Lend Blair your ears: his bat­tle is our bat­tle

The re­ac­tion to Tony Blair’s speech on faith has high­lighted fun­da­men­tal­ism at both ends of the spec­trum


SEVEN YEARS AGO Tony Blair in­vited 30 faith lead­ers to Down­ing Street and asked for their views on send­ing troops to Afghanistan. The re­sponses were ex­tremely fee­ble. “God bless you, Prime Min­is­ter, but could you make sure that no women and chil­dren get hurt?” When it came to my turn to speak, I was feel­ing ex­cep­tion­ally ex­as­per­ated and said that it was re­mark­able that the Prime Min­is­ter should waste his time on faith lead­ers, see­ing that re­li­gion is in­volved in ev­ery trou­ble spot around the globe. We should get our acts to­gether, con­demn the ex­trem­ism in our own ranks and nail our col­lec­tive colours to the mast of work­ing to­gether for the good of hu­man­ity.

Seven years later, Tony Blair is no longer a lis­ten­ing, sec­u­lar leader but an ac­tive ex­po­nent of re­li­gion, speak­ing in West­min­ster Cathe­dral on the need for the faiths to work to­gether for the good of a glob­alised so­ci­ety. He pref­aced his re­marks by ar­tic­u­lat­ing how re­li­gious peo­ple are viewed to­day — as weird, as seek­ing to im­pose, as pre­tend­ing to be su­pe­rior and as claim­ing divine sanc­tion for their par­tic­u­lar agenda.

What Blair was, in fact, de­scrib­ing was the style and agenda of re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism which has, since the 1960s, come to dis­fig­ure all the faiths but par­tic­u­larly the three sib­lings of the Abra­hamic fam­ily.

The good name of Is­lam has been well nigh de­stroyed by Is­lamists who have brought the world to the brink of global con­flict. Not com­pa­ra­ble in scale but of the same mind­set, Chris­tian fun­da­men­tal­ists are a huge em­bar­rass­ment to Chris­tian­ity. Google “Abor­tion-re­lated vi­o­lence” for ev­i­dence. We don’t (baruch Hashem) have a Jewish fun­da­men­tal­ist move­ment ded­i­cated to vi­o­lence but we do have Charedim who seek po­lit­i­cal power in Is­rael and would im­pose their par­tic­u­lar un­der­stand­ing on ev­ery­one else, given half the chance.

Much of the Bri­tish Press re­acted with sur­prise at the “new Blair”, spokesper­son for re­li­gion, and could not hold back their de­ri­sion. Jibes about hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions with “the Man up­stairs”, ref­er­ences to Alastair Camp­bell’s “We don’t do God”, and pointed com­ments about Iraq quickly fol­lowed.

As Tony Blair must have an­tic­i­pated, his state­ment of faith was in­stantly tarred with the ex­trem­ist brush, not­with­stand­ing what he ac­tu­ally said in his lec­ture. Sec­u­lar fun­da­men­tal­ism is very pop­u­lar th­ese days — un­der­stand­ably so in the light of how lit­tle main­stream re­li­gion has done to com­bat re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism. New Blair is even more out of step than Old Blair.

In a West­ern sec­u­lar democ­racy, the faith of the ruler has in­creas­ingly be­come a quasi–private mat­ter. “We don’t do God” means that pro­mot­ing col­lec­tive val­ues is the prime min­is­te­rial task. In­ter­est­ingly, the United States has taken a dif­fer­ent route in which the par­tic­u­lar faith of the Pres­i­dent is much more pub­licly ar­tic­u­lated.

But this is Bri­tain, a sec­u­lar Euro­pean democ­racy, and it is only since re­tir­ing from of­fice that Tony Bair has had the op­por­tu­nity to move from be­ing a sec­u­lar Prime Min­is­ter to be­ing an ac­tive Catholic. Good luck to him. The agenda that he ar­tic­u­lated is es­sen­tially that of Hans Küng, also a Catholic and the great­est liv­ing the­olo­gian of any faith: the peace of the world is de­pen­dent on peace be­tween the reli­gions; the faiths can no longer stand alone but must work to­gether; the need for open­ness, hu­mil­ity and self-crit­i­cism is paramount.

But the re­sponses to the speech — the amused ya­hoo­ing and the stri­dent demon­strat­ing — point to a core is­sue of our day. Re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ists, with their con­vic­tion that they know it all and have a mo­nop­oly on truth are, at best, se­ri­ously mis­guided and at worst a dan­ger to us all. But so too are sec­u­lar fun­da­men­tal­ists who dis­play the same ar­ro­gance and cer­tainty and who also ride roughshod in their sec­u­larised re­li­gious zeal.

In truth, it is re­li­gious moder­ates and sec­u­lar moder­ates who need to find a com­mon plat­form — and fast. The Blair agenda is no bad start­ing point — what­ever your views on Iraq. Rabbi Dr Tony Bay­field is Head of the Move­ment for Re­form Ju­daism. An ex­cerpt of Tony Blair’s speech ap­pears on p39

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