Religion matters

If you don’t understand faith in the Middle East, you don’t understand the Middle East.

Egpyt tank pray protest Cairo Tahrir 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Egpyt tank pray protest Cairo Tahrir 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
Excerpted from a speech at Monterrey Tecnológico University in Mexico on Tuesday.
A new type of debate is taking shape. It can center around immigration or protectionism but it is above all, about issues to do with culture and integration and it is altogether more vigorous and potentially more explosive. In the Middle East, it is about whether the West fundamentally respects or does not the religion of Islam; and the Israel-Palestine dispute is caught up with it.
In Europe, it 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 multi-culturalism 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 economic crisis, to close down, to look after what some would call “our own” first and foremost? And if we want open ones, what are the conditions for such openness to prevail? The one lesson we learn unequivocally from Europe’s past is that when we close down, we lose. And if that were true in times gone by, how much more true today in the era of rapid globalisation where technology, mass and social media are shrinking the world.
IT IS also true of the Middle East. There are three elements at 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 themselves.
The third is a group of citizens which I may 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 wish to see such an evolution.
However, they are operating within a region in which religion occupies a vital, if not determining space in society. Ask how important is religion in the lives of people in Europe, and the answer is around 30-35%. In the Middle East it is 90-95%.
If you don’t understand religion in the Middle East, you don’t understand the Middle East. So as these recent changes transform the region, the way religion affects that transformation is profoundly significant. 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.
The missing bit of Middle East policy is inter-faith. Because if the concern is that Muslims feel Islam is disrespected by the West, the answer is to engage in a dialogue that proves it isn’t. This begins in school, should be analysed and debated in university and should be grounded in political, social and cultural exchange.
The reason religion is important is that it is about so much more than religion. It is about history, culture, tradition, belonging, identity and meaning. It is about the philosophy of life. It is about the spirit not the flesh. If the Middle East produces political change, without social change that is based on an open mind toward others, then it will have been a revolution half formed and unfinished and the economic change, so vital to advancing the position of the people, will likewise fall short.
Such change cannot come without Islam and indeed all of us embracing the 21st century. It is therefore our job at this moment to reach out; to open not close our own minds; to push forward for justice and for peace; to partner the modernisers and give them hope; and it is their job to lead, to reach back, to show that respect and equality between people of all faiths and none, is a purpose shared. This change can be managed over time and with care, but come it must.
Otherwise, I make this prediction. Even with democracy, those in the East will feel they are – at core – in hostile competition with the West as to whose culture dominates. And those in the West will react against this hostility by feeling they must defend themselves. The result will be a standoff, in which the open-minded feel disempowered and the closed minded take over. Look back in history and such standoffs always result in the same thing. In the worst case, there is potential for conflict.
That is why, even with all the uncertainty and instability of the present time, we should be demonstrating renewed commitment to security for the State of Israel and the dignity of statehood for the Palestinians. Now is the time to prove that if peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is at an impasse, there is an overwhelming will to remove the blockage and press forward. It is time for our ambitions to be bold however hard they are to achieve.
BUT THOUGH the circumstances of the Middle East may be unique, the same necessity of understanding the importance of religion, can be found everywhere. In China, where there are more Muslims than in Europe and more practising Catholics than in Italy, and around 100m Buddhists, Faith shapes many lives. It is true of course of India. The same could be said in Latin America and even if the numbers of practicing worshippers in Europe is lower, the importance of Judeo-Christian culture is palpable. In the USA who could say religious faith doesn’t count? Would an atheist be elected president? Probably not.
Wherever you look today, religion matters. Faith motivates.
Understanding faith, its adherents, its trends, its structures, can be as important as understanding a nation’s GDP, its business, its resources. Religious awareness is as important as gender or race awareness. For politicians, business people; or just ordinary interested citizens, to know about a country’s faith perspective is an essential part of comprehending it.
Globalisation is accelerating all these trends. When I am asked to define the leading characteristic of today’s world, I say: its speed of change. Movements, swirls of opinion, waves of change arise, build momentum and come crashing down against our preconceived positions or notions with bewildering velocity. We adjust or we are swept away.
The writer is the official envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East and founder of The Tony Blair Faith Foundation which aims to promote respect and understanding between the major religions. He is former prime minister of the United Kingdom.