International Affairs — 14 June 2013
The Fallacy of the Blair Narrative and the War on Islam(ism)

The ‘Blair narrative’ is not new but dates back to the beginning of the so-called “war of terror.” It effectively shifts the blame off Western foreign policy—something for which the former British Prime Minister became detested in many quarters—and onto a foreign perverted “ideology.” After the killing of an off-duty officer in Woolwich London, Blair lay the blame firmly upon this “ideology,” making the claim that “there is a problem within Islam” though not “a problem with Islam.” Blair characterized this as the “Islamist” ideology, a “strain within Islam” (as opposed to “Saudi” Islam, among other “strains,” that he has been quite happy to endorse or remain silent about). In a nutshell, these claims form the basis of the false narrative that highly respected lawyer Gareth Pierce identified as now dominating political discourse in the West in her book Dispatches from the Dark Side, a discourse continued by current British Prime Minister David Cameron when he announced in parliament soon after Blair’s article when ordering a “crackdown” on the “conveyor belt of hate” he claimed existed in some schools and universities.

This Blair narrative is the political face of a much more explicit view that the United States (and by extension, the “West”) is engaged in a war with Islam, which according to Jeremy Scahill’s “Dirty Wars” was commonly held among senior figures appointed in the Rumsfield-Cheney era – such as Donald Rumsfield’s intelligence director General Boykin and the head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) General Stanley McChrystal among others. One American officer once described Boykin’s and McChrystal’s opinion that there was a “great crusade against Islam,” justifying attacks on Muslims “because you were fighting against the Caliphate.”

However far reaching or deeply held this opinion may be (or not), such an idea of a “War on Islam” could never be explicitly endorsed due to the obvious public relations ramifications. But, by publicly claiming that Islam is a religion of peace while simultaneously asserting that “Islamism” is the problem, it is possible to avoid a conflict with “Islam” yet wage a “war of terror” against “terrorists” which has been extended to encompass the ideology of “Islamist extremism” behind the “terrorism.”

This “Islamist extremism” is nothing to do with attacking civilians, but rather as Blair put it in his recent intervention it is “a view about religion and about the interaction between religion and politics that is not compatible with pluralistic, liberal, open-minded societies.”

Or in other words, the political aspects of Islam that run contrary to Western liberal values and views of how a state should be organized.

The “Conveyor Belt to Terrorism”

The Blair narrative contends that it is these aspects of Islam that are the threat to international peace today (as opposed to engaging in wars in the Middle East on spurious grounds, or the support for dictators against their own people, or the continued abuses and atrocities committed in the name of “defending freedom.”) It states that political aspirations widely shared by Muslims such as belief in a caliphate, or the even more commonly held foreign policy grievances, are precursors to engaging in “terrorism” and that there should be no space permitted to allow any discussion with or even among Muslims of such political aspirations or grievances as legitimate through the use of exclusionary discourse. All the while, foreign policy is excused or ignored as the primary causal factor of blowback.

The narrative had become so dominant in Britain that by 2009 the British government considered plans to formalize key identifiers for “extremists” including a belief in the applicability of Sharia law in contemporary times, the concept of belonging to a single Muslim community internationally (theumma), the legitimacy in resisting armed attack and occupation through the use of force (Jihad), and the aspiration of living under an Islamic caliphate.

Following the attack on May 22 in Woolwich, the same false narrative was again thrust into the forefront of the media, with a BBC article written by one self-proclaimed “ex-extremist” stating that the four major components of “Islamism” that needed to be tackled were: the idea of caliphate, the umma, Sharia, and Jihad—all part of the same Blair narrative. The same four were then subsequently mentioned by Boris Johnson in a Telegraph article entitled “By standing united, we can isolate the virus of Islamism”  where he stated that “we need to make a hard and sharp distinction between that religion [Islam] – and the virus of ‘Islamism’” before going on to talk about the four points in negative terms. Blair’s own intervention made the more general point that there remained a problem within a “strain” of Islam.

In truth, many aspects of what are labeled elements of “Islamist extremism” form part of normative, traditional Islamic views rather than being perverted anomalies. When declaring an ongoing struggle between the “West” with “Islamist extremism,” what is meant is the conflict between Western values and views of state and those found in traditional Islamic scholarship. And in continuing to label normative Islamic viewpoints in pejorative terms while framing them as security problems and causal factors for attacks on civilians in the West, it is not surprising that more hatred and misunderstanding is created both domestically against Muslim communities settled in the west and internationally against Muslim-majority countries.

“Islamism,” Normative Islam and the Discourse of Exclusion

Each of the four points mentioned as the key identifiers of “Islamism” and “extremism” are part of centuries of normative orthodox Islamic scholarship, recognized as such in Western academia (as can be confirmed through a perusal of the 13 volume Encyclopedia of Islam published by Brill). Indeed, it is an ironic fact that according to traditional Islamic scholarship, denying the obligation of a caliphate (one of the identifiers of “extremist” thought) would be considered as the perverted, heretical view, a point I have discussed from an academic perspective in a separate short article recently.

It follows therefore that it should not be surprising that as a result of increased religiosity these ideas are widely supported by Muslims internationally. For example, the results of research carried out by University of Maryland in 2007 found that an ave­rage of 71 per cent of those interviewed across four Muslim countries (Egypt, Morocco, Indonesia and Pakistan) agreed with the goal of requiring “strict application of Sharia law in every Islamic country,” while also finding that sixty-five per cent agreed with the goal of unifying “all Islamic countries into a single state or caliphate.” Therefore, the labeling of these aspirations as “Islamist” and “extremist” also labels swaths of Muslims globally who are inspired by normative Islamic values (as well as those who carry such beliefs in the west) as “Islamist extremists.”

Since these identifiers of “Islamism” are in fact agreed upon parts of normative Islamic scholarship and widely supported by Muslims, it may be surmised that the use of the term “Islamism” is simply to identify those parts of normative Islam that are unpalatable to western liberal values or inconvenient for foreign policy. The contemporary usage of “Islamism” and “extremism” are both generally intended as pejorative terms, part of the deployment of a discourse that among other things serves to demonize opponents and intends to exclude opinions that run contrary to the interests of the political elite.

The continued use of the term “Islamist” along with “extremism” is the kind of language that the American Muslim advocacy group CAIR complained about recently, with their communications director Ibrahim Hooper writing an op-ed in January 2013 which stated that “Unfortunately, the term “Islamist” has become shorthand for “Muslims we don’t like.” It is currently used in an almost exclusively pejorative context and is often coupled with the term “extremist,” giving it an even more negative slant.”

This is a tactic which is not limited to Muslims. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has been variously referred to as a party of fruitcakes, loonies, and extremists all within the last year, before reluctantly being accepted by the liberal mainstream as “mainstream” as a result of their electoral success. Either their policies are “extremist,” in which case the British establishment is now pandering to extremism by accepting UKIP as mainstream, or they are not, which means that the label of “extremism” was simply used to try to exclude them from the political discourse, until they received such popular support that it was impossible to ignore them.


The Fallacy of the “Conveyor Belt” Theory

Internal government reports leaked to the Sunday Telegraph in 2010concluded that they “do not believe that it is accurate to regard radicalization in this country as a linear ‘conveyor belt’ moving from grievance, through radicalization, to violence”. They went on that the “thesis seems to both misread the radicalization process and to give undue weight to ideological factors.” So according to the British government’s own officials and experts, suggesting that “Islamist extremist” aspirations (which are a part of normative Islam) are a gateway to terrorism is incorrect. Hence any subsequent claims to that effect can reasonably be construed as politically disingenuous.

While the conveyor-belt theory may offer a simplistic narrative fit for popular consumption, the issues involved in such cases seldom are.

Each case has several idiosyncratic elements involved that also need to be considered. In the specific instance of Woolwich, though many details are still yet to emerge, there are claims that one of the alleged perpetrators Michael Adebolajo was tortured in Kenya in 2010 and was subsequently approached numerous times by British intelligence, while Michael Adebowale saw a friend “literally sliced to pieces” in front of him (while being stabbed himself) in 2008. This means that the role of torture, security service harassment and other traumatic experiences along with other socio-economic factors would also have to be analyzed to understand the specific mindsets and motivations of these two men. Even then, none of this proves any causality.

There are other slightly more detailed phase models that attempt to explain and help identify radicalization currently used by western police and intelligence services, such as those developed by the NYPD and Danish Security and Intelligence Services.  However, other academic research, such as a report by the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, argues that these models have major substantive shortcomings, are based upon post hoc studies and make the simple methodological error of “selection on the dependent variable”, among others, which invalidates their conclusions. As the report mentions, just as it is impossible to explain why books become bestsellers by examining only bestsellers, it is impossible to explain radicalization only by cases of radicalization.

There are obvious problems with these simplistic models, which are multiplied when considering the crude contention that “non-violent extremism” leads to “violent extremism.” Drawing conclusions based on theories that suffer from this type of selection bias is extremely risky and may inadvertently substantiate  statements such as “not every Islamist extremist is a terrorist, but all Islamist extremist terrorists are Islamist extremists,” which could be considered a politically correct way of suggesting “not every Muslim is a terrorist, but all Muslim terrorists are Muslim,” particularly when it has already been shown that the identifiers of “Islamist extremism” are actually unequivocally aspects of normative Islam.

Consequences to the Blair Narrative

While both the Blair narrative and the convenient “conveyor-belt” theory may assuage the public’s need for an explanation of what lies behind such attacks—which politicians are loath to admit is linked to Western foreign policy—they only further alienate and frustrate those Muslims who have legitimate foreign policy grievances and believe in normative Islamic ideals.

Additionally, they serve to sow distrust and suspicion against Muslims among the rest of the population, exemplified by the former head of MI5 Stella Stella Rimington, who recently implied people should be spying on their neighborsin order to inform the police for any signs of “extremism.” A further example would be Cameron’s intervention in parliament on June 3, warning against extremism in mosques and Islamic seminaries (despite the fact that neither had anything to do with the Woolwich attack). The same week then witnessed more arson attacks, this time on an Islamic studies boarding school and an Islamic community center both in London—highlighting how the political discourse feeds into anti-Muslim sentiments on the ground and can lead to such results. A simple inversion of the conveyor belt theory would therefore pose many more questions of Cameron et al who hold official positions of power and influence over millions, as opposed to the accused “extremists.”

There was a reported 15-fold increase in reported attacks upon Muslims and mosques in the days after the Woolwich attack, not unsurprising given the circumstances but fed by the restatement of the same narrative—that Islam is not the “problem” but an “Islamist extremism,” which is then defined in terms of normative Islamic views and holding grievances against foreign policy. It is unlikely many people will see the proclaimed difference, and they are certainly unable to see any difference between Cameron’s “good” and “bad” Islamic seminaries and mosques.

In any case, Blair’s recent intervention indicates that he is slowly giving up the pretense that any such difference between “Islam” and “Islamism” exists stating “the world view goes deeper and wider than it is comfortable for us to admit.” By making such comments, the mask of the “Islamist extremist” narrative momentarily slipped to reveal the true meanings behind the discourse: Islam and Muslims are to blame for the blowback of a globalized war of which he was a major protagonist.

The same war without limits is today led by President Obama, who only recently was compelled to outline policy regarding drone strikes and Guantanamo bay detention center, two of the most frequently discussed grievances regarding America’s foreign policy of the moment (part of a long list including but not limited to illegal renditions, torture, indiscriminate killing and the continuing effects of the use of depleted uranium shells). Such policies are what lead commentators such as Glenn Greenwald to continuously point out that “the proximate cause of these attacks are plainly political grievances: namely, the belief that engaging in violence against aggressive western nations is the only way to deter and/or avenge western violence that kills Muslim civilians.”

As highlighted in numerous polls and obvious to any observer, grievances regarding western foreign policy in the Middle East and other Muslim countries are widespread. The recent uprisings in the region have all been against former allies in America’s “war on terror,”: Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Gaddafi in Libya, Saleh in Yemen and now al-Assad in Syria, all of whom were formerly collaborating with America in intelligence-sharing, renditions, and torture. Belief in an idealized global Islamic brotherhood is still cherished by Muslims despite their internal differences while aspirations for Islamic governance under Sharia law and the unification of Muslim countries are also popular and mainstream in several parts of the Muslim world.

Demonizing such grievances and aspirations may be understandable in the context of secular, liberal western democracies, especially when governments are participating as part of a seemingly never ending, expanding and self-perpetuating “war of terror.” However, such demonization is hardly conducive to community cohesion whether in a national or international context.

An alternative prudent and principled approach would be to instead start making truly concerted efforts to understand what such grievances and aspirations really mean to their advocates, rather than simply inaccurately labeling them as international security concerns while continuing to prosecute aggression seemingly without limits or oversight against others abroad in what arguably looks very much like a thinly disguised war on Islam.


This piece was original posted on Foreign Policy Journal

REZA PANKHURST is a political scientist and historian, specialising in the Middle East and Islamic movements. He has a doctorate from the London School of Economics, where he previously completed his Masters degree in the History of International Relations.

His latest book, The Inevitable Caliphate? A History of the Struggle for Global Islamic Union, 1924 to the Present, is published by Hurst and available now.

Twitter: @rezapankhurst

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