Taking Faith Seriously

LONDON – The term “Arab Spring” is already highly disputed. Do the revolutions across the Arab world presage the glory days of summer, or a passage through a bleak winter? One thing is certain: the influence of religion and faith in determining the outcome.

Consider the scale of what is now happening. Across the Middle East and North Africa, Islamist parties are ascendant. Sunni/Shia divisions are also at the fore. Terrorism, based on a perversion of religion, is disfiguring politics not only in familiar places, but also in Nigeria, Russia, Kazakhstan, the Philippines and elsewhere. More than half of today’s conflicts in the world today have a predominantly religious dimension.

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Most (though not all) religious faiths today contain extremist groups, all capable of producing discord among previously settled communities. True, much of this extremism is based on a perversion of Islam; but such perversions of faith are also often directed against Muslims. In parts of Europe, Islamophobia now rivals anti-Semitism and has potent and dangerous political appeal.

In short, religion matters. Three and a half years ago, when I started a foundation dedicated to improving interfaith relations, some thought it quixotic, or plain weird: Why would a former prime minister want to do that?

I did it for a very simple reason. My experience as Prime Minister taught me that none of the problems of the Middle East and beyond – including Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia – can be understood unless we comprehend the importance of religion. I don’t mean the politics of religion, but religion as religion. We cannot treat the influence of religious faith in purely secular terms. We must address it also as a genuine issue of faith.

In fact, a fundamental foreign-policy weakness, especially in the West, is the assumption that political solutions alone provide a sensible path to the future. They don’t. Those who feel that their faith compels them to act in a way destructive of mutual respect must be persuaded that this is a wrong reading of their faith; otherwise, such a faith-based compulsion will always trump secular political arguments.

Consider the Middle East and North Africa today. Like it or not, the Muslim Brotherhood and other religious parties will possibly dominate. They are longstanding, well organized, deep rooted in communities, and, above all, highly motivated – a winning combination anywhere. Arrayed against them are the discredited politics of the old regimes and well-meaning, often numerous, but highly disorganized liberal-minded groups.

The risk we face is easy enough to describe. The challenge for these emerging democracies is to remain democratic through the traumas of comprehensive change. In particular, their economies need to reform, open up, and grow in order to meet their citizens’ rising expectations.

Indeed, the region has some of the world’s youngest populations, with the average age often below 30. Egypt’s population was around 30 million in the 1950’s; today it is 90 million. Young, aspiring populations, whose criticism of the old regime was at least as much economic as political, need their tourist industry back on its feet, their business entrepreneurs feeling confident, and eager foreign investors. They need fundamental education and welfare reforms. And the new political masters need to know that if they don’t succeed, it is the right of the people to vote them out.

But democracy is not just about the free elections and the constitutional rule of the majority. It is about freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and markets that, albeit regulated, also are free and predictable. In other words, democracy is not just a system of voting, but an open-minded attitude.

That distinction – open versus closed – is as politically salient today as traditional left-right distinctions. Do we view globalization – with technology, communication, migration, and travel pushing us closer together – as something to be embraced but made to work fairly, or as a threat to our traditional way of life that must be resisted? I believe that the future belongs to the open-minded. But the closed-minded have a powerful gut appeal, and religion plays into it.

There are two faces of faith in our world today. One is seen not just in acts of religious extremism, but also in the desire of religious people to wear their faith as a badge of identity in opposition to those who are different. The other face is defined by extraordinary acts of sacrifice and compassion – for example, in caring for the sick, disabled or destitute.

One face is about service to others; the other face does not accept them. One recognizes that equal dignity should be accorded to all human beings, and seeks to build bridges of understanding between faiths. The other regards those who do not share their faith as unworthy unbelievers, and seeks to build a protective wall around it, or even to be actively hostile to “outsiders.”

All over the world, this battle between the two faces of faith is being played out.
What is needed are platforms of understanding, respect, and outreach in support of the open-minded view of faith.

Education has a vital role to play. How many Christians know that Jesus is revered by Muslims as a prophet, or that it was through Islam that Christian thinkers in the eleventh century relearned the importance of Aristotle and Plato? And how many Muslims understand fully the Christian Reformation and what it taught believers about philosophy and religion? How much do either Muslims or Christians really know of their debt to Judaism? And have we in the West any real appreciation of the true nature of the Hindu or Buddhist faith? Do we understand how Sikhism developed its extraordinary openness to all faiths, or who the Bahai’s are and what they believe?

The point is that faith is culture; and, in today’s world, people of different cultures are coming into contact as never before. Whether this produces harmony or discord depends our frame of mind – open or closed. Can strong religious faith coexist with such pluralism?

This is a key question of our time. Yet many open-minded people remain curiously passive in the face of religious extremism. Sometimes we ignore it, hoping we can treat it as something other than religion. Sometimes we just give up and embrace secularism. The first ignores the essence of the problem; the second undermines faith, which still has a hugely important role to play in civilizing globalization and infusing it with spirit.

In short, we need religion-friendly democracy and democracy-friendly religion.
 At this time of Christian celebration, that is an important message, of which Jesus Christ, I believe, would have approved.

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