Tony Blair: Speech at 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom
18th July 2019
Former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Executive Chairman of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change
Religious freedom is a great cause, but vastly understated in its importance. It is of course a moral cause. But the freedom to worship according to conscience and belief is also of deep relevance to peace, prosperity and security.
At the end of the last century, we thought that with the fall of the Berlin Wall, would come a new and benign global order. Instead that comforting illusion was shattered by terrorism and conflict precisely based on a perverted sense of religious rather than political fervour.
The abuse of the religion of Islam by AQ, Boko Haram, ISIS and other terrorist groups does not stand alone. Extremists have hi-jacked other faiths, warping their proper meaning, persecuting those who practise a different faith, sowing seeds of bitterness and hate, dividing communities and creating a climate of insecurity and fear.
The denial of religious freedom comes in different forms.
Sometimes it is non-state actors – terrorist groups.
Other times, it is the State.
The consequence is more than the harm to the persecuted.
All modern successful developed nations adhere to the principle of religious freedom. As they do by and large to the principle of the Rule of Law.
These principles are not incidental to their success; but integral.
The more tolerant a society, the more successful the economy.
Today the world is changing with unparalleled speed. Travel, migration and the internet bring people together as never before. We are at the beginning of a Fourth Industrial Revolution which will alter radically how we live, work and think. But it will all tend to shrink the world’s boundaries.
The educated will prosper; the open-minded will flourish; and an essential component of success will be the ability to traverse the contours of faith and culture with ease.
Immigration can strain the fabric of the host country, but by and large societies which welcome the energy of migration, will do well.
Culture, colours and customs will mix and mingle, to mutual benefit.
As the technological revolution takes hold, and creativity, adaptability and emotional intelligence become prized qualities for employment and citizenship, attacks on religious freedom or religious prejudice, will cripple progress and development.
Look back in history and religious persecution has never had a happy outcome, least of all naturally for the persecuted, but even for the perpetrators.
The expulsion of Muslims from Spain; the centuries long fight between Catholic and Protestant in Europe; periodic pogroms against religious minorities which always weakened the society indulging in them.
In more modern times, the removal of Jewish populations from the Middle East following the establishment of the State of Israel evicted many talented and hard-working families to the immense detriment of the countries concerned. To think that 100 years ago one third of the population of Baghdad was Jewish, and many Jews held prominent positions in the Government of Iran.
More recently the persecution of Christians in the region has driven down the numbers in the Christian community – tragic for Christians, also to the disadvantage of other communities.
The root of the struggle in the Middle East should not be characterised as Arab vs Persian, or Sunni vs Shia. It is better understood as a struggle against extremism, whatever its manifestation, and for religiously tolerant societies and rule-based economies as the only viable future for the region; and as well as the only basis for lasting peace in the Israel/Palestinian dispute.
In Africa, where my Institute works with some 15 Governments and their leaderships to implement reform, the rising challenge is increasingly extremism and terrorism as much as traditional issues of development. The SAHEL, for example, poses an acute risk to the surrounding countries.
You could trace your finger across the globe and you would find outbreaks of religious intolerance directed at Muslims, Jews, Christians and even smaller faiths such as the Bahai. Shamefully, Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism are in parts of Western society.
Always the outcome is misery for the victims and regression for the country.
In some cases, Governments are the offenders not through religious bias but through anxiety over the capacity of faith to give allegiance to a higher power.
But I want to focus on the persecution which is religiously motivated.
Here it can be the State which is the persecutor. But otherwise it is elements within society which the State is unable to defeat or contain and which kill and terrorise those of a different faith.
My Institute publishes a detailed analysis of terrorism world-wide. Over 60 countries experienced acts of terror last year.
But the violence doesn't come out of nowhere.
The Institute’s work is based on the belief that unless we eliminate the ideology behind the violence, we will never remove the violence; and that it is the turning of religion into a political ideology which is the primary evil.
Religious groups should of course have the right to participate in the political life of a country, to express their views based on their faith and to follow that faith.
So, it is not the interaction between politics and religion per se, which is the problem.
It is where the religion itself becomes a political ideology, where followers of one faith or one strand of one faith believe that their view of religion should govern everything, from society, economy, the law to Government itself.
Such a confusion of political ideology and religious belief inevitably turns totalitarian. Those who don't believe are excluded and de-legitimised.
Such groups demand religious conformity, are intolerant of difference and hostile to diversity. Some then justify violence in the name of faith because they don't recognise the ‘other’ as an equal but an enemy.
The perversion of Islam by the Islamist extremists and the violence associated with it, derives from the Islamist ideology.
The violence doesn't start with an act but with an idea. That is not to say that all Islamists or indeed all extremists from other faiths are terrorists. Plainly they're not. Some condemn violence strongly.
But if you believe that only one faith and one way of practising it should govern the political space, you are already on the path to persecution.
It follows that we will never defeat extremism by security methods alone.
Yet whilst, over the past two decades, we have spent trillions of dollars on security – hundreds of billions in airport security alone – we have invested the tiniest of fractions of that amount fighting the ideas behind the violence.
It is time to re-balance our efforts.
We need the following:
First, we should recognise this is a global challenge and requires globally agreed action and solutions. As the world becomes more interconnected and therefore interdependent, nations are obliged to cooperate, whether in stabilising the global economy or tackling damage to the environment.
The campaign for religious freedom needs to be raised up the political agenda with urgency. It would be a fitting item for the G7 or G20.
Secondly, the research of my Institute has found religious intolerance starts with the education systems of many countries, formal and informal, where either the practices or teaching, even the curriculum, promote a closed and bigoted view of the world in which other faiths are de-legitimised or disparaged.
Across parts of Africa and Asia, every day millions of young children grow up educated to regard the ‘other’ as the enemy. It is no wonder that there are new generations drawn to extremist thinking, a proportion of whom will graduate to violent extremism.
We argue for a Global Commitment on Education – a high level international accord – whereby countries agree to promote cultural tolerance and root out cultural prejudice from their education systems whether in the formal or informal sector.
And the programme of my Institute – Generation Global – which links up children and students of different faiths and now operates in 30 countries shows clearly that early education works to promote tolerance.
But such thinking should be a part of any modern education curriculum. This is not teaching young people to be religious; but to be culturally aware.
I believe there would be widespread support for such a Commitment. Even those countries with obvious problems in their education system, would welcome it as a means of forcing the more resistant elements within to accept change.
This Commitment could be part of a wider drive to eradicate hate speech and extremism of all forms.
But we need countries to give leadership to such an endeavour, making it a political priority and showing a willingness to agree certain core steps and actions to make good the principle.
Thirdly, we need to mobilise the fightback against extremist doctrine and thinking amongst the clerics. There is a natural reluctance in the political class to talk religion. But where the ideological wellspring of extremism is a religious conviction, albeit a mistaken one, it can't be avoided. The ideas of the religious extremists are doctrinal. They must be beaten ultimately by better ideas and doctrine. At least one dimension is therefore religious.
There are many good and sound theologians to carry out this task. But they need organising.
In other words, if one part of the origin of religious discrimination is religious in nature, we deal with it as such and should not pretend that the extremism arises from social factors alone. No doubt they play a part but so does religious belief, however misplaced.
It is a commonplace amongst some in the West to see faith as declining and organised religion as a relic which in time will disappear. But for much of the world faith still matters. In some countries, numbers of practising adherents to a faith are rising. For example, by 2050: the number of Muslims will have virtually doubled over the course of the century and be a significant part of the European population; the global Buddhist population will be about the same size it was in 2010, while the Hindu and Jewish populations will be larger than they are today; and in the United States, Christians will decline from more than three-quarters of the population in 2010 to two-thirds in 2050.
Put this alongside the force of globalisation pushing the world closer together and religious freedom becomes a vital determinant of future peace and prosperity.
So, my plea today is very straightforward: it is to give the fight for religious freedom its proper priority. Not peripheral but central; not a fight left to NGOs but taken up by Governments; and not Governments left to campaign on their own but joined together in one effective global movement.