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Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I remind noble Lords that this is a timed debate. Each speaker has 10 minutes. I urge noble Lords to finish speaking before the clock shows 10 minutes.
 
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2.53 pm

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, when the Cold War ended more than 15 years ago it certainly seemed at the time as if politics based on ideology or religion had reached the end of the road too. It was that as much as anything else which led an American professor rather unwisely to proclaim the end of history. But it has not quite turned out that way. Instead of the triumph of secular humanism we have seen religion, often highly distorted, even perverted, versions of religion, playing an increasing role in politics, including in international affairs.

We have seen assassination and indiscriminate killing of innocent citizens undertaken in the name of religion and we have seen cultural differences which had seemed to be converging under the impact of globalisation in fact diverging again towards a degree of polarisation of which we have no experience in modern times. These are surely not trends we can afford to stand aside from and simply allow to develop further. So the debate today initiated by the right reverend Prelate is a timely and necessary one, even if the subject needs, as I believe it does, to be approached with some degree of caution. There I echo a word used by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, and for many of the same reasons.

The first need for caution is to avoid appearing to lump all Muslims together as if they were some kind of seamless grouping, which they are not, any more than Christians are. It is that which we at least seem to do when we speak about Muslim or Islamic fundamentalism. That there are Muslims who are fundamentalists and who seek to achieve political ends by means of indiscriminate violence is not in doubt, but then there are Jews and Christians who pursue a similar track, and even Hindus who do so. It does not help discuss these issues in a dispassionate and calm atmosphere if we appear to assume that fundamentalism is some problem unique to Islam which is rooted in the nature of their religion and not ours. It is as if the appalling excesses of the wars of religion in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries were to be attributed to the nature of the Christian religion, which we would surely find exceedingly offensive and wrong-headed.

Secondly, I suggest that it is unwise to imply that recent developments are ones that need to be discussed, debated or even resolved between Muslims and Christians exclusively. Not only does that exclude the followers of other major religions—Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Sikhs—and those who follow none, but it also risks falling into the pattern established by the extremists among the Muslims themselves; that is to say, to treat modern history as a resumption of the Crusades, as a titanic struggle between, on the one hand the faithful, and on the other the rapacious inroads of militant Christianity. The clash of civilisations is their tune, not ours; and while we may try to opt, as the former president Khatami of Iran did, for a dialogue of civilisations rather than a clash, we need to be aware of the risk of even such a dialogue eliding into and being seen by others as a clash.
 
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When one comes to international affairs it is important to remember just how many countries where Muslims form the majority of the population organise their politics on the basis of a firmly secular state, as indeed do most countries where Christians form a majority of the population. The two largest Muslim democracies, Turkey and Indonesia, are most clearly organised in that way and they are very attached to retaining that basis and to avoiding slipping towards structures such as those of the Islamic Republic of Iran or Pakistan. It is certainly not in our interest that they should move in that direction. Those countries do not organise their foreign policies on the basis of religious orientation, which is one reason why the Organisation of the Islamic Conference remains one of the loosest and least homogeneous of international organisations. We should not forget either that many of the main issues of international public policy which require a solution—whether we are talking of Palestine, Kashmir or the distribution of economic wealth and activity in the world—are matters which remain in the hands of states and must be resolved by them and not by religions, even if there is often a religious dimension to such disputes. Indeed, we may be on the verge of finding in the case of Palestine that solutions become even more elusive when the functions of government are taken over by those who organise their activity on a religious foundation.

All that may sound a bit negative to the right reverend Prelate who initiated the debate and I apologise for that if it seems so. But it is better, I would argue, to be well aware, as I am sure he is, of the risks and potential pitfalls in advance. Nothing illustrates that better than the recent furore over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Those who published the cartoons defended their actions in the name of freedom of speech and expression and the right to criticise other religions—ideas which all of us in the West regard as fundamental to our societies. But those actions, and the defence of them, were seen as deeply offensive by many Muslims worldwide, and when contrasted with the prison sentence passed on Mr David Irving in Austria, as deeply hypocritical, as a case of double standards. Those who have benefited most from the furore have, of course, been the extremists themselves and those governments which have opportunistically exploited the events to their own ends.

My own view is that the British press, which decided quite freely not to publish the cartoons, acted with great wisdom and restraint—two qualities not always associated with it. This is a period when the voluntary acceptance of some constraints on what is said or depicted on matters of religion could be the most responsible course to take, even though it will no doubt be assailed immediately by some as creeping self-censorship. I found myself therefore in firm agreement on this point with His Royal Highness Prince Charles in the speech that he made in Cairo this week.
 
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Do those caveats leave no place for the better co-operation between Christianity and Islam in international affairs for which the right reverend Prelate is calling? Certainly not. I am sure that the way each of us handles the treatment of the other's co-religionists in the many countries where they are a minority living among a majority of the other religion is something that urgently needs consideration. I am sure that our governments need all the help they can get in working towards solutions for the long-running and festering international disputes that I have mentioned. I am sure that the discussion of the role that religion could play in politics and politics in religion, while it will not bring agreement, may promote a better understand of the different attitudes towards these difficult and highly sensitive matters. It will, I suspect, be some time before we emerge into calmer waters where mutual tolerance again gains the upper hand over confrontation. Meanwhile, it will be important to continue to assert that that is our fundamental objective and to demonstrate it through dialogue and co-operation.

3.01 pm

Lord Bramall: My Lords, I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester for introducing this debate at this crucial time. Surely what this country now so badly needs, particularly in the Middle East, is a new, coherent, well thought-through foreign and defence policy, in which, as a Christian country in which also live and prosper many other faiths with strong historic and economic ties with the Muslim world, we would then be in the best position to act and encourage others to act, as the right reverend Prelate advocates. No one in their right mind would pretend that we have a coherent policy at the moment. Indeed, it has been sad on occasions to see two great departments of state, Foreign and Commonwealth and Defence, virtually sidetracked in a political and special relationship rush to follow the American interventionist line and its painful and ill thought-through aftermath. As a result, we have stumbled into our diplomacy on the back of 9/11; on a determination for whatever reason—good or bad, valid or invalid—to effect a regime change in Iraq, leading to lack of priority focus on the crucial Israel-Palestine problem, to some disruption of the established balance of power in the area, and to an increase in local terrorism. Later, desperately clutching at straws of respectability, it has centred on putting perhaps undue and even premature emphasis on the cultivation of the frail shoots of democracy in none too fertile soil.

We are now, it is generally agreed, in a difficult position and we need to adjust our approach with as much amour propre and good will as possible. But surely the best way to do this quickly is to get back to a more enlightened and historically realistic policy in which military force supports diplomacy and does not determine it, and in which we take advantage of the good will that we—sadly unlike the Americans—can still call on in the Middle East and then help friends to help themselves. We need a policy that is dynamic but
 
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which indulges more in the language of co-operation, dialogue and mutual respect and less in that of confrontation. Of course, there are problems to be faced up to and resolved. Although historically possession leading to an area balance of nuclear weapons has proved more a guarantee of peace than a trigger for war and mass destruction, Iran has signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and its movement towards possession must be a cause for concern to the UN and to all neighbouring countries, particularly when accompanied by most intemperate language by Iran's president, which is not I suspect wholly in line with the views of the Iranian people.

Hamas, with its record of violence and its totally unacceptable threats to the future of Israel, is now legitimately in a position to form the government of the Palestinians and is therefore firmly in the equation of meaningful negotiations. I seem to remember at the height of the Cold War Nikita Khrushchev threatened to "bury capitalism". However, you could argue, and perhaps now most people would argue, that had we resisted the temptation to invade Iraq and instead put the priority of Western and particularly American influence on expediting the so-called road map, or some version passing for it, Hamas might not have won the election.

Then it is being noised abroad that some sort of ideological and religious conflict exists between Islam and Christianity as there was in the Cold War between capitalism and communism. I would not make too much of that, for the reasons given by my noble friend Lord Hannay, as any confrontation that there appears to be may much more reflect disenchantment and resentment over what is held to be excessive intrusion of Western influence and military presence in the Middle East than it does any religious hostility, particularly when there is so much commonality between the faiths. In any case, such thoughts would seem more appropriate to the ramblings and rabble-rousing of Osama bin Laden, and we would hardly want to make it any easier for him by encouraging those ideas.

For whatever reason, there has emerged in the Middle East a militant and particularly dangerous and violent form of international terrorism which we must and I believe we can learn both to live with and deal with. The world remains an uncertain place; there can therefore be no dropping of our guard or weakening of our alertness or our determination to protect our people and vital interests. We need to take all sensible steps to improve intelligence with the help of friends, enhance our protection and speed of reaction to terrorist and criminal acts, and continue to succour our Armed Forces, incomparable in peace and war, as an insurance as to what the future may hold.

All those problems can be dealt with more effectively and within the rule of law by developing a realistic foreign policy that fully takes account of local sensitivities, is prepared to help those who seek it with advice and aid to help them help themselves, and is generally more prepared to infuse those ideas that help to free and enhance the human spirit rather than try to dictate and impose them. We need a moderation of
 
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power except in self defence or as a last resort as applied both in the Falklands and the first Gulf War and a greater emphasis on co-operation and reconciliation. That surely must be an alternative and the correct way forward and indeed it should be the Christian way, which is why the right reverend Prelate's exhortations and initiatives are so important and should be so warmly welcomed.

3.08 pm


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