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The Philippines is in many ways the perfect place to explore the complexities surrounding the relationship between faith and globalization, both past and present.
As a society deeply influenced historically by Spanish, Indonesian, Malaysian and indigenous cultures, the Philippines finds itself in the 21st century occupying a delicate and profoundly important role in both Asian and Western trade and foreign affairs. I am therefore pleased to announce that the Tony Blair Faith Foundation has just established a deep and extensive partnership in the Philippines: a schools initiative to make inter-faith dialogue a part of social education, a program presently in 17 other nations; and a consortium of universities that will join the global Faith and Globalization course that was begun at Yale in the USA and is now in 8 countries round the world.
The Philippines is a great place to exchange such ideas. It is a fascinating country on the move, facing big challenges but with enormous possibility which it is starting to fulfill. It has a new president with a strong mandate and the determination and capability to succeed and a people behind him willing him on. It is a nation of 100 million, situated in the middle of the rising East, with resources, culture and beauty to shape its future. Its people are hard-working and smart. Its poverty remains real, but so is its potential.
Faith is also a big part of the country. It is predominantly Christian and Catholic; but it has a significant Muslim population. In the past years the Philippines has witnessed a tragic dispute in its Mindanao region, where the majority of the Muslim people live. Largely ignored by the outside world, this conflict has resulted in the death, in recent decades of 150,000 people, displaced 2 million and inhibited what could be huge investment in the southern part of the island which is rich in deposits of oil, gas and minerals. It is actually the second oldest conflict on earth after North/South Sudan.
Hence the need for, and the importance of faith-based programs that promote peaceful co-existence. Of course, here, as in all such situations there are a myriad of political and territorial issues that complicate. However, here also, we cannot hope to establish peace without accepting that religion is part of the problem and therefore must become part of the solution. To its great credit the government is prepared to recognize this and help make it happen. The TBFF will be working closely with the government on two levels. In the first place, we will be working with the Ministry of Education to bring our “Face to Faith” program into Filipino public schools. This program will provide the next generation of Filipino leaders with the opportunity to learn essential communication skills while also gaining greater understanding of interfaith dialogue and the role of religion in the world. Second, we will work with the Commission for Higher Education, the Office of the Peace Process and a consortium of universities in our “Faith & Globalization Initiative,” which gives university students from around the world the opportunity to learn more about religion’s complex relationship with the forces of globalization.
From this example, we can see a wider truth about the way we live and work today. The role of religion in today’s world can be described in two words: pervasive and complex. Religion extends its influence over a myriad of aspects of our daily lives in the globalized 21st century, whether or not we have religious faith ourselves. Religion can claim responsibility for some of the most profoundly positive and important events and movements the world has ever known. Yet it has also been associated with some of the most heinous and horrible crimes against humanity.
The reasons for this are also quite obvious. Its impact is to thrust people physically together through mass travel and migration, and of course online. Globalization is an unstoppable force, driven partly by technology and partly by people. Its impact is to thrust people online and physically together through mass travel and migration. So today people are aware of, mix with and compete with those of a different faith. There are then two responses. One is to make sense of this interaction by establishing ways and means of living together, learning from each other and co-existing in mutual respect. The other is to react against the changes such a process brings and use religious faith as a badge of identity in opposition to those of another faith. The world over, this struggle is being played out. Unfortunately, those who take an exclusivist view of faith are highly organized and single-minded sometimes to the point of fanaticism. Those who are open-minded are getting on with their lives but not standing up for that open point of view.
The obvious risk is that extremism grows unchecked except by security methods whereas what is needed is a combination of hard and soft power. But the other side effect is that faith itself is discredited, seen as the cause of the world’s problems not a vital civilizing force for its future.
This would be sad; because the single most compelling fact about faith and the reason those of faith are still growing in numbers not diminishing, is that amongst all the potential for conflict, it still does immense good for the people of this world, in caring for them, supporting them when weak and counselling them when strong. This, not the extremism is the true face of faith.
Tony Blair is the Founder and Patron of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.