Sunday, August 06, 2006

 

Is There an 'Arc of Extremism'?

Blair's Los Angeles speech last week spoke of 'an arc of extremism' that includes Hamas, Hezbullah, Syria, Iran and the terrorists in Iraq. The source of the problem? Blair was unequivocal: 'Religious extremism...And not just any religious extremism but a specifically Muslim version.' So it's not in any way 'our fault' but purely a clash of civilisation- presumably he buys the Samuel P Huntingdom analysis- which we have to win using our values to persuade the crucial moderate Muslim opinion. Michael Portillo in the Sunday Times endorses this view of the world, not to mention our prime Minister, and predicts that once Blair is gone, we'll find our role in the world to have weakened.

Taking issue with this 'world view' was the Independent last Friday which described it as betraying 'a wilful ignorance of specific circumstances':

Hizbullah was formed as a resistance movement to the Israeli invasion in southern Lebanon. The Taliban are parochial fanatics with no apparent goals beyond the reconquest of Afghanistan. Iraq is in the midst of a vicious sectarian civil war.

The editorial concludes that Blair's analysis is 'an insult to our intelligence'.

Maybe, but it's too early to give a definitive answer to the question. I recall a similar Manichean analysis of the world about forty years ago when it was the evil communists who we were supposed to confront, especially in Vietnam while others counselled this small country was basically after independence not the triumph of Moscow style tyranny. Blair's description seems, similarily, too broad brush to accurately to reflect the complex reality of the Middle East.

But it has to admitted that in all cases cited it is the Muslim religion which provides the common thread. Does this thread constitute a connected conscious 'proto-campaign' by a major-but still minority -religion to subvert the basis of global western capitalist 'civilization'? The possibility cannot be simply brushed aside that Muslim fundamentalism might prove to be our enemy- not because we wish to fight it but because it wishes to fight us. I suspect many would dismiss an idea which would place Blair in an almost heroic light. But consider the views of a very distinguished historian a couple of years back who suggested that in the light of history Blair and Bush might well come to be seen as courageously prescient as Churchill and Roosevelt. I'm not saying I agree with this extraordinary suggestion; merely that it's an idea worth thinking through.

Comments:
Obviously only history can define who our political heroes will be. I do agree with Portillo's article. Margaret Beckett has failed to make her mark as Foreign Secretary, whereas the Middle East was a specialist subject for Condi even before her appointment. As a result, she may be able to work along the right lines and make some progress, while Beckett has consistently failed to distinguish herself in any of her ministerial positions.

I wonder what Condi thinks about Beckett's grip on this highly sensitive issue? Which is why it has been left to Blair. Cameron has been quiet on this too, it's obviously not his strong subject either. Dealing with any fanatics requires considerable skill, insight and diplomacy, I cannot see a quick solution to this, unfortunately.
 
Elle
I agree Beckett was not really suited to the job; her expletive on hearing she had got it suggested she knew this too. But maybe, as MP suggests, this was the plan: to have a cypher as Foreign Secretary so that he could carry on deciding everything. Think it's a bit unfair to say she's not been any good as a minister; at Environment she was rated as highly competent and has not really failed in any of her jobs. My chief beef against her is that i) she reneged on beliefs she had espoused in trhe early 80s without a tremor of remorse. ii) she is so dreadfully boring. I met her husband once in the early 80s though and he is a really nice guy- bit of a fusser around her but she seems to want/need this. But, Elle, do you think Tony will go down in history as a saviour of western values? Are we all misjudging a hero of our time?
 
I’ve only read what the Independent offers for free, but it seems rather silly to claim the Taliban are only interested in Afghanistan; they’re hardly in a position to take on additional projects.

The Indy seems to forget that nobody disputes that the Taliban provided safe haven to Osama Bin Laden, but far more importantly it insults the intelligence of the Taliban. Far from being ‘parochial fanatics’, they have a very well formed view of the world they would like to live in. The laws they pass are intellectually consistent.

Others don’t need to talk to the Taliban on a daily basis to share their world view. It’s all well documented.

The Indy’s probably right when it says many joined Hezbollah to resist the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. But Hezbollah are clearly well armed and well trained; the Israelis are struggling. Iran doesn’t sponsor them out of charity, but to support its own wider aims.
 
The problem with Blair and Bush is their strategic ineptitude. If the enemy is Islamic fundamentalism why open a second front in Iraq (one unintentional consequence of which has been to strengthen Iran's influence in the region)? If the strategy is to detatch "moderate" from "extremist/fundamentalist" Muslims, and make allies of the former, then does invading Iraq, threatenng Iran, and supporting whatever Israel does really make sense? Incidentally, you may have seen the article by Robert Pape in yesterday's Observer. He has studied suicide bombings in the 1980s. Of 38 Hezbollah bombers he was able to identify only 8 were Islamic fundamentalists (the rest were mainly leftists of one kind or another). His conclusion is broadly similar to the Independent leader:

"There is not the close connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism that many people think. Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist campaigns have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.
Religion is rarely the root cause, although it is often used as a tool by terrorist organisations in recruiting and in other efforts in service of the broader strategic objective. Most often, it is a response to foreign occupation".

Even the home-grown July 7 bombers referred to the war in Iraq in their macabre videos.
 
If there is an 'arc of extremism', why is its span so short in Blair's account? Why doesn't he start in North Africa, then take it all the way to Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Phillippines?
 
Stephen N. Thanks for your well argued comment.
Politicaholic. Nice to see you back blogging after your short respite.
Roy. Fair point but maybe he wanted to distinguish his 'arc' clearly from Bush's 'axis' of evil. Too many metaphors confuse so Blair wanted his to be more focused on the Middle East.
 
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