Islam isn’t the Problem? Pt. I

Behold Tony Blair.  A radical Sunni outfit so noxious that even al-Qa’ida disavowed it is threatening to overrun Baghdad, but the indefatigable former British Prime Minster who abetted the 2003 invasion of Iraq that touched off the country’s mayhem continues to hold forth.

The bloviating Blair recently spoke of a grave threat, though not the one in Mesopotamia he helped create.  The self-appointed Cassandra sounded the alarm at a conference in New York in April.  The Middle East, Blair pontificated, is in chaos.  So is the Sahel.  And so is everywhere Islam resides, including in the West.

The source of the problem, according to Blair, is Muslim extremism, “a radicalized and politicized view of Islam, an ideology that distorts and warps Islam’s true [emphasis added] message.”  On this point he was emphatic.  “It is not Islam itself that gives rise to this [radical] ideology,” Blair repeatedly made clear.  “It is an interpretation of Islam, actually a perversion of it, which many Muslims abhor.”

The threat from this bastardized version of Islam is ominous, Blair intoned, and needs to be taken seriously; shirking the challenges it poses wont’ do.  “We have to elevate the issue [of Islamic extremism] to the top of the agenda.  This struggle between what we may call the open-minded and the close-minded is at the heart of whether the twenty-first century turns in the direction of peaceful coexistence or conflict between people of a different cultures.”

The irony of a world leader responsible for helping to unleash the very fundamentalist forces that he now laments notwithstanding, Blair’s thesis is specious on two counts.  First, a resurgent Islam isn’t the threat to global peace and security that he imagines; and second, “true” Islam is not as peaceful as he asserts.

Taking these in turns, the danger posed by so-called radical Islam is grossly overstated.  Those places from which this “scourge” emanates, principally the Middle East, are deeply troubled and, as a result, ill-equipped to launch a successful assault on Western civilization.  Far from it.  Indeed, it is precisely their deprived and desperate state that breeds the malignant religiosity preoccupying Blair.

The Arab Human Development Reports, a series of UN-sponsored documents produced by Arab scholars, bears out the region’s dysfunction.  The inquiries have identified a host of problems afflicting the 22 members of the Arab League, which together account for 280 million people.  These include autocratic political systems, poor access to education, and gender discrimination.  With respect to the latter, a 2009 report concluded: “Many Arab women are still bound by patriarchal patterns of kinship, legalized discrimination, social subordination, and ingrained male dominance.”

Each of the above collectively stymies the region’s economy.  Exports from the Arab world other than oil and gas constitute less than those of Finland, about a country of 5.5 million people.  This bodes poorly for a region with a young and increasingly destitute demographic.  Those able to emigrate to places offering a means of making a livelihood do so, while the rest remain, typically stifled and stuck.  The title of a book by noted historian Bernard Lewis succinctly captures the miserable state of the Middle East, once in the vanguard of civilization.  It inquires, What Went Wrong?

Blair correctly identifies a violent narrative of perceived victimization, cloaked in religion, radiating from the troubled Middle East—and to a lesser degree elsewhere that Muslims reside.  Yet his Chicken Little lamentation is hyperbolic, if not unusual.  “Radical Islam” may not be “abating,” but it primarily threatens those regions that are only strategically important because of oil, an important resource, to be sure, though one that is increasingly found elsewhere outside the region.  Its threat to the West is not existential but rather akin to the challenge of anarchism a century ago.

In the late- and early-nineteenth century, violent anarchism, like jihadism, was a worldwide phenomena.  Its adherents were responsible for assassinations of heads of state, including prime ministers in Europe and an American president, William McKinley.  Then, like now, nations enacted draconian laws to address what they saw as a frightening menace, including those permitting mass arrests of alleged anarchists and, in some cases, torture.  Yet anachism soon fizzled and is now a historical footnote.

Muslim-inspired terrorism, like its anarchist antecedent, is a statistically insignificant threat to Americans.  September 11, 2011 was an outlier.  Since that epochal day, at most several dozen Americans have died from domestic terrorist attacks (the actual number varies depending on how terrorism is defined).

Meanwhile, in 2010, a typical year in terms of terrorist lethality, 15 Americans were killed worldwide by crazed fanatics, according to the National Counterterrorism Center, or about the same number of our countrymen crushed to death by falling television sets or furniture.

None of this aligns with Blair’s narrative.  But then a speech warning about flat-screens and upholstery wouldn’t make good copy.  It wouldn’t cause shivers to run up the spine.  Fear, Blair knows better than most from his days selling the Iraq War, requires at least a nominally plausible bogeyman, and Islamic extremism fits the bill.

But Blair’s tendentiousness goes further.  He also misreads the nature of Islam, believing that jihadism is a perversion of the religion.  It’s not.  This will be considered in the next installment

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