What, exactly, is religious extremism?
In an article posted on the BBC website this morning, Tony Blair calls for a "war of ideas" against religious extremism. There is no doubt that force is needed to confront a group like ISIS, Blair says, but we also have to "uproot the thinking of the extremists, not simply disrupt their actions".
"Unless we begin to confront the underlying causes each time we take on a group like ISIS another will quickly arise to take its place. And in order to fight a warped and worsening ideology in the long term we need to recognise that education is a security issue."
On that at least, Blair is right, and it's a point I have also been making here in recent blog posts. Blair continues:
"Each and every day the world over, millions, even tens of millions of young children are taught formally in school or in informal settings, a view of the world that is hostile to those of different beliefs."That world view has been promulgated, proselytised and preached as a result of vast networks of funding and organisation, some coming out of the Middle East, others now locally fostered. These are the incubators of the radicalism. In particular the export of the doctrines of Salafi Wahhabism has had a huge impact on the teaching of Islam round the world."
Rather oddly, he then adds:
"I am not saying that they teach youngsters to be extremists. I am sure most don't."
Anyway, Blair claims to have a solution – through his Faith Foundation which he set up after finishing his term as British prime minister and converting to Catholicism. His Faith Foundation, he says, has been working in schools in 30 countries, including Pakistan, the US and Singapore, where it has pioneered a schools programme for 12 to 17 year olds.
"The young people in these schools take part in lessons that seek to increase understanding of the faiths and beliefs of others, the facets of identity and the requirements of global citizenship. They also take part in a video-conference with other schools in a global network, so young people from Lebanon or Indonesia can explore and articulate their values, as well as encounter those of students in Ukraine or the United Kingdom."
So far, the scheme has "reached over 100,000 students", Blair says, and the results have been "overwhelmingly positive".
He then drifts into more dodgy territory by defending "faith" schools (he sent three of his children to one – the London Oratory).
"This doesn't mean an end to religious schools or that we oblige countries to teach their children that all religions are the same."Catholic schools will continue to teach their children the virtues of the Catholic faith. Muslim countries will continue to teach their children the value of being Muslim. But we should all teach that people who have a different faith are to be treated equally and respected as such. And we should take care to root out teaching that inspires hatred or hostility."
This is pie-in-the-sky stuff. Let's take the example of a nice, "moderate" Wahhabi school (or even a state school) in Saudi Arabia. Students there will be taught that anyone who is not a Wahhabi is destined for hell, and that non-believers are generally inferior because they haven't accepted the true faith. A visit from the Tony Blair Faith Foundation asking them to treat people from different faiths equally isn't going to change that, because it's an essential part of Wahhabi doctrine.
The problem here – and the reason why Blair's plan won't work in the countries where change is most badly needed – is that this sort of religious teaching takes place in a political context. Wahhabism is the ideology around which the Saudi state has been constructed, and on which it bases its claims to legitimacy. To change religious teaching in Saudi Arabia it is necessary to reconstruct the entire state – a project that Blair's Faith Foundation would presumably not wish to tackle.
Ideologically, Saudi Arabia is the biggest menace in the Middle East because its obnoxious version of Islam has been spread far and wide, but there are plenty of other offendring countries where it's impossible to promote tolerance in schools without also changing government policies and reforming the law.
You can't promote tolerance in schools while retaining, for example, national laws that prevent people from changing their religion. Among the Arab countries, apostasy is a crime in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, and in theory the death penalty can apply (though there have been no recent executions in recent years).
Even where apostasy is not actually a crime, government policies can lead to other penalties. In Jordan, for instance, apostates can be stripped of their civil rights and in Egypt religious busybodies can bring hesba cases – in effect, private prosecutions – against anyone they regard as not being a true Muslim. (For more discussion of this, see my book, Arabs Without God.)
Another problem with Blair's article is the way he uses the word "extremism": how do you define "extreme", and who decides? Some would consider his own faith – Catholicism – as an "extreme" form of Christianity. It's a woolly term, and not particularly helpful.
Blair uses the word (I think) because he perceives the problem mainly in terms of security, terrorism, etc, but recognises that it's not enough merely to tackle religious teaching that advocates violence; it's also necessary to confront what he calls the "incubators" of such ideas.
But even that does not go far enough. Talking about extremism lets other culprits off the hook: the so-called moderate governments that use various laws and policy devices to impose the officially-approved version of religion on their citizens. So long as they continue to do this, groups like ISIS can justifiably argue that they are only applying the same principle, even if their methods are far more vicious.
Again, though, this is not going to be changed by Tony Blair having a quiet word with his chums among the Gulf rulers. They are not going to abandon their oppressive religious policies readily, because they are part of the means by which these rulers cling to power.
In the light of that, it would be better to stop talking about religious extremism and instead assert the right to freedom of belief and the accompanying right to "manifest" beliefs – concepts which are already embodied in international law (though ignored by most countries in the Middle East).
Blair also seems rather vague when talking about "respect". At one point he says people should be "respected as equals, whatever their faith or their culture" – which is fine – but he also talks more ambiguously about "teaching the virtue of religious respect".
This blurs the important distinction between respecting believers as equal human beings (which is essential) and respecting religions themselves (a more questionable concept which raises issues about freedom of speech). Blair is on the verge of dangerous territory here because of a decades-long battle at the United Nations where predominantly Muslim countries have sought to stifle debate by seeking to outlaw "defamation of religions". The basic idea behind this is that since religion is "holy" it must be shielded from the sort of criticism and scrutiny that can be legitimately applied to other kinds of ideology – communism, capitalism, etc.
As far as schools are concerned, what Blair seems to be advocating is more emphasis on religious "education" without excluding religious "instruction". The distinction is important. Religious instruction is the teaching of a specific religion or belief based on its tenets, while religious education aims to broaden students' knowledge about different religions and beliefs.
The idea of teaching comparative religion is anathema in large parts of the Middle East and is often fiercely opposed by parents who fear it will weaken their children's belief in Islam.
One thing Blair does not mention in his plan for religious education is allowing students to consider whether they need any religion at all. Whether that's an accidental omission or not, it's a big one since non-believers worldwide form the third-biggest"belief" group after Christians and Muslims. Possibly this is another reason why Blair, in his eagerness to promote "faith", prefers to attack religious extremism rather than open the door to godlessness by encouraging freedom of belief.
Adding an element of religious education, as opposed to instruction, would be a step forward of sorts, but a more radical proposal, advocated by A C Grayling at the recent conference on secularism in London, would be to abolish religious education in schools altogether and replace it with "the history of ideas" – a history in which according to Grayling religion would be no bigger than the dot on a TV screen when you switch it off.