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Faith in the Middle East TONY BLAIR

Religion, respect and revolution

Understanding the role and nature of religion, culturally, socially and historically, in the Middle East is vital if the West is to play any meaningful part in helping to stabilise the region, with interfaith dialogue demonstrating a deep respect for Islam, argues the former Prime Minister

glance. However, I regularly find that a closer inspection of the obvious can show us a way forward and help shape our approach to a given problem. Take the Northern Ireland peace process. It was obvious that religion was important to the people, but why? The answer is that for so many people religion is not just about how we live or how we die, but about many other things: history, identity and belonging. It is about culture, tradition, meaning and the philosophy of life. Getting to grips with that fact was vital in making progress towards a solution. It is not just the case in Northern Ireland; seriously understanding the religious dimension of the public sphere is vital in many situations. This is clearly the case at the moment, as unfolding events in the Middle East show, as well as recent talks between Pakistani and Indian officials to resume peace negotiations following the Mumbai attacks, the formation of a new state in Sudan, and religious killings in Indonesia, although that nation is making great strides in religious tolerance. Then there are debates over blasphemy laws and their consequences for religious minorities (as we have seen recently in Pakistan) and dialogue about multiculturalism in Germany and the United Kingdom. Throughout the world, a new type of debate is taking shape. While it can centre on immi- gration or protectionism, it is above all about


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olitics is often the art of understand- ing the interplay and complexity of a great number of factors, some of which are not always obvious at first

most? And if we want open societies, what are the conditions for such openness to pre- vail? The one lesson we learn unequivocally from Europe’s past is that when we close the door, we lose. And if that were true in times gone by, how much more true it is today in the era of rapid globalisation where technology, in the form of mass and social media, is shrinking the world. It is particularly true of the Middle East.

Anti-government protesters hold a placard that reads “People want the rule of Islam” during a demonstration after Friday prayers in Amman, Jordan. Photo: Reuters

issues to do with culture and integration – issues that are altogether more vigorous and potentially more explosive. In the Middle East, it is about whether the West fundamen- tally does or does not respect the religion of Islam; and the Israel-Palestine dispute is caught up with it. In Europe, the debate is about whether our

attempt to integrate cultures has succeeded or failed; and, insofar as there is a perception of failure, it is about whether our “generosity” in allowing inward migration and encouraging multiculturalism has been abused. Here it is often felt that the “host” nations are being unfairly taken advantage of by those who want Western benefits but not Western values. The economic challenge is intensifying the cultural one. In meeting this challenge, democracy and

even economic change are not enough. There is a social challenge too. Do we want societies that are open to those who have different faiths and cultures to our own traditions; or do we want, in the face of insecurity and eco- nomic crisis, to close the door, to look after what some would call “our own” first and fore-

There are three elements in play. One is regimes, often allies of the West, who believe they need to keep a firm grip on their people, for otherwise uncontrollable and extreme forces with a closed view of the world will be let loose. The second are those forces them- selves. The third is a group of citizens whom I would call the modernisers. They have an open attitude, politically, economically and socially. We should clearly be encouraging a steady evolution of that modernising tendency and many of the rulers of that region who wish to see such an evolution. However, they are operating within a region in which religion occupies a vital, if not deter- mining, space in society. This cannot be overlooked for a second. Ask how important religion is in the lives of people in Europe, and the answer is around 30-35 per cent. But in the Middle East it is 90-95 per cent. The crux of the matter is that if you don’t understand religion in the Middle East, you don’t understand the Middle East. So as these recent developments are transforming the Middle East region, the way that religion affects that transformation is profoundly sig- nificant. If democracy brings with it an open attitude not just to the economy but to society and religion, it will be hugely beneficial. If it doesn’t, by contrast, it will further the sense of anxiety and alienation between East and West. For me, the missing bit of Middle East policy

is interfaith dialogue. If the concern is that Muslims feel Islam is disrespected by the West, then the answer is to engage in a dia- logue that proves it isn’t. This begins in school, it should be analysed and debated at university and should be grounded in political, social and cultural exchange.

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