Blair says Christians, Muslims both face ’challenge of relevance’

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Christians and Muslims alike face “the challenge of relevance” in today’s society, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Oct. 7 at Georgetown University.

The challenge includes “showing how faith can be a force for the future, for progress, that it will not fade as science and technology and material prosperity alters the way we live,” Blair said.

“We face an aggressive secular attack from without. We face the threat of extremism, often from within,” he added. “These challenges are not for Muslims alone or Christians alone or Jews, Hindus or Buddhists for that matter. They are challenges for all people of faith.

“Those who scorn God and those who do violence in God’s name both represent views of religion. But both offer no hope for faith in the 21st century,” he said.

Blair, who became a Catholic months after he stepped down in mid-2007 after a 10-year run as Britain’s prime minister, spoke at a Georgetown-sponsored conference, “A Common Word Between Us and You: A Global Agenda for Change.”

The conference has been held annually in different world capitals — including Vatican City — since Pope Benedict responded to an offer for dialogue by a group of Muslim scholars who wrote to the pope following remarks he made about Islam during his 2006 address in Regensburg, Germany. The remarks, referencing Islam and violence, were regarded in Muslim circles as incendiary.

“How do we make our relations, so fraught in the past, fruitful in the future?” Blair asked.

“First, we need to understand each other, learn about our roots, how and why we are as we are, learn the essential spirituality, peacefulness and goodness of the others’ faith,” he said. “This means we educate each other about each other.”

Second, Blair said, “we need to respect each other. … One reason why peace between Israel and Palestine matters so much is: that it is a test, not just of conflict resolution but of even-handedness and respect.”

In response to a question following his remarks, Blair added that he is told that the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate is “not really about religion, but about politics,” just as he had been told about the situation in Northern Ireland. While that may be, he said, “a lot of people in those places do think it’s about religion,” and their views have to be taken into account.

“Third, we must act,” Blair declared. “Our relationship with each other … will best be judged in action, in the work we can do together in relieving poverty, fighting injustice, preventing disease and bringing hope to those in despair.”

Blair established the Tony Blair Faith Foundation last year and this year launched the Faith and Globalization Initiative to deliver a postgraduate program in partnership with the foundation. He also serves as the official envoy to the Middle East on behalf of the U.S., the United Nations, Russia and the European Union.

Sheikh Mustafa Efendi Ceri, grand mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina, echoed two noted American speechmakers, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in his remarks.

He noted that the first two days of last year’s “Common Word” dialogue were spent with complaints members of one faith had about the other faith. But the third and final day was different, because of “what Martin Luther King said: ‘I have a dream,’ not ‘I have a complaint.’”

Sheikh Ceri, while lauding freedom of expression as necessary in society, recalled some of Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” during his remarks. “We must go from freedom of expression to freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom from hatred,” he said.

Georgetown professor John Esposito, who has specialized in Islam for the past 40 years, said the question of “who is my neighbor?” has a different answer than it once did.

“Before, the neighbor was in our own tradition,” Esposito said. But through dialogue, we can express solidarity with “the neighbor of today,” he said.