By Chris Doyle
Founded exactly 200 years ago in 1815, the Cambridge Union claims to be the oldest continuously running debating society in the world preceding its Oxford counterpart by eight years. On April 23 I was one those which debated the motion “This House believes the West is responsible for Islamic Extremism” which if you believe some people, will be a motion still being discussed in another two hundred years’ time.
Proponents of the motion included a former British ambassador, clearly ill at ease with a career in the British Foreign Office and one of the opponents was a former Islamist extremist, likewise ill at ease with his past.
One of the proponents exclaimed that, considering my views, surely I should be backing the motion. For sure, I have hardly been shy in tearing apart various British, French and American policies in the Middle East and Islamic World.
No one party, no one bloc, no one set of rulers, no one group of actors is uniquely to blame for all the ills of the region nor the rise of Islamic extremism
This one pithy motion succeeds in summing up so much of what is wrong with so much of the wider public debate today.
The media in particular loves blocs and reductive simplified labels, which we all, myself included, repeat on occasions as they have become so much the norm. So what is the West and in the context of Islamic extremism? It is not a specific club one can join. For sure it includes the United States, but the United States of the Neo-Cons as under George Bush, or the United States of President Obama. Britain would be included but France that rejected the Iraq war of 2003 perhaps might be called an in-out member. Some say Turkey is in the West, others not. Israel is routinely depicted as part of the West but increasingly it has far less in common that many European countries and even the United States. But I defy anyone to identify what has been the ‘Western policy’ towards ‘Islamic extremism’.
And debaters could waste years trying to reach a common definition too of what exactly is “Islamic extremism”, with some saying it is an oxymoron, that extremists by definition cannot be Islamic and sadly others, largely on the far right, saying that Islam is extreme in itself.
Then there is the issue of blame, who is responsible for what?
Nobody, least of all me, could argue that the ‘West’ (for the sake of argument the United States, Britain, France, Italy and close allies) has had a perfect policy in the Middle East with all its manifold failures, from the Crusades, to the colonial era and beyond. There have been broken promises, arbitrary drawing of boundaries, wars, occupations, sanctions, blind support for Israel, and the propping up of all sorts of regimes. Most ‘Western’ states refused to accept election results in Algeria and in Palestine, where, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the elections were a great success but the voters were a disaster. American administrations have hardly advanced freedoms with their charming prisons at Guantanamo, Bagram Abu Ghraib; the rendition programme and ‘enhanced interrogation’. The arrogance, hypocrisy and double standards engulf nearly every facet of American and even British policy.
But this is not the whole story, surely? Is this all-evil West solely responsible an all-evil Islamic extremism?
No one is uniquely to blame
No one party, no one bloc, no one set of rulers, no one group of actors is uniquely to blame for all the ills of the region nor the rise of Islamic extremism. To argue that it is only the fault of the U.S., UK, France alone is ridiculous. For starters, there are other definitely non-Western non-middle Eastern actors who have a responsibility. Top of the list is Russia, which conducted two brutal wars in Chechnya that may have killed around 150,000. Chechens are well represented in the ranks of al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Such arguments also play into one of the great excuses of so many in the Middle East and elsewhere – it is all, emphasise all, the fault of the West or the fault of someone else. It is an argument that says the inhabitants of all these crises areas, those that support such extremists groups have no control over or responsibility for their actions. It is a let off for local actors, for despots and tyrants like Saddam Hussein, and Assads, both Hafez and Bashar. It is a let off for the Bin Ladens, Zarqawis and Baghdadis who have unleashed their horrific murderous campaigns.
They were not operating under American hypnosis.
The Assad regime has taken this to an art form. In an interview on April 21, Assad stated once again: “The terrorists infiltrated the situation in Syria with the support of Western countries and regional countries.” As with other interviews there was not one scintilla of an admission that perhaps, he personally, had to bear a huge responsibility both for the Syrian disaster and the rise of extremists in the country. He has been only too happy to see and bring about local extremist groups – on the basis that an extreme violent opposition is so much more desirable that a moderate electable one.
Blame games are not just between the ‘West’ and leaders in the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia blames Iran. Iran blames Saudi Arabia. In Egypt, the Egyptian government and military exchange accusations of blame with the Muslim Brotherhood. And Israelis and Palestinians rarely get beyond blaming the other for the routine breakdown in talks or reescalation of enduring crises. And in the U.S., President Obama and Congress can barely agree on anything. Dick Cheney slams Obama for everything as the worst president of his lifetime with no though to his own chronic failures as vice-president.
We are beset by an extraordinary array of challenges – these are global challenges – but we cannot address them if we shuffle blindly down a path of playing the easy game of blaming everything on the other. It is only when all actors – those that are part of the “West,” Russia, Arab states, Pakistan, other states; non-state actors, the media and a host of other agencies – are prepared to own up to their own roles and shortcomings, that real progress might be made.
So my plea is let’s stop trying to put everyone into nice, neat Fox News friendly labelled boxes, divide up the world into nice easy chunks, and then blame one side or the other. Playing the blame game, political points scoring and hiding behind excuses is cold comfort for those washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean, those battered by barrel bombs in Syria; those beheaded for their faith; those displaced and made refugees.
Blaming is easy. Finding solutions is another matter but it is only that that will end these horrors.