My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for tabling this important debate and allowing us to hear my noble friend Lady Flather’s robust common sense, much of which I agree with.
The Bishop of Truro’s report on the worldwide persecution of Christians makes for disturbing reading, as does the persecution of Muslim and Hindu minorities in Sri Lanka, Muslims in Myanmar and Yazidis in the Middle East. I could go on. The question arises: why are religions, which are all about justice and fairness in society, suffering so much persecution all over the world?
Mobs who kill and maim fellow citizens do not do so after a detailed study of the actual beliefs and teachings of those they wish to harm, but because of a latent ingrained fear of difference that is all too easily exploited by unscrupulous religious and political leaders. There seems to be a law of human behaviour which I will call Indarjit’s law: when two or more people find enough in common to call themselves “us”, they will immediately look around for a “them” to look down on to strengthen their sense of common identity. We see this in a less harmful form in the behaviour of football fans. In the 1930s, Hitler exploited latent fear and envy against the Jewish minority to blame it for all the country’s economic and social ills. It carried him to political power.
In India, at the start of 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi saw her Congress Party trailing in the opinion polls and heading for defeat in the autumn elections. A child of the 1930s, she blamed India’s less than 2% minority for all of India’s social and political ills. This led to the brutal killing of thousands of Sikh men, women and children throughout the country. At the end of the year her Congress Party secured a record landslide victory. The rise to power of Narendra Modi, India’s current Prime Minister, was widely attributed to his association with majority bigotry, which led to the killing of thousands of Muslims. For several years he was persona non grata, in this country as well as in the United States. But political power all too easily leads to wider political acceptance.
Sadly, considerations of trade frequently override human rights. In 1984, I asked the then Home Secretary, who I knew well, “Why do the British Government not speak up against the persecution of Sikhs in India?”. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Indarjit, it’s very difficult—we’re walking on a tightrope. We’ve already lost one important contract”. A Minister of Trade in David Cameron’s Government said, “When we talk trade with China, we should not talk about human rights”. In this House, we have had numerous questions on the abuse of political and religious power by countries in the Middle East, yet we are always softer on Saudi Arabia, perhaps the greater abuser, because, let us be frank, it is a major customer for our arms exports.
This brings me to the abuse of religious freedom in the name of religion. We are all aware of the conflict between Shias and Sunnis in the Middle East. Small theological differences are magnified by irreligious religious leaders, and used to appeal to majority bigotry, leading to the murder of thousands of innocents and a huge refugee crisis. Russia, Britain, America and other powers jump in to take one side or another, adding to the suffering and the flood of refugees.
Religions, which bear the brunt of the suffering, also have the key to reducing conflict, if, instead of focusing on supposed superiority and difference, they emphasise common aspirations and beliefs. This year is the 550th anniversary of the birth of Guru Nanak. In a message highly relevant to today’s times, he taught that the one God of us all was not in the least bit interested in our different religious labels but in what we do to work for a more harmonious and peaceful life. He taught that our different religions were simply different paths up a mountain towards an understanding of God. The paths are not mutually exclusive but frequently merge to highlight common imperatives that can defeat bigotry and fanaticism. That is the direction in which we have to move for greater peace and harmony.