On the eve of the 69th United Nations General Assembly, and the launching of air strikes against Islamic State forces in Syria, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has commented that airpower alone will not be enough to defeat the jihadists.
Prime Minister David Cameron has ruled out sending in British ground troops, but Blair’s comments follow fast upon retired Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb, onetime director of British special forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan, arguing that the government should be ready to “rule in” just that.
“I’m not talking about large-scale conventional forces,” Lamb explained, saying that they would be inappropriate for dealing with a threat like the Islamic State. “But I am talking about advisers, special forces, airborne brigades, for instance, the battalion of the landing of the US Marine Corps, those sort of capabilities which ourselves, the United Kingdom, and the United States have. But we should be prepared to rule them in.”
In a 6,500-word essay on his website, Blair concurred, saying that air power would be a major component in any attempt to defeat IS, but that “air power alone will not suffice.” Describing this as a hard truth, he said the jihadists “can be hemmed in, harried and to a degree contained by air power. But they can’t be defeated by it.”
Challenged on the BBC about the irony of his advising anyone on how to deal with the Islamic State threat, given the birth of IS and the destruction of Iraqi Christianity in the chaos that followed the 2003 Iraq invasion, Blair said that “maybe it’s worth appreciating the fact that there are lessons I have learnt from the experience of having gone through the process of taking these decisions.”
The former prime minister, now a Middle East peace envoy, also warned that western leaders should avoid the “fateful error” of tackling only those Islamist extremists who advocate violence. Describing Islamism, which he defined as “a politicization of religion to an intense and all-encompassing degree” as “incompatible with modern economies and open-minded, religiously pluralistic societies,” he said that the entire spectrum of exclusivist Islamism needed to be challenged.
The most important thing to do when confronted by such a spectrum, he said, is “to expose it, to speak out against it, to make sure that at each point along the spectrum the proponents of this ideology are taken on and countered; but also be prepared to engage in dialogue and to acknowledge, as has been the case in Tunisia, that some of those on this spectrum may be willing to leave it. So there should be openness in our attitude, but the total absence of naivety.”
“To engage successfully,” he said, “we have to be willing to confront.”
Blair’s appeal has coincided with a video appeal from Muslim scholars asking IS jihadists to release British aid worker Alan Henning, who was shown at the end of the video of David Haines’s murder. Henning, a taxi driver from Manchester, had travelled to Syria with Muslim friends to help on an aid convoy, and was captured shortly after his arrival there. The imams, who have insisted that Henning’s detention is against the Qur’an and that his killing would break Islamic laws, are from the very Salafist spectrum that Blair called the source of Islamist ideology.
In the appeal, Imam Shakeel Begg of south London’s Lewisham Islamic Centre addresses Henning’s captors as “our brothers and sisters in Islam,” and draws on the Qur’an to argue on theological grounds that Henning should be released unharmed.
Theologically-based arguments by Muslims of good will offer the only real hope of vanquishing Islamist ideology, Jesuit Father Michael Barnes, a professor at of London’s Heythrop College, recently told Aleteia. His colleague, Father Rocco Viviano, SX, concurs, pointing to how Blair’s vision of an engagement with the spectrum of Muslim extremism might be realized.
Describing as “an important sign” a recent intervention by Muslim imams, directing British Muslims against joining IS, he cast the imams’ letter as “an invitation to maintain and protect a real connection between religious belief (and its foundations) and the principles that regulate human relations in contemporary society.”
Citing how Pope Benedict XVI spoke in his Regensburg lecture of “the tragic potential of the divorce between faith and reason,” Father Viviano told Aleteia that the jihadists’ actions are “but one frightening symptom of such catastrophic rupture.” He explained that the methods of IS “have been defined as barbaric, inhuman and evil by people of all faiths and none because they clash against human reason.”
In terms of how the spectrum of Islamist theology might be confronted and engaged, Father Viviano believes that Catholic teaching on interreligious dialogue can help British society to nurture its young people, “so that they may choose courses of life that do not contradict either reason or authentic religion.” He expressed support for the creation of opportunities and the provision of tools to help people “rediscover and reconnect to the healthy roots of belief and maintain at the same time the connection with rationality.”
He cautions, nonetheless, against the use of word “de-radicalization”, which he thinks ignores the religious aspect of extremism, and presents it as a purely sociological problem. To those consciously motivated by religious belief, he said “’radical’ does not sound bad at all,” as it emphasises the fact that their actions have roots in their belief.
Such people, he said, “will perceive ‘de-radicalizing’ as an external attack on their belief, and not as something positive."
Greg Daly covers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.