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Britain's ex-PM Blair warns against spread of radical Islam


Western leaders should set aside their differences and instead focus on the common threat posed by Islamist extremism, Britain's former prime minister Tony Blair said in a speech Wednesday in London.


Blair warned that the spread of extremist ideology across the Middle East – as well as Pakistan, Afghanistan and North Africa – "represents the biggest threat to global security of the 21st century" and should be at the top of the global agenda.

"On this issue, whatever our other differences, we should be prepared to reach out and cooperate with the East, and in particular, Russia and China," Blair said in his speech at Bloomberg headquarters in London.

Blair warned that "a radicalised and politicised view" of Islam that "distorts and warps Islam’s true message" was gaining traction in many parts of the world, while the West consistently fails to acknowledge its influence.

"For the last 40 to 50 years, there has been a steady stream of funding, proselytising, organising and promulgating coming out of the Middle East, pushing views of religion that are narrow-minded and dangerous,” Blair said. “Unfortunately, we seem blind to the enormous global impact such teaching has had, and is having.”

But it is the people of the Middle East who are facing the starkest choices, Blair said, as extremist ideology continues "destabilising communities and even nations".

"Within the Middle East itself, the result has been horrible, with people often facing a choice between authoritarian government – that is at least religiously tolerant – and the risk that in throwing off the government they don't like, they end up with a religiously intolerant, quasi-theocracy."

"There is a Titanic struggle going on within the region between those who want the region to embrace the modern world – politically, socially and economically – and those who instead want to create a politics of religious difference and exclusivity. This is the battle," Blair said.

Blair was prime minister between 1997 and 2007 and is now the envoy for the Middle East "quartet", a grouping that brings the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia together in a bid to relaunch peace talks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

‘We have to take sides’

The spread of radical Islam, Blair said, is "undermining the possibility of peaceful co-existence in an era of globalisation" – and yet the West seems "curiously reluctant to acknowledge it, and powerless to counter it effectively".

"This struggle between what we may call the ‘open-minded’ and the ‘closed-minded’ is at the heart of whether the 21st century turns in the direction of peaceful co-existence or conflict between people of different cultures."

Blair went on to say that Western powers must stop making foreign policy decisions that are based on short-term convenience and instead adopt a more comprehensive approach.

He acknowledged that the US-led and UK-backed invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan had undermined the willingness to intervene in the Middle East, but said isolationism was not an option.

"We have to take sides. We have to stop treating each country on the basis of whatever seems to make for the easiest life for us at any one time. We have to have an approach to the region that is coherent and sees it as a whole. And above all, we have to commit. We have to engage."

Blair said this means supporting the principles of religious freedom and open economies, wherever they are found.

In reality, this means backing the nascent, post-Arab Spring governments in Egypt and Tunisia, and helping the security services in unstable nations like Libya and Yemen to reform, he said.

Blair went on to say that Egypt is the lynchpin of North Africa and the Middle East, stating bluntly: “On the fate of Egypt hangs the future of the region.''

He described the July coup that overthrew president Mohammed Morsi as “necessary'', saying Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-dominated administration of moderate Islamists “was not simply a bad government'' but was ''systematically taking over the traditions and institutions of the country''.

He said the weeks of mass street protests that led to Morsi's ouster were “the absolutely necessary rescue of a nation", adding: "We should support the new government and help."

'Unmitigated disaster' in Syria

Blair sharply criticised the West's confused policy on the conflict in Syria and called the current situation in the country "an unmitigated disaster".

"We call for the regime to change in Syria, we encourage the opposition to rise up, but then when Iran activates Hezbollah on the side of Assad, we refrain even from air intervention to give the opposition a chance," Blair said. "The result is a country in disintegration, millions displaced, a death toll approximating that of Iraq, with no end in sight and huge risks to regional stability."

He said both the prospect of President Bashar al-Assad staying in power and the idea of the opposition rebels taking over seem like "bad options".

But dealing with Assad might be the only way out of the current quagmire, Blair said.

"Repugnant though it may seem, the only way forward is to conclude the best agreement possible even if it means in the interim President Assad stays for a period," he said.

In a comment that some observers took to be a thinly veiled reference to Saudi Arabia, with whom the West has had longstanding ties, Blair said it was "absurd" that Western nations spent billions defending themselves against the very same Islamist extremism that is rife within the school systems of countries "with whom we have intimate security and defence relationships".

Blair suggested that the G20 initiate a programme to eradicate religious intolerance from school systems and civil society organisations in at-risk countries.

"They need us to make this a core part of the international dialogue, in order to force the necessary change within their own societies," he said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)


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