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Blair: Others Have Stupid Religious Wars; We Had Smart Ones

28/01/2014 13:28 GMT | Updated 30/03/2014 10:59 BST

When Tony Blair claims it is religious or cultural difference that will fuel 21st century wars, not the ideologies that caused past wars (The Observer, January 26, 2014) he shows only a skewed notion of religion's place in society and history. He projects a narrow idea of what it means to be religious, and diverts attention from other, more systemic problems.

He falls into three traps we teach undergraduates to avoid: reductionism, anachronism and 'othering'. First, there are no separate boxes into which we conveniently reduce and stash 'religion', 'culture', or 'ideology'. They are indivisible categories, and more complicated by connections with ethnicity, gender, class, nationalism, economics, politics, history - to name a few.

Religion, like any social category, marks and reinforces boundaries for reasons beyond the name of a favoured deity or sacred text. The majority of people in the UK who tick the 'Christian' box on the census but don't believe in God or go to church likely do so to mark an ethno-religious, nationalist identity.

As he says, it's important that people understand and tolerate each other's religions better. But, most sociologists of religion would argue that is only one part of a more complicated picture. Here at Goldsmiths we teach about religion in the context of contemporary issues, including religious literacy, gender, belief, human rights, social justice, popular culture, social media, economics, and politics.

Second, it's anachronistic to nostalgise an apparently more preferable cause of war: ideology. Since when was an Archduke's assassination ideological? The attempted genocide of Europe's Jews not religious?

When Blair forced the UK into a war on Iraq, he never claimed his decision-making was based on ideology - it was the supposed threat from secret stacks of chemical weapons. So where are the boundaries of what he calls religion, which cause current wars, and ideologies of the past?

Few sociologists would claim such definitions are fixed. Most call attention to some kind of belief in a higher, transcendent entity that must be obeyed. While some people might think that means a god, it's also how neoliberals talk about the 'market', or Conservatives talk about 'tradition'.

When several core beliefs become codified as the 'right' way, they are often described as ideologies. According to that definition, religions like Christianity and Islam are indistinguishable from political ideologies like Marxism, or economic ideologies like Neoliberalism.

Take Egypt for example. The activists I interviewed there just after the 2011 Revolution talked about freedom of expression, movement and ideas - perhaps ideologies? - more than they talked about religion. Those I talked to in Upper Egypt were perhaps more aware than most of that complex regional character, characterised by long-standing conflicts based on, for example, history, ethnicity, community, family, and economy. Religious identity is one of many schisms.

The current return in Egypt of a military regime is only partly in response to a fear of Islamist religious control. It is also driven by concerns over the economy and public safety, the sorts of anxieties generals are happy to fix, with what appears to be possibly greater restrictions of freedom.

For another example, look no further than the continuing crisis in Israel and Palestine. Protestors and politicians are not disagreeing about whose God is best, but about where they are allowed to call home.

Third, it's dangerous to prompt 'clash of civilisation' discourse by lining up the wars of the 20th century, led by (Christian) Euro-Americans as 'ideological' (read: 'intelligent if mistaken') against those (Muslims) in Africa, Asia and the Middle East as not only religious, but mis-informed (read: 'stupid').

Blair evokes a worrying East vs West or North vs South dichotomy that plays on stereotypes of civilised/uncivilised and advanced/primitive. Why would 'our' wars be ideological, and therefore more sensible and 'just', when the 'others' fight out of ignorance?

The problem here is that he falls into the colonial-era anthropological mistake of studying so-called primitive cultures to see what they were like before they evolved and became smart and civilised like the rest of us. Most sectarian violence in the UK happens between white Protestants and Catholics at Scottish football matches. The 'troubles' of Northern Ireland still simmer and are rooted in ideology, religion, history, class and economy. And what part of first-world, civilised intelligence justified the mass murder of civilians in Japan by American atomic power?

In the last part of his article Blair draws attention to the programmes and projects his Foundation organises for education, practical skills and community cohesion. One outcome may be increased tolerance for each other's beliefs, values, and histories, which can only be good news. The mistake is to single out religious conflicts as the main source of the conflict. This masks other issues related to land, resources, and power - and the role of European and American countries in the historical and current crises.

Dr Abby Day is Reader in Race, Faith and Culture in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. She chairs the Sociology of Religion group in the British Sociological Association and is the author of Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World, Oxford University Press 2013.