If inter-faith gestures — gimmicks though they might be — help reduce tensions, then let's have more of them.
Such was the media hype that anyone even sleep-walking through Britain last week couldn't have failed to notice the news of the country's “first female Muslim Cabinet Minister”, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, launching a spirited defence of Christianity against “militant secularism” on a “historic” visit to the Vatican where she had a private audience with the Pope.
There was breathless media coverage of her speech in which she told the Vatican that British Muslims stood “side by side with the Pope in fighting for faith”; warned against “militant secularisation” of Christian Europe; and argued for Europe to become “more confident and more comfortable in its Christianity”.
Christianity, she said, was an intrinsic part of British and European life and Christian values were as important to its followers as to the people of other faiths.
“You cannot extract Christian foundations from the evolutions of our nations any more than you can erase the spires from our landscape,” she said pointing out that her own life, growing up in a northern England milltown, had been influenced by Christian values.
A picture of Baroness Warsi with the Pope, her head respectfully covered with a black dupatta, splashed on newspaper front pages became a defining image of her Vatican visit.
Sceptics can be forgiven for dismissing the event as a tacky political gimmick by the Conservative party to demonstrate its “inclusiveness” and cultural pluralism. Remember — they may remind you — the fury that Prime Minister David Cameron caused among Muslim immigrants when in a speech in Munich last year he savaged multiculturalism saying it encouraged “passive tolerance” of Muslim extremism? And that, too, on a day when the racist English Defence League was holding a major anti-Muslim protest in a predominantly Muslim town. He was accused of “writing propaganda material for EDL”.
Similarly, Baroness Warsi can be accused (indeed she has been by a section of her community) of allowing herself to be used by the party as a token Muslim to promote its agenda.
But there's another way of looking at it. Forget the Conservative Party or Baroness Warsi's motives and see it, instead, in the context of the recent history of Muslim-Christian relations in Britain and the wave of Islamophobia that swept across Britain and rest of Europe in the wake of the 9/11 and London bombings. Remember former Prime Minister Tony Blair's famous warning to Muslim immigrants after the London bombings that if they wanted to live in Britain they would have to abide by British — that is, Christian — values?
For all its perceived opportunism, there was a huge symbolism to Baroness Warsi's passionate advocacy of Christian values. A few years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine the daughter of Pakistani immigrants — a community so heavily identified with Muslim extremism and which still has elements who routinely call for jihad against “infidel” Christians — dare do something like this. It is refreshing to see, for a change, a Muslim political figure standing up for another faith. Notwithstanding the opportunism charge thrown at her, Ms Warsi is no Tory “stooge”. In the past, she has not shied away from ruffling Tory feathers by speaking up against anti-Muslim prejudice and “bigotry”. She caused fury in the party when she said in a speech that Islamophobia in Britain had gone mainstream and “passed the dinner table”. Anti-Muslim prejudice, she said, had become socially acceptable with the tendency to see Muslims only in terms of “extremists” or “moderates”.
Baroness Warsi's Christianity remarks came amid an ill-tempered debate on the place of religion in public life sparked by a court ruling banning local councils from holding formal Christian prayers at the start of official meetings. The ruling followed a complaint from the National Secular Society and an atheist councillor who argued that members who were non-believers were being “indirectly discriminated against”, in breach of human rights laws.
The government moved swiftly to reverse the ban but by then all hell had broken loose with faith groups warning against “the rising tide of secular fundamentalism” and citing the case as another example of attempts to “silence” Christian voices in Britain. The secularists and atheists hit back as hysterically with familiar arguments about keeping religion out of public space. The Queen also waded in with a strong defence of the Church saying it had a “significant position” in British life.
The debate is still raging as I write this.
To put it in perspective, while Britain is a secular society in practice the British state is Christian with an established church headed by the Queen. The only religious figures with the right to sit in Parliament are Christian. As many as 26 Church of England bishops, known as Lords Spiritual, sit in the House of Lords and read prayers at the start of each daily meeting. Sittings in both Houses of Parliament begin with Christian prayers.
It is also important to remember that the court ban on prayers at council meetings was based on a purely legal technicality that the local government legislation did not give powers to the councils to hold prayers as part of a formal meeting: a loophole that the government has since closed.
If interventions like Baroness Warsi's, for all their apparent gimmickry, help to assure the majority community and reduce inter-faith tensions then let's have more of them.