Comment: We must work with Islamists to secure peace in the Middle East

By Alastair Sloan

Tony Blair enjoys an extraordinary quality of life. For a man with so much personal wealth and high-level business and political connections, appearing in public and making announcements to the media should not be strictly necessary.

But despite that, it speaks to the vigour with which Blair genuinely believes in his own righteousness, that he does venture out into the public arena so often. And despite everything, he still has plenty to say. His critics may label him a psychopath and even a secret religious zealot, but his performance at last Friday's Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into Libya, showed that he is still capable of identifying some very real problems in the region.

"Evolution is better than revolution," quipped Blair as he danced before the disapproving MPs that made up the Committee, avoiding questions about whether it was right or wrong to intervene in Libya, and whether his “Deal In the Desert” with Colonel Qaddafi was productive or self-serving. He is right though – Evolution, as we saw during the Cold War, is often better than revolution. Incidentally, Blair failed to note that the reasons revolutions fail are because of the chaos afterwards, a lesson he failed to understand before getting involved in the Iraq War.

Blair was also right when he said that Islamism had ruined the Arab Spring. However he framed it as a threat – when many in the region see it in a different light. Rather than being a simple destructive force, they see it as a viable part of a future democracy. Islamist groups come in many different stripes throughout the region. From the Taliban, to the AK Party in Turkey to the Muslim Brotherhood and more peaceful variations in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, to Ennuhada in Tunisia. No country has yet fully decided, a century since the ideology was invented, on what role Islamism can play in Middle Eastern politics. The public hasn't decided either – with the Muslim Brotherhood often despised as much as Daesh, despite their peaceful tendencies.

It is a severe and possibly intractable problem – Islamism is illiberal but has shown moderate abilities to fit into liberal democracy – strange as that may sound. There are total bans in countries like Bahrain or Saudi Arabia or UAE, but in Tunisia and Turkey Islamists are running governments. In Kuwait and Lebanon they sit in Parliament, but  in Israel they are completely excluded. There are millions of ordinary Islamists across the Middle East who have not flocked to join Daesh. Five million Sunni Iraqis and Syrians did not initially rise up against Daesh, just as the Taliban took control of most of the country with relative ease. Russia and Assad oppose all Islamists with military force, the US and UK can't agree on which Islamists to work with “on the ground”, and the French just want to kill every Islamist they can find. What roles Islamism will play in the future of the Middle East – be it a violent death cult or a relatively benign Muslim Brotherhood – is the question of our time. The world is undecided.

Blair correctly identified that Islamism is important to understanding wide regional currents, and that evolution is better than revolution, but he still thinks that military planners in Paris, London, Washington should be deciding whether Islamism has a place in the future of the Middle East, not the people of the Middle East themselves. There are, as even David Cameron himself admits, moderate Islamists. If we are to deal with Islamism we need to first accept that it has a role. Perhaps Blair's "evolution not revolution" should focus on either diluting that role, or embracing them as possible future partners in democracy.

Alastair Sloan writes columns about international affairs and human rights for Al Jazeera, Middle East Monitor and The Daily Star in Lebanon. He also contributes to The Guardian and The New Statesman about British politics. Follow him on Twitter.

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