As mass protests continued to rage in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen last week, all was serene in New Haven, Connecticut, where a dozen men (and a few women) sat around a table at Yale University, talking about how to build new governments in the Middle East. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair presided over the international group. This was not the usual assemblage of diplomats and policymakers, however. These were theologians.
“The single most urgent question facing policymakers today is to understand the importance of religion in the modern world,” Blair told me, after the meeting. Policymakers need to learn that “when people say they’re religiously motivated, they’re not actually politically motivated—they’re religiously motivated,” he said, using the conflict in Northern Ireland as an example. And because religion is such a motivating and volatile force in the Middle East, government officials with an interest in stability there have got “to put as much emphasis on religious literacy as they do on gender literacy or racial literacy.”
This is a self-serving argument, in part. For since it was established in 2008, Tony Blair’s own Faith Foundation has had as its main focus increasing religious literacy around the world. By supporting undergraduate and graduate coursework—starting at Yale, and over the past several years forming partnerships with universities in Mexico, Singapore, China, Britain, Australia, and Canada—Blair and his team hope to increase fluency about religion and its intersections with global politics among future leaders. (The seminar at Yale last week, conducted over two days, was part of the foundation’s “Faith and Globalization” course, which will be disseminated as curriculum materials to participating universities.) The foundation also teaches interreligious understanding among school children worldwide via videoconferencing.
At Yale, administrators are working together with the Blair Foundation to create seminars on religion and diplomacy as part of their continuing education programming. In addition, Blair himself—who publicly converted to Catholicism after stepping down as prime minister—has made himself the face of the faith-loving pol. Last year, he debated the atheist Christopher Hitchens before thousands in Toronto; today, he answers questions at Rick Warren’s conservative Saddleback Church in Orange, County, California. Will he talk about gay marriage? “Heaven knows. We’ll talk about the works, I should think.”
The idea that religion is important to international diplomacy has, since 9/11, found important adherents. “In order to effectively conduct foreign policy today, you have to understand the role of God and religion,” former secretary of State Madeleine Albright told CNN in 2007. “Everyone in the U.S. believes in the separation of church and state so you think, ‘Well, if we don’t believe in the convergence of church and state, then perhaps we shouldn’t worry about the role of religion.’ I think we do that at our own peril.”
“[T]hose who have the extreme or exclusivist view of religion have got masses of websites, networks. They’re incredibly well organized. And we’re not.”
The far more controversial question is this: How, and to what extent, should diplomats and envoys from the secular, liberal West reach out to religious leaders and groups in places, like Iran, Libya, and Yemen, where such leaders have enormous influence and where the separation of church and state is neither established nor universally regarded as desirable? In the session at Yale, Blair spoke provocatively of the need to use Scriptural arguments—as so many of America’s founders did—to bolster the case for establishing liberal democracies in the Middle East. (In the Middle East, of course, such arguments would come from the Koran.) In other words, Blair believes that for democracy to thrive in the Arab world, its founders must believe, on some level, that democratic government jibes with their understanding of what God wants. “An understanding of democracy,” he says, derives in part from “an understanding of religion that is in itself open-minded.”
Blair is convinced that democracy in the Arab world will not come without the simultaneous triumph in the region of those he calls “the open minded”: people who embrace Enlightenment ideas about modernity, skepticism, dissent, and—not least—an acceptance of Scripture as having an historical context. “There has been a huge debate about Islam and its place in its world,” Blair said, “and there’s been a battle over a narrative.” On the one hand, he continued, there are those who believe that “Islam is in fundamental conflict with the West, that it is disrespected, that it needs to assert itself. …They have found comfort for their narrative about Islam in a view of it religiously that is very much grounded in the past. It says essentially that [Islam] has departed from its proper traditions in an attempt to embrace such alien concepts as freedom and equality and so on.” On the other hand, “there are those who say, ‘That is nonsense. It is up to us to embrace the modern world in our own way and to do that recognizing that our religion was formed in one time but now must exist in another.’ If you look at any major religion in the world, that debate is going on. It’s got a lot more political intensity, salience, and, frankly, risk where it is happening now in the Middle East.
Establishing peace in Israel-Palestine, says Blair, would be a tremendous victory for the open-minded. “A state for the Jewish people, a state that is Muslim in character, if those can coexist in a small piece of territory together, that is a great symbol of coexistence. Alternatively, if they can’t, it isn’t.”
Blair calls himself “absolutely a long-term optimist” about peace in the Middle East, but “absolutely a short-term worrier.” In the battle between the open and the close minded over the souls of the Arab world “you [have to] surface this debate so people have it openly. It means you get into a debate with countries about what freedom really is, what democracy really is. You put [an open-minded view of faith], thematically and systematically at the heart of what you really do. At the moment we’re not even remotely geared up for that. And, by the way, those who have the extreme or exclusivist view of religion have got masses of websites, networks. They’re incredibly well organized. And we’re not. We’re out-organized and out-argued.”
“In the end, I’m sure, because it’s the human spirit that pushes this, the open-minded will come out on top. But in the meantime, you’ve got to work for it to make it happen in a more certain and faster manner.” That work, Blair believes, is God’s work.
Lisa Miller is a writer at Newsweek and winner of many journalism prizes including the 2010 Wilbur Award for Outstanding Magazine Column. She is the author of Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife , to be published in paperback this spring. Find Lisa Miller on Facebook.