Religion and Geopolitics: Why it Matters
06 Oct 2015
The Right Honourable Tony Blair gave a speech at the September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York on 6 October in which he called for a greater effort to combat the ideology of Islamist extremism.
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The terrorist attack of September 11th 2001 destroyed lives and changed lives. It is impossible to be here without feeling an immense emotional connection to the victims, their families and to this city and this country. So much savage grief and injustice meted out in a single day by an act of unspeakable and incomprehensible evil: unspeakable because of its barbarity; incomprehensible because it was carried out in the name of religious faith.
We have spent the years since then trying to make sense of it and to combat those who share the world view which led to it.
For me, it was the determining moment of my premiership. On that day and subsequently I thought the duty of my country was to stand – as I put it – 'shoulder to shoulder' with America.
However in the time which followed and particularly through the campaigns in Afghanistan and then Iraq and through our own terror attack of 7th July 2005 in London, I studied this issue of extremism – its character, causes and consequences.
Since leaving office I have devoted a large part of my time to continuing this study, either working on the peace process in the Middle East or through my Foundation which focuses on religious extremism and the need to foster strong bonds of friendship and mutual respect between those of different faiths.
The Foundation itself is now active in over 20 different countries and is launching two new initiatives.
Today we announce the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics, already up and running and now to be expanded, which tracks religious extremism across the world day by day and whose product you can see by going to the Religion and Geopolitics website of my Foundation. It also authors special in-depth reports on connected issues such as the one we publish today.
As a result of this study, in office and out of it, since 9/11, I have reached the following conclusions about the extremism which confronts us:
- That it is deeper and broader by far than we realised back then, affecting not only the nations of the Middle East but those of the Far East, Central Asia, Africa and even at home in Europe and the USA. Millions now have their lives upturned and damaged by this extremism.
- That it is hard to beat because it is so deep and so broad and we should think in defeating it, not in terms of an election cycle but in terms of a generation, necessitating policies which also go deep and stretch over time.
- And that it is based on an abuse of true religious faith; but nonetheless one which is strongly held, highly motivating and whose ideological roots go far wider than we presently want to admit.
In the immediate term, as indeed we have been forced to do since 9/11, we have to take the security measures necessary to prevent terrorism and to contain it. The cost of these has been enormous just in additional security at airports, in cities and events round the globe, to say nothing of the military cost. The cost in lives, in the de-stabilisation of nations and peoples has been an individual and collective tragedy.
But I think we know that security alone – no matter how vital or well executed – is not the answer to this challenge.
If the roots are deep, we have to go down to them and uproot the poisonous growth. We have to replace the seeds of hatred and ignorance with those of peace and knowledge. And to do this we have to understand comprehensively the nature of what we're dealing with.
I offer two points in describing the nature of the challenge.
The first is that this is a religious problem and not simply a political problem or one driven by poverty and under-development. The second is that though the numbers of violent extremists are relatively small, the ideology which they share has a penetration and support which goes far wider; and it is the ideology and not just the violence which we must attack and uproot.
Today we publish the Centre's report entitled 'Inside the Jihadi Mind', an analysis of the writings and propaganda of three groups: ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The ideology which emerges is not one in which religion is incidental; but one which is absolutely and integrally driven by religious ideology and a particular reading of scripture.
It follows from this that no solution which ignores religion or which pretends that it is really a cover for something else, will succeed.
That is not to say that other factors bear no relevance. I take it as axiomatic that extremism finds more fertile soil in countries which are poor, under-developed and institutionally weak. There will be many individual reasons of alienation or frustrated purpose why someone turns to terrorism.
But the fact is that this violence is carried out, justified, kills and is killed for, in the name of religion, specifically a perversion of the religion of Islam.
Let us say immediately that this violence no more represents the true spirit of Islam than atrocities executed in the name of Christianity in days gone by, represented true Christian faith. The majority of Muslims detest this extremism and are the main victims of it.
It is correct also to say that there are 'Christian' terrorists such as the murderer in Norway and 'Jewish' terrorists, as Israel's Government called those who burnt alive the Palestinian family, who will perpetrate isolated but still horrible acts of violence.
However the Islamist extremism in scale and impact is different and threatens global security.
To deny the religious dimension is to misunderstand the problem and therefore inevitably misconceive the solution.
For some in the West, this notion of religion propelling people to these acts of what seems to us lunatic destruction, are so alien to our modern life experience that we want to assert that it must be about something else.
For some Muslims the idea of their faith being so wilfully abused is so unthinkable that they want instead to believe it must be a consequence of something else.
But all of this is like saying that support for revolutionary communism and Marxism grew out of anger at social injustice. Of course it did; but the precise form this anger took and the ideology that then took hold of a large part of the world's population and resulted in extraordinary acts of devastation, arose from a set of ideas which were not inevitable but invented.
Likewise, Fascism was not the inevitable product of post war depression or feelings of injustice after the Treaty of Versailles.
So this ideology based on a warping of religious belief has come about as a result of thinking developed over a long period of time and that thinking itself has to be rebutted and defeated in its own terms.
This report shows clearly that in large part, the propaganda of all three groups shares similar creedal characteristics; that these amount to a world view heavily defined by religion as well as merely influenced by it; and that there is a constant and repetitive reference to scripture as providing the faith basis for the acts of violence.
In other words, the extremists do not casually or lightly justify their position on the basis of religious faith; the theological justification is central to recruitment, retention and the fanaticism with which their followers act.
And despite the sense in some quarters that some of these groups are less extreme than others, this report shows that any such differences are tactical. In ideological terms, they are as extreme as each other. It would therefore be very unwise to back one against the other in the hope of containing the extremism.
But here is where it becomes interesting, instructive and complex.
The values and ideas expressed in this propaganda are those which find some echo in the wider Muslim community.
So for example the conspiracy theories which illuminate much of the jihadi writings have significant support even amongst parts of the mainstream population of some Muslim countries. Large proportions of people surveyed in those countries believe that someone other than Muslims carried out 9/11, with significant numbers believing it was the work of Israel or the CIA.
The idea of a Caliphate has support not limited to actual violent jihadis, with sometimes a third to a half of the populations of majority Muslim countries believing in such an idea; roughly up to a half believing they would live to see the start of the apocalypse.
The Muslim Brotherhood with a membership running into millions specifically criticises the UN Declaration on the Rights of Women for encouraging the independence of women and being un-Islamic.
A majority in four large Muslim countries agreed there was a need 'to stand up to America and affirm the dignity of the Islamic people', as if the two were in opposition to each other.
Of course none of this means that those who believe these things want to commit acts of terrorism. Many of those surveyed would abhor the violence and strongly condemn it.
But the point is that the propaganda of the jihadi groups with the references to honour, to dignity and to humiliation by outsiders, the one Islamic Community, even the distorted use of 'jihad' itself (the true meaning of jihad being to exert spiritual effort, not killing) are all carefully chosen for their resonance within the wider community.
The religious teachers who preach support for this extremism often have Twitter followings which run into the millions.
There are millions of school children every day in countries round the world – not just in the Middle East – who are taught a view of the world and of their religion which is narrow-minded, prejudicial and therefore in the context of a globalised world, dangerous.
It follows from all of this that a strategy to defeat the extremism will not work unless it focuses on the religious as well as the political; and unless it carries this religious message much broader and wider than the websites and centres of jihadi groups.
The Foundation sets out in the report some key recommendations. In essence there are two things we need radically and urgently to change in our approach.
We should do this in alliance with those within Islam who share this perspective.
This is the one piece of good news in all this gloom. There are real allies within Islam who share the anxiety, who feel a deep sense of outrage at the hijacking of their religion by the extremists and who are determined to retake it and restore its true purpose.
Though as I say some of the sentiments the jihadis play upon, are far too widely held, there are other sentiments too. Majorities in most Muslim majority countries support democracy and equal rights for women. Though there is widespread support for Sharia law, there is a big difference between people as to how it should be applied, with more preferring a liberal and modern interpretation.
There are also signs of a concerted attempt by influential clerics and institutions like the thousand-year old Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo to rebut the false theology behind the jihadi groups.
So the first thing that we need to do is to encourage, support and maximise the reach of those prepared and capable of offering an alternative interpretation of the theology of Islam and who can rebut the propaganda of the extremists on religious and scriptural grounds.
But such an endeavour then has to be translated into an accessible form. It cannot be simply at the level of clerics and scholarship. We need to build up grassroots Muslim responses which challenge the jihadi narrative with simple competing and clear messages which are equally forthright and scripturally based.
Rather than only removing extremist content, we should work with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Google to use expert guidance to promote credible sharable material to challenge the jihadi message and the ideology behind it.
We should celebrate the work of those combatting this thinking as, for example, is happening, as we speak, by artists in Timbuktu, in Mali, defending their Islamic history art and culture against the extremists who want to destroy it.
Secondly we have to be able to analyse and assess the scope of the broader ideology and its impact; and then take the measures necessary to reverse its influence.
This gets us into tricky and controversial territory, but it is ground we need to cover. When we talk of the ideology of extremism behind the violence, the worry is that we end up attacking ideas which have resonance in parts of mainstream Muslim society; and therefore we can appear to be, or be accused of, attacking not extremism but Muslims.
I understand this worry. But it has to be overcome. If large numbers of people really do believe that the desire of the USA or the West is to disrespect or oppress Islam, then it is not surprising that some find recourse to violence acceptable in order to re-assert the 'dignity' of the oppressed.
If young people are educated that Jews are evil or that anyone who holds a different view of religion is an enemy it is obvious that this prejudice will give rise, in certain circumstances, to action in accordance with it.
The reality is that in parts of the Muslim community a discourse has grown up which is profoundly hostile to peaceful co-existence. Countering this is an essential part of fighting extremism.
It starts with education. In the next few months the Foundation will launch a campaign for what we call a Global Commitment on Education. The idea is to mobilise the international community behind a commitment on behalf of every country to root out religious prejudice and promote religious tolerance within the education systems, formal and informal, of those signing the commitment. It needs – obviously – to be carefully phrased and culturally sensitive. There can be schools which are faith based but which provide excellent education and do so in a way that is never disrespectful of the faith of others.
But just as we say today that pollution by carbon emissions should no longer be considered as a nation's own business, up to them whether they deal with it or not, and we say that dealing with it is part of global responsibility, so it should be with education around culture and faith. We should not be blind to what is taught.
If syllabi and curricula teach a false or hateful view of others, they should be changed.
Again we should promote those programmes and people who are offering a positive and inclusive view of faith. The UN backed Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund needs strong support as it helps initiatives in local communities working with those most at risk of extremism.
We have just begun working as a Foundation in the refugee camps of Jordan. As part of our programme called 'Face to Faith' we bring together children of different faiths by video link across the world. For many in these camps, this has been their first encounter with those who are different. They have described it in often moving terms of "this is the most wonderful day of my life to talk to [those of a different faith]", "thank you for being interested in our lives. This has given me the inspiration to be strong".
We're about to have large numbers of refugees come into our European culture. We need for them not just to have shelter but for them to be educated about what it means to live in a culture in which all cultures are treated equally.
All over the world there is an urgent need to reform outdated and bigoted ways of looking at the world. This includes not just how Muslims view others but how others view Muslims including in our own countries.
There is no confronting the violence effectively without confronting the extremism; and there is no effective fight against extremism that does not confront the systems which propagate and perpetuate it.
14 years on from the terrible events of September 11th 2001, our experience and understanding is many dimensions larger than on that day.
One thing is clear certainly to me. This problem had been a long time in the making. The roots date back over half a century and for sure they were well watered by the toxic mixture of bad politics and abuse of religion which came out of the Middle East.
The Centre on Religion and Geopolitics aims to become a leading source of analysis and research informing the debate around it. This report will be the first of many.
As we track what happens daily on our website, we will do in-depth pieces as we have already on Boko Haram, ISIS and other groups.
But we also aim to expose the scale and breadth of the challenge we face. It is easy for us in the West either to have our senses numbed by the stream of distressing news arising from this extremism; or to end up believing that it is all too complicated for us to understand, let alone work out a strategy to defeat it.
Yet as the threat shows no sign of abating – on the contrary – we cannot afford to shrug and turn away or to believe that security measures – certainly of a conventional kind – will suffice.
We have to go direct to the religious ideology which motivated those to commit the act of terrorism here remembered, and which has spawned acts of terror costing thousands of lives the world over since; and to challenge not only the violence it indulges, but the ideas it incites amongst the broader population.
This is the most compelling way to honour those who died that day and those who continue to suffer every day.
It is not impossible. We should recall the time when Islam stood at the forefront of scientific and medical advance and when according to Hurriyet, in six centuries of Ottoman rule only twice were people stoned for adultery and on the last occasion the outcry was such it did not happen again.
We don't face a clash of civilisations or of faiths; but a pernicious and false ideology which is a denial of civilisation and a perversion and not an expression of faith. The challenge is from within Islam. The solution is also from within Islam.
This perversion of Islam can and will be consigned to the same junkyard of mistaken ideology as the secular ones of the 20th century.
But it has to be defeated. And to defeat it, we must first understand it.