On the street in front of the Arlington Theatre, a group of 15 or 20 people held signs and shouted an occasional chant of “war criminal!” Inside, a packed house eagerly absorbed the words of the youngest prime minister to grace Number 10 Downing Street since 1812. Bringing a message of peace and reconciliation through faith, Britain’s former prime minister, Tony Blair, extolled the virtues of finding common ground between faith-based communities to solve the world’s problems. “We need to stand up for moderation, and stand out against extremism,” he said, suggesting that while intolerance within religion can drive people apart, interfaith cooperation is contributing to global cooperation. “Personally,” he added, “I don’t think there is anything more important than solving the conflict between Islam and the West.”
With the charming delivery for which he is known, Blair navigated easily from one topic to the next, punctuating more somber subjects with amusing anecdotes. Regarding the relative inexperience of President Barack Obama, Blair suggested that his own path as one of Britain’s youngest prime ministers followed similar lines. “The lesson I certainly learned was that I was bolder at the end when I was less popular than I was at the beginning when I was more popular.” Blair often is criticized for his cooperation with former president George W. Bush during the investigation of Iraq for weapons of mass destruction and the subsequent war to topple the regime of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. On Monday night, he defended his actions, saying he did what he felt was the right thing to do. “We’ve got to get away from this idea that backing a regime that is brutal and oppressive because of a tactical advantage is smart strategy, because it isn’t,” he said.
Since resigning as prime minister in 2007 after a 12-year stint, Blair has served as the official Envoy for the Quartet on the Middle East-composed of the United Nations, U.S., European Union, and Russia-as well as running the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. His work has brought him repeatedly to Israel and Palestine, which was the basis for many of his observations about religious conflict. “You will not get a solution unless there is a secure state for Israel, and Israel has to understand that Palestinians need free reign in their own land,” he said. While Israel is a small geographic area in the Middle East, Blair said its visibility makes it a crucial part of the global healing process. Referencing Northern Ireland, where he was involved in the peace process earlier in his career, he noted that although peace seemed impossible there at one time, things had eventually worked out because of people’s interfaith commonalities.