Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Vainglorious Tony Blair

Tom Lehrer famously said that "political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Prize" - we are in the same territory when we look at some of the things Tony Blair has done since stepping down as Prime Minister. Along with George W Bush Blair was the world leader most responsible for death and destruction in illegal wars across two Middle East countries - and yet he is a Middle East peace envoy. Blair was the leader of a political party founded on the principles of equality and social justice - and yet he has spent the last few years enriching himself courtesy of anyone who will pay. But it is his sanctimonious and intellectually illiterate Tony Blair Faith Foundation that is the most grotesque and vainglorious of his self-promoting initiatives.

The mission of Blair's foundation is to "show that faith is a powerful force for good in the modern world.” - and that is where, intellectually, the problem begins. The corollary of this "mission" is that those without faith are likely to be less "powerful" - it doesn't matter what you believe - so long as you believe something. Faith, any faith, is preferable to none. The logical problem of this is that when you do embrace a faith by definition you reject and dismiss other faiths. Look, for example, at what evangelical Christians say about their faith - the "One true religion". The same applies to Islam "The True religion" - and to most other faiths. The point, of course, is that a true believer is also a true disbeliever. So for a Christian to imply that to believe Islam, or Hinduism or Buddhism is better than not to believe at all is irrational. Blair's foundation is also predicated on the view that inter-faith dialogue is important and that "to promote respect and understanding about the world's major religions" is worthwhile. This is a decent cause - but the starting point that in order to promote such understanding you have first to have signed up to one of the faiths yourself is baloney. As a non-believer in any established religion I have as much right to work to encourage dialogue between different groups as anyone else. I would enthusiastically support the value of encouraging different cultures to understand and respect one another - and this includes different religions. But I certainly don't need to be a Christian to facilitate dialogue between Christians and Muslims - indeed I would argue that it is far better for me to be unbiased by personal belief in order to do so.

But the greatest fallacy of Blair's foundation is its proselytising that "faith is a powerful force for good in the modern world". Many of us would argue that the reverse is true. If we look at the history of the world over the last fifty years or so it is not hard to find horrific examples of the damage that religion has done. Blair's Roman Catholic church has been misogynous, morally corrupt and is an institution based on hypocrisy and mendacity. The poverty in Catholic countries like The Philippines and much of South America can be traced directly to the church's obsolete ban on contraception. As can the spread of HVI and Aids in many parts of the world. The religious Right in the United States preaches creationism - a dogma bereft of reason and which arrogantly dismisses science. The extreme Zionist religionists of Israel and elsewhere commit or defend atrocities against Palestinians - only to be countered by the fervent terrorists of Hamas who are backed by a nation state, Iran, that has institutionalised Holocaust denial. And this is far from being the only religious war. Perm any two from the world's religions and somewhere they are fighting one another - Muslim against Jew, Hindu against Muslim, Christian against Muslim, Buddhist against Christian…

The Tony Blair Faith Foundation institutionalises the very premise that has arguably caused more suffering in modern times than almost any other - that religious belief is a "good thing" - and worth fighting for. In fact the most successful modern States are secular - in all but name sometimes. Freedom of religion, which was written into the American Constitution, originally meant freedom of Christian religion - there weren't many Muslims or Jews or Hindus amongst the Founding Fathers! But America is multi- religious just as it is multi-ethnic and that is one of its great strengths. The United Kingdom and all countries across Europe are the same. These countries are also secular in their legal systems and when a new law is under consideration only the narrow extremists would rush to see what the Bible says about it. Our secularity is essential to our freedoms - freedoms that include, of course, the right to believe what we want to believe and to worship how we choose to (within reason!). The logical extension of Blair's facile and dangerous love of Faith is to inculcate it into governance - if faith is so important then we'd better write it into our laws somehow hadn't we? A sort of multi-faith Sharia perhaps?

With Tony Blair history teaches us that it is always necessary to question his motives and take nothing on face value. Some would accuse Blair of practising a modern Crusade in his support for and involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. There was certainly something Old Testament in his vengeance against Saddam Hussein. That 9/11 was perpetrated by religious zealots is of course a fact - and for many of us this alone would be a warning against promoting "Faith" as Blair is doing. The more intellectually supportable position would surely be to promote the secular resolution of conflict - in the way that the United Nations was set up to do. For Blair to have enthusiastically leant his support to the many UN initiatives that seek resolution of conflict - whether it be national, religious, ethnic, territorial or ideological - would have been commendable. But Blair doesn’t have much of a track record in supporting the UN nor caring about it - and such an initiative wouldn't have given him a personalised, grandiose and named association with a cause, which his ludicrous Foundation does.