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This page last updated 14 October 2007  
Speech by Bishop of Rochester to House of Lords
4 October 2001
Full official transcript (HM Stationery Office) here

The Lord Bishop of Rochester:


Last month's tragic events have shown us in the most vivid possible way the urgency of dialogue between different systems of thought, polity and social organisation--the dialogue between civilisations to which President Khatami of Iran has drawn our attention. But as the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung, never tires of pointing out, such a dialogue can be useful only if it is undergirded by dialogue between different religious traditions, for it is they which underlie so much of culture, politics and even economics.

One feature of our patchwork and plural world is that increasingly civilisations are not monolithic. People with different cultures, beliefs and world views now live cheek by jowl with one another. That means that, as my brother, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, pointed out, we must promote dialogue not only between civilisations but within them. I must point out to him that St. John of Damascus, to whom he referred, suffered at the hands not only of the iconoclasts in Byzantium but of the rulers whom he served, the Omayyads in Damascus. In the end, his left hand was amputated and he retired to a monastery in Jerusalem.

In this country, it is good that the need for dialogue has long been recognised. Leaders of faith communities are conscious of the importance of keeping lines of communication open, and bodies such as the Inter Faith Network, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Richardson of Calow, provide co-ordination within communities and between them and government. Of course, some may be reluctant to engage in any kind of conversation, but many are willing.

However, worldwide we need an immediate reorientation in our policy on exchanges, scholarships and research. The role of the British Council has been mentioned. Too much of our policy has been built on materialistic assumptions that have favoured the physical and life sciences and technology at the expense of subjects such as culture, faith and history--more elusive, but important nevertheless.

That policy has now been proved to be both narrow-minded and dangerous. There is a kind of scientific fundamentalism about it. Technical training takes no account of the uses to which science and technology may be put--whether terrorism, internal repression or exploitation of the poor. I have seen examples of all three. In future, we should be sure that we are engaging with beliefs, values and traditions, which are at the heart of cultures, rather than promoting optimistic and false beliefs about homogenising the world through the spread of technology.

Contrary to popular--and even, dare I say, scholarly--beliefs, there is a long tradition in the Islamic world of a civil polity that recognises the importance of intermediate political, judicious and religious institutions, which are seen to mediate, interpret and develop the injunctions of revelation, as Muslims see them. Such a society will, of course, be founded on the principles of Islam. As the former Chief Justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court, Dr. Nasim Hasan Shah, points out, the laws and institutions of such a society will be conducive to Muslims practising their faith, but they will not be coercive. That is the issue: no one will be forced to be a Muslim; no one will have to be a Muslim in a particular way decreed by the state.

In that connection, it is worth pointing out that the earliest so-called heretics in Islamic history were the Kharijites, who rejected all intermediate institutions, including the Caliphate, and proclaimed the direct rule of God--theocracy in its pure form--la- hukm illa- illa- li-lla-h. However, their view has never, I am glad to say, gained general acceptance in the Islamic world. For more than 200 years, leading Muslim scholars--both Shia and Sunni--have discussed the different ways in which the various schools of Islamic law, the Sharia, can be related to modern conditions.

The Arab scholar, Wael Hallaq, in his most recent study of principles of movement in the different schools of Islamic law, illustrates the continuity of that concern among Islamic jurists.

It is of the utmost importance that those engaged in the building of civil society in the Islamic world, and those who are working for the development of Islamic law in the light of contemporary circumstances, are recognised and supported, not only by their own governments, but also by the wider international community.

Another area which merits further exploration and dialogue is that of jihad, mentioned already by the noble Lord, Lord Howell. That has been variously interpreted in Islam to mean struggling against oppression, against hostility to Islam and, as the noble Lord said, even against one's lower instincts.

I pointed out some years ago that dialogue about jihad and the Christian concept of the "just" war, could be fruitful. It may lead to a wider international consensus on the circumstances in which the use of armed force can be justified. We must listen carefully to what Muslims say about the rest of the world. If it is not an abode of a war--as traditionally described--what is it? We wait to hear the answers.

I am delighted, like other noble Lords, that there is to be substantial emergency aid for those likely to be affected by the current conflict. However, it is unlikely to be more than a fraction of the military cost. Both kinds of expenditure may be necessary now. But how do they compare to any political and diplomatic effort in solving major underlying problems which fuel militancy? Palestine, Kashmir and Chechnya have all been mentioned today in this House. It may be that the resolution of these disputes does not eradicate terrorism, but it will certainly remove its sting in many parts of the world.

Encouraging better internal security in states at risk and choking off the financial supply routes of extremist organisations, both semi-official and illicit, is a sound policy. Public opinion worldwide may also tolerate overt military action provided that there is proper authority for it; that it is proportionate--by that I mean that it does not cause greater evil than the evil it is seeking to remove: that is the meaning of "proportionate" in just war theory--that it does not harm civilians; and that it is aimed at establishing an enduring peace and not more war.

Such action may bring about a backlash against Muslims living as minorities in the West and elsewhere--again, India comes to mind--and also against non-Muslim minorities living in predominantly Muslim countries. Therefore I welcome the steps being taken to prevent incitement to religious hatred here and I welcome the comments of my brother the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford about the protection of non-Muslim minorities in Muslim countries like Pakistan. It is crucial that government and law enforcement agencies be prepared for such an eventuality. Failure at this time would set back the cause of peaceful, multi-cultural and multi-fed societies by many years.

In relation to Afghanistan, further division will not clean up the country. Surely we need a United Nations sponsored conference which brings together the different ethnic and political groups as a first step towards a government of national unity which is then protected by some form of international guarantee.

Freedom from terrorism is a very significant prize, and people, including the populations of Muslim countries who have suffered the most, may be willing to pay the price. In the end however the battle is not just on poverty; it is also a battle for minds and hearts. That is why I return to my original theme of the importance of dialogue. That is why research, exchange and scholarships are important. That is why support for the development of civil society is important. And that is why increased political activity for the resolution of long-standing disputes is important. Military and security measures may at best cauterise the immediate sources of danger. But sustained and long-term action on many fronts is necessary if the causes of extremism are to be addressed effectively.

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