Christianity and Islam

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:14 pm on 23rd March 2006.

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Photo of The Bishop of Rochester The Bishop of Rochester Bishop 2:14 pm, 23rd March 2006

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.

Annotations

Bob Churchill
Posted on 28 Apr 2006 11:22 am (Report this annotation)

If "Religious traditions are refusing more and more to be confined to that private sphere" this should be carefully legislated away, not catered to. Mere profession of articles of faith should not entitle anyone nor any group to special privileges in the "public square".

This is tantamount to saying that some citizens are more equal than others within our democracy. When attempting to smooth over the tensions that religious commitments are continually fostering, do not forget the naturalistically-minded, the secular, and the many apatheists (those who are simply apathetic about gods), for whom all the conflict caused by religion is a tragic conundrum, and for whom -- if their equal participation is de-prioritized in favour of those with religious beliefs -- will have unequal civic representation.

Furthermore, if "There is increasing consciousness that secular ideologies, sometimes born of Enlightenment ideas, have created as much conflict as any religious tradition", I do not know whose consciousness this is in or why. Surely, if anything, it is more and more obvious that religious commitment drives and perpetuates conflict, dividing people according to incommensurable metaphysical identities and pitting them against each other with beliefs that are entirley unamenable to criticism. Exactly what "secular ideology" is causing division on anything like the scale that world religions are causing? (The only half-decent answer is Marxism or Maoism, which were hardly "born of Englightenment ideas".

The notion that "religious traditions can be creatively harnessed in the cause of local, regional and global peace" but secular ones cannot do so, runs quite contrary to a gargantuan wealth of evidence.