Weeks after resigning as Envoy of the Middle East Quartet which aimed to bring peace to the Middle East, Tony Blair has a new job: promoting tolerance.
Last month he accepted the role of Chairman of the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation.
Founded in 2008, the Council is non-partisan and non-governmental, describing itself as an ‘opinion-making and advisory body on international tolerance promotion, reconciliation and education.’
In 2012 the Council published ‘A Model National Statute for the Promotion of Tolerance.’
This statute is ambitious, intended for adoption by all the national legislatures of Europe.
It aims to ‘fill a vacuum.' Nowhere in Europe is the principle of tolerance defined in binding legal terms, it states.
The principal challenge was to go ‘beyond rhetoric and generalities’, to ‘concrete and enforceable obligations that ensure tolerance and stamp out intolerance’.
Blair and ECTR Pesident Moshe Kantor spelt out their position in a feature in The Times. In it they stated:
‘It is our firm belief that it is not religion or faith per se that causes or foments conflict. It is the abuse of religion, which then becomes a mask behind which those bent on death and destruction all too often hide. The real issues are far more complex and demand greater tolerance, understanding and legislative powers to achieve a solution.’
Falling back on legislation to address the issues thrown up by globalisation became almost a mania during the Blair years.
During his ten years in office, 1997 – 2007, Parliament enacted 26,849 new laws: 54 per cent more per year in office than Margaret Thatcher. This does not include EU legislation. The exact figure of EU derived laws is unknown.
Multiculturalism and the exigencies of European integration meant that Parliament became a servant of the need to control.
Parliamentary democracy relies to some extent on common ground.
Civil society, whose mediating institutions provide a buffer between the state and the family, and a protected space for negotiation and conversation, has been squeezed by civil law making.
And more is on the way.
The new legislation proposed by the ECTR includes:
giving greater power to judiciaries to prosecute hate speech
lowering the barriers to what constitutes incitement to violence
making Holocaust denial illegal
entrenching state funding for religious institutions into law
creating clearer definitions of what is racist and anti-Semitic, and
securing educational programmes about tolerance in national legislation.
There is much about this which is problematic.
For example, the idea that one’s faith decisions originate in (or are primarily influenced by) economic and social circumstances is flat-footed and risks seeing faith as a consequence of human behaviour rather than participating in a dialectical relationship between what we believe and why.
Historian Tom Holland finds Blair’s understanding of religious belief inadequate.
‘Tony doesn’t want to face up to the possibility that religious belief might not be entirely compatible with Thought for the Day.’
For Holland old-fashioned cultural approaches to religion are ill-suited to dealing with modern Europe’s multi-faith environment.
‘I think that one of the issues has been that cosy presumption in which the archetypal religious figure was the vicar from ‘Dad’s Army’ which clearly struggles to contain religious traditions that were not a part of England’s cultural matrix before 1950.’
According to Holland, open debate rather than legislation is the best way to deal with extremism.
‘The extremists should be allowed to say what they want to say and people who disagree with them should be allowed to say what they want as well.
’Pretending there isn’t a problem leaves the whole issue to fester.’
Joshua Penduck is a parish priest who works in education and on interfaith projects.
He would be at the forefront of any attempt by the government to detect and report extremism.
Penduck finds Blair guilty of simplifying religious faith.
’Blair’s position is naively Kantian. It tries to have a pure numen or essence and strip away the husk of the phenomena, which of course is impossible.
’It ascribes an essential core to religion which is a pure thing: it is simply good. But it’s not really like that in real life is it, you can’t exactly say that religion doesn’t cause violence in the same way that you can’t say that politics doesn’t cause violence.
‘It’s like saying that politics is a pure institution which is only corrupted by people who misuse it.’
While agreeing that the problems Blair is trying to solve are complex and grievous ones, Penduck rejects the notion that legislation is the best strategy.
‘The problem is legislation tends to just repress things. Often it forces extremism to go further underground.
‘It doesn’t allow the fresh air of public criticism to arise which is actually the thing that dissipates extremism.’
Legislation against intolerance also endangers freedom of speech and the proposal to criminalise Holocaust denial runs counter to the United Kingdom’s historical legal stance.
Prominent blogger Tom Owolade argues that the only reasonable condition that should be placed on freedom of expression is one that is most close to harm: incitement to violence.
‘Hate speech laws confuse the distinction between speech - abhorrent as it may be - which should be granted full protection, and harm which crosses a threshold and clearly endangers the well-being of individuals', he says.
Given the problems with legislating tolerance, why is it that politicians in Britain and Europe seem so keen on pursuing laws to take on extremism?
Penduck thinks it is ‘understandable, considering that governments are under a lot of different pressures, including time - how much can you get done in a week?’
‘The alternative - and more effective way - requires much time, effort and money spent listening to people you wouldn't normally want to spend time listening to.’
. [‘Our conclusion is that it's virtually impossible to determine with any degree of certainty what the share of EU-derived laws is.’ Open Society Blog http://openeuropeblog.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/9-43-50-60-84-how-many-domestic-laws.html Accessed 14 March 2012.