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.

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?