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Blair's jihad for faith

In a speech last night Tony Blair set out his vision of the problems facing humanity - a vision in which faith plays a crucial part

Asim Siddiqui


April 4, 2008 4:30 PM |


Listening to Tony Blair these days usually requires a large wallet so I was pleased to be invited to hear him speak for free last night at Westminster cathedral.

With the Stop the War Coaltion putting on a noisy performance outside, Blair needed to speak up. It didn't help that the sound system flunked at the start so organisers were left with the embarrassing situation of some of the 1,600 member audience shouting that they couldn't hear the former prime minister speak. Blair - conscious of all the noise outside - thought they were heckling and asked that they let him speak. It was only after two or three excruciating minutes of misunderstanding that a message was passed on that people were shouting that they couldn't hear him speak rather than not wanting him to speak. Maybe the church should have outsourced the PA system to my local mosque who would have done an immeasurably better job.

Anyway, once he started he was on his usual top form.

Faith continues to play an important part in many people's lives. Faith must be reclaimed from extremism and dogma. He said having a faith and believing it to be the truth is fine, but not when it looks down upon those of other faiths or none - where God becomes partisan and not universal and is defined by who he is against rather than the universal values we all share. Blair spoke about how religion can be a force for good and was very conscious, if left to extremists, of how it can be a force for wrong. He said that we were kidding ourselves if we thought only Islam suffers from extremism in religion's name. He said militant secularism (of the Dawkins variety) and religious extremism needed each other - one feeds off the other.

Why should all this faith stuff matter to those of no faith? Because of globalisation and the inter-connectedness of our world, he said.

He spoke of the seismic shift in the balance of power from traditional centres in the west to the rising east. The massive economic might emerging in China and India, coupled with the sovereign wealth funds (much of them made up of Gulf money) will mean the east will soon demand not just parity with the west, but more. In this flux, he said insecurity and ignorance of the "other" can lead to fear and conflict. He feels faith, rather than being excluded, must play a crucial role in guiding this process of change by breaking down barriers and misunderstandings.

He spoke of his soon-to-be launched Tony Blair Faith Foundation which will focus on helping faith groups pursue the millennium development goals (MDGs) to show that people of faith can add real value to mankind, though fully appreciating that you do not need to be a person of faith to do good charitable work.

All common sense stuff really (albeit not held as commonly as it should be). There will be those that will say his monumental error of judgement in going to war in Iraq, which has caused colossal intra-religious bloodshed, is hardly a good model of his ideas in practice and discounts him from this area of work - though his work in Northern Ireland and the Balkans are better examples. There are also those who would argue that we didn't fight an oppressive church for centuries to keep religion and state separate for politicians to now come along and muddy the waters.

However, what I found disappointing in his speech was that he spoke of a Europe with a Judaeo-Christian history. This is not true. Europe's heritage also owes much to Islam. It was the work of rationalist Muslim intellectual giants - whose Christian followers were persecuted for heresy by the then Catholic church - that provided the seeds for the European enlightenment. The Renaissance was heavily inspired by 1,000 years of Islamic civilisation, which had led the world in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, philosophy, engineering and other disciplines. The "1001 Inventions" exhibition touring the UK provides but a glimpse of this legacy. Modern Europe still carries the influence of Avicenna the Aristotelian and Averroes the Platonist, or Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, to use their Arabic names, and of Muslim Andalusia and the Ottoman empire, which shaped large parts of Europe.

One can understand - given Rowan William's recent speech - why Blair probably didn't want to touch Islam with a barge pole. However, whatever our prejudices may be, Europe has strong Judaeo-Christian-Islamic roots, and it's time we faced up to this fact and discussed it honestly.

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