Tony Blair in Ottawa to Attend the Inaugural Conference of the Canadian Office of Religious Freedom

Foundation Update

Tony Blair in Ottawa to Attend the Inaugural Conference of the Canadian Office of Religious Freedom

24 Oct 2013

Tony Blair was in Ottawa on Wednesday to attend the inaugural conference of the Canadian Office of Religious Freedom in Foreign Affairs.

Tony Blair spoke alongside Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. The event was part of the Office of Religious Freedom's mandate to engage in dialogue with experts and faith community leaders on various topics related to the protection and promotion of freedom of religion.

Speech by Tony Blair

Tony Blair: It's a real pleasure to come and speak to you and to offer some words of support and encouragement to the Office of Religious Freedom, the work that Ambassador [Andrew Bennett] is leading, and to all of you on an issue that I think is absolutely central to how the 21st century develops. And this is something both in office and since leaving office, I have been fascinated by and intrigued by and about which I'm absolutely passionate.

I think there is nothing that is more important to the future security and prosperity of the world than that religious freedom becomes a right that we celebrate, that we take seriously and that we encourage. I believe in the international community, that this now has to be treated as a subject of immense importance in its own right, that it shouldn't become a subset of politics, but in its own right is important and central to the way the world develops.

And just recently during the United Nations Week, I participated with Secretary of State John Kerry in launching a global counter-terrorism initiative, and the reason they profiled the foundation of which I'm Patron, was because if we're trying to deal with the problems of the world, we cannot deal with them in isolation, from the issues to do with faith and how it can motivate people to do great good, but unfortunately, also as we know, great evil too.

So this issue is absolutely central, and my own perspective analysing the way the world is developing and politics is developing, is that whereas the 20th century was a century dominated often by very fundamental political ideological debates, in its place in the 21st century, there is a risk of ideology of a cultural kind replacing that political divide and becoming very dangerous for the world in the way it develops.

And it's particularly important for this reason, which is that the forces shaping our world today, which are around globalization and technology, far-shifting geopolitics, are making the world more connected and interdependent than ever before.

And so, as you can see from Canada, Canada is now a richly diverse nation. Many different cultures and peoples that have come in through processes of immigration over a long period of time. London, as a city today, looks quite different from how it did half a century ago. Now, personally, I celebrate this diversity. I think it's a source of strength, not a weakness and something we should be proud of.

However, it brings with it the necessity to find the means and the will for people who do come from different culture or faith backgrounds, to get along together, to live with each other, to learn from each other, to work with each other. And this central question of whether you have coexistence or conflict based on cultural difference, I think it is at the heart of how the 21st century develops. And the danger, which is that religion becomes an ideology in itself, used for political purposes, that danger is very present, very real, and as you can see from many different parts of the world, causes immense tensions and difficulty.

Unfortunately, this is not diminishing. I spend a large amount of my time in the Middle East. I go to the Middle East, to Jerusalem once or twice a month. When I go back shortly, it will be for my 107th visit since leaving office.

I see out in the region, in the Middle East, the problems and the difficulties and of course, in many ways, at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian issue is not simply issues to do with territory, but whether two peoples can live side by side in peace. The broader region is in turmoil, where I think it really is a fundamental struggle about whether you have a form of government where people are treated the same irrespective of what religion they are, or what denomination within a religion they are.

But you look at North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, in Central Asia, you look at what's happening in Myanmar today, or in the Philippines and other parts of the Far East, this is a global issue. And it's made all the more acute, as I say, by the fact the world's more connected than ever before, so people see and feel what is happening around the world.

So to me, there's a very simple choice, in the end, because some of those that are promoting a more extreme view of the world and of religion and its place in the world, they're organized, they make good use of the new technology. They may have what I think is a very atavistic and old fashioned view of the world, but they are prepared to use the modern technologies in order to promote it. And, you know, it's necessary for those of us who believe that across society, there should be the freedom to worship as you want and to be treated with, equality and with respect, the respect of what your faith is or your background.

For those of us who believe in that view of the world, it's also necessary to be organized and to go out and to speak and to promote this concept of religious freedom. And my view is that in the end, and I, I say this as a Prime Minister who had to deal with many difficult security questions, in the end, security measures are not enough. They may be necessary, but ultimately, the way to defeat the closed mind is by promoting the open mind, and by saying to people it is a fundamental human right that you should be free to practise your religion in the way that you wish.

I think we're at a point where this issue is central, it's become recognised as central. I think the very fact that Canada's taken the step of having an Office for Religious Freedom is a great sign. I think it shows leadership from Canada. And I think we've got to do two things in practical terms.

The first is in respect of basic human rights, we should be promoting the concept of religious freedom as a human right as important as any other right, as important as anything else, to whether you get a society that is at ease and cohesive in respect of itself. And by the way, I always say this to people out in the Middle East – when we talk about democracy, democracy is not just a way of voting, it's a way of thinking.

And it doesn't work unless you have a concept of freedom that isn't just an ethereal ill-defined sound bite, but is rooted in genuine democratic freedoms, which mean that you judge the society and its democracy, not simply by whether the majority takes power, but how the majority treats the minority. And you cannot have a genuine democratic system unless the minority is guaranteed rights and is able to exercise those rights. So that's one aspect.

And the second is in respect of education. And I would like to see a situation, this is what my Foundation is dedicated to, where we have an education programme for schools, which links up schools of different faiths across the world. Our programme is now in 26 different countries. We have also got a university programme which has a partnership with McGill University and other universities around the world where we study faith and globalisation, the place of religion in the modern world.

But educating the next generation to be culturally literate and open-minded should be a major part of the policy of governments around the world. And my vision at the end of this is, which my Foundation I hope can play a small part, is to get to the point where countries like Canada and the UK and the US are mainstreaming education about cultural difference through their education systems. It's not about telling people they've got to be religious, but making people understand about the culture and religion of others.

That should be part of the mainstream of our education system and part of our dialogue with other countries in the world, in the Middle East and elsewhere. It should be, we will do this and you should do this, so that you are also educating your young people to grow up with a view of the world that respects religious freedom, sees diversity as a strength and recognises the only way the world can work today is if people, irrespective of their faith, learn to live with each other and learn from each other in mutual tolerance and respect.

So that's why I was pleased to be able to come and meet Ambassador Bennett and, and to come to this meeting here today. What you're doing here and through the Office of Religious Freedom, is of profound importance to the way that our world develops. And I hope very much, from this meeting today and then the additional meetings that you have, you can also inform the global debate that's happening around these issues and help those of us who are involved in this area and do feel passionate about it, to go in the right direction, take the right decisions with the right results and consequences.

Because I know that the world in which my children are going to grow up, is going to be a world in which perforce, they will meet and mix with people of completely different cultures and faiths, and I want them to be able to do so with some knowledge of the other, some understanding of the other and some respect for all. Thank you.