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Lord Griffiths of Burry Port: My Lords, I am aware that I am following those who have had military, diplomatic, political, philosophical and prelatical experience, and my contribution will be perhaps more from the street level. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester for initiating this debate, although I have had difficulty in defining the terms within which it is set. Christianity and Islam can easily become weasel words. I am mindful of Edward Said's wonderful book Orientalism and the danger of taking global or general words under which hide people from other persuasions that one simply wants to agglomerate under that title. I have recently read Reza Aslan's rather splendid book No God But God in which he puts from a Muslim point of view his version of events as to whether there is to be a clash of civilisations. He urges those of a non-Muslim background to recognise that the great ferment that is happening at the moment is happening within the world of Islam and is about who has the right to write the next chapter in the history of that community. We should always therefore be rather careful about using such general words.

I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for being brave enough to put herself in a Muslim position and argue as if she were in a Muslim's shoes. It is a difficult thing to do and some salient insights emerged from her readiness to do that. I have done it rather more modestly by reading Islamic literature as best I can—the wonderful three novels of Naguib Mahfouz, for example, about life in Egypt in the 1950s, showing how a cultured, humane, wonderfully altogether Muslim family living by its traditional values could produce two generations later a radicalised young Muslim prepared to give his life for his cause. The unfolding of the pages of that story were in themselves enlightening to me, who would not have the courage to put myself in the Muslim position but tries to listen to Muslim voices as they describe their situation.

In the terms in which this debate is set, the word co-operation occurs and I do not think that anybody in this House could be against that. Co-operation is something that we all want, but how? Nobody involved in conflict resolution, international diplomacy or relief and development work say 20 years ago could have envisaged, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, mentioned, the role that religion would come to assume so many years later. When Hans Küng: my theologian of choice, made his clarion call in 1990,


 
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he was a voice crying in the wilderness. Yet now that is precisely where the debate is. Incidentally, to reassure the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, in advocating the place of religion in contemporary discussion nobody ever wants religion to take the place of the state and usurp its role, but it can and must make a legitimate contribution at times of difficulty such as these.

Religion simply has to be factored into a troubleshooting, problem solving, justice seeking mechanism in a more proportionate way than it sometimes is. Christianity has a problem in this regard. There are perceptions of it abroad that it has to deal with whether they are just or unjust. Christianity is linked uncritically in many minds with what is described as western militarism or imperialism. Those who seek an enhanced role from a Christian point of view need great self awareness as they do so and even more patience and resilience as they undertake such a role. There may be inaccuracies in the perception—but they exist and they have to be dealt with. That is very much in evidence, although many lessons have to be learnt by Christians about how they conduct themselves in inter-religious and interfaith debates. As a Christian myself, I want to release Jesus from the polemic uses to which he has been put so that we may hear again his teaching and enjoy it and respond to it.

A number of things are happening and I want to allude to these very briefly, because it is good to put a positive spin on things wherever possible. At the level of international diplomacy and international affairs—the level at which this debate is set—we should learn from the role of those in Northern Ireland who played the religious card effectively. We know about those who did not; who misused the religious card. But the redemptorist fathers from the Clonard Monastery and the Methodist and other Protestant ministers who kept channels of communication open between the various factions by running across the conventional lines that separated people played a signal part in helping to create different possibilities. The work in the Middle East by Canon Andrew White of Coventry Cathedral is another case in point.

Secondly, in issues of global importance, post-conflict peace building, inter-religious councils and truth and reconciliation commissions are all being put together in a multifaith way under the aegis of the world conference of religions for peace. That has the backing of the Secretary-General of the United Nations and others of that ilk. Such initiatives are under way and, to pick up the point that was mentioned with some urgency by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, which is a secular and religious alliance, is keeping the environmental debate high on the agenda and pointing to the need for people in the different faith groups to gather round the agenda set by those needs.

In terms of relief and development, there is the World Faith Development Dialogue, which harmonises programmes and efforts relating to development between world faiths and which was set
 
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up by James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, from our own number. There is the inclusion of the Islamic relief in the Disasters Emergency Committee, whose case was brought forward by organisations such as Christian Aid. It now plays its full part in the response to the dreadful emergencies that afflict us only too often.

Then there is humanitarian need. Today we have heard of the release of Norman Kember and his associates and we rejoice at that. He is a good Christian man, but we must remember the key role played by Dr Azzam Tamimi when representing the Muslim Association of Britain. He went out to Iraq to see what could be done and to start discussions taking place—sometimes behind the scenes.

I return to Hans Küng, who said:

But he went on to say:

I pick up my own concerns about the possible ambiguities in the use of the word "dialogue", which, like "tolerance", can be a weasel word. I also want to question my own questions. I want to look again at any box I may have allowed myself to become imprisoned in, to take a creative look at new options that might be available to us.

I have come to believe that international peace, like charity, actually begins at home. I rushed here today from a conversation with the director of the Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations (Cambridge), Dr Ed Kessler. What wonderful things he is opening up there. Two weeks ago, it was a public conversation with the director of Islamic Studies at Oxford University and so on and so forth. The public drawn from offices around where I live discuss issues such as the ones I am talking about. We are up to our eyes in the Islington interfaith forum. Because we have a historic site, we have Muslim children from local schools who come to visit our chapel and enjoy learning about Christianity in a school visit of that kind, just as I have been part of Christian children visiting mosques and temples and the rest of it. I am a school governor and we talk about appropriate school meals for children of other cultural backgrounds. These practical, ordinary, everyday things are terrifically important. My own daughter-in-law, having had three years in Pakistan herself, oversees the culturally aware teaching of the whole curriculum in the little primary school in Newham where she teaches.

There is much to be done at home, but the 10 minutes that we were warned of is up, and I am a man who takes warnings seriously. Things are being done, and we must rejoice at that. There is so much more to do, but if we approach a question like this positively, who knows what we may wrestle out of what might otherwise be chaos?
 
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3.18 pm

Lord Taverne: My Lords, I am not a Christian, a Muslim or an adherent of any religion. In taking part in this debate, I therefore feel rather like a lion in a den of Daniels. Sometimes it is suggested that only religious people can understand religion and should therefore debate it. I am sure none of your Lordships thinks that, which is like saying that only women can discuss feminism.

Although I am no believer, I acknowledge that religion gives meaning to many people's lives and can inspire them to do great things for mankind. Many of the ethical injunctions of Mohammed would—if practised—make the world a much better place, while I have always regarded the Sermon on the Mount as one of the outstanding moral texts of our culture. At the same time, parts of the Bible show Jehovah to be a jealous, vengeful and brutal God while parts of the Koran and the Hadith preach a morality that I find repellent. Religion has done and does much good, and much harm; it has relieved and relieves much suffering, and has caused and causes it. The issue is how the positive and tolerant elements in both religions under discussion can overcome the negative and intolerant ones. That depends on how far secular Christianity and what I see as modern, secular Islam can contain and overcome fundamentalism.

Currently, fundamentalism is in the ascendant. That is something we must recognise. In the United States, Christian fundamentalism has a powerful influence on the Bush administration, though fortunately less pervasive than some suggest. Some members of that administration could be better described as Hobbesian rather than holy rollers. Yet there seems little doubt that the influence of fundamentalist evangelicals has increased in the last decade. Creationism is on the rise and has even raised its head in Britain, where the evangelical wing of the Church of England—less fundamentalist, I accept, than its American counterpart—is certainly gaining influence.

As for the Muslim world, I have long thought that we have underestimated the effect of the Iranian revolution of 1979, which gave a national base to revolutionary, theocratic and fundamentalist Islam. I agree with my noble friend Lady Williams that matters can be over-simplified, but on the whole this regime is far less likely to be swayed by rational consideration than we tend to assume—or, certainly, than Jack Straw seems to realise. As I have argued elsewhere, just as Lenin's rise to power in Russia provided a national base for international Marxism, so the coming to power of the mullahs in Iran has provided a base for fundamentalism. Events since 9/11—including, I am sorry to say, our own invasion of Iraq—have only strengthened the forces of fundamentalism.

How, then, can we control them? What worries me is the reluctance of many tolerant Christians and Muslims to denounce the excesses of their fundamentalist co-religionists, and some of the doctrines that they preach. How many Churchmen have attacked the Vatican and American
 
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fundamentalists for their opposition to contraception? The effect has been an effective ban on promoting condoms by international agencies. That prevents action against AIDS; by helping to spread AIDS, it is likely to cause the death of tens of millions of people—a disastrous consequence of the dogma of some in the Catholic Church and of fundamental, born-again Christians. Indeed, sometimes I ask, as Katharine Whitehorn has done, why one so often wishes that born-again people had not been born the first time. One could also add that the harm done by Christian Zionists who support and help the spread of Jewish settlements in Palestine has created one of the biggest obstacles to peace.

Why do we not see more public denunciation—although there is some—by tolerant, secular Muslims of Sharia law and its effect on women, and the suppression of women's rights in the theocracies of the world? The outcry is often somewhat muted. Certainly, the reaction to the fatwa declared against Salman Rushdie was muted. There is also a lack of clarity in the interpretation of certain passages in the Koran and the Hadith, suggesting that apostasy deserves death. It is notable how few Muslims defect. There are plenty of Protestants and Catholics who abandon their religion, as one would expect in the normal course of events, but there are very few Muslims. Part of the reason is fear.

We are seeing a steady increase in the influence of religion. The Government have declared their support for faith schools. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh—who I am sorry to see is absent, and who made an absolutely first-class speech—pointed out, at a meeting I attended last night, that there has been a change in the attitude of Muslims over the last 30 years. If you asked a Muslim "Who are you?" 30 years ago, he would have said "I am a Pakistani" or "I am an Indian"; "I am a Marxist" or "I am a Conservative"; "I am a carpenter" or "I am a sociologist". Now, however, it is much more likely that he or she will identify him or herself as a Muslim by religion.

Definition by religion does not, on the whole, lead people to adopt a secular view of Islam. Those who identify themselves by their religion are likely to believe that the Koran is literally the word of God. The trouble with the belief that sacred texts are the word of God is that you cannot argue with them. You can say that philosophy sometimes raises questions which have no answer, or which you may not answer; but religion often means answers which may not be questioned. Belief in sacred texts implies certainty. It leaves little room for doubt. One of the reasons I am against the spread of faith schools is that they persuade children to believe rather than to question. The essence of a liberal education is that children should be taught to ask questions.

My hero is Socrates, the grand questioner and arch-enemy of fundamentalism. One of the most glorious events in the history of civilisation was the Enlightenment, when certainties were replaced by doubt. It was the birth of modern science, which does not deal with certainties. We are currently seeing a retreat from Enlightenment values. If you know you
 
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are right and admit no possibility that you are mistaken, then you are an enemy of tolerance. Doubt is the opposition to dogma, and is essential to the workings of an effective democracy.

I do not argue that religious leaders do not promote tolerance; of course not. We have the example of the admirable speech made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester at the start of this debate. I do not think there is a more tolerant body of men than the Bishops in this House. The Archbishop of Canterbury is a splendidly undogmatic figure. Many statements of those who argue for a secular, democratic Islam—as does the opposition to the present regime in Iran, which we have proscribed—likewise show every degree of tolerance. Unless religious leaders face fundamentalism head on, however, the rise in the influence of religion is unlikely to enhance the prospect of greater understanding and peace.

3.28 pm


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