We shouldn’t be fighting Tony Blair’s Middle East ‘battle’

Last week Tony Blair delivered a high profile speech at Bloomberg in London on the Middle East in which he placed Islamist ideologues in a ‘Titanic’ struggle with those who want to embrace ‘the modern world’ of pluralistic societies and open economies.

As with most of Blair’s speeches that I can remember, it was impressive, cogent and well-delivered. But for me it also exposed a kind of utopianism about that modern world he talked about, and a false dichotomy.

As he put it, 

Underneath the turmoil and revolution of the past years is one very clear and unambiguous struggle: between those with a modern view of the Middle East, one of pluralistic societies and open economies, where the attitudes and patterns of globalisation are embraced; and, on the other side, those who want to impose an ideology born out of a belief that there is one proper religion and one proper view of it, and that this view should, exclusively, determine the nature of society and the political economy”.
He added:
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.”

This is a battle, certainly. But it does not have to be the only battle, nor even the most important one. There is a false equation Blair is drawing here between democratic pluralism and free market globalisation. His message is that the countries of the Middle East either take on the full package of ‘the modern world’ as seen in Western societies, or get lost to religious extremism and intolerance.

It does not have to be this way though. The missing ingredient in Blair’s vision is democracy and a feeling for democratic society. Democratic societies as free societies do not have to go a certain way. They are free to choose.

Karl Popper, the apostle of ‘open societies’, thought that the only permanent restriction on democratic government should be the protection of democracy itself. He said: 

A consistent democratic constitution should exclude only one type of change in the legal system, namely a change which would endanger its democratic character.”

Popper did not draw an equation between democracy and free markets. Indeed he thought one of the core roles of democracy was to mitigate the economic exploitation that has been a constant feature of free market economies. Democracy should mean respecting the equality of all citizens. But beyond that, Popper thought, everything should be left on the table.

He said, 

In a democracy, we hold the keys to the control of the demons. We can tame them. We must realize this and use the keys; we must construct institutions for the democratic control of economic power, and for our protection from economic exploitation”.

This sort of vision and these sorts of principles seem to be entirely lacking from Blair’s account, and from the wider ideology of globalisation. For them, free markets come first.

Islamism has partly thrived through a distaste for ‘the modern world’ of which Blair talks in glowing terms.

I am thinking that we should not offer the people of a troubled region a choice that we have pre-prepared and pre-figured for them. The essence of democracy is that they make the choices themselves. Developed societies like ours should only place one condition on them for our support – that in conducting democracy they nurture and protect democratic institutions and democratic ways, and treat all their citizens with respect.

After that, it is up to them.

Tony Blair talks up pluralism, but prescribing a doctrine of globalisation and free markets is not pluralism. It is to offer the countries of the Middle East an entry into our world of relentless economic competition and constant change, of inevitabilities prescribed by apparently economic necessities.

An IPSOS MORI survey of more than 16,000 people from 20 countries has shown that people all over the world are anxious about the pace of change in their societies (Britons come out as one of the least anxious of those survey, but still with 62% thinking the world is changing too fast – compared to 93% in China and Turkey).

Blair’s vision is that this shiny world of change is the only way to go.

The countries of the Middle East and their peoples should at least be allowed the chance to reject this and go a different way. In Britain and other developed nations, we might do well to do the same.


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