Just about to pack up for the night and a last glance at the news websites messes it all up.

Tony Blair has written in the Observer today about the need for the world’s political leaders to recognise and address the religious roots and nature of this century’s big conflicts. Well, he isn’t the first to do this; but, his voice will instantly wind up all the usual suspects who can’t get beyond the demonic mention of his name to engage with the fundamental issue. Letting loose the Iraq debacle doesn’t mean that everything he says about anything must, by definition, be disingenuous.

What is interesting about his latest outing is not immediately obvious.

Yesterday morning (Saturday) I dedicated a new war memorial in Bradford. On it is engraved the names of those local men who have fallen since 1947 – including in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such concrete memorials are important not because they glamourise or romanticise war, but because they do the opposite. They bring us face to face (or hand to stone) with mortality: these names belong to young men who have mothers and sisters, fathers and brothers – and with loss, bereavement and pain.

We need such memorials in order to hold our cultural memory: we don’t know who we are (or why we are who we have become) if we don’t recognise where we have come from – for good and ill; and if we don’t know who we are or how we got here, we can’t shape our future or what we shall become. They don’t tell the whole story, of course; but, they rip the veneer of self-justification from our selective sensibilities and leave us naked before human fragility and failure.

And this is where we come back to Tony Blair’s reported observations. Conflict is always rooted in history; it always finds what William Blake called a ‘human dress’ – a cultural manifestation that gives flesh to wounds inflicted by ideologies and base human greed and cruelty. When people mock the Bible for being bloodthirsty, they don’t always turn the same judgement on media reportage: just today we see

  • The Syrian bloodshed
  • Egypt in turmoil
  • The Arab Spring hijacked by Islamist extremists
  • Revolt in the Ukraine now being fired by extreme right forces
  • South Sudan
  • Central African Republic
  • Pakistan

And so on.

If religion wasn’t the ‘dress’, something else would be. Human beings seem bent on violence and attestations of ‘progress’ seem exaggerated, to say the least. This is not pessimistic; it is realistic. It isn’t the final word, but the human propensity to do appalling things cannot simply be wished away.

If Blair’s argument is to be taken seriously – and the religious roots of conflict be addressed – religion must first be understood (which is what the Tony Blair Faith Foundation is working at)… and not simply sneered at by those who think they are above such things.

[Postscript: The sentencing in Pakistan of a mentally ill man also illustrates how not every culture buys into the self-evidently obvious assumptions some in the west make about the universal desirability of ‘democracy’. Pakistan needs to be seriously challenged about such legal processes/judgments as this one, but it is symptomatic of a deeper challenge that will not be addressed in any effective way by sneering or shouting.]