rose to call attention to the role of interfaith dialogue in strengthening society; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, one of the most divisive elements in our present-day lives is religion. This was never meant to be so, but extremists in many faiths are bent upon exploiting religion for their own nefarious political agendas. Although there is much warmth and friendship in this House, there is a great deal of fear and hatred in the world outside. As the threats in our daily lives have increased, many eyes have turned in the direction of Islam, from whose corner the recent spate of tragic events has emerged. In looking at Islam through its main reference source, the Holy Quran, we see a religion completely at odds with the actions of the perpetrators of the vile acts of terrorism committed in its name. This resulted in voices being raised and questions asked. Do Muslims hate other faiths? Is Islam mainly the religion of fanatics? Are we to witness the start of a clash between Islam and other faiths?
As these questions reverberated, for many Muslims this was a time for challenge and despair. On the other hand, the response of many in the horrified international community was an expectation that the Muslims would put their own house in order. Many now viewed with scepticism Islam’s message of peace and compassion; for if it was true, why, they asked, is it associated with violence and intolerance towards non-Muslims and the poor treatment of women? The answer is that both Muslims and non-Muslims use the holy book of Islam, the Koran, selectively. The events of 9/11 in New York and 7/7 in London, in Spain, Bali and other places, were despicable acts committed by misled youths, wrongly in the name of Islam. Islam not only prohibits the killing of the innocent but is also most severe on the act of suicide. There is a clear Koranic instruction against taking one’s own life. I therefore have no problem stating from the august Floor of your Lordships’ House, for all to hear, especially my co-religionists from the Muslim world, that exploding bombs as an act of suicide to kill innocent people in buses, bazaars, aeroplanes, trains, schools, places of worship or anywhere else, is totally un-Islamic and against the teachings of the Koran. All Muslims, therefore, must do everything to stop this evil depravity.
One of the least understood words in Islamic theology is “jihad”, which is commonly misunderstood by many as an aggressive act of a religion. Not many understand the notion of the greater jihad, which really means to strive. It is misinterpreted in the West, and also in the minds of many Muslims, as a call to religious war. It was explained by the Prophet of Islam as an attempt to control one’s own base instincts and work towards a better and harmonious world. The lesser jihad is to battle physically for Islam, but that, too, only as a defensive action against tyranny and injustice.
Another frequently asked question is: what is the reason for the anger in the Muslim community which leads to acts of aggression? Its origins are attributable to, among other factors, globalisation and world politics. I have often heard people in this country raise the uncomfortable truth that while Muslims rightly enjoy much freedom and the protection of the rule of law in Britain and other democracies, the same does not always apply for non-Muslims, and indeed Muslims, in many Muslim countries. What, then, has gone wrong for the Muslims?
To many onlookers, Muslims appear to be sailing on a ship with neither a captain nor an anchor, drifting aimlessly, buffeted by choppy, turbulent waters. There is clearly a dearth of competent, honest and moderate Muslim leadership reflecting the true faith of Islam and in tune with the 21st century. This leads me to suggest that, along with the problem of leadership, a related important problem in the Muslim community has been the failure of its own socially successful and materially secure role models in engaging with their own communities. The result has been that their less fortunate co-religionists have been left to their own devices in the hope that God will clear a path for the believers and any suffering undertaken in this world will be rewarded in the world hereafter. In such a context it is not surprising that the radicals and extremists have moved in to spread their poisonous message of hate and wanton killing.
Despite the influence of religion, most societies have been suspicious of and aggressive towards strangers who are non-kin and come from beyond the tribe. The embracing of the stranger is challenged by some for fear of diluting exclusive values and identities which they believe should be dominant in the national ethos. This promotes the negative values of exclusivity and hatred. It mobilises its supporters through emotive appeals concerning jobs, schools and homes, recalling ancient wrongs, with bogus threats and character assassination of entire communities.
Can I, then, as a Muslim, recognise God’s image in a stranger who is not a fellow Muslim? Can I see God’s image in a Hindu, a Sikh, a Christian or a Jew? Islam tackles this confusion through a passage in the Koran saying that Muslims should respect all of God’s creation regardless of religion or method of worship. The Koran says:
“Oh you men—we have created you male and female and I have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. So, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the best for conduct”.
Other faiths have similar advice when faced with some of the same problems of strangers. The Hebrew part of the Bible commands:
“When a stranger lives with you in your land do not ill-treat him. A stranger who lives with you should be treated like a native born. Love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God”.
From the ancient Hindu scriptures, Subhashitam, comes this advice:
“This man is ours, that man is a stranger. Discrimination of this kind is found only amongst mean-minded people. Those who are noble, to them the whole world is one family”.
A great teacher and leader of the Sikh religion, Guru Gobind Singh, taught the commonality of religions and the oneness of God. He mentioned that the Ram of the Hindus and the Rahim of the Muslims were the same. The various scriptures of the main religions of the world point to the oneness of God. From the Christian faith the instruction in this context is very clear: love thy neighbour. The Zoroastrian and Buddhist faiths talk of the brotherhood of man.
We must fully participate in a thriving multicultural society in Britain, with different faiths living peacefully side by side. As a Muslim I implore the silent majority of my co-religionists to stand up and be counted as being against any form of terrorism in this country or anywhere else. Let us make sure that our voice is heard loud and clear so that any effort by the terrorists to hide their criminal intent under the mask of religious piety is categorically denied to them and unequivocally rejected by the community as a whole. That is important because, in a predominantly Christian Europe, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism appear to be gaining ground. This results in pressure on the Muslim and Jewish communities. The consequence is anger, confusion and frustration, and God’s vision of a just and compassionate human society remains unfulfilled.
The recently departed 20th century will be remembered mainly for two great wars in which millions were killed and countless others suffered. The wars were European in origin and led to the shameful and gruesome murders in Auschwitz, Belsen, Dachau and other places. In the context of the present, however, we must strive for greater friendship and understanding between all faiths, but especially among the Jews and the Muslims, who have so much tradition in common. The Co-Existence Trust—created by the hard work of the noble Lord, Lord Janner; now ably led by the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell; and of which I have the privilege of being a trustee—is a wonderful organisation created for just such a purpose.
The future of our world is almost certainly with our young people. My work with the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council, a great organisation of uniquely dedicated officers and volunteers which has done so much for many young people in the Commonwealth, has convinced me that a very important component in our strategic thinking for our future harmony should be a partnership with the young people of today who will be the guardians of our civilised world of tomorrow.
In this context, my message specifically for the Muslim youth is to reject the extremists who take you away from education and responsible citizenship and point you in the direction of self-destructive violence. Whatever hardships and discrimination some of you may experience in the United Kingdom, please consider how precious to you are your human rights, free speech and the freedom to practise your faith in a democratic Britain which seeks to uphold these rights for all its citizens and which compares very favourably to the civil life of Muslims in many Muslim lands. Therefore, my young friends, come out from your mindset of feeling marginalised into the mainstream of the life of this nation, fully participate with panache and enthusiasm and then demand the rewards which will surely come your way.
Like many noble Lords, I am a great admirer of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. I recently read a brilliant speech that he delivered at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford that is truly remarkable for its interfaith encouragement and vision. I suggest that it should be read by everyone. In one excerpt from that great speech, he said:
“These two worlds, the Islamic and the Western, are at something of a crossroads in their relations. We must not let them stand apart. I do not accept the argument that they are on course to clash in a new era of antagonism. I am utterly convinced that our two worlds have much to offer each other. We have much to do together. I am delighted that the dialogue has begun, both in Britain and elsewhere. But we shall need to work harder to understand each other, to drain out any poison between us, and to lay the ghost of suspicion and fear. The further down that road we can travel, the better the world that we shall create for our children and for future generations”.
Among the many wonderful teachings of the Hindu religion there is one particular prayer from the Atharva Vedas that has come down from thousands of years ago and which I would like to share with the House. Its English translation from Sanskrit goes like this:
“We are birds of the same nest,
“We may wear different skins,
“We may speak different languages,
“We may believe in different religions,
“We may belong to different cultures,
“Yet, we share the same home: our Earth”.
In conclusion, I request the participation and effort of this noble House to rid from our world the menace of racism, extremism and terrorism and to bring the prayer from the Vedas to fruition. I beg to move for Papers.
I congratulate the noble Lord on drawing our attention to the importance of dialogue as a basis for achieving understanding and self-knowledge. Understanding those who are different adds to the sense of who we are.
The Institute for Jewish Policy Research, a social think tank for the Jewish community, has been aware of the need for this kind of dialogue for many years. I have the honour of being president of the institute. As long ago as 1960 the JPR was involved in the dialogue between Christianity and Judaism, particularly between the Catholic Church and the Jews, and for a number of years published a highly respected academic journal on Christian-Jewish Relations, so this dialogue has been going on for some time.
Underlying that, though, there has always seemed to be a paradox that needs to be recognised. That paradox lies in the difference between religion and faith. What divides us is not faith but the practices of religion. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “faith” as trust in the goodness of people. Faith gives rise to good works and to good will, and can easily exist in a multicultural society. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Hameed, explained, religion can be dynastic and tyrannical. It is the practices of religion that lead to fanaticism, to hostility, to violence and to the exclusion of women. It is religion that needs the dialogue, not faith.
So what can be done about that paradox? One of the first lessons that we at JPR have learnt is that interfaith dialogue must extend beyond the professional. The dialogue has to be extended beyond the clerics and the officials of religious organisations; it has to include those in other walks of life to whom religious identity is important. Religion is rarely our sole identity, and there is something very artificial about interfaith dialogue predicated on the notion of an exclusively religious identity. The chances of improving relations between religions are enormously enhanced by locating our efforts in the wider context of all the other things that define us: family, work, sport, intellect, culture. They all play a part.
Over the past two years at JPR we have been trying to put that concept into practice. The project is called “Recreating the European Common Good”, and is generously funded by that farsighted New York-based organisation, the Ford Foundation. The project started with a major series of round-table discussions in seven European countries, including the UK. The problem discussed is a weakening of the sense of shared belonging in European societies, and the significance of religious differences looms very large. Most importantly, because each individual is valued for all the facets of their identities—they are not merely seen as a Muslim, a Jew, a Catholic, a Turk, an Afro-Caribbean or an Arab—the possibility of reaching a more general and more profound understanding of what needs to be done is greatly enhanced. It is this sense of shared belonging that is the key to successful interfaith dialogue. Through the generosity of the Ford Foundation the project will continue for a further 18 months, and from its conclusions we will develop practical recommendations that will be disseminated throughout Europe.
Leading up to that exercise, JPR has followed the same principles in a series of seminars we have conducted in Britain. What emerges is the importance of finding a way in which minority groups can organise themselves to represent their interests. The common ground is universal human rights, as the noble Lord, Lord Hameed, said. We all seem to agree that when religious or culturally specific values come into conflict with the common good, the universal human rights principles must take precedence. Religious understanding is more effectively achieved when people are encouraged to concentrate on the common good, and on the kind of moral and values-based society that faith is meant to achieve.
Interfaith dialogue is a big issue that requires more than five minutes. We are all small players in this drama, but each of us is helping to create a society with a greater sense of shared belonging. That is what interfaith dialogue is about.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Haskel and Lord Hameed, on the tremendous work they do for interfaith dialogue. Forty-eight hours ago I spoke in this Chamber—I think the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, was here—and said that I felt some trepidation at speaking in a debate that was participated in exclusively and dominated by lawyers. I have that same feeling of trepidation speaking today on a subject in which I have no expertise when there are so many people in the Chamber, particularly the right reverend Prelates and people such as the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, my noble friend Lord Sheikh and the noble Lord, Lord Janner, who have been involved in the issue of interfaith dialogue for so long.
I want to speak for one reason alone: this is a massively important subject, and the greatest challenge we face in our world is to avoid the clash of civilisations that is talked about so much. We desperately need an interfaith dialogue, not just, as the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Hameed, says, in order to strengthen society, but, if I may push the Motion a little further, because we need it internationally as well to strengthen what is called “the world community”. Of course you cannot divide a domestic interfaith dialogue from an international one; an interfaith dialogue in this country involves talking to immigrants and to communities that have relatives overseas and have communication all the time with them.
Political and diplomatic relations between Islam and the West, which in my view are at something of a crisis point, need the involvement not just of politicians but of people of faith as well. Politicians such as Mr Tony Blair can play an important role. I pay huge tribute to his decision to set up his own faith foundation, though in his comments on radical Islam he often misunderstands the origin and nature of, and what has created, political Islam.
Interfaith dialogue is important also because there are parts of the world to which the West hardly talks because it does not like the mixture of politics and religion, yet how can you begin to understand that spectrum called political Islam if you do not talk to or engage with it in any way?
Part of the tension between Islam and the West is not a clash of religions, but a clash between belief and unbelief. We simply do understand or appreciate how deep, how embedded or how strong is religion in many parts of the world. Not so long ago, a friend of mine and Member of the other place told me how he went to the Middle East and rather fancied himself as someone who could talk to people of extreme views there. He met someone from the spectrum of political Islam and they did not get on very well. After a while, the Muslim on the other side of the table said, “Well, we are not agreeing politically, but there is one thing we have in common: we believe in the same God”, to which my friend replied, “I do not believe in God at all”. That is the not the way in which this dialogue can proceed constructively. We have an aggressive secularism in the West which is deeply antipathetic to people in other parts of the world.
Another reason that we need dialogue is that the development of Islam in Europe will have an impact on the development of Islam worldwide. Scholars such as TJ Winter at Cambridge have a tremendous impact worldwide, but we hear only about extremists in mosques and not about people who can have a real influence in the evolution of Islam worldwide.
Politics and Islam are intertwined for historical reasons. Arab nationalisms failed and were succeeded by the Muslim brotherhood. Secular liberalism failed and was succeeded by the Islamic revolution. Many things come under the term “political Islam”: Islamism, Islamic democracy, an Islamic republic. They form a spectrum at one end of which is a theocracy and, at the other, people who just want to live under a Government who vaguely support the principles of Islam. We have to recognise that it is a spectrum, not label everyone in the same way and recognise the importance of religion in politics.
Many problems in the Islamic world that most concern us in this House come from a lack of development rather than from religion. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, said that it is not faith but religious practice that creates problems and tensions. I think that it is a lack of development, which is often wrongly attributed to religion.
I sometimes think that people just expect the values of the Enlightenment suddenly to take grip in foreign countries overnight, without remembering that it took centuries for us to separate church and state. Even in the 19th and 20th centuries, and probably even today, we have laws whose origins are religious. It will take time for the values that we support to take a grip elsewhere. We cannot just expect everyone to become like us.
Interfaith dialogue can enrich our society, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, said, and increase mutual understanding. We have much that we can learn from Islam. True Islam is spiritual, internal, about drawing close to God, and nothing to do with blowing up politicians or creating imaginary caliphates. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hameed, and for the opportunity to make those few, simple points.
My Lords, I must apologise to the House because I hoped to be here in time to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hameed, on initiating this important debate. I know that in his distinguished tenure of the post of High Sheriff of Greater London he did and continues to do a great deal in the field of interfaith dialogue. Today’s debate is only one more initiative in that record.
It is a timely debate, because the 21st century in our experience is so very different from the times in which most of us grew up. Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC, in his recent lecture on faith and the media which he delivered in Westminster Cathedral, traced the evaporation of the consensus which was strongly maintained when he began his career 20 years ago. It is the consensus that Nietzsche was right, that an Entzauberung—a breaking of the spell—had occurred and that it would spell God’s funeral in western European culture in only a matter of time.
However, the 21st century, as the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, indicated, is unlike the 20th century. It is already clear that the 4 billion to 5 billion people in the world who follow some kind of spiritual path are not going to conform to the pattern that we have seen in our own country of relegating religion to the leisure sector. Rather, in a global crossroads such as London, we are feeling the new spiritual turbulence. It is not only the arrival of new religious communities, but also the invigoration of long established ones. In Greater London, the most sober statistics are that, every single week, 630,000 Christians are at worship in more than 4,000 churches. If that were true of any other gathering of citizens, we would regard it as a non-trivial fact. Despite my earnest attempts to repress enthusiasm wherever I find it, I can testify from personal experience that a new generation of believers is making a profound impact on the Diocese of London.
The truth is that we do not live in a secular country; we do not live in a religious country; we do not live in a Christian country. But all these perspectives are present and if we do not have constructive conversation between them, there will be conflict, not least with the dogmatic secularists whose faith is at least as passionately held as any other.
We have to encounter this new challenge of constructive conversation. We begin in a rather poor place because of the low level of our spiritual education. Schools are not the place for proselytising, but, as we face the challenges of this new century and these new circumstances, every child has the right to an education which includes religious literacy, ethical clarity and common values, and spiritual awareness. I stress “ethical clarity and common values”, because, talking to some recent converts to exclusive forms of Christian faith and to Islam, I found a strong reaction, not, as some would have us believe, against our values, but against the vacuum of values, the loss of a clear moral compass and the fragmentation of relationships, above all in the family. That is the context in which many people are turning to extremely exclusive forms of religious faith.
Faith can be and often has been a source of conflict—let us face it. That goes especially in the 20th century for the faiths which sustained the political religions such as Communism and Nazism, which tried to build a heaven on earth and just created a living hell. But faith can also be a resource in circumstances of conflict. To hear some people talk, you would think that the problem really lay between the adherents of the various religions. I have had the privilege of talking to the noble Lord, Lord Hameed, on this subject on many occasions, and there is huge common ground between adherents of the faiths which in their different ways look back to Abraham, and there are also meeting places in the conversation with eastern religions.
We need places and strategies to promote healthful interactions. I object to the general term “faith school”. We do not run our 150 schools in the Diocese of London as a faith monoculture. In our Haringey academy, for example, the students speak 70 languages, from Albanian to Zulu, and profess a variety of faiths. The term “faith schools” is sometimes used to suggest that the head teacher of the local C of E primary is really the sinister agent of some mind-bending cult. What is supposed to be the opposite of a faith school? Is it a “doubt school”, perhaps?
Beyond the schools, I have two further practical suggestions for strategies. First, I commend the progress made in Liverpool in developing the organisation Faiths4Change, which brings the various religious traditions together to work at common challenges facing the environment of that city. Unity comes when you look together in the same direction at a common problem rather than minutely scrutinising one another. That is not a unique example; the approach could be used more widely.
Finally, over the past three years more than 20,000 people from all faiths have participated in the programmes of the centre that I founded in the City of London, St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. It was a church that survived the Great Fire and the Blitz but fell victim to the Bishopsgate bomb in 1993. It was rebuilt, still bearing its scars, by a consortium supported by people of every conceivable faith.
There is a great deal of academic work on interfaith matters. We have been trying by practice, trial and error to develop a number of toolkits to help other groups with the how of addressing interfaith tensions. Our work has been greatly enhanced by a tent of meeting, raised thanks to a Muslim donor, made out of goats’ hair and Gore-tex; in the current rain, it has an unmistakable aroma. That is an idea for something that we could spread through all the communities of this country—a place where everybody has to remove their shoes and sit close to the ground, which has made some very difficult conversations possible.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Hameed for introducing this timely debate and other noble Lords for the valuable contributions that have been made. I shall talk about the experiences that we have had working with Muslim women, particularly in West Yorkshire. One thing that we found early on was the extraordinary lack of understanding, when there was a division by religion, of what people’s neighbours were like. We were working with three generations of Muslim women, whose idea about their non-Muslim women neighbours was that they were very much like the women in “Dallas” and “Dynasty”. When we talked to the non-Muslim groups, they always had a vision that all the Muslim women were hidden, suppressed and oppressed. One of the first things that interfaith activities can do is to try to bridge this gap, which cannot be done by high-level discussions.
What we found worked best was working at the school gate and among women, on particular things that mattered to them, to their children and their community, beginning with common causes, such as raising funds for the school, and moving on to the idea of sharing knowledge and information. From those small beginnings, we have found that many schools celebrate all faith feasts, which is quite uncommon, with people bringing in food on such occasions. The first step towards interfaith activity is to work with people who cannot and perhaps do not have the time or the skills to speak at the policy level of decision-making but who have specific common needs that can be addressed at the local level.
I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London for his emphasis on education. One thing that we found when working with the Muslim Women’s Network across England was that often religious education was simply not that. What was not happening was people with a real understanding of religion and of their faith speaking about their faith—the insiders talking to the group. One suggestion that the Muslim Women’s Network has made is that perhaps we should have teachers who go around schools, each with their own faith and their own ideas, who can be open to discussion.
That kind of discussion across divides is perhaps the best way in which to open minds without creating prejudices. I certainly found that this was possible about 20 years ago when I started talking about Islam and feminism. I remember that most of my feminist colleagues in women’s studies thought that “Islam and feminism” was an oxymoron. To begin with, it was regarded as an absolute failure and unscholarly to talk about women’s rights in Islam; we found that the process of explanation was slow, took time and patience and needed an open mind.
We need to build the possibility of having an open mind from the very beginning—from primary school, where I am pleased to say that it exists, to secondary school, where I fear that it does not exist, to tertiary education. Then people such as me, who are trying to teach final-year university students about Islam, would not find themselves obliged to dismantle barriers of prejudice that have been built by the media and by a lack of good education right through schooling. It is difficult in your final year at university to begin to rethink all the thoughts that you have had. Perhaps one policy suggestion would be to look seriously at school education as opening minds rather than instilling information about a particular faith and as opening a dialogue instead of insisting on being of one faith or another. My hope is that that process would take us further. I assure your Lordships that at university level there is a vibrant discussion going on that accommodates the reality that all faiths are towards the same end and just have different means.
My Lords, as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hameed, for initiating this timely debate and for his impressive rebuttal of extremism today. It gives me the opportunity to raise some secular concerns about how the Government are implementing policies designed to encourage community cohesion and dialogue between people of different faiths.
As noble Lords will be aware, a significant proportion of British people say that they are not religious, although we may hold strong beliefs. By my reckoning, these non-religious citizens in total outnumber all the adherents of minority religions in the UK put together. It is also worth noting for context that most of those identifying themselves as religious do not seem particularly zealous. For instance, a BBC/ICM survey found that among Hindus 77 per cent went to a place of worship only once every few months. Similarly, 73 per cent of declared Christians were only occasional attendees, as were 69 per cent of Jews and 54 per cent of Sikhs. Defying the media stereotypes, 42 per cent of Muslims said that they did not visit their mosques most months. Indeed, only about one in 10 people in Britain attend a place of worship regularly.
Given this background, I trust that noble Lords can see the problems and in some cases the dangers of defining complex ethnic communities through religious identity. The growing Chinese community is largely non-religious; is it to be excluded from government-sponsored dialogue? What about the vibrant Afro-Caribbean community? Can it be properly represented by religious groups? I suggest that it probably cannot. I am sure that the Minister would also agree that many immigrants to Britain, particularly those seeking asylum, come in search of freedom from political, cultural or religious oppression. Some will have settled gratefully into a largely secular society. As my noble friend Lord Haskel asked so eloquently, given the host of interests and aptitudes shared across our increasingly diverse communities, is it sensible to encourage the identification of those communities by the religions that might on occasion divide them? I understand and share the concern for greater dialogue between faiths. I simply caution the Government about conferring status and privilege on religious groups that are sometimes self-appointed and unrepresentative, with immoderate agendas and perhaps a vested interest in maintaining tensions.
No doubt there is a hard-headed Whitehall approach that argues that, if religious fundamentalists present the biggest threat, we should entice them to engage with more moderate religious opinion and accept as the price to be paid the political truism that the squeaking wheel gets the most oil. If that kind of realpolitik is at work, it is best conducted within the larger framework that supports our core British values of tolerance of belief, freedom of speech, respect for equality and human rights. We surely all agree that robust dialogue is an essential element of our democracy, especially when we are forced to defend our certainties in open, rational debate.
The declared goals of the Department of Communities and Local Government are to,
“defuse inter-community tensions; build community cohesion … foster co-operation on local issues and; work jointly on social and educational projects”.
We humanists support all that and our beliefs have pedigrees as old as the major religions. So why should we not be part of this government-sponsored dialogue between belief systems? We already play a constructive role as founding members of the Religion and Belief Consultative Group. Humanists now sit on local education standing advisory councils for religious education—the aptly named SACREs.
Regrettably, interfaith bodies that the Government promote, such as their Faith Communities Consultative Council, explicitly exclude the non-religious. The Minister will know that a recent report from the Faith Communities Capacity Building Fund warned that local government found that the faith sector was reluctant to address equalities issues, especially those around gender and sexuality. Is the Minister concerned that discrimination of any kind makes it difficult for local authorities to co-ordinate their work on religion and belief as defined by law and the equality standard for local government? The Human Rights Act 1998 outlawed discrimination against people on grounds of their religious or non-religious beliefs. Will the Government review their current practice to ensure that it is not in any way discriminatory? The noble Lord, Lord Hameed, calls our attention to the role of interfaith dialogue in strengthening society. Does the Minister agree that including humanist beliefs in government-sponsored consultative processes and dialogue would make them more representative and thus strengthen society?
My Lords, I join others in warmly congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Hameed, on his profound and pertinent address to us. Calling for a more energetic involvement of Muslim leaders in civic life today is a particularly important practical contribution.
Many of us first woke up to the issue of real differences in society 27 years ago with the Brixton riots. At that time, there was a beautifully written, eloquent and powerful report by Lord Scarman and a wonderful editorial in the Economist shortly after that. In 1981, the Economist spoke about social and racial deprivation, schooling and work programmes and said that every employer could do his stuff by hiring young blacks as Britain came out of recession. That was a practical point and a practical call for action. How disappointing it is that even now there has been no such independent judicial inquiry in this country following the 7 July bombings in 2005. Then it was not race that began to be the issue but religion. Religion is an extremely difficult subject for us. Religion is not part of the public space; it is part of our private space. My practical recommendation, advice or request to the Government is that we move away from that and begin to record people’s religions.
I always mean to declare my interest, so I apologise. I am a lay canon at Guildford Cathedral and on the remuneration committee at St Paul’s Cathedral. I have many other interests, but, in particular, I am a director of an executive search firm, Odgers, where we look for leaders from all political parties, genders, races, colours and religions who can take on key public roles. One of the great grievances in the Muslim community—and rightly so—is that Muslims are so underrepresented in civic leadership. That is an understandable and legitimate point.
What can we do? The Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments form asks for personal information. We have a great number of complaints about this form from all sorts of people, but noble Lords must understand that it has a virtuous intent. You must state your gender and give your age in delicate age brackets—I can put my tick in the 56 to 65 box, which is quite delicate. You must state any disability. Then we come to ethnic origin—Asian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, black African, mixed ethnic, Chinese. You can also self-report; you can call yourself what you like and nobody will challenge that. Then there are a lot of questions about political activity, which is a little touchy because some people think that that should be more in their private space than their public space for some of these roles. Nevertheless, we cross-question people on their precise political activity. Nowhere is religion recorded.
Two years ago, going to speak in Dubai about parliamentary structures, I asked the House of Lords Library—a wonderful institution, as all will agree—who were the Muslim Members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The Library staff could not tell me. I was given a list, but when I got to Dubai my Muslim hosts told me that it was ridiculous because they were not Muslim names at all. Never would I wish to insult the staff of the House of Lords Library, but we do not have the information. We know the occupation, university status, age and all sorts of things about Members of the Commons and Lords, but we do not know their religions.
If, as we should, we want to ensure that all groups are fairly and properly represented, the time has come to look again at whether religion is reported. It should be self-reporting: people should not have to fill out the form. But I know that there are many appointments where, if you could find that enlightened, moderate responsible Muslim leadership, in many cases people would say, “Other things being equal, that is someone whom we would like to appoint”. At the moment, the information is not there.
I now come to three practical examples. I believe that there is a common vision about where we want to go and how we are going to get there. I draw attention to the wonderful multifaith centre being established at the University of Surrey. We have an excellent canon, Jonathan Frost, who has managed to gain resources from the Faith Communities Capacity Building Fund. It is a £6.5 million multifaith centre with chaplains and faith leaders. Buddhists, Christians—Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists—Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus are represented. It is not just a shared space—it is not just one size fits all—but has dedicated worship facilities for the six faiths combined with communal areas, meeting rooms and cafés designed to become focal points and catalysts for the promotion of strong interfaith relations. That is a huge force for good and a wonderful example from which we can learn.
I now move to my next example. I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard of Didgemere, has left, which is most unfortunate, because this was started by Dermot O’Brien, the son of Stephen O’Brien, who started London First. The ADAB Trust is an initiative for picking up, in particular, Muslim and other black and minority ethnic undergraduates. It helps by coaching them into the employment market, giving assessments, encouraging them and giving them mentors. At my work, Leon Ayo, who is of mixed-race origin himself, has been giving a huge amount of time as a volunteer to coaching, assessing, developing and training these youngsters.
Thirdly, the Three Faiths Forum, with Faith Matters, has developed the ParliaMentors initiative, so that Members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons can spend time with an Islamic, Jewish or Christian student. I would like noble Lords to know that the Member for Worthing West has been very active in this initiative, which achieves a great deal of good.
I congratulate the noble Lord on his debate and I hope that, apart from philosophising, at the end of the debate we shall have some practical measures for action, of which my most important is that we should start recording people’s religions, where they wish, if we are to create the leadership that we want in society.
My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hameed, for this important and timely debate. As chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Inter-Faith Group, which the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, and I got going last year, I look forward to picking up suggestions—either now or later—about the programme that this group might pursue to help parliamentarians have a greater awareness of this dimension.
Although I have been deeply involved in interfaith relationships over many years with the Jewish and Muslim communities, we are talking in Parliament and therefore I want to focus specifically on the role of Parliament and that of government. Some people doubt whether government have a role. The noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, who I am sorry is not in his place, raised doubts about the proper role of government in this sphere. Because the Government are concerned with communities, and because so many communities in the world now have an increasingly close association between their community life and their religious identity, the Government are right to be concerned about this area. As we know, the cause of all this is globalisation. People are being uprooted from their traditional communities and their traditional identities and finding their community around the church or mosque in great cities. Therefore, the role of religion as a marker of identity has been heightened. The Government are quite right to take that into account in their concern for social cohesion.
As regards more practical issues, I particularly welcome the fact that within the Department for Communities and Local Government there is a cohesion and faith division which is charged with engaging with faith communities. I further welcome the report of the Commission on Integration and Cohesion, Our Shared Future, published in June last year, and the Government’s response to it, published in February this year. Of the many recommendations in that report and the Government’s response, I want to focus briefly on two, the first of which is the importance of citizenship education.
Recommendation 8.12 of Our Shared Future urged that the recommendations outlined in the report of Sir Keith Ajegbo on citizenship education should,
“be taken forward as a matter of urgency”.
The Government accept that. Citizenship education is crucial to the future cohesion of our society and is an area where the faith communities could play a very significant role, for all religious communities contain a solid religious and philosophical basis for good citizenship and motivate their members to relate well and caringly for others. So there is a resource here, within the faith communities, that I hope those responsible will draw on as appropriate. Nor, of course, should this be confined, or even primarily linked, to religious education, because what faith communities have to offer goes much wider than that.
The other, rather more difficult and tendentious area is that of faith schools. As we know, there is a great deal of hostility to such schools in some quarters. Therefore, the recommendation in Our Shared Future is particularly important. It points out that,
“in February 2006, leaders from the main UK faiths signed a joint statement to promote a scheme to teach pupils about other religions as well as their own, and to follow the guidance in the national non-statutory framework for RE”.
It went on to say:
“It will be important for Government to monitor the effectiveness of this voluntary agreement on RE in faith schools. We also recommend consideration of whether Ofsted inspections should cover RE teaching in faith schools (which is currently exempt)”.
That is a crucial paragraph. What matters is not so much the existence of faith schools but what is taught in them and how it is taught—whether it is taught as genuine education or as propaganda; whether pupils are encouraged to look self-critically as well as appreciatively at their own tradition; and whether they are encouraged to be open to the possibility of their own understanding of truth being challenged, enlarged and enriched by contact with other religious traditions.
I know that these recommendations do not belong in the Minister's own department. If he is not able to address the matter today, I very much hope he will pass my two concerns to the Department for Education. These are crucial areas where the faith communities have a role to play, for good or potentially for ill.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hameed, made an eloquent plea for interfaith dialogue, one problem of which was illustrated for me earlier this week when I helped to launch a document by Christian Solidarity Worldwide on apostasy and the problems of people in many countries changing their faith.
I also note that in the prayers with which we begin our daily sittings we pray for the tranquillity of the realm. We need to ensure that interfaith relations do not raise barriers, but equally we need to avoid the mushy pitfall of saying that we all worship the same God and concentrate on shared values and shared social action.
The starting point is surely the affirmation of the importance of faith itself. If we approach faith from the context of a narrow, interfaith agenda, this could be regarded as being defensive, as if politicians think of faith as a problem because it upholds differences. This itself can generate social tensions, as if to have a faith is to be a threat, when believers do, and must, work with those of other faiths.
I contend that only by recognising the differences between different faiths can we build good relationships. We are exhorted to love our neighbours as ourselves. Before that relationship there must be an understanding of ourselves and our own faith. In their consultation document published in December last year—which has not been much referred to—the Government coupled their engagement with an interfaith objective with a clear affirmation of faith, and that I applaud.
On the subject of bonding and bridging social capital, the Government drew on the work of the US academic David Putnam and his definition of two kinds of social capital: bonding social capital and linking or bridging social capital. The former refers to the social capital defining social groups while the latter refers to the relationships between those groups. In the consultation document the Government champion bridging social capital but are more cautious about bonding social capital. I make two points in reference to this.
First, if we are to love our neighbours, we need to affirm ourselves and our own faith. The linking process assumes there are groups that can be linked and sustained by bonding social capital. Surely bonding social capital is part of the solution. Further, if, as the Minister says in the preface to the consultation document, our aim is cohesion, we should not limit our definition of “bridging” social capital to interfaith relationships. The truth is that there is an incredible amount of bridging social capital within the several faiths. I give examples from my own Christian faith with which I am most familiar. In 2003, the Evangelical Alliance of Wales published the Church Diversity Index which provides an overview of all the theologically mainstream denominational groupings in Wales. This shows that there are 26 Christian denominations in Wales embracing—this is the important point—very considerable ethnic and class differences. Umbrella bodies such as the Evangelical Alliance help to bring these groups together.
Secondly, we should celebrate linking social capital within congregations. Less than five miles from where we are debating is Westbourne Park Baptist Church, which embraces in one congregation of just over 120 people some 33 different nationalities and different social classes which one ordinarily would not expect to come together. With its associated family centre, that church runs 14 social projects used by people of all faiths and none. Surely, therefore, we should first affirm such initiatives for the linking social capital that they already sustain even as we encourage them to develop this further on an interfaith basis.
Who are the Government seeking to encourage? Some are very much already within the interfaith context, but the real challenge is to encourage the more conservative elements of faith communities. In my judgment the shared act of commitment on page 16 of the document is unnecessary. It will be counterproductive put up the backs of some of those communities.
Finally, I share a thought from Wales, where there is always something new, and commend an example of best practice. I am on the Council of Reference of Gweini—the Council of the Christian Voluntary Sector in Wales. In March this year, in tandem with the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, we published the first interfaith audit of a UK nation, which provides a rigorous research assessment of all faith community congregations in Wales. It was part-funded by the Welsh Assembly Government. It concluded that such congregations, of which there are 4,400, contribute massively to the economy of Wales, in addition to, importantly, the considerable social capital. Here is a pioneering model that could be followed elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hameed, on initiating the debate on interfaith dialogue, which is a subject very dear to my heart. Unfortunately, in view of the time constraint I am not able to deal with the matter fully.
My life has been shaped by a multicultural and multifaith background and it has been greatly enriched in consequence. I was brought up in Uganda and my formative years were spent in an environment where my fellow school pupils came from different religions and racial backgrounds. Uganda at that time was an affluent country, and one of the reasons for the prosperity was the existence of peace and harmony between the communities. In 1972 General Amin expelled the Asians and a significant part of that community came to United Kingdom.
Britain is a land of opportunity. This country provided us with the environment and circumstances where our hard work and positive attitudes towards other communities enabled us to flourish. I honestly believe that the British, for all their faults, are tolerant. This country for many years has welcomed people from abroad who have been able to settle and work here and have contributed towards the advancement and well-being of the United Kingdom. I am indeed proud to be British and to live in a country where the freedom of an individual and his or her religious beliefs are respected.
In 2003, the Conservative Party formed the Conservative Muslim Forum and I was asked to chair it. I was subsequently asked to chair the newly founded Ethnic Diversity Council of the party. One of the issues that we are actively promoting is interfaith dialogue and the building of harmony among the various religious and racial groups. There are more similarities between people than differences and it is important that we promote the similarities, as all religions have a message of peace and harmony.
I am a practising Muslim and proud of my religion. Islam regards Muslims, Christians and Jews as people of the book and we believe that the books of Allah are the Koran, the Torah, the Gospel and the Psalms. There is frequent reference to Jesus Christ, Moses and other prophets in the Holy Koran. The Koran contains a chapter on Mary, mother of Jesus. Islam is indeed a religion of peace and forbids any form of suicide bombing. Jihad is an Arabic word which means to try one’s utmost, and a Muslim must carry out good deeds. I am mentioning these points because I have spoken on these and other matters on a number of occasions at various meetings. I feel that I should dispel any misunderstandings and correct wrong ideas. It is important for us to do that as part of the interfaith dialogue, as it creates understanding and respect for one another.
Unfortunately in certain parts of the United Kingdom, particularly in the north of the country, there is a lack of interaction and engagement between the various communities. I am pleased that there are initiatives that are creating good relationships between the communities. There is a need for interfaith dialogue at every level, including parliamentary groups, national organisations, community leaders, religious groups, places of worship and, of course, the communities. It also requires support of the Government and local authorities. I am indeed an optimist and believe that with a holistic approach we can achieve this.
I wish to mention the role of the media and I ask that they show restraint in their choice of stories and words relating to any religious group. We are proud of our free press in Britain and we applaud that freedom, which is the key part of our democracy. We need, however, to exercise this freedom with care and responsibility.
I conclude by saying that we must all strengthen the interfaith dialogue, which will enable our diverse communities to live in harmony.
My Lords, I, too, welcome the debate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Hameed, for introducing it. The German theologian Hans Küng asserted that there was no peace for the world without peace between the religions, no peace between the religions without understanding between the religions and no understanding between the religions without dialogue. Therefore, I want to underline three features of that dialogue as I have lived it and have tried to work at it in the past nine years in Leicester, which is probably the second most diverse city in the United Kingdom.
First, such dialogue involves sustained and lasting relationship building, with high maintenance costs in terms of time, understanding and patience for lengthy periods. The dialogue between faiths is not principally an academic exercise; still less is it a quick fix for fast-moving government initiatives. Rather, faith can be understood, encountered and subject to dialogue only by means of conversations between practitioners who are ready to become friends. It is in such sustained relationships that we have been able to build the Faith Leaders’ Forum in Leicester, complementing the work of the Leicester Council of Faiths. This has led to many practical initiatives, including the establishment of ongoing and, now, sustainable conversations between Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Jews across the city, and the establishment of a number of initiatives, which include Christians and Muslims meeting to eat and mark the ending of Ramadan and the returning of hospitality to mark the Easter feast, and a joint imams and vicars cricket match, which has received widespread attention at Leicestershire county cricket ground.
That is the soil in which trust, understanding and relationships grow, but these are slow-growing plants. They have led us in Leicester to assert and practise the principle that an attack or threat on one place of worship is an attack or threat on us all. They have led us to pioneer a programme of “unfamiliar journeys”, enabling the anxious occupants of the village and market towns of middle England to see and hear public conversations between Christian and Muslim theologians—experiences that have been repeatedly transformational.
Secondly, such dialogue demonstrates that people of faith hold their convictions with an absolute loyalty, believing that they are true and non-negotiable. This is of course inconvenient for a postmodern, post-Enlightenment and sometimes secular society. However, it demonstrates that cohesion and security are not to be achieved by banishing religion from the public square, nor by treating all faith communities as a homogenous group, without being willing to particularise, or discriminate—in the positive sense of the word—between them.
The benefits of this passionate and unyielding commitment to non-negotiable values is that it can bring to public debate dimensions of policy-making that go beyond self-interest—for example, in addressing international debt and poverty, in securing the best deals for immigrants and asylum seekers, and in addressing the great challenges of climate change. In all these fields, faith communities are working on practical initiatives which arise not from compromising on belief but from seeing the potential in our traditions for imagining a better world. That has led to the creation of the St Philip’s Centre for study and engagement with other faiths, teaching and training, among other things, public sector employees to be alive to the sensitivities of the diversity.
Thirdly, interfaith dialogue builds the understanding that people of faith are ordinary, engaged, practical, useful and valued members of their communities, not some exotic species engaged in mysterious, irrational and obscure rituals unconnected to the health, well-being and flourishing of their neighbourhoods, their schools, their community centres and local economies. In Leicester, a study carried out some three or four years ago demonstrated and described more than 400 faith-based voluntary organisations serving the needs of local people, often the hardest to reach and most vulnerable. It is out of this shared and very practical experience of the principles of volunteering and public service that much of our dialogue takes place. That dialogue is not between professionals—between priests, rabbis and imams—but between school teachers, police, local government officials, city councillors and businessmen who happen to be people of faith and want to share their deepest convictions with each other, as well as the ways in which those convictions are worked out in their public roles.
The three principles of having patience and conviction and being earthed in practical realities are the lived experience of interfaith dialogue in my city. They are the hallmarks of this enterprise and the roots from which sustainable, cohesive and flourishing cities and civilisations can grow.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Hameed for choosing to raise this important and sensitive issue for discussion. My thoughts are coloured by my experience as a schoolchild in a religious minority of one in a mainstream school. It made me aware of one point: it is not what you say but what you do. Actions speak louder than words, or, as the Chief Rabbi put it rather more elegantly, there is face-to-face interfaith activity—that is, dialogue—and there is side-by-side, collaborative social action. I have no doubt that the latter is more fruitful in terms of our aims in this debate. We have to proceed on the basis that proselytism or even persuasion by example change nothing because we are dealing with faith, and all faiths expect—indeed, even take sustenance from—criticism of their followers, for which they are prepared.
Words should, at the least, not incite ill-will. It was so helpful that the Second Vatican Council issued the document Nostra Aetate, which repudiated the concept of collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus, and sought relationships with Jews based on cordiality and mutual respect, lessened only by the apparent retention of the aim of conversion. In our words we must be constructive, not divisive.
University campuses are the home of words and ought to be the home of interfaith dialogue. Going to university provides young people with the chance to engage with others of different faiths but similar aims, at a formative age, and often for the first time. Appeals to freedom of speech and academic freedom, however, may not override the law relating to racial harmony and freedom from harassment on campuses and the responsibility of vice-chancellors to promote it—a topic to which I adverted when your Lordships' House debated anti-Semitism on campuses last June. To its credit, Cambridge University has a Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, which helps teachers and a Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations. There is also a Cambridge Interfaith Programme, but not in Oxford, my own old university. It grieves me to note that David Irving, described by an English court as a Holocaust denier and an anti-Semite, was invited to the Oxford Union, along with a BNP representative, while the university remained passive. The university needs to be reminded of its duties under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act and other Acts to promote racial harmony and good relations between different groups, like other universities.
It is recognised that vituperative debates about Israel go on to such an extent that Jewish students feel beleaguered. Universities need to understand the legal limits of freedom of speech to be wary of manipulation and to rise to the defence of all their students, especially any whose academic welfare is threatened.
I turn to the constructive activities that are flourishing under the interfaith title. One can have nothing but praise for the exceptional work of the Council of Christians and Jews, in which my noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries has played a leading role. More shame then that there are calls from certain religious quarters for boycotts of Israeli goods and activities. Sometimes Jews feel that anti-Israel attacks may well be anti-Semitism in a new guise. Therefore, it is heartening to see the list of interfaith groups and activities that exist. There are nearly 300 organisations listed in the directory of the Inter Faith Network for the UK.
There is special value to be found in activities that bring together young people from different faiths for fun or for more serious purposes. The Maimonides Foundation for Jews and Muslims has education projects, for example, working together on art and football. Daniel Barenboim conducts the deeply moving West-Eastern Divan Orchestra of Palestinians and Israelis, which was acclaimed at the Proms, on the West Bank and elsewhere. In Israel, an Arab-Israeli lawyer, Wafa Fahoum, promotes education of Israeli soldiers and activities for young people, such as tennis; note that she is a woman. This is noteworthy as there are hindrances to the full participation of women in interfaith activity because of the religious and cultural prohibitions with which we are all familiar. Many women-only interfaith activities have sprung up, of which I counted 42 organisations in the report, in 2006, by Fatheena Mubarak on those activities. Still, it is a pity that the mixed-sex organisations cannot be more inclusive.
Health and the environment provide the most valuable ways forward. There is wonderful interfaith work globally, in Africa and elsewhere, on HIV prevention and cure. There is scope for the future in the environmental movement because all religions broadly accept that we have a moral and religious obligation to take care of our natural environment and hand it on in good condition to our children. It is God’s creation. The interfaith environmental organisations deserve government help. There is hope for progress if we avoid hate-filled language, appreciate where each other’s hearts lie and go forward with the activities that we were all put on earth to do: healing, protection of the land, education and families. I trust that the department will place its resources accordingly.
My Lords, I salute my noble friend Lord Hameed and the non-stop efforts that he makes in the area of interfaith dialogue. I am proud to be his friend. Today is very important, not least because he plays an important part in the work of an organisation called the Co-Existence Trust, which was formed by Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan and myself some time ago, to unite Muslim and Jewish political leaders worldwide. We now have members in 45 parliaments, and my noble friend is one of the vice-presidents. We have a constant battle against racism—Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in particular. I was listening to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester and thinking of the 28 years I served in that city, which is likely to become within the next few years the first city in Britain with a non-white majority. The right reverend Prelate does a tremendous job and made a tremendous speech, which I appreciated.
I salute my noble friend Lord Mitchell, who has taken over the leadership of the organisation which brings people together against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. We must work in that area if we want to continue to live in a decent, comfortable and friendly country, and fight together, hand in hand, against racism and hatred of that sort. I am proud of my association with Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel, founder of the Coexist Foundation. With St Ethelburger’s Centre of Peace and Reconciliation, it makes a vital contribution to interfaith work in Britain and beyond.
We all know that, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester said, dialogue between members of different faiths is absolutely key to building a stronger, more cohesive society; it is the first essential. We have seen the terrible consequences in this country, especially in London, of people of faith replacing discussion and dialogue with extremism, violence and murder. I am pleased that our Government, especially the Department for Communities and Local Government and Secretary of State Hazel Blears, are working hard to combat the growth of that problem.
Dialogue is the first step towards a decent, friendly, happy life together. The crucial step to better relations was outlined by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his recent book, The Home we Build Together: the need for people of faith to work together side by side as well as talking face to face. He is right: we must work together. We must turn strangers into friends, and work towards our common good. Both dialogue and joining together on shared projects and paths lead to better relations and a more positive future between faiths.
I am not going to hold up another good friend of mine, the remarkable noble Baroness, Lady Verma. I shall end by saying that there are only two ways in which we need to remember this. First, we must all work hard together to build interfaith dialogue, so that we can work together for our common good, decency and peace. Secondly, the alternative to coming together in this way is indeed being torn further apart.
My Lords, I, too, join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Hameed, for his most eloquent speech. I am pleased to be following the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester and my dear friend, the noble Lord, Lord Janner. Our connection is of course Leicester, which is a wonderful place to start talking about interfaith dialogue. In Leicester, we are not frightened to challenge those willing to create differences among the many communities that live there side by side.
As a little girl, I grew up in Great Britain when there were very few people from my community here. On one side of my house I had an Irish Catholic family, and on the other side there was a very strongly Scottish family, so we grew up with this wonderful mix of children playing out in the streets at a time when children played out in the streets. We fought, ate and did everything together. It is amazing how our faith was never in question. I was never less confident about the faith I had been born into, the Sikh community. I went on to marry my dear husband from the Hindu community, and my wedding dress came from my uncle in the Muslim community. I therefore understand the great things that all the different faiths bring together. If as children we are encouraged to dispel the prejudices that we inherently come to know as we grow older, all the things that the noble Lord, Lord Hameed, mentioned in his wonderful speech would be the great creators of wonderful cohesive societies.
I find it incredibly depressing that those who purport to be our community leaders tend usually to be those who are the great dividers of our communities. When I was in Paris talking to a group of ladies from the Muslim faith, I asked, “Do you know what Islam is lacking today? It is lacking the presence of good women from Islam who can speak its message to the world”. People will then be able to see that there is a much more positive side to Islam that the rest of the world does not always see.
I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London that communities which do not want to become involved with the cultures that exist in Great Britain today have gone into a vacuum in which they have created cultures which try to provide the moral leadership, the family lives and the networks that most of us were used to but which are now lacking. There are no easy solutions, but dialogue starts when people are tiny tots. Children are great teachers in showing how you can get on. You can disagree—it is amazing how children disagree and fight, and the next day are back together again, but adults have forgotten that lesson.
I was really pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Hameed, say that within the Muslim community the moderate Muslim must get up and make his voice heard. As my noble friend Lord Sheikh said, the media have a huge responsibility. In recent years, they have worked on heightening the prejudices of people who do not understand a particular situation, faith or religion. Growing up in a country where so many freedoms are available, I believe that there is an onus on those of us who can to go out there and encourage people from the business and academic communities sometimes to challenge those community leaders who speak on our behalf.
My plea to the Government is this: when you give funds to organisations in local communities, look carefully at where the money is going. I can assure your Lordships that I have been on many tours and trips, and I have sat in the back of community halls and listened to the venom from these supposedly great community leaders installed in the audience. I challenged Mark Thompson from the BBC, when I said to him that the media have a responsibility to show the moderate voice of all religions, otherwise all you get are nutters and fruitcakes coming forward to speak. It is important to note that in having this debate, we unfortunately allow the BNP and other extreme organisations to flag up and inflame prejudices.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Hameed for initiating this important debate and so eloquently opening it today. As others have said, in our current climate it is so easy to see faith and religion as instruments of division rather than unity; as bringers of unrest rather than peace. So I want humbly to address what has been happening on the ground in Wales and build on the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea.
After 9/11, the First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, rapidly called together the leaders of all the great faith groups in Wales and started a programme of meeting twice a year. Thus, the faith groups and politicians come together regularly in a spirit of open dialogue as the Faith Communities Forum. This provides a platform to discuss issues concerning the faith communities, communities of those of no faith and the Government. Members include all the faith groups and the leaders of all the political parties. The faith leaders then decided to meet more often and out of that emerged the Inter-Faith Council for Wales, which now has a formal constitution and officers in Cardiff and Swansea. It links to Cytun, formerly the Council of Churches for Wales, whose objective is to bring together different denominations to,
“witness, work, reflect and pray together more effectively”.
Last June, the Muslim Council of Wales invited the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, to address an audience of about 500 people. It was the first time that the cardinal had addressed the Muslim community, and his address opened the door to honest and frank discussion between Muslims and Christians without worrying about political correctness. Following that, a second successful discussion was hosted to look at the fears that faith communities have about each other, and in June another meeting will look specifically at turning ignorance into knowledge and intolerance into understanding.
At a local level, the Muslim Council of Wales has supported and sponsored the 1st Cathays (Al-Huda) Scout Group in Cardiff, which was set up in 2006 and is now one of the biggest groups in the region. It recently hosted a dinner in honour of the visit of church leaders from Syria and Lebanon. The Archbishop of Wales and the Archbishop of Cardiff attended the dinner, and the guests from Syria and Lebanon were amazed at the understanding and relationships that had been built up between the two faiths.
The Muslim Council of Wales is bringing men, women and organisations from different faiths together to work alongside each other and demonstrate the positive work that interfaith groups can achieve through shared aims to tackle the great problems of today’s world at every level. At social functions that it has arranged, to which I have had the honour of being invited, there have been representatives of all the religious groups: Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and so on.
Much important interfaith work is in educating children and young people about faith issues and interfaith relations to minimise their susceptibility to extremism and ensure that they do not fall into the wrong hands. That is happening at every level in society. The Islamic Social Services Association Wales was recently launched to mirror regular social services but is tailored specifically to be sensitive to and cater for the needs Muslim families.
Healthcare sees interfaith in action. As noble Lords know, I have for many years worked with the dying and have seen how often those of no faith seek spiritual support as they become aware of their own dying and also how the religious barriers fall away when the great unknowns are faced, such as the questions: Why me? What have I done to deserve this? Is there anything after this life? In our cancer centre in Cardiff, we recently opened an interfaith room as a place for quiet reflection and solace for those who wish to pray, think or simply get away from the busyness of the hospital for a few moments. It houses a resource of items and texts of significance from the great religions and other texts that are completely secular. It was jointly dedicated at a simple ceremony by representatives of the different communities, all wanting to bring some comfort to patients, their families and staff.
The relationships between interfaith leaders are precious and must be nurtured. They are developed at grass roots, in the classroom, at the school gate, in the workplace and by being together at social functions and sharing charity fundraising events, just to name a few.
I am not blinkered to the prejudices that exist in our society; even in Wales, I am not blinkered. This year on Holocaust Day, the monument to the victims of the Armenian genocide was shamefully desecrated. It had been funded and erected outside the Welsh National Temple of Peace and Health—the old League of Nations building in Cardiff—by the tiny Armenian community in Wales.
Faith and religion are often seen as instruments of division and unrest. Interfaith work at all levels of society—from the school yard to Scotland Yard, from the community centre to central government, from the school assembly to the Welsh Assembly, from the university common room to the House of Commons—is the key to the future of multifaith, multiethnic Britain. We must continue to keep open hearts and minds so that the name of religion cannot become an excuse for tribal approaches and warring factions in society.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hameed, is to be congratulated on introducing this debate. The noble Lord’s commitment to interfaith activity is total and his excellent and, dare I say, brave speech makes it abundantly clear that he is prepared to stand up and be counted.
I have recently become chair of the Coexistence Trust, and I feel privileged that the noble Lord, Lord Hameed, is one of our trustees. I have taken over from its founder, my noble friend Lord Janner of Braunstone. I am delighted to say that he is remaining as president of the trust, together with His Royal Highness Prince Hassan of Jordan. I am also thrilled that my noble friend will continue to travel the world enlisting the support of parliamentarians against the twin scourges of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic activity. It certainly makes me sleep a little easier at night knowing that my noble friend is there to be consulted and to help. He knows full well that I will seek his advice and seek it often. His work on behalf of the Jewish people is legendary, and we all owe him a huge debt for his tireless work.
When the results of today's local elections become known, we may well be horrified to learn that the BNP has made significant advances. For that to have happened should concern us all. It should act as a wake-up call to the many ethnic groups in this country, and we should be working together to counter that enemy. The BNP has become very sophisticated—no longer unkempt thugs, today its members dress in suits and ties, understanding full well that they need to change their image. They have also needed to change their message: instead of crude racist smears, today they harness all the powers of mass media communication. It is the BNP that has mastered the use of the internet in communicating its message. In that respect, it leaves all the other parties standing. But no matter how well dressed they are, how smooth their presentation may be, no matter what technological wizardry they employ, their underlying message is still the same. It is about hatred, it is about intolerance, it is about racism and it is about total rejection of our multicultural society. Whatever their guise, they are as abhorrent as they have ever been.
The BNP and its ilk are one threat. The other threat, of course, is terrorism. Islamic extremists have made no secret of how they regard the Jews. Noble Lords should read the propaganda that those fringe bodies put out—Dr Goebbels himself would approve of every word. The Jewish community in this country realised long ago that wringing our hands was not an option. We needed to take proactive action. The BNP and Islamic extremists may well hate each other, but they are united in their hatred of Jews.
Walk past any synagogue when there is a service in progress and you will see security guards in attendance. Go to any Jewish social event and the security will be intense. The Community Security Trust is the Jewish community's answer to the threats that we face, and I pay tribute to it. Like many noble Lords here today, I am committed to interfaith dialogue. It is good to talk, but talking is not enough. It may make us feel good, but how much does it change the facts on the ground?
When I look at BNP election material, I see articles directed at the Asian community and, in particular, the Muslim community, but we are not fooled. All that is required is for the words Asian and Muslim to be changed to the word Jewish. The message is clear: we are their enemy; we must fight them together.
Last summer, I read the chilling book, The Islamist, by Ed Husain. It tells of his journey as a second-generation Muslim; how he became radicalised and became a leading member of the extreme Islamist political action group Hizb ut-Tahrir; and, finally, how he became disenchanted. He says:
“I returned to Britain because I believe it is my home. I want my children to grow up here”.
That is the truth. Wherever we come from—I am a third-generation immigrant—we, too, want our children to grow up in a secure and tolerant society.
I advocate action, so let me say what we at the Coexistence Trust would like to do. We want to be proactive. Our first action has been to form a group of Muslim and Jewish parliamentarians from both your Lordships' House and the other place. We will work together to combat the BNP. We will go to universities and schools to talk about where we can work together. Let us work together to address the issues that are common to both communities such as kosher and halal meat, family law and faith schools. We have much in common.
Finally, without any sense of superiority whatever and simply because the Jewish community got there first, our immigrant story perhaps needs to be recounted so that the Muslim community can have some appreciation of where we got it right and where we got it wrong. A hundred and twenty-five years ago, my family and hundreds of thousands like them came to Britain. They were penniless, could not speak the language, ate strange foods and faced fierce prejudice. Despite this, they endured and prospered. When they came, they lived in the East End of London and the poorer districts of Manchester and Leeds. Where they trod yesterday, the Muslim community treads today. It is clear that we have much in common and that we should help each other.
My Lords, the varied, moving and often powerful contributions to today’s debate illustrate why my noble friend Lord Hameed has chosen so well this subject for debate in your Lordships’ House today. I think that we all thank him for that.
I have just three points to make. First, dialogue must be entrenched by deeds. Secondly, it must be respectful and learn from the experiences of other faith traditions. Thirdly, it must not be a polite fudge—a pretext for dodging the hard questions.
Earlier in our debate, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London cited the experience from Liverpool of Faiths4Change. Eighteen months ago, I, along with Mr Akbar Ali, the trustee of the Liverpool mosque, planted an olive tree on a vacant site in Toxteth in Liverpool that is owned by the Catholic Church. The site has been gifted to Habitat for Humanity, a Christian charity that has built 150,000 houses throughout the world. I recently attended the handover of the first houses on this site. The new householders contributed “sweat equity” by helping in the construction work. They pay for their home through no-profit, no-interest long-term loans. The Liverpool project has been spearheaded by Shannon Leadbetter, a dynamic young Anglican woman.
In his deeply thought-provoking and stimulating new book, The Home We Build Together, to which the noble Lord, Lord Janner, referred earlier, Dr Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi, writes about his visit to a Habitat for Humanity project in London, in which Jews and others from non-Christian faiths have been involved. He says:
“Habitat for Humanity is a metaphor for our common life. Society is the home we build together”.
Dialogue must be entrenched by deeds.
Dialogue also needs to be honest, respectful and willing to learn from the experiences of other faith traditions. The most obvious contemporary example, to which the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, and others alluded, is ensuring that the story of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism are never forgotten. I was particularly moved to be involved earlier this year in the Holocaust Memorial Day when the commemoration was held in Liverpool.
As an English Catholic, however, it also strikes me that a proper understanding of the Catholic story, from the 16th century until emancipation in 1829, can also throw a lot of light on what happens when religious believers are ostracised, alienated or radicalised. There was, after all, even a time when a Bill was laid before Parliament to remove children over the age of seven from their family homes if their Catholic parents did not conform.
Scores of young men—brilliant academics such as Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell and John Gerard—slipped out of the country and returned as Catholic priests, often hunted down, arrested, tortured and put to death. Campion was ultimately tried here in the Great Hall before being taken to the Tower of London and then to Tyburn, today’s Marble Arch, where he was hanged, drawn and quartered. Happily we live in better times, but the effect then was dramatic. For those whose families faced ruinous fines and the confiscation of property and land, it inspired courage and defiance. For the state, it created a new wave of brutality. Every organ of the state was used to wage systematic persecution. It also led to a disastrous blurring of an explicitly religious mission with subversive political and violent conspiracies. The more the so-called bloody question was put to Catholics, the more impossible their situation became. If they fully understood their own history, English Catholics would be in a particularly good position therefore to reach out to young Muslims living in Britain today.
Dialogue needs to be entrenched by deeds, and understanding and sensitive of other people’s histories and their stories. It also needs to be truthful and honest, and not to dodge tough questions. Reference has been made already to the situation elsewhere and millions of Christians have been persecuted for their faith in many parts of the world. The Jubilee Campaign which I helped to found some years ago has often highlighted many of those cases. We need to enter into the pain and suffering of each other’s traditions. People from all faiths suffer for their faith in different parts of the world.
As my noble friend Lord Hameed has said, we all need to face some hard truths and to disentangle legitimate questions about the use of violence, and the place of tolerance and respect. Dialogue needs to establish how we can learn to live together despite our differences. Mistrust and bitter divisions will not be replaced overnight and, at times, we will need patience, which, surely, was the lesson that many of us learnt during the years of Archbishop Derek Warlock and Bishop David Sheppard—Lord Sheppard as he became—during the period of the so-called Mersey miracle in Liverpool.
My noble friend Lord Hameed has already done much valuable work in facilitating trust and mutual respect, and I join others in hoping that this debate will deepen and strengthen those initiatives.
My Lords, I very much want to follow along the lines of what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has said. When I was a boy, I would have assumed that interfaith dialogue was about trying to get Protestants and Catholics to talk to each other. I had no concept of someone being a Jew and I had certainly not thought about anyone being a Muslim. I grew up assuming that it was very difficult to be a Catholic and a loyal British citizen. The discovery that Catholics thought Campion was a hero rather than a traitor was something of a shock to me when I first went into the choir school of Westminster Cathedral at the age of 11.
We need some rather longer perspective in this debate. I want to start by urging that we think about our own histories and the difficulties that we have had. That puts into context the situation we now have with the British Muslim community and helps us to understand how that community will come to terms with being in Britain.
Some years ago, I read a copy of the Huddersfield Examiner on the 100th anniversary of the incorporation of Huddersfield as a borough. It had a very useful and long article on one of the biggest problems Huddersfield faced in the late 19th century. It was about how Huddersfield was to come to terms with its new immigrant community, which was foreign, hated British values, had foreign priests, even had smelly cooking and wanted to keep its own separate identity. It was referring of course to the Irish Catholics.
We have overcome that, although when I was fighting a constituency in Manchester in 1974, I recall a long evening discussion with the assembled Catholic clergy of Moss Side—Irishmen to a man—who had a rather ambiguous attitude towards terrorist activities against the British state. During the evening, they argued not only that separate education for Catholics was a must, to stop them from being contaminated by too much mixing with Protestants, but one or two of them also argued that we should have separate universities as well.
We have come some distance from that, but we need to remind ourselves that it is not just interfaith but intrafaith as well. While I was preparing for this debate, the Library usefully provided me with an article by Rabbi Jonathan Romain in the Times two years ago. He talked about the problems of coming to terms with interfaith dialogues and the discovery that you also need to have a dialogue between the reform community in Judaism and the orthodox community in the liberal community. He said that perhaps we also needed a “Council of Jews and Jews”. Not that long ago, Christianity was a little like that.
Two summers ago, I read the history of the Maynooth seminary in the context of the debate about how we train imams in Britain. The Liberal Government, after the Irish rebellion of 1801, decided that it would be worth putting money into training Catholic priests within the United Kingdom. The Tories objected, and went on objecting to funds being provided for this foreign religion for 20 or 30 years afterwards. It was successful in helping the move towards some reconciliation between Protestant Britain and the Catholics who lived within it.
The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, talked about social values and citizenship issues, particularly in the north of England where we have the second and third generations of a new wave of immigrants facing huge contradictions in the values of tradition and modernity and between their perception of British values and their own self-worth and identity. I have found it quite shocking on a number of occasions that there are people living in Britain whose children were born here but who still insist that they intensely dislike Britain. It is not so much the British state that they dislike but what they sense to be British values. That is a huge set of issues that is much more concerned with citizenship, social attitudes and attitudes towards women than faith, and we have to deal with it. My experience, when I found myself speaking to large groups of British Muslims in Yorkshire and Lancashire in 2003 and 2004 in the wake of my party’s attitude to the Iraq war, was this. I tried to talk about liberal values to groups where all the men would sit in one area of the hall and if any women were there at all, they were seated somewhere else entirely. That was an interesting experience, but I am not sure that those audiences were always entirely sympathetic towards my ideas of a liberal society.
We should recall the experience of the surge of Jewish refugees and asylum seekers from Tsarist Russia a century ago, because there were similar problems. We had a second generation of immigrants who felt that there were real contradictions between their values and those of British society. Many of them were poor and some were quite alienated; a few turned to radical causes such as anarchism, revolutionary ideas and communism. Indeed, some time ago I discovered that the Sidney Street siege of that period involved a mainly Jewish group of revolutionaries against the British state.
Our values and the values of more traditional communities are things that we need to negotiate. After all, our values have been changing. Only some 20 years ago, when talking to the vicar of my local church about the role of women in the Church of England, did I discover the sheer depth of male prejudice that still existed. Not long afterwards he left that church because he recognised that he disagreed with much of the congregation, and moved to the Diocese of London. The Church of England has moved some way from that position. Indeed, I was trying to think of the last occasion on which I went to a service conducted by a male priest—I think it is now some months. Moreover, I was happy to meet several members of the campaign for women bishops earlier this morning. The Church of England is still on a journey towards accepting that women play an equal part; the Roman Catholic Church has a much longer journey ahead of it.
Nevertheless, I agree strongly with the point made by the right reverend Prelate about the problem of the vacuum of values in our society. Young Muslim women whom I sometimes meet when campaigning politically in Yorkshire have reacted against what they see as the consumerism and amoralism of our society by adopting the strict veil. There is something to be said for that if the choice for a 17 year-old is between wearing almost nothing on a Saturday night and covering yourself up; it is not an easy one. We have to engage in dialogue that is not just interfaith, but concerns the nature of British citizenship and how we cope with continuing immigration and the formation and preservation of separate immigrant communities; how to build and maintain social capital under the conditions of globalisation; and how to prevent the establishment of communities that are generationally poor, as the Irish Catholics and the Jewish immigrants from Tsarist Russia were, and as many of the new Muslims from south Asia are also in danger of becoming.
I hope that we all agree that we are in favour of a liberal and tolerant approach to faith, to politics and to society, that we are all opposed to fundamentalism in any religion as well as in politics, and that we have to examine our own conscience and our own institutional religions as we come to terms with the beliefs and prejudices of others.
My Lords, I add my thanks to those of all other noble Lords to the noble Lord, Lord Hameed, for introducing the debate today. He has brought together a community of diverse people who are, in a way, representative entirely of the problem we are discussing, if Members of the House can be called representative of anything. It is a remarkable achievement. Not only that, it parallels in many ways the problems—except that we lack the really extreme views of some people—that we see and are discussing both within the global community, which goes together to make the global society, and within our national community, where British society is, if you like, the sum of a series of little communities. In that sense, therefore, this is a special day.
However, I want particularly to talk about another aspect. If we are not careful, it would be easy to concentrate on the ills of society and the things that have been done by society in general. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to state brutality, but we could talk equally about religious brutality. Over the centuries, many things have been done in the name of religion; Christianity in the Middle Ages was not a religion of which to be proud. The only thing I would say, but not in exculpation, is that if one considers society in that way, you can find even greater evil done by people without religion. I am thinking, in particular, of Alexander—one of the heroes we like to worship from antiquity but who killed enormous numbers of people—Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan and, bringing things a little closer to home, Stalin and Mao. They make the ills perpetrated by religion, if it was religion, look quite small.
I do not really think that the ills of religion had much to do with religion at all—a point made strongly by the noble Lord, Lord Hameed, in his introduction. In my view, the ills that have been perpetrated generally have been perpetrated in the name of politics, which has all too often been used to corrupt religion. Speaking as a politician, that gives me no pleasure. However, we need to be aware of that background because, even today, I suspect that the international horrors of the Muslim religion, if I may put it that way, have more to do with politics than with religion. Economics and the fear of change can all too often be very powerful drivers for people who think that they control society. We live in a rapidly evolving society and that is one of the issues that we all have to face.
In preparing for the debate I felt that I was climbing a severe precipice, with few handholds and few cracks to guide me up it. I am immensely grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate for making the slope somewhat easier. However, I still feel I am probably only about a quarter of the way up.
I come back to the parallels that we all face. On the international level, about which I am singularly unqualified to answer, we can see the same freakish extreme members of society as we have within our own, and we can see the bulk of international communities doing their best to make modern society work. We may not agree with everything those communities do, but that is what they are trying to achieve. That parallels where we are today. At the other end, as I have said, we see the differences in our own communities. We all know people who take views that we disapprove of and who we disagree with fundamentally, but we have to make the system work.
This is a delicate matter for the Minister who has to wind up. I see that he appears to have metamorphosed from the noble Baroness who is on my Order Paper—and, I suspect, on everyone else’s. I hope that nothing untoward has happened to her to keep her away. It is not up to me to advise the Government or tell them how to do their business, but this is a particularly delicate matter. If we are to make progress, the discussion has to be local and community-based. The problem for Governments will always be how to intervene to bring that about when government, by definition, is national and tends to be top-down.
The best illustration of that is something that is going on at present. The Government are looking to put together a course to train young people to do just the work that we all think should be done: to work in the community, bring people together and develop the local community so that it works and goes forward together. The problem for the Government in devising that course is how they ensure that they are not producing a one-size-fits-all solution. If the Minister is able to give us some assurance on that, that will be enormously helpful. Government money is a wonderful catalyst, but it has to be only a catalyst, and not dictate what happens. Once we start down the road of the Government setting the parameters of how society is to go forward, we are in deadly danger, and we should not do it.
I want to finish back on a religious note. I have a house in the south of France, and a wonderful sculpture appeared there last year. It is a flat granite slab with, incised on it, the word “co-exist”—with the “C” formed from the Muslim crescent, the “X” as the star of David and the “T” as the cross of Christianity. It is a remarkable unity.
My Lords, it is with some humility and trepidation that I respond to this debate on behalf of the Government. As the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said, this is a delicate matter. I agree with him on that 100 per cent.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hameed, for initiating this wonderful debate. I have learnt a great deal from listening to noble Lords. Nearly all the major faiths in our country have had a voice here today, as well as humanists. I welcome that, because this debate is very important. Much has been brought to it. I said that I reply for the Government with some trepidation because, although I have a faith—a primitive Methodist faith in origin—I live in a city where, in the last census, more citizens identified themselves as Jedis than as Christians. I thought that that was part of Brighton and Hove’s sense of humour. One has to treat it that way or one gets lost.
This is a tremendously important and prescient debate. Britain is a society with traditions, as the noble Lord, Lord Hameed, said, of great religious tolerance. In modern times, this has allowed Christians to be members of different denominations without conflict. But we must recognise that Britain is now a multi-faith society.
During the last century, we have welcomed immigrants who have brought a significant part of our economic success and contributed positively to all aspects of public life. As the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, said, Britain has for many become a land of opportunity—it certainly was for him. Immigration has led to a wider range of faiths being practised, which in turn has meant that different weights and importance are attached to faith as part of people’s identity and values.
Some thought that the advance of science and technology would lead to the decline of religion. The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, referred to the values of the Enlightenment, which I suppose one could have seen as having the potential to lead to the decline of religion and faith. But that has not happened. For some people, religion is more important now than ever—they want to express it publicly and they want it to inform political debate, which it certainly does.
However, Britain is also a society in which many do not regard themselves as practising a faith, in which ethical values may be drawn from a declaration of human rights rather than a holy book or be informed by the pursuit of individual happiness. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, reminded us of the importance of that.
Government and, to some extent, faith communities are now finding ways to respond to these changes, challenges and choices. Dialogue between faiths and communities has emerged as an intrinsic tool to help our communities and wider civil society work through these responses.
Last year saw the publication of an important report by the independent Commission on Integration and Cohesion, Our Shared Future, to which I think the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, made reference. In it, the commission recognised the important contribution of faith communities to building integration and cohesion through their support for projects and networks, their community buildings, their leaders on the ground and the promotion of shared values such as neighbourliness and decency, among others.
The commission asserted that the way in which relations between people of different faiths and beliefs develop in the coming years will be very important to integration and cohesion, and saw interfaith activity as having an important role to play in strengthening these relationships. It also highlighted the importance of interfaith activity and suggested that this could go further to include dialogue between people of faith and no faith.
Evidence provided by faith communities to the Commission on Integration and Cohesion revealed a broad range of work under way, including projects to improve community relations; conflict resolution and mediation; teaching family and parenting skills; health work; improving language skills; and providing support networks.
But we have also seen in other contexts a growing interest in and recognition of the role that interfaith activity and action can play in building stronger and healthier communities. For example, the local government White Paper suggests that every local authority should have an interfaith forum—many noble Lords have referred to such fora during today’s debate. It was suggested also that they should be tied closely into local strategic partnerships. Our own Prime Minister has stated that he wants stronger interfaith dialogue where people find the common ground that exists between religions and communities in the United Kingdom, and the creation of local interfaith councils in every community. I was touched and impressed by the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, who pleaded for places of academic study to play their part in this. That, too, is an important part of those shared partnerships tying in to community work.
As a result of the growing interest in interfaith work, and specifically in response to the report of the Commission on Integration and Cohesion, the Government will publish in July an interfaith strategy. I shall outline what we are aiming to achieve in developing such a strategy. The Government’s vision for Britain is one of strong, confident communities in which people of all backgrounds get on well and work together. Many people of different faiths and beliefs live side by side. The opportunity lies before us to work together to build a society rooted in the values that we all treasure, but this society can be built only on a sure foundation of mutual respect, openness and trust. This means finding ways to live our lives of faith with integrity, and allowing others to do so, too.
We all want a Britain which acknowledges, values and celebrates the contributions made by all our citizens, where people of different faiths and beliefs, and those with none, but shared values, live and work together in an atmosphere of mutual understanding. That is why building cohesion is a priority for my department. Britain has a proud tradition of tolerance and understanding, but we should never take that for granted. Now more than ever we need to promote dialogue between faiths, understanding what they believe in and what they hold dear, and developing together the values that we all share.
Interfaith activity is key to promoting this meaningful interaction. We have supported interfaith work for a number of years with the aim of increasing understanding between different faith groups, building cohesive communities and breaking down barriers. There has already been a marked increase in the number of local interfaith groups, with some 256 interfaith and multifaith local bodies, an increase of 173 or so since 2000 and 42 since 2005. We have also invested a total of nearly £14 million between August 2006 and March this year through the Faith Communities Capacity Building Fund. I heard very much the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, that we must make sure that we spend that money well. It certainly should not be diverted towards what she colourfully described as the nutters and fruitcakes who sometimes attempt to inhabit that world.
The investment supported faith communities to make a real difference to improving community cohesion through bringing different faith groups together and creating trust and mutual understanding, both with each other and with the wider community. Bids which supported local interfaith councils, tackled faith hate crime and reduced intercommunity tensions were given priority. This afternoon we heard from a number of contributors about the value and importance of bringing people together through specific community projects. I was much taken by the cricketing example from Leicester, not just because I like cricket very much but because it was a brilliant thing for Imams and reverends to play cricket in that wonderful sporting space. I was impressed, too, by the examples that the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, gave of work in Wales, where there is obviously a unique approach to those issues being adopted and followed. We can all learn from that—and I am sure that our strategy will continue to be informed by that approach.
Over the past 20 years the Inter Faith Network has supported the development of local interfaith groups and remains a key partner of Government in the developing work of that interaction between faith communities. The network also helps regional and local bodies to foster co-operation, increase trust, mutual understanding and respect, defuse inter-community tensions where they exist and contribute to community cohesion. The Government intend to continue providing the network with sufficient funding to support its important contribution in this area. We are very fortunate in the UK to have a national organisation such as this. I am told that it is unique in Europe, and I doubt that I am the first person to state that if the Inter Faith Network did not exist, we would need to invent it.
There is also an ever-increasing focus on faith communities as a result of the increasing recognition that a multifaith approach can deliver a broad range of social actions and help to build cohesion in our local communities. The good relations that exist between different faiths very much underpin this work. Again, I congratulate those noble Lords who have participated in this debate who have an unparalleled record of work. The noble Lord, Lord Hameed, is a wonderful example, as is my noble friend Lord Janner, and the new chair of the Co-Existence Trust, my noble friend Lord Mitchell, who have all done sterling work in ensuring that those good relations develop, thrive and are encouraged.
In developing an interfaith strategy, we learn from that and we are taking the opportunity to reflect on how best we in government can support it, where and in what circumstances interfaith activity works best and how we can work in partnerships with faith and non-faith-based communities and organisations to take this forward. We are continuing to explore the role that different government funding programmes might play in supporting increased interfaith activity. We are thinking about where additional investment is needed to help secure a more sustainable footing for interfaith activity and how this might be deployed in the most effective way. It is informed by the continuing evaluation of the Faith Communities Capacity Building Fund; the findings of research currently being carried out by the Inter Faith Network, the Faith Based Regeneration Network and, importantly, the Local Government Association, which we should perhaps focus on most particularly today.
The responses that we have received to our interfaith consultation document Face-to-Face and Side-by-Side: A Framework for Inter Faith Dialogue and Social Action, will continue to inform our decision-making process and will be taken into account in our decision on the nature and extent of any future funding. Our strategy will be published in July.
We are building on a long history of people from different faith communities in the United Kingdom working together to build mutual understanding and respect and develop strong and positive relationships with one another and with wider civil society. That is not to say that the Government do not recognise that at times religion can be a source of conflict and tension. Many noble Lords referred to that, including my noble friend Lord Macdonald and the noble Lord, Lord Lamont. But evidence suggests that faith communities in the United Kingdom can also play an important role in resolving conflict by building community cohesion and acting as a vital source of social capital in their local communities.
Breaking down the barriers between communities, identifying shared values and commonalities and working together are essential components to building a cohesive community. However, as my noble friend Lord Macdonald said, we need to have robust dialogue—a point also made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I hope that there is consensus around that point. The noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, made an important contribution in that sense when she spoke about the need to break down barriers in her difficult and challenging work with Islam and feminism. That is a groundbreaking area of study which has cast interesting light on that whole debate.
I recognise that faith is not the only occupant of the public domain in this regard. It is populated by multiple identities of faith, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, culture, belief and non-belief. Multiple identities are the norm in our society and no one route working in isolation will build the bridges between polarised or shared identities needed to achieve our vision of cohesive communities. That point was well made by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson. Improving interfaith dialogue is one route, and has shown itself to be positive and productive.
Let me reflect for a moment on the diversity of our society. Each of us has our unique identity, made up of a complex mix of identities that govern the different roles we play in our everyday lives. While it is important that we recognise these distinct differences, it is equally important that where there are common links between faith communities we use these shared values to encourage constructive and open debate on the issues where there may be differences. Interfaith dialogue acts as part of the social glue that joins our differences in culture, faith and ethnicity.
This great diversity of our society is, I believe, a great strength, but if there is no room for debate, misunderstandings fester, and are more difficult to remove. The Commission on Integration and Cohesion has highlighted the importance of going beyond interfaith dialogue to encourage meaningful dialogue between people of faith and no faith and people of different ethnic backgrounds and cultures. This has been echoed by those who feel excluded at the table of interfaith dialogue.
The key rubbing point for many interfaith forums is the role of “secular” society in this dialogue. The commission recommended that,
“a less shrill, more positive dialogue between religious and non-religious sectors is developed through the intercultural strategy”.
We aim to reflect this in our strategy. Our different religious traditions offer us many resources for this and teach us the importance of good relationships characterised by honesty, compassion and generosity of spirit.
I end with a reflection on shared values. In Britain today people of many faiths and beliefs live side by side. The opportunity lies before us to work together to build a society rooted in the values we all treasure. These are shared values which are recognised across a range of traditions, both religious and secular, and across the whole of society. Significantly, these shared values were expressed in the shared act of reflection which was developed by faith communities for the millennium. These values are: community; personal integrity; a sense of right and wrong; learning; wisdom and love of truth; care and compassion; justice and peace; respect for one another, for the earth and its creatures. These values will define our future and strengthen our communities. I am confident that the Government’s policy on building more inclusive and cohesive communities chimes with all these.
I call for dialogue which is face to face and side by side. I call for an understanding of differences to promote social unity. On this election day above all we need to reflect that we cannot ever allow a vacuum to develop because, as the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, said, the extremists will follow in if we do. We need to be ever vigilant in pursuing this debate and its value to our society and our communities.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for the consensus in the House that interfaith friction in interpersonal relationships should be dealt with with all seriousness. I therefore recommend that the House revisits this subject, which acts as a catalyst in helping to treat and eradicate our fear of one another.
With great humility I salute noble Lords for their contribution this afternoon on a cause we all hold dear to our hearts. For me, it has been a great privilege and an immensely useful experience to listen to such valuable contributions. I thank noble Lords and I am encouraged by the words of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, the Minister, for his well thought-out discourse on interfaith work. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.