On 19th November 2013, the Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Revd David Urquhart, took part in Lord Pearson of Rannoch’s debate to ask Her Majesty’s Government what was the basis for the statement by the Prime Minister on 3 June that “There is nothing in Islam that justifies acts of terror” (HC Deb, 3 June, col 1234). The Bishop of Birmingham spoke about the experiences of Christian-Muslim relations in Birmingham, highlighting positive engagement between those of different beliefs to promote peaceful and practical relationships.
The Lord Bishop of Birmingham: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for enabling us to talk about these very important matters, so in that sense I can agree with him. I also encourage him not to lose heart at sin and evil wherever they are found. There are remedies, and people of religion are often seeking to achieve them.
Of course, if I read my own scriptures, as I do every day, and select various pieces of them, I could easily form myself into some kind of sect which would be disapproved of, I hope, by most of civil society. None the less, our activities which are theological, seeking peace, are often turned into historical disappointments and much less than the ideal that we want to promote. That is true of all religions and, indeed, of all humanity.
Rather than seek division or selective use of scriptures and theology, I emphasise today that the healing of divisions and the communication between those of different religions and societies is the primary responsibility, such as we find in the very diverse community of Birmingham, with 187 nationalities and all the great religions of the world represented in great numbers.
Your Lordships will know of the work of the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, in reviewing the Prevent strategy, which came to us in 2011. There we can find that those who support terrorism obviously reject a cohesive, integrated society. They often reject parliamentary democracy. Because polarisation and fragmentation are key conditions for the emergence of radical views, every effort should be made to understand, to have dialogue with and to befriend those who are different from ourselves, those who have different religions, different cultures or even different political solutions to intractable problems both at home and overseas.
In the communities of the Church of England, we have a process of presence and engagement where we want to be present in local communities, however diverse they are, and to engage with theologies and differences of views from our own strongly held beliefs. Noble Lords will know that the Near Neighbours programme, which is supported by the Department for Culture and Local Government, engages in four communities across England. They are asked to make friends, stay friends and change society based on cross-cultural and cross-religious engagements. In smaller ways, charities such as the Feast bring Christian and Muslim young people together in activities both civically and in practical ways. We can see that in the face of unacceptable terrorism, wherever it is found, the response is to resist evil but at the same time to build new ways of understanding and community.
Perhaps one other thing to mention is the process of scriptural reasoning where the great Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Islam and Christianity are, at the highest level and local level, examining the scriptures and testing the realities of things that are captured perhaps by groups who want to be terrorists. They are put into their proper perspective and understood, so that the wider community can be taught properly. I also welcome the work of the Ministry of Justice and the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Ahmed, in seeking to understand what religious freedom is really like in this country.
Of course, those national and international efforts—the practical resistance of evil wherever it is found—are necessary. But it is at the local level in local dialogue and local communication that I believe these terrible things that we experience can begin to be resolved. We should sit with one another and listen to the understanding of our theologies and our scriptures but also debate vigorously the differences that we find when we do not understand why someone might feel differently or behave in a different way.
I hope that today we will understand that there are difficulties but that we are building a new community in a completely unrecognised way in places such as Birmingham. People who hitherto have not understood each other and not got on with each other are now able to say that they are proud to live in this country and proud to enjoy their diversity. They also are proud—as one Muslim waiter in an Indian restaurant in Birmingham seeks to do with his Bishop—to stand against those within their own community whom they feel, sadly, have become atheist; we have a joint campaign to enable them to be enlightened. In the scriptures we have the strong and imperative demand to seek peace and pursue it.
The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi): …I am grateful for the very considered contribution from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham. Islam, like all the major religions, is not inherently violent. Passages from sacred texts must be taken in context. It would be possible to distort quotes from any religious text…