The Honourable Tony Blair – the former prime minister of the United Kingdom – made his first appearance in Santa Barbara this week as he tackled the controversial topic of international religious conflict.
Outside Arlington Theater, protesters spanned the sidewalk armed with signs that read, “1.5 Million Dead,” and “Bliar.” Inside, Blair delivered his speech, “Faith and Reconciliation in a Time of Global Interdependence,” to a full house of campus and community members.
Blair began his lecture by depicting an increasingly interdependent world in which nations are increasingly pulled together by the forces of globalization and simultaneously repelled by differences in religious faith. On one hand, he said, religion can play a constructive and positive role – on the other hand, however, he noted that religion carries the potential to act as a dangerous and destructive force.
“Like it or not, the issue of faith and reconciliation is there,” Blair said. “The issue is whether religion becomes a source of reconciliation.”
Blair was first elected PM of Britain and Northern Ireland in 1997. He became the longest-serving PM of the British Labour party when he won three consecutive general elections. Blair stepped down in June of 2007 and assumed the position of Quartet Representative in the Middle East, working as an official envoy to represent the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia.
Blair strayed from his serious sermon only momentarily, revealing his struggles mastering text messaging as well as the French language. Blair admitted to fumbling over his French during a live televised press conference when he mistakenly stated that he desired the French prime minister in many sexual positions.
“He blushed as a matter of fact,” Blair said.
While Blair dotted his lecture with such lighthearted moments, his musings on religion took center stage throughout the evening. Blair said that in order for religion to serve as a source of resolution rather than strife, three crucial steps must be taken. The first order of business, Blair said, is to confront religious radicalism – a battle that must be waged within all of the world’s religions.
“We need to stand up and empower moderation and stand up and combat extremism,” Blair said.
Next, Blair emphasized establishing a sense of genuine dialogue between the world’s religions.
“Not just people sitting around and talking,” Blair said. “But people of different beliefs getting out and working together.”
Lastly, Blair said the world must face the staggering task of using religion as a source of reconciliation. He cited international issues such as malaria as opportunities for mutual cooperation between the faiths.
“[These problems] require global solutions, they require global alliances,” Blair said. “We face a problem of enormous proportions, and we need some hope put back into this situation… [Still], I have optimism about the world we live in today…We [just] need to make it absolutely clear that we are prepared and committed [to solving international conflicts].”
Following his address, Blair sat down to answer a series of prepared questions. Among the inquiries was a request for Blair to revisit his days as the lead singer of the Ugly Rumours, a rock band Blair helmed during his years at Oxford University.
“Quite a predictive title, in view of my later life.” Blair said of his former band’s name.
When asked on his take on the progression of radical Islam, Blair argued that the continued presence of fanaticism in the Middle East can be resolved only by internal forces.
“This issue within Islam can only be won by people within Islam, ultimately,” Blair said. “My view is that we have to engage at a very deep level. This is hard to say because sometimes it jars with people … but we have not created this problem. … We will not defeat this without standing up to it. We have to step up. Battles are not won by stepping back. We have to step up.”