Tony Blair on Faith and Public Policy

by Roger Alford

I found this article in the Yale Alumni Magazine about Tony Blair’s new Faith Foundation absolutely fascinating. Tony Blair is now teaching a course at Yale with the eminent theologian Miroslav Volf on the subject of “Faith and Globalization.” According to the article, Blair is trying to use this foundation to encourage interfaith tolerance and dialogue. Given that religion is a major source of conflict in international relations, it is surprising that diplomats and heads of state don’t make a greater effort to understand religion and seek to use it as a source for good. When he left office Blair decided to devote himself to faith and globalization because, in his words, “globalization obliterates borders and frontiers and pushes people together. Faith can become a reaction to it and pull people apart…. Even if you are of no religious faith and don’t even like religion, you should be interested in this…. My view is globalization needs strong values to guide it and make it equitable and just.”

The mission statement of Blair’s new foundation puts the matter succinctly,

“Faith is vitally important to hundreds of millions of people. It underpins systems of thought and of behaviour. It underpins many of the world’s great movements for change or reform, including many charities. And the values of respect, justice and compassion that our great religions share have never been more relevant or important to bring people together to build a better world. But religious faith can also be used to divide. We have seen throughout history and today we still see how it can be distorted to fan the flames of hatred and extremism. The Tony Blair Faith Foundation is a response to these opportunities and challenges. We will use the full power of modern communications to support and step up efforts at every level to educate, inform and develop understanding about the different faiths and between them. At the same time, the Foundation will use its profile and resources to encourage people of faith to work together more closely to tackle global poverty and conflict. By supporting such inter-faith initiatives, the Foundation will help underline the religion’s relevance and positive contribution.”

I think the issue is particularly important in our dealings with Islam. From my perspective, it is a basic matter of empathy. I perceive the absence of respect for, and understanding of religion in the West–particularly in Europe–to be a major stumbling block in improving relations with Islamic countries. If their entire worldview is shaped by devotion to their religion, how can we have any hope of peace in the Middle East if we do not even attempt to genuinely understand their perspective? Conversely, how can we hope to earn their respect if they approach all of life through a religious lens and yet we treat religion as utterly unimportant?

2 Responses

  1. Frequently a “genuine understand[ing}” of another’s religious perspective can lead to empathy and respect – and peace.  So by all means let us pursue that.  But at other times “genuine understanding” exposes differences that are simply irreconcilable.  Understanding may help us to clarify what those differences are, but it will not bridge them.  Not all division is the result of ignorance and prejudice.

    One of the significant differences between Islam and Christianity is that the early Christians, the ones who wrote the New Testament, were a group utterly without political power.  Christianity before Constantine had a very uneasy relationship with the state and spread primarily by means of persuasion.  The teachings and attitude of the New Testament are tailored to a group in that position, and they have informed Christian ideals ever since.  This circumstance makes Christianity, if not wholly comfortable, at least not inclined to revolt if the state requires or permits things offensive to Christian moral conscience. 

    Islam, by contrast, had political power nearly from the beginning and spread primarily by means of the sword.  The Koran is written under the assumption that Muslims control the levers of the state.  Though not expressly in the Koran, the traditional Islamic division of the world into dar al-Islam (the house of Islam) and dar al-Harb (the house of war – those territories not yet under Islamic rule, which it is the duty of the Islamic state to conquer) reflects the Koranic sensibility.  And this sensibility, inherent in the circumstances of its birth and enshrined in its foundational text, tends to make Islam far less at ease in a pluralistic Western democracy than are other religions without a history of control of the state.  A devout Muslim tends to experience a much greater degree of friction between his faith and the constitutional principles of liberal Western democracy than do the adherents of other religions.

    So by all means let us try for genuine understanding.  But let us also be honest with ourselves.  Sometimes, with some people, genuine understanding can ameliorate division.  At other times genuine understanding exposes genuine and fundamental incompatibilities that no degree of respect will smooth over.

    I sometimes wonder whether we are willing to be honest enough with ourselves to accept such a conclusion.

  2. I agree with Mr. Wagner’s point.  Although I completely disagree with characterizing Christianity as a peaceable religion (the first thing Christianity did when it assumed power was to introduce the sword).  But getting to the issue of faith v. globalization; religion all too often embodies a political movement.  Islamism, for instance, was a reaction born out of the earliest forms of globalization.  More often then not Islamism also brought about unification, mobilization, and nationalization.  This brings me to two points. 

    First, understanding each others’ faiths is a misleading goal. Take for example Amanullah, would he have succeeded in Afghanistan if he managed to convey that Islam is a peaceable religion that is pro-democratic & pro-feminist , essentially repackaging Islam?  The answer is no.  How much more so for the West! Understanding the other’s religion inevitably turns into an appropriation and redefinition.  (I am not saying that the learning and appreciation of others’ faiths is wrong–my qualm is how its used).

    Second, which is what I think Tony Blair and so many centers for religion and diplomacy err in, is this: religion, in toto, doesn’t serve to convey faith only.  In the Middle East, it isn’t the absence of understanding each other’s religion (by each of the parties including the Western states) that impedes peace.  They understand each other all too well.  Understanding does not, however, engender concession, compromise, and reconciliation.  But I digress, religion is then just a mere ideological tool conveying regional/local, multiplicitous needs & values.

    Wouldn’t it be better then to understand those needs & values than getting side-tracked in the packaging?  Why is Hamas so successful? They provide for the basic needs in Gaza (often by preventing other NGOs & the UN from doing so) and so appear to be their only advocates politically as well.

    What these faith and understanding institutes accomplish is, then, to only find people with like ideologies & different religious backgrounds so the Christian can say essentially, “See there are Muslim scholars from Iran and Iraq and they both agree with me!”  I don’t see how this helps the discord on the ground.

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