Christianity and Islam

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:53 pm on 23rd March 2006.

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Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench 2:53 pm, 23rd March 2006

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.