The following is an abridged version of the Sir Sigmund Sternberg lecture delivered by Baroness Warsi at the University of Leicester on 20 January 2011.
Last September I made a speech about faith at the Bishops’ Conference. I believe it was the first time that a Cabinet Minister had spoken so frankly about faith for many years. The New Humanist magazine ran a poll of their readers which ranked me the fifth most dangerous enemy of reason last year. But overall I believe the impact of the speech was positive. The main thing I discovered by giving the speech is that there is a large, untapped appetite for a more mature discussion of faith in this country. I sensed that people were fed up of the patronising, superficial way faith is discussed in certain quarters, including the media, and that sadly there has been a rise in a sloppy kind of religious illiteracy.
So it was important to take stock of where Britain was with faith. Professor Hans Kung has spoken about his idea of the ‘global ethic’ and the common values of the main religions. Lord Carey has talked about the relationship between Islam and the West, and why the idea of a clash of civilisations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But I want to begin today by paying tribute to Sir Sigmund Sternberg. Although he has connections with the Labour Party, I hope he will not mind if I say that his life seems to me to be the epitome of the Big Society. Since coming to Britain as a European Jew in the 1920s, he has spent his life helping to strengthen communities. And it is his work with faith communities which is truly inspiring: from helping to resolve a row at Auschwitz over a Catholic convent, to organising the first ever papal visit to a synagogue, to establishing the Three Faiths Forum with Reverend Marcus Braybrooke and Dr. Badawi.
Sir Sigmund has shown just how much one person can do to promote a richer, more tolerant, and a more integrated society. And that brings me to the theme of my lecture today: Bigotry Against Faith.
In my last speech I made the evidential case for faith in our country. My aim was to demonstrate that, contrary to popular belief, faith in this country is certainly not fading away. I explained that faith inspires many people to do good things which help build a bigger society. Today, I want to make a related argument. I want to make the case against the rising tide of anti-religious bigotry. In particular, I want to say three things: first, I want to highlight what I mean by this rising religious illiteracy and condemn the bigotry which it feeds; second, I want to explain why I feel these problems are happening; and thirdly, I want to set out how we can start to deal with it.
Some will be surprised to hear me using the language of reason to defend an essentially spiritual phenomenon – namely individual faith. Others will say that it is fine to be irrational about religion, because religion itself is not open to rational debate. I do not accept that. Faith and Reason go hand in hand. This is a point the Pope has made consistently over the last few years. Throughout the Bible, there is a close relationship between faith and reason.
And as the Pope made clear when visiting a mosque in Amman last year, this is not unique to the Christian religion, but to all religions. He said, ‘As believers in the one God, we know that human reason is itself God’s gift and that it soars to its highest plane when suffused with the light of God’s truth. In fact, when human reason humbly allows itself to be purified by faith, it is far from weakened; rather it is strengthened to resist presumption and to reach beyond its own limitations.’
The point is just as religion should not fear reason, so reason should not be denied to faith. My worry is that this is exactly what is happening right now. Controversial stories are inflated by the media, detracting from serious faith-based debate and leaving us with a situation where instead of philosophy, we are fed anti-faith phobias.
One telling example of this occurred in 2005, when Ruth Kelly was made Education Secretary. Now of course, it is reasonable to scrutinise that appointment and have a discussion about whether Ruth Kelly was up to the job. But what was it really right that her faith formed such a big part of that inquiry? And was the appropriate language about her Catholicism used? At its extreme, this kind of bigotry descends into absurd caricatures. Where all Catholicism becomes ‘dodgy Priests in Ireland’, Judaism becomes ‘murky international financiers’. Sikhism suddenly seems to be all about a play in Birmingham. And Evangelical Christianity is seen as anti-abortion activists.
At this point, I want to touch on the way my own faith, Islam, is perceived. I say to British Muslims that I acknowledge there is a minority of people who try to justify their criminal conduct and activity by suggesting that it is sanctioned by their faith. It is a problem that we must confront and defeat. But that problem should not lead to unfounded suspicions of all Muslims. Indeed, it seems to me that Islamophobia has now crossed the threshold of middle-class respectability. Let me give one example which is very personal to here:
It was reported several years ago that students at Leicester University persuaded their union cafeteria to ban pork and go exclusively halal. The trouble was, that turned out not to be the whole story. In fact, as I understand it, the Student Union decided that one out of the twenty-six cafés on campus should serve halal food. And, when you consider that there are a large number of Muslim students at Leicester, that makes sound financial sense. For far too many people, Islamophobia is seen as a legitimate – even commendable – thing. You could even say that Islamophobia has now passed the dinner-table test.
Take this from Polly Toynbee: ‘I am an Islamophobe, and proud of it’. Or this speech title from Rod Liddle: ‘Islamophobia? Count me in’. Yet of course, Islamophobia should be seen as totally abhorrent – just like homophobia or Judeophobia – because any phobia is by definition the opposite of a philosophy. A phobia is an irrational fear. It takes on a life of its own and no longer needs to be justified. Moreover, all this filters through. The drip-feeding of fear fuels a rising tide of prejudice. So when people get on the tube and see a bearded Muslim, they think ‘terrorist’. When they hear ‘halal’ they think ‘that sounds like contaminated food’.
What is particularly worrying is that this can slide down the slippery slope to violence. So why is this happening? We have got to start by understanding where this bigotry comes from. We must learn the lessons of history. I strongly believe that the British story of integration is a positive story. One needs to delve deep into the Dark Ages to find a time when the state was under the exclusive control of one tribe or ethnicity. Instead, for centuries, our state has represented a set of common laws governing a diverse set of tribes, faiths and ethnicities. The same can be said about the USA. America prides herself on being a haven for immigrants, where you can be proudly Irish or Italian or Christian or Muslim – and still American. As it says on the Great Seal of the United States: e pluribus unum. This idea of unity from diversity runs through our own history. It has helped to forge the values of pluralism, tolerance and diversity which define our society. This gives us our moral authority to criticise, challenge and condemn those nations which far too often do not grant their religious minorities dignity, respect or equality.
But the British battle against bigotry will always be an ongoing battle. Sadly, at no point does it totally disappear. Disraeli did become the first Jewish Prime Minister – but the cartoonists still drew him as an East-End bag-man. Oswald Mosley’s Fascists never became a mainstream party – but the newspapers at the time were still littered with Anti-Semitism. Now a Muslim woman is a member of a British Cabinet – but a British citizen today can still be attacked for merely wearing a headscarf as part of her religious observance.
Why then is bigotry so resilient? A big part of the problem is the intellectual challenge of reconciling religious and national identities. If you look at British history, you see that we have had particular trouble when it comes to this issue. Again and again, we found it hard to believe that non-Protestants could be loyal to our country. The debates on Catholic Emancipation in the 1820s are a fantastic case study. Indeed, a big part of the argument against letting Catholics into Parliament was old-fashioned anti-Catholic bigotry. Up and down the country, the mob cried: ‘No Popery’.
But the interesting aspect of this was the intellectual argument which lay at the heart of the mob’s venom. Deep down, it all boiled down to this: could a Catholic, whose ultimate allegiance was thought to be to the Papacy, still be a loyal servant of the British Monarchy? The problem with Catholicism, as the Protestant establishment saw it, was that it transcended British sovereignty. Ultimate loyalty was not to the King of Britain but to the Papacy, making Catholicism and Britishness separate and irreconcilable identities. It was only after Catholic Emancipation passed through Parliament and after we began to break with the medieval European tradition of absolute religious conformity that these problems began to disappear.
Fast forward two centuries and there is still a sense of suspicion towards those subjects whose ultimate loyalty is presumed to lie with a supranational religion, or, for that matter, to an extra-terrestrial divinity. Just think about anti-Muslim bigotry. One of the most frequent arguments made against Islam in Britain is the idea that all British Muslims want to overturn British sovereignty and obey a transnational, Islamic authority. Let me repeat again: extremists are a minority of a minority. But from this flows a steady drip of suspicion and sense of sedition, which feeds the rise of a wider Islamophobia.
Obviously, I find the rise of Islamophobia particularly worrying. As a Muslim, I have had to live with it for many years. However, I believe that Islamophobia challenges our basic British identity. One of the most important aspects of our identity is our belief in equality before the law. But deeply entrenched anti-Muslim bigotry challenges that tradition because it implies that one section of society is less deserving of our protection than the rest. I commend those who understand and condemn the cancer of Islamophobia, whether that be John Denham, Seumus Milne or Peter Osborne.
I know that there is also a perverted line of argument which says that Muslims have only got themselves to blame for this hatred. After all, they are the ones who blow up tubes and aeroplanes, so treating them differently is actually permissible. But think about it for one second and you see that this argument is self-defeating. The deeper Islamophobia seeps into our culture the easier becomes the task of the extremist recruiting sergeant.
Those who commit criminal acts of terrorism in our country need to be dealt with not just by the full force of the law; they should also face social rejection and alienation across society. Their acts must not be used as an
opportunity to besmirch all Muslims or divide our society on the basis of faith.
What I wish to articulate is that at all times we should be working to drain the pool of people where extremists fish. The other worrying argument that also forms a basis for justifying Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred is the idea that Islam is a particularly violent creed and therefore that an irrational reaction to it is somehow appropriate. This line of argument takes place at many levels. At one level, policy professionals push hard against Islam by focussing on a fraction of those who claim to espouse the Islamic faith. At another level, fascist literature used by the BNP circulates sections of Quranic text out of context.
But anyone can look into sacred texts and find phrases which are not appropriate to modern life. One has only to turn to the Bible to find that ‘If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife … both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death’. Any religious texts can easily be manipulated to cause mischief, and indeed have been manipulated in the past. However, being religious means making choices and understanding the central values of your faith. It also means considering the context in which that faith was formed. To be an adherent, one must also be a historian.
This is a point the late Benazir Bhutto, the first female Prime Minister of a Muslim country, once put particularly well when speaking of teachings in the Quran: ‘In an age when no country, no system, no community gave women any rights, in a society where the birth of a baby girl was regarded as a curse, where women were considered chattel, Islam treated women as individuals’.
In tracing the rise of religious illiteracy, and exploring why it is happening, the question now is what can we do about it? The answers fall into the following categories. First and foremost, we need political leadership. Andrew Stunnell, the Minister for Integration, has already taken a strong lead. Not only are we ramping up the fight against all phobias – including homophobia and gender inequality – but we are also building on the positive steps taken since the APPG Anti-Semitism inquiry and responding to the concerns of the British Jewish community in a focussed and concerted way.
For instance, funds are being provided for Jewish State Schools to improve their security and Anti-Semitism on the internet is beginning to be tackled. Also, we are supporting the Holocaust Education Trust’s ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ project.
At all times, government must think hard about the challenge of stamping out hatred and bigotry and look at what lessons we can apply from the past, particularly from our work on tackling Anti-Semitism. But in addition to this, we also need to do something else. We need to think harder about the language we use. And we should be careful about language around religious ‘moderates’. This is something I have been thinking about a lot. It is not a big leap of the imagination to predict where the talk of ‘moderate’ Muslims leads. In the factory where they have just hired a Muslim worker the boss says to his employees: ‘not to worry, he’s only fairly Muslim’. In the school the children say ‘the family next door are Muslim but they’re not too bad’.
We need to stop talking about moderate Muslims, and instead talk about British Muslims. When it comes to extremism, we should be absolutely clear: these people are extremists, plain and simple, because their behaviour has detached them from the thought process within their religion.
I wish to finish with a final response to religious illiteracy. If we really are going to combat bigotry against religion, faith leaders have to show greater leadership. They need to take the lead. In Germany, there has already been a good example of the kind of cross-faith coalition we need. Archbishop Robert Zollitsch spoke out to warn against Europe’s rising Islamophobia last year. In America, in response to the ugly debate about Park 51, the Jewish Reform movement joined with other faith and advocacy groups in taking stronger steps to protect present-day religious freedom.
Faith leaders need to explain their religion – in a way that people of all faiths and no faith can understand. I had the privilege of raising this issue with the Pope when he was over here and whilst he asked me to build on my speech at the Bishops’ Conference, I asked him to use his unique position to create a better understanding between Europe and its Muslim citizens.
If we do all these three things, together, as government, as society, as people of faith, then we can come a little closer to defeating anti-faith bigotry and building a more open, inclusive and, frankly, a more grown- up society.