Multiculturalism: Interfaith Dialogue — Question for Short Debate
Baroness Verma (Whip, House of Lords; Conservative)
My Lords, I wish just to remind noble Lords that Back-Bench contributions are four minutes, so when the clock strikes four, contribution time is over.
Lord Mitchell (Labour)
My Lords, I am quite overwhelmed by the response of noble Lords to this debate. I am sure that the next 90 minutes are going to be both illuminating and enhancing. I know it is only four minutes per noble Lord, but I am sure it is going to be a good debate and I thank everybody for participating.
I was on holiday during the August riots, but even following events on the internet, one incident made a huge impression on me. Tariq Jahan had just lost his son, Haroon, who was murderously mowed down when he and his friends were trying to protect local shops from looters. Mr Jahan's words were haunting:
"Why do we have to kill one another? Why are we doing this? Step forward if you want to lose your sons. Otherwise, calm down and go home, please".
I have twin sons who are the same age as Haroon, and I very much doubt whether I would be so generously minded were the same thing to happen to one of my boys. His words are seared on to my soul. Tariq Jahan said more about inter-communal dialogue in those few words than any of us could do in a lifetime.
Two weeks earlier, in a senseless act of Islamophobia, a White Supremacist slaughtered 77 white teenagers at a political holiday resort in Norway. A white killing whites: how can that be Islamophobic, you might ask. Anders Breivik saw the Norwegian Labour party's policy of defending diversity and tolerance as being supportive of minorities, which indeed it is. Therefore, in his twisted mind worthy of the terrible carnage that he wrought, his gun was aimed at whites but his true targets were Norwegian Turks. With the tenth anniversary of 9/11 almost upon us, we all know too well that murderers and madmen are everywhere. When we learnt that Breivik had strong links to the extreme right-wing and racist groups in our own country, we knew that we must be on our guard. Indeed, the community response to the English Defence League protest in the East End of London last weekend is a testament to the strength of this vigilance.
The Prime Minister in his speech in Munich last February addressed racism, terrorism, and the failures of multiculturalism. Addressing the issues of extremist ideology, he concentrated on two platforms. The first was to tackle all forms of extremism; the second was to encourage stronger citizenship. He coined the phrase "muscular liberalism". I would like to introduce a third component: greater understanding. I confess that, for much of my life, every time I heard the word "interfaith", my heart sank. I saw it as the language of do-gooders-people who speak well and do nothing. My gradual immersion in the world of interfaith dialogue has been a personal journey of overcoming my prejudices. The more I am exposed to the subject, the more convinced I am that it is a crucial way to achieve greater understanding in our society.
Like many noble Lords speaking today, I am a descendant of immigrants. I am Jewish: my grandparents and great-grandparents emigrated to this country from eastern Europe during the 19th century. They trod a well worn path. Like Huguenots and Irish Catholics before them, and Caribbeans, Indians and Pakistanis after them, they came to this country for a better life. Some came to escape persecution, others for the opportunity to participate in the freedom and prosperity that this country has to offer-but all of them came to be part of our nation. When I hear people say that immigrants are lazy scroungers, I look at what the children of immigrants have achieved in business, science, sport, the arts and entertainment, and the professions. This country has been enriched by us all. I do not know this for sure, but I would bet that getting on for 15 per cent of your Lordships' House can trace their ancestry back to relatively recent immigration. What an achievement and what a statement about our country.
In Mr Cameron's view, our multiculturalism has failed because we have,
"encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream".
In truth, I agree with him. Like three other Lords in your Lordships' House, including the noble Lords, Lord Sacks and Lord Young of Graffham, I went to a grammar school in Finchley called Christ's College. The name is ironic given that all four noble Lords are Jewish, as were at least 50 per cent of boys at the school. Even though we did not attend Christian prayers, we had religious studies on the syllabus. We learnt about the New Testament and Christianity. I am glad to have a good understanding of what is still the dominant and established church in this country. Has this made me a lesser Jew? I think not.
Today, it seems that many minority faith schools pay only lip service to understanding other religions and customs. How can a child from one faith understand a child from another if they never mix, play together or visit each other's homes? Many people from minority communities are worried that their children will become assimilated and their culture diluted. In the UK, more than one-third of young Jews are marrying non-Jews: but this is no reason to live in hermetically sealed silos. For this reason, I feel very uncomfortable with faith schools, although I concede that on this matter and in the Chamber this afternoon I am probably on a losing wicket.
Our ignorance of each other's religions and traditions is shameful. I find it amazing that Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Pesach-major Jewish religious holidays-are simply blurs to most non-Jews. But then, what do I know about Islam and Muslim holidays, or Hindu or Buddhist? Not much, I grant you, but these days I am trying hard to learn. I would like to see the Government begin a programme of instruction to develop interfaith understanding. I would like to see schoolchildren really immersed in other religions so that they know what being a Muslim or a Hindu is really about. I would like to see university administrators and faculty members, school teachers and civil servants versed in minority religions. Here I must pay tribute to the Three Faiths Forum, which does sterling work encouraging school teachers to understand other faiths.
Dietary rules are very important to observant Muslims and Jews, so campus administrators and employers need to know about halal and kosher. It is outrageous that universities still hold exams on major minority religious holidays and then claim, as I have heard them say, that they had no idea. The Coexistence Trust, which I chair-I declare my interest-has a very focused remit. We seek to bring greater understanding between Jewish and Muslim students on our university campuses. Many people are surprised when I tell them that among the Jewish community several universities have been considered no-go areas. They are also surprised to learn that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia exist not just among the students, but among the faculty. I do not want to overstate the case, but the fact is that it lurks below the surface and comes to prominence every time there is an incident in the Middle East. Many faculty members and university administrators have a curious attitude towards these anxieties. They say that universities are not only places of learning, but also places of intellectual challenge. Students, they say, must be prepared to hear things that they do not like, things which may cause them distress; such is campus life. Who will disagree with that? However, when administrators and faculties believe that the laws of the land are somehow not relevant in the campus, as I have witnessed, we have problems. Free speech is of paramount importance, but it has to exist within the law. Universities also have a duty to ensure that hate crimes and racial slurs are not committed. They also have a duty of care to all their students.
How do we go about trying to change these attitudes? The Coexistence Trust addresses issues between Jews and Muslims on 12 of our national campuses. We confine our activities just to Jews and Muslims, just to universities and just to 12 campuses-we have limited resources and we have to be very focused. We set up the trust in such a way that it reflects a balance between both communities. Our trustees, many of them speaking this afternoon, are all Members of your Lordships' House. Three are Jewish and three are Muslim. Our employees also come from both communities. Our donors are nearly balanced between Muslims and Jews. It means that I can face down anyone who says that we have a bias in either direction. On each campus we have student ambassadors whose function is to engage with both communities. The National Union of Students positively encourages our work, as does the Union of Jewish Students. We are progressing in our links with the Federation of Student Islamic Societies in the hope that they, too, will back us. Our employees and campus ambassadors are taught conflict resolution, which they will need when the situation arises. They are taught leadership skills, which will be required when they enter the workplace. They are our leaders of tomorrow and what we are doing is really making a difference.
Finally, last April I was invited by the British consulate in New York and the British Council, also in that city, to tell the American Jewish community about our activities. There were many misguided opinions about Britain, some quite absurd, but I think that we did a great job of convincing them that we are robustly addressing the problem and when we pushed hard we were astonished to learn that American campuses, too, face many of the same issues that we have in the UK. Anyhow, they must have liked what we said because the FCO and the British Council are encouraging us to set up a partnership with CAUSE-NY, New York-an important example of transatlantic collaboration on intercultural issues. It is a British export of British ideas.
Changing deep-seated opinions and prejudices is not easy. I believe to my innermost core that meeting each other, working with each other and understanding each other's cultures through interfaith dialogue is a vital way to reduce tensions and make our country a happier place.
Lord Young of Graffham (Conservative)
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, for bringing forward this debate today and I declare an interest as a trustee of Coexistence Trust. I pay tribute to the work and the way in which he has transformed the trust over the past few years.
There are three monotheistic faiths. All have the Bible in common, all believe in the same creator, yet so many have suffered down the centuries through ignorance of each other. I am first generation. My father was an immigrant. He came here in 1905 aged five. His elder sister, who was three years older, came with him and kept a diary. She recounted how at night they crept out from the village where they lived, how they were smuggled across the border and how, after a difficult journey, they arrived here and found to their amazement that they could speak the language-they arrived in the Pool of London, the East End was next door, and the language was Yiddish. She quickly learnt that there were other languages. By the early 1920s, my father was playing club cricket and keeping wicket. Never did they wish to give up on their religion, but they were proud to be English. They regarded themselves as English Jews and never forget their debt of gratitude to this country that gave them shelter and relief from persecution and pogrom.
My noble friend Lord Tebbit has a very succinct way of expressing ideas. His idea of the cricket test-that when you come somewhere, you should follow its side-is one that my father passed with flying colours, but I must confess that I have not yet heard of Lithuania playing test cricket. When they arrived, they expected to conform. They expected to rely on themselves or their coreligionists, for this was decades before Beveridge. However, many decades have passed, and after a period of what appeared unrestrained immigration we are where we are with some parts of our country appearing like another country and another culture, and that is not something that we can just accept.
To declare an interest, I am chair of the Jewish Museum in London, and I commend it to your Lordships' House. Please pay it a visit because it is a museum that shows the experience of an immigrant population that came here and subsumed itself in the life of the nation. Indeed, when our patron, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, came to visit us last November, he was met at the door by a group of 30 schoolchildren under 10 singing Hebrew songs, and they were, without expectation, Christian and Muslim. I see the museum as a powerful force in order to spread knowledge of each other's faiths. Every quarter, 100 Met officers who deal with immigrant communities come through. We have visits from many Muslim schools to better understand our faith. As soon as they see what our religion is about, they realise the similarities with their own religion and how similar the concepts are.
The only antidote to prejudice is knowledge and familiarity. I believe that there is an obligation not so much on the Government, although the Government have their role to play, but on each and every one of us as citizens of this country to reach out where we can to immigrants who arrived after us to show the way and to show how to play a part in the full life of this nation. We intend to widen our board to bring in others of different faiths, and although I may have referred mainly to the Muslim community in what I have said today, because that has been the greatest point of tension, I welcome very much those from the Hindu and Sikh communities.
Lord Haskel (Labour)
My Lords, my noble friend's debate begs the question: why do we need interfaith dialogue? After all, no religion preaches hatred of our fellow men. Indeed in ancient times, Rabbi Hillel famously summarised the whole of the Torah with the words,
"What is hateful to yourself do not do to your fellow men. The rest is but commentary".
This compassion is emphasised across all the major religions, so the answer to my question is that it is not the faiths that need dialogue, but the faithful. It is people.
Like the grandfather of the noble Lord, Lord Young, I came here aged five-yes, from Lithuania. I am ancient enough to remember people being openly anti-Semitic, openly talking about the Jewish conspiracy to gain control of the world by corrupting non-Jewish society. The Council of Christians and Jews recognised that dialogue could help deal with this, and it has been arranging dialogue ever since I can remember. Vatican II was also the result of dialogue. Thankfully, this dialogue has been extended to the shared values which apply to all three Abrahamic faiths.
I do not say that anti-Semitism has entirely gone away. I agree with my noble friend Lord Mitchell: it is much reduced; it is not expressed openly any more. It is sometimes expressed in terms of criticism of Israel and it has also gone on to the internet. What has replaced it is Islamophobia. This is discussed openly. In 1997, the Runnymede Trust coined the expression to capture the already growing animosity towards Muslims. In a way, Islamophobia has replaced anti-Semitism. It is as dangerous to our society and our civilisation now as anti-Semitism was then and it should be fought with equal determination.
How do we fight the ignorance and prejudice of the faithful? We do it with dialogue. The work and initiatives of my noble friend Lord Mitchell's Coexistence Trust and others is crucial. Then there is the law. As my noble friend has said, we have very powerful laws on the statute book regarding hate crime and they need to be enforced and made more known. We are also a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, which has plenty to say about respecting each other's faiths and traditions. The faith communities themselves must try to understand their own communities better. I declare an interest as Honorary President of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, which is using the recent census and a parallel survey to better understand the nature of the Jewish community. This work is important because the data can be used to both inform dialogue within faiths and inform interfaith work and policy.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Mitchell that publicly funded faith schools act as a barrier to dialogue and the Government should not encourage them. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Rees, will tell us that science can help. Maybe modern genetic science, modern body chemistry and our better understanding of behaviour can help. Most important is the internet, as a means both of dialogue and of expressing prejudice. The Arab spring and the recent riots have demonstrated what a potent force it is and the power that it gives to the internet generation.
My approach to interfaith dialogue was inspired many years ago by Isaiah Berlin. There are no moral absolutes, he said. There is no absolute mercy, no absolute justice, no absolute compassion. We just have to work it out together-through dialogue.
Lord Hussain (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I apologise for being a couple of minutes late to this debate. The Government have a clear responsibility to support greater interfaith dialogue in Britain today. It has never been as critical as it is now to recognise and value the importance of the diversity and richness of a whole variety of cultures which now make up the wonderful tapestry of modern-day Britain.
However, the Government are not the only body to have such responsibilities. Many local authorities are doing splendid work in promoting interfaith dialogue and supporting community-based projects that promote diversity, harmony and mutual respect. Those local authorities need to be encouraged to continue their support for such projects.
However, the Government should pay particular attention to those local authorities which are not doing enough in this regard. We must be careful not to use this debate to place the burden of dialogue solely on faiths associated with settled communities, such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism et cetera. This can lead to stigmatism and isolation within what should essentially be an inclusive debate. It is therefore just as important to get Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, Methodist and other Christian denominations talking to each other as it is to get Sunni, Shia, Wahhabi and other Muslim groups communicating and promoting understanding.
My home town of Luton often gets headlines for the wrong reasons and ends up getting more than its fair share of negative publicity. At times, it gets branded as a stronghold of the BNP and the English Defence League; at others, as a hot bed of Islamic extremists. These images exist only in the media and are far from reality. I can proudly say that Luton is a shining example of multiculturalism and is able to display some excellent examples of multifaith dialogue and co-operation.
Luton has many multifaith projects which are run by the Luton Council of Faiths. It successfully organises an annual peace walk, where representatives from a variety of faiths walk together from one place of worship to another. It enables people of different faiths to observe the Holocaust memorials together. It holds open days in mosques, churches, Hindu temples and other places of worship so that believers of other faiths can visit and gain knowledge and understanding of each other's faiths. It holds evenings of learning, sacred music events and diversity weeks.
The incredibly hard work of Luton Council of Faiths has been fostered and encouraged in Luton by both Labour and Liberal Democrat administrations in the town hall for the past 20 years. These projects help to promote the whole process of bringing people together from different faiths and cultures and allowing them to appreciate the value of what each other has to offer. Luton Borough Council has also launched the Luton in Harmony initiative, which is a unique campaign to draw diverse communities together to work in partnership and challenge extremism. It is precisely because of the success of this hard work that extremist organisations such as the English Defence League and the British National Party, and Muslim extremist groups such as Al-Muhajiroun, enjoy very little support in the town.
Improving cultural awareness should also be higher up the agenda in schools. Education regarding faith and culture should comprise visits by faith representatives to share their beliefs and practices. In addition, pupils should undertake faith tours, comprising visits to key places of worship.
All initiatives should most definitely be community led and remain completely independent of local and central government control. Anything other than this approach is likely to damage the credibility of faith bodies and will most definitely hinder the great work already being carried out in numerous places across the land.
Lord Sacks (Crossbench)
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, for initiating this important and necessary debate. I go back to words said by an expert on the subject 2,600 years ago. His name was Jeremiah and he became known as a prophet of gloom. Were he to return to life today, doubtless he would be an economist. He was the first person to analyse the situation many find themselves in today of being a minority in a culture whose beliefs are not their own.
Jeremiah wrote a letter to the Jewish exiles in Babylon in which he said:
"Seek the welfare of the city to which you have gone and pray to God on its behalf, for in its peace and prosperity you will find peace and prosperity".
He told them in effect: "Maintain your identity while contributing to the common good. Be true to your faith while being a blessing to others regardless of their faith". That is the challenge today. The good news about religion is that it creates communities based on altruism and trust. It teaches people to make sacrifices for the sake of others. It builds social capital. The bad news is that every community divides as it unites, because for every "us" there is a "them"-the people not like us.
The best way to improve interfaith dialogue in multicultural Britain is to create a sense of national identity so strong that it brings different ethnic and religious communities together in pursuit of the common good-not just the good for "my" group, but the good for all of us together. A nation should respect its faiths, and faiths should respect the nation. That is the only way we will achieve integrated diversity and the dignity of difference, in which we see our differences as contributions that we bring to the common good.
"He lived here proud of the nation that let him live, let him learn, let him teach, let him practise his religion. And ultimately let him die in bed, loved by his family".
That is what Britain means to us in the Jewish community, and surely to the vast majority in all our faith communities. It is vital that we teach all our children, whether in faith schools or not, to honour this country, respect its traditions, contribute to its welfare and show the same respect to others as we ask others to show to us.
Therefore I have a simple proposal. I believe that all Britain's faith communities should be invited to make a voluntary covenant with Britain articulating our responsibilities to others and to the nation as a whole, so that we can be true to our faith while being a blessing to others regardless of theirs.
The Bishop of London (Bishop)
My Lords, it is a very great privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, because I think that he has done more than almost anybody to provide us with a vocabulary-a grammar-that commends and communicates the dignity of difference. I know that I speak for many people when I say how grateful we are.
I declare an interest as the president of St Ethelburga's Centre for preventing and transforming those conflicts that have a religious dimension. The centre was established in a church bombed by the IRA-of course there is a conflicted history there-with the support of Cardinal Hume and indeed of the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, who is Chief Rabbi, and various Muslim friends as well. I mention that not just to draw attention to a piece of work that is relevant to the debate initiated-for which we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell-but to acknowledge a recent shift in attitudes that, I am glad to say, has already been reflected in government policy. After the very serious disturbances in the northern cities, the subsequent reports and discussion tended to suggest that religion was a problem and that faith schools were a problem. Of course, faith schools are rather different from the church school that the Chief Rabbi attended. It is a quite different idea. We resent very deeply being lumped into that constituency. However, after the northern cities, there was quite an emphasis on religion as a problem.
What happened at the riots in August? Religious tensions did not play a part. Actually, parishes and religious communities were in the forefront of trying to help. That enormously impressive plea from the father of that young man, with the subsequent prayer meeting, was an example of that. Here is another extraordinary example from Tower Hamlets. Already the provocative demonstration of last weekend has been described. A woman member of the EDL got detached from her company and was assaulted not by someone from a different faith but by a totally apolitical ruffian of the borough. He went for her. She was rescued by stewards of the Muslim forum for Europe, who threw a cordon around her and escorted her politely to the Underground station. It is a wonderful vignette of community relations in Tower Hamlets, which, like Luton, sometimes gets a very bad press.
It seems to me that often we have a suggestion that members of certain faith communities are hostile to what are called western values such as freedom and tolerance. In my experience, it is not so much that there is a hatred of our values, but people are appalled by a vacuum of values and an absence of moral true north of the kind visible on our streets in August. That is where there can be a useful partnership between government and faith communities. It is clearly desirable that there should be religious literacy at all levels of government, not least in local authorities, with the capacity to distinguish self-appointed community leaders from people with real followership and commitment to the common good.
I pay tribute to the work that has already been done by government thinking and planning on social cohesion in this area. I am grateful in particular for the Near Neighbours programme, which recognises the positive capacity of churches, mosques, synagogues, gurdwaras and temples to engage with one another across confessional boundaries, and to build alliances in the interests of the common good. I believe that we are in a new world.
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Conservative)
My Lords, first, I thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, on securing this timely debate in view of the challenges that we face-not just in Britain but across the globe. Notwithstanding the hundreds of differences we have between us, people of faith all believe in God, in creation and in the Creator. After all, we belong to the same denomination. We are all God's creatures. We belong to the same race-the human race. As inhabitants and citizens of the same country, we are mutual neighbours. That applies to all communities.
This requires that we build understanding and friendships with each other based on the purity of heart and sincerity of intentions. We dispose kindly towards one another. In the difficulties pertaining to religious and worldly matters, we should exercise empathy, sympathy and understanding towards one another's views. After all, a religion which does not inculcate universal compassion is no religion. Similarly, a human being without the faculty of compassion is no human at all. If someone questions the possibility of reaching reconciliation where differences have incurred-indeed, religious differences-because they perceive that it is playing a negative role such as dividing hearts and minds, it can succeed only if it is not based on human values. All religions are based on common, human values. That what binds us is greater than what divides us. It is a danger to our community, to our nation and to the fragmentation of our society if we let those who seek to divide us come forth. Differences can only destroy communities and nations if the process of reconciliation results in some people resorting to insulting and being blasphemous towards the views and religions of others.
Perhaps I may suggest to my noble friend the Minister some practical steps. The Muslim community in which I grew up had a concept of religious founders' days. A common theme is chosen, such as peace or humanity. All faiths are invited to present. But here comes the special ingredient. The Christian will present the Hindu's view on peace or humanity. The Muslim will present the Jewish perspective and so on. This does not only broaden horizons among people; it educates and teaches not just tolerance but respect and reverence towards the beliefs of all.
The second element I would suggest to the Minister is this. I had the pleasure of following her as the Conservative Party's vice-chairman for cities, yet when I travelled the country I saw divisions. Under the guise of inclusion we allowed children to be excluded from schools. A child who did not wish to attend a religious education class was allowed to sit aside, but what kind of inclusion is that? Like many others, I am a product of a Church of England school. I learned the Lord's Prayer. Did it make me any less of a Muslim? As the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, suggested, not at all-it broadened my understanding and taught me about other faiths and communities and, most importantly, respect for all faiths.
The final component is that we must continue to stand up against extremists of all kinds. We should be intolerant of those who are intolerant towards others. If a person wishes to exclude someone, that is the time to instead exclude them.
In conclusion, I am an optimist but I am not complacent. I defy those who say that problems are caused by faith, which means that communities cannot ever work together. I defy those who say those of faith cannot work with those of no faith-they can and our country is testament to that. Faith matters and religion has the solution to build new communities. I accept that we have challenges but they will be overcome. Those who refute the diversity of strength in our faiths and our communities and indeed our nation should look no further than to your Lordships' House, which is reflective of the strength and the success of our nation-our country-Britain.
Lord Judd (Labour)
My Lords, I join with those who pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Mitchell for having given us the opportunity for this debate.
Globalisation is a tough reality. One of its consequences is a sense of powerlessness among increasing numbers of people who feel marginalised and threatened. We therefore have to be very careful about condemning the concept of multiculturalism. My own conviction, from years of working in this sphere, is that multiculturalism can enable people to find a sense of belonging and significance. The challenge is to lead on from that sense of identity and belonging to the realisation that the problems of the world cannot be solved by individual communities. They can be solved only by co-operation. The challenge, therefore, is not to deny multiculturalism but to lead it into dialogue about the realities of the very difficult complexity of modern society and the need for us all to co-operate.
It has been interesting to note how much common ground there has been in this debate and how clearly the voice of moderation and reason comes across. As an extremely liberal Anglican-I hope the right reverend Prelate will forgive me for the description-I feel strongly that one of the greatest God-given realities is the power of reason and intellect. It is almost sacrilegious to deny the development of reason and intellect. It is by fulfilling that potential for understanding that we can be true to what we see as the foundation of our particular faith. We also have to be careful not to let it become a rather comfortable middle-class prerogative to discuss relationships between different religions.
I was glad yesterday to be at a very special occasion in Portcullis House where there was the launch of a book by a policeman who had worked all his professional life in Special Branch in the realm of community relations. He ended his career very effectively as head of the Muslim relations unit at Scotland Yard, and had done a tremendous amount of community work in Brixton. His name is Bob Lambert. I commend to all Members of the House his book about his life's experience because one of his most important messages is that we must be careful not to accentuate exclusion by allowing the already privileged and articulate to monopolise the debate. He believes strongly that there is always a need to reach out and bring in to the dialogue people who are extreme in their beliefs. It is important to get to the young who, in their isolation and insecurity, have sought refuge in oversimplified and bigoted interpretations of the faith they claim. Bob Lambert has devoted his professional life to doing this and now he has written about it. He is currently involved in immensely important work at both Exeter and St Andrews universities. We need to listen to that kind of experience.
I end by saying that, for me, truth is something for which we are all searching. We have chosen different routes, but whatever route we take, we must always remember that other people in all sincerity have picked other routes. It is by working and talking together that ultimately we will reach an understanding of the truth.
Lord Hameed (Crossbench)
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Mitchell on this timely and useful debate. As the threats to our daily lives have increased, many of us have sought to understand the message of faiths other than our own. Many eyes have turned in the direction of Islam from whose corner a spate of tragic events has emerged. I make this statement with the declaration of being a Muslim myself. Therefore, in looking at Islam through its main reference source, the Holy Koran, we see a religion completely at odds with the actions of the perpetrators of the vile acts of violence and terrorism committed in its name.
The holy book of the Muslims begins with the concept of God as not hurting, harming or cruel, but as beneficent and merciful. It talks of Islam as a religion of peace and not war, for every time a Muslim takes the name of the holy prophet Mohammed, he adds the words "peace be upon him". The Koran also instructs the believer to be tolerant and compassionate, and to extend a helping hand to the sick and infirm. It commands the pursuit of knowledge, with respect for scholars, women and minorities in any land. The Koran also instructs Muslims to respect other faiths and to live with them as good neighbours in peaceful coexistence. Therefore, strapping oneself with explosives to kill others in an act of suicide in search of martyrdom is totally un-Islamic and against the instructions of the Koran, the holy book that all Muslims must obey.
We have here in the United Kingdom a multi-religious and a mult-ethnic society. Here, dialogue is the only way forward in addressing our differences. We ought to celebrate our commonality and discuss our differences based on mutual respect and trust in each other. It is imperative that we engage together in a continuing dialogue. This dialogue is no longer a luxury of a few well-meaning individuals, it has become a necessity demanding action, without which only catastrophe stares us in the face.
The word "phobia" in the Oxford English Dictionary is described as an extreme and irrational fear or dislike of a specified thing. Thus noble Lords may have heard the term "Islamophobia" being bandied about against Islam, leading to prejudice and a generalised hatred or fear of Islam and its followers. The media around the world have to bear a share of blame for drip-feeding into the minds of readers of newspapers and journals and television viewers regular doses of anti-Muslim material, not to provide factual reporting but to create public excitement and sensationalism to enhance the number of their readers and viewers. The widespread damage that this does to society at large is incalculable. The resultant pressure on Muslim families leads to anger, confusion and frustration at the resulting acts of violence. God's vision of a just and compassionate human society remains unfulfilled. This in turn leads impressionable young men, low in self esteem, frustrated with unemployment and ostracised by society, to become the best recruiting grounds for the sergeant-majors of terrorism.
We should agree to a broad consensus for more engagement between different cultures and faiths through dialogue. This would be a body blow to extremists. My Lords, your participation and goodwill would be of enormous value to all of us in this task ahead.
Lord Sheikh (Conservative)
My Lords, I was brought up in Uganda, where there were people of different racial and religious backgrounds. I learnt to speak several languages and developed an understanding of, as well as respect for, all religions. I am a patron of several organisations which include Muslims as well as groups of other religions.
I believe that there are more similarities than differences between people and we should highlight similarities in order to establish closer links between communities. I feel that the lack of understanding leads to suspicions and divisions between people. Islam teaches us to celebrate the difference and diversity that God has created in our world. Despite the image portrayed in some parts of the media, Islam has a long and proud history of tolerance of and respect for people of all faiths.
Islam is one of the Abrahamic religions and, according to Islam, people of the book are Muslims, Jews and Christians. The books of Allah are the holy Koran, the Torah, the Gospel of Jesus and the Psalms of David. I may add that in the holy Koran there is a whole chapter on Mary, the mother of Jesus. There are a number of similarities between Sikhism and Islam, and I would like to state that the foundation stone of the golden temple was laid by Mian Mir, a Muslim holy person.
I am chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum and membership of the forum is open to everyone. At all our meetings, we invite persons of all faiths and racial origins. Our guests include members as well as non-members of the Conservative Party. The Conservative Muslim Forum is an active organisation and a substantial part of the work that we do is promoting harmony among various racial and religious groups.
We recently held a meeting at which the two main speakers were an Arab lady and a Jewish lady, both of whom talked about peace between people. The Arab lady was from Gaza and had lost several members of her family during the fighting in Gaza following the Israeli invasion. A book has been published which highlights cases where Muslims saved Jews from the atrocities of the Nazis in the Holocaust. I am in fact launching this book in the House of Lords next week.
Unfortunately, there is a demonisation of Islam in certain quarters, and it is important that the media act in a responsible manner in this regard and avoid use of inflammatory language. In regard to suicide bombings, Islam forbids suicide. In the holy Koran it is written that,
"whoever kills a human being ... it as though he has killed all mankind, and whoever saves a human life, it is as though he saved all mankind".
This saying is similar to what is written in the Talmud, where it is written,
"if you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world".
I am proud that this country has a longstanding respect for pluralism and tolerance, grounded in a firm respect for liberty. I am also pleased that we seem to have moved away from the concept of what was termed "state multi-culturalism", whereby the Government decided what was good, and sought to impose their vision. That resulted in an unhealthy degree of intolerance in the name of tolerance: what we should be seeking to build is dialogue and understanding, not an imposed vision decided by Ministers. The best way to challenge extremism is to promote integration and cohesion. That is not something that Ministers or Parliament can impose from Whitehall or Westminster.
In his speech in Munich, I believe the Prime Minister was right to focus on eradicating the things that tear us apart. Separation can lead to extremism, and extremism can be a very unpleasant spectacle. That means that we need to focus on what brings us together, rather than obsessing about what makes us different. We need therefore to talk about integration, which was the real message underpinning the Prime Minister's speech in Munich.
Finally, I am looking forward to receiving my noble friend the Minister's comments as to the initiatives the Government will implement in strengthening interfaith dialogue.
Lord Stone of Blackheath (Labour)
My Lords, an increasing number of people are now describing themselves as spiritual, but not necessarily religious. They are able to see the spirituality in all faiths, and in the traditions of the East, and in the new scientific models of the universe. This new cultural approach is welcoming of diversity, inclusive and holistic.
In the past year I have witnessed this at a meditation of thousands of people with Deepak Chopra, in Alternatives in Piccadilly; at the wedding of my niece, Becky Cantor, at Bevis Marks, the oldest synagogue in the UK; and at the ordination of a multi-faith minister, David Wetton, at the Second Church of Christ. Only last month, for three days, at the Global Retreat Centre of the Brahma Kumaris, I met with 30 experts from 18 different countries-swamis, rabbis, Muslim Sufis, Archbishops, Buddhists and, of course, several Hindu and Brahma Kumari. In a session with Sister Jayanti and Marcus Braybrooke, the president of the World Congress of Faiths, we discussed how to integrate spirituality into our life and work. The major faiths, with differing road maps, all want to instil the qualities of love and compassion, and much interfaith dialogue consists of comparing those road maps. We discussed whether interfaith dialogue could actually lead to something more binding, that is, inter-spirituality.
At this point, I must declare an interest: I have been working with a group for over two years, planning to build and develop "Space to Contemplate" in Britain. This will be a visitor centre, as big as the Tate Modern, where people of any faith, or none, can enter a variety of carefully built rooms, to express the essence of spiritual existence. We intend to trigger for people a brief encounter with what we might call the numinous, or the divine, or the universal force. It will offer a selection of methods learned from human traditions going back thousands of years, through the Abrahamic faiths, the pre-monotheistic traditions, the philosophies of the East, and secular sciences, art and music. The project is a work in progress, and next weekend over 40 experts and practitioners from all over the world are gathering for three days in Oxford to discuss the concept. Those involved believe that such a facility is a key ingredient for building communities, and, in doing so, it will enhance our social capital. It will open up the experience of spirituality to tens of thousands of individuals, young and old, from all walks of life. Cumulatively, it will change people's perception, and thence, perhaps, help them to choose to live lives that are of service.
I would suggest to the Minister that the Government do have a huge part to play here, as this is so important to civil society. I suggest that, in those areas where I have some little experience, the Government should continue to develop mindful strategies. For example, with regard to education, humans are known to have a rudimentary moral sense from the very early start of life. We must develop this using methods whereby children as young as eight, university students certainly, and people in lifelong learning, can absorb knowledge not only from a physical and intellectual level, but also from experiencing a different type of awareness and consciousness, connecting humanity to the whole universe and thus bringing to the fore values of how we think, speak and act.
On health and well-being, I am pleased that within our health service we are beginning to focus, with the help of a charity I chair, Healthtalkonline, on the whole patient and their experience as a human being. Meanwhile, in the creative industries the Government should support those innovative centres such as Imperial College and the Royal College of Art that have together formed Design London, recognising that there is huge potential in tapping into the inspiration where science, art and consciousness come together in a broader awareness. Finally, on conflict and its avoidance and resolution, both at home and abroad multicultural and interfaith dialogue can bring people together in deeper, more sympathetic understanding. Also, when we have to go to war to defend those principles, even that can be done mindfully.
In conclusion, I suggest that while interfaith dialogue is important we should all support the millions of open-hearted people-and their projects-who recognise that at the core of all religions and within the new, scientific understanding of the universe there is a common experience of the sheer wonder, energy and mystery of existence and its interconnectedness. It is this that holds us together in the diverse fabric of life. Thank you, and Om Shanti.
Lord Harries of Pentregarth (Crossbench)
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, for this debate and I very much appreciated what other noble Lords have said. I have been involved in interfaith work for some 40 years now and have been hugely enriched by that experience. In this short debate, I want to approach the subject in a slightly oblique way. My starting point is the positive attitude by both the previous Government and this present one to faith communities. I very much want to affirm that stance and outline why it is of such importance at present.
Michael Sandel, in his Reith lectures and writings, has shown decisively that the combination of social and market liberalism which has dominated the West in recent decades, if taken by itself, totally fails to reflect our deepest convictions as human beings. Furthermore, a number of secular academic thinkers such as the late Tony Judt have argued passionately for a much stronger ethical framework for our economic, political and social life. More than this, the distinguished German sociologist Jürgen Habermas entitled a recent book An Awareness of What is Missing. In this, he argued that all our most fundamental concepts such as community, person, and solidarity are rooted in religion and, more than this, he refers to what he calls "the unexhausted force" of religion to continue to nourish and help shape the values and life of our society.
In drawing attention to this, I do not want in any way to underplay the contribution of secular thinkers to our society or ignore the huge contribution to the common good made by people who have no religious faith. I do not think that religious bodies have any claim to the high moral ground; indeed, as we all know, their record is a mixed one. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore a range of distinguished secular thinkers, with no religious axe to grind, who are worried not just about the actual state of our society but about the total lack of a coherent and consistent overriding moral framework for it. Seamus Heaney, the Nobel prize-winning poet, wrote that he thought that our society was running on an unconscious provided by religion. He went on to say that he thought his grandchildren would not have that.
We have already heard of the deeply moving attitude of Mr Tariq Jahan after the deaths of his son in the riots in Birmingham. It has been pointed out to us that this was not an isolated reaction. In Southall, I understand that the Sikhs and Muslims guarded each others' place of worship at times of prayer during the riots. If religion sometimes leads people to take up extreme attitudes, infinitely more it motivates ordinary people to live out their highest ideals, sometimes with great courage. It might interest noble Lords that Mr Tariq Jahan has already indicated his intention of coming to speak under the auspices of the All-Party Interfaith Group, which I have the privilege of chairing, to talk about constructive reactions to the riots-as has a reading Sikh.
In contributing to this debate, I want to emphasise not just what the Government can do in relation to interfaith dialogue but their whole stance towards faith communities in every aspect of government policy.
The fact is that there is a huge amount of interfaith dialogue going on at every level from universities to neighbours in streets. However, this is only one aspect of what faith communities do. It is the attitude of the Government, not least in education, that is so important. There are a number of strident secular voices in our society that like to erase religion from life altogether and banish it from the public sphere. Therefore, we cannot take the positive attitude of the Government for granted. We should very much welcome it. I particularly look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in particular in relation to interfaith work.
Lord Popat (Conservative)
I, too, would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, for instigating today's debate. I apologise in case I missed the first few seconds of the opening remarks. It is not always easy to discuss or defend faith in modern Britain. I can understand why individuals or particularly the Government decide not to "do God", as the previous Prime Minister put it. I am often concerned that we do not have a suitable platform on which to discuss faith in this country. Too often we are scared to discuss faith for fear of offence or because we do not understand things. This is not helped by a media that are often very negative to faith and the positive roles that faith can play.
However, for those of us who believe in faith and know what identity and strength faith can provide, avoiding these discussions would be a great injustice for society, and so I fully welcome today's debate. As a proud Hindu who attended Catholic school in Uganda, I always consider it a great honour to sit on these Benches and attend the daily prayers. Faith is a great inspiration to me. We are very fortunate to debate in a House that praises God at the beginning of every day. I find our prayers energising, and a great inspiration for the day ahead.
Interfaith dialogue and co-operation is an essential part of building real communities. We should not isolate ourselves and build barriers through religion. However, to prevent these barriers arising, it is essential that all of us, including the Government, engage openly in discussions of faith. We cannot rely on the Government alone. Interfaith dialogue can be truly successful only at a grassroots level. I strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Glasman, who said in a recent article that we need more faith leaders and faith communities not just to stand up and speak out in defence of faith, but to explain it properly as well.
For interfaith dialogue to succeed, faith leaders need to explain their religion in a way that people of all faiths, and of no faith, can understand. I firmly believe that many, if not most, religions share similar values at their core, yet people of faith still feel distant from one another. We in the Hindu community have been very lucky to receive excellent guidance in the past from the Board of Deputies of British Jews. I have always believed that no faith has a monopoly on the truth and that, when we respect other faiths, we are in fact showing respect to our own faith, which teaches us to respect other faiths. Through respect, love, compassion and dialogue, we can all become more enlightened through each other's faiths.
I am encouraged by the approach that our Government have taken to faith and in promoting interfaith dialogue. Faith groups are now treated with respect. Their work is welcomed. How many of us have seen churches or faith groups working in their community to help people who others have abandoned? This Government have been quick to identify the positive work of faith groups in communities, particularly in school and charitable work. I support the Government's more open stance to suitable faiths and faith groups; their inclusion makes us a stronger and better society.
However, the Government have also been clear that our faith is subordinate to our nationality, our common values and the law and that extremists of any religion must not be tolerated. Faith groups, or faith communities, that wish to work with, live in or rely on the British state must also respect core British values-values that are envied around the world. I was proud to be an instigator of the Hindu Forum of Britain, adopting the slogan "Proud to be British, proud to be Hindu". It is a phrase that I believe strongly echoes the position that the Government are moving towards and must continue to support.
Lord Noon (Labour)
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Mitchell for initiating this important short debate. It is even more pertinent given that we are approaching the anniversary of 9/11. That should focus all our minds on the central importance of mutual understanding and tolerance. I am honoured to be a trustee of the Coexistence Trust. My noble friend has said much about that trust. There is a long and proud tradition in this country of interfaith dialogue and co-operation. The previous Government sought to build on this in the excellent report, Face to Face and Side by Side, with its focus on partnership working in a multifaith society. The report primarily concerns how faith communities, government and wider societies can work together. It was a bold initiative from a Government.
Dialogue means talking to one another and to do that we must have a shared language. Yet it is sadly still the case that many imams in mosques around the country do not speak English. As a Muslim, I encourage trustees of mosques who bring in imams from overseas to make sure that they can speak English and know the traditions of our country. I would like to see more young Muslims, especially young Muslim girls, taking their place alongside young people from other faiths in promoting interfaith dialogue and collaboration.
Islam teaches peace, affection and brotherhood. We can all learn from each other. With free and open dialogue we will reach greater understanding and tolerance. I hope the Minister agrees that that is an important issue which needs to be addressed. For my part, my foundation has provided substantial funding to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, especially to train local imams to promote the scholarly study of Islam in contemporary Muslim societies. It is also important to acknowledge that there are some excellent British imams and mosques undertaking tremendous work to break down barriers, and who use their influence to promote dialogue and understanding. We must stand up to the extremists and pedlars of rubbish and discontent. The Government must be strong in their opposition and not mollycoddle the uneducated, imported priests who are doing the damage.
A truly religious person who believes in divine justice will not be unjust to others. We must work towards justice for all. In that context we must understand the problem of Palestine and work towards implementing a just solution. Real or perceived injustice is one of the main causes of extremism. Extremism feeds on prejudice. This must be countered by a commitment to the truth-truth about oneself and one's relations with others. Extremism thrives where there is an absence of knowledge and reasoning. Respectful public debate about the truth of religious claims would be one of the best antidotes to religiously motivated violence. At the same time we must reject disrespect of any religious symbols. In this country we have taken a stand against dictators and tyrants at great personal cost. Extremism thrives when people do not have legitimate ways of expressing their individuality, unique perspective and common grievances. However, I remind every Muslim that the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, said that whichever country you go to and whichever country you live in, you should be loyal to that country.
I hope that through debates such as this we can keep alive the idea that it is not just religious leaders who need to be engaged in interfaith dialogue; it is also crucial to have government, politicians, parents and young people involved in this work. That is the true meaning of interfaith dialogue partnership. I am sure that the Minister will respond positively to this call for more action.
Lord Rees of Ludlow (Crossbench)
My Lords, speakers in this debate have focused on the crucial need for dialogue among the different faith traditions but we are an increasingly secular nation. I speak as an unbeliever but one who has been nourished by the cultural, musical and liturgical traditions of the English Church in which I was brought up. Many Jews sustain their Friday ritual in their homes, even though they describe themselves as atheists. By analogy I am a tribal Christian, practising but not believing.
I speak today because I am concerned about a troubling trend spearheaded by some scientists-vocal intolerance of those who profess any faith. This kind of stand-off between science on the one hand and faith in general on the other is harmful to both. Science should be a unifying force. It pervades all our lives and it is a truly global culture. Protons, proteins and Pythagoras are the same from China to Peru. The pursuit of scientific understanding straddles all barriers of nationality and faith. We can all share the wonder and mystery of the natural world.
Charles Darwin said about religion that,
"the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can".
That is, of course, a glaringly different stance from that adopted by some of Darwinism's most strident proponents today.
Of course, we should all oppose the teachings of views manifestly in conflict with the evidence, such as creationism. But we can aspire to peaceful coexistence with the less dogmatic strands of mainstream faiths. Indeed, many researchers and teachers of science are religious. They have no problems with Darwinism; they can study cosmology and at the same time proclaim that the,
"heavens declare the glory of God".
Indeed, I think that it is teachers with faith who can be most effective in defending evolutionary science against attempts to inject creationism and intelligent design into the school science curriculum. A less conciliatory approach can backfire. If scientists take the uncompromising line that Darwinism is incompatible with any belief, many young people raised in a faith-based culture will stay loyal to their religion and be lost, quite unnecessarily, to science.
This stand-off is counterproductive for another reason. Extremist zealots imperil us all, whether they are traditional fundamentalists or new-age cults, and we need the broadest alliance we can muster against them. That alliance should surely include the adherence of most mainstream faiths that support science and who are equally anxious about extremism. Indeed, we are fortunate in this nation's current religious leaders who all elevate the tone of public debate. Their role is crucial. Society must be guided by the knowledge that 21st-century science can offer, but even a secular society needs the idealism, vision and commitment that science alone cannot provide.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon (Labour)
My Lords, this has been a very fine debate thanks to the Motion tabled by my noble friend Lord Mitchell, and the wealth of experience in this Chamber. In this House we are fortunate to have noble Lords of so many faiths, and none. Shortly we will have a new colleague who is a Sikh and I am sure that we all celebrate that.
Interfaith dialogue and action have taken place for many centuries-indeed, millennia, as the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, informed us. I mention Emperor Akbar the Great who encouraged tolerance in Mughal India which was, and is, a hugely diverse nation. Acts of violence, including wars, have also taken place over the centuries in the name of religion. The need for interfaith action and dialogue continues. I suggest that in our globalised world, more and more people migrate for economic and social reasons, and for security when their own states become fragile, and that need will increase. Indeed, when one considers poor harvests, escalating water shortages, and the effects of climate change, especially in coastal areas, there are bound to be more tensions in our world, more migration and more diversity in our societies. As a result, the mutual understanding and tolerance that come from interfaith dialogue grow more and more significant. As we have heard this afternoon, interfaith is not just about religion; it is about building bridges within and between diverse communities; it is about health, education, poverty, hunger, and so many other things; it is about action. As Gandhi said,
"What is faith if it is not translated into action?".
We have heard some superb examples this afternoon of interfaith dialogue leading to action and to real change in people's lives. Thanks to a conversation with the former Bishop of Coventry some years ago, I learnt of the interfaith work that they have nurtured in Kaduna, Nigeria. I visited both Christians and Muslims in that area, and learnt that lives have been saved there thanks to the interfaith dialogue that has taken place. Only a couple months ago I was in Bradford with the Muslim Women's Council, a feisty bunch of confident women who I am sure are well known to the Minister. They are leaders in their community, and some are actively engaged in interfaith dialogue. I say to my noble friend that they certainly are encouraging young girls to engage in dialogue with people of other religions.
I was much taken by the Coexistence Trust mentioned by my noble friend who chairs it and by so many others. I am delighted that it is being encouraged by the FCO and the British Council to set up a trust in the United States, and I wish it well. I hope that it is asked to take root in other countries. As an aside, I have to say that I have concerns about some religious schools. Like my noble friend, I wonder how closed institutions that educate children of one faith only can contribute to combating ignorance and lead to a more tolerant society in which the traditions of this country are honoured and respected.
President Kennedy said:
"Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one's one beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others".
Tolerance is at the heart of our debate this afternoon. I hope that our society is becoming more tolerant, including of science. A recent poll said that 88 per cent of people of faith supported the previous Government making incitement to hatred on grounds of sexual orientation unlawful. I think that is a great way forward. I am proud to live in a country where, for the vast majority of the time, we celebrate our communality and respect our differences.
We live in a richly diverse and multicultural society that we celebrate, but we live in difficult, often divisive, times. For many reasons, our communities are sometimes fractured and people feel insecure and burdened. The values that underpin our society sometimes feel more fragile than they should, and some citizens, of all religions and origins, feel that the cultural and religious values that they cherish are under threat.
I agree with the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, that the liberal, unregulated market economy that we have been living with has failed us, and that we need to build a more ethical framework for our future. I think that interfaith dialogue can help us in that. As has been said, interfaith dialogue nurtures understanding, promotes tolerance, and fosters our confidence to be proud of who and what we are in a diverse society. It contributes to the common good, but it must be inclusive. Therefore, interfaith dialogue is and must be one of the means by which our communities are strengthened in our increasingly complex world.
Baroness Warsi (Minister without Portfolio; Conservative)
My Lords, I begin by paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, not only for initiating this important debate but also for the work of the Coexistence Trust which he chairs with such energy. I have worked with the noble Lord for a number of years and have seen first hand the good work he does in promoting understanding between followers of the Islamic and Jewish faiths, especially among the young. He has an amazing ability to speak frankly and robustly, and with a genuine, deep understanding.
In September last year, I made a speech about faith at the Anglican Bishops Conference in Oxford. I believe that it was the first time a Cabinet Minister had spoken so frankly about faith for many years. I said that this Government would "do God". I thought long and hard before I said what I did. As my noble friend Lord Popat said, it is not always easy to speak openly about faith. I tried to make an evidential case for faith in our country and stated that, contrary to popular belief, it is certainly not fading away. I explained that faith inspires many people to do good works and gives rise to huge numbers of personal kindnesses and other civic contributions. Faith shapes beliefs and behaviour, offers a sense of purpose and, ultimately, helps build a bigger and more just society in the positive ways referred to by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth. I announced that the aim of this Government was to help rather than hinder faith communities in the good works they did. Looking back, I believe the impact of the speech was positive. Again today, I welcome the positive remarks about the Government made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London. The main thing that I discovered by making the speech was that there is a large, untapped appetite for a more mature discussion of faith in our country. It was important to take stock of where Britain was with faith.
This brings me to the topic of this evening's debate: interfaith dialogue, collaboration and activity. Interfaith dialogue helps raise the standard of all faith-based debate in our country. The UK is home not just to Christianity but also to a host of the world's great religions and faiths: Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and many more. Britain's faith communities come from a huge range of different ethnic backgrounds and religious traditions, and this gives our country strength. I profoundly believe that there is far more that unites faith communities than divides them: common bonds that should be the basis for better understanding. This sentiment was put far more intellectually by the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that we must not accentuate exclusion but seek to be more inclusive.
Despite what we may read in the papers or see on our television screens, we know that the vast majority get on and live together as peaceful neighbours. We must recognise and pay tribute to the role of the established church and its Christian values in making Britain a welcoming and tolerant society-and all noble Lords know the value of having bishops in the House. The church has always been at the forefront of providing support to our communities, both established and newly arrived. There are many excellent examples of Britain's strong tradition of good neighbourly relations and our strong record of harmony within and between faith communities.
This brings me to the point raised by my noble friends Lord Young of Graffham and Lord Hussain about the work of faith communities. Faith communities make a vital contribution to national life and have done for centuries: guiding the moral outlook of many, inspiring great numbers of people to public service and providing help to those in need, as well as providing much needed knowledge about their own faiths. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the tremendous work that my noble friend Lord Hussain continues to do in very difficult circumstances in Luton. I know from my own visits how difficult Luton can be.
Faith is not just a belief or a theory: it is about how we live, how we shape our lives and how we work together to serve those in need. Across the country people from different faiths are working hard together in countless churches, mosques, temples, gurdwaras, synagogues, charities and community groups. They are inspired by their faith to address often the most deep-seated problems in their local communities. Unfortunately, in the past, this has not been sufficiently recognised by Governments of all colours.
I have worked with the Church of England for a number of years and I am constantly amazed by the work that it does throughout the country; for example, by providing education, supporting the homeless and helping those recovering from the problems of drug abuse and other addictions. Through the Government's £5 million investment in the Church Urban Fund's Near Neighbours programme, we are putting our money where our mouth is-not through a top-down intervention but by using the existing infrastructure of the Church of England to build productive local relationships between people of different faiths in four key geographical target areas. People of any religious background will be able to bid for that fund through their local Anglican parish, to run projects that improve their local neighbourhoods with people from all faiths working alongside each other. The programme is an excellent example of partnership working.
I come to the point raised by my noble friends Lord Sheikh and Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, and by the noble Lord, Lord Noon, about interfaith dialogue. There is a great deal of work going on locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. Some projects are supported by central government, some by local government and some by faith communities themselves. There are 25 national interfaith bodies, such as the Joseph Interfaith Foundation, the Christian Muslim Forum, the Inter-faith Council for Wales and many others, which exist to promote interfaith engagement.
I note with interest my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon's comments on the Lord's Prayer. My daughter has her own version; she says that she ends her Lord's Prayer by saying "Ameen" and thereby makes it her own.
The noble Lord, Lord Hameed, spoke about interfaith dialogue being a necessity in today's times and I agree with him. He will be pleased to know that local interfaith groups have grown significantly over the last few years. There are currently more than 220 local interfaith bodies in the UK as well as 15 regional ones. There is also an increasing number of interfaith groups in schools, colleges and universities, and seven educational and academic institutions now exist with a particular focus on interfaith issues. Our country is a world leader in interfaith activity; indeed, our officials working in this area have often been approached by other countries to ask how we do it.
A number of noble Lords raised the issue of the alleged negative effect of faith schools on integration. This Government greatly value the contribution that faith schools make to the education sector by providing high-quality school places and choice for parents. Faith schools have been and remain an important element of that provision and this Government remain committed in our support for that. We do not accept that faith schools are divisive and promote segregation. They are no less committed to community cohesion than other schools. What matters is not the school one attends, but the understanding taught in these schools, as was so beautifully put by the noble Lord, Lord Sacks. I also note with interest his idea of a covenant of Britain. I would welcome a further discussion with him as to what role government can play.
I also note and welcome the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, and his concerns about the rising level of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred, issues that I raised earlier this year myself. The Government are doing much to support interfaith work and interfaith activity, whether that is interfaith dialogue; a continuation of support for the Inter Faith Network, despite the current economic climate; or the further support for Inter Faith Week, when, last year, 435 separate events were hosted around the country, including many supported by government. This year, Inter Faith Week will take place between 20 and
I welcome the way that this debate has been conducted, especially by the Benches opposite. In conclusion, interfaith work has been going on for a long time, but it needs to be more meaningful and more practical. Of course religious leaders have spoken to each other for many centuries but, interestingly, it occasionally appears to be dialogue around my understanding of your version of your god, and your understanding of my version of my god. It has to be much more meaningful than that; there has to be respect for my understanding of your god in the way that you view your god. And it has to go beyond religious leaders; congregations must actually work together, not just in interfaith dialogue, but in interfaith activity; congregations must get together and do meaningful activity within their communities, because the best way to understand a person is to work with them, to eat with them, to create a friendship. The noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, will remember that we spoke some time ago about the challenge to the Coexistence Trust and to many interfaith bodies in going beyond what I used to define as "samosa and chai parties" into more meaningful interaction. I am delighted with the work that the Coexistence Trust has continued to do in light of those discussions.
I hope that noble Lords will appreciate that the Government have taken a very clear stance in relation to faith, the importance of faith, the importance of faith in the public sphere and our support for interfaith activity and dialogue.