The global battle for ideas cannot be fought with guns
Bush and Blair's belief that Islamism could be bombed into submission was deluded. We need to find a middle way
Monday August 7, 2006
Tony Blair is right. Tony Blair is disastrously wrong. Where he is right is to insist, in his recent speech, that the tragedy of Lebanon is not a single one-off event but part of a much larger confrontation with an "arc of extremism". I have friends so angry about Israel's behaviour that they are beginning to fall for the idea that Hizbullah is an admirable resistance army, a movement of social workers, philosophers and urban guerrillas, to be supported "objectively", as the Marxists used to say - the Guardian in the sunshine with rockets. We read admiring reports about the wit and verbal brilliance of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who is sometimes portrayed as a mix of Che Guevara and Groucho Marx.
Then there are those who think we should support poor little underdog Iran against bullying America over nuclear weapons, while taking President Ahmadinejad's effusions about wiping Israel off the map as just amusing banter from downtown Tehran. And when it comes to Iraq, many feel the Shia resistance movement has had so much provocation that it too deserves to win.
So before going any further, let us remind ourselves just what fundamentalist Islam wants and what kind of society it aspires to. As a woman, I can't regard the compulsory veiling of sisters in the Middle East by men who threaten them with violence as just another cultural choice. Iran, the state that most eagerly supports Hizbullah and had come closest to achieving Shiaism in one country, is a place where women are hanged or stoned to death for adultery, where homosexuals are hunted by the religious police, and where an anti-Semitism that would have been regarded as a little extreme in late-30s Munich is daily fare.
And no, I don't think that because Hizbullah are protecting Lebanese Sunnis and Christians against the Israeli onslaught, and because its social service network helps non-Shias too, that makes it a genial or moderate organisation. It is spreading support, building its power base, as any revolutionary group would do in these circumstances. But its ultimate aim, apart from driving out the Jews, is to create a little Iran on the Mediterranean. That would, one day, involve driving out the same Lebanese Christians who currently thank their God for the fighters of Hizbullah.
It does come down to values. Just as I loathe the idea of separate Muslim schools in Britain, or forced marriages, or female genital mutilation, so I cannot swallow the notion of a rising Islamic world that despises western and liberal values. To be a liberal does not mean shrugging your shoulders at those who loathe you and hoping that somehow everyone will get on. A world divided between Christian bible-belt fundamentalists, powered by US military and oil interests, and Islamist Qur'an-belt fundamentalists, ruled by misogynistic mullahs, is a bad world, period.
The question is, what to do about it, and here is where Tony Blair has been proved so hopelessly, catastrophically wrong. Let's bend over backwards to be fair. He may not have known for certain what would happen when Iraq was invaded and Saddam toppled. But we all now know that the result has been to plunge the country into a civil war currently costing more lives per week than the American civil war. Anyone who still thinks this is hyperbole should be directed to the leaked assessment of the outgoing British ambassador in Baghdad.
The Bush-Blair belief was that Arab nationalism could be bombed into defeat. The past few years have shown how deluded that was. Even less plausible is the idea that Islamism will wane if the west flexes its military muscles. In a hearts-and-minds struggle, it does not win much leverage to bomb civilians and kill children. In this regard, Arab Shias are the same as anyone else: murder makes them angry, not conciliatory.
This is the real danger of Israel's actions in Lebanon. Israel has every right to exist, in security. Internally it is a democratic society and, as a non-Jew, I would infinitely prefer to live in Tel Aviv than Tehran. But Israel's vicious behaviour towards the Palestinians, and now in Lebanon, creates a new suicide bomber, a new resistance fighter and a new potential terrorist - in the Middle East and well beyond - every hour of the day. Yes, Hizbullah provoked the Israelis. But they reacted with all the calm deliberation of a maddened bull. They are not the only ones.
The depth of the stupidity shown by the White House and by No 10 is caricatured in the story that Jack Straw was fired as foreign secretary after Condoleezza Rice visited Blackburn and reported back to Bush on the strength of Muslim feeling in Straw's constituency. Put to one side the grotesque affront to British status implied by an American president being able to sack cabinet members by proxy (which Downing Street will doubtless deny) and ask this question: what kind of mind thinks the presence of angry Muslims in his constituency would hamper Straw's diplomacy, rather than sharpen it?
The kind of mind, presumably, that thinks Muslims are generally bad and rejects the battle of ideas in favour of battle. Straw was reaching out to Tehran. He said that nuking them was "nuts". He was, modestly, adopting a rhetoric which was not simply Washington's "Israel good, Palestinians bad" tone. Despite his involvement in the Iraq decision, he was trying to find a middle way. He knew he had to, because like most of us he lives among ordinary, non-extreme Muslims - drawn in some ways to western society, and currently infuriated and despairing. One day even the Americans will have to follow him, or we are all off to hell in a handcart.
We need that ceasefire. We need a rebuilt, protected Lebanon, given something of the outside support Israel has had. There should be no British troops in a peacekeeping force because they would be a provocation. By tamely following Bush into the biggest foreign policy mistake of modern times, Britain has too much blood on its hands to be taken seriously in the region, and Blair is seen as too one-sided. We can and should provide money, doctors and volunteers, but we should have the humility to recognise that others, such as the French, would be more acceptable as honest brokers.
There is a battle of ideas in the world today. We cannot escape it or walk away. But you cannot kill ideas with guns - only with better ideas, expressed through confident, open societies. Blair's words suggest that he realises this. His record, however, suggests this understanding has come too late.