democracy to take root’.
By blaming fundamentalist Islam for the troubles in the Middle East, Blair avoids pointing the finger at himself. But it is the imperialism of the West, more recently its unilateral interventions, drone assassinations, and toleration of illegal occupations of Palestinian land, which have created and fostered this historically aberrant form of Islam. And the longer people keep talking like Blair, the longer it will continue.