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Authoritarian Role Models?

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Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of the core group of al-Qa’ida, may well chortle in disbelief if he reads a translation of Tony Blair’s latest speech on the Middle East delivered last week. If Blair’s thoughts are used as a guide to action, then the main beneficiaries will be al-Qa’ida-type jihadist movements. Overall, his speech is so bizarre in its assertions that it should forever rule him out as a serious commentator on the Middle East. Reading it, I was reminded of a diplomat in Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent called Mr Vladimir who fancies himself an expert on revolutionaries: “He confounded causes with effects; the most distinguished propagandists with impulsive bomb throwers; assumed organisation where in the nature of things it could not exist.”

The speech, entitled “Why the Middle East matters”, is about the threat from radical Islam, what it consists of and how it should be countered. Mr Blair says that “there is a titanic struggle going on within the region between those who want the region to embrace the modern world and those who, instead, want to create a politics of religious difference and exclusivity.” On one side stand those who want “pluralistic societies and open economies”, on the other those who want to impose an exclusive Islamic ideology.

Here the reader might suppose that Blair is building up towards some sharp criticism of Saudi Arabia and its fundamentalist Wahhabi creed. What could be more opposed to pluralism in politics and religion than a theocratic absolute monarchy such as Saudi Arabia which is so notoriously intolerant of other versions of Islam, such as Shi’ism, as well as Christianity and Judaism, and is, moreover, the only place in the world where women are not allowed to drive? Here is the home country of 15 out of 19 of the 9/11 hijackers and of the then leader of al-Qa’ida, Osama bin Laden, whose religious views are rooted in mainstream Wahhabism.

Blair denounces those who espouse an Islamist ideology in which the ultimate goal “is not a society which someone else can change after winning an election”. Surely he should be thinking here about King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, his namesake in Jordan and the Gulf royals who inherited their thrones. But Blair goes on to make the astonishing claim that the guilty party in fostering extreme jihadist Islam is none other than the Muslim Brotherhood which stood for and won an election in Egypt before it was overthrown by the military.

It is worth quoting Blair again to get the flavour of his thoughts about what happened in Egypt last year. “The Muslim Brotherhood was not simply a bad government,” he says. “It was systematically taking over the traditions and institutions of the country. The revolt of 30 June was not an ordinary protest. It was the absolutely necessary rescue of a nation.”

This is demented stuff. If the Muslim Brotherhood had indeed been taking over Egyptian institutions such as the army, police and judiciary, they would not have been so easily overthrown by the army on 3 July. And what great Egyptian traditions were being eliminated by the Brotherhood other than that of rule by unelected military governments? Blair mentions the number of soldiers and police who died but not the 1,400 protesters killed between July last year and January, according to a report by Amnesty International. Human Rights Watch says that the Egyptian authorities now show “zero tolerance for any form of dissent, arresting and prosecuting journalists, demonstrators and academics, for peacefully expressing their views”. In reality, events in Egypt can only encourage recruitment by jihadi al-Qa’ida-type movements which will argue that the fate of the Brotherhood, which tried to take power democratically, shows that elections are a charade and the only way forward is through violence.

On Syria, Blair is a little more ambivalent about the future though he has no doubts what we should have done. He says that “in Syria, we call for the regime to change, we encourage the opposition to rise up, but when Iran activates Hezbollah on the side of Assad, we refrain even from air intervention to give the opposition a chance.” Presumably, by “air intervention” he means a Libya-style change of regime to put the opposition in power. But in Syria the armed opposition is dominated by the very jihadists – Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qa’ida affiliate and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, formerly al-Qa’ida in Iraq – against whom Blair is warning the world. They now control an area the size of Britain in north and east Syria and north and west Iraq and can operate anywhere between Basra and the Mediterranean coast of Syria.

Blair has noticed that there is a difficulty here because of “so many fissures and problems around elements within the opposition” and that it might be better if Assad stays on for now. But if agreement cannot be reached we should impose a no-fly zone to help the opposition, while extremist groups – dominant within the rebel military forces – should “receive no support from any of the surrounding nations”.

Overall, Blair has swallowed whole and is now regurgitating the official line of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, though he never mentions any of the Gulf monarchies by name. Contrary to all the evidence, the Brotherhood is portrayed as a terrorist organisation. Shia movements such as Hezbollah are supposedly the obedient creatures of Iran. Blair appears to agree with the Sunni conspiracy theory whereby Shia movements in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon and Yemen are delegitimised by referring to them as “safavids” who act as pawns of Iran and have no communal interests of their own to defend.

As I read Blair’s speech I could not quite believe he was going to conclude by proposing the absolute monarchies of the Gulf, some of the most authoritarian and corrupt countries on earth, as suitable models for the rest of the Islamic world. But that is exactly what he does do, advising the West to stick by our allies “whether in Jordan or the Gulf where they’re promoting the values of religious tolerance and open, rule-based economies, or taking on the forces of reaction in the shape of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, we should be assisting them”.

It is a curious fate for the man who claims to have tried as prime minister to modernise Britain and the Labour Party that he should end up lauding these ultra-reactionary states. In the past few months Saudi Arabia has criminalised almost all forms of dissent, the Sunni monarchy of Bahrain is crushing democratic protests by the Shia majority and Qatar last year sentenced a man to 15 years in jail for writing a poem critical of the emir.

As for combating jihadi Islam: nothing is more likely to encourage its spread than the policy supported by Blair of persecuting moderate Islamists, who did stand for election, while giving full backing to autocratic kings and generals.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of  Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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