Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Arc of Incredulity

Tony Blair’s "Arc of Extremism" speech in Los Angeles was a reminder to all about why the problems in the Muslim world will continue to fester under the leaderships of Blair and US president George Bush.

He sets out to argue that the West “will not win the battle against this global extremism unless we win it at the level of values as much as force, unless we show we are even-handed, fair and just in our application of those values to the world” and ends up doing nothing of the sort. Instead of dealing with the core issues at the heart of the rise of militant Islam and how they can be ameliorated, he dwells on fighting its manifestation. He seeks to portray the West as innocent victims caught up in a war between the barbaric, cave-dwelling anarchists of “reactionary Islam” whose only desire is the destruction of the civilized world and the decent folks of “moderate, mainstream Islam”. It is a speech peppered with spurious justifications for the invasion of Iraq and Western support for Israel.

I think he is wrong on all counts. Let’s first deal with the obvious. The invasion of Iraq had little to do with militant Islam or "values change". Saddam Hussein was not known for his tolerance of Islamic radicals who would have posed a threat to his dictatorship. In fact, Saddam was himself the beneficiary of Western military and economic aid so he could perpetrate his unjust war of aggression against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iraq was in fact one of the more Westernised societies in the Middle East. It was only when Saddam threatened Western oil interests, not their values, with his invasion of Kuwait that they turned on him.

Terrorism (defined as the deliberate targeting of civilians to achieve political ends), just as war, is a means to an end and not an end in itself. The Islamic “terrorists” are united and identified by their application of this means and by the fact that they are Muslims. Their aims are largely political, not religious. And here the similarity ends. It is plainly ridiculous to suggest, as Blair does, that the Chechen rebels are fighting for the same thing as Hamas, or that Hizbollah and Al Qaida are brothers-in-arms.

Some, such as Al Qaida and the Taleban, wish to establish an Islamic caliphate governed according to their particular interpretation of the Koran. In this sense, they differ little from the radical Christians who would like to impose their particular version of Christianity on the rest of us. With these, there can be no compromise.

Others are fighting to free their lands from domination and occupation by those they consider to be “foreigners”. Hizbollah, Hamas and the Chechens fall under this category. They enjoy widespread support from supposedly moderate communities. In many cases, their goals coincide with those of mainstream, more “moderate” parties. The only difference is in tactics. Hizbollah’s demands are identical to those of the Lebanese government as are Hamas’ to those of Mahmoud Abbas. The question that should thus be asked is why do these Muslims feel that they cannot accomplish their political objectives using exclusively political means? Why do they feel they have to resort to the implements of terror?

The fact is that in most cases, accepted political and diplomatic means have by and large failed to deliver justice to them. The machinations of the West have resulted in a lopsided peace process in the Middle East where Israel gets all she wants (namely security and land) while the Arabs have to settle for what she is willing to give them. A process where the West is outraged by the killing of a handful of Israelis but is blind to the deaths of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese. In his whole speech, Tony Blair did not once mention any of the legitimate grievances of the Arab states such as occupied land and prisoners, but still found it necessary to commit himself to the equally legitimate Israeli search for security. He mentions UN Resolution 1559 but neglects to mention the nearly 100 resolutions (but for the US veto they would have been many more) passed against Israel. It is an unwitting negation of his call for the West to “show we are even-handed, fair and just in our application of [our] values to the world.”

While much of the anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world can be explained by such bias, another explanation can be found in the West’s propensity to (in the words of Yitzhak Rabin) “make peace with its friends”. Bush is right to encourage the spread of democracy through out the Middle East. However, he betrays his vision when he refuses to accept the results of their democratic expression. When Hamas came to power, instead of embracing it and moving the conflict from the battlefield to the negotiating table, Israel and the West refused to deal with them. Even after they offered to indefinitely extend their unilateral two-year "hudna" or ceasefire and acknowledged that they could never destroy Israel, the West refused to budge. The response from Israel was continued assassinations, incursions and a policy of withholding taxes from the government. When the results of Iranian and Lebanese democracy (and Syrian autocracy) are similarly not to the West’s liking, then these are isolated and condemned instead of being engaged. The result is a handicapped peace process where delegations talk about all except the issues that matter and a preference for the implements of deterrence namely, nuclear weapons.

Denied use of conventional political means to secure justice, Muslims turn to the only forum that the West has not compromised, Islam, and use it as a weapon to defend their rights. In these societies, Islam has remained the only organising principle around which disparate groups can coalesce and have a voice. As one commentator noted, in many Muslim countries, the mosque remains the only place where one can freely express one’s views. There is thus no Islam (radical or otherwise) vs West conflict, as Blair claims, rather the radicalisation of Islam to pursue legitimate objectives that the West blocks in legitimate political fora. Lacking other means to express their frustrations (as much with their own governments as with the West), these people look to Islam for their ultimate salvation. Religion being the powerful influence it is, others who share their religious beliefs come to believe that they also share a common struggle.

As Blair acknowledged, it is only when the West adopts a greater degree of balance and fairness that it will be able to empower moderate Arab and Muslim opinion. However, this is not accomplished by denying the legitimacy of their grievances and refusing to acknowledge the West's complicity and responsibility for the way things are today. In fact because of Israel's actions (and the West's inaction), today moderates are in retreat throughout the Muslim world.

No comments: