Christianity and Islam

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:51 pm on 23rd March 2006.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Deputy Leader, House of Lords, Spokesperson in the Lords, Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs 3:51 pm, 23rd March 2006

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.