Religious Intolerance and Prejudice - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:33 pm on 17th October 2018.

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Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat 7:33 pm, 17th October 2018

I am pleased to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, not just because of her moving speech but because her outspokenness brings out things which we easily neglect or ignore. Her words were very necessary.

Religious freedom is a fundamental principle of any civilised modern society, but we have not always enjoyed it. As I go round rural Northumberland, I find that the congregations that used to be Presbyterians—they are now United Reformed—can almost all trace their origins to the Toleration Act 1689 and the events which preceded it. The fight for religious toleration has gone on through the centuries—it has been central to the purposes and reasons for the existence of liberalism as a political force. Throughout our history, we have been involved in fighting for the rights of non-conformists to attend Oxford, Cambridge and other institutions from which they were excluded. In the 20th century, we were still fighting in Wales for the rights of chapel members to be buried in their village churchyard. The fight was not just for fellow Christians. There can hardly have been a politician with firmer Christian religious views than Gladstone. He fought year after year for the right of the atheist, Charles Bradlaugh, to take his seat in the House of Commons on the basis of an affirmation when he could not accept taking a religious oath.

We think of ourselves today as a free people. Those of us who grew up in the immediate aftermath of World War 2 perhaps naively assumed that, once humankind had seen the horror of the death camps, which were the result of racial and religious intolerance, religious intolerance would be in retreat. After the Holocaust, surely people would see where intolerance would lead. If we assumed that, we were wrong. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and vigilant we must now be because intolerance, as several speakers have pointed out, lurks not only on our streets but even in public life, in the form of anti-Semitism, attacks on Muslims, attacks on other religious minorities and challenges to the basic rights of Christians in what, at least historically, is a Christian country.

We have reports of a 26% rise in the number of attacks on Muslims. We know that many British Muslims feel increasingly threatened by the way in which they are falsely associated with extremism and terrorism. We see the careless use of language by people who should know how dangerous it is to create a climate of ridicule or disrespect around a minority community—I am thinking, of course, of Boris Johnson’s offensive comments about Muslim women.

At the same time, anti-Semitism is making many in the Jewish community feel more insecure than has been the case for very many years. The Community Security Trust records around 100 anti-Semitic incidents every month—that has gone on since 2016. I do not think that I could add to the moving exposition given by the noble Lord, Lord Kestenbaum, of what it feels like to find the political causes that you have espoused become prey to anti-Semitism; he put that very clearly. I simply comment that the suggestion that British Jews do not understand English irony was quite preposterous. Such language contributes to the atmosphere about which I am so concerned. Sikhs, Hindus and other religious minorities have experienced intolerance and hate crime as well.

Christians in our society have also found themselves victims of abuse and hate crimes, and under threat in their employment, in their children’s education or in their business life, particularly if they hold to rigorous principles which they see as the teaching of the Bible, some of which will not be shared by all other Christians. This is not new. In the 18th century, Quakers refused to swear oaths and to remove their hats in the presence of persons of authority, because they thought that only God deserved such a degree of deference. The First World War saw many conscientious objectors, who were deliberately humiliated by being given white feathers, yet many of them served with courage and distinction in ambulance units—those stories have begun to come out in the hundred years since the war, as we have found recorded testimonies and written material about their experience.

Some of the problems that Christians have faced arise from a clash of rights between people of fundamentally different views. As a society, we have to resolve such clashes in sensible and understanding ways. Some of it arises from overzealous and bureaucratic interpretation of things like equality legislation. The most reverend Primate referred to the Belfast bakery case. In that instance, I welcome the clarity of the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling, which draws a clear distinction between discrimination against an individual based on their opinions or sexuality, which is unlawful, and the protection of the right of an individual to refuse to express a message with which they disagreed—in this case on religious grounds. The court referred to the idea of compelled speech as not being consistent with the belief in free speech.

I want to emphasise three general points. First, I see a real danger to free speech and religious tolerance in the misguided attempts to create so-called safe spaces in student unions and university premises. We have provisions to do with hate speech. The “safe space” doctrine threatens religious discussion and the expression of religious views and destroys the beneficial educational experience of hearing and debating diverse views, which is what life at a university is supposed to embrace.

Secondly, we need to be clear that Christianity— and the existence of an established church in England and a national church in Scotland in the form of the Church of Scotland—poses no threat to religious diversity and tolerance. Very few, if any, of those seeking to enhance the protection of other denominations and faiths would see any benefit in driving Christianity completely out of public life in this country or excluding it from our education system. I think the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, made a similar point in his remarks earlier.

Thirdly, I welcome the Government’s development of their strategy to combat hate crime, but I enter a warning about using additions to prison sentences as a means of dealing with it, which the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, who is a very helpful and conscientious Minister in this field, referred to in his opening remarks. Anyone who thinks that prisons cure hatred is sadly mistaken. Almost everything about the prison system, especially in its present overcrowded and understaffed state, actually fosters hatred and prejudice. The presence of religious, racial or gender-related hatred in an offender is a sign that innovative and life-changing work is needed to have any hope of challenging those ingrained attitudes. When they can, prison officers, health staff and chaplains try to address this sort of problem, but they have so little time, and so little continuity with individual prisoners, that the task is really beyond the system’s present capacity. That capacity is, of course, reduced by longer sentences. Extra time enclosed in a hotbed of hatred will not drive out prejudice.

Across the world, we see terrible persecution of religious minorities. We should do everything we can to challenge it through our foreign, trade and aid policies, and I welcome the involvement of the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, in this work. We must also fight the many forms of intolerance we now see here at home.