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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.

2.34 pm

The Lord Bishop of London: 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.

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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

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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.

2.41 pm

Baroness Afshar: 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

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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.

2.47 pm

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: 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

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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,

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

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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?

2.52 pm

Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone: 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,

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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.

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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.

2.59 pm

Lord Harries of Pentregarth: 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.

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