Christianity and Islam

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:02 pm on 23rd March 2006.

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Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Shadow Minister, International Development 4:02 pm, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, the House is most grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester for initiating this debate. It has been challenging, with thoughtful and knowledgeable contributions, as we would expect from the great quality in your Lordships' House. I declare an interest as chairman of council of King's College, London. I mention that, too, as important work is being undertaken by our new Centre for Faith and Public Policy, under the inspired guidance of Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman. This centre is dedicated to addressing the problem of how those of Christian and Islamic faiths can improve relations between them.

It is a vital matter, not just for international security, to reduce the danger of the so-called "clash of civilizations", but also for better community relations at home. "Respect" is a word that has cropped up in many of your Lordships' speeches and is a thread through mine. We all have a responsibility to respect, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, stressed, the rights, religions and views of others, particularly when whole communities have been demonised by the actions of the zealous few. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, ably argued the importance of dialogue and diplomacy combined with the mutual respect developed in foreign policy.

While the title of the debate is topical in today's climate, it would have sat just as well in the Persian era, long before the Crusades. It is only by understanding the past that we can fully inform the dialogue of today and build a basis for better discourse. My right honourable friend Michael Ancram once said:

"Knowing how and why the knots of hatred and mistrust came to be tied is the only route to loosen, to unravel, and eventually to undo them".

Many noble Lords may have seen the comments made by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales this week. I fully agree with the message that he puts forward and his calls for greater understanding between the three great Abrahamic faiths of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, as mentioned too by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, in his fascinating speech. A dialogue—a rational activity, as he said—between these faiths, and indeed all beliefs, needs to be conducted and sustained at every possible level in life. The address of His Royal Highness has been reported worldwide. It is just as vital to have this discussion in the corner shop, as in this House today. After all, it has ramifications locally, nationally and internationally. It is as important that representatives of all faiths concerned can have access to the policymakers. We on these Benches have continually highlighted the importance of promoting possible relations between religious groups, both in the UK and around the world. I very much hope that the Minister can update us on links and avenues the Government have forged on this front.

Following the recent cartoons controversy, mentioned by many noble Lords today, there is renewed talk about the need to reach out to the Muslim community. It is vital that this reflects neither our worst fears nor our best hopes but a real understanding, based on genuine discussion. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that the issue here was a lack of respect. Not only we as politicians, but the media, should take care when making claims about the real message of another's religion. We should all take care to respect the social traditions of whichever country we are in.

Indeed, as your Lordships are aware, it is natural to assume that the sources of religious and political difference must be the main topic for a dialogue, but the common ground may be better found in discussions about the foundations of faith. It is always easy to find issues that divide us, but we all share one world. All three Abrahamic religions have a common root, but, as His Royal Highness stated, all our beliefs call out for peace, not conflict and we need to

"foster, encourage and act upon that which embodies the divine attributes of mercy and compassion".

HRH the Prince of Wales deserves much credit in the field we are discussing today. He has strived publicly since his first speech on Islam and the West in 1993 to raise awareness and help solve many of these problems. There is a shared starting point in respect for life and the environment, and in recognising the spiritual dimension of existence.

When we talk about the need for impoverished countries to develop, what sort of development do we have in mind? Do we mean the same things when talking of human rights? Could discussions not be taken forward on basic topics of solidarity, hospitality and respect, especially when considering how we deal with the elderly and refugees? Few people disagree that establishing common ground on these matters will make it easier to address the more contentious issues of competing demands of free speech and the tolerance of diversity. I recognise that, on an international level, dialogue becomes more difficult because of the intensity of the conflicts and the accompanying sense of grievance. The horrific incidents in Sudan, Nigeria and Pakistan are just a few that spring to mind. I noted that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester drew our attention to Pakistan Day—for which I thank him—and commended President Musharraf's support for inter-faith projects. Those in positions of authority need to exercise restraint and calmness and to make sure that their communities are well informed. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, reminded us of Britain and other NATO countries' involvement in supporting the Muslim communities in the former Yugoslavia. So sensitive are these issues of faith in international politics that it is vital that any dialogue is organised in a sensible way. It is always possible to argue for improved dialogue without truly thinking about who is talking to whom about what, and without emphasising the imperative that all those involved need to be prepared to listen. Our diversity and differences should be a great source of pride; indeed, they should make us stronger.

I end with a short quotation from the speech made on 21 March by HRH the Prince of Wales in Cairo. His expression is a clarion call to all:

"The roots of the faith that we share in the one God, the God of Abraham, gives us enduring values. We need to have the courage to speak of them and affirm them again and again to a world troubled by change and dissention".