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Why — and How — Democracies Must Promote Religious Freedom

Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, discusses global trends in religious freedom, including the threats religious extremists pose.

Interview with Tony Blair November 30, 2021 //   15 minute read

Tony Blair served as Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007. After leaving office, he founded the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. A major part of the organization’s work is promoting religious freedom, particularly in regions of the world rife with sectarian tensions.

The British leader discussed global trends in religious freedom with Lindsay Lloyd, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, Chris Walsh, Senior Program Manager in the Human Freedom Initiative, and William McKenzie, Senior Editorial Advisor at the Bush Institute. Among other issues, he commented on the threat religious extremists pose, why and how democracies must continue to promote religious liberty, and where he sees leaders of the three Abrahamic faiths coming together for the common good.

How do you define religious freedom?

Religious freedom is the ability to worship in your own way, to follow God in the way that you believe and is right and appropriate for your conviction. The freedom to do that comes obviously with the responsibility not to do that in a way that impinges or harms the freedom of others. 

If you are of religious faith, which is so deep within you and so defining of your nature and character and life, that freedom to be able to practice religion in the way that you wish is an essential part of liberty.

Following on from that, what stands in the way of expanding religious freedom throughout the world? For example, you recently spoke about the danger of religion being weaponized into sort of a political doctrine. 

Usually what stands in the way of expanding or delivering religious freedom is dictatorship or bigotry. So it could be that a government sees the pursuit of a particular religion, or religious faith generally, as an assault on the absolute right of dictatorships, where they don't believe in the idea of liberty and freedom. Because you give your allegiance spiritually to a higher power, they can sometimes see that as a threat. Or very often today, the threat to religious freedom comes from religious prejudice or bigotry, where you see your faith as the only faith. And not merely exclusive in its own right, but exclusive to the rejection of other faiths as legitimate for people to pursue. That form of religious bigotry can happen.

We see it with Islamist extremism, but we also see it in other forms of extremism that can relate to Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism. Unfortunately, all great religious faiths do attract their share of extremists and people who want to pervert that faith and abuse that faith. 

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Even though religious faiths have in common the idea of neighborliness, of human compassion, of the idea that you treat others as you would like to be treated, sometimes people turn those into a hardened set of doctrines or dogmas which stand you in opposition to those who do not share those doctrine and dogma, including from within your own faith. 

Those usually are the two main sources of obstacle to religious freedom.

How might democracies best promote religious freedom as a part of their foreign policy?

Because religious freedom is an essential part of democracy, even if we don't believe it's going to move the country with whom we're having an argument about religious freedom, it's still a point upon which should be insistent. Religious freedom is such a fundamental part of our liberty. The best thing for democracies to do is never to relegate that issue. 

Now, of course, countries will have relationships with countries that are democracies and relationships with countries that aren't, and sometimes those countries will suppress religious freedom. Therefore, one part of the dialogue is about religious freedom, but you've got other interests that you may share or important things you have to pursue with them. But it's important that we never allow that issue to be absent where it is an issue in a country.

Religious freedom is such a fundamental part of our liberty. The best thing for democracies to do is never to relegate that issue.

Picking up on that, how should democracies deal with some of the worst violators of religious freedom internationally? Nigeria, North Korea, China, and Burma come to mind. 

If the human rights abuses are particularly egregious or severe, then [religious freedom] becomes a dominant theme in your relationship with that country. Then you've got to try and apply all the diplomatic tools at your disposal to make it clear that you're not going to let the issue go. That it's a barrier to your own relationship with them.

Even with all the problems democracies have, I always say that, in the end, most people want to live in a democracy, not a dictatorship. Anytime, anywhere, people are free to choose, they choose liberty. It's a very natural part of human nature.

So, where a democracy is arguing with a country for religious freedom, and you can see that religious freedom being suppressed, and suppressed in a particularly a harsh way, this doesn't become just something you add on to a list of long things. It becomes something that is central to your relationship with that country and where, in the appropriate circumstances, you are making it clear that this will be a fundamental part of your debate with them. This suppression changes the nature of your relationship with that country. 

There may be issues upon which you still have to work with that country. Nonetheless, the way that they will treat religious freedom is an important pattern. There’s no hard and fast rule, but sometimes it will become the dominant theme in your engagement with that country because of the nature of the oppression.

Beyond political leaders, how do religious leaders keep extremists from hijacking or even weaponizing their faith traditions?

The important thing for leaders is to do two things. The first is very obvious and the second is less obvious. 

The first is to give real leadership to their community and say to them bigotry and prejudice against those who are of a different faith and different culture are unacceptable. It is contrary to the values of that religious community. They’ve got to stand up and show leadership. It’s not completely different to a political party that goes off the rails and starts becoming extreme. At some point, leaders have got to stand up and lead, and that is true for a church just as it's true for a political party or indeed a country.

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But a second thing that is important in the context today of contemporaneous religious extremism, is that religious leaders have got to argue why, as a matter of religious faith and religious doctrine, such prejudice and bigotry is wrong. For example, Islamist extremism is based on a misreading of scripture, it's based on a misinterpretation of the fundamentals of that religion in a theological way.

It's important, therefore, for the religious leaders to address that question of theology and not just of practice. They’re not just saying, “Look, this is morally wrong.” They're pointing out how in relation to the fundamental convictions, based on scripture of that religion, such attitudes are contradictory and lead not to redemption or salvation, but to condemnation.

Where do you see leaders of the three Abrahamic faiths coming together for the common good? If so, how are they doing that?

In relation to the Abrahamic faiths — Christianity, Judaism, Islam — there are many examples now of religious leaders coming together. In Britain, for example, the leaders of all the faiths come together at certain important times for the country, such as when we're commemorating Veterans’ Day in our country. You also saw the leaders of the Abrahamic faiths come together in New Zealand when there were attacks against one particular part of the religious community. 

My own institute does a lot of work in this space. We have programs where those from all the Abrahamic faiths will participate in trying to understand each other, see the common points of tradition and history, learn to understand each other, live with each other, like each other.

In the Middle East specifically, the recent rapprochement between the Gulf state of the United Arab Emirates and the state of Bahrain and the state of Israel was an example of people coming together. The UAE has a whole Abrahamic center dedicated to examining and showcasing all three Abrahamic faiths. These are significant advances. 

The idea of people coming together from the same origin of Abraham stands in sharp contrast to those who want to abuse religion and turn it into a political ideology, turn it into a badge of opposition to those that don't share the faith. It’s a very important thing that's happening in the Middle East right now because I believe the scourge of the Middle East is basically the problem of religion being used as an instrument of political extremism. And there's a reaction against that across the region from all three Abrahamic faiths coming together. 

The idea of people coming together from the same origin of Abraham stands in sharp contrast to those who want to abuse religion and turn it into a political ideology, turn it into a badge of opposition to those that don't share the faith.

Now, Christianity has still got a vital role to play. It's been squeezed out in many parts of the Middle East. But there's an increasing recognition that, just as discrimination against Jewish people played a really negative part in the development of countries in the Middle East, people are realizing that treasuring their Christian communities is also part of building a stable and secure society and economy for the future.

To what extent do inadequate education systems in a country lead to greater religious intolerance and maybe even persecution?

Young people don't naturally become extreme. Young people mix with each other. Prejudice is not something that comes naturally. Prejudice is almost always taught, and sometimes it's taught in family, sometimes, unfortunately, it can be taught by religious instruction. It’s always a negative for a country. That is particularly true today. 

So, educating young people to be open-minded towards each other is a vital part of any sensible modern education system. Again, my institute has programs that reach hundreds of thousands of young people across the world, where we introduce people of a different faith to each other. Sometimes it's the first time they've ever come across someone of a different faith. We get them to talk with each other, to try and understand their own religious belief and the sharing of that different heritage. 

It's amazing how big a difference it makes to the attitudes of those young people. They rediscover what is natural to them, which is to be open-minded and to try to go across the boundaries of race and nation and ethnicity and faith and culture.

How might democracies — in particular, democratic governments — best promote strengthening educational institutions around the world?

My institute works now in many different countries in the world, some of whom have real problems of religious extremism. I always say to the leaders of those countries that educating your young people to an open-minded, creative way of thinking is a vital part of your future.

The bigotry and prejudice that come from identifying someone who's different as an enemy, that's not just a moral problem. It's not just something that disrupts the peace and stability of your country. It’s fundamentally incompatible with the way the modern world works. In particular, the way a modern economy works. Today, people who are educated to be open-minded make the most of the world's opportunities. The way economies work today is through creativity.

The way education works today is not just learning by rote anymore because the internet puts a lot of information at our fingertips — for good or for bad. What you need is to be taught to think creatively and to challenge. 

For example, creative thinking and creative dialogue, of which open-mindedness and tolerance towards others who are different is a vital part, are pre-conditional to economic prosperity. It is a vital part of producing a generation of young people that are at ease at home in the modern world.

You talked there about younger generations. We've been exploring this topic of the “Nones,” who may consider themselves spiritual, but not religiously affiliated. What impact do you think the growth of the Nones might have on the cause of religious liberty?

The growth of the Nones is a very interesting phenomenon. It shows that people still yearn for spiritual guidance and have a natural and deep-seated spiritual belief. But often people look at the manifestations of organized religion and say, “How is that consistent?” Even if the doctrines are supposed to be about love and compassion and common humankind, the behavior of some of the people who attach themselves to particular forms of religion are completely inconsistent with that.

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The Nones are a wake-up call to those who are involved in organized religion. I'm a practicing Christian myself, but there is an obligation on all of us who are involved in organized religion to make people understand that those essential values and deep-seated beliefs that drive us are rooted in human compassion and love for our neighbor and respect for God. They are not rooted in doctrine or dogma that turn into spiritual or intellectual or practical weapons against those who don't share our faith.

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