rose to call attention to the case for better co-operation between Christianity and Islam in international affairs; and to move for Papers.
My Lords, there are huge changes taking place in the world's demography. Populations are either decreasing in the affluent north or, because of immigration, they are at most holding steady. In the south, in Asia, Africa and Latin America, they are exploding. It is no surprise that in countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Turkey there are more and more young people. One aspect of this demographic change that is not always noticed is the rapid growth of both Christianity and Islam in these parts. Each is a missionary faith and is attracting a significant following. For example, 63 per cent of the world's Christians are now to be found in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This figure will grow to 77 per cent over the next few years.
Muslims and Christians live cheek by jowl with one another, sometimes in peaceful co-existence but, increasingly, in acute tension. I was in northern Nigeria last year and saw for myself how cities such as Kaduna have been "cantonised". Christians live in some parts and Muslims in others. When there is a communal crisis, they cannot cross certain lines without danger to life and limb. During the unrest over the Danish cartoons, churches were burnt and people attacked in faraway Pakistan, Nigeria, Lebanon and elsewhere. There are now significant Muslim populations in western Europe and North America. This means that the threat of communal unrest is not limited to the global south but is present on every continent.
Is this the future, then: a world where there is not only a clash of civilisations, but conflict within them? Can we think of, or dream of, another future? Muslim grievances are often concentrated on injustice in the Holy Land, Kashmir, the Balkans, Chechnya and elsewhere. Muslims have, furthermore, drawn the world's attention to the importance of faith in the core identity of persons and communities. Certainly, we need to work for justice and peace between Jew, Muslim and Christian in the Holy Land. This may be easier to grasp than we have come to think and have been led to believe. The solution to the Kashmir dispute looks more attainable now than it has for many years. Even in northern Nigeria, I met Christians and Muslims working together for peace. The countries of the Balkans could become realistic candidates for membership of the European Union. Or, of course, it could all go pear-shaped and we could be back to square one.
On the question of the role of faith in the formation of people's identity, there is a need to strike a balance between the necessity of free speech for a free society, legal provision for protecting communities and, most importantly, a new consensus that adds religious sensitivities to such matters as the Holocaust, race or patriotism, where the media and others need to act with responsibility and circumspection. Needless to say, it is quite possible to debate serious issues, including religious ones, freely while also respecting people's beliefs.
Scholars in the field of international relations, such as Fabio Petito and Scott Thomas, point out that we are already in a "post-Westphalian" situation. Religious traditions are refusing more and more to be confined to that private sphere to which they were consigned by the Enlightenment, and want to make a contribution to the public square. There is increasing consciousness that secular ideologies, sometimes born of Enlightenment ideas, have created as much conflict as any religious tradition and that, conversely, religious traditions can be creatively harnessed in the cause of local, regional and global peace. Governments and international organisations rely increasingly on faith-based bodies to deliver in the areas of development, social services and education. In such a rapidly changing situation it is vital that faiths should see their role as persuasive, co-operative and enabling. Noble Lords will know what the opposites of those are. How will such a vision be communicated and what will it achieve?
It is here that dialogue is such an important word. There are different kinds of dialogue and at different levels. There is, for instance, the dialogue which concentrates on people of different faiths learning more of each other's beliefs. This is important if we are not simply to demonise the other. Such dialogue can take place between neighbours or scholars, institutionally or personally, and it can lead to better information and greater understanding. There is also the dialogue which is about the sharing of spiritual experience. Dialogue between Christians and Buddhists, or Christians and Sufis is often about the nature of spiritual awareness and its implications for the rest of life.
There is then the kind of dialogue which is about community cohesion: how different faith communities can communicate and work together for harmonious local living. The day the police were searching homes and arresting people in the aftermath of the London bombings, I was in that very area, helping to inaugurate a centre for inter-faith meeting and working in the middle of Bradford. Surely such communication is necessary if there is to be the sort of cohesion that the Cantle report wanted.
Then there is the dialogue about fundamental freedoms in every part of the world. This House has many stalwart champions of such freedoms. One of the most important aims of international dialogue between different faiths must be to uphold these freedoms, particularly those of belief and of conscience. This is not merely a matter of tit for tat—because Muslims, for example, have freedom to worship and to propagate their faith in western countries, it is said that Christians should be able to do the same in predominantly Muslim parts of the world—rather it is about a common commitment to certain principles which the partners in dialogue undertake to promote wherever they have influence. This week we have had the appalling news from Afghanistan about a man being threatened with execution simply because he became a Christian 14 years ago. I have been told repeatedly, over the years, by Muslim scholars and friends that there is no compulsion in matters of faith; that apostasy is punishable only in the afterlife, and that Islam respects fundamental human rights. I plead with them now to speak up for Abdur Rahman. We need to ask ourselves what kind of freedom and democracy we are promoting in that country.
Different kinds of dialogue have different purposes. Some foster friendships among individuals, families and communities, while others address local or global issues in a more structured manner. The institutional and the personal are both necessary and, indeed, sometimes depend on one another. Because we as a Church have dialogue with al-Azhar, the premier Sunni place of learning, individual scholars from either side can benefit by studying and teaching in the institutions of the other faith.
An area of dialogue which is urgent today is that of conflict: whether it can ever be justified in terms of criteria developed by faith traditions, and how faith communities can build for peace. I believe that many faiths have criteria which can be developed to provide moral underpinning for the international community when armed action is necessary to prevent tyranny, terrorism or genocide. At the same time, such criteria can protect those not involved in combat: the humane treatment of prisoners and responsibility for reconstruction and rehabilitation when the conflict has come to an end.
I am glad that the Prime Minister, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British Council all realise the central importance of this kind of sharply focused dialogue, both internationally and in the United Kingdom through bodies such as the Inter-Faith Network and the newly established Christian-Muslim Forum, for which the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, has done so much to bring to birth. He has also been responsible for the Alexandria Peace Initiative, which brings together Muslims, Christians and Jews for the sake of peace and reconciliation in the Holy Land. He remains active in this area.
Today is Pakistan Day, and on this day, I have to say, it is necessary also to support other initiatives such as President Musharraf's enlightened moderation. I myself am trying to persuade the government of Pakistan to establish a centre for inter-faith dialogue which would situate Pakistan's internal and external policy precisely in the light of inter-faith considerations. Support and assistance from the British Government and the High Commission would, I am sure, be most welcome. The British Institute for Persian Studies has played a remarkable part in the recovery of Iran's magnificent heritage. It is from the resources of such a heritage, as well as interaction with modernity, that the renewal of the Iranian nation will come.
This brings us to the importance of exchange between nations and institutions. It is most important that this should be broadly based and should include people interested in culture, history, religion, and human rights and responsibilities. For too long, exchange programmes have been in thrall to science and technology narrowly defined. I am glad they are being liberated and used to foster deeper understanding of and insight into cultures, faiths and peoples. Resources put into this area will bring rich dividends in terms of peace and prosperity in many different parts of the world, including our own. I am glad this debate is taking place and I hope it will provide the Government with expertise and information which is needed for the development of policy in this area. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester for initiating this extremely important debate. I can think of very few people in our country who know the two religions as well as he does. The relationship between Christianity and Islam is one of the most important issues of our time. Sometimes it is referred to directly, sometimes it is simply alluded to. When, for example, Huntington talks about the "clash of civilizations", what he has in mind and expresses very clearly is a looming conflict between Christianity and Islam. When neo-cons in the United States articulate their world view, they identify Islam as their enemy. Rather surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, this is also the view of European liberals in the circles in which I move. There is a strong feeling that liberalism historically has achieved certain very important values, including freedom of speech, respect for individuals, equality between the sexes and so on, and that Islam—not only outside the European boundary but within Europe—is beginning to threaten those values. Many liberals have even begun to talk about the "new age of barbarism" that might be upon us. For their part, many Muslims also tend to view the world in this bipolar, Manichaean way. In terms of how it perceives the world, al-Qaeda is in many ways simply a mirror image of the neo-cons in the United States.
I want to raise two or three important questions. Why has the relationship between Christianity and Islam become so problematic? Why not other religions? I can think of at least five important reasons why the relationship has become problematic. First, both are missionary religions in a way that many others are not. Secondly, both have a long history of rivalry and struggle with each other, and these historical memories are not easily disposed of. Thirdly, both once ruled large empires and still have nostalgic memories, wondering how to restore those empires in one form or another and by what means—economic or cultural. Fourthly, Christianity and Islam are both dominant in more than a dozen countries, so that the conflict is not just between two countries but between two blocs of countries. Fifthly, both religions, unlike many others, are present in almost every country that I can think of, and so are forced to live together. Thanks to the history of colonialism, as the right reverend Prelate said, in some countries there are only two communities—Muslims and Christians—each struggling to lay down the framework within which the other should operate, as is happening in Nigeria and Sudan with Sharia.
It is a strange irony of history that both these religions should be at each other's throat in one part of the world in particular—Israel—and in relation to the third Abrahamic religion, which is the mother of both Christianity and Islam. I think it very strange that these two religions, both of which are good daughters of Judaism, should find themselves quarrelling and falling apart precisely over what should or should not happen to Israel. As somebody who is neither a Christian nor a Muslim, I see a certain irony in that.
If we are not careful, the conflict between the two religions and the two communities can easily get out of control. What happened on 9/11 is simply a portent of what could happen. Those of us who have lived through at least half the Cold War from 1948 to 1989 fear the prospect of embarking upon another "hot" cold war, which could last almost as long, if not longer, and which could be pretty vicious. You no longer have major powers controlling the satellites, so the danger is that that war will be fought out by the worst possible means in the streets and corners of every major city in the world.
Therefore, this topic could not be more appropriate politically. The question that we should be asking ourselves is whether there is anything that we can do to avoid another 40, 50 or 60 years of disastrous conflict between two parts of the world, which is played out not only in those two parts but in the rest of the world as well. The right reverend Prelate rightly talked about dialogue—after all, what is the alternative to talking? I want to reiterate his point, but with some exemplary caution. Having spent a lot of time trying to understand the nature and limits of dialogue—in fact, I have completed a book on it—I want to share with your Lordships one or two thoughts on how dialogue can easily lead to more conflict rather than less. The obvious purpose of dialogue is to intensify mutual understanding. That requires that each party should be able to look at itself from the standpoint of the other and possibly learn some insights that the other might have to offer.
In this context, I am reminded of an important dialogue that took place in the early years of the 19th century between Hindus and Christians. Christian missionaries had encountered Muslims and Jews, but they had never before systematically encountered Hindus. Therefore, when they first met Hindus, an important debate took place. The Christian missionaries asked the Hindus an important question: "Do you believe in one God or many?" They expected that the answer would be obvious. The Hindu pundits, who had trained in formidable Buddhist logic, replied immediately that the question was blasphemous and absurd. Why was it blasphemous? The answer was: "Just as you cannot attribute empirical qualities to God—whether God is short or tall, white or black—you cannot attribute quantitative predicates to God either. God can be both one or many, or could be neither or both. To assume that God must be fitted into the limited proportions of the human categories of logic is already an act of blasphemy; you are reducing God to the proportions of the human mind".
"Pray, why is the question absurd?" The answer was: "You assume that God must be a being, a person. Is air one or many? Is energy one or many?" The Christian missionaries said: "The question is absurd". The dialogue continued: "Why is it absurd? We are not talking about a being; we are talking about an impersonal principle. Why do you assume in asking the question whether God is one or many that God must be a being? God could be an impersonal principle, in which case the question doesn't make sense. Therefore, your question is absurd and we refuse to answer it". The missionaries were obviously not prepared for this and the debate went on. For their part, Hindus began to ask questions of the missionaries. "Why did God send his only son rather than come down himself, as the Hindus believe? How cruel it would be of a god to allow his son to go through excruciating suffering. What kind of a god do you Christians have?" Or they said: "You condemn a man to heaven or hell on the basis of what he did in one life. Why don't you give him more lives? Everybody gets a second or third chance, so you ought to believe in reincarnation rather than a one-off life only".
This debate went on and began to produce some fascinating results. But by the time the debate could be picked up in a spirit of mutual understanding, British rule had consolidated itself so deeply that the Hindus lost confidence in themselves; they began to mimic Christianity and to pretend that they were no different from Christians.
My point is that, yes, we need dialogue, but a dialogue in which we are prepared to suspend our certainties, to question our own questions and to look at ourselves from the standpoint of the other. That is not easy for religions. If every religion believes that it is infallible—the last word of God on Earth—the question is: what can one learn from the other, apart from simply borrowing some ephemeral or unimportant ideas? We need to think a little more carefully as to how the dialogue can take place, important as it is.
The second point that grows out of this concern with dialogue is that, although dialogue is a rational activity, reason does not function in a vacuum; it is embedded in a body of assumptions, human interests and so on. That is why it is very common, for example, for the same Muslims reading the Koran in particular historical contexts to pick and choose different sentences, different verses and different suras. Why is this happening? Why have these same texts been read differently throughout history? Why are they read in a fundamentalist way in one context but in a liberal way in another context? The answer is to do with a feeling of siege and fear, all of which you bring to bear on your reading of the text. Therefore, it is not possible to conduct a dialogue unless we also attend to the fundamental conflicts of interest which characterise the two communities. This involves, as the right reverend Prelate said, a piecemeal identification of important issues, political as well as economic, which we must go through and try to find ways of resolving.
In this context, I want to float a third idea. It would not be a bad idea at all to do the kind of thing that we did in 1944-45 that led to the creation of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods agreement. The time has come to revisit those institutions and to ask ourselves some very fundamental questions. What new principles should govern the structure of global institutions and the relations between states? Perhaps one thing that might be worth considering is the question that the right reverend Prelate raised about freedom of speech versus freedom of religious sensibility.
Now that I am running out of time, I want to end by sharing just one thought. Is this sort of thing likely? Is it likely that we will have a rational dialogue, peaceful resolution of conflicts of interest and so on? I am afraid that I remain deeply pessimistic for at least three reasons. First, the quality of political leadership that this calls for is, sadly, not in evidence. Secondly, conflict and war always make small people look large. Therefore, politicians of all parties and all countries have a psychological and political investment in situations of conflict and war—it wins elections. The third reason relates to the way in which we have built up structures of vested interests. In our part of the world, corporate interests have built up an exploitative arrangement with suppliers of raw materials in other countries. These corporate interests, which are sustained by a mechanism of domination, will throw all their weight behind any project that keeps the conflict growing rather than resolves it.
But I very much hope that some message may go out from our debate. However difficult it is and however pessimistic we might feel, there is no answer other than to resolve these issues dialogically and through good political common sense.
My Lords, for introducing this debate I too thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester, who has a distinguished record in creating inter-faith dialogues and discussions. I follow with humility his speech and that of the noble Lord, Lord Parekh. They are clearly expert and have thought deeply on these matters.
I want to talk briefly about three things. The first of those is the profound difference between a state that is essentially secular and a state that is essentially religious. Most of us in the western part of Europe and in the United States have long since come to live with the concept of the separation of state from religion. In some cases, like that of the United States or the constitution of France, this is written into the law—there has to be a separation of state from religion. That does not mean that there is no religion, but means that the gap is maintained carefully in terms of the practices of the government and authorities.
It is difficult for somebody from a Muslim background to accept the concept of the secularisation of the state. One could go a little further. It is difficult for the western mind to accept and to recognise that in many Muslim countries secularisation is almost indissolubly linked with colonialism. It is perceived to be part of what was brought by the Christian colonialists and by the secular agnostics and atheists who went alongside them. From the word go, so to speak, secularisation was profoundly suspect.
The question then is whether there is any link that can be made that will bring the two sides of this discussion together. A good example is the cartoons that were produced in the Danish newspapers. To the deeply secular state of Denmark, the characterisation of the Prophet in a cartoon that appeared to be suggesting that the Prophet had close links with disagreeable and even evil ambitions was just part of the usual joking about religion characteristic of all secular states. We long ago put away such concepts as sacrilege and blasphemy, and we are moving further in that direction.
A brilliant Muslim scholar, who I had the privilege of hearing only a day or two ago, made an extraordinarily important distinction. He accepted that in a society with freedom of speech and expression at its centre one cannot attempt to make illegal cartoons of this kind or to bring the civil law to bear upon them. He said that what many of the people who did not understand the reactions to those cartoons failed to grasp was that, essentially, one can believe in freedom of speech, but also believe in respect for other human beings, as the right reverend Prelate put it. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, also said that.
It was the lack of respect for the Muslim community that made so many Muslims feel so passionate about those cartoons—even Muslims of a liberal and highly educated disposition. It was so much part of the recent history of relations with the western world. I do not say the Christian world, as it is not so true of the Church of South India or the Catholics of Malaysia or what have you. It is particularly true of the not-always-accurate identification of western governments with Christianity. Many western governments would feel uncomfortable with that attempt to identify them so.
For my second point, let me try to put us in the shoes of a thoughtful Muslim in virtually any country of the Muslim world. Let us look from that space at the west, instead of, as we usually do, the other way round. What would I see? Let us take only the past 20 years.
I would have seen that the worst and most cold-blooded massacre in western Europe since the end of the Second World War, the atrocity at Srebrenica, did not arouse any great sense of outrage and disgust in the western world. It took quite a long time for that to sink in. It did not arouse anger at the failure of the international community to stop a war against a highly integrated and tolerant Muslim minority, in the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina. I continue to look at the story.
Next I note the bloody war between Iraq and Iran—in terms of casualties and dead, as bad proportionately as the First World War was in western Europe. The west never attempted to intervene to end that war, but rather intervened to sustain it. The arrangements under which Iraq was provided with weapons to direct against an Iran that was technically at least a generation behind and used human bodies as its essential defence was something that, had it happened to a western European country, we would regard as simply disgusting. We would ask ourselves how that could have been brought about.
We next look at Iran, a country that feels bitterly misunderstood at the present time. What has not been discussed in this House at any point that I know of when we have talked about the crisis over Iran, is that Iran took over the leadership of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan from the assassinated leader and then succeeded in sustaining the offensive against the Taliban. Iran is as much a bringer-about of the change in Afghanistan today as ever the United States or the United Kingdom. Does one ever hear that? No, one does not. On the contrary, Iran is arraigned as yet another potential terrorist state; that was done, for example, in President Bush's devastatingly disastrous lecture on the subject of the "axis of evil".
Another example of Iran is a paradoxical one—how at the present time the highly intelligent and thoughtful ambassador of the United States in Baghdad is seeking the advice and help of the leaders of Iran in order to try and avoid a civil war in Iraq. Do we ever give any credit to Iran for playing this crucial role? No, we do not. We see Iran not only as a potential enemy, but as very close to being an actual enemy.
It would have been so much easier to deal with the admitted crisis over the development of nuclear weapons in Iran if we had built up some sense of trust and belief in us in that country well before it started on this troubling process. But Iran has read in the runes that nobody is now threatening North Korea—a country that is known to have nuclear weapons—in the way that Iran is being threatened. It is not a very good analogy to draw.
I give a couple more examples of this consistent history of the attitude of the western world to the Muslim world by touching upon the situation of Palestine, which has already been mentioned. What is increasingly emerging is that all of us are playing into a hypocritical piece of foreign policy, in which we talk about the two-state solution, as if there is any remote chance of the second state being economically, politically or socially viable. We are looking at the creation—we know it—of a dependency in the Middle East, not of a viable, independent state. That is recognised in the Islamic world, but not so recognised in the western world, which wants the whole situation to go away.
The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, asked what we could do about it. Let me give a few instances of what we could do about it. The first of those is that we need to look again—how current this is—at our national curriculum.
The national curriculum is rightly so named. It is a very national curriculum. We no longer require our children to learn even one foreign language, let alone two. We no longer study the history of other civilisations. If we did, then our children would have some dim recognition that, in Islam, we are talking about a very great civilisation indeed, albeit one that has not moved as rapidly as ours towards modernisation. Anyone who loves architecture, art or the beauty of the Earth, quite apart from algebra, astronomy and other long steps forward in science, will be conscious that this is not some remote, primitive people, but rather a civilisation with a great history.
The young soldier who allowed his dog to savage the prisoners at Abu Ghraib probably had no idea how a dog is seen in Muslim civilisation. He would not have liked it very much if a poisonous snake had been pointed at him. On the part of that young soldier there was simply no awareness at all of what a dog means beyond its ability to bite, growl at or scar another person.
Equally in our own national curriculum we simply walk past this whole area of the world as if it hardly existed. One of the key things we need to do is to look again at our national curriculum regarding how we educate children to be part of a world which is mutually understanding and mutually tolerant.
The BBC has recently been conceded a new charter by Parliament. The BBC is a very powerful educational tool. It would be wonderful if the BBC could be persuaded to do about Islam the kind of programmes that it has so brilliantly done about, for example, India; they gave many people in this country some sense of that extraordinary country's history and possible future.
Those are some of the things that I believe we can do which involve not just talking about talking together but recognising, as a state, our own need to contribute and to change.
Finally, I refer to the most serious problem that confronts all of us, which is not even the potential clash of civilisations, although, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester said, that is an extremely dangerous possibility. The more immediate possibility is that we destroy this planet within the next 25 years irreversibly and irremediably. The issue of how we deal with that—we have not got very long; at most a generation—is one which binds together the peoples of this Earth and its civilisations. As the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, hinted, we need not only the dialogue but also the discussion of international law and international initiatives within the structure of international organisations, whether the UN, the WTO or the World Meteorological Organisation, to bring home the common interest of all our peoples; that is, the planet on which we live, crowded though it be. Given that Islam now comprises a religion where half of its members are under the age of 25, that kind of appeal might well allow us to build bridges between the new generations of Christians, Muslims and the other religions of the world.
My Lords, when the Cold War ended more than 15 years ago it certainly seemed at the time as if politics based on ideology or religion had reached the end of the road too. It was that as much as anything else which led an American professor rather unwisely to proclaim the end of history. But it has not quite turned out that way. Instead of the triumph of secular humanism we have seen religion, often highly distorted, even perverted, versions of religion, playing an increasing role in politics, including in international affairs.
We have seen assassination and indiscriminate killing of innocent citizens undertaken in the name of religion and we have seen cultural differences which had seemed to be converging under the impact of globalisation in fact diverging again towards a degree of polarisation of which we have no experience in modern times. These are surely not trends we can afford to stand aside from and simply allow to develop further. So the debate today initiated by the right reverend Prelate is a timely and necessary one, even if the subject needs, as I believe it does, to be approached with some degree of caution. There I echo a word used by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, and for many of the same reasons.
The first need for caution is to avoid appearing to lump all Muslims together as if they were some kind of seamless grouping, which they are not, any more than Christians are. It is that which we at least seem to do when we speak about Muslim or Islamic fundamentalism. That there are Muslims who are fundamentalists and who seek to achieve political ends by means of indiscriminate violence is not in doubt, but then there are Jews and Christians who pursue a similar track, and even Hindus who do so. It does not help discuss these issues in a dispassionate and calm atmosphere if we appear to assume that fundamentalism is some problem unique to Islam which is rooted in the nature of their religion and not ours. It is as if the appalling excesses of the wars of religion in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries were to be attributed to the nature of the Christian religion, which we would surely find exceedingly offensive and wrong-headed.
Secondly, I suggest that it is unwise to imply that recent developments are ones that need to be discussed, debated or even resolved between Muslims and Christians exclusively. Not only does that exclude the followers of other major religions—Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Sikhs—and those who follow none, but it also risks falling into the pattern established by the extremists among the Muslims themselves; that is to say, to treat modern history as a resumption of the Crusades, as a titanic struggle between, on the one hand the faithful, and on the other the rapacious inroads of militant Christianity. The clash of civilisations is their tune, not ours; and while we may try to opt, as the former president Khatami of Iran did, for a dialogue of civilisations rather than a clash, we need to be aware of the risk of even such a dialogue eliding into and being seen by others as a clash.
When one comes to international affairs it is important to remember just how many countries where Muslims form the majority of the population organise their politics on the basis of a firmly secular state, as indeed do most countries where Christians form a majority of the population. The two largest Muslim democracies, Turkey and Indonesia, are most clearly organised in that way and they are very attached to retaining that basis and to avoiding slipping towards structures such as those of the Islamic Republic of Iran or Pakistan. It is certainly not in our interest that they should move in that direction. Those countries do not organise their foreign policies on the basis of religious orientation, which is one reason why the Organisation of the Islamic Conference remains one of the loosest and least homogeneous of international organisations. We should not forget either that many of the main issues of international public policy which require a solution—whether we are talking of Palestine, Kashmir or the distribution of economic wealth and activity in the world—are matters which remain in the hands of states and must be resolved by them and not by religions, even if there is often a religious dimension to such disputes. Indeed, we may be on the verge of finding in the case of Palestine that solutions become even more elusive when the functions of government are taken over by those who organise their activity on a religious foundation.
All that may sound a bit negative to the right reverend Prelate who initiated the debate and I apologise for that if it seems so. But it is better, I would argue, to be well aware, as I am sure he is, of the risks and potential pitfalls in advance. Nothing illustrates that better than the recent furore over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Those who published the cartoons defended their actions in the name of freedom of speech and expression and the right to criticise other religions—ideas which all of us in the West regard as fundamental to our societies. But those actions, and the defence of them, were seen as deeply offensive by many Muslims worldwide, and when contrasted with the prison sentence passed on Mr David Irving in Austria, as deeply hypocritical, as a case of double standards. Those who have benefited most from the furore have, of course, been the extremists themselves and those governments which have opportunistically exploited the events to their own ends.
My own view is that the British press, which decided quite freely not to publish the cartoons, acted with great wisdom and restraint—two qualities not always associated with it. This is a period when the voluntary acceptance of some constraints on what is said or depicted on matters of religion could be the most responsible course to take, even though it will no doubt be assailed immediately by some as creeping self-censorship. I found myself therefore in firm agreement on this point with His Royal Highness Prince Charles in the speech that he made in Cairo this week.
Do those caveats leave no place for the better co-operation between Christianity and Islam in international affairs for which the right reverend Prelate is calling? Certainly not. I am sure that the way each of us handles the treatment of the other's co-religionists in the many countries where they are a minority living among a majority of the other religion is something that urgently needs consideration. I am sure that our governments need all the help they can get in working towards solutions for the long-running and festering international disputes that I have mentioned. I am sure that the discussion of the role that religion could play in politics and politics in religion, while it will not bring agreement, may promote a better understand of the different attitudes towards these difficult and highly sensitive matters. It will, I suspect, be some time before we emerge into calmer waters where mutual tolerance again gains the upper hand over confrontation. Meanwhile, it will be important to continue to assert that that is our fundamental objective and to demonstrate it through dialogue and co-operation.
My Lords, I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester for introducing this debate at this crucial time. Surely what this country now so badly needs, particularly in the Middle East, is a new, coherent, well thought-through foreign and defence policy, in which, as a Christian country in which also live and prosper many other faiths with strong historic and economic ties with the Muslim world, we would then be in the best position to act and encourage others to act, as the right reverend Prelate advocates. No one in their right mind would pretend that we have a coherent policy at the moment. Indeed, it has been sad on occasions to see two great departments of state, Foreign and Commonwealth and Defence, virtually sidetracked in a political and special relationship rush to follow the American interventionist line and its painful and ill thought-through aftermath. As a result, we have stumbled into our diplomacy on the back of 9/11; on a determination for whatever reason—good or bad, valid or invalid—to effect a regime change in Iraq, leading to lack of priority focus on the crucial Israel-Palestine problem, to some disruption of the established balance of power in the area, and to an increase in local terrorism. Later, desperately clutching at straws of respectability, it has centred on putting perhaps undue and even premature emphasis on the cultivation of the frail shoots of democracy in none too fertile soil.
We are now, it is generally agreed, in a difficult position and we need to adjust our approach with as much amour propre and good will as possible. But surely the best way to do this quickly is to get back to a more enlightened and historically realistic policy in which military force supports diplomacy and does not determine it, and in which we take advantage of the good will that we—sadly unlike the Americans—can still call on in the Middle East and then help friends to help themselves. We need a policy that is dynamic but which indulges more in the language of co-operation, dialogue and mutual respect and less in that of confrontation. Of course, there are problems to be faced up to and resolved. Although historically possession leading to an area balance of nuclear weapons has proved more a guarantee of peace than a trigger for war and mass destruction, Iran has signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and its movement towards possession must be a cause for concern to the UN and to all neighbouring countries, particularly when accompanied by most intemperate language by Iran's president, which is not I suspect wholly in line with the views of the Iranian people.
Hamas, with its record of violence and its totally unacceptable threats to the future of Israel, is now legitimately in a position to form the government of the Palestinians and is therefore firmly in the equation of meaningful negotiations. I seem to remember at the height of the Cold War Nikita Khrushchev threatened to "bury capitalism". However, you could argue, and perhaps now most people would argue, that had we resisted the temptation to invade Iraq and instead put the priority of Western and particularly American influence on expediting the so-called road map, or some version passing for it, Hamas might not have won the election.
Then it is being noised abroad that some sort of ideological and religious conflict exists between Islam and Christianity as there was in the Cold War between capitalism and communism. I would not make too much of that, for the reasons given by my noble friend Lord Hannay, as any confrontation that there appears to be may much more reflect disenchantment and resentment over what is held to be excessive intrusion of Western influence and military presence in the Middle East than it does any religious hostility, particularly when there is so much commonality between the faiths. In any case, such thoughts would seem more appropriate to the ramblings and rabble-rousing of Osama bin Laden, and we would hardly want to make it any easier for him by encouraging those ideas.
For whatever reason, there has emerged in the Middle East a militant and particularly dangerous and violent form of international terrorism which we must and I believe we can learn both to live with and deal with. The world remains an uncertain place; there can therefore be no dropping of our guard or weakening of our alertness or our determination to protect our people and vital interests. We need to take all sensible steps to improve intelligence with the help of friends, enhance our protection and speed of reaction to terrorist and criminal acts, and continue to succour our Armed Forces, incomparable in peace and war, as an insurance as to what the future may hold.
All those problems can be dealt with more effectively and within the rule of law by developing a realistic foreign policy that fully takes account of local sensitivities, is prepared to help those who seek it with advice and aid to help them help themselves, and is generally more prepared to infuse those ideas that help to free and enhance the human spirit rather than try to dictate and impose them. We need a moderation of power except in self defence or as a last resort as applied both in the Falklands and the first Gulf War and a greater emphasis on co-operation and reconciliation. That surely must be an alternative and the correct way forward and indeed it should be the Christian way, which is why the right reverend Prelate's exhortations and initiatives are so important and should be so warmly welcomed.
My Lords, I am aware that I am following those who have had military, diplomatic, political, philosophical and prelatical experience, and my contribution will be perhaps more from the street level. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester for initiating this debate, although I have had difficulty in defining the terms within which it is set. Christianity and Islam can easily become weasel words. I am mindful of Edward Said's wonderful book Orientalism and the danger of taking global or general words under which hide people from other persuasions that one simply wants to agglomerate under that title. I have recently read Reza Aslan's rather splendid book No God But God in which he puts from a Muslim point of view his version of events as to whether there is to be a clash of civilisations. He urges those of a non-Muslim background to recognise that the great ferment that is happening at the moment is happening within the world of Islam and is about who has the right to write the next chapter in the history of that community. We should always therefore be rather careful about using such general words.
I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for being brave enough to put herself in a Muslim position and argue as if she were in a Muslim's shoes. It is a difficult thing to do and some salient insights emerged from her readiness to do that. I have done it rather more modestly by reading Islamic literature as best I can—the wonderful three novels of Naguib Mahfouz, for example, about life in Egypt in the 1950s, showing how a cultured, humane, wonderfully altogether Muslim family living by its traditional values could produce two generations later a radicalised young Muslim prepared to give his life for his cause. The unfolding of the pages of that story were in themselves enlightening to me, who would not have the courage to put myself in the Muslim position but tries to listen to Muslim voices as they describe their situation.
In the terms in which this debate is set, the word co-operation occurs and I do not think that anybody in this House could be against that. Co-operation is something that we all want, but how? Nobody involved in conflict resolution, international diplomacy or relief and development work say 20 years ago could have envisaged, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, mentioned, the role that religion would come to assume so many years later. When Hans Küng: my theologian of choice, made his clarion call in 1990,
"There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions", he was a voice crying in the wilderness. Yet now that is precisely where the debate is. Incidentally, to reassure the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, in advocating the place of religion in contemporary discussion nobody ever wants religion to take the place of the state and usurp its role, but it can and must make a legitimate contribution at times of difficulty such as these.
Religion simply has to be factored into a troubleshooting, problem solving, justice seeking mechanism in a more proportionate way than it sometimes is. Christianity has a problem in this regard. There are perceptions of it abroad that it has to deal with whether they are just or unjust. Christianity is linked uncritically in many minds with what is described as western militarism or imperialism. Those who seek an enhanced role from a Christian point of view need great self awareness as they do so and even more patience and resilience as they undertake such a role. There may be inaccuracies in the perception—but they exist and they have to be dealt with. That is very much in evidence, although many lessons have to be learnt by Christians about how they conduct themselves in inter-religious and interfaith debates. As a Christian myself, I want to release Jesus from the polemic uses to which he has been put so that we may hear again his teaching and enjoy it and respond to it.
A number of things are happening and I want to allude to these very briefly, because it is good to put a positive spin on things wherever possible. At the level of international diplomacy and international affairs—the level at which this debate is set—we should learn from the role of those in Northern Ireland who played the religious card effectively. We know about those who did not; who misused the religious card. But the redemptorist fathers from the Clonard Monastery and the Methodist and other Protestant ministers who kept channels of communication open between the various factions by running across the conventional lines that separated people played a signal part in helping to create different possibilities. The work in the Middle East by Canon Andrew White of Coventry Cathedral is another case in point.
Secondly, in issues of global importance, post-conflict peace building, inter-religious councils and truth and reconciliation commissions are all being put together in a multifaith way under the aegis of the world conference of religions for peace. That has the backing of the Secretary-General of the United Nations and others of that ilk. Such initiatives are under way and, to pick up the point that was mentioned with some urgency by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, which is a secular and religious alliance, is keeping the environmental debate high on the agenda and pointing to the need for people in the different faith groups to gather round the agenda set by those needs.
In terms of relief and development, there is the World Faith Development Dialogue, which harmonises programmes and efforts relating to development between world faiths and which was set up by James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, from our own number. There is the inclusion of the Islamic relief in the Disasters Emergency Committee, whose case was brought forward by organisations such as Christian Aid. It now plays its full part in the response to the dreadful emergencies that afflict us only too often.
Then there is humanitarian need. Today we have heard of the release of Norman Kember and his associates and we rejoice at that. He is a good Christian man, but we must remember the key role played by Dr Azzam Tamimi when representing the Muslim Association of Britain. He went out to Iraq to see what could be done and to start discussions taking place—sometimes behind the scenes.
I return to Hans Küng, who said:
"There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions".
But he went on to say:
"There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions".
I pick up my own concerns about the possible ambiguities in the use of the word "dialogue", which, like "tolerance", can be a weasel word. I also want to question my own questions. I want to look again at any box I may have allowed myself to become imprisoned in, to take a creative look at new options that might be available to us.
I have come to believe that international peace, like charity, actually begins at home. I rushed here today from a conversation with the director of the Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations (Cambridge), Dr Ed Kessler. What wonderful things he is opening up there. Two weeks ago, it was a public conversation with the director of Islamic Studies at Oxford University and so on and so forth. The public drawn from offices around where I live discuss issues such as the ones I am talking about. We are up to our eyes in the Islington interfaith forum. Because we have a historic site, we have Muslim children from local schools who come to visit our chapel and enjoy learning about Christianity in a school visit of that kind, just as I have been part of Christian children visiting mosques and temples and the rest of it. I am a school governor and we talk about appropriate school meals for children of other cultural backgrounds. These practical, ordinary, everyday things are terrifically important. My own daughter-in-law, having had three years in Pakistan herself, oversees the culturally aware teaching of the whole curriculum in the little primary school in Newham where she teaches.
There is much to be done at home, but the 10 minutes that we were warned of is up, and I am a man who takes warnings seriously. Things are being done, and we must rejoice at that. There is so much more to do, but if we approach a question like this positively, who knows what we may wrestle out of what might otherwise be chaos?
My Lords, I am not a Christian, a Muslim or an adherent of any religion. In taking part in this debate, I therefore feel rather like a lion in a den of Daniels. Sometimes it is suggested that only religious people can understand religion and should therefore debate it. I am sure none of your Lordships thinks that, which is like saying that only women can discuss feminism.
Although I am no believer, I acknowledge that religion gives meaning to many people's lives and can inspire them to do great things for mankind. Many of the ethical injunctions of Mohammed would—if practised—make the world a much better place, while I have always regarded the Sermon on the Mount as one of the outstanding moral texts of our culture. At the same time, parts of the Bible show Jehovah to be a jealous, vengeful and brutal God while parts of the Koran and the Hadith preach a morality that I find repellent. Religion has done and does much good, and much harm; it has relieved and relieves much suffering, and has caused and causes it. The issue is how the positive and tolerant elements in both religions under discussion can overcome the negative and intolerant ones. That depends on how far secular Christianity and what I see as modern, secular Islam can contain and overcome fundamentalism.
Currently, fundamentalism is in the ascendant. That is something we must recognise. In the United States, Christian fundamentalism has a powerful influence on the Bush administration, though fortunately less pervasive than some suggest. Some members of that administration could be better described as Hobbesian rather than holy rollers. Yet there seems little doubt that the influence of fundamentalist evangelicals has increased in the last decade. Creationism is on the rise and has even raised its head in Britain, where the evangelical wing of the Church of England—less fundamentalist, I accept, than its American counterpart—is certainly gaining influence.
As for the Muslim world, I have long thought that we have underestimated the effect of the Iranian revolution of 1979, which gave a national base to revolutionary, theocratic and fundamentalist Islam. I agree with my noble friend Lady Williams that matters can be over-simplified, but on the whole this regime is far less likely to be swayed by rational consideration than we tend to assume—or, certainly, than Jack Straw seems to realise. As I have argued elsewhere, just as Lenin's rise to power in Russia provided a national base for international Marxism, so the coming to power of the mullahs in Iran has provided a base for fundamentalism. Events since 9/11—including, I am sorry to say, our own invasion of Iraq—have only strengthened the forces of fundamentalism.
How, then, can we control them? What worries me is the reluctance of many tolerant Christians and Muslims to denounce the excesses of their fundamentalist co-religionists, and some of the doctrines that they preach. How many Churchmen have attacked the Vatican and American fundamentalists for their opposition to contraception? The effect has been an effective ban on promoting condoms by international agencies. That prevents action against AIDS; by helping to spread AIDS, it is likely to cause the death of tens of millions of people—a disastrous consequence of the dogma of some in the Catholic Church and of fundamental, born-again Christians. Indeed, sometimes I ask, as Katharine Whitehorn has done, why one so often wishes that born-again people had not been born the first time. One could also add that the harm done by Christian Zionists who support and help the spread of Jewish settlements in Palestine has created one of the biggest obstacles to peace.
Why do we not see more public denunciation—although there is some—by tolerant, secular Muslims of Sharia law and its effect on women, and the suppression of women's rights in the theocracies of the world? The outcry is often somewhat muted. Certainly, the reaction to the fatwa declared against Salman Rushdie was muted. There is also a lack of clarity in the interpretation of certain passages in the Koran and the Hadith, suggesting that apostasy deserves death. It is notable how few Muslims defect. There are plenty of Protestants and Catholics who abandon their religion, as one would expect in the normal course of events, but there are very few Muslims. Part of the reason is fear.
We are seeing a steady increase in the influence of religion. The Government have declared their support for faith schools. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh—who I am sorry to see is absent, and who made an absolutely first-class speech—pointed out, at a meeting I attended last night, that there has been a change in the attitude of Muslims over the last 30 years. If you asked a Muslim "Who are you?" 30 years ago, he would have said "I am a Pakistani" or "I am an Indian"; "I am a Marxist" or "I am a Conservative"; "I am a carpenter" or "I am a sociologist". Now, however, it is much more likely that he or she will identify him or herself as a Muslim by religion.
Definition by religion does not, on the whole, lead people to adopt a secular view of Islam. Those who identify themselves by their religion are likely to believe that the Koran is literally the word of God. The trouble with the belief that sacred texts are the word of God is that you cannot argue with them. You can say that philosophy sometimes raises questions which have no answer, or which you may not answer; but religion often means answers which may not be questioned. Belief in sacred texts implies certainty. It leaves little room for doubt. One of the reasons I am against the spread of faith schools is that they persuade children to believe rather than to question. The essence of a liberal education is that children should be taught to ask questions.
My hero is Socrates, the grand questioner and arch-enemy of fundamentalism. One of the most glorious events in the history of civilisation was the Enlightenment, when certainties were replaced by doubt. It was the birth of modern science, which does not deal with certainties. We are currently seeing a retreat from Enlightenment values. If you know you are right and admit no possibility that you are mistaken, then you are an enemy of tolerance. Doubt is the opposition to dogma, and is essential to the workings of an effective democracy.
I do not argue that religious leaders do not promote tolerance; of course not. We have the example of the admirable speech made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester at the start of this debate. I do not think there is a more tolerant body of men than the Bishops in this House. The Archbishop of Canterbury is a splendidly undogmatic figure. Many statements of those who argue for a secular, democratic Islam—as does the opposition to the present regime in Iran, which we have proscribed—likewise show every degree of tolerance. Unless religious leaders face fundamentalism head on, however, the rise in the influence of religion is unlikely to enhance the prospect of greater understanding and peace.
My Lords, in line with many noble Lords today, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester for bringing one of the most fundamental and pressing issues in international relations today to the attention of this House.
Perhaps it would be appropriate to begin from these Benches by conceding to the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, that both Christianity and Islam—and, indeed, most of the world's great religions—have the potential to create immense danger for the world. All religions claim to mediate the absolute. It is easy to topple over the brink and identify that absolute with the finite and fallible human structures through which that absolute is disclosed to human beings. In short, our religions can reinforce countries, communities, organisations and individuals in being impervious to criticism.
However, I assert that both Christianity and Islam also have within their traditions the very roots of what the world needs to build peace. As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, pointed out, they have within them the resources to address the greatest questions facing the human race today. The patient learning of how to do that is most easily found on the streets and neighbourhoods of our diverse cities.
If it is true to say that the local is becoming globalised, it is simultaneously the case that the global is becoming localised. That is why it was important for this debate to begin with reference to the demography that lies behind these questions. The impact of tensions around the world is felt on the streets of many of our cities, not least in my own city of Leicester. We are living at a time when the pushes and pulls that prompt migration are especially intense. Present conditions of global inequality, commercial expansion, environmental degradation, oppression, war and famine, together with new opportunities for mobility and communication, all drive uniquely large flows of people. Globalisation, with its reduction of the constraints of geography and its web of instant communication, might initially seem to suggest that localities would become increasingly homogenous. In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear that globalisation has not eradicated local cultural diversity. In cities around the world, people are encountering the challenges of living in distinctive places marked increasingly by many forms of diversity. That leads to a new significance for the local in a globalising world. Global events affect local politics and local collective actions. An obvious example from my own city is that control of Leicester City Council changed hands as a direct consequence of Muslim reaction to the invasion of Iraq three years ago.
International affairs everywhere affect feelings of identity and security, especially among urban dwellers who often already have high levels of fear, anxiety and uncertainty. What therefore needs to concentrate the mind of this House is how foreign policy and domestic policy interact in that area. It is not just security on the streets of Baghdad, Jerusalem or Kabul that are affected by the stance of Her Majesty's Government, but that on the streets of Leicester, Bradford, Birmingham and London.
It is the case that faith groups in any of our cities are likely to be touchstones of international opinion. Within their memberships, they have networks spreading across the world. That makes them especially sensitive to violence and accident wherever they hear of it. In my own city, that has caused us to work hard at creating a rapid response to emergency. Within 36 hours of the attacks in London on
Sometimes the response of faith groups to emergency can include the raising of relief funds and gifts in kind, which makes a considerable impact in bridging community divides. In Leicester, large sums of money were raised for the victims of the Gujarat earthquake from the Christian and the Muslim communities. In Birmingham, a similar effort was made for the relief of those suffering and dying in Bosnia several years ago.
Agreement on certain fixed principles is essential to the building of the kind of trust that is needed both locally and globally if the challenges of a new millennium are to be met. One decision we have made in Leicester is that an attack on one of our faiths should be seen as an attack on all of them, whether a building or a person is a victim. How we then act together depends on the circumstances, but that gives each faith the security that they can bring their concerns to the others when they have been hurt. That principle was elucidated after 9/11 when local Muslims were being insulted and Muslim women were often afraid to put their scarves on for fear of being singled out. Sikhs were also being victimised, since many people are ignorant of the difference between faiths, as we know. When Muslim graves have been repeatedly desecrated, support has been shown by Christians and Jews alike.
Various speakers in this debate have listed the world's conflicts: in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Gujarat, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, north-east India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Kosovo, Nigeria and Sudan. The list goes on. In many of those places, it is possible to find evidence that religions can react to events together and have the potential to act as a moderating and reconciling, rather than inflammatory, influence. In those areas, learning is often done in the crucible of diverse urban neighbourhoods. As other noble Lords have said, it is being done especially through dialogue at every level. We need to ensure that ideologies of isolation, competition or conflict give way to the ideology of dialogue, and that faiths see conversation about how their communities cohere as intrinsic to their very identity.
We are coming to see that building and sustaining prior relationships are essential to finding our way through crises. Regular face-to-face meetings, kept in good repair and sustained routinely, are vital. Rapid response is of the essence if anxieties and speculations, fed by the media, are to be well managed. Collective statements which speak out of the deep roots of our different religious traditions can have a cumulative effect of showing that Christians and Muslims are determined not to be divided.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has recently produced a report, Faith as social capital: Connecting or dividing?, of which the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, spoke eloquently. It points to the capacity of communities of faith to build the very links, bridges and social capital which communities will require if they are to live in harmony. The same principle, that social capital arises at its best from the great world faith traditions, has been explored in the report of the Commission on Urban Life and Faith, soon to be published.
In a world where global forces and foreign policy are often driven by the narrow values of profit, power and status, there is often little scope for consideration of the common good to which the world's faiths can so richly contribute. We need to find ways of renewing social organisation and justice in the face of fierce and destructive global dynamics. I am therefore hopeful that this debate will make a significant contribution to that enterprise.
My Lords, it is a privilege to take part in this debate and I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for initiating it. As we hear about the work that is already being done, I am sure that we would like to express our appreciation to everybody, be it in a religious or secular capacity, who is trying to bring together people of different backgrounds, religions, faiths and cultures. They are doing a tremendous job, often in very difficult circumstances. I am sure that we wish them well.
I am an emotional Welshman—I am not the only one to speak in this debate. I was standing outside the United Nations building in New York and looking at the flags. There was a flag for every nation—I think there were 192 in all—starting with Afghanistan and ending with Zimbabwe. Those two countries—the A and the Z—have had great problems, but many other countries in between have had serious political problems in the past. The UN, despite all its failings and its need for modernisation, has at least provided a forum for discussion. It has tried to overcome disputes before they become disasters. I am not sure that the world would have survived to see this 21st century without the United Nations' existence at the political level. Winston Churchill said that "Jaw jaw is better than war war", whereby you can get people to talk together and ease—and sometimes succeed in resolving—their problems.
Sometimes I dream. We all dream dreams. Would it not be possible for the world's faiths also to join together in some permanent organisations where they could discuss their problems and difficulties? Should we not work towards that? If you work and talk together you learn to understand, respect and tolerate each other. It is dialogue on a global scale. We also have many United Nations conventions. Is it not time for us to consider a UN convention on religious responsibilities and religious rights, so that people feel that whatever their faith, that faith is respected and upheld?
When we choose people for various international interfaith groups, or even a massive global forum, how do we get people who really represent their societies and communities to take part? We know that the Muslim community in the United Kingdom has various organisations and that the Christian community has a massive breadth of organisations. How do we choose people who can speak with authority and have the confidence of the people who are part of their communities?
We have made great advances in the Christian Church. There were the divisions of yesteryear—I am a Welshman. Would the Calvinistic Methodists share a platform with the Wesleyan Methodists? That is not a problem any longer. People of various strands of a faith come together. In Churches Together in England (CTE), the Evangelical Alliance and in other inter-Church organisations we come together and overcome many problems that existed years ago. If we are discussing this at a national or an international level, the faiths themselves—the Churches and the faith organisations—should choose their representatives. It should not be imposed by any government, because politicians can often use religion for their own ends.
I was reminded of that today. In Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon wrote that all religions were to the believer equally true, to the philosopher equally false, and to the politician equally useful. We may have found in people such as President Bush that readiness to use a Christian agenda for their own ends. So people from the religious communities themselves must choose those who lead them, and the door should always be open at every level to welcome new people who should feel that there is a growing respect and understanding.
I have spoken of Christianity, but we can speak of Islam in which there are many different strands. One of the problems is that there are so many different strands that they are warring against each other—you cannot obtain cohesion. The moderate voices in those strands are drowned by the loud and fierce minorities. We must work together and the dialogue must continue. It starts at our own feet at local level, which has been mentioned more than once. When that happens, we of different faiths can begin to show our respect and tolerance and get the confidence of those who do not believe as we believe, but are ready to talk together and be at peace together. Then, understanding can be very close. Within the body of our law, which is the final and only framework, there is a law of Parliament within which every faith group must act. Once we begin to be diverted from that we will be in the middle of anarchy.
So at many levels—in local communities and at national level—I can still dream of my global forum of faiths. We can work together and in the end we will overcome many of the problems that cause us such great difficulty at the present time.
My Lords, I should like to join in the thanks to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester for this timely debate. I hope to give a few practical examples of how Christian and Islamic co-operation can work in a variety of situations. In this country, the Care NOT Killing Alliance has brought together leaders of the major faiths in pointing out better ways of helping people to die than by medically-assisted suicide. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff and the late Dr Zaki Badawi, of the Muslim College, London, were working together with others to produce moral and ethical guidelines. I hope that such interfaith collaboration will command wide respect even among agnostics and humanists.
Overseas, Indonesia, as has been mentioned, is the country with the largest Muslim population. It experienced a breakdown of relations between Islamic and Christian communities which had co-existed until recent years; for example, in Sulawesi and other parts of the Spice Islands. Militants, however, caused severe loss of life and destruction of homes. Violence came to an end with the Maluku agreements. At that time, my noble friend Lady Cox, who regrets not being able to be here today, took a prominent part in establishing the International Islamic-Christian Organisation for Reconciliation and Reconstruction. It has three worldwide boards and aims to work with all relevant bodies on the religious, political and social issues affecting the relations between Islam and Christianity.
The first task was in Indonesia, where 14 local leaders formed an interfaith council to implement an action plan for reconciliation with reconstruction and good government. The honourable presidency of the group was taken on by Mr Wahid, the previous head of state. Locally IICORR was, and still is, staffed by young people of both faiths. Its executive board hopes to be able to work using similar methods in northern Nigeria, which has also suffered major interfaith violence.
To return to Britain, and in particular to Somerset, I would like to mention the Ammerdown centre near Bath. I declare an interest as a founder member and current trustee. This ecumenical Christian initiative always sought for unity of Christian thought and action but soon began—a number of years ago—to develop Christian-Jewish dialogue and mutual understanding. It now strives to work with all the major faiths and offers an annual Jewish-Christian-Muslim summer school, perhaps the only one of its kind in this country. Mutual respect between major religions is a fine principle. By itself, however, it will have a hard time withstanding the forces of ignorance, prejudice and downright ill-will unless there is dialogue at all levels. That is the way to help people to have some grasp of how others understand themselves in the light of their own faith and spirituality and thus proceed to guide their behaviour.
I conclude by touching on a new British NGO called Forward Thinking. Here again I refer to my interest as a board member. That came into being as a Christian initiative in building bridges with the many different Muslim communities living in England. The organisation employs a small number of Muslims to help their co-religionists to avoid inward-looking isolation. It provides opportunities for Muslim groups to make contact with what one might call establishment institutions such as Parliament, NATO, the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office, and the Foreign Office. I am glad to say that we have had heartening co-operation from those major departments. Much more could and should be done in all those areas, but it is good that a bishop of the established Church should be pointing to the urgent need in today's world for better Christian/Islamic co-operation.
That is so important not only here in Britain but throughout western Europe, extending to Bosnia and Kosovo and going as far as Indonesia and many parts of Africa. I am confident that the Churches here will respond; for example, by following the lead of Liverpool and Leicester in forming interfaith leadership groups or by promoting face-to-face visits and dialogue between the rank and file of the faithful. It would be good also to draw on the more secular expertise of the whole voluntary sector to meet the needs of the most excluded and disadvantaged people in all faith communities. What we should, and I trust will, do in Britain, especially as regards common citizenship, can have positive implications for the boundaries and overlaps of the great faiths throughout the world.
My Lords, this has been a helpful and constructive debate. We need to have more of them over the country. I congratulate the right reverend Prelate on sparking off the debate. We have heard some useful contributions from almost all Benches. I was brought up in the Church of England and some of my non-conformist friends used to say of the Church of England that it was the Conservative Party at prayer. Well, the Conservative Party has not been praying today in this House. Perhaps it is praying at the altar of capitalism instead. That may be because it is absent from the cities. My experience during the past 20 years is that, having started my life as a Protestant deeply hesitant about the thought of going inside a Catholic church, I have found myself increasingly talking at Muslim assemblies to large groups of Muslims in Huddersfield, Bradford, Nelson, Manchester and elsewhere. This issue concerns us all in our local politics throughout all of Britain's cities.
As the right reverend Prelate remarked, the question is whether we have better co-operation or worse conflict. After all, conflict consolidates communities. The creation of external threats is a way to make people feel that they have a stronger shared identity. External threats also consolidate regimes in power in the West, as well as in the Muslim world, and help to suppress dissent. That is the politics of fear against the liberal politics of hope. We see that within the Muslim world in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran; and we see it in the western world in the politics of the populist Right within Europe and, in recent years, within the Right-wing coalition in the United States.
Directly relevant to the drift of British foreign policy is the fact that many of us are concerned about the drift of the debate in the United States. There is the constant search for an external enemy, whether it be China or Islam—it must be one or the other, but perhaps it is both. There are the references in the most recent quadrennial defence review to the idea of the long war, which is the clash of civilisations converted into military form: the idea that there is to be a war between the West and Islam. There is the influence of the fundamentalist Christian Right, with its apocalyptic vision of a world divided between good and evil, the saved and the damned—concepts that sometimes appear even on the lips of the president of the United States—and the easiness of the concept of a Judaeo-Christian world, which is posed as being against the Islamic world. I was at least taught as a boy about the three religions of the Book, which seems to be a much better way to talk about all this than to pose Islam as part of the barbarian world against our civilised world. There is a simplistic view of a monolithic Islam even among many who understand the subtleties of Mormons versus evangelical Christians versus Catholics and so on.
In the United States, there has been a drift in recent years away from area studies in language and culture even in some of the best American universities, so I particularly welcomed the announcement last week of the establishment of new centres of inter-religious studies at Georgetown and at Harvard, sponsored by leading moderate Muslims in the Middle East. That is exactly the direction in which the United States should be going, and I trust that the arguments that those in the theological world are also having with their American counterparts also stress the greater need for interfaith dialogue.
Western European interests are different; we are much closer to the Muslim world, but we are also much more painfully aware of our own intolerant past than the United States appears to be—I have in mind the vigour with which Catholics and Protestants killed each other in so many countries, and Christian persecution of our Jewish minorities over centuries. We are now talking about the pursuit of tolerance over fundamentalism in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, that the anti-religious dimension of liberalism on the European continent was, as he well knows, a revolt against the authoritarianism of the Catholic Church. It was much easier for liberals in Britain to retain their religious identity because the Church of England was open to a range of different persuasions, and it was possible to be a non-conformist or a Catholic against the established Church. That is part of the glory of the whole Elizabethan settlement on which the Church of England is built.
There needs to be a much greater understanding of diversity among Sunnis, Shias, Ahmediyyas and others, and among our Kurdish, Kashmiri, Somali and Hausa communities in our country and elsewhere. This week, I received two invitations to the Navarra's celebrations—a new year celebration which I think goes back to Zoroastrian tradition. The Turkish state regards it as being completely against the principles of the Turkish state, which is partly why the Kurds celebrate it so vigorously, but I had not understood until this week that the Kazakhs also regard it as a traditional religious ceremony.
There are counter-trends in Islam. Happily, one can celebrate the extent to which, despite moves back towards traditional Islam, women are making immense advances in education and in the autonomy of their lives, even in Saudi Arabia and in Iran. There are sadder counter-trends in Christianity in which some of those who are displaced by rapid social change are clinging to fundamentalism, and that, of course, is part of our problem. When social change becomes too rapid, it leaves those who are lost looking for a simple answer. Just as many of our second and third-generation Muslim immigrants look back to some sort of radical and simple answer, so too do those who are confused by the very rapid transition from traditional society and traditional values to the urban uncertainties of modern life. One should at least also mention the extent to which the explosion of populations in the south has increased the tension between the different communities. We see in Nigeria, Indonesia and Sudan the extent to which religion is used as a weapon in the conflict between communities over shortage of land and resources. How do we promote better co-operation, dialogue and understanding?
I agree very strongly with my noble friend Lady Williams that education at all levels is extremely important. Recently, we were debating the history curriculum and national identity. Our history curriculum is a disgrace. It is part of what needs to be addressed with regard to how people are taught about identity, history and culture in British schools. Our universities are doing rather better. We now have centres for Islamic studies. We are beginning to think about how we train priests, ministers, rabbis and imams so that they understand and respect each other's traditions. After all, we should be promoting that.
There are shared concerns, which we can stress, among our different religious traditions. For example, humane values, the stewardship of the Earth—which my noble friend Lady Williams also underlined—the emptiness of capitalist society and the limits to consumerism will all strike an echo in our broader community and in the different communities. In this country we need to be inclusive. We should certainly talk about the faiths of Britain, as Prince Charles to his credit, and often to the ridicule of the Right-wing press, does. We must offer respect to each other's religions and expect respect in return. We need to carry that message to the hardliners in other countries within the United States, within some parts of the Roman Catholic Church, within Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan, and even within Israel.
My Lords, the House is most grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester for initiating this debate. It has been challenging, with thoughtful and knowledgeable contributions, as we would expect from the great quality in your Lordships' House. I declare an interest as chairman of council of King's College, London. I mention that, too, as important work is being undertaken by our new Centre for Faith and Public Policy, under the inspired guidance of Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman. This centre is dedicated to addressing the problem of how those of Christian and Islamic faiths can improve relations between them.
It is a vital matter, not just for international security, to reduce the danger of the so-called "clash of civilizations", but also for better community relations at home. "Respect" is a word that has cropped up in many of your Lordships' speeches and is a thread through mine. We all have a responsibility to respect, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, stressed, the rights, religions and views of others, particularly when whole communities have been demonised by the actions of the zealous few. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, ably argued the importance of dialogue and diplomacy combined with the mutual respect developed in foreign policy.
While the title of the debate is topical in today's climate, it would have sat just as well in the Persian era, long before the Crusades. It is only by understanding the past that we can fully inform the dialogue of today and build a basis for better discourse. My right honourable friend Michael Ancram once said:
"Knowing how and why the knots of hatred and mistrust came to be tied is the only route to loosen, to unravel, and eventually to undo them".
Many noble Lords may have seen the comments made by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales this week. I fully agree with the message that he puts forward and his calls for greater understanding between the three great Abrahamic faiths of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, as mentioned too by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, in his fascinating speech. A dialogue—a rational activity, as he said—between these faiths, and indeed all beliefs, needs to be conducted and sustained at every possible level in life. The address of His Royal Highness has been reported worldwide. It is just as vital to have this discussion in the corner shop, as in this House today. After all, it has ramifications locally, nationally and internationally. It is as important that representatives of all faiths concerned can have access to the policymakers. We on these Benches have continually highlighted the importance of promoting possible relations between religious groups, both in the UK and around the world. I very much hope that the Minister can update us on links and avenues the Government have forged on this front.
Following the recent cartoons controversy, mentioned by many noble Lords today, there is renewed talk about the need to reach out to the Muslim community. It is vital that this reflects neither our worst fears nor our best hopes but a real understanding, based on genuine discussion. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that the issue here was a lack of respect. Not only we as politicians, but the media, should take care when making claims about the real message of another's religion. We should all take care to respect the social traditions of whichever country we are in.
Indeed, as your Lordships are aware, it is natural to assume that the sources of religious and political difference must be the main topic for a dialogue, but the common ground may be better found in discussions about the foundations of faith. It is always easy to find issues that divide us, but we all share one world. All three Abrahamic religions have a common root, but, as His Royal Highness stated, all our beliefs call out for peace, not conflict and we need to
"foster, encourage and act upon that which embodies the divine attributes of mercy and compassion".
HRH the Prince of Wales deserves much credit in the field we are discussing today. He has strived publicly since his first speech on Islam and the West in 1993 to raise awareness and help solve many of these problems. There is a shared starting point in respect for life and the environment, and in recognising the spiritual dimension of existence.
When we talk about the need for impoverished countries to develop, what sort of development do we have in mind? Do we mean the same things when talking of human rights? Could discussions not be taken forward on basic topics of solidarity, hospitality and respect, especially when considering how we deal with the elderly and refugees? Few people disagree that establishing common ground on these matters will make it easier to address the more contentious issues of competing demands of free speech and the tolerance of diversity. I recognise that, on an international level, dialogue becomes more difficult because of the intensity of the conflicts and the accompanying sense of grievance. The horrific incidents in Sudan, Nigeria and Pakistan are just a few that spring to mind. I noted that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester drew our attention to Pakistan Day—for which I thank him—and commended President Musharraf's support for inter-faith projects. Those in positions of authority need to exercise restraint and calmness and to make sure that their communities are well informed. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, reminded us of Britain and other NATO countries' involvement in supporting the Muslim communities in the former Yugoslavia. So sensitive are these issues of faith in international politics that it is vital that any dialogue is organised in a sensible way. It is always possible to argue for improved dialogue without truly thinking about who is talking to whom about what, and without emphasising the imperative that all those involved need to be prepared to listen. Our diversity and differences should be a great source of pride; indeed, they should make us stronger.
I end with a short quotation from the speech made on
"The roots of the faith that we share in the one God, the God of Abraham, gives us enduring values. We need to have the courage to speak of them and affirm them again and again to a world troubled by change and dissention".
My Lords, like all noble Lords I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester for giving the House the opportunity to discuss the case for better co-operation between Christianity and Islam in international affairs. He quite rightly said that we need as a Government to draw on the knowledge and expertise available. Much of that knowledge and expertise has been very clear in your Lordships' House today and I am sure that noble Lords will not mind if I say that that knowledge and expertise also flows from co-operation and attention to the wisdom that comes from Judaism, Hinduism and, indeed, from Humanists and others.
The right reverend Prelate started with demographic changes and the clear risk of an entrenchment of cantonisation on religious grounds. I was taken by the helpful comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester when he drew that argument back to the midst of our own communities where it is also possible that social division and cantonisation can take place, whether we would wish for it or not—and we do not. Global-to-local resonance is something we need to understand very much better. So these are important issues and this is a timely opportunity to set out what I believe are the core values which underpin the United Kingdom's work in these areas.
My noble friend Lord Parekh made a full and careful analysis of the historical relationship between the religions that helped to start this process. Like my noble friend I am neither a Christian nor a Muslim, but I am also working to understand the set of dynamics between those religions. I shall not follow him into the dialogue between the theologians because I can say with confidence that Her Majesty's Government have no position to convey to the House on that.
I start by reminding the House of the basic values which have laid the foundations of our international system. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, started by referring to the United Nations, and so shall I, having just been there. At the end of the Second World War the nations of the world came together to form the United Nations to work to co-operate between faiths, across religions, across peoples and across states to save succeeding generations from the scourges of war that had been so tragically experienced just before its foundation. My noble friend Lord Griffiths called for nations themselves to take responsibility at times of crisis, and that is quite right. The United Nations, through its charter, is an expression of nations coming together to co-operate in these vital areas. Indeed, I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, will find in the charter some of the things he is looking for in new organisations. Some of those are written down, but unfortunately not always observed.
The United Nations has not always succeeded, but that is not something that should allow us to undermine or diminish the tenets on which the obligations of the United Nations were made: to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of human persons, in the equal rights of men and women, and of nations large and small; to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained; and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.
In order to achieve those ends, the countries of the United Nations undertook to practise tolerance and to live together in peace with one another as good neighbours. These tenets can be applied to the practice of international relations, but they can also be used by us all to define our outlook on life, to reaffirm the dignity and worth of the human person and to enable us to practise tolerance and to live together as good neighbours just among ourselves.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, emphasised "tolerance" as a key word—perhaps the keystone—of much of what we want to do. I share that view with him, as I share the view of my noble friend Lord Griffiths that "tolerance" must not become a weasel word—sometimes I think that weasels get an unduly bad press, but I know exactly what he meant.
The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, counterposed tolerance and fundamentalism and cautioned us about the intrusion of intolerance into international politics. I share that anxiety. Intolerance becomes an easy, perhaps a lazy, metaphor, in relation to others with whom we do not want to agree. That has to be something that we try to contest.
The UN charter gives us a basis on which to conduct our international relations. The charter and subsequent treaties, including the various international and regional human rights conventions, give us guidance on how to act with others. That is not always comfortable. It means subjecting ourselves to scrutiny and criticising our friends when necessary. It gives us a basis on which to argue for, for example, the elimination of the death penalty or cruel punishment wherever they are applied. It gives us a basis for an opposition to the death penalty that is universal and not discriminatory between countries—we oppose the use of the death penalty in the United States as much as we do in the developing or Islamic countries. It also means that we condemn instances in which individuals are persecuted. That covers condemnation of all cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments, including some that are imposed under Sharia law. Punishments such as stoning and amputations are wholly inconsistent with international human rights standards, and I do not think that it is wrong of us, as a country with our values, to say so. The United Kingdom condemns all instances of individuals being persecuted because of their faith, wherever it happens and whatever the religion of the individual or group concerned.
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, rightly described our approach as being based on secularism, as is true for many countries. It sustains our reach-out with parity of esteem for all faiths, because we do not discriminate between them in the way in which we assert those values. I think that that was one of the central points of the noble Baroness's comments.
The Prince of Wales said in al-Azhar in Cairo on Tuesday:
"I think of the experience of Muslims living in Europe who are subject to varied and continuous expressions of Islamophobia by fellow-Europeans. I think of Christians living within some Muslim nations, who find themselves fettered by harsh and degrading restrictions, or subject to abuse by some of their fellow citizens. And I think of dreadful acts of terrorism and violence across the world, carried out in the distorted name of faith".
We regularly urge states to pursue laws and practices that foster tolerance and mutual respect and to protect religious minorities against discrimination, intimidation and attacks. I echo the Prince's call that we must,
"restore mutual respect between faiths, and that we should do all we can to overcome the distrust that poisons so many . . . lives".
I join the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, in congratulating the Prince of Wales on the humanity and clarity with which he spoke.
The United Kingdom is well placed to defend these international values, because we are a multi-faith society. The United Kingdom's record on multi-culturalism and religious freedom is second to none. We aim to ensure that members of all faiths and no faith are treated with the same respect, dignity and tolerance in the United Kingdom. We want to ensure that everyone can enjoy the same opportunities and benefits, such as the freedom to worship, freedoms of expression, and access to education and healthcare. We recognise that faith communities contribute to social and community cohesion through the values and activities that underpin good citizenship, such as altruism, respect for others, ethical behaviour and community solidarity.
I have no illusions that we have an urgent need for more co-operation and more understanding between faiths. Almost everybody who has spoken in this debate has called for that. This was most recently highlighted—I agree with a number of noble Lords who mentioned it—by the publication of the cartoons demonising the Prophet Mohammad across Europe. The violent reactions that were provoked among Muslims worldwide have thrown into sharp relief the issues surrounding tolerance and understanding between faiths and cultures. All of us, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said, have to balance respect and to make good judgment, which is proper in intelligent humans, about the relationships and balances between secular rights and faith sensibilities. I strongly agree with that. Self-control and a modicum of restraint are never things that would fatally undermine freedom of expression. Equally, a proportionate and peaceful response would never be fatal to achieving understanding of faith sensibilities. Self-control is what is needed on both sides.
We can understand these complex issues and effectively address only them if we work in partnership not just with other governments and international institutions, but with all communities, at home and abroad. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester said, we need to understand the core personal identity of people from different faiths. We must stress openness, transparency and respect for the views and beliefs of others. We need to emphasise that the great faiths have nothing to fear from tolerance and intellectual debate. Indeed, the core values of the great faiths demonstrate a common moral compass—as does humanism as a tradition, which is also worth emphasising. The sharing of values is a good basis for dealing with the challenges that we face.
I was very taken with the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, because he was a powerful advocate of these basic values without coming to their appeal from religion at all. That did not diminish the power of what he argued, nor his appeal for rationality in how we conduct the discussion. We need to come together across cultures and religions to form coalitions, which will give a clear statement of solidarity in combating extremism, so that individuals and communities can live in peace. Our strong basic values, which are informed by the best traditions of religions and of humanism, provide us with the basis to contribute to the enhancement we need in co-operation in international affairs.
I turn to some questions that the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, asked about the initiatives that the Government are taking. The United Kingdom Government have been active in numerous local, national and international arenas promoting inter-religious harmony and engagement. Based on the concept of good, strong dialogue and cohesion, we support organisations and forums that are engaged in breaking down barriers and in promoting understanding. There are now 185 multi-faith and inter-faith bodies in the United Kingdom, active in bringing people of different faiths together to increase trust, to diffuse inter-community tensions, to build community cohesion and to foster co-operation on local issues and projects.
I too pay tribute to one of the initiatives that the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, mentioned. In King's College, London, there has been, without question, a great tradition over a great many years of serious study in theology, security and peace-keeping, and of bringing all of those together.
In formulating the FCO's strategy and priorities, we discuss with faith-based organisations what we should do and we listen to their wishes and concerns. This morning the FCO reconvened its advisory panel on religious freedom, an informal group of UK-based NGOs and representatives of faith groups concerned with religious freedoms worldwide—that is a coincidence with today's debate, but I mention that it has come together again. The aims of the panel are to exchange information, to discuss strategies and to help inform policy and to promote international religious freedom.
In January, we saw the launch of the Christian Muslim Forum at Lambeth Palace aiming to create a more formal structure engaging in dialogue and promoting understanding between those two faiths. We look forward to seeing the fruit of that forum.
The work of the Alexandria Process and the Alexandria Declaration initiated by my noble and right reverend friend Lord Carey has played a part in pulling together prominent members of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths to help secure a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.
Another tangible achievement has been the student exchange programme, funded by the FCO's Global Opportunities Fund, between the well renowned Muslim Institution in Cairo, al-Azhar, and the Church of England. I understand that one Anglican student has already left for Cairo and we await the arrival of two Muslim scholars to the United Kingdom later this year.
On the international stage the UK has provided significant political and material support to the EU/ASEAN, ASEM (Asia Europe Meeting) Interfaith Dialogue co-hosted by the UK and Indonesia in Bali last year. My honourable friend Kim Howells from the other House attended the event. The Bali Declaration on Building Interfaith Harmony with the International Community highlighted that,
"it is more important than ever for people of different religions and faiths to stand united".
The theme for the second ASEM meeting taking place in Cyprus in July will be interfaith understanding and co-operation for a peaceful world. We hope that it will build on the success of last year's event but in particular take into account the latest developments in the field and consider the dialogues that have taken place and whether they can add value to interfaith relations within ASEM and in the wider world. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for the information on other organisations with which he and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, are involved. That was especially helpful as it drew other religions into the perspective as well.
It is not just governments who have been encouraging co-operation across faiths; there are practical manifestations every day at a personal level as well as between non-governmental and civil society organisations. One of the most striking features of co-operation is the way in which people react to disasters. That is often a sharp test. We have seen that with the Pakistan earthquake where the United Kingdom played a great role financially and in other respects. We have seen that in Sudan where Christian and Muslim relief agencies are working side by side. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester gave us yet more evidence from his diocese.
Christian and Muslim charities worked together with Buddhists, Hindus and others in an exemplary way in the aftermath of the tsunami. The United Kingdom Government made major donations in that regard. It is an example of people working together.
I do not want to exaggerate the divisions in the world. Trade, diplomacy and information flows are the essence of international business in today's world and make no distinction based on faith. Indeed, the work that people do on terrorism makes no such distinction either. I believe that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, also made that point. Bombs placed on the London Underground do not divide their victims one religion from another as they dismember people. Individuals work on the basis of mutual respect and that is what is needed. Tolerance is vital in that and I think that has come through today's debate.
As a small step to global understanding, the United Kingdom co-sponsored an EU resolution at the UN General Assembly in November 2005 to work towards the elimination of all forms of religious intolerance.
All that I have said should lead the House to understand that we strongly reject the thesis of a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West, or the Christian West as it is sometimes described. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, put that most elegantly, as ever. The treatment of groups in terms of stereotypes, as though they were simply homogeneous rather than richly faceted, is a hopeless way of trying to understand the world in any serious sense. The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, also drew our attention to the very rich texture of the dialogue going on within Islam. There is a false dichotomy propagated by those who seek to promote division along the lines of religion in order to create disorder and chaos. Where we work together we can counter the voices of those extremists who seek to exploit differences. I echo the view of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester in making the point that in the EU work on the Balkans and on Turkey is a demonstration at the most practical, political level of a desire of people to come together and to live in a club that is multi-faith. That means that on occasion when we see things that are difficult we should be frank and acknowledge those as well.
The United Kingdom Government are concerned about the plight of apostates throughout the world. We will continue to argue that it is not a legitimate way to pursue laws and practices when the results and consequences are so serious. Our embassy in Kabul is working with the EU to seek urgent clarification from the Afghan authorities about the case of Abdul Rahman. We will be kept informed of developments, and we will keep the House fully informed of those developments. The Austrian presidency of the EU has been very active on this as well, as it should be, and it is proposing an urgent demarche in Kabul at the highest possible level when we have received an up-to-date report on progress. The idea that someone might face execution because they have converted from one religion to another has no place in our world.
I wholly understand the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on education. We are working on some Muslim heritage issues. In Manchester earlier this month, we saw the launch of the "1001 Inventions" exhibition of Muslim contributions to society. It is an educational exhibition of Muslim inventions by scholars in early centuries—the extent and variety of which is very impressive—in areas of science, technology, medicine and maths. A very large number of children are now visiting this exhibition and many of the things that they do in school are related to having seen the exhibition. The Foreign Office and the Home Office have been very pleased to support the initiative, and we need more like it.
Those are the challenges that we meet today. If we keep working together, if we strive for common ground and if we crowd out those who seek to drive us apart we have some prospect of success. That must be what guides us. We must work together, work tolerantly and work with a degree of rationality. We must understand that it is all faiths, not just two faiths. We must understand that this project has enemies, and we must be alert to making sure that they do not get the upper hand.
My Lords, I am very grateful indeed to all those Members who have made a contribution this afternoon. I crave the indulgence of the House just to make one or two observations before I close, which are central to our debate this afternoon.
The first has to do with contact. From the beginning, Muslims, Christians and Jews have been in contact with one another. That is also true of Christians, Hindus and Muslims. It was not just in the 19th century that Christians encountered Hindus; there is a 2,000 year history of that. I was trying to make the point that there is a considerable change in demography that puts this contact in a new light that we must take seriously. Secondly, I have been very grateful to hear the contributions made by your Lordships about the relationships between religion and the state. We all agreed that any contribution must be persuasive rather than coercive.
Thirdly, there is the question of tolerance. I was glad to hear that word mentioned so often today. It must be engaged tolerance; it must even extend to hospitality. That word has been used. We must continue to ask where the wellsprings are from which these values come. They do not come from just anywhere. Fourthly, again and again the question was raised about the relationship between revelation—as in religious belief—and reason. As a Christian, I want to say and others will agree, that there is an intrinsic connection between religious belief and reason. Islam and Christianity, as they develop, need to examine their thought and their polity in that light; other faiths must do so as well. Certainly from the point of view of the Church of England, faith-based schools, which include people of many faiths in the case of Church of England schools, are committed to teaching pupils how to ask questions. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester for pointing out the intimate relationship between the local and global. Of course, there are organisations in addition to the United Nations, such as the World Conference of Religions for Peace which do bring faiths together and we value what they do. Also, there is the possibility of interfaith collaboration on moral questions.
I have two points in my mind with which I would like to leave your Lordships today. They both end this debate on rather a sad note. First, where are the Muslim Members of this House this afternoon? I am bound to ask that question because this has been rather a one-sided conversation. Secondly, I would not over-do, historically speaking, the tolerance of the Church of England. One has to be honest about that. I understand and admire the proliferation of study centres for faith and public policy, particularly Islamic centres, and study centres in so many universities, but we must work for academic independence. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.