Thursday, 8 October 2009

"We Face an Aggressive Secular Attack"

The words above raised some eyebrows when they were bellowed yesterday at a conference at Georgetown University in Washington, but they weren’t from a fiery American evangelical – they were from former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. The same Tony Blair who is currently the bookies’ favourite to become the first “president of Europe”.

Continuing my look
at the factors in the choice of the first person to take up the President of the European Council position, I thought I'd look at how these comments yesterday might affect the debate. Considering he is currently lobbying to be the symbolic leader of largely secular Europe, the speech seems remarkably ill-timed in its vitriolic attack on atheism (full text of the speach here). According to the Times, Blair said of the world’s religions:
“We face an aggressive secular attack from without. We face the threat of extremism from within.” Arguing that there was “no hope” from atheists who scorn God, he said the best way to confront the secularist agenda was for all faiths to unite against it. “Those who scorn God and those who do violence in God’s name, both represent views of religion. But both offer no hope for faith in the twenty first century.”
Apparently to Blair, Atheists and terrorists are two sides of the same coin. To call the comments incendiary is an understatement, and they may well come up during the difficult deliberations over the next month over who should take up the position of Europe’s first symbolic “president”. And it certainly won’t help Blair with secular Europeans that his speech was delivered in ultra-religious America.

Indeed it is Blair’s ties with America that are proving the biggest stumbling block to his candidacy, particularly his relationship with former President George W. Bush. The European left already reviles him for tearing Europe apart in 2003 by being an unquestioning defender of the Iraq war.

For me personally, there is just no way I could support someone for this position who said those words above. So my hesitation is over, I can unequivocally say that putting Tony Blair in that position would be a bad move for Europe, and it would not be worth the celebrity and energy he would bring to the role.

Contrary to the conclusions already drawn by the British tabloid media, I actually don’t even think it is very likely he will get the position. As the Economist’s Charlemagne column points out today, the fact that Tony Blair's name has been connected with this position for two years now actually works against him, as front-runners rarely secure euro-jobs in the end. And the reasons for various and disparate groups to oppose him are too high in number to see how he could overcome them easily. Small states don’t want to see the position go to anyone from the big three. The left hates him for the Iraq War, his abandonment of socialism to win UK elections and his sudden conversion to aggressive religiosity. The continental right is at best lukewarm toward him and at worst jealous of his celebrity. The British right reviles him. Who exactly is supporting this man?

So who am I backing? He may not be famous or charismatic, but my hopes are being placed in Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker. As leader of the Eurozone finance ministers he is keenly placed to help Europe through the recovery and to put in place new safeguards and regulatory regimes to prevent another crisis. Of course there are significant hurdles for him to overcome as well. Both Labour and the Tories hate him for his unabashed federalism, and Sarkozy reportedly thinks he bungled the start of the financial crisis.

So even though I was on the fence, there’s just no way I can hold my nose and cast my lot for Blair after hearing what he said in Washington yesterday, no matter how much his celebrity would give the EU some much-needed glamour and cache. Juncker may not be a Barack Obama, but given the disillusion many American progressives are now feeling about that presidency across the pond, maybe celebrity presidencies aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

18 comments:

Jujupiter said...

What about Mary Robinson? She's got an impressive resume: President of Ireland, High Commisioner for Human Rights at the UN, and now honorary President of Oxfam! I'm worried she could lack leadership on economic issues but on foreign policy, she would be perfect.

Anonymous said...

Isn't the UN human rights commission just an ignored institution that has been hijacked by religion to create silly anti-blasphemy laws?

benjamindavies said...

This seems like a fairly extreme misinterpretation of what the speech says. Nowhere does he get anywhere near saying that "atheists and terrorists are two sides of the same coin". The only comparison is that both threaten faith which, for atheism, is such a truism as to be utterly mundane, not evangelical. If you want to reject him as leader of a secular body because he has expressed strong views on faith, that's a different matter, albeit still a bit odd to me (the EU, whilst secular, is hardly preclusive of religious views, and Blair hasn't said anything about institutionalising religion). But let's not confuse two unrelated issues.

Björn Andresen said...

Responding to the above comment, I do not think this is an extreme interpretation at all. Blair is saying that atheism is a 'threat' that needs to be countered, in the same way religious extreemism (incl. terrorism) does. He's equating them both as equally threatening. I am not comfortable with someone leading the EU who thinks secularism is an enemy to be combated.

Rob said...

If there's one thing Europe doesn't need, I think it would be having a man in charge who has a strong record of holding his former parliament, cabinet, civil service and legal advisers in utter contempt. Such contempt that he prefers the advice of his imaginary friend on whether or not he should join his prayer buddy on a crusade, rather than theirs.

benjamindavies said...

@Bjorn:

A threat, yes, but to only to faith. He was speaking in a religious capacity, about the role of faith in the modern world. He's said nothing about atheism being an "enemy", only that he doesn't see it as a promising view of religion.

To suggest that putting two things into the same class constitutes "equating" them is absurd. If I'm going abroad, and I talk about the dangers of malaria and the local pickpockets, I'm clearly not suggesting that they have anything in common beyond being a danger. One is a danger to my health, and the other to my wallet. So that's what I mean by misinterpretation. Just because he calls them both threats, doesn't mean he equates them.

I don't really see what the difference is between consulting God, if you are religious (I'm not, by the way)and consulting your conscience if you are not. I'm not sure Blair would be the man for the job, but not for the reasons offered.

Anonymous said...

Dave, Dave, Dave! I was not expecting this from you. I was not expecting you to twist the words said by Tony Blair. He in no way was equating Terrorists and Secularists. He was speaking of religion and the value of it. He was speaking of the God-scorning Atheists, NOT the Christian Secularists. Now, perhaps it would be good for him to clarify that for some of us. You have something wrong about America, too. We are losing Christians (there was a poll recently showing a drastic decline in the number of Christians in this country and I see that as a danger to the USA just as Blair sees it as a danger to the world), and gaining Islamists. I believe TB was trying to encourage the Secular Christian, the Christian, the Buddhist, the Hindu and the moderate Muslim to speak up and hold on to their religious values because there is one religion in particular that is being morfed into a killing religion. That is the terrorist connection. I am proud Tony Blair would take this strong stance in light of the obstacle it may create in his becomming the EU Prez. It shows conviction. One more thing....you need to stop using the words, "President of Europe". That is misleading. The position is President of the European Council. He would be essentially, a spokesperson, a communicator and that is exactly what he is good at.

The Good Atheist said...

you might like this comic I recently made about Tony Blair: http://www.thegoodatheist.net/2009/10/tony-blair-is-a-scumbag/

Björn Andresen said...

@benjamin

But Atheism is a belief system in the same way all those other religions he lists are. Why has he singled out one belief system as being a danger to all the others?

If your argument is that atheism is a threat to Blair's Christian faith (and all other faits), in that it can lure people away from their faith, isn't Islam just as much of an enemy to Christianity by that logic? Why is someone leaving Islam for atheism less of a 'threat' than them leaving Islam for Christianity? If its a threat of conversion he's referring to, religions are just as much of a threat to each other as atheism is to all of them.

Atheists don't deserve to be villified in this way. It's a common way of thinking about them in America, and it's troubling to see a European falling into line with that outlook.

But it is NOT a view commonly shared across Europe, and for that reason Blair should NOT be the man speaking "for" Europeans on the world stage.

Anonymous said...

Amen Bjorn (no pun intended). As a non-believer I find Blair's words incredibly offensive. He's talking like an American politician and we in Britain shouldn't stand for that kind of language.

Brad said...

This is plain slander, and poorly-executed slander at that. I attended the Common Word Conference in Georgetown. Blair did not urge all faiths to "unite against a secular agenda," and most certainly did not equate atheism with terrorism. He simply meant that peace between the Muslim and Christian worlds is hindered from within by extremism, which promotes conflict between the religions, and from the outside by atheism, which undermines the need for considering religion in politics whatsoever.

Dislike Tony Blair all you want, I don't care, but the conclusions you draw from this quote are ludicrous.

Sobriquet Magazine said...

Great post. We've quoted you over here.

Grahnlaw said...

As I see it, the candidates for the top spots in the European Union should have a clear track record of supporting and promoting the founding values, the aims and the main policies of the EU, as stated in the Lisbon Treaty and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

British "red lines" and four major opt-outs are the legacy of Tony Blair.

Freedom of religion is important, but the EU itself must be secular.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, Jean-Claude Juncker is the right man for now. Problem is that the first man or woman to take the job will shape it and Europeans need a single strong voice.

Anonymous said...

Blair can cram it with crumpets.

Bikey said...

Yes, everything you say is true BUT it's not like there's much more than (a bit of) lip service paid to democracy in the EU. Referenda go against Brussels the first time? Get rid of them on the second. One sneaks through and speaks its mind? Chastise and send them back to do the right thing (with a few implied threats in case they fail). A hold out (who wants what the UK has, i.e. an opt out of the Charter on Fundamental Rights, no less)? Have Germany suggest that he disappear. So why not a war-mongering religious nutcase poodle, if that's what Brussels wants. You go Tony.

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