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Globalisation is a tough reality. One of its consequences is a sense of powerlessness among increasing numbers of people who feel marginalised and threatened. We therefore have to be very careful about condemning the concept of multiculturalism. My own conviction, from years of working in this sphere, is that multiculturalism can enable people to find a sense of belonging and significance. The challenge is to lead on from that sense of identity and belonging to the realisation that the problems of the world cannot be solved by individual communities. They can be solved only by co-operation. The challenge, therefore, is not to deny multiculturalism but to lead it into dialogue about the realities of the very difficult complexity of modern society and the need for us all to co-operate.
It has been interesting to note how much common ground there has been in this debate and how clearly the voice of moderation and reason comes across. As an extremely liberal Anglican-I hope the right reverend Prelate will forgive me for the description-I feel strongly that one of the greatest God-given realities is the power of reason and intellect. It is almost sacrilegious to deny the development of reason and intellect. It is by fulfilling that potential for understanding that we can be true to what we see as the foundation of our particular faith. We also have to be careful not to let it become a rather comfortable middle-class prerogative to discuss relationships between different religions.
I was glad yesterday to be at a very special occasion in Portcullis House where there was the launch of a book by a policeman who had worked all his professional life in Special Branch in the realm of community relations. He ended his career very effectively as head of the Muslim relations unit at Scotland Yard, and had done a tremendous amount of community work in Brixton. His name is Bob Lambert. I commend to all Members of the House his book about his life's experience because one of his most important messages is that we must be careful not to accentuate exclusion by allowing the already privileged and articulate to monopolise the debate. He believes strongly that there is always a need to reach out and bring in to the dialogue people who are extreme in their beliefs. It is important to get to the young who, in their isolation and insecurity, have sought refuge in oversimplified and bigoted interpretations of the faith they claim.
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I end by saying that, for me, truth is something for which we are all searching. We have chosen different routes, but whatever route we take, we must always remember that other people in all sincerity have picked other routes. It is by working and talking together that ultimately we will reach an understanding of the truth.
Lord Hameed: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Mitchell on this timely and useful debate. As the threats to our daily lives have increased, many of us have sought to understand the message of faiths other than our own. Many eyes have turned in the direction of Islam from whose corner a spate of tragic events has emerged. I make this statement with the declaration of being a Muslim myself. Therefore, in looking at Islam through its main reference source, the holy Koran, we see a religion completely at odds with the actions of the perpetrators of the vile acts of violence and terrorism committed in its name.
The holy book of the Muslims begins with the concept of God as not hurting, harming or cruel, but as beneficent and merciful. It talks of Islam as a religion of peace and not war, for every time a Muslim takes the name of the holy prophet Mohammed, he adds the words "peace be upon him". The Koran also instructs the believer to be tolerant and compassionate, and to extend a helping hand to the sick and infirm. It commands the pursuit of knowledge, with respect for scholars, women and minorities in any land. The Koran also instructs Muslims to respect other faiths and to live with them as good neighbours in peaceful coexistence. Therefore, strapping oneself with explosives to kill others in an act of suicide in search of martyrdom is totally un-Islamic and against the instructions of the Koran, the holy book that all Muslims must obey.
We have here in the United Kingdom a multi-religious and a mult-ethnic society. Here, dialogue is the only way forward in addressing our differences. We ought to celebrate our commonality and discuss our differences based on mutual respect and trust in each other. It is imperative that we engage together in a continuing dialogue. This dialogue is no longer a luxury of a few well-meaning individuals, it has become a necessity demanding action, without which only catastrophe stares us in the face.
The word "phobia" in the Oxford English Dictionary is described as an extreme and irrational fear or dislike of a specified thing. Thus noble Lords may have heard the term "Islamophobia" being bandied about against Islam, leading to prejudice and a generalised hatred or fear of Islam and its followers. The media around the world have to bear a share of blame for drip-feeding into the minds of readers of newspapers and journals and television viewers regular doses of anti-Muslim material, not to provide factual reporting but to create public excitement and sensationalism to enhance the number of their readers and viewers. The widespread damage that this does to society at large is incalculable.
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We should agree to a broad consensus for more engagement between different cultures and faiths through dialogue. This would be a body blow to extremists. My Lords, your participation and goodwill would be of enormous value to all of us in this task ahead.
Lord Sheikh: My Lords, I was brought up in Uganda, where there were people of different racial and religious backgrounds. I learnt to speak several languages and developed an understanding of, as well as respect for, all religions. I am a patron of several organisations which include Muslims as well as groups of other religions.
I believe that there are more similarities than differences between people and we should highlight similarities in order to establish closer links between communities. I feel that the lack of understanding leads to suspicions and divisions between people. Islam teaches us to celebrate the difference and diversity that God has created in our world. Despite the image portrayed in some parts of the media, Islam has a long and proud history of tolerance of and respect for people of all faiths.
Islam is one of the Abrahamic religions and, according to Islam, people of the book are Muslims, Jews and Christians. The books of Allah are the holy Koran, the Torah, the Gospel of Jesus and the Psalms of David. I may add that in the holy Koran there is a whole chapter on Mary, the mother of Jesus. There are a number of similarities between Sikhism and Islam, and I would like to state that the foundation stone of the golden temple was laid by Mian Mir, a Muslim holy person.
I am chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum and membership of the forum is open to everyone. At all our meetings, we invite persons of all faiths and racial origins. Our guests include members as well as non-members of the Conservative Party. The Conservative Muslim Forum is an active organisation and a substantial part of the work that we do is promoting harmony among various racial and religious groups.
We recently held a meeting at which the two main speakers were an Arab lady and a Jewish lady, both of whom talked about peace between people. The Arab lady was from Gaza and had lost several members of her family during the fighting in Gaza following the Israeli invasion. A book has been published which highlights cases where Muslims saved Jews from the atrocities of the Nazis in the Holocaust. I am in fact launching this book in the House of Lords next week.
Unfortunately, there is a demonisation of Islam in certain quarters, and it is important that the media act in a responsible manner in this regard and avoid use of
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I am proud that this country has a longstanding respect for pluralism and tolerance, grounded in a firm respect for liberty. I am also pleased that we seem to have moved away from the concept of what was termed "state multi-culturalism", whereby the Government decided what was good, and sought to impose their vision. That resulted in an unhealthy degree of intolerance in the name of tolerance: what we should be seeking to build is dialogue and understanding, not an imposed vision decided by Ministers. The best way to challenge extremism is to promote integration and cohesion. That is not something that Ministers or Parliament can impose from Whitehall or Westminster.
In his speech in Munich, I believe the Prime Minister was right to focus on eradicating the things that tear us apart. Separation can lead to extremism, and extremism can be a very unpleasant spectacle. That means that we need to focus on what brings us together, rather than obsessing about what makes us different. We need therefore to talk about integration, which was the real message underpinning the Prime Minister's speech in Munich.
Lord Stone of Blackheath: My Lords, an increasing number of people are now describing themselves as spiritual, but not necessarily religious. They are able to see the spirituality in all faiths, and in the traditions of the East, and in the new scientific models of the universe. This new cultural approach is welcoming of diversity, inclusive and holistic.
In the past year I have witnessed this at a meditation of thousands of people with Deepak Chopra, in Alternatives in Piccadilly; at the wedding of my niece, Becky Cantor, at Bevis Marks, the oldest synagogue in the UK; and at the ordination of a multi-faith minister, David Wetton, at the Second Church of Christ. Only last month, for three days, at the Global Retreat Centre of the Brahma Kumaris, I met with 30 experts from 18 different countries-swamis, rabbis, Muslim Sufis, Archbishops, Buddhists and, of course, several Hindu and Brahma Kumari. In a session with Sister Jayanti and Marcus Braybrooke, the president of the World Congress of Faiths, we discussed how to integrate spirituality into our life and work. The major faiths, with differing road maps, all want to instil the qualities of love and compassion, and much interfaith dialogue consists of comparing those road maps. We discussed whether interfaith dialogue could actually lead to something more binding, that is, inter-spirituality.
At this point, I must declare an interest: I have been working with a group for over two years, planning to build and develop "Space to Contemplate" in Britain. This will be a visitor centre, as big as the Tate Modern, where people of any faith, or none, can enter a variety of carefully built rooms, to express the essence of spiritual existence. We intend to trigger for people a brief encounter with what we might call the numinous, or the divine, or the universal force. It will offer a selection of methods learned from human traditions going back thousands of years, through the Abrahamic faiths, the pre-monotheistic traditions, the philosophies of the East, and secular sciences, art and music. The project is a work in progress, and next weekend over 40 experts and practitioners from all over the world are gathering for three days in Oxford to discuss the concept. Those involved believe that such a facility is a key ingredient for building communities, and, in doing so, it will enhance our social capital. It will open up the experience of spirituality to tens of thousands of individuals, young and old, from all walks of life. Cumulatively, it will change people's perception, and thence, perhaps, help them to choose to live lives that are of service.
I would suggest to the Minister that the Government do have a huge part to play here, as this is so important to civil society. I suggest that, in those areas where I have some little experience, the Government should continue to develop mindful strategies. For example, with regard to education, humans are known to have a rudimentary moral sense from the very early start of life. We must develop this using methods whereby children as young as eight, university students certainly, and people in lifelong learning, can absorb knowledge not only from a physical and intellectual level, but also from experiencing a different type of awareness and consciousness, connecting humanity to the whole universe and thus bringing to the fore values of how we think, speak and act.
On health and well-being, I am pleased that within our health service we are beginning to focus, with the help of a charity I chair, Healthtalkonline, on the whole patient and their experience as a human being. Meanwhile, in the creative industries the Government should support those innovative centres such as Imperial College and the Royal College of Art that have together formed Design London, recognising that there is huge potential in tapping into the inspiration where science, art and consciousness come together in a broader awareness. Finally, on conflict and its avoidance and resolution, both at home and abroad multicultural and interfaith dialogue can bring people together in deeper, more sympathetic understanding. Also, when we have to go to war to defend those principles, even that can be done mindfully.
In conclusion, I suggest that while interfaith dialogue is important we should all support the millions of open-hearted people-and their projects-who recognise that at the core of all religions and within the new, scientific understanding of the universe there is a common experience of the sheer wonder, energy and mystery of existence and its interconnectedness. It is this that holds us together in the diverse fabric of life. Thank you, and Om Shanti.
Lord Harries of Pentregarth: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, for this debate and I very much appreciated what other noble Lords have said. I have been involved in interfaith work for some 40 years now and have been hugely enriched by that experience. In this short debate, I want to approach the subject in a slightly oblique way. My starting point is the positive attitude by both the previous Government and this present one to faith communities. I very much want to affirm that stance and outline why it is of such importance at present.
Michael Sandel, in his Reith lectures and writings, has shown decisively that the combination of social and market liberalism which has dominated the West in recent decades, if taken by itself, totally fails to reflect our deepest convictions as human beings. Furthermore, a number of secular academic thinkers such as the late Tony Judt have argued passionately for a much stronger ethical framework for our economic, political and social life. More than this, the distinguished German sociologist Jürgen Habermas entitled a recent book An Awareness of What is Missing. In this, he argued that all our most fundamental concepts such as community, person, and solidarity are rooted in religion and, more than this, he refers to what he calls "the unexhausted force" of religion to continue to nourish and help shape the values and life of our society.
In drawing attention to this, I do not want in any way to underplay the contribution of secular thinkers to our society or ignore the huge contribution to the common good made by people who have no religious faith. I do not think that religious bodies have any claim to the high moral ground; indeed, as we all know, their record is a mixed one. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore a range of distinguished secular thinkers, with no religious axe to grind, who are worried not just about the actual state of our society but about the total lack of a coherent and consistent overriding moral framework for it. Seamus Heaney, the Nobel prize-winning poet, wrote that he thought that our society was running on an unconscious provided by religion. He went on to say that he thought his grandchildren would not have that.
We have already heard of the deeply moving attitude of Mr Tariq Jahan after the death of his son in the riots in Birmingham. It has been pointed out to us that this was not an isolated reaction. In Southall, I understand that the Sikhs and Muslims guarded each others' place of worship at times of prayer during the riots. If religion sometimes leads people to take up extreme attitudes, infinitely more it motivates ordinary people to live out their highest ideals, sometimes with great courage. It might interest noble Lords that Mr Tariq Jahan has already indicated his intention of coming to speak under the auspices of the All-Party Interfaith Group, which I have the privilege of chairing, to talk about constructive reactions to the riots-as has a reading Sikh.
In contributing to this debate, I want to emphasise not just what the Government can do in relation to interfaith dialogue but their whole stance towards faith communities in every aspect of government policy.
The fact is that there is a huge amount of interfaith dialogue going on at every level from universities to neighbours in streets. However, this is only one aspect of what faith communities do. It is the attitude of the Government, not least in education, that is so important. There are a number of strident secular voices in our society that like to erase religion from life altogether and banish it from the public sphere. Therefore, we cannot take the positive attitude of the Government for granted. We should very much welcome it. I particularly look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in particular in relation to interfaith work.
Lord Popat: I, too, would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, for instigating today's debate. I apologise in case I missed the first few seconds of the opening remarks. It is not always easy to discuss or defend faith in modern Britain. I can understand why individuals or particularly the Government decide not to "do God", as the previous Prime Minister put it. I am often concerned that we do not have a suitable platform on which to discuss faith in this country. Too often we are scared to discuss faith for fear of offence or because we do not understand things. This is not helped by a media that are often very negative to faith and the positive roles that faith can play.
However, for those of us who believe in faith and know what identity and strength faith can provide, avoiding these discussions would be a great injustice for society, and so I fully welcome today's debate. As a proud Hindu who attended Catholic school in Uganda, I always consider it a great honour to sit on these Benches and attend the daily prayers. Faith is a great inspiration to me. We are very fortunate to debate in a House that praises God at the beginning of every day. I find our prayers energising, and a great inspiration for the day ahead.
Interfaith dialogue and co-operation is an essential part of building real communities. We should not isolate ourselves and build barriers through religion. However, to prevent these barriers arising, it is essential that all of us, including the Government, engage openly in discussions of faith. We cannot rely on the Government alone. Interfaith dialogue can be truly successful only at a grassroots level. I strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Glasman, who said in a recent article that we need more faith leaders and faith communities not just to stand up and speak out in defence of faith, but to explain it properly as well.
For interfaith dialogue to succeed, faith leaders need to explain their religion in a way that people of all faiths, and of no faith, can understand. I firmly believe that many, if not most, religions share similar values at their core, yet people of faith still feel distant from one another. We in the Hindu community have been very lucky to receive excellent guidance in the past from the Board of Deputies of British Jews. I have always believed that no faith has a monopoly on the truth and that, when we respect other faiths, we are in fact showing respect to our own faith, which teaches us to respect other faiths. Through respect, love, compassion and dialogue, we can all become more enlightened through each other's faiths.
I am encouraged by the approach that our Government have taken to faith and in promoting interfaith dialogue. Faith groups are now treated with respect. Their work is welcomed. How many of us have seen churches or faith groups working in their community to help people who others have abandoned? This Government have been quick to identify the positive work of faith groups in communities, particularly in school and charitable work. I support the Government's more open stance to suitable faiths and faith groups; their inclusion makes us a stronger and better society.
However, the Government have also been clear that our faith is subordinate to our nationality, our common values and the law and that extremists of any religion must not be tolerated. Faith groups, or faith communities, that wish to work with, live in or rely on the British state must also respect core British values-values that are envied around the world. I was proud to be an instigator of the Hindu Forum of Britain, adopting the slogan "Proud to be British, proud to be Hindu". It is a phrase that I believe strongly echoes the position that the Government are moving towards and must continue to support.
Lord Noon: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Mitchell for initiating this important short debate. It is even more pertinent given that we are approaching the anniversary of 9/11. That should focus all our minds on the central importance of mutual understanding and tolerance. I am honoured to be a trustee of the Coexistence Trust. My noble friend has said much about that trust. There is a long and proud tradition in this country of interfaith dialogue and co-operation. The previous Government sought to build on this in the excellent report, Face to Face and Side by Side, with its focus on partnership working in a multifaith society. The report primarily concerns how faith communities, government and wider societies can work together. It was a bold initiative from a Government.
Dialogue means talking to one another and to do that we must have a shared language. Yet it is sadly still the case that many imams in mosques around the country do not speak English. As a Muslim, I encourage trustees of mosques who bring in imams from overseas to make sure that they can speak English and know the traditions of our country. I would like to see more young Muslims, especially young Muslim girls, taking their place alongside young people from other faiths in promoting interfaith dialogue and collaboration.
Islam teaches peace, affection and brotherhood. We can all learn from each other. With free and open dialogue we will reach greater understanding and tolerance. I hope the Minister agrees that that is an important issue which needs to be addressed. For my part, my foundation has provided substantial funding to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, especially to train local imams to promote the scholarly study of Islam in contemporary Muslim societies. It is also important to acknowledge that there are some excellent British imams and mosques undertaking tremendous work to break down barriers, and who use their influence to promote dialogue and understanding. We must stand
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A truly religious person who believes in divine justice will not be unjust to others. We must work towards justice for all. In that context we must understand the problem of Palestine and work towards implementing a just solution. Real or perceived injustice is one of the main causes of extremism. Extremism feeds on prejudice. This must be countered by a commitment to the truth-truth about oneself and one's relations with others. Extremism thrives where there is an absence of knowledge and reasoning. Respectful public debate about the truth of religious claims would be one of the best antidotes to religiously motivated violence. At the same time we must reject disrespect of any religious symbols. In this country we have taken a stand against dictators and tyrants at great personal cost. Extremism thrives when people do not have legitimate ways of expressing their individuality, unique perspective and common grievances. However, I remind every Muslim that the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, said that whichever country you go to and whichever country you live in, you should be loyal to that country.
I hope that through debates such as this we can keep alive the idea that it is not just religious leaders who need to be engaged in interfaith dialogue; it is also crucial to have government, politicians, parents and young people involved in this work. That is the true meaning of interfaith dialogue partnership. I am sure that the Minister will respond positively to this call for more action.
Lord Rees of Ludlow: My Lords, speakers in this debate have focused on the crucial need for dialogue among the different faith traditions but we are an increasingly secular nation. I speak as an unbeliever but one who has been nourished by the cultural, musical and liturgical traditions of the English Church in which I was brought up. Many Jews sustain their Friday ritual in their homes, even though they describe themselves as atheists. By analogy I am a tribal Christian, practising but not believing.
I speak today because I am concerned about a troubling trend spearheaded by some scientists-vocal intolerance of those who profess any faith. This kind of stand-off between science on the one hand and faith in general on the other is harmful to both. Science should be a unifying force. It pervades all our lives and it is a truly global culture. Protons, proteins and Pythagoras are the same from China to Peru. The pursuit of scientific understanding straddles all barriers of nationality and faith. We can all share the wonder and mystery of the natural world.
Of course, we should all oppose the teachings of views manifestly in conflict with the evidence, such as creationism. But we can aspire to peaceful coexistence with the less dogmatic strands of mainstream faiths. Indeed, many researchers and teachers of science are religious. They have no problems with Darwinism; they can study cosmology and at the same time proclaim that the,
Indeed, I think that it is teachers with faith who can be most effective in defending evolutionary science against attempts to inject creationism and intelligent design into the school science curriculum. A less conciliatory approach can backfire. If scientists take the uncompromising line that Darwinism is incompatible with any belief, many young people raised in a faith-based culture will stay loyal to their religion and be lost, quite unnecessarily, to science.
This stand-off is counterproductive for another reason. Extremist zealots imperil us all, whether they are traditional fundamentalists or new-age cults, and we need the broadest alliance we can muster against them. That alliance should surely include the adherence of most mainstream faiths that support science and who are equally anxious about extremism. Indeed, we are fortunate in this nation's current religious leaders who all elevate the tone of public debate. Their role is crucial. Society must be guided by the knowledge that 21st-century science can offer, but even a secular society needs the idealism, vision and commitment that science alone cannot provide.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, this has been a very fine debate thanks to the Motion tabled by my noble friend Lord Mitchell, and the wealth of experience in this Chamber. In this House we are fortunate to have noble Lords of so many faiths, and none. Shortly we will have a new colleague who is a Sikh and I am sure that we all celebrate that.
Interfaith dialogue and action have taken place for many centuries-indeed, millennia, as the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, informed us. I mention Emperor Akbar the Great who encouraged tolerance in Mughal India which was, and is, a hugely diverse nation. Acts of violence, including wars, have also taken place over the centuries in the name of religion. The need for interfaith action and dialogue continues. I suggest that in our globalised world, more and more people migrate for economic and social reasons, and for security when their own states become fragile, and that need will increase. Indeed, when one considers poor harvests, escalating water shortages, and the effects of climate change, especially in coastal areas, there are bound to be more tensions in our world, more migration and more diversity in our societies. As a result, the mutual understanding and tolerance that come from interfaith dialogue grow more and more significant. As we have heard this afternoon, interfaith is not just about religion; it is about building bridges within and between diverse communities; it is about health, education, poverty, hunger, and so many other things; it is about action. As Gandhi said,
We have heard some superb examples this afternoon of interfaith dialogue leading to action and to real change in people's lives. Thanks to a conversation with the former Bishop of Coventry some years ago, I learnt of the interfaith work that they have nurtured in Kaduna, Nigeria. I visited both Christians and Muslims in that area, and learnt that lives have been saved there thanks to the interfaith dialogue that has taken place. Only a couple of months ago I was in Bradford with the Muslim Women's Council, a feisty bunch of confident women who I am sure are well known to the Minister. They are leaders in their community, and some are actively engaged in interfaith dialogue. I say to my noble friend that they certainly are encouraging young girls to engage in dialogue with people of other religions.
I was much taken by the Coexistence Trust mentioned by my noble friend who chairs it and by so many others. I am delighted that it is being encouraged by the FCO and the British Council to set up a trust in the United States, and I wish it well. I hope that it is asked to take root in other countries. As an aside, I have to say that I have concerns about some religious schools. Like my noble friend, I wonder how closed institutions that educate children of one faith only can contribute to combating ignorance and lead to a more tolerant society in which the traditions of this country are honoured and respected.
Tolerance is at the heart of our debate this afternoon. I hope that our society is becoming more tolerant, including of science. A recent poll said that 88 per cent of people of faith supported the previous Government making incitement to hatred on grounds of sexual orientation unlawful. I think that is a great way forward. I am proud to live in a country where, for the vast majority of the time, we celebrate our communality and respect our differences.
We live in a richly diverse and multicultural society that we celebrate, but we live in difficult, often divisive, times. For many reasons, our communities are sometimes fractured and people feel insecure and burdened. The values that underpin our society sometimes feel more fragile than they should, and some citizens, of all religions and origins, feel that the cultural and religious values that they cherish are under threat.
I agree with the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, that the liberal, unregulated market economy that we have been living with has failed us, and that we need to build a more ethical framework for our future. I think that interfaith dialogue can help us in that. As has been said, interfaith dialogue nurtures understanding, promotes tolerance, and fosters our confidence to be proud of who and what we are in a diverse society. It contributes to the common good, but it must be inclusive. Therefore, interfaith dialogue is and must be one of the means by which our communities are strengthened in our increasingly complex world.
Baroness Warsi: My Lords, I begin by paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, not only for initiating this important debate but also for the work of the Coexistence Trust which he chairs with such energy. I have worked with the noble Lord for a number of years and have seen first hand the good work he does in promoting understanding between followers of the Islamic and Jewish faiths, especially among the young. He has an amazing ability to speak frankly and robustly, and with a genuine, deep understanding.
In September last year, I made a speech about faith at the Anglican Bishops' Conference in Oxford. I believe that it was the first time a Cabinet Minister had spoken so frankly about faith for many years. I said that this Government would "do God". I thought long and hard before I said what I did. As my noble friend Lord Popat said, it is not always easy to speak openly about faith. I tried to make an evidential case for faith in our country and stated that, contrary to popular belief, it is certainly not fading away. I explained that faith inspires many people to do good works and gives rise to huge numbers of personal kindnesses and other civic contributions. Faith shapes beliefs and behaviour, offers a sense of purpose and, ultimately, helps build a bigger and more just society in the positive ways referred to by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth. I announced that the aim of this Government was to help rather than hinder faith communities in the good works they did. Looking back, I believe the impact of the speech was positive. Again today, I welcome the positive remarks about the Government made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London. The main thing that I discovered by making the speech was that there is a large, untapped appetite for a more mature discussion of faith in our country. It was important to take stock of where Britain was with faith.
This brings me to the topic of this evening's debate: interfaith dialogue, collaboration and activity. Interfaith dialogue helps raise the standard of all faith-based debate in our country. The UK is home not just to Christianity but also to a host of the world's great religions and faiths: Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and many more. Britain's faith communities come from a huge range of different ethnic backgrounds and religious traditions, and this gives our country strength. I profoundly believe that there is far more that unites faith communities than divides them: common bonds that should be the basis for better understanding. This sentiment was put far more intellectually by the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that we must not accentuate exclusion but seek to be more inclusive.
Despite what we may read in the papers or see on our television screens, we know that the vast majority get on and live together as peaceful neighbours. We must recognise and pay tribute to the role of the established church and its Christian values in making Britain a welcoming and tolerant society-and all noble Lords know the value of having bishops in the House. The church has always been at the forefront of providing support to our communities, both established and newly arrived. There are many excellent examples
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This brings me to the point raised by my noble friends Lord Young of Graffham and Lord Hussain about the work of faith communities. Faith communities make a vital contribution to national life and have done for centuries: guiding the moral outlook of many, inspiring great numbers of people to public service and providing help to those in need, as well as providing much needed knowledge about their own faiths. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the tremendous work that my noble friend Lord Hussain continues to do in very difficult circumstances in Luton. I know from my own visits how difficult Luton can be.
Faith is not just a belief or a theory: it is about how we live, how we shape our lives and how we work together to serve those in need. Across the country people from different faiths are working hard together in countless churches, mosques, temples, gurdwaras, synagogues, charities and community groups. They are inspired by their faith to address often the most deep-seated problems in their local communities. Unfortunately, in the past, this has not been sufficiently recognised by Governments of all colours.
I have worked with the Church of England for a number of years and I am constantly amazed by the work that it does throughout the country; for example, by providing education, supporting the homeless and helping those recovering from the problems of drug abuse and other addictions. Through the Government's £5 million investment in the Church Urban Fund's Near Neighbours programme, we are putting our money where our mouth is-not through a top-down intervention but by using the existing infrastructure of the Church of England to build productive local relationships between people of different faiths in four key geographical target areas. People of any religious background will be able to bid for that fund through their local Anglican parish, to run projects that improve their local neighbourhoods with people from all faiths working alongside each other. The programme is an excellent example of partnership working.
I come to the point raised by my noble friends Lord Sheikh and Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, and by the noble Lord, Lord Noon, about interfaith dialogue. There is a great deal of work going on locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. Some projects are supported by central government, some by local government and some by faith communities themselves. There are 25 national interfaith bodies, such as the Joseph Interfaith Foundation, the Christian Muslim Forum, the Inter-faith Council for Wales and many others, which exist to promote interfaith engagement.
I note with interest my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon's comments on the Lord's Prayer. My daughter has her own version; she says that she ends her Lord's Prayer by saying "Ameen" and thereby makes it her own.
The noble Lord, Lord Hameed, spoke about interfaith dialogue being a necessity in today's times and I agree with him. He will be pleased to know that local interfaith groups have grown significantly over the last
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A number of noble Lords raised the issue of the alleged negative effect of faith schools on integration. This Government greatly value the contribution that faith schools make to the education sector by providing high-quality school places and choice for parents. Faith schools have been and remain an important element of that provision and this Government remain committed in our support for that. We do not accept that faith schools are divisive and promote segregation. They are no less committed to community cohesion than other schools. What matters is not the school one attends, but the understanding taught in these schools, as was so beautifully put by the noble Lord, Lord Sacks. I also note with interest his idea of a covenant of Britain. I would welcome a further discussion with him as to what role government can play.
I also note and welcome the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, and his concerns about the rising level of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred, issues that I raised earlier this year myself. The Government are doing much to support interfaith work and interfaith activity, whether that is interfaith dialogue; a continuation of support for the Inter Faith Network, despite the current economic climate; or the further support for Inter Faith Week, when, last year, 435 separate events were hosted around the country, including many supported by government. This year, Inter Faith Week will take place between 20 and 26 November. We are continuing to support the Near Neighbours programme, which I have mentioned, and, of course, there was a clear interfaith element to the papal visit of last year. I take on the further suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Stone of Blackheath.
I welcome the way that this debate has been conducted, especially by the Benches opposite. In conclusion, interfaith work has been going on for a long time, but it needs to be more meaningful and more practical. Of course religious leaders have spoken to each other for many centuries but, interestingly, it occasionally appears to be dialogue around my understanding of your version of your god, and your understanding of my version of my god. It has to be much more meaningful than that; there has to be respect for my understanding of your god in the way that you view your god. And it has to go beyond religious leaders; congregations must actually work together, not just in interfaith dialogue, but in interfaith activity; congregations must get together and do meaningful activity within their communities, because the best way to understand a person is to work with them, to eat with them, to create a friendship. The noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, will remember that we spoke some time ago about the challenge to the Coexistence Trust and to many interfaith bodies in going beyond what I used to define as "samosa and chai parties" into more
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I hope that noble Lords will appreciate that the Government have taken a very clear stance in relation to faith, the importance of faith, the importance of faith in the public sphere and our support for interfaith activity and dialogue.
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