Christianity and Islam

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:40 pm on 23rd March 2006.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Liberal Democrat 2:40 pm, 23rd March 2006

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.