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.]

How do you tell a story in film in no more than three minutes and with a limit of six lines of ‘dialogue’?

Last summer Philips and director/producer Ridley Scott launched a global film-making competition called Tell It Your Way following its Cannes Lions
award-winning short-film project Parallel Lines. Entrants were given freedom of expression and could take up any theme they wanted. The following entry was a prize-winner, but all are worth looking at:

Like some of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation video shorts, these go to prove that you can tell alot with a little. Maybe preachers have something to learn about communication here – and that includes me.

Tonight saw the Faith Shorts 2010 Awards by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation at BAFTA in Central London. A very high-profile group of judges had shortlisted 26 short films in three categories. Young people around the world had bid for a video camera and the 50 winners had then submitted their films for judgement. The event was compered by the ubiquitous Adrian Chiles.

The judges included (among others) Tony Blair, Jonathan Caplan QC, Hugh Jackman, Anil Kapoor, Natalie Portman, Nik Powell, Queen Rania of Jordan and Deepak Verma.

The films were judged in three categories: (a) Under 18 Film Pitch, (b) 18-25 Film Pitch and (c) 18-25 Film Maker. The winners and runners-up were astonishingly good. Each film seemed to last up to five minutes, but they were totally engrossing. Awards went to:

Under 18 Film Pitch: Winner: ‘Forgiveness’ by Dolly Deeb from Jordan. Runner-up: ‘The Old Bridge’ by Rijad Guja from Bosnia Herzegovina (about the bridge at Mostar as a symbol)

18-25 Film Pitch: Winner: ‘The Guide’ by Shiv Tandan from India. Runner-up: ‘Under Cover’ by Sara Al Dayek from Lebanon.

18-25 Film Maker: Winner: ‘People I Know’ by Esteban Pedraza from the USA. Runners-up: ‘Let Us Show You How Our Faith Inspires Us’ by Tariq Chowdhury from the UK and ‘Self Realisation’ by Silvina Estevez from Argentina.

I intended to take some photos, but I found the whole thing engrossing and very evocative and only managed one. Here were young people of different faiths offering a new language for articulating faith with confidence in a complicated world. Some of the films were funny, others surprising, all powerful – especially having been made by such young people on such limited equipment.

One feature of the event was a panel discussion in which Lord David Puttnam observed that “the British media are self-referential” and Blair added his view that they are largely “religiously illiterate”. Being asked by a journalist prior to the event, “Is your faith important to you?” exemplifies this – a seemingly interesting question that assumes faith is some sort of odd consumer accessory, an add-on to an otherwise reasonable life. This led afterwards to a discussion about the assumption of neutrality on the part of our media, regardless of the fact that there is no such thing as a neutral worldview.

One of the young award winners made the point that the word ‘tolerant’ in relation to interfaith relations is inadequate. “Tolerance,” he said, ” is about simply bearing with people you don’t like – but love goes further than mere tolerance and it is love that is needed.” I was glad to hear this – a point I make repeatedly at the global interfaith conferences I attend and a point that is rarely understood (especially in the ex-Soviet bloc where ‘tolerance’ is heard as a stronger word than it is in the West where it is a lowest common denominator concept).

One problem of contemporary ‘public speak’ by government and local authorities is the use of the language of ‘tolerance’ without recognition that ‘peace’ is not simply ‘the absence of war’, ‘community cohesion’ is not simply ‘stopping people from hitting each other’, and ‘interfaith relations’ is about more than ‘reducing tension between faith communities’ (which usually doesn’t exist). Constructive love offers a better future than fearful ‘prevention’.

The problem with ‘tolerance’ is that the people who speak of it are often the same people who are totally intolerant of anyone who disagrees with their idea of ‘tolerance’. There is nothing more dangerous than an illiberal liberal – one who proclaims freedom for all who conform to his idea of freedom, but leaves no space for those whose idea is more limiting.

Funny old world.

Update 6 August 2010: Tony Blair has written about his reasons for launching the Faith Shorts initiative here.

Most of us who gave the Blair government the benefit of the doubt over what became known as the ‘dodgy dossier’ have found it difficult to understand how we allowed ourselves to be duped. Acres of opinion in print and audio-video have followed and one of the biggest questions asked is how you could ever trust someone who appears so blatantly to have lied to the country. The post-governmental Blair has made religion a focus of his attention and the media cynicism about this is almost universal.

tony-blairTony Blair left office and set up the Tony Blair Faith Foundation under the leadership of some of his most trusted aides from Downing Street. If you read the papers and follow the blogs, you would have almost no option but to think that Blair is a rich bloke who plunged us into a stupid war and then turned his mind to loony stuff as a way of compensating for the loss of power. Scepticism about the Foundation is, in my experience at least, widespread. It is equally misguided.

Interesting, then, that a (religious) sceptic like John Rentoul should put a different perspective in today’s Independent newspaper. He begins as follows:

‘What do you think about religion? Yes, I hate Tony Blair too. No wonder foreigners find our national conversation hard to follow. This week, Christopher Landau, the BBC religious affairs correspondent, broadcast a radio documentary about the former Prime Minister’s faith foundation. Even before it went out, it provoked a response.

The general view seems to be that Blair resisted invitations to go on about his religious belief while he was Prime Minister but doesn’t half go on about it now. This is, it is alleged, at best cowardly and at worst mendacious. I am no fan of Blair’s religiosity, but I can detect nonsense if it is right in front of me.’

He then goes on to question much of the received wisdom about Blair and will probably make himself unpopular by daring to challenge some of the media-driven myths about the man and his faith – particularly the ways in which these have been reported or (mis)quoted. He summarises: ‘Religion: some people who don’t have it assume that it means hearing voices telling you to do crazy things. Other people who do have it assume that their difference of opinion with Blair’s decision has (their own version of) divine authority.’ He then concludes with a statement of common sense: ‘I don’t do religion, but if Blair’s faith foundation can do anything about such a large [Muslim] misconception, I’m all for it.’

Rentoul faces the problem that any rational person would have to address sooner or later: would we prefer it if Blair was going around the world enriching himself for purely personal gain? Or interfering in other people’s politics? he has been remarkable in having vacated the political scene in the UK precisely in order not to interfere or be seen to interfere.

astana-2006-004I have been involved in interfaith work for a number of years now. I engage with senior leaders of all the world’s major faiths in a peculiar context: the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Kazakhstan. This morning I met with a Kazakh Senator and other officials at Lambeth Palace as the invitation to me to lead an Anglican delegation (on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury) was handed over. My experience of this initiative since September 2003 is that, whether we like it or not, religion is a major factor in world politics and life and has to be taken with the utmost seriousness, even if you think the content of other people’s beliefs is bunkum. (Kazakhstan holds together 130 ethnic groups and over 40 religious groups in a country the size of Western Europe and with a population of 15 million.)

The biggest challenge in such work is to understand the worldview from which people speak and within which they think and see the world. This is demanding because it means getting inside the head of another person and looking out through their eyes – listening through their ears. Any linguist knows that speaking another language is not a matter of simply swapping one set of words for another, but  that some things cannot be translated at all because the ‘depth’ of the concept cannot be shared by someone who comes from outside. (I write as a former professional linguist working in Russian, German and French.) We will be working with the complexities of language and worldviews again on 1-2 July when the Third Congress takes place in Astana.

I share the concerns about the Iraq War and the tight relationship with Bush’s America. Too many questions remain in my own mind about what that was all about. But I know the people who run the Tony Blair Foundation and they (a) don’t hide from frank questioning, (b) deal openly and professionally with people who might be expected to resist anything to do with the Foundation and (c) take seriously and intelligently some of the most pressing religio-political questions that will face the world in the next few decades.

Rather than looking for quick fixes to urgent problems, they are setting up schemes from bringing (particularly) young people from different worldview and religious contexts into contact with each other, using new technology. They are taking a long-term view of educating huge numbers of young people about ‘religion’ per se and intelligently doing so in the wider context of social, medical, economic and political realities in different parts of the world.

astana-2006-041Like John Rentoul – but for different reasons – I am all for anyone doing anything to improve religious intelligence anywhere they can. It would help enormously if some of the campaigning ‘rationalists’ in this country would join in examining our own philosophical assumptions and presuppositions, listen attentively to those whose worldview is different, and model respect for those whose view seems to be obviously and self-evidently silly.

Having had several spats with people over recent weeks, I had probably better work on this myself.