Christianity and Islam

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 23rd March 2006.

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Photo of Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Labour 3:08 pm, 23rd March 2006

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?