Religious Intolerance and Prejudice - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:14 pm on 17th October 2018.

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Photo of Lord Bilimoria Lord Bilimoria Crossbench 8:14 pm, 17th October 2018

I am just quoting the figures I have been given—36% and 34%. These are really worrying statistics.

An omnibus survey was carried out demonstrating the relatively low significance attached to religion by a cross-section of the population. Given 12 options to define personal identity, just 7% chose religion. Asked how important religion was to them, 72% said that it was not important at all. This is worrying. Another survey included the statement that religions are inherently violent and 32% agreed. On the question that the teachings of religion are essentially peaceful, 61% agreed. On the statement:

“It is religious extremists, not religions themselves that are violent”,

81% agreed. That is the important statistic. Here is another example:

“Most of the wars in world history have been caused by religions”,

70% agreed. Here is another worrying one:

“On balance, religions are much more peaceful today than violent”.

With that, 44% agree and 44% disagree.

On anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, another poll revealed that 34% of the entire electorate—even 16% of the Labour Party—believe that it is a serious problem within the party. The noble Lord, Lord Kestenbaum, spoke about that. Another very scary fact is that 1 million people in our country have experienced faith discrimination.

There is one other fact that nobody else has mentioned, or probably will mention. One of the best lectures I attended at Harvard Business School was given by Professor Mahzarin Banaji, who is a fellow Parsi—and, ironically, hails from Hyderabad in India, where I too am from. She creates awareness of unconscious bias in self-professed egalitarians. She studies human thinking and feeling as it unfolds in social contexts, and her focus is on mental systems that operate in implicit or unconscious modes. How much unconscious bias exists, most often unintended, within social groups? We should all be aware of this. Professor Banaji has written a book, with Tony Greenwald, entitled Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who I have had the privilege of meeting, said:

“India’s treasure is that all major religious traditions co-exist in harmony”.

The Nobel laureate talked about

“education for wisdom and compassion”,

and said:

“There are different spiritual traditions whose philosophies are also different, but all of them carry the same message of love. All religions teach us the practice of tolerance and have the same potential of bringing inner peace”.

He stressed the need to get rid of conflict in the name of religion, and called upon people to

“acknowledge each other as brothers and sisters and develop a sense of oneness with others ... a concern for other human beings without being self-centred or short sighted. We need a sense of global responsibility”.

Last year when the Foreign Office celebrated UN Human Rights Day, its theme was “freedom of religion or belief”. Here I should read out Article 18 of the UN declaration of human rights, which says:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.

Yet look at what is happening; look at the sadness of what ISIS—so-called Islamic State—is doing. Its behaviour in the Middle East has been absolutely appalling. Article 18 has been completely disrespected around the world. Religious intolerance is the virus that causes the persecution, and if not treated it will lead to more and more of the atrocities that we have seen.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu—a fellow fellow of my college at Cambridge, Sydney Sussex—said about Nelson Mandela that he was a magnanimous individual. In a situation of ongoing conflict and violence, we should try to achieve conflict resolution. That is what the archbishop and Mandela did so brilliantly. The principles of reconciliation should be based on truth, justice and forgiveness.

The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, when he led a debate two years ago, said:

“At their heart they bring true integration based on the God-given dignity of all human beings whatever their ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability or economic worth. A vision of this kind will promote cohesion around the common good, it will encourage courage and creativity, it will lead us to train young people in new skills, it will give us the strength to open new markets, to share our wealth and wisdom fairly and not only to our advantage, and to welcome the alien and the stranger. It will challenge us to be consistent and to have an eye to our relationship with future generations, notwithstanding the events that intervene”.—[Official Report, 2/12/2016; col. 418.]

From a Zoroastrian perspective, my community—one of the smallest communities in the world—has full freedom to practise our ancient religion over here in the UK. We have never been persecuted. Yet to see the persecution of the Zoroastrians in Iran is very sad. One thing that worried me greatly when I came to this country in the early 1980s from India, is that I was told that this country had a glass ceiling for foreigners, and that if I ever wanted to work after I finished my studies I would never get to the top because I was a foreigner. That was so true, I am afraid to say, years ago. Today it has changed, and this country has evolved into a country of aspiration, where anyone can get anywhere, regardless of race, religion or background. I led a debate here a few years ago on the contribution of minority and ethnic religious communities to the culture and economy of Britain. In that debate, which some Members here tonight spoke in, it was said that we would not be where we are today—the fifth largest economy in the world—without the contribution of those minority communities.

In India there are only 59,000 Zoroastrian Parsis out of a population of 1.25 billion; here there are less than 6,000 of us out of a population of 65 million. Yet wherever you go, people know who a Parsi is. Mahatma Gandhi said: “In numbers they are beneath contempt, in contribution, beyond compare”. Ambitiously, I say that by achievement per capita we have done so well, going back to Cyrus the Great. Forget Magna Carta: that is modern. In 539 BC, Cyrus the Great, with his cylinder in the British Museum, issued the first bill of human rights, in which he allowed people in his kingdom to practise whatever religion they wished and allowed the Jewish community to go back to their homeland.

In the context of the European Union, Brexit, as the noble Lord, Lord Gadhia said, is dividing this country. Immigration was the highlight of that—yet where would we be without those 3 million immigrants from the European Union who came to this country and contributed to it? The most reverend Primate spoke about assimilation and integration. My father, the late General Bilimoria, said, “Wherever you live in the world, integrate as best you can, but never forget your roots”. It is important that people can integrate but also be proud of their roots. That is the difference between secularism and pluralism: we are proud of our own religions but we celebrate, not just tolerate, all other religions—and we do so with integrity.

The most reverend Primate’s predecessor, Rowan Williams—Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, and now master of Magdalene College, Cambridge—spoke about integrity. That word comes from the Latin words “integritas” and “integer”, and you cannot practise integrity unless you are whole and complete as an individual, as an entity, or as a community. You cannot be fragmented in front of the light; you can only practise integrity if you are whole.

Yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, said, we have had a chilling reminder that many people around the world live in fear purely because of their beliefs. We must never let ourselves fall victim to such intolerance and divisiveness. That is where my favourite poem by Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel laureate, starts:

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high …

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

By narrow domestic walls”,

and ends:

“Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake”.

Although the fundamentalists in each religion affirm that their religion is exclusive, and look on other religions as enemies, according to their scriptural and theological traditions all religions have a notion of a god who is inclusive. This morning I was talking to my elder son Kai, who has just graduated in theology from Cambridge. I said, “I’m speaking in this debate, Kai. Have you got any advice for me?” He said, “Yes dad: where religion is concerned, we are more similar than we are different”. He talked about the difference between secularism and pluralism, and about celebration rather than tolerance. Then he reminded me of his grandfather—my father—and said that when he was in the army there would be cavalry regiments with a Sikh squadron, a Hindu squadron and a Muslim squadron, not just living together but fighting together as comrades in arms. Finally, he said, “Dad, there’s a Chinese proverb: there are many paths to the top of the mountain, but once you’re there, the view is the same”. Brexit is dividing this country and threatening the existence of our precious union. My wife is South African, and there is a wonderful South African saying: if you want to go fast, go alone, and if you want to go far, go together. We have to go together as a country, and then we will go far.