What Blair doesn’t appreciate is that ‘Islamic extremism’ is a modern phenomenon 

30 Apr

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.

2 Responses to “What Blair doesn’t appreciate is that ‘Islamic extremism’ is a modern phenomenon ”

  1. Anthony August 14, 2014 at 3:27 pm #

    I was reminded of this post when reading an article from the Independent this week (link at the bottom of the comment) and thought you might find it interesting. It essentially argued that the likes of ISIS and fascism in general, can and do, exist in a vacuum with some outcomes ‘no more than the result of people having certain thoughts and, as a consequence, performing certain actions’. Extremists are just inexplicably so in other words.

    I think this really ignores the fact that we are not talking about small sporadic groups of ‘psychopaths’ with hateful views projected through Islam, but large scale support and unrest across a large region that can only be arrived at in reaction to large scale disaster (in this case, military occupation/intervention, poverty as result of western imperialist efforts/ disdain for ineffective dummy regimes etc). I am reminded of Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’ which argues that free market ‘fanatics’ operate off the back of disasters to gain support for otherwise unrepresentative policies. This seems to go some way in explaining how the ‘fanatics’ of the Middle East might work. Without the ‘disasters’, there would be little response to the now unwarranted rallying cries of extremists who might exist there (or anywhere else) otherwise.
    A comparison also seems to be with what many historians are pointing to when they argue that the consequences of WW1 and the Treaty of Versailles played a role in rise of Nazism and the Holocaust, which the article draws on as well. It seems to me that the attempt to claim that events and issues as complex as these exist in a vacuum just seems implausibly ignorant of history as a whole.

    Can I ask where the Karen Armstrong quote is from? I would like to read more of what she has to say,

    Here is link to the Independent article in case you might want to read it: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/why-does-isis-hate-us-so-much-9664506.html

    • conscienceandconsciousness August 21, 2014 at 12:36 pm #

      Thanks for this. I’m inclined to agree with you that there are many ways in which we can explain, at least to some extent, extremist and irrational social trends. This is of course not to justify, but can be crucial in trying to avoid them.

      The quote is from her book ‘The case for God’. Extremely misleading title: it’s basically a heterodox history of religion. She has also written a biography of Muhammad.

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