Blair Joins Muslim-Christian Conversation at Conference

Tony Blair visited Georgetown on Wednesday to participate in a conference discussing Muslim-Christian relations.

Former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and other foreign officials discussed Christian-Muslim relations and religious intolerance in Gaston Hall on Wednesday.

This discussion was the first half of the fourth A Common Word conference, a global initiative designed to bridge religious differences in the 21st century. The first three conferences were held at Yale University, Cambridge University and the Vatican.

“We, Christians and Muslims, represent around half the world’s population,” Blair said. “In an era of globalization, when nations are interdependent, change happens at a rate unsurpassed in human history and people of varied races, colors and creeds are thrown together as never before, getting on together matters.”

Riz Khan, longtime journalist and Al Jazeera host, moderated the discussion. The panelists included Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding John Esposito, Bosnia-Herzegovinian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and Blair.

The A Common Word conferences were initiated after a group of leading Muslim scholars wrote a letter in 2007 — titled “A Common Word Between Us and You” — to Christian leaders all over the world. The letter said that Christians and Muslims should strive for peace based on their doctrines’ common themes of “love God” and “love thy neighbor.”

The conference at Georgetown focused on practical plans of action to make these common themes reality. Georgetown’s commitment to pluralism and interreligious dialogue served as a backdrop for the most recent step of the global enterprise.

“In the next two days we will address the ‘so what?’ factor,” Esposito said. “How do we respond to and put ‘love of neighbor’ into action to address the many shared challenges and threats we face in our world?”

Blair said that the most important aspect of the conference is to translate words into action. “If we show by our actions that we are engaged in understanding and respect and justice, that is how we will succeed,” Blair said. “And that is what will overcome not just the extremism within the religion, but the cynicism outside of it.”

The panelists also addressed the relationship between politics and religion. Ibrahim cited Malaysia as an example of a country with political legitimacy and democracy. He said that the “underlying principle” of religious discussion must be justice.

“Muslims [who are politicians] themselves have to better corruption and arrest moral decay,” Ibraham said. “We have to strengthen the institutions of society to ensure order and stability, as well as to protect the individual from unwarranted denial of his or her rights.”

Bondevik said responsible politics are just as necessary as interreligious dialogue in combating religious intolerance.

While the panelists’ comments touched upon all people of faith, the discussion primarily focused on Christian-Muslim relations — thus, many talked about the specific challenges facing Muslims today. Seventy percent of the world’s refugees are Muslim and most of the wars taking place now involve Muslims, according to Ceric, who was one of the leading Muslim scholars who sent the original “A Common Word” letter.

As a result, he said, Muslims fear that their rights are not protected.

Bondevik said people should be wary of “humiliation” of Muslims and “double agendas” while combating religious intolerance.

“We have our war on terror, but at the same time, in our war on terror, we have violated human rights — that is a double agenda, and we have to be aware that this is naturally making reactions in the Muslim world,” he said.

Esposito emphasized the importance of awareness. He cited a Gallup World Poll in which 57 percent of people surveyed answered the question “What do you admire about Muslims?” with either “I don’t know” or “nothing.”

He said that one of the challenges faced today is to broaden modern conceptions of pluralism and tolerance.

“...The meaning of tolerance that many of us grew up with and has come down through the ages... is a kind of begrudging coexistence rather than a sense of relationship based on mutual understanding and respect,” Esposito said.

Blair said that the best way of attaining this understanding is to confront the issues together. “Our coming together will allow us to speak in friendship to one another about our own faiths, but also to speak to the world about faith,” Blair said.

The conference continued on Thursday, with several panels featuring a diverse group of scholars and theologians. The panels were focused on specific topics of discussion, including “The Role of International NGOs in a Pluralistic World” and “Religion, Violence and Peace-Building.” Each panel consisted of remarks by panelists and roundtable discussions. The final discussion addressed the purpose and key ideas of the conference and further steps to be taken after the conference.

“We’ve started our discourse on how to build an even deeper and stronger engagement between Muslims and Christians based on our shared commitments to love of God and love of neighbor,” University President John J. DeGioia said at the closing of the panel on Wednesday morning. “As we continue our discussions today and tomorrow, I’ve no doubt that we will build on the foundation we’ve laid at this opening event.”