Our Impact in 2014
30 Jan 2015
The Tony Blair Faith Foundation was founded in 2008 because we believed that religious ideology would become the pre-eminent driving force of global events this century.
Six years on our work has become ever more urgent.
In countries all over the world, religious extremism, and the inevitable violence it brings, has reached new heights of bloodshed and barbarity. States teeter on the edge of collapse. A brutal and bleak so-called caliphate expands in reach, drawing fighters from around the world and disseminating extreme religious propaganda.
The scale of our challenge is immense but our mission endures, to provide the support required to prevent religious conflict and extremism in order to promote open-minded and stable societies. Whilst the task is at times daunting, we believe we are making a tangible difference, changing the way individuals understand and interact with the world around them. The impact this past year can be categorised in three ways:
1. Global Insight
The international community faces a long-term challenge which requires the global insight to challenge and uproot the ideology of religious extremists, not simply disrupt their actions. As a Foundation we have begun providing this insight, particularly through our latest project – the online resource Religion & Geopolitics.
2. Practical Support
Practical projects remain central to our work. All of our intellectual content, advocacy and policy work is supported by practical delivery on the ground.
3. Systemic Change
In 2014 we continued to strengthen existing projects and scope innovative new work. In 2014 we also focused on advocating for a coordinated international response to combat extremism. We embarked on vital work with the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate on education reform. And we are advising the first ever public/private global counter extremism initiative – the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund to develop practical ideas and deliver them where they are needed. Whether it is through our own work or through partnerships such as these, our mission gets more urgent each day, as does our determination to make a real difference.
This year's report focuses on how we made a real difference last year, I hope you enjoy reading it below or by downloading it here.
The rapid onset of religious conflict and extremism in various countries throughout the world requires an immediate humanitarian response and a long-term comprehensive strategy. During 2014, we provided practical knowledge in local, national, regional and international contexts, helping decision makers, opinion formers and thought leaders engage more effectively in religion's intersection with politics.
An Innovative New Resource: Religion & Geopolitics
We believe that a more informed scrutiny of the religious dimension of conflict will contribute to more informed decisions and better strategies in response to the challenges posed by religious conflict and extremism. Our online resource Religion & Geopolitics launched in beta phase in 2014, with the goal of providing detailed knowledge and analysis on religion and conflict.
Religion & Geopolitics is fast becoming an invaluable go-to website for decision makers interacting with this issue in their work, including political leaders and policy makers, the media, military, business leaders the development sector, as well as those studying and teaching it. The resource serves as a platform for leading global experts to provide compelling, informative and timely data, analysis and commentary on the interaction of religion and conflict across the world. It explores current conflicts and their various components comprehensively and succinctly, without ever simplifying the situation.
"[The] Faith Foundation is now one of the best sources of accurate information on religion and geo-politics." John McTernan, The Scotsman
In the first six months, Religion & Geopolitics reached our annual target for visitors and has received citations and positive feedback from its diverse users, including senior journalists covering jihadi-salafi inspired violence, US senators and diplomats working on policy recommendations.
The content on the site focuses on the key players and groups, their narratives, grievances and justifications, and on the regional and international aspects of the particular conflict. These are explained through a series of situation reports, related commentaries, short and concise backgrounders, and subject-specific interviews with leading experts.
The data section is our latest addition, allowing users to analyse an abundance of data on religion, conflict and socio-economic issues from multiple sources. The data is cross-national and globally comparable. It underpins the approach of the whole site, which is to explore some of the underlying factors that may have an influence on conflict situations around the world.
Speed and accuracy are our main focus – when a game changing event happens on the ground we aim to be informing the response to these events within hours. As an illustration, in November 2014 an audio recording in arabic of ISIS leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi was released by the group on social media networks. Within a matter of hours Religion & Geopolitics had identified nine key points that revealed the strategy and objectives of ISIS, including subtext, religious significance of the language and the effect that Muslim scholarly criticisms are having.
The interaction of religion and conflict in Nigeria has also featured heavily on the website. Content includes a range of commentaries on election violence, ethnic and tribal considerations, the links between groups such as Boko Haram and international jihadi groups, as well as broader contextual factors, looking at the country's religious makeup and the impact of its colonial history. A comprehensive situation report written by the former US Ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, underpins these more targeted analysis pieces.
A prime example of the scope of the website is its coverage of the rise of the Islamic State. Our coverage has examined its origins, theological roots, momentum, appeal and global impact. Our backgrounder, simply titled " What is ISIS?" has been viewed by nearly 50,000 people.
Encouraging and Enabling Leading Thinkers to Explore the Impact of Religion and Conflict
We continue to encourage countries to explore the impact of religion on their communities and societies. In September, Tony Blair participated in a roundtable in Singapore, chaired by Charlotte Keenan, Chief Executive of the Faith Foundation, and Professor Kishore Mahbubani of the Lee Kwan Yew Business School. The purpose was to bring together policy makers, diplomats, academics and business leaders to discuss religious extremism in the region, with a view to determining how the Foundation could assist in building resilience.
In response to the realities facing China around diversity, culture and beliefs, Tony Blair hosted a roundtable event at Peking University in May. The purpose was to discuss current security threats in Western China with senior professors from the University. He led a conversation about the influence of religions in the country and their impact on Chinese society, culture and security, and the role of education in teaching the next generation about dialogue, tolerance and respect.
This year, we also embarked on a series of policy breakfasts in London and New York. The events provided an opportunity for leading thinkers to discuss a range of areas relating to religious conflict and the spread of extremist narratives. Guest speakers and participants were drawn from the fields of academia, media, government, diplomacy and the private sector.
Helping Future Leaders Develop the Necessary Skills and Knowledge
"The Faith & Globalisation programme is a brave attempt at understanding religious conflict and the potential for religious peace building around the world." Prof John Brewer, Queen's University, Belfast
To prepare future leaders, we develop and support an international network of higher education institutions committed to teaching courses in the areas of faith, globalisation and religious conflict.
This year, the network expanded from 22 to 31 universities. Notably, courses will be offered for the first time at Sabanci University in Turkey, Queen's University, Belfast in Northern Ireland and the University of Vlora in Albania.
In keeping with our philosophy of handing over our programmes for adoption, we have also developed a range of resources to support the teaching of faith and globalisation courses, which are freely available on our website. These act as a guide for developing bespoke faith and globalisation courses, as well as complementing existing ones. You can find these free teaching resources here.
Practical projects remain central to our work. All of our intellectual content, advocacy and policy are supported by practical delivery on the ground.
Empowering Nigerian Leaders with Conflict Resolution Skills
In February, we ran, in conjunction with Coventry Cathedral and Lambeth Palace, a training course for Nigerian religious leaders on conflict resolution. The aim was to give them the opportunity to develop empathy for each other's positions, and to empower them with practical tools to counter extremist narratives within their communities. Participants came from Muslim and Christian communities in some of the most challenging areas of the country. The course focused on the theological aspect of reconciliation, strengthening multi-faith relationships and building the skills to reject extremist narratives.
It was a powerful two weeks, providing participants with time away from their stressful local environments to determine how they could work together to counter hate speech. Since returning to Nigeria, our participants have reached 24,000 people of all ages but with a particular focus on campus and local communities. They have achieved this by organising activities such as workshops, seminars, step-down training, an employment training programme, a water development project and by speaking at major rallies. In addition, our participants have reached millions directly or indirectly through TV, radio and online and print outlets. We continue to support the participants as they carry out practical activities in a highly charged and dangerous environment. Based on the success of the programme, we are pleased to have secured funding for a further workshop delivered in close collaboration with our alumni, in support of five selected campuses from across Northern Nigeria during 2015.
Helping the Next Generation Resist Extremist Voices
"Face to Faith meets the need of schools in Indonesia, my school particularly, in developing positive values of the students. They have a good understanding of differences and how to respect them." Ukim Komarudin, Headmaster of SMP Labschool
Our schools programme, Face to Faith, continues to be active in over 20 countries, including in some of the world's most challenging areas. The programme, designed for 12-17 year olds, provides young people with the knowledge and skills to understand other religious and cultural perspectives and to resist extremist voices. It facilitates interactions between students of different cultures and beliefs that have lasting attitudinal change and emotional resonance.
Indonesia: Face to Faith has continued to break new ground by working with national governments to embed its values in their national curriculum. We are pleased to have secured an agreement with the Indonesian National Committee for UNESCO to create an Indonesian version of the programme, based on our experience of working with over 1,300 students during the pilot phase. This comes at a time when Indonesia continues to deal with the challenges of having a hugely diverse population, with about 3,000 ethnic and 742 linguistic groups spread across 17,000 islands.
Syria: In recognition of the tremendous need within refugee camps to encourage dialogue and understanding, we are working in Syrian refugee camps in Jordan where students are already being taught elements of the Face to Faith dialogue module. It is expected that these students will move onto videoconference dialogue, initially with students from the other camps, before expanding their reach to dialogue with others from around the globe.
Bringing Communities Together, Reducing Religious Tension
Our Faiths Act programme works to bring different faith communities together to reduce religious tension by increasing dialogue and understanding. We identify a common and urgent challenge around which different faith communities can work together. Through a cascade model, we train faith leaders, who in turn work together to train faith community volunteers, who then visit households with life saving messages. Our pilot programme in Sierra Leone tackles malaria, a huge danger to the health of children under five and pregnant women. 2014 saw the programme achieve a major milestone. A group of volunteers in Buedu Town, in the far eastern part of Sierra Leone, carried out household visits that meant that over 2 million people (a third of the country's population) have now been reached with potentially life saving messages.
"Some of us are Christian and some are Muslims. We mingle together and work together...when it comes to saving lives, it doesn't matter whether you are a Christian or Muslim." Pastor Sankoh, Faiths Act Volunteer
The model can be applied to a wide range of diseases and other health prevention measures. 2014 has seen Sierra Leone face a huge challenge to stop the spread of Ebola. We are working closely with the Government's Health Education Unit and faith leaders to develop and disseminate key health messages that will aid the efforts to halt and reverse the disease in the country.
The Faiths Act model can be adapted and replicated in countries where there are important issues relating to community cohesion and engagement that need to be addressed.
In Kenya, we are working with partners in the coastal region to identify areas of need. As part of the process, in November 2014 we held a roundtable with health representatives, faith and interfaith leaders and NGO partners in Mombasa to consider the practicalities of replicating Faiths Act in Kenya.
This year we have increased our global advocacy work to encourage a more proactive and cohesive international response to religious conflict and extremism. There is an increasing recognition that education remains by far the most powerful tool to fight extremism both at the state level and within the international community. This year, born out of our experience of running our schools programme, Face to Faith, we focused on developing international partnerships to advocate for greater action at the state level to use education to tackle extremist narratives.
Working Alongside the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee to Promote Education
"We will only make a real difference if we tackle the extremism at its source and do not allow it to poison young minds and seep into education systems. We need to equip young people with the knowledge and skills to resist the extremists messages." Tony Blair
In 2014 we began working with the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (UNCTED) to examine the role of education in countering violent extremism. UNCTED and the Faith Foundation are committed to identifying practical ways in which states' education policies can contribute to intercultural and interfaith understanding and help prevent the spread of terrorist ideologies and narratives. The work began in July with an expert roundtable at the UN in New York. Experts from the intelligence, academic and education communities met to discuss what steps could be taken to promote more active engagement by states in the use of education to promote intercultural understanding and tolerance. They also considered the nature and extent of the risk that educational institutions might be subverted by extremists and their supporters, and the kind of support that could be offered to states to reduce that risk. The outcome was an agreed Terms of Reference for a dedicated research project, to be carried out in 2015. This work follows-up an address made by Tony Blair to the UN last year. He called upon Governments to develop long-term and sustainable policies to foster attitudinal change infuture generations, to uproot extremist thinking and to take seriously thier responsibility to instil into the minds of young people acceptance of, and respect for, other cultures.
Jean-Paul Laborde, the Executive Director of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, said: "It is clear that education is essential to the dialogue that takes place among young people. The values they learn in school will have a direct impact on the choices they make in later life".
The Founder of the Faith Foundation, Tony Blair, added: "We will only make a real difference if we tackle the extremism at its source and do not allow it to poison young minds and seep into education systems. We need to equip young people with the knowledge and skills to resist the extremists messages they are often bombarded with and ensure that our education systems teach children to recognise the positive effects our connected world can have. This should be a responsibility of all nations and I look forward to working with the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee to advance this case with governments and institutions across the world."
Partnering with the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund
In September 2013, plans were announced to establish the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF), the first global effort to support local, grass-roots efforts to counter violent extremism in all of its forms and manifestations. We were pleased to be a founding member of the fund's Steering Committee, and, in the first part of 2014, worked with partners to refine the Fund's principles, scope and approach to maximise its effectiveness when it became operational. The Fund was launched in June 2014. As the only foundation representative on the Governing Board, we have turned our focus to advising on best practice as we seek collectively to support projects around youth engagement, education and the promotion of resilience to extremist narratives among at-risk populations.
Working with Governments to Develop Education Programmes
"I think [Face to Faith] is a creative way to connect with other students and to get to know about their faiths and religions. I had the chance to meet people of different nationalities." Student, Palestinian Territories
Our firmly held position is that governments and international institutions should incorporate the values of tolerance, respect, diversity and difference into their education systems. If taken to scale in this way, the power of education can have a profound impact on the views of the next generation. One example of a government adopting this approach is demonstrated by our work with the Palestinian Authority, where in July 2014 we signed a new "Memorandum of Understanding" with the Ministry of Education. This enabled us to take Face to Faith into schools across the Territories, equipping young Palestinians with life-changing skills and experiences. Our aim is to help students from a minimum of 175 schools engage in dialogue with their international peers by August 2016.
We have also started work in a number of schools controlled by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and we look forward to continuing to partner with UNRWA in this field.