Faith: Is Religion the Real Problem in the Middle East?

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Those who enjoy the blame-game prefer it not to be a multiple choice question. A problem has to be all the fault of religion; for example the headline is “religious riots” if the criminals burning down churches and mosques happen to belong to different religions. Or, alternatively, the problem is all about land, ethnicity or nationalism; nothing to do with religion.

Life would be easier if problems had simple, single causes. You could focus and concentrate efforts on dealing with them. But they don’t. The more intractable a problem the more often they have multiple causes that require multiple solutions.

Politics, I often think, is the art of pulling together and implementing the only available solutions that, regrettably, provide partial palliatives while being the causes of other serious problems themselves. A restraining element in one problem is the aggravating element in another. Remove it at your peril. The ambiguities involved can cause considerable moral discomfort as anyone seriously engaged in international relations will find to their cost.

There is no getting away from the complex demands made by the politics of peace-building. Pay the price or stay out of the bear pit of conflict resolution and international relations. The final Northern Ireland negotiations underlined the complexity of the forces in play: the interaction of internal and external pressures, identities, cultures, history, and timing. A lot of people declared that “this isn’t really about religion you know”. But an awful lot of people appeared to think it was.

The point is that the famous Falls and Shankhill roads defined Belfast not by the absence or presence of chip shops, or by people on the street from different economic strata and income, with different hopes and expectations for their families, but by the absence or presence of Catholics or Protestants. Just because something is obvious, and the Catholic-Protestant divide was obvious, does not mean it is unimportant.

The reason religion remains important in Northern Ireland is that religious disputes are invariably mixed up with other grievances and injustices. Pope John Paul II once called religion “life’s interpretative keys”. It is not just about how to live, and how to die, but about how we perceive life: identity, belonging and history. Try reaching a consensual history of a conflict with both sides of the conflict.

In Europe, only an average of 30-35% of people will tick the box reading “religion is important in my life”. The answer you will find in the Middle East is 90-95%. Here, conflicts that hinge on the struggle for dominance of different interpretations of Islam impinge directly on the core conflict of competing Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms and religions. Here, in the crucible of these conflicts, the West is fundamentally tested by a single, popular question, a simple choice in the blame-game: does the West respect, or not, the religion of Islam?

But here also the same conflicts involve regimes, often allies of the West, who believe they need to keep a iron grip on their people for fear of the uncontrollable and extreme forces that might be unleashed if they do not. An important ingredient of maintaining this grip has always been to reflect, to varying degrees, the religious sentiments of their populations. By far the strongest theme in these popular sentiments, the sense of the “Arab street”, has been the belief that true Islam brings a right ordering of society and a keen sense of social justice.

We now seem to be standing at a turning point in Middle Eastern history. A singular Islamic narrative has been temporarily submerged by a tide of popular protest. It was triggered – incredibly – by the self-inflicted death of a market stall holder in Tunisia, humiliated by a life of relative poverty and by a woman official who slapped him. A vast number of people saw in this dishonoured and humiliated man the potent symbol of a politics that did the same to them. But the causes of the popular Arab revolution that spread to Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen the ingredients in the tinder-box that ignited, were multiple. Not least were the economic ones.

After the recent global banking and regulatory crisis, the economic challenge has intensified the cultural tension that pits “the West” against “the Muslim World” that is dishonoured and humiliated in popular imagination. So in meeting this challenge economic and political transformations are not going to be enough. There are social, cultural and religious challenges that have to be simultaneously addressed. Because one way or another religion is going to influence the changes currently underway.

If more democracy in the Middle East brings in its wake an openness not just to the ordering of the economy but to society and religion, it will be part of the solution. If it does not, it risks reinforcing the ripples that move outwards from the core Israel-Palestine conflict to meet regional instabilities originating in Sunni and Shi’a rivalries. The history of Hamas and Hezbollah illustrate one trajectory. The future direction of organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will be critical and may illustrate another.

The key to a benign outcome to contemporary Arab national and democratic movements is the significant number of leaders, young and old, who are dubbed “modernisers”. These are the many characterised by an open attitude, politically and religiously, full of hope now for the future. They can look back to an important strand in Muslim thinking, re-emerging in Europe today, that is at ease with diversity and complexity, and excited by the potential of the best and most creative developments of modernity. Through the work of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation I have met young Muslims who share this vision and they are an inspiration to all of us for how to embrace the 21st century.

If this voice prevails, Sunni and Shi’a would no longer be in conflict, Christians and members of other faiths would not be continuing to leave the Middle East, and the artificial constructs of “the West” and “the Muslim World” would be a thing of the past. But the voice is muted both by the threat of violent extremism and a simplistic ideology of return to imagined Muslim certainties of the 7th century. The Taliban are waging a cultural war, burning schools, treating women as less than chattels, methodically destroying their country’s future when not opposed by armed force, all in the name of an Islamic nationalism. They highlight this danger. This is a threat not only to Afghanistan but, in the potential of their religion of rejection, takfir, to gain adherents globally, a threat to Islam.

There are hundreds of websites, well financed and with many hits, that promote takfir, and some of them advocate violent extremism. The Tony Blair Faith Foundation, based on a vision of dialogue, respect and understanding between people of different religions, attempts to promote another, open, perspective on religion as part of the solution to the problems of the 21st century. We work with schools in fifteen countries involving thousands of students, and have a universities’ programme with eight world-class universities.

An alliance of people of faith to support the Muslim majority against the threats that they, and we, now face remains urgent. This movement must not be disempowered at this critical juncture. Today’s developments in the Middle East are initially destabilising but in the longer term full of great promise. Even some Muslim “modernisers” share the temptation to assert that the West is disrespectful of Islam. One vital task of interfaith dialogue is to demonstrate that it is not.


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