Tony Blair’s latest speech on Islam is significant as much for what it doesn’t mention as for what it does. Not long ago, a speech of this sort would have been rich with contrasts between dictatorship and democracy. Democracy, the audience would have been told solemnly, equals freedom and modernity.
Instead Blair mentions the word ‘democracy’ only three times.
The first time he’s referring to Israel and the second time he disavows the entire program of dropping elections on Muslim countries and expecting their populations to make the right choices. Instead he argues,
“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. That is not the way that the Islamist ideology works.”
This is very much a post-Arab Spring speech and though he offers obligatory praise of that over-hyped phenomenon, the lessons he has drawn from its failure make for a changed perspective.
How changed? Blair endorses the Egyptian popular overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood and urges support for the new government within the larger context of “supporting and assisting” those who take on “Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood”.
That’s an impossible position in Washington D.C., but it emerges naturally out of an understanding that democracy isn’t enough and that an Islamist political victory inherently dismantles democracy.
“Islamist ideology”, Blair says, has an “exclusivist” ultimate goal, which is “not a society which someone else can change after winning an election”. The Muslim Brotherhood and terrorist groups, he says, are both part of an “overall ideology” in which “such extremism can take root”. They are all totalitarian group that differ on “how to achieve the goals of Islamism” rather than on “what those goals are.”
Democracy is downright destructive in a political landscape in which Islamic political forces compete. Instead Blair’s new doctrine replaces democracy with religious freedom.
The former British Prime Minister calls for supporting “the principles of religious freedom and open, rule based economies. It means helping those countries whose people wish to embrace those principles to achieve them. Where there has been revolution, we should be on the side of those who support those principles and opposed to those who would thwart them.”
That position, Blair continues, leads him to support the Egyptian uprising against the Muslim Brotherhood and even interim Assad rule until a final agreement is concluded.
While that may not seem like much, imagine the last 15 years if the obsession with using democracy to replace dictatorships had instead been turned to promoting religious freedom at the expense of Islamic rule. Imagine if we made tolerance for Christians and other religious minorities into the defining line instead of the meaningless one of holding majority rule Muslim elections.
The Blair Doctrine surgically replaces democracy with religious freedom while leaving the larger worldview so common in European and American political circles untouched so that it does not seem like a shift, but a natural adaptation to the failures of the Arab Spring.
Blair cannot and will not say that the problem with democracy in countries with an Islamic majority is the tyranny of the majority, nor does he ever use the word ‘secularism’, and his rhetoric is largely dependent on assumptions made in the aftermath of the Cold War by a comfortable West.
He speaks positively of globalization, without conceding that the UK has a terrorism crisis largely because of it. He briefly mentions the export of ‘radicalism’ from the Middle East, but aside from the Muslim Brotherhood’s growing power in Europe, he doesn’t elaborate.
To a multicultural left that already embraces Burkas and FGM, his speech is rage fodder. But while Blair may have helped turn Islam into a problem in the UK, it’s his foes on the left who have championed its worst aspects.
Tony Blair is no Geert Wilders and the UK’s problem with Islam is in no small part of his making due to his government’s immigration policies, but revolutionary ideas are more likely to be accepted from thoroughly establishment sources.
In his speech, Blair argues that reactionary Islamic rule is the problem, rather than mere tyranny. It’s a shift that invalidates the entire political Islam movement behind the Arab Spring. And for all the many ways that he covers his tracks, subdividing Islam from Islamism, he does hold a nearly firm line on Islamic rule. That is a rarity in a world order which had come to embrace political Islam as the future.
And yet Blair’s speech isn’t really that revolutionary. It’s a reaction to current events such as the degeneration of Erdogan’s Turkey, once used by Western diplomats as a model of Muslim democracy, into a brutal tyranny whose abuses the world is no longer able to ignore, the collapse of the Arab Spring and the failure of elections to bring peace to the religious conflicts in the Muslim world.
The establishment parties and pundits have had little to say about it. The Obama-Romney foreign policy debate has been largely mirrored across the ocean in Europe. Widely hated by his own party, Blair has little to lose by offering a shift that seems very mild, while explaining the failures of the past 15 years in terms of a new paradigm. It’s much more graceful than Cameron’s episodes of unconvincingly bellicose rhetoric, to say nothing of his opposite number, and yet for all its shortcomings, it’s also very promising.
If religious freedom replaces democracy as the metric by which we judge Muslim countries, if we put as much effort into protecting the rights of minorities as we did into promoting elections, we will finally be on the right track. And even if we accomplish little, the metric effectively blocks the political ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood and its various front groups.
And that is no small thing.
The Blair Doctrine, while paying ample lip service to the peaceful nature of Islam, would block the rise of Islamic political parties. It would make pluralism into the new democracy and “religious extremism” into the new tyranny. It would be far less interested in majority rule elections and far more cognizant of protecting the diversity of political and religious expression.
It would apply the very metrics that the modern left insists on applying to the West, but refuses to apply to the Third World, to the Muslim world.
Republicans could do worse than put copies of the speech into the hands of presidential candidates still mumbling confused nonsense about the region. Blair offers much of the same rhetoric, but with a clear focus on the lack of religious freedom. If Romney had been operating from the Blair Doctrine, he might have been able to put forward a polished and reasonable worldview in the debate.
There are plenty of things wrong with Blair’s speech. He believes the Saudis are reformers, that the Palestinian Arabs want peace and that the issue isn’t Islam as a religion. But he is also surprisingly honest about Egypt, Syria and Libya; and about the links between Islamic power and violence.
And the Blair Doctrine’s shift from democracy to religious freedom could fundamentally change our relationship with the Muslim world.
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