Blair: The battle is about Islam

Manila, Philippines — To the world’s most prominent Roman Catholic convert, lasting peace in the Middle East depends on reconciliation, not between Jew and Muslim, but within Islam.

“Sometimes people don’t like me to say this,” British former Prime Minister Tony Blair told a packed audience at the Ateneo de Manila University Monday, “but the truth is there are two different elements ... within the world of Islam. One of those elements wants to reconcile itself with us ... and the other doesn’t.”

Blair spoke at the Ateneo de Manila forum on the impact of globalization and the imperative of social justice, but it was his remarks on the nature of the turmoil in the Middle East that seemed closest to influencing official policy.

“There is essentially one battle going on, and it is a battle about Islam,” he said.

His remarks were a response to a question about how he reached decisions when he was in high office, in particular his support of US President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He defended the decision, but acknowledged that it remained “highly controversial.”

Then he added a “larger point,” about the struggle within Islam. “The answer is not to back one dictator against another,” he said. “The answer is actually to partner with the modernizing and moderate elements, who are many now, to hasten change.”

Converted to Roman Catholicism in December 2007, Blair is known to be a close reader of the Koran as well. He explained his support for the moderate element in Islam by defining the faction in doctrinal terms: “In my view [it] is most truly and authentically the proper doctrine.”

“We gotta make sure those guys win,” he added.

Mick Jagger

The forum got off to a lighthearted start. After Ateneo de Manila president Bienvenido Nebres included Blair’s well-known early career as a rock musician following in the footsteps of Mick Jagger in his introduction, the Labour leader who led his party to victory in three consecutive general elections responded in kind.

“I wanted to be Mick Jagger,” Blair said.

Jesuit Provincial Jose Magadia, Nebres and PLDT and Ateneo de Manila board chair Manuel Pangilinan presented Blair with three tokens: A replica of Jose Rizal’s carving of the Sacred Heart, a set of books written by the late Jesuit historian Horacio de la Costa—and an Ateneo de Manila jacket. Immediately, Blair took off his coat and put the blue-and-white jacket on, to wide applause.

Blair recalled a visit to the San Agustin Church in Intramuros, Manila the previous night. He said it reminded him about “how interdependent we are, how interconnected.”

“The most interesting thing about this [global economic] crisis is how quickly confidence, or the lack of it, was transmitted.” Aside from the deepening economic recession, he also identified two other world-spanning crises: In energy security and in climate change.

“They are global challenges,” he said. “They arise chiefly as a result of globalization.”

He said he understood the criticism against globalization, that it “is a driving force that pushes people together,” blurring identities, upending old certainties.

Global alliances

Instead of apologizing for the international entanglement that economies of all sizes now find themselves in, Blair said the solution lay in even greater international collaboration.

“None of these global challenges can be met by a single nation alone.” He noted, for instance, that any international attempt to stem climate change that does not include China as part of the solution was bound to fail.

He tempered his warm praise for the new US president, Barack Obama, with a dose of the same realism. “Even America, with all its power, cannot handle the problems alone.”

Blair offered a formula. “If global problems require global solutions, and global solutions require global alliances, these alliances have to be based on shared global values.”

He named three: “It has to be based on concepts and ideas that are fair ... just ... equitable.”