Monday, 17 November 2008

Tony Blair: keeping up the God work

Last week an article by Tony Blair appeared in the International Herald Tribune praising a "multi-faith" gathering convened by the King of Saudi Arabia at the UN. Actually, I'm not entirely sure Blair wrote it. He certainly never wrote any of the many articles that appeared under his by-line when he was Prime Minister (a good number were the work of Alistair Campbell, although at times even Campbell had better things to do). Old habits may well have died hard. On the other hand, he is as we all know intensely committed to the whole faith thing, and the sentiments expressed sound authentically Blairite, so for the purposes of argument I shall assume he had at least a hand in drafting it. In any case, it gives some indication of the way TB's thoughts have been developing (or not) since he left public office.


Most of those attending King Abdullah's confererence were, of course, too polite to point out that he presides over a country with minimal human rights (especially for female humans, or non-Saudi-humans, and particularly non-Muslim humans), a country which, almost uniquely, bans all other religions, in which foreign workers cannot even publicly celebrate Christmas. King Abudullah has been widely praised for his initiative, not least by Blair himself who describes it as "bold, courageous and potentially far-reaching" (love that "potentially") - although the article does admit that he's "the leader of a nation that critics say has been slow to modernize". The IHT itself chose the title "King Abdullah and the skeptics" which might be a moral fable or one of the less celebrated tales of the Arabian Nights: certainly it is set in that fantastic land of make-believe that might be termed Blairabia.

For one thing, the inter-faith conference, ground-breaking as it allegedly was, has been overshadowed by the rather more important conference that the king has also been attending concerning the global financial situation. That's Gordon's stuff, of course, and therein may lie the rub. Just as Blair gave way to Brown, so an international landscape defined by "faith" - or, rather, by the polarity between Islam and the West (if we may speak in such broad-brush terms, which of course we should not) has given way to one dominated by the less high-flown realities of economics. Tony Blair's passionate advocacy of his and others' inter-faith initiatives has been driven by a sense that the world's religious fault-lines will define the possibilities of conflict and reconciliation in the 21st century. So, in the wake of 9/11 and the war on "terror", it appeared. As recently as this May, in a speech to launch his Faith Foundation, Blair put it like this:


If faith becomes a countervailing force, pulling people apart, it becomes destructive and dangerous. If, by contrast, it becomes an instrument of peaceful co-existence, teaching people to live with difference, to treat diversity as a strength, to respect "the other", then Faith becomes an important part of making the 21st Century work. It enriches, it informs, it provides a common basis of values and belief for people to get along together.

No doubt Tony Blair still sees things this way. In his more lucid moments, though, I wonder if he might just be having second thoughts about his concentration on faith.

The argument he sets forth in the IHT is about Islam, a subject in which he plainly considers himself to be an expert. Possibly all that Koran-reading he used to boast about yielded results. According to Blair, there are only two "narratives" in the "Muslim world" - which means, presumably, there are only two types of Muslim. "There is not a series of different trouble spots or issues that require disconnected focus and action," he claims. "There is essentially one struggle, with two sides."

On that basis, all the manifold troubles of more than a billion people - all their joys and personal struggles, too, as well as their political imperatives - can be resolved into a simple binary opposition. No need, then, to look at the particular circumstances of any given situation: the tribalism which underpins the Christian-Muslim split in parts of Africa, for example, or the long-running grievances, based on post-colonial boundary-drawing in Kashmir, or the ancient and convoluted histories of central Asia, or the intractable Israel-Palestine problem, or anything else that involves "Muslims". No, it's all really simple - it's about two sorts of Muslim, two interpretations of Islam.

Firstly, there's the sort of Muslim whose attitude to the West is one of anger and defiance, who wants to build a wall around the Islamic World. Such people "loudly declare that Islam has gone wrong precisely because its leadership has been prepared to work with the West, or because the West has sought to impose its values on Muslim societies." They believe that Islam and the West are "two distinct cultures and civilizations in opposition to each other." They decry supposed western double standards, and their arguments are "falsely enhanced by a sense that the West has lost touch with basic moral values."

Then there are the ones who desire peaceful coexistence. Their view is also "absolutely founded in Islam"; they do not "desire to replicate Western society". This "outward looking and peaceful" interpretation of Islam "needs our support".

It is the proponents of this modern narrative who want to use the Middle East's wealth to support a politics and culture in tune with the 21st century. They seek to draw on Islam's core belief in education as a means of ensuring that their people are enabled to become a distinctive part of the 21st century world but not distinct from it. And they point to a millennium of Islamic history, from Spain to China, which illustrates Muslim co-existence and acceptance of other faith communities.


Except that this group shares "concerns of a moral nature" with the first lot. Indeed, looked at closely the opposition between these two positions would seem to be of degree rather than of kind. Both look first of all to religion as the basis of society; both think that the problems of the 21st century can best be solved by peering into a 1400 year old text. Both look at the Western world and see immorality and decadence. Both look at many conflicts in diverse parts of the world and see them all as expressions of religious difference first and foremost. They differ only in that the first lot belive that Islam should prevail over non-believers while the other believe that the non-believers should graciously be allowed to exist.

Despite the typically Blairite construction of two groups subsisting in Manichaean opposition, what we seem to have here is various flavours of Islamist. Indeed, it's far from clear on what side of the line some well-known public figures are to be found. Tariq Ramadan, for example, with his background in the Muslim Brotherhood and his warm talk of co-existence, can plausibly be placed in both camps. This may just because he is a slippery customer. But then consider Yusuf al Qaradawi, whose alarming views on Jews and suicide bombing did so much to endear him to the greatly-missed Ken Livingstone (and about whose views on women or homosexuality Ken preserved so stoical and diplomatic a silence). He, too, was once looked upon as one of those seeking multi-faith harmony, although more recently he has been banned from Britain as an undesirable influence. Confusing. It must be especially confusing to Tony Blair given his preference for clear-cut distinctions.

What unites these two groups (if they even exist) is what they share with Tony Blair himself: a stunningly oversimplified view of the world, a belief that most of what causes upheaval and dissatisfaction has its roots in theological misunderstandings, and a desire to propose neat solutions. What is completely lacking is any sort of secular perspective - or an acknowledgement that there are other forces shaping international and internal conflict for which religion is, most of the time, just an excuse. Yet until a generation ago the politics of much of the Muslim world - and its physical appearance - was not dominated by religion to anything like the extent it is now. Blair's characterisation of Muslim debate describes, at most, the current ascendency of political Islam. But it also represents something rather less enlightened than Blair might want to admit; it belongs to the long history of Westerners making patronising and simplistic assumptions about other civilisations. Would he, I wonder, seek to characterise the political and social landscape of Europe in such stark terms? Knowing Blair, perhaps he would.

3 comments:

valdemar said...

A fine post, to which I can add nothing except a typically frivolous suggestion.

If Saudi Arabia is 'slow to modernize', can we find some Blairesque descriptions of other regimes, real or imaginary? I nominate the Daleks as 'somewhat inflexible in outlook'.

WeepingCross said...

"I nominate the Daleks as 'somewhat inflexible in outlook'."

Brilliant!

I find 'faith' talk equally infuriating, though for different reasons, and if the economic crisis means its eclipse it will have achieved something positive. 'Faith' isn't a free-floating substance. You can only have faith IN something: that is, you believe that something continues to be the case based on past experience (perhaps somebody else's), and notwithstanding present appearances. Mr Bush has faith in capitalism despite the present cockamamy mess it seems to have got us in. How did this absurd linguistic offence arise, and who was responsible? OED anyone? Trouble is, replace the lovely warm-sounding 'faith' with the proper 'religions' or 'ideologies', and you're immediately plunged into the sort of messy historic specificity which actually requires knowledge and thought.

The Heresiarch said...

Very true; so why didn't the pope nominate Henry Religionis Defensor?

As I understand it, the word "faith" (fides) originally had an entirely secular meaning, except that it sometimes referred to oaths which were guaranteed by gods. Christianity became "the faith" at around the time as Muslims became "Infidels". "Faith" meaning religion, then, presupposed that there was only one true faith. The notion of many different "faiths" is rather problematic, if not paradoxical.

Still, Faith was more fun than Buffy.