Harnessing the power of faith in a divided world

Tony Blair seeks common ground in an appreciation of religious diversity

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 June, 2013, 1:53am

I've always been fascinated by this part of the world. Its incredible history, its people and its geography. But perhaps what fascinates me most about this region is that it is the embodiment of globalisation. I'm not just talking about its thriving economy and rapid modernisation. It is a melting pot of different traditions, cultures and beliefs from every corner of the globe.

And the rich religious texture of Hong Kong reflects that of China as a whole. China is home to 100 million Buddhists, more Muslims than all of the European Union, more practising Protestants than in Britain, and 60 different ethnic groups. It has embraced these differences and used them to its advantage - making it one of the most successful places in the world.

The critical thinking is a crucial part of how we build bridges of understanding

For me, it was really important that my Faith Foundation worked in Hong Kong because it illustrates perfectly that peaceful religious pluralism is a reality - which is one of my most passionate causes since stepping down as British prime minister in 2007. I look with admiration at how the citizens of Hong Kong, this remarkable region of China, have done this so successfully.

This is a world in which issues of religious and cultural identity are increasingly preoccupying governance and politics. It's now more important than ever that young people and the leaders of tomorrow have an understanding of how religion motivates people - for good and unfortunately also for bad.

Just look at the news and you see the impact of both everywhere. Take the horrific attack on an innocent British soldier on the streets of London recently, or the violent conflict between faith groups in Nigeria. Take recent events in Bangladesh or the Mindanao dispute in the Philippines.

In many of the most severely affected areas, one other thing is apparent: a rapidly growing population.

The median age in the Middle East is in the mid-20s. In Nigeria, it's 19, and in Gaza where Hamas holds power, a quarter of the population is under five.

This has profound implications for education because it is going to take generational change to really tackle extremism - to make accessible the unfamiliar and to make sure minds are kept open.

It is around this core belief that I set up my foundation. And it is this which inspired my foundation's partnership with the University of Hong Kong, which is one year old this month.

Forty students enrolled in the inaugural course to look at the way faiths and culture affect the modern world, and many more are following their lead this year. This critical thinking is a crucial part of how we build bridges of understanding against division and prejudice, and eliminate the seeds of extremism before they are given time and space to grow.

These students of Hong Kong join thousands of other young people in high schools and universities in more than 30 countries around the world who are also part of my foundation's fightback against those who incite fear and terror in the false name of religion.

The 20th century was dominated by ideology. The 21st looks like being dominated by culture and religion, or, more precisely, their perverse and extreme expressions. I want to help ensure that the next generation are well placed to lead in this new world. I want to help ensure we eliminate the seeds of extremism by providing educational opportunities for students around the world, and I want to help demonstrate how harnessing the social capital of different cultures and faiths can be a force for progressive social change.

I have tried to put these ideas into practice in the life of my Faith Foundation. And I look with admiration at how the citizens of Hong Kong have put them into practice today.

Tony Blair is a former UK prime minister and founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation