The ‘Blair narrative’ is not new but dates back to the beginning of the so-called “war of terror.” It effectively shifts the blame off Western foreign policy—something for which the former British Prime Minister became detested in many quarters—and onto a foreign perverted “ideology.” After the killing of an off-duty officer in Woolwich London, Blair lay the blame firmly upon this “ideology,” making the claim that “there is a problem within Islam” though not “a problem with Islam.” Blair characterized this as the “Islamist” ideology, a “strain within Islam” (as opposed to “Saudi” Islam, among other “strains,” that he has been quite happy to endorse or remain silent about). In a nutshell, these claims form the basis of the false narrative that highly respected lawyer Gareth Pierce identified as now dominating political discourse in the West in her book Dispatches from the Dark Side, a discourse continued by current British Prime Minister David Cameron when he announced in parliament soon after Blair’s article when ordering a “crackdown” on the “conveyor belt of hate” he claimed existed in some schools and universities.
This Blair narrative is the political face of a much more explicit view that the United States (and by extension, the “West”) is engaged in a war with Islam, which according to Jeremy Scahill’s “Dirty Wars” was commonly held among senior figures appointed in the Rumsfield-Cheney era – such as Donald Rumsfield’s intelligence director General Boykin and the head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) General Stanley McChrystal among others. One American officer once described Boykin’s and McChrystal’s opinion that there was a “great crusade against Islam,” justifying attacks on Muslims “because you were fighting against the Caliphate.”
However far reaching or deeply held this opinion may be (or not), such an idea of a “War on Islam” could never be explicitly endorsed due to the obvious public relations ramifications. But, by publicly claiming that Islam is a religion of peace while simultaneously asserting that “Islamism” is the problem, it is possible to avoid a conflict with “Islam” yet wage a “war of terror” against “terrorists” which has been extended to encompass the ideology of “Islamist extremism” behind the “terrorism.”
This “Islamist extremism” is nothing to do with attacking civilians, but rather as Blair put it in his recent intervention it is “a view about religion and about the interaction between religion and politics that is not compatible with pluralistic, liberal, open-minded societies.”
Or in other words, the political aspects of Islam that run contrary to Western liberal values and views of how a state should be organized.
The “Conveyor Belt to Terrorism”
The Blair narrative contends that it is these aspects of Islam that are the threat to international peace today (as opposed to engaging in wars in the Middle East on spurious grounds, or the support for dictators against their own people, or the continued abuses and atrocities committed in the name of “defending freedom.”) It states that political aspirations widely shared by Muslims such as belief in a caliphate, or the even more commonly held foreign policy grievances, are precursors to engaging in “terrorism” and that there should be no space permitted to allow any discussion with or even among Muslims of such political aspirations or grievances as legitimate through the use of exclusionary discourse. All the while, foreign policy is excused or ignored as the primary causal factor of blowback.
The narrative had become so dominant in Britain that by 2009 the British government considered plans to formalize key identifiers for “extremists” including a belief in the applicability of Sharia law in contemporary times, the concept of belonging to a single Muslim community internationally (the umma), the legitimacy in resisting armed attack and occupation through the use of force (Jihad), and the aspiration of living under an Islamic caliphate.
Following the attack on May 22 in Woolwich, the same false narrative was again thrust into the forefront of the media, with a BBC article written by one self-proclaimed “ex-extremist” stating that the four major components of “Islamism” that needed to be tackled were: the idea of caliphate, the umma, Sharia, and Jihad—all part of the same Blair narrative. The same four were then subsequently mentioned by Boris Johnson in a Telegraph article entitled “By standing united, we can isolate the virus of Islamism” where he stated that “we need to make a hard and sharp distinction between that religion [Islam] – and the virus of ‘Islamism’” before going on to talk about the four points in negative terms. Blair’s own intervention made the more general point that there remained a problem within a “strain” of Islam.
In truth, many aspects of what are labeled elements of “Islamist extremism” form part of normative, traditional Islamic views rather than being perverted anomalies. When declaring an ongoing struggle between the “West” with “Islamist extremism,” what is meant is the conflict between Western values and views of state and those found in traditional Islamic scholarship. And in continuing to label normative Islamic viewpoints in pejorative terms while framing them as security problems and causal factors for attacks on civilians in the West, it is not surprising that more hatred and misunderstanding is created both domestically against Muslim communities settled in the west and internationally against Muslim-majority countries.
“Islamism,” Normative Islam and the Discourse of Exclusion
Each of the four points mentioned as the key identifiers of “Islamism” and “extremism” are part of centuries of normative orthodox Islamic scholarship, recognized as such in Western academia (as can be confirmed through a perusal of the 13 volume Encyclopedia of Islam published by Brill). Indeed, it is an ironic fact that according to traditional Islamic scholarship, denying the obligation of a caliphate (one of the identifiers of “extremist” thought) would be considered as the perverted, heretical view, a point I have discussed from an academic perspective in a separate short article recently.
It follows therefore that it should not be surprising that as a result of increased religiosity these ideas are widely supported by Muslims internationally. For example, the results of research carried out by University of Maryland in 2007 found that an average of 71 per cent of those interviewed across four Muslim countries (Egypt, Morocco, Indonesia and Pakistan) agreed with the goal of requiring “strict application of Sharia law in every Islamic country,” while also finding that sixty-five per cent agreed with the goal of unifying “all Islamic countries into a single state or caliphate.” Therefore, the labeling of these aspirations as “Islamist” and “extremist” also labels swaths of Muslims globally who are inspired by normative Islamic values (as well as those who carry such beliefs in the west) as “Islamist extremists.”
Since these identifiers of “Islamism” are in fact agreed upon parts of normative Islamic scholarship and widely supported by Muslims, it may be surmised that the use of the term “Islamism” is simply to identify those parts of normative Islam that are unpalatable to western liberal values or inconvenient for foreign policy. The contemporary usage of “Islamism” and “extremism” are both generally intended as pejorative terms, part of the deployment of a discourse that among other things serves to demonize opponents and intends to exclude opinions that run contrary to the interests of the political elite.
The continued use of the term “Islamist” along with “extremism” is the kind of language that the American Muslim advocacy group CAIR complained about recently, with their communications director Ibrahim Hooper writing an op-ed in January 2013 which stated that “Unfortunately, the term “Islamist” has become shorthand for “Muslims we don’t like.” It is currently used in an almost exclusively pejorative context and is often coupled with the term “extremist,” giving it an even more negative slant.”
This is a tactic which is not limited to Muslims. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has been variously referred to as a party of fruitcakes, loonies, and extremists all within the last year, before reluctantly being accepted by the liberal mainstream as “mainstream” as a result of their electoral success. Either their policies are “extremist,” in which case the British establishment is now pandering to extremism by accepting UKIP as mainstream, or they are not, which means that the label of “extremism” was simply used to try to exclude them from the political discourse, until they received such popular support that it was impossible to ignore them.