26 Dec 2011

Fifty years ago, scholars and politicians alike had come to the conclusion that religion was on the decline. It was inevitable, so the thinking went, that popular religious faith would diminish as societies became increasingly prosperous and equipped with the fruits and insights of science, technology, and medicine.

Yet we know today that this thesis was wrong. Not only has religion persisted, it has flourished. According to the CIA World Fact Book, nearly 77 per cent of the world’s population adheres to Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism. Josef Stalin once derisively asked how many military divisions the Pope had. Within half a century, Stalin’s empire was swept away and the Papacy survived.

This discrepancy between received wisdom and reality has created a situation today in which many of us are playing catch-up. Confronted with a world we did not expect – a world increasingly intertwined through the forces of globalisation, filled with religious actors engaged in both constructive and destructive behaviours – we are left struggling to get a handle on how to understand world events which, no matter how far afield they might occur, shape and influence our daily lives.

Slowly but surely, academics are getting the message. The previously entrenched scepticism about religion’s scholarly significance is giving way to an appreciation of the role it plays in shaping our interactions with academic disciplines across the university – from economics and political science to public health and human rights. Though there is much work still to be done, it is clear that religion is being taken more and more seriously on university campuses across the globe.

Policy makers and politicians also are coming to terms with religion’s influence in the globalised world. When I began setting up my Faith Foundation, nearly every politician I spoke with immediately grasped the relevance of religion in shaping effective policy responses to situations both at home and abroad. Yet these policy makers and politicians simply don’t know where to turn to locate the necessary information on religion.

This lacuna is not only lamentable, but also dangerous. Public policies which neither account for the institutional resources presented by religious and faith-based organisations, nor the comprehensive normative traditions adhered to by individual citizens, can never hope to effectively bring about positive change in our societies.

This is why I started the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which seeks to promote education about religion on university campuses and in secondary school classrooms, as well as social action across religious faiths in the fight to eradicate malaria. In universities, we are facilitating the production of outward-facing research and analysis of religion on university campuses across the world through our Faith & Globalisation Initiative – of which the National University of Singapore is one of our eight Lead University partners. In schools, our Face to Faith programme provides students in 17 countries with the opportunity to interact with one another over video-conferenced discussions on the different ways in which religion impacts and influences their lives. Our Faiths Act programme has volunteers in over 100 countries around the world, all engaged in the fight to eradicate malaria. These issues are not peculiar to any one place or region. They are global. We live in an interconnected world, and this question will be of critical importance to Singapore and Asia as it is to the West. The notion of an Asian/’Western’ cultural and religious dichotomy has been overdrawn. For instance, it is widely believed in the West that the role of religion has been expunged from China’s public policy discourse. Yet the Beijing Forum, hosted by another of our Faith & Globalisation Lead Universities, Peking University, made the topic of religion’s influence one of the pillars of their 2010 forum and continues to address it in this year’s forum on “Tradition & Modernity, Transition & Transformation”.

My commitment to these questions and issues is a direct result of my experience as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for 10 years. During my time in office, I was repeatedly faced with situations infused with religious actors and rhetoric, in both productive and divisive ways. The conflict in Kosovo, for example, where the UK and other countries intervened to stop ethnic violence in 1999, was a situation in which the confusion of political identity and religion led to disastrous results. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic stoked the flames of ethno-nationalism by evoking the 1389 Battle of Kosovo between the Orthodox Christian Prince Lazar and the invading Ottoman army of Sultan Murad I, subversively using the collective historical memory to mobilise religion in truly nefarious ways.

As Prime Minister, I was also closely involved in the Northern Ireland peace process. The aptly named Good Friday Agreement paved the way for devolved and inclusive government, the early release of terrorist prisoners and the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. The Agreement would not have been reached without the inclusion of both religious actors and political leaders such as Ian Paisley, Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams. And it would not have succeeded without an understanding of the role of religion in the minds of the different leaders.

In 2005, I presided over the Gleneagles G8. The two biggest issues we discussed were Africa and climate change. We agreed to cancel the debts of 18 African countries and to provide US$50 billion in aid. I doubt we would have succeeded without support and effective pressure from faith-based organisations. The Micah Challenge, for example, is a global coalition of Christians holding governments accountable for their promise to halve extreme poverty by 2015. Promoting the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), it seeks to empower Christians to speak out for justice and to turn compassion into action. Organisations such as Micah Challenge keep governments accountable for their promises.

And as I survey the world today, I fi nd the situation to be much the same as it was during my time in office. The Arab Spring is challenging our foreign policy assumptions as much as the terror attacks on America on September 11, 2001 did. Will the new governments that are emerging create religion-friendly democracies and will their religious communities champion democracy-friendly religions?

Or take the Mindanao conflict in the Philippines, the world’s second-oldest ongoing conflict. This internecine conflict between Christians and Muslims has resulted in the death of 150, 000 people and the displacement of 2 million citizens. I recently said that we cannot hope to establish peace without accepting that religion is part of the problem, and therefore religious actors must become part of the solution. The Philippines government is prepared to recognise this and help make it happen, in part through a close partnership with my Faith Foundation’s work in schools and universities.

Religious actors from Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King Junior have long played roles in political projects building peace in conflict-ridden societies. Indeed, every religion from the Abrahamic faiths to Buddhism to Jainism has a peace tradition. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa was both an anti-apartheid leader and a theologian of reconciliation. It is no coincidence that he chaired South Africa’s famed Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

I have seen time and time again that it is often a faith-inspired organisation that brings hope to the remotest communities. Take Sierra Leone, a country close to my heart. My Faith Foundation is working with religious organisations to combat the country’s number-one killer: malaria. This easily preventable disease has killed more people than those murdered in the brutal civil war. Our Faiths Act programme is training priests and imams in Sierra Leone on health messaging surrounding the use of bed nets, so as to ensure that their communities understand why and how a bed net can protect a family from malaria – a programme on which we are also working closely with Georgetown University to ensure a productive research output that can inform other governments as to how faith-based organisations and religious communities can serve as useful partners in public health initiatives.

This raises the question of religious actors’ participation in the democratic process. This question is topical in Britain at the moment where, as in America, many interconnected individuals and organisations pursuing a religiously inspired agenda are increasingly punctuating the political landscape. Controversial issues like abortion and stem cell research are being raised by religious people.

And while many understandably find it troubling for social policy questions to be addressed from a religious perspective, it is inevitable that people bring normative claims derived from their various ideologies – religious and secular – to bear upon such issues. We would do well to remember that theological justifications can be as inaccessible as political justifications. A brief glance at the current fiscal debate in America illustrates that fundamental and foundational secular disagreements can be just as intractable as those motivated by theology.

This approach to public policy, however, will require an acknowledgement by secularists that people who are religiously inspired may have something to offer and to add to the forum where political debate is conducted. This also means that someone who is religious must be prepared to acknowledge that the secular can have something of value to say to the religious world. This could be best described as a “healthy separation” between state and religion avoiding an unhealthy exclusion.

The challenge in this century for Singapore and the wider world must be to develop a ‘faith-friendly society’ and ‘society-friendly faith’. In order to achieve this, we will need a combination of the right constitutional framework, the right policy framework and, most importantly, for all of us to exhibit the ‘right’ attitude to those of other faiths in our daily lives. It is an individual’s choice if they decide to ignore the role of religion in the lives of others across the world. Policy makers, however, are not afforded this luxury. Politicians and policy makers have no choice but to take religion seriously if they want to engage with the world as it is today.

Tony Blair was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2007, after which he was appointed the official Envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East. The Tony Blair Faith Foundation (www.tonyblairfaithfoundation. org), established in May 2008, aims to promote respect and understanding about the world’s major religions and show how faith can be a powerful force for good in the modern world. This was followed in July 2009 by the launch of the Faith and Globalisation Initiative with Yale University in the US, Durham University in the UK, and the National University of Singapore to deliver a postgraduate programme in partnership with the Foundation.