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Blair Says Countering Islamist Extremism Needs Focus on Religion

Former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair
Former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair gestures while speaking during an event in London today. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair will say that world leaders need to engage with the religious aspects of Islamist extremism rather than concentrating on its political causes.

Blair will tell an audience in London today that governments must overcome their resistance to talking about religion to tackle conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa and engage in “the essential battle” for global security.

“There are an array of complexities in each case, derived from tribe, tradition and territory,” he will say, according to extracts released by his office. “I would not for a moment suggest that these conflicts do not have their own individual characteristics. But there is something frankly odd about the reluctance to accept what is so utterly plain: that they have in common a struggle around the issue of the rightful place of religion, and in particular Islam, in politics.”

Blair’s criticism of politicians being uncomfortable talking about religion comes after Prime Minister David Cameron ran into criticism for speaking about his Christian faith and characterising Britain as a Christian country. When Vanity Fair magazine asked Blair about his faith in a 2003 interview, his then press chief, Alastair Campbell, was reported to have interrupted, saying “We don’t do God.”

Blair, who is Middle East envoy for the quartet of the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, will say that leaders need to take sides in supporting those governments and movements that back religious freedom, pluralism and open economies. Islamist extremism needs to be countered as it is spreading and destabilising societies, threatening peaceful coexistence, he will say.

‘Two Sides’

“This is a struggle with two sides. So when we look at the Middle East and beyond it to Pakistan or Iran and elsewhere, it isn’t just a vast unfathomable mess with no end in sight and no one worthy of our support,” Blair will say. “It is in fact a struggle in which our own strategic interests are intimately involved; where there are indeed people we should support and who, ironically, are probably in the majority if only that majority were mobilized, organized and helped.”

Western nations should put aside differences with Russia and China to build alliances to confront the “deadly” mix of politics and religion, Blair will say.

“We have to stop treating each country on the basis of whatever seems to make for the easiest life for us at any one time. We have to have an approach to the region that is coherent and sees it as a whole,” he will say. “Alliances are forged at moments of common challenge. Partnerships are built through trials shared. There is no engagement that doesn’t involve putting yourself out there. There is no commitment that doesn’t mean taking a risk.”

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