7th March, 2009
Tony Blair: “I thought at the time all this was a lot of fuss over nothing. As I am sure Rowan Williams knows, you have to choose your words very carefully otherwise people think the head of the Church of England is advocating the import of Sharia law into the UK in a way that you would understand it in a predominantly Muslim country and that is not what he was saying really.”
Well, what WAS Rowan Williams saying, REALLY?
The interview with Mr Blair in yesterday’s Church of England newspaper has raised some concern, not least here. It’s with a heavy heart that I question Mr Blair’s approach to faith-based issues. I have no doubt he means well. But I have concluded that he has the horse before the cart in several ways on faith and society. Perhaps he thinks we have no choice right now but to try to repair decades of government-inflicted damage, well-meaning as it was from ALL sides. I for one, believe it is WRONG to infer that religious issues today are separate from politics, even if Mr Blair does NOT wish to interfere, understandably, in Mr Brown’s government’s decisions.
In fact for the first time EVER religious issues are CENTRAL to politics, both here in Britain and worldwide. These concerns centre around ONE religion or political/religion and its aims. If we do not recognise, or worse ignore that, we are letting down ALL the peoples of this world, religious or not.
So I thought it was time I looked at the Blair interview in full. If you can only cope with quick reading right now, my (personal) precis analysis follows immediately below. You will notice I have some serious doubts as to much he is saying, bracketed thus – (Ed: …)
Much is yet unresolved on this MAJOR issue. As the world’s foremost Christian religious politician – Mr Blair’s thoughts raise more questions than they answer.
My quick resume and my personal interpretation of Mr Blair’s words, with my (bracketed) comments/questions where applicable.
What is Tony Blair saying?
- I don’t want to talk about Geert Wilders, because I don’t talk about politics. (Ed: Issues around the banning of Free Speech can wait, in THIS particular case anyway.)
- My Faith Foundation will leap over politics and try to shape values, ethics, tolerance and understanding (Ed: none of them having anything to do with politics, of course.)
- Ludicrous decisions have been made by individuals over wearing Christian jewellery etc (Ed: nothing to do with government policy or legislation.)
- Clashes over Human Rights and faith communities are inevitable (Ed: THAT ‘faith’ word again), but we have to try.
- 1.People misunderstood The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams … he was referring to Jewish courts, really. (Ed: Really? If so, was he right to compare & contrast?)
- 2. The debate over Sharia is a storm in a teacup, and anyway my position on gay rights and adoption is more interesting, if still difficult.
- Asked – Is free speech an issue in multi-faith societies? Yes, we do have a problem with aggressive secularism (Ed: “aggressive secularism? What? Why? I didn’t interpret the question as being directed at their stance on free speech. Distraction technique, Mr Blair?) People of faith need to forget the criticism but must go out, mix with others and explain their faith by doing good works.
- Religious doctrine is very interesting, but you mustn’t think about it too much YET – just DO good things (Ed: then it might sort itself out. As has our multi-cultural society?)
- Human rights in China – difficult, but, well, they have history which mitigates against their willingness to intervene to help others. (Ed: OK. Sensitive geo-politics.)
- Globalisation is a threat AND an opportunity, but more of a threat if faiths wish to exclude The Other. We all need to learn tolerance (Ed: especially/possibly/probably – the already tolerant among us?)
- Economies worldwide need moral values to work properly and agreed regulation. Millennium goals are good, but are only goals to be aimed at. Good governance is essential for Africa. (Ed: All fairly inarguable.)
- We will all have confidence in economics once we set up the right institutions, have good governance and learn to trust one another. And faith helps. All “values” based, of course. (Ed: how long do we ALL expect to live, Mr Blair? Human nature, not to mention different values within, without and across “faiths” tend to intervene here.)
I have broken his interview below into the following sections to help focus readers’ minds. Disregard my headings, and his words are as published. Nothing has been altered. I have interjected these section headings into the article below. My 14 heading groups are:
- Geert Wilders & ‘not getting involved in political matters’
- Tony Blair Faith Foundation
- Christian emblems – due to ‘individual ludicrous decisions’
- Human rights & faith communities clashes – Sharia Law
- Avoiding the Question on interference with voluntary bodies – Changing the subject, from Sharia to gay rights
- Changing it again – from Free Speech to aggressive secularism
- ‘Go out and explain your faith’
- Ignoring doctrine? Interesting, yes, but don’t worry about it. Back to ‘go out and explain’
- Humanitarian interventionism – Human Rights in China re Darfur – explanation Chinese history
- Globalisation – threat from ‘exclusive faiths’ – learning tolerance
- Economy – ‘moral values’
- Lack of confidence due to lack of basic values of trust
- Millennium Goals – only ‘goals’
- Summing up by interviewer: Will faith communities listen to him? Ethics confused? Superficial over failure to reckon with doctrine?
Article from Church of England newspaper, 6th March 2009
By Paul Richardson
1. Geert Wilders & ‘not getting involved in political matters’
Once Tony Blair was a politician who didn’t do God (at least not in public). Now he is more than ready to do God but wary of getting involved in politics. He hesitated for a split second when I asked him whether he agreed with the decision to prevent the Dutch MP, Geert Wilders, entering Britain but then told me: “I try not to get involved in political matters”.
2. Tony Blair Faith Foundation
Blair gave me an interview at his London office to talk about the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. What is its purpose? I asked. “The purpose is to bring people of different faiths together through education and interaction and to combine religious faiths in activity that promotes good,” he tells me, “so that, for example, the Foundation is very active in supporting the anti-malarial campaign in Africa where the churches and mosques have a great role to play but would play it better if they played it together.
It’s about bringing religions together and it’s also about promoting religious faith as something positive and progressive and about the future and not just an interesting relic of history or tradition.” There is a moving passage in Blair’s Washington Prayer Breakfast speech where he tells how faith began to stir in his own life when a teacher prayed with him at school after he heard that his father was seriously ill.
3. Christian emblems – due to ‘individual ludicrous decisions’
“That teacher would lose her job today,” I suggest. “I hope not,” Blair replies. “I hope and believe that stories of people not being allowed to express their Christianity are exceptional or the result of individual ludicrous decisions. My view is that people should be proud of their Christianity and able to express it as they wish.”
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor has complained that faith ‘tends to be treated as a personal eccentricity rather than as a central and formative influence in British society’. Does Blair agree?
“I think he is right to draw attention to that danger and risk”, Blair comments.
“Sometimes I think we as Christians are more sensitive than we should be although I say that as someone who when I was in office, although I was perfectly open about my Christianity, nonetheless kept it within certain boundaries that were restricted in terms of what I said publicly.
The position of Prime Minister puts you in a unique category. But in general terms in British society there is a risk that people see faith as a personal eccentricity. I actually believe that people are far more respectful of Christian faith than is acknowledged.
“As with all these kinds of issues,” he continues, referring to press stories of people penalised for expressing faith at work, “you can take one or two well publicised stories that are actually exceptions but you end up thinking they are the general rule. My experience is that they are not.”
4. Human rights & faith communities clashes – Sharia Law
We turn to a related issue, the clash between faith communities and new codes of Human Rights.
How does Blair see this working out? “I think this conflict is inevitable,” he responds.
“With change in society you are bound to have a situation where faith communities have different views. You have to work out a way through that keeps people of faith together even though they may disagree. I think these issues are difficult but they are not confined to Christianity.”
When it comes to Muslim courts and Sharia law in Britain, Blair does not understand what all the controversy is about. “If it’s about substituting Sharia law or any religious law for the law of the land, forcing people to go through religious law rather than the ordinary law of the land, I don’t think people would find that acceptable in this country. I don’t think that’s what Rowan Williams was actually advocating. I think he was drawing our attention to the fact that in Judaism there are procedures recognised by our courts but there is no doubt that primacy rests with the courts of the land.
“I thought at the time all this was a lot of fuss over nothing. As I am sure Rowan Williams knows, you have to choose your words very carefully otherwise people think the head of the Church of England is advocating the import of Sharia law into the UK in away that you would understand it in a predominantly Muslim country and that is not what he was saying really.”
I suggest that what the Archbishop was concerned about is the right of voluntary bodies to function according to their own beliefs and values and that there is a danger in allowing the state to over-rule intermediate bodies (such as faith organisations) and regulate their internal affairs. The treatment of Catholic adoption societies is an example of this.
5. Avoiding the Question on interference with voluntary bodies – Changing the subject, from Sharia to gay rights
“I happen to take the gay rights position,” Blair tells me. “But at the time of the Catholic adoption society dispute I was also concerned that these people who were doing a fantastic job were not put out of business. You have got to try to work your way through these issues. Religious organisations are no different from the rest of society. The most important thing, I think, is to create the space in which people of different views can still come together.”
6. Changing it again – free speech to aggressive secularism
What about attempts to suppress free speech on the grounds it is disrespectful to religion. “The real test of a religion,” Blair affirms, “is whether in an age of aggressive secularism it has the confidence to go out and make its case by persuasion.
7. Go out and explain plea
You will get all these different issues that come up but if I was going to be advising a religious organisation (which I’m not) my advice would be you have to manage the kind of disputes that are going on in the whole of society but, if I were you, I’d worry far more about how you are facing outwards to the public at large and showing the essence of religious faith.
“In other words, how you can prove that religious organisations can be an instrument of God’s work in carrying the essential message of compassion and solidarity and humanity out into the world. That’s where we are being attacked. People are saying you are part of the problem you are not part of the solution. Actually, we are part of the solution.”
Just as once he was a moderniser, intent on getting the Labour Party to move on beyond Clause Four and live in the real world, so Blair gives the impression of wanting to get religions to stop arguing about doctrine, modernise and concentrate on practical activities. But can we ignore doctrine? I ask him.
“I actually am fascinated by issues to do with theology,” Blair assures me. “I read a lot about it and think a lot about it. But I am convinced that the first stage for religious faith as a force for progress in the 21st century is not actually to deal with the issues of doctrine first but to show religious faith in action. That is not to say issues of theology and doctrine are unimportant. On the contrary, at a certain point they are central and crucial. But I think that the starting point is to get people of different faiths to come together and to act together according to basic principle that all religions accept: love your neighbour as yourself.”
9. Humanitarian interventionism – Human Rights in China re Darfur – explanation Chinese history
We turn to humanitarian interventionism. How far does the reluctance of the Chinese to push human rights in Darfur or elsewhere in Africa stem from their very practical approach to life? They do not share a crusading Western mentality monotheism. In other words, theology has practical consequences. Blair is not convinced. “The Chinese reluctance to interfere in the affairs of another country is born out of their fear growing out of their history of other countries interfering in their affairs and that is more important than anything coming out of Confucianism. I personally think that the whole Chinese system will evolve in time and the Chinese leaders know this. What is fascinating about this generation of Chinese leaders is their desire to discover the spiritual history of China.”
10 Globalisation – threat from ‘exclusive faiths’ – learning tolerance
Politics, rather than religion, may lie at the root of different approaches to human rights but globalisation remains a
challenge for human beings who are inspired by different faiths but still need to work together to solve common
problems. As Pico Iyer has put it, we are global citizens with tribal souls. “That is the big challenge,” Blair agrees. “As globalisation pushes people together, if faiths become exclusive then religion will become a source of conflict. But if we can show how people of different faiths can coexist and work together, then religious faith can be helpful in giving globalisation the value structure it requires. That is why encouraging religious faiths to learn about each other and tolerate each other is a very important part of making the modern world work.”
11. Economy – moral values
We turn to the world economic crisis. At Davos, Blair said that while capitalism certainly wasn’t finished, we need to do more thinking about the moral values guiding capitalism. “What was fascinating about Davos,” he tells me, “was that you had spiritual leaders as well as business leaders at Davos and everyone thought this was a perfectly natural way for it to be. The free enterprise system needs to be infused with clear values if it is to work properly.”
Blair sums up a paradox of the current crisis very well. “You say to the banks ‘Your reckless borrowing has got us into this situation’, but then you have to tell people to spend to help us get out. In the future we need a better regulated system but the immediate priority is to get us out of the crisis. At the root of our present problems is globalisation which enables a crisis of confidence to spread rapidly through the whole system.
12. Lack of confidence due to lack of basic values of trust
“The lack of confidence is to do with the lack of certain basic values: trust between different parts of the financial sector; thinking long-term rather than short-term maximising of profits; the fact that a company isn’t just about its shareholders but about its stakeholders, including its employees and the wider community. These values don’t necessarily arise from religious faith but faith has a part to play. These values need to be recovered.”
13. Millennium Goals – only “goals”
Finally I turn to the millennium goals, supported by the Blair Foundation. Don’t people like Paul Collier have a point when they say these need to be rethought? Isn’t there some justification for the scepticism of people like Dambisa Moyo about the value of Western aid?
“I totally support the millennium goals,” Blair asserts, “but that is all they are. They are objectives it is difficult to disagree with. The question is how we achieve them. The two projects we are doing in Africa, in Sierra Leone and Rwanda, are concerned with building capacity for governance. My own view is that traditional aid policy needs to be rethought in the way welfare policy was. The purpose should be to build up the capacity of people to take care of themselves. Conflict resolution is very important in Africa. We need an African Union standing force that is capable of going in to situations and imposing order.”
14. Summing up by interviewer: Will faith communities listen to him? Ethics confused? Superficial over failure to reckon with doctrine?
Only a few politicians make the jump to becoming a kind of moral or spiritual leader. Nelson Mandela has managed it without using explicitly religious language. The Dalai Lama is both the political leader of his people and a widely respected spiritual leader. Tony Blair still carries a lot of political baggage which affects how people see him but when issues like the Iraq war are no longer so controversial and people look at what his Foundation is doing they will probably conclude he does have important things to say about the role of faith in the modern world. Whether the faith communities listen to him is a different matter.
He remains a moderniser; many will find his ethical views confused or argue the failure to reckon with doctrine leads to superficiality, but he can quote no less a figure than Hans urs von Balthasar in support of his approach. ‘Only love is credible,’ the Swiss Catholic theologian pointed out.
SADIQ KHAN on SHARIA LAW
Gordon Brown’s new minister for race relations has attacked sharia courts, insisting that the Muslim community in Britain is not “advanced” enough to have its own legal system.
Sadiq Khan, whose comments will have added impact because he is a Muslim himself, has also warned that the growing number of tribunals based on Islamic codes could entrench discrimination against women.
Khan, who became minister for community cohesion in the government reshuffle this month, said: “The burden is on those who want to open up these courts to persuade us why they should do it.”
His comments contrast with those of figures such as Lord Phillips, the lord chief justice, who said in July that Islamic law could be used to settle marital and financial disputes.
Watch this video on the Iranian Women’s Movement, which is AGAINST Islam & Sharia Law. You might then understand why I am still to be convinced about Mr Blair’s suggestion that we don’t need to worry too much about doctrine (yet)
International Women’s Day and Political Islam – 8th March
TV International programme on International Women’s Day 2009 in Iran, Britain and elsewhere, its significance and the women’s liberation movement against political Islam. Marayam Namazie of One Law For All interviews secular Iran’s – yes secular Iran’s – Fariborz Pooya.
FB: The Women’s Liberation movement in Iran is significant because it was the first target of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. For over thirty years they have fought many battles against the Islamic movement and have lessons for everyone else, because we know that Islamists are trying to get power in Europe. The Iranian women’s movement is THE LIGHT of the Women’s movement worldwide. MN: Cultural relativism has put all the people in Iran as being one and the same with the Islamic regime and you see that in the west as well. FB: Many people think that Islam is compatible with democracy. Iran is not an Islamic society. It (the Islamic Revolution) is a dictatorship. Lessons have to be been learned. Many people actually think that Islam is compatible with democracy, compatible with liberty, compatible with freedom, compatible with equality – experience with women in Iran, I think throughout the Middle East shows that it is not. MN: Why should people in the west care? FB: Because now the Islamic movement is not confined to Iran .. Iraq … Afghanistan …. actually this movement is trying to undermine the basic rights of women everywhere. All of the Middle East, and in Europe you see the segregation of men and women in European Society. It’s a twenty first century (Islamic) dictatorship. It’s convenient for some people who have an interest in maintaining cheap labour … silent people … society with no rights. The next advancement in Iranian society is a very female type of revolution.
Another video here (YouTube) from “Secular Society”
Secular Society TV’s discussion on the One Law for All Campaign against Sharia Law in Britain,
Namazie of the Council of ex-Muslims thinks the Archbishop of Canterbury was attacking secularism. He certainly wasn’t attacking Islam, Ms Namazie. Would any good Christian do such a thing?
She must have been shocked, I suggest, when the Archbishop of Canterbury said the introduction of some Sharia in Britain was unavoidable. No, she says; she wasn’t even surprised. “It was quite apt, although he didn’t expect the reaction he got. It was an attack on secularism really. It is, in a sense, to his benefit if there are Muslim schools and Sharia. It makes it less likely that anyone will oppose Christian schools and the privileged place of religion in society.”
She is adamant, though, that no form of Sharia should be allowed here. “It is fundamentally discriminatory and misogynist,” she says and is dismissive of the idea that people would be able to choose between Sharia and civil jurisdiction. Women could be railroaded into a Sharia court, she says. “This would hit people who need the protection of British law more than anyone else.”
- Iran willing to talk to USA on Afghanistan
- Obama needs a cigarette – too tired, too busy to lay out the red carpet for Brown. Bush never seemed to suffered from tiredeness when Blair came to call
- Iran “surprised” by Morocco’s decision to sever diplomatic ties (said to be over Iranian “interference”)
- Christian Middle East exodus worries Churches
- Muslims are in India’s mainstream – but it took centuries
- Blairite James Purnell warns at Scottish conference that Labour Party must stick together
- “Blair – the architect of Britain’s anti-Christian culture” – ARE YOU, Mr Blair, ‘reprehensible, pathetic, pitiable, deluded’? Serving not God, but man?
- Sharia Finance growing. Five Full Sharia Banks in UK, and now Lloyds. Over to you, Mr Brown. Is this YOUR get-out-of-jail card?
- Mixed sex gym club forced to close over Muslim parents’ complaints – in BRITAIN – BRITAIN – MY country!
- Will criticising Islam become a crime? – What does Christopher Hitchens think?
- Anti-Israel protest in Sweden AND Malmo Davis Cup tennis match plays to empty stadium because of expected riots from Muslim community. Arrests made when the ANARCHIST numbskulls riot anyway!
- Palestine ‘Think Tank’ deconstructs Nick Cohen, the non-Jewish Jew. THIS is “thinking”?
- Even authentic Jews have a problem with that: Lord Levy wonders if Blair should consider his Mid-East ‘envoy’ position. I have heard this analysed variously today: 1. Levy fears that Blair is getting too chummy with the Palestinians, 2. Levy hopes that Blair will UP his powers in the region to down the powers coming from the seemingly pro-Palestinian USA, 3. Levy is urging Blair to spend more time on his Euro-presidency hopes. Who knows? Who cares? He’s not about to leave the Middle-East job. Obama needs him. (A useful fall-guy?)
- Islam & the problem of the Sacred Word – lack of modernisation at the root. Excerpt:
‘He [Dan Diner] locates the central problem in Islam’s failure to understand the necessity for a powerful secular element in society. Cultures founded on the words of Moses, Jesus, the Buddha, Confucius and even Karl Marx have proven flexible enough to create spaces for independent secular values and institutions. Among major religions, only Islam finds this idea intolerable.
Diner criticizes the late Edward Said, who blamed the West for most Arab failures. Colonialism robbed the Arabs and humiliated them, then scholars in the West justified anti-Arab prejudice, according to Said’s famous book, Orientalism, published in 1978. His ideas convinced armies of professors who in turn indoctrinated two generations of students. While Said spoke as an Arab sympathizer, he merely provided the region with excuses for centuries of incompetence, not really much of a favour.
In Islam, as Diner argues, sacred law is immutable. Work, ethics, morals and politics are all deeply influenced by the sacred. To be lost in the sacred is to be separated from the events of the world and the possibility of progress. A close observance of sacred law stops time in its tracks.’
WARNING TO MR BLAIR – Don’t get lost in “the sacred”. We might never find you again!
- Tony Blair Faith Foundation
- Sadiq Khan, Muslim Labour MP – ‘community not advanced enough to have own (Sharia) legal system‘. Quick excerpt of Khan’s thoughts here. This man is not always right – but he is here!
- International Women’s Day tomorrow – if you have a female in your family, watch this
- The Blairs speak up for Christianity. And Down with democracy?
- Britain warned over Sharia compliant finance arrangements. Are you noting this, Mr Blair?
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