King Abdullah and the skeptics 
By Tony Blair

Wednesday, November 12, 2008 
The decision by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to hold an interfaith conference 
under the auspices of the United Nations is bold, courageous and potentially 

To many people, especially in the West, his initiative may seem unremarkable. 
In fact, it is a major step forward in the long march to a relationship between 
Islam and other faiths that is not one of confrontation or distrust but of 
peaceful co-existence.

King Abdullah is not only the ruler of Saudi Arabia. He is the keeper of the 
two Holy Mosques, the religious sites at Mecca and Medina which, together with 
Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, constitute three of the leading holy places of Islam. He 
is also the leader of a nation that critics say has been slow to modernize, 
with fraught consequences for the rest of the world. But King Abdullah's 
decision to offer the hand of friendship and mutual respect to other religions 
by initiating the conference, which began Wednesday, has big implications - as 
the criticism of his initiative from some corners of the Islamic world 

Within Islam today, there are two competing narratives. There is not a series 
of different trouble spots or issues that require disconnected focus and 
action. There is essentially one struggle, with two sides.

On the one hand, there are those who loudly declare that Islam has gone wrong 
precisely because its leadership has been prepared to work with the West, or 
because the West has sought to impose its values on Muslim societies. According 
to this narrative, Islam is engaged in a fundamental conflict with 
nonbelievers. There can be no reconciliation. Those who seek it betray Islam. 
Confrontation, or at least segregation, is inevitable. Instead of pursuing 
co-existence, instead of "diluting" the purity of Islam by trying to learn 
about and respect others of a different faith, Muslims should re-establish a 
mythical caliphate, an Islamic state in which governance is regulated by a 
rigid adherence to Islamic law and practice of centuries ago, as interpreted by 
today's hard-line clerics.

Though the number of believers who use this narrative as a route into extremism 
or violence is small, there are many more who buy its essential premise that we 
are two distinct cultures and civilizations in opposition to each other. They 
are encouraged in this belief because such a narrative plays to the more 
widespread feeling that Islam is treated disrespectfully by the West, that 
double standards apply in the handling of the Palestinian issue, and that the 
military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were religiously motivated. 
Their appeal is sometimes falsely enhanced by a sense that the West has lost 
touch with basic moral values.

The second group does not desire to replicate Western society. Its proponents 
share concerns of a moral nature. But they also want to assemble a modern 
narrative about Islam and have started to do so. They know that the modern 
world cannot function unless people of different faiths learn to understand and 
respect one another. This narrative is absolutely founded in Islam, but it is 
engaged in trying to root out the exclusivist view of religion - not unique in 
Islam - as a means of shutting the door on those who follow a different faith.

It is the proponents of this modern narrative who want to use the Middle East's 
wealth to support a politics and culture in tune with the 21st century. They 
seek to draw on Islam's core belief in education as a means of ensuring that 
their people are enabled to become a distinctive part of the 21st century world 
but not distinct from it. And they point to a millennium of Islamic history, 
from Spain to China, which illustrates Muslim co-existence and acceptance of 
other faith communities.

Saudi Arabia is seen by many as home to those who espouse the first narrative. 
King Abdullah is showing how his country can and should be part of the second, 
that of peaceful co-existence.

This has important policy lessons for the West, especially with the advent of a 
new U.S. president. Those championing the outward-looking and peaceful view of 
Islam need our support.

We cannot neglect the importance of security and military measures - on the 
contrary, they are critical. But, ultimately, this is not a struggle that can 
be won by military or security means alone. The struggle is one of ideas, of 
hearts and minds as well as of weapons. We have to persuade. And we have to 
realize that the roots of the alternative narrative, which sees Islam pitted 
against the West, go deep.

Today, 30 million Muslims live in Western countries. They are Muslims and they 
are Westerners. And a new generation among them is beginning to illustrate that 
there is no inherent conflict between the two.

Resolving the Middle East peace process and bringing about an independent, 
viable state of Palestine alongside a secure state of Israel is one vital 
element - indeed I think a sine qua non. It can be done. There is in fact, for 
the first time, an agreed strategy among the key players in the international 
community as to how it can be done, as was made clear once more at the meeting 
of the quartet of negotiating parties - the U.S., the EU, the UN and Russia - 
in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, last weekend.

But that on its own is insufficient. We also need to engage with the issue of 
education - what we teach, what is learned, what is communicated about one 
another. Some of this happens within schools and universities. But much of it 
happens within the faith communities themselves.

For this reason, King Abdullah's initiative needs to be seen alongside the 
programs of educational and social reform that are being introduced by 
governments all over the Arab world. Many of those programs may seem long 
overdue; sometimes their introduction is hesitant; but the opposition they 
often provoke within elements of the Muslim world is itself instructive about 
their importance.

The Tony Blair Faith Foundation, in partnership with Yale University, is 
exploring how we can help to show that religious faith can be a constructive 
force for progress rather than a reactionary and destructive one. Students in 
the foundation's "Faith and Globalization" course come from many religious 
traditions. The questions we are asking do not seek to obliterate differences 
between these faiths, but rather investigate how those of different beliefs can 
live harmoniously with one another. The idea is to develop a course that can 
lead to new research, publications and programs that deepen our understanding 
of how faith retakes its proper role as a source of moral suasion, justice and 
a proper way of living and rescues it from those who would use religion to 
create conflict, division and extremism.

Saudi Arabia will continue, for now, to seem far removed from Western society. 
Many are skeptical of the value of this initiative emanating from the kingdom. 
But the fact that the country's ruler, with his unique position within the 
Muslim world, is holding this conference extends an opportunity for the future 
that we should embrace.

Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, is founder of the Tony Blair 
Faith Foundation.

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