Religious Liberty

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:58 pm on 24th October 2001.

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Photo of Lord Weidenfeld Lord Weidenfeld Crossbench 9:58 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for not only allowing us to discuss this important subject but also for having come forward with ground breaking suggestions for action both nationally and internationally.

The other day I was gratified to learn that the prestigious World Economic Forum in Davos will to a large extent devote its next session in February to the question of the fight against intolerance and the inter-faith discourse. The suggestions made by the noble Baroness should also be widely disseminated in the world's press.

When Vice President Cheney warned us a few days ago that the war against terrorism might last a lifetime, he expressed the view of many thoughtful observers that this is a struggle sui generis, widely differing from the rather linear last two world wars or the more episodic recent campaigns in south-east Asia or the Balkans. In this war theatres of operations and alliances may shift and explosions or implosions in obvious and unexpected danger zones may erupt opening ever fresh fronts. But in this new scourge of mankind we face a battle of Muslim extremism: Islamism fighting mercilessly against the world of what it considers to be the "infidel" and its own moderate mainstream ranks. Copts are being persecuted in Egypt, the earliest breeding ground for the Muslim brotherhood, and in the Sudan. In Nigeria, only weeks ago, religious fanatics and common criminals massacred hundreds of helpless Christians in the city of Jos. The catalogue of persecution and atrocities is much more copious.

The tragedy is that these persecutions are propelled by inflammatory sermons in the mosques and hate-inducing learning materials in schools, not to speak of press and television. They all feed on one another. If we seriously wish to break the cycle of prescribed intolerance and hate leading to terrorist action we must focus on the breeding grounds: the classroom and the pulpit. We have, alas, abundant evidence of their output. In sampling the past few weeks' Friday sermons broadcast by the Palestinian Authority Television in Gaza, we find that the faithful were commanded by Sheikh Ibrahim Madhi in these words:

"This war between us and the Jews will continue to escalate until we vanquish them and enter Jerusalem as conquerors, enter Jaffa as conquerors. We are not merely expecting a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital but an Islamic caliphate".

Later Sheikh Madhi said:

"Those who die not for the sake of Islam will end up in the fires of hell".

When the most senior Islamic authority of the whole region, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Akram Sabri, was questioned recently in an interview as to why mothers cry with joy when they hear about their sons' death, he answered:

"They willingly sacrifice their offspring for the sake of freedom. The mother is participating in the great reward of the jihad to liberate Al Aqsa".

He continued:

"I talked to a young man, who said, 'I want to marry the black-eyed beautiful women of heaven'. The next day he became a martyr. I am sure his mother was filled with joy about his heavenly marriage".

That Holocaust denial, with medieval horror tales of the blood libel, are the daily fare of lectures in school and prayer houses is only too well known; but the chiming in by political leadership with proclamations of implacable hatred may explain why, despite all public protests to the contrary, the real will for peace is lacking so widely in many circles in the Islamic world. In Syria, where the highly centralised Baath Government have been in power for a generation, the systematic teaching of hate and contempt for the Jewish and disdain for the Christian faith is waged with great intensity. At a meeting in Damascus last week with a delegation from the British Royal College of Defence Studies, the Minister for War, General Tlass, said that the Mossad planned the ramming of the two hijacked airliners into the World Trade Centre towers as part of a Jewish conspiracy. He told the British visitors that the Mossad had given thousands of Jewish employees of the World Trade Centre advance warning not to go to work that day. A manual from the Ministry of Education prescribes courses for all grades to instil deep hatred for all things Jewish and contempt for the Jewish religion--a contempt which President Bashir Assad expressed in the presence of the Pope.

If I again raise the question of those school books, and am still awaiting a reply from noble Lords on the Front Bench, it is because I believe that we are in a questionable moral position. If we wish to forge an alliance against evil, we must not neglect to address ourselves to its springs and roots and use our influence. If this coalition is to survive the first round--the search for Osama bin Laden and the fight against the Taliban--those whom we accept or even embrace as road companions should be given a clear choice of pausing, reflecting and making appropriate amends--preferably system changes. If they do not do so, the inexorable logic and dynamics of events will lead inevitably to a brutal and bloody collision course. Surely our Government, who have so far steadily and credibly vowed to conduct an ethical foreign policy, could use their clout and break a lance for the respect of religious freedom. That means initiating or taking part in some form of international action against governments who flout this freedom with callous disregard and consistent brutality.