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Blair's 'radical Islam' speech provokes strong reactions

Tony Blair says the West "has to pick sides" in conflicts in the Middle East and beyond
Tony Blair today urged countries to unite against the "threat of radical Islam" (World Economic Forum, Remy Steinegger)

Analysts have criticised a speech by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Wednesday morning, in which he warned over the “threat of radical Islam” to the Western world.

Blair said in a talk given to Bloomberg in London that this threat "is not abating. It is growing". 

"It is spreading across the world," he said. "It is destabilising communities and even nations. It is undermining the possibility of peaceful co-existence in an era of globalisation. And in the face of this threat we seem curiously reluctant to acknowledge it and powerless to counter it effectively".

The former British premier urged the West to “take sides”.

"The important point for Western opinion is that this is a struggle with two sides. So when we look at the Middle East and beyond it to Pakistan or Iran and elsewhere, it isn't just a vast unfathomable mess with no end in sight and no one worthy of our support. It is in fact a struggle in which our own strategic interests are intimately involved; where there are indeed people we should support and who, ironically, are probably in the majority if only that majority were mobilised, organised and helped."

He highlighted Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan as some of the main countries where this sort of battle will need to be fought.

Blair hinted that the West needs to go beyond political intervention, but acknowledged that this has a price: “Engagement and commitment are words easy to use. But they only count when they come at a cost. There is no engagement that doesn’t involve putting yourself out there. There is no commitment that doesn’t mean taking a risk.”

In an apparent reference to the West's relations with Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia, Blair said: “It is absurd to spend billions of dollars on security arrangements and on defence to protect ourselves against the consequences of an ideology that is being advocated in the formal and informal school systems and in civic institutions of the very countries with whom we have intimate security and defence relationships."

Blair urged the United States and Europe to put aside their differences with Russia and China and to join forces to combat  a “radicalised and politicised view of Islam” which he deems as a threat to all nations.

Blair is currently a UN Peace Envoy to the Middle East. In the last few years, he has come under criticism over a lack of progress in Palestinian-Israeli relations and for his support of the military coup which saw the overthrow of democratically elected Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi last July.

On this issue, Blair said, "The Muslim Brotherhood government was not simply a bad government. It was systematically taking over the traditions and institutions of the country," adding that the military overthrow was "the absolutely necessary rescue of a nation".

While he accepts that there should be strong criticism of a death sentence the regime has passed on over 500 Muslim Brotherhood, he seeks some compassion for the "over 400 police officers ... and several hundred soldiers killed" in the violence.

Reactions

John Rees, national officer for the Stop the War Coalition and longtime opponent of Tony Blair, told MEE that the speech's content suggested Blair was out of touch with the thoughts of the British public. "Tony Blair’s rehearsing what are deeply objectionable views to most people in Britain - they didn’t want to intervene in Syria and Blair thinks that’s a mistake. They certainly don’t want further intervention in Libya as Blair is suggesting." 

"They [the British public] didn’t like it by a 65% majority when NATO intervened [in Libya] the first time, so they certainly don’t want to do it a second time," he said. 

Rees condemned Blair's language with regards to "radical Islam" as inflammatory, saying it came in the wake of "a new wave of Islamophobic initiatives" from the British government.

"We know he has a strategy of trying to rehabilitate his reputation and we know he’s trying to return to public life in some kind of elder statesman fashion if no more." He pointed out that Blair's previous speeches had often provoked protests from anti-war activists. "I take it that speaking at an enclosed meeting at the Bloomberg organisation at 8am is an attempt to avoid that."

John Rentoul, chief political commentator for the Independent on Sunday and biographer of Blair, was there to hear the speech and he applauded its depth. "I was impressed by the seriousness of the speech, I thought it was one of Blair’s better constructed speeches. There was a real argument and he was setting out quite an important case, which is quite difficult for practicing politicians to engage in." He also comended the media reaction. "The anti-war Blair-hating brigade didn’t go completely doolalley and wasn’t given a great deal of room by the media who generally haven’t got much time for Tony Blair. It was treated as a serious contribution to the debate and I thought that was interesting."

On the subject of Blair's tacit support for an alliance with Vladimir Putin, he pointed out that he had attempted to court the Russian premiere early on in his career. "I remember Blair went to visit Putin during the election campaign, which is unusual for a prime minister of this country, you don’t normally get involved in the domestic politics of other countries. But he recognised that Putin was the coming power in Russia and he wanted to get in there early." His call for the West to come to terms with Putin was a valid argument. "It’s a perfectly respectable view that there is no point in just winding up Russian nationalism for the sake of it – giving how touchy the Russians are and given how proud Putin is and how much support he has in Russian popular opinion, I mean, there’s a respectable case for saying you don’t want to unnecessarily wind these people up. He’s making a pragmatic case."

Social media exploded with reactions to the speech. Most were critical of the former prime minister:

Those who supported Blair's speech indicated an appreciation for his no-nonsense approach:

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