THE BLOG
06/05/2013 06:57 pm ET | Updated Aug 05, 2013

Tony Blair Is Wrong About Islam

There is something crudely colonial about the words of former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who responded to the killing of military drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich by writing in Sunday's Daily Mail that there is a "problem within Islam" and it's high time that governments around the world "put it on the table and be honest about it."

It must be gratifying for Mr. Blair, part of Old Blighty's privileged white elite, to bemoan the miserable state of "those" people. He noted that the "Islamic" brand of extremism is "not the province of a few" and that it's different from other forms of extremism in that it is fundamentally incompatible with pluralistic, open-minded societies.

But, pray tell, what types of extremisms are not incompatible with those things?

Arrogantly, Blair refuses to consider the possibility that the disastrous foreign policies of the West -- a great many of which he and his partner across the Atlantic, George W. Bush, engineered -- might possibly have aggravated tensions in the Middle East and throughout the world leading to occasional acts of violence. That's despite the fact that the Woolwich butcher, the Boston bomber and even Osama bin Laden all insisted that their aggression, though articulated in religious language, was payback for political blunders over the years.

They may have rationalized their acts with violent Scriptures, but there had to be an underlying grievance to rationalize to begin with.

Unsurprisingly, the enduring and deadly conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that Blair championed don't configure in his logic. A recent estimate published Friday in the British journal The Lancet suggested that at least 116,000 Iraqi civilians died between the outbreak of war in 2003 and the draw down of troops in 2011; more than 16,000 are thought to have been killed in Afghanistan since 2007.

But don't be all that concerned about military intervention, says Mr. Blair, before offering this self-righteous gem: Those conflicts were "hard" because "we" allowed failed states to come into being. Oh, the burden of the western white man to lift miserable and incapable nations out of their centuries-long stagnation! Blair forgets, though, that those states he sees as success stories thanks to "our" benevolent intervention are now boiling in turmoil. May marked the deadliest month (1,045 deaths) in Iraq since 2008.

It takes a colonial mindset to ignore statements by your enemies and insist that it's something inside "their" religion -- not "our" military mistakes -- that is really driving "their" animus. And Blair is every bit a 21st century colonizer. Like Arthur James Balfour, the prime minister of Great Britain at the start of the 20th century who justified the colonialism of Egypt as a "civilizing" mission, the "problem" that Mr. Blair describes exists, as he says, "out there." What's worse, part of the solution to eradicating extremism, as he sees it, just requires that "we" educate those good blokes that can't quite see the world as "we" do.

Mr. Blair's comments about Islam in the past have not been tinted with the same ugly shade that characterized his polemic following Woolwich. Surely he must have known that his assessment was off the mark. Many of his sentences began with words of admiration for Muslims and Islam but he managed to mangle his thoughts so badly through the middle that the resulting sentence was half praise, half insult. He resembled a guy who prefaces his unintelligent and derogatory comments about African Americans by saying, "I have black friends, but..."

Damningly, the leader of the English Defence League (EDL), Tommy Robinson, tweeted that Blair's comments "confirmed" everything the neo-Nazi street gang has said about Islam. Blair retorted that was not the case. But of course he would say that. Who would expect the former British prime minister to find common cause with a skinhead street gang whose violent protests against mosques in Britain have attracted Swastika-wielding hooligans?

Anyone with a modicum of intelligence knows that Muslims commit violence just as followers of every faith do. And that violence should always be condemned and its perpetrators punished. That is unquestionable.

But by suggesting that the "problem" stems from "within Islam," Blair exhibits a deficiency that has longed plagued Western conversations about faith and politics: the inability to separate the religious actor from the religion itself. Islam can't act, only Muslims can. Islam has never blown up a building or chopped up a military drummer or killed Marathon goers. Muslims have done these things. And when they do, we should not assume that they are only animated by the teachings of their holy text or the sermons in their mosque, or by the degree to which they interpret and digest their faith.

Human beings are rarely such one-dimensional creatures.

Most often, there are other reasons for blowback: like decades of colonialism, unjust wars to promote Western interests, support for oil-rich tyrannical regimes, and drone strikes that kill and maim scores of innocent people.

One dead soldier on the street of Woolwich is an absolute tragedy. But it was an avoidable one. While Mr. Blair urged the British government to "be honest" about the threat of Islamic extremists, it is he who should be honest about policies that feed such fanatics and distort the threat "within Islam," conflating the politically motivated actions of an extreme minority with the peaceful majority, to justify continued Western aggression in Muslim lands.