ABU DHABI // Using the UAE as a bridge yesterday for expanding his interfaith foundation to the Middle East was a logical choice for the former British prime minister, Tony Blair.
As special envoy on the Middle East for the Quartet - the United Nations, United States, European Union and Russia - Mr Blair has always found the UAE a welcoming destination and has developed firm friendships in the nation, including with Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
The Tony Blair Faith Foundation was set up in 2008, the year after he left office and shortly after his conversion to Catholicism. Speaking at Abu Dhabi Men's College yesterday, Mr Blair said: "So often, people look at their television screens and they see it all as religious faith being connected with conflict.
"Yet … there are people of faith who are serving God through serving their fellow human beings. That's the true face of faith."
The West's view of Islam as "extremist" could, he said, have profound consequences if not dealt with.
Mr Blair, who spent 10 years as prime minister, said that through globalisation people of all faiths and backgrounds were coming together, forcing people to see the world "in quite a different way". "The question is, does religious faith play a negative role, becoming a form of identification as an opposition to people of other faiths, or … a civilising role … helping people come together, live with each other in peace and harmony? That is the single, biggest challenge of our century."
Yesterday, Mr Blair signed a memorandum of understanding with the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), the country's largest federal institution. Through it, the foundation will try to promote racial and ethnic tolerance.
Aiming to "tackle prejudice, misunderstanding and extremism", the foundation has already begun working with universities in Britain, the US, Australia and China.
While it was important to bring religious leaders together, he said, "I want to bring it down to the level of the people".
HCT will help advise the foundation on its work with high schools and students, which will involve classrooms around the world taking part in interfaith exchanges over the internet. HCT students will also be able to take a course on faith and globalisation. The course, which has already launched at universities including Yale, looks at issues such as violence in the name of faith and the emergence of new religions.
In 2012, as many as 12 HCT students will spend a month on an exchange programme with students from countries such as India or the UK. If successful, that scheme will be expanded. The foundation hopes its links with universities around the world will generate research on the role of religion in the 21st century.
Sheikh Nahyan called the foundation's goal "admirable, ambitious and essential".
"Uniting people of differing faiths, finding common ground among those who come from different cultural traditions, harnessing the core values that are common to all religions - these principles are consistent with the aims of the UAE."
He said that all too often the practice of faith had devolved into suspicion of motives, bitterness, strife, and ultimately war, and he hoped that the HCT students would be able "to build partnerships across faith lines, to show the world how faith can be a positive global force in the 21st century".
Dr Mohammed Hassan, the head of Sharia studies at Salman al Farsi mosque in Dubai, said interfaith work was very important. "To be objective and listen to different people's views and know what others think helps you decide on your own beliefs," he said. "It can help deepen and develop your faith."
Bishop Paul Hinder, the Vicar Apostolic of Arabia, said: "It's very important that our young people of all religions know better the basics of other faiths."