Some in the Arab world are still a generation from modernization, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Monday warned in response to violent demonstrations over an American anti-Islam film, adding that the West needed to educate newly-democratic countries in the Middle East.
The former premier, now a Middle East envoy, dismissed the film as “laughable” but called the response of extremists “very wrong.”
“The film, it may be wrong and offensive, but it’s also laughable as a piece of film-making,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today Program.
“The problem with this is that you have a small number of real extremists, the people who engage in violence, but the narrative goes far deeper, which is why this is a big problem and will take a generation to sort out,” he argued.
“There is essentially a struggle between the forces of modernization, who want an open society, a properly functioning economy ... and then these very powerful forces of reaction, based on a perverted view of reaction, that want to pull the whole thing backwards.”
Protests Monday turned violent for the first time in Afghanistan and Indonesia as hundreds of angry men clashed with police, hurling stones and shouting “Death to America.”
The outbreaks of violence were the latest over the low-budget trailer made in the United States and aired on YouTube that has fanned unrest around the world, leaving at least 18 people dead.
Blair, who was prime minister from 1997 to 2007, called the violence unjustified and said the West needed to educate newly-democratic countries in the Middle East about the importance of religious tolerance, fair treatment of minorities and an open economy.
“We need both the leadership within those countries and within Islam to stand up and say, ‘Look, there is a proper modern way of reconciling religious faith, democracy in society’ and we need ourselves from the outside to engage with this process of change in a way that’s constructive,” he added.
Hundreds of Palestinians on Monday staged a peaceful protest in Ramallah against an anti-Islam film that has sparked violent demonstrations in the Muslim world.
Participants of the sit-in, organized by the Palestinian Authority’s Waqf (religious endowment) and held outside its offices, held signs saying “We are against those who oppose you Mohammed” and “Do not touch our Prophet.”
Speaking at the event, Waqf minister Mahmoud Habbash called on the United States to remove the film and apologize for it.
The low-budget, US-produced “Innocence of Muslims” movie has incited a wave of bloody anti-American violence in Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Yemen and in several other countries across the Muslim world.
The film, in which actors have strong American accents, portrays Muslims as immoral and gratuitously violent. It also pokes fun at the Prophet Mohammed and touches on themes of pedophilia and homosexuality.
On Saturday, hundreds of Israeli Arabs protested against the film, and on Friday thousands of Palestinians protested in the Gaza Strip and hundreds in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, where there were clashes with Israeli police.
In Lebanon, the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah called for a week of protests against the film, “Innocence of Muslims,” which has caused a worldwide uproar.
“The whole world needs to see your anger on your faces, in your fists and your shouts,” Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech on Sunday.
Nasrallah called for protests in southern Beirut on Monday, the southern city of Tyre on Wednesday, the eastern city of Baalbek on Friday, Bint Jbeil in south Lebanon on Saturday and Hermel, in the eastern Bekaa valley region, on Sunday.
All are majority Shiite areas.
Nasrallah described the low-budget film as “the worst attack ever on Islam, worse than the Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, the burning of the Koran in Afghanistan and the cartoons in the European media.”
On Friday, a protester was killed and several injured in clashes with security forces in the northern city of Tripoli when Islamists set fire to a KFC restaurant to protest the film.
A total of 18 people have died worldwide in violence related to the film, including the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya.