Speeches

Tony Blair keynote speech at Monterrey Tecnológico University in Mexico

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Good morning. It is a real pleasure to be back at Monterrey Tech.

I was here last October and spoke to some of you then about my Foundation, and specifically the partnership that we have with Monterrey Tech in the Faith and Globalisation Initiative.

I have just come from a meeting with some of the key faculty involved in the faith and globalisation course here. 

I am delighted with the progress. 

I remember first meeting Carlos Villanueva, Rafael de Gasperín and Enrique Zepeda at Yale over a year ago. 

At the time the introduction of a course on world religions was seen as a highly progressive step. Mexico is a country that in many senses is deeply religious. It is also experiencing enormous changes in the expression of that religiosity.

And it does not readily bring the discussion of religion into the public sphere.

We are now in the second semester of the course and the number of students has increased by nearly one hundred – from 195 to 284.

Many of you will be thinking why is studying religion so important?  Why examine its interrelationship with globalisation? And I am certain you may be asking – what has it to do with me?

Many of you will run your own businesses, be elected officials or will hold other positions of great leadership and responsibility.

You may be a Catholic, Protestant or simply agnostic. Yet regardless of your personal belief, can you be effective without an understanding of religion in the public sphere? 

Look at the international news. The Middle East, of course. Recent talks between Pakistani and Indian officials to resume peace negotiations following the Mumbai attacks. The formation of a new state in Sudan. Religious killings in Indonesia, though that nation is making great strides in religious tolerance. Border hostilities between Cambodia and Thailand.  Blasphemy laws and their consequences for religious minorities. Debates about multi -culturalism in Germany and the UK. The list goes on.  In each instance, there is a religious dimension.

Let’s look closer to home. Abroad, Mexico has the reputation as being a devoutly Catholic nation. Yet it was less than twenty years ago that priests here in Mexico were given the right to vote. And they are still forbidden from running for public office. And though the 2000 census reflected a population that was 87.9 percent Catholic, this is down from 98 percent in the 1950s.

In the Mexican Federal Register of religious associations, the number of evangelical Protestant churches – 3,950 –exceeds the Catholic ones, which number 3,150. There are 53 municipalities where Catholics now find themselves in the minority. So even here religion matters. But of course the major event of the last few weeks has been the popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. These were not religious in nature yet in each case the Muslim Brotherhood parties will continue to play a role. These powerful forces, secular and religious, for change beg the question: what sort of change?

In the 20th Century the question would have been answered by reference to ideas of left vs right, of a clash between building up the State and policies of market liberalisation.  As we speak, that debate still rages today in the politics of the West, of U.S. and the European Union. But notice one thing. The parameters of that debate are actually quite small. Yesterday President Obama announced his programme to cut the federal deficit. He found predictable criticism from left and right but study it closely. Though the issues under consideration seem enormous, the ideological margins of debate are quite narrow. Likewise in Europe, some say the deficits are being cut too quickly and thus putting growth at risk. There is lively debate about the impact of cuts. But compare the debates to those of the early or even late 20th Century and they are within a very restrained framework of disagreement. Indeed the noise is often greater than the differences warrant.

Instead a new type of debate is taking shape. It can centre around immigration or protectionism but it is above all, about issues to do with culture and integration and it is altogether more vigorous and potentially more explosive. In the Middle East, it is about whether the West fundamentally respects or does not the religion of Islam; and the Israel-Palestine dispute is caught up with it. In Europe, it is about whether our attempt to integrate cultures has succeeded or failed; and insofar as there is a perception of failure, it is about whether our “generosity” in allowing inward migration and encouraging multi-culturalism has been abused. Here it is often felt that the “host” nations are being unfairly taken advantage of by those who want Western benefits but not Western values. The economic challenge is intensifying the cultural one.

In meeting this challenge, democracy and even economic change are not enough. There is a social challenge too. Do we want societies that are open to those who have different faiths and cultures to our own traditions; or do we want, in the face of insecurity and economic crisis, to close down, to look after what some would call “our own” first and foremost? And if we want open ones, what are the conditions for such openness to prevail?

The one lesson we learn unequivocally from Europe’s past is that when we close down, we lose. And if that were true in times gone by, how much more true today in the era of rapid globalisation where technology, mass and social media are shrinking the world.

It is also true of the Middle East. There are three elements in play. One is regimes, often allies of the West, who believe they need to keep a firm grip on their people for otherwise uncontrollable and extreme forces with a closed view of the world, will be let loose. The second are those forces themselves. The third is a group of citizens which I may call the modernisers. They have an open attitude, politically, economically and socially. We should clearly be encouraging a steady evolution of that modernising tendency and many of the rulers of that region wish to see such an evolution.

However, they are operating within a region in which religion occupies a vital, if not determining space in society. Ask how important is religion in the lives of people in Europe, and the answer is around 30-35%. In the Middle East it is 90-95%.

If you don’t understand religion in the Middle East, you don’t understand the Middle East. So as these recent changes transform the Middle East region, the way religion affects that transformation is profoundly significant. If democracy brings with it an open attitude not, just to the economy but to society and religion, it will be hugely beneficial. If it doesn’t, by contrast, it will further the sense of anxiety and alienation between East and West.

The missing bit of Middle East policy is inter-faith. Why? Because if the concern is that Muslims feel Islam is disrespected by the West, the answer is to engage in a dialogue that proves it isn’t. This begins in school, should be analysed and debated in university and should be grounded in political, social and cultural exchange.

The reason religion is important is that it is about so much more than religion. It is about history, culture, tradition, belonging, identity and meaning. It is about the philosophy of life. It is about the spirit not the flesh. If the Middle East produces political change, without social change that is based on an open mind towards others, then it will have been a revolution half formed and unfinished and the economic change, so vital to advancing the position of the people, will likewise fall short. Such change cannot come without Islam and indeed all of us embracing the 21st Century. It is therefore our job at this moment to reach out; to open not close our own minds; to push forward for justice and for peace; to partner the modernisers and give them hope; and it is their job to lead, to reach back, to show that respect and equality between people of all faiths and none, is a purpose shared. This change can be managed over time and with care; but come it must.

That is why, even with all the uncertainty and even instability of the present time, we should be demonstrating renewed commitment to security for the State of Israel and the dignity of statehood for the Palestinians. Now is the time to prove that if peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is at an impasse, there is an overwhelming will to remove the blockage and press forward. It is time for our ambitions to be bold however hard they are to achieve.

Otherwise, I make this prediction. Even with democracy, those in the East will feel they are – at core – in hostile competition with the West as to whose culture dominates. And those in the West will react against this hostility by feeling they must defend themselves. The result will be a standoff, in which the open-minded feel disempowered and the closed minded take over. Look back in history and such standoffs always result in the same thing. In the worst case, there is potential for conflict.

But though the circumstances of the Middle East may be unique, the same necessity of understanding the importance of religion, can be found everywhere. In China, where there are more Muslims than in Europe and more practising Catholics than in Italy, and around 100m Buddhists, Faith shapes many lives. It is true of course of India. The same could be said in Latin America and even if the numbers of practicing worshippers in Europe is lower, the importance of Judeo-Christian culture is palpable. In the USA who could say religious faith doesn’t count? Would an atheist be elected President? Probably not.

So my point is very simple. Wherever you look today, religion matters. Faith motivates. Understanding faith, its adherents, its trends, its structures, can be as important as understanding a nation’s GDP, its business, its resources. Religious awareness is as important as gender or race awareness. For politicians, business people; or just ordinary interested citizens, to know about a country’s faith perspective is an essential part of comprehending it.

Globalisation is accelerating all these trends. When I am asked to define the leading characteristic of today’s world, I say: its speed of change. Movements, swirls of opinion, waves of change arise, build momentum and come crashing down against our preconceived positions or notions with bewildering velocity. We adjust or we are swept away.

There are literally hundreds of websites – well financed and well subscribed to – that promote the closed or even extreme view of the world and Faith. My Foundation attempts to promote the open view, based on a vision of respect and understanding between people of different religions. We have a schools project now in over 15 countries with thousands of students and a university programme with eight world-class universities and many more joining. We are proud that Monterrey Tech is one.

Monterrey Tech is also helping us to create a new innovation. We are building an online tool that will provide leaders with the facts and information that they need in order to understand the impact of religion in the world.

You will have information about this tool on your seat.  I am excited about its potential.

We are going to create an online map based tool that enables the user - i.e. – anyone that needs information about the interrelationship of religion in the world – to access quickly and easily literally thousands of data sets and to see this mapped across the world, a country or where possible, a region.  You will be able to correlate GDP growth with migration and link to religious trends. 

You will be able to analyse the impact of using the internet on religious belief – powerful insight when considering the latest events in Egypt.  You will be able to get an accurate assessment of the risk of religious violence when investing in a country.

It is no accident I am talking to you about this here at Monterrey Tech. One of the reasons that we partnered with Monterrey was due to its extraordinary technological capabilities.  More than this is the highly innovative and progressive educational model, and integrated use of advanced communication technologies.  I am delighted that Monterrey have agreed to help advise us on the build and construction of such a site.  You will have seen on the screen behind me images of an early prototype that we designed.

This is just the start. Please join us in this mission.


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