Sunday, January 26, 2014

Religion, Not Ideology, Will Fuel This Century’s Epic Battles. By Tony Blair.

Religious difference, not ideology, will fuel this century’s epic battles. By Tony Blair. The Observer, January 25, 2014.

Tony Blair’s Education Won’t End Terrorism. By Tom Wilson. Commentary, November 27, 2014.


We must encourage education and tolerance if we are to bring about peace in the Middle East and the rest of the world.

The last weeks have seen a ghastly roll call of terror attacks in the obvious places: Syria, Libya, Iraq and Lebanon, as well as Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia and Pakistan. Also suffering are places where we have only in recent years seen such violence: Nigeria, and in many parts of central Africa, in Russia and across central Asia, and in Burma, Thailand and the Philippines. We can either see all of these acts of killing as separate – produced by various political contexts – or we can start to see the clear common theme and start to produce a genuine global strategy to deal with it.
The fact is that, though of course there are individual grievances or reasons for the violence in each country, there is one thing self-evidently in common: the acts of terrorism are perpetrated by people motivated by an abuse of religion. It is a perversion of faith. But there is no doubt that those who commit the violence often do so by reference to their faith and the sectarian nature of the conflict is a sectarianism based on religion. There is no doubt either that this phenomenon is growing, not abating.
We have to be prepared to take the security measures necessary for our immediate protection. Since 9/11, the cost of those measures, and their burden, has been huge. However, security action alone, even military action, will not deal with the root cause. This extremism comes from a source. It is not innate. It is taught. It is taught sometimes in the formal education system; sometimes in the informal religious schools; sometimes in places of worship and it is promoted by a vast network of internet communications.
Technology, so much the harbinger of opportunity, can also be used by those who want to disseminate lessons of hate and division. Today’s world is connected as never before. This has seen enormous advances. It means there is a kind of global conversation being conducted. This is exciting and often liberating. But it comes with the inevitable ability for those who want to get across a message that is extreme to do so. This has to be countered.
At present, our screens are dominated by the hideous slaughter in Syria. We have to hope that the peace negotiations succeed. But with more than 130,000 dead – and, on some accounts, the total is nearer 200,000 – millions displaced and the country in a state of disintegration, it is hard to see how there can be a lasting agreement for peace unless it is based on a clear recognition that the Syria arising from this has to be one in which all people are treated equally, regardless of which faith they practise or which part within a faith they belong to. That will never work while either a minority religious group rules the country whose majority has a different adherence, or where those fighting the regime have powerful elements that also want to rule on the basis of religious difference – and are prepared to use terrorism to get their way.
This is not just a matter of what any new constitution says. Democracy is not only a way of voting. It is a way of thinking. People have to feel equal, not just be regarded by the law as such. Such religious tolerance has to be taught and argued for. Those who oppose it have to be taken on and defeated not only by arms but by ideas.
All over the region, and including in Iraq, where exactly the same sectarianism threatens the right of the people to a democratic future, such a campaign has to be actively waged. It is one reason why the Middle East matters so much and why any attempt to disengage is so wrong and short-sighted. It is here in the centre of Islam that so many of the issues around how religion and politics coexist peacefully will be determined.
But this issue of extremism is not limited to Islam. There are also many examples the world over where Muslims are the victims of religiously motivated violence from those of other religious faiths.
So the challenge is clear. And it is one that could define the nature of peace and conflict in the first half of the 21st century. The battles of this century are less likely to be the product of extreme political ideology – like those of the 20th century – but they could easily be fought around the questions of cultural or religious difference.
The answer is to promote views that are open-minded and tolerant towards those who are different, and to fight the formal, informal and internet propagation of closed-minded intolerance. In the 21st century, education is a security issue.
For that reason, when I left office, and in part based on my experience post-9/11 of how countries whose people were freed from dictatorship have then had democratic aspirations thwarted by religious extremism, I established a foundation whose aim is to promote greater knowledge and understanding between people of different faiths. This is not a call to faith – it is a call to respect those of all faiths and not to allow faith to divide us but instead to embody the true values of compassion and humanity common to all faiths.
The foundation is now active in more than 20 countries, including some of those most affected by sectarianism, with a multimillion-pound budget, full-time and part-time staff, and expanding rapidly. We focus on practical programmes. The schools programme, accredited to the international GCSE and recognised by the international baccalaureate, uses video conferencing and online interaction to link classes of students from different countries across the world to learn about each other and to learn to live with each other.
There is a university programme, which we are building into a minor degree course, that began at Yale but is now in more than 20 universities, including in China and Latin America, where students study faith and globalisation – essentially the place of religion in modern society. And an action programme, pioneered in Sierra Leone but now being extended, where we help deliver the anti-malaria campaign of the UN by using the faith infrastructure of the churches and the mosques.
Later this year, in collaboration with Harvard Divinity School, we will launch a new website that will provide up-to-date analysis of what is happening in the field of religion and conflict; in-depth analysis of religion and its impact on countries where this is a major challenge; and basic facts about the religious make-up and trends in every country worldwide.
Evidently, we can reach only parts of the world and be a small part of fighting a huge problem. But the purpose is to change the policy of governments: to start to treat this issue of religious extremism as an issue that is about religion as well as politics, to go to the roots of where a false view of religion is being promulgated, and to make it a major item on the agenda of world leaders to combine effectively to combat it. This is a struggle that is only just beginning.


Writing this weekend in the British newspaper the Observer, former Prime Minister Tony Blair turned once again to address the ongoing threat from terrorism. Blair identifies religious extremism as being fundamentally at the root cause of terrorism–a far cry from the delusions of Secretary of State John Kerry who recently claimed terrorism is caused by poverty. Blair quite rightly observed that just as extreme political ideologies marred the twentieth century, so the terror that emerges from religious extremism threatens to plague the twenty-first. Yet, troublingly, much of Blair’s article is devoted to a rather superficial discussion about the prospects of confronting extremism through “education.” No doubt much of the war for the West’s values will be waged on the battlefield of the mind, but Blair is straying into territory almost as naïve as that inhabited by the likes of John Kerry if he thinks we can simply abandon the military option and reason the societies that support terrorism out of extremism.
Of course, nowhere does Blair directly advocate dropping the military option; this isn’t some latter day about-turn on the policies of military intervention that he himself once employed. Yet, there can be little doubt from his tone as to where Blair thinks the emphasis now needs to be placed: on promoting education and interfaith outreach. Indeed, to that effect Blair is sure to note that he does not consider this a uniquely Islamic problem. It seems that the former prime minister is genuinely under the impression that education and good intentions are going to essentially win the war on terror for us. Like Kerry’s ideas about poverty being at the root of terrorism, the notion that providing education will win over our enemies is a far more palatable strategy than the military option. And like the thought of defeating terror by defeating poverty, it is not only attractive, but also much too good to be true.
That is not to say that there is no common sense to be found in this article. There is plenty, and that is what makes its mistaken conclusions all the more jarring. One of Blair’s most important points is that solving the growing crisis in the Middle East is not simply a matter of establishing new improved constitutional arrangements. As Blair writes, “Democracy is not only a way of voting. It is a way of thinking.” This is an important point, absent from many discussions about democracy and its meaning. Functioning democracy is not simply a question of a procedure for determining who administers government, it is an entire attitude with a whole corresponding system of values upon which that procedure depends.
Tony Blair speaks glowingly in his article of his efforts for interfaith outreach and education thus far. He tells his readers of the work of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, with its soon-to-be launched database on religion and conflict created in collaboration with Harvard Divinity School, interfaith programs and degree courses, first pioneered at Yale, now available in universities from China to Latin America. No doubt this is all good work, but are we really to believe that degree courses in religious toleration, taking place in China and Latin America, are going to heal such intractable conflicts as the fracture between Sunni and Shia that dates to Islam’s founding? Even if Blair’s foundation were to hit upon the magic formula for de-radicalization, they are hardly going to be setting the curriculum in Saudi or Iranian schools any time soon.
While religious toleration may be in short supply throughout many parts of the world, and particularly the Islamic Middle East, we should not forget that in our own countries it was the obsession with tolerance that caused many Western governments to turn a blind eye to this very religious extremism in the first place. It has been the continuing obsession with tolerance that is exploited by those who essentially wish to neuter the West’s capabilities and willingness to defend itself in the face of the threat from hardline Islam.
People in the Islamic world have noticed these weaknesses emerging in our sense of civilizational self-confidence. As Joshua Mitchell has observed from his interactions with young Muslims in the Gulf, one of their greatest fears, found even among highly educated people, is that their own societies might succumb to becoming like the West, which they see as being beset by a valueless individualism.
We can hope for a change in the Islamic world, hope for an Islamic reformation that is liberalizing rather than radicalizing, although current trends should dissuade excessive optimism. But we need to be realistic about just how limited our ability to bring about drastic changes in that culture really is. In his book The Suicide of Reason Lee Harris puts forward the contention that one of the greatest conceits of Western strategy has been the belief that since our system is the natural and inevitable end point in which all societies are progressing, people from other traditions will only be too ready to adopt our values. The last decade of turmoil in the Middle East suggests they are far from ready.
Blair is quite mistaken if he thinks that the West can simply educate our enemies into abandoning the extremism that drives their terror war against us, and indeed one another. Changing “them” may not be feasible, changing “us” is far more within reach, however. Our efforts should be toward reaffirming our sense of commitment to our own values and way of life and doubling up on our readiness to proactively defend those basic principles that we most value.