Christianity and Islam

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:10 pm on 23rd March 2006.

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Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 4:10 pm, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, like all noble Lords I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester for giving the House the opportunity to discuss the case for better co-operation between Christianity and Islam in international affairs. He quite rightly said that we need as a Government to draw on the knowledge and expertise available. Much of that knowledge and expertise has been very clear in your Lordships' House today and I am sure that noble Lords will not mind if I say that that knowledge and expertise also flows from co-operation and attention to the wisdom that comes from Judaism, Hinduism and, indeed, from Humanists and others.

The right reverend Prelate started with demographic changes and the clear risk of an entrenchment of cantonisation on religious grounds. I was taken by the helpful comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester when he drew that argument back to the midst of our own communities where it is also possible that social division and cantonisation can take place, whether we would wish for it or not—and we do not. Global-to-local resonance is something we need to understand very much better. So these are important issues and this is a timely opportunity to set out what I believe are the core values which underpin the United Kingdom's work in these areas.

My noble friend Lord Parekh made a full and careful analysis of the historical relationship between the religions that helped to start this process. Like my noble friend I am neither a Christian nor a Muslim, but I am also working to understand the set of dynamics between those religions. I shall not follow him into the dialogue between the theologians because I can say with confidence that Her Majesty's Government have no position to convey to the House on that.

I start by reminding the House of the basic values which have laid the foundations of our international system. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, started by referring to the United Nations, and so shall I, having just been there. At the end of the Second World War the nations of the world came together to form the United Nations to work to co-operate between faiths, across religions, across peoples and across states to save succeeding generations from the scourges of war that had been so tragically experienced just before its foundation. My noble friend Lord Griffiths called for nations themselves to take responsibility at times of crisis, and that is quite right. The United Nations, through its charter, is an expression of nations coming together to co-operate in these vital areas. Indeed, I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, will find in the charter some of the things he is looking for in new organisations. Some of those are written down, but unfortunately not always observed.

The United Nations has not always succeeded, but that is not something that should allow us to undermine or diminish the tenets on which the obligations of the United Nations were made: to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of human persons, in the equal rights of men and women, and of nations large and small; to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained; and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

In order to achieve those ends, the countries of the United Nations undertook to practise tolerance and to live together in peace with one another as good neighbours. These tenets can be applied to the practice of international relations, but they can also be used by us all to define our outlook on life, to reaffirm the dignity and worth of the human person and to enable us to practise tolerance and to live together as good neighbours just among ourselves.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, emphasised "tolerance" as a key word—perhaps the keystone—of much of what we want to do. I share that view with him, as I share the view of my noble friend Lord Griffiths that "tolerance" must not become a weasel word—sometimes I think that weasels get an unduly bad press, but I know exactly what he meant.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, counterposed tolerance and fundamentalism and cautioned us about the intrusion of intolerance into international politics. I share that anxiety. Intolerance becomes an easy, perhaps a lazy, metaphor, in relation to others with whom we do not want to agree. That has to be something that we try to contest.

The UN charter gives us a basis on which to conduct our international relations. The charter and subsequent treaties, including the various international and regional human rights conventions, give us guidance on how to act with others. That is not always comfortable. It means subjecting ourselves to scrutiny and criticising our friends when necessary. It gives us a basis on which to argue for, for example, the elimination of the death penalty or cruel punishment wherever they are applied. It gives us a basis for an opposition to the death penalty that is universal and not discriminatory between countries—we oppose the use of the death penalty in the United States as much as we do in the developing or Islamic countries. It also means that we condemn instances in which individuals are persecuted. That covers condemnation of all cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments, including some that are imposed under Sharia law. Punishments such as stoning and amputations are wholly inconsistent with international human rights standards, and I do not think that it is wrong of us, as a country with our values, to say so. The United Kingdom condemns all instances of individuals being persecuted because of their faith, wherever it happens and whatever the religion of the individual or group concerned.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, rightly described our approach as being based on secularism, as is true for many countries. It sustains our reach-out with parity of esteem for all faiths, because we do not discriminate between them in the way in which we assert those values. I think that that was one of the central points of the noble Baroness's comments.

The Prince of Wales said in al-Azhar in Cairo on Tuesday:

"I think of the experience of Muslims living in Europe who are subject to varied and continuous expressions of Islamophobia by fellow-Europeans. I think of Christians living within some Muslim nations, who find themselves fettered by harsh and degrading restrictions, or subject to abuse by some of their fellow citizens. And I think of dreadful acts of terrorism and violence across the world, carried out in the distorted name of faith".

We regularly urge states to pursue laws and practices that foster tolerance and mutual respect and to protect religious minorities against discrimination, intimidation and attacks. I echo the Prince's call that we must,

"restore mutual respect between faiths, and that we should do all we can to overcome the distrust that poisons so many . . . lives".

I join the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, in congratulating the Prince of Wales on the humanity and clarity with which he spoke.

The United Kingdom is well placed to defend these international values, because we are a multi-faith society. The United Kingdom's record on multi-culturalism and religious freedom is second to none. We aim to ensure that members of all faiths and no faith are treated with the same respect, dignity and tolerance in the United Kingdom. We want to ensure that everyone can enjoy the same opportunities and benefits, such as the freedom to worship, freedoms of expression, and access to education and healthcare. We recognise that faith communities contribute to social and community cohesion through the values and activities that underpin good citizenship, such as altruism, respect for others, ethical behaviour and community solidarity.

I have no illusions that we have an urgent need for more co-operation and more understanding between faiths. Almost everybody who has spoken in this debate has called for that. This was most recently highlighted—I agree with a number of noble Lords who mentioned it—by the publication of the cartoons demonising the Prophet Mohammad across Europe. The violent reactions that were provoked among Muslims worldwide have thrown into sharp relief the issues surrounding tolerance and understanding between faiths and cultures. All of us, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said, have to balance respect and to make good judgment, which is proper in intelligent humans, about the relationships and balances between secular rights and faith sensibilities. I strongly agree with that. Self-control and a modicum of restraint are never things that would fatally undermine freedom of expression. Equally, a proportionate and peaceful response would never be fatal to achieving understanding of faith sensibilities. Self-control is what is needed on both sides.

We can understand these complex issues and effectively address only them if we work in partnership not just with other governments and international institutions, but with all communities, at home and abroad. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester said, we need to understand the core personal identity of people from different faiths. We must stress openness, transparency and respect for the views and beliefs of others. We need to emphasise that the great faiths have nothing to fear from tolerance and intellectual debate. Indeed, the core values of the great faiths demonstrate a common moral compass—as does humanism as a tradition, which is also worth emphasising. The sharing of values is a good basis for dealing with the challenges that we face.

I was very taken with the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, because he was a powerful advocate of these basic values without coming to their appeal from religion at all. That did not diminish the power of what he argued, nor his appeal for rationality in how we conduct the discussion. We need to come together across cultures and religions to form coalitions, which will give a clear statement of solidarity in combating extremism, so that individuals and communities can live in peace. Our strong basic values, which are informed by the best traditions of religions and of humanism, provide us with the basis to contribute to the enhancement we need in co-operation in international affairs.

I turn to some questions that the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, asked about the initiatives that the Government are taking. The United Kingdom Government have been active in numerous local, national and international arenas promoting inter-religious harmony and engagement. Based on the concept of good, strong dialogue and cohesion, we support organisations and forums that are engaged in breaking down barriers and in promoting understanding. There are now 185 multi-faith and inter-faith bodies in the United Kingdom, active in bringing people of different faiths together to increase trust, to diffuse inter-community tensions, to build community cohesion and to foster co-operation on local issues and projects.

I too pay tribute to one of the initiatives that the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, mentioned. In King's College, London, there has been, without question, a great tradition over a great many years of serious study in theology, security and peace-keeping, and of bringing all of those together.

In formulating the FCO's strategy and priorities, we discuss with faith-based organisations what we should do and we listen to their wishes and concerns. This morning the FCO reconvened its advisory panel on religious freedom, an informal group of UK-based NGOs and representatives of faith groups concerned with religious freedoms worldwide—that is a coincidence with today's debate, but I mention that it has come together again. The aims of the panel are to exchange information, to discuss strategies and to help inform policy and to promote international religious freedom.

In January, we saw the launch of the Christian Muslim Forum at Lambeth Palace aiming to create a more formal structure engaging in dialogue and promoting understanding between those two faiths. We look forward to seeing the fruit of that forum.

The work of the Alexandria Process and the Alexandria Declaration initiated by my noble and right reverend friend Lord Carey has played a part in pulling together prominent members of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths to help secure a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.

Another tangible achievement has been the student exchange programme, funded by the FCO's Global Opportunities Fund, between the well renowned Muslim Institution in Cairo, al-Azhar, and the Church of England. I understand that one Anglican student has already left for Cairo and we await the arrival of two Muslim scholars to the United Kingdom later this year.

On the international stage the UK has provided significant political and material support to the EU/ASEAN, ASEM (Asia Europe Meeting) Interfaith Dialogue co-hosted by the UK and Indonesia in Bali last year. My honourable friend Kim Howells from the other House attended the event. The Bali Declaration on Building Interfaith Harmony with the International Community highlighted that,

"it is more important than ever for people of different religions and faiths to stand united".

The theme for the second ASEM meeting taking place in Cyprus in July will be interfaith understanding and co-operation for a peaceful world. We hope that it will build on the success of last year's event but in particular take into account the latest developments in the field and consider the dialogues that have taken place and whether they can add value to interfaith relations within ASEM and in the wider world. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for the information on other organisations with which he and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, are involved. That was especially helpful as it drew other religions into the perspective as well.

It is not just governments who have been encouraging co-operation across faiths; there are practical manifestations every day at a personal level as well as between non-governmental and civil society organisations. One of the most striking features of co-operation is the way in which people react to disasters. That is often a sharp test. We have seen that with the Pakistan earthquake where the United Kingdom played a great role financially and in other respects. We have seen that in Sudan where Christian and Muslim relief agencies are working side by side. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester gave us yet more evidence from his diocese.

Christian and Muslim charities worked together with Buddhists, Hindus and others in an exemplary way in the aftermath of the tsunami. The United Kingdom Government made major donations in that regard. It is an example of people working together.

I do not want to exaggerate the divisions in the world. Trade, diplomacy and information flows are the essence of international business in today's world and make no distinction based on faith. Indeed, the work that people do on terrorism makes no such distinction either. I believe that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, also made that point. Bombs placed on the London Underground do not divide their victims one religion from another as they dismember people. Individuals work on the basis of mutual respect and that is what is needed. Tolerance is vital in that and I think that has come through today's debate.

As a small step to global understanding, the United Kingdom co-sponsored an EU resolution at the UN General Assembly in November 2005 to work towards the elimination of all forms of religious intolerance.

All that I have said should lead the House to understand that we strongly reject the thesis of a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West, or the Christian West as it is sometimes described. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, put that most elegantly, as ever. The treatment of groups in terms of stereotypes, as though they were simply homogeneous rather than richly faceted, is a hopeless way of trying to understand the world in any serious sense. The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, also drew our attention to the very rich texture of the dialogue going on within Islam. There is a false dichotomy propagated by those who seek to promote division along the lines of religion in order to create disorder and chaos. Where we work together we can counter the voices of those extremists who seek to exploit differences. I echo the view of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester in making the point that in the EU work on the Balkans and on Turkey is a demonstration at the most practical, political level of a desire of people to come together and to live in a club that is multi-faith. That means that on occasion when we see things that are difficult we should be frank and acknowledge those as well.

The United Kingdom Government are concerned about the plight of apostates throughout the world. We will continue to argue that it is not a legitimate way to pursue laws and practices when the results and consequences are so serious. Our embassy in Kabul is working with the EU to seek urgent clarification from the Afghan authorities about the case of Abdul Rahman. We will be kept informed of developments, and we will keep the House fully informed of those developments. The Austrian presidency of the EU has been very active on this as well, as it should be, and it is proposing an urgent demarche in Kabul at the highest possible level when we have received an up-to-date report on progress. The idea that someone might face execution because they have converted from one religion to another has no place in our world.

I wholly understand the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on education. We are working on some Muslim heritage issues. In Manchester earlier this month, we saw the launch of the "1001 Inventions" exhibition of Muslim contributions to society. It is an educational exhibition of Muslim inventions by scholars in early centuries—the extent and variety of which is very impressive—in areas of science, technology, medicine and maths. A very large number of children are now visiting this exhibition and many of the things that they do in school are related to having seen the exhibition. The Foreign Office and the Home Office have been very pleased to support the initiative, and we need more like it.

Those are the challenges that we meet today. If we keep working together, if we strive for common ground and if we crowd out those who seek to drive us apart we have some prospect of success. That must be what guides us. We must work together, work tolerantly and work with a degree of rationality. We must understand that it is all faiths, not just two faiths. We must understand that this project has enemies, and we must be alert to making sure that they do not get the upper hand.