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
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
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