Donald Macintyre: Mr Blair takes New Labour's media machine to war

'The propaganda battle for the hearts and minds of Islam is key to sustaining the coalition'
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The Independent Online

Throughout his high-octane overseas trips since the mass murders of 11 September, Tony Blair has repeatedly stressed that there are three dimensions to the task of destroying Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime that harbours him: military, humanitarian and diplomatic. But now there is a fourth: the propaganda battle for the hearts and minds of Islam, regarded as key to sustaining the all-important Muslim elements of the coalition against terror. And in this, Tony Blair has, among Western leaders, been indisputably in the lead.

This is not only a matter of the frequency this week of his appearances on Arab TV stations – by no means limited to the most notable, his interview with al-Jazeera – or the two articles he wrote on successive days for the widest possible audiences in the Muslim world. It's also apparent how New Labour's famous media techniques – honed in two general elections – have been focussed on the international crisis.

It's an oddity of the past week that those techniques have been shown at both their least and most impressive. No doubt as he returned home on Thursday evening, Mr Blair could be forgiven for thinking the country he had left 48 hours earlier had gone crazy. Compared with the task of demolishing the al-Qa'ida terror network, the crass and profoundly embarrassing over-zealousness of one departmental media adviser seems almost laughably mundane. But that's politics. The row should have been defused by letting Jo Moore go – if necessary on a promise of letting her return quietly in the future.

By contrast it's hard not to be a little awestruck at the focus Mr Blair is bringing to the mission – no other word is possible – to the task of convincing public opinion in the Muslim world that bin Laden is their deadly enemy too.

Given that two of the democratic world's most sophisticated political communicators, Mr Blair and Alastair Campbell, are behind them, it's hardly surprising that some of the methods are distinctively New Labour. Osama bin Laden must be "rebutted". There are several "core messages" – for example, that bin Laden is seeking to export abhorrent Taliban-type regimes to other Muslim countries that would be horrified to have them; or that terrorism is against the teachings of Islam; or that, if this was a war against Islam, why would the West, in Kosovo, have protected a Muslim population against a Christian Orthodox enemy?

There are "killer points" such as, in Mr Blair's most recent article, the accusation that bin Laden organised the assassination of Ahmed Shah Masood, the Afghan hero of the Muslim anti-Soviet resistance, to pay off his Taliban protectors, whose deadly enemy Masood was. And there are even carefully judged off-the-record moments, such as the decision in Oman to leak parts of a classified Whitehall document showing how far the UK was from widening the conflict to Iraq.

Not only are these messages genuinely powerful, they are also being deployed with a formidable, Millbank-style attention to detail, which shows the care with which the Christian but Koran-reading British Prime Minister is targeting his audience. Take this random extract from an earlier article that Mr Blair wrote this week for distribution to local media in Muslim countries and London-based Arabic newspapers: "I know that Islam is a peaceful, tolerant religion. As the Prophet Muhammed (God's peace and blessings be upon him) said to his armies: 'Do not kill women or children or non-combatants and do not kill old people or religious people.' "

There are risks in all this, of course. Not all his officials are quite as geared up as Mr Blair for this immersion in the Islamic world. When Mr Blair gave his al-Jazeera interview, one or two were irritated by the time it took the interviewer Sami Haddad (sensibly) to teach Mr Blair to say thankyou to the station in Arabic at the end of the interview. And they were disconcerted by Mr Haddad's robust interviewing style.

On a more serious note, there is the danger that some Muslims will find Mr Blair's reference to Islamic teaching condescending and feel that it is not they but the Western publics who need to be told that Islam is a peaceful religion. And you don't have to talk for long even to secular-minded and well-educated people on the streets of Muslim capitals to know that a distaste for extremism and Taliban-style authoritarianism is a long way from embracing a Western onslaught on Afghanistan. Seductive as the idea may be, finally, you can't fight the battle for Muslim public opinion as simply as you would fight a British general election.

On the other hand the message from Mr Blair, who surely understands this, has been rather more rounded than that. It was striking, particularly in Cairo last week, how much he has used the crisis as a reason for increasing the pressure on Israel to move towards a settlement with the Palestinians. He has listened as well as spoken on his visits to Western capitals. As always with Mr Blair's political approach, this is a matter not only of working for a settlement, but being seen to be working for a settlement.

His critics will accuse Mr Blair of being naive for going head to head with bin Laden in the battle for hearts and minds in this way. But even if that were so – and Mr Blair isn't by nature naive – it is in part the same kind of "naivety" that refused to accept that obstacles to a settlement in Northern Ireland were insuperable. You can't complain that the West has failed to engage with Islam and then criticise those of its leaders who attempt to do so. Maybe it's the lawyer in him, but Mr Blair has an almost mystical belief in the power of good argument. And someone has to try.

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