Lord Carey: Islam and the West
Text of Lecture Delivered at University of Leicester, May 12, 2004
7th ANNUAL STERNBERG
May 12, 2004
Islam and the West: The Challenge to the Human Family
I am very honoured to deliver this year’s Sternberg Lecture. Sir Sigmund Sternberg is not only a very good friend and colleague, but a man I very much admire, not only for his human qualities but also for the distinctive and wide-ranging contribution he has made over many years to inter-faith collaboration and harmony at both national and international levels. He is one of the most perceptive and persistent men I know; perceptive, in his eye for what are important issues for our time; persistent, in his pragmatic approach for solutions that work. He is known the world over for his desire to create a peaceful world in which all faiths may co-exist in charity and understanding.
need to explain the background to my lecture this evening. Last Autumn, in order
to deepen my own understanding of Islam, I decided to offer four lectures on
various aspects of Islam and the West and tonight’s address is the fourth in
the series. The first two caused not a ripple of excitement. The third, however,
given at the Gregorian University, Rome, attracted a great deal of attention
because of newspaper reports of the lecture that seemed to suggest that I was
particularly hostile to the Muslim world.
way my lecture was taken reminded me a little of an experience that happened to
American friend recently. He spotted in a Washington paper, a photograph of a lesbian
couple who had adopted a baby girl who was later baptised. The photo showed the two
women with the baby, with a woman priest and the mothers of the lesbian couple.
However, bobbing on the baptismal waters was a rubber duck. Acting rather on an
impulse to test a theory, my friend asked several people what they thought was wrong
about the picture. All of them replied that it was sacrilegious for a rubber duck to be
floating in the baptismal font. No one mentioned a more unusual feature that not one
male was in the picture.
those who thought my Gregorian lecture was critical of the Muslim world were
looking in the wrong direction. For those who took the trouble to read my lecture will
have noted that I was as critical of the West, of Christianity and, for that matter, also
sharply critical of Israel’s policy with respect to Palestine. Maturity demands from us all
the resilience to consider criticisms objectively and not to recoil from them in anger or
distress. Thus, without apology, I shall raise similar concerns and criticisms in this lecture
and I trust that, those who are hear it, and those who read it later, will recognise that
my motives are entirely constructive. They arise, first of all, from deep appreciation of
Islam and indeed of all mainstream religions and, yet, from an increasing frustration that
we have not yet managed to achieve a real and fruitful dialogue based upon understanding
and truth. A line in a poem by the Welsh priest-poet R S Thomas runs:
heard me preach the gospel of love -
lecture is another attempt to get a debate going that will not only engage our
noticing our neighbour, but also our hearts and heads in critical and honest evaluation of
differences that cause our estrangement for one another.
So, for my central thesis. Our world is in great peril. I am not talking about issues of the environment, or alarming poverty, or the world economy – each of which raises great debates about the future of our tiny planet. I am talking rather about a sharp ideological tension that separates the West from another world, that we call Islamic and yet, as I shall presently show, does not reflect the true values of Islam. Just a week ago I was in New York staying just two blocks away from the former World Trade Centre. It is impossible to visit it without feeling an enormous sense of sadness at that despicable deed. But every American I spoke to was quite certain that given the opportunity other ‘Islamic’ terrorists would wreak the same kind of punishment on the US. The association of Islam with terrorism is an issue that concerns not only Muslims but us all. Equally worrying is uncritical acceptance by so many of Samuel Huntington’s thesis of an inevitable ‘Clash of Civilisations’ between the West and Islam. His essay, first published in 1993 and then in 1997 extended into a book of the same name, argued that the triumph of the market economy and western democracy over communism and totalitarianism would lead into yet a more perilous encounter of two civilisations; the West and Islam. The Huntington thesis divides the world into geographical civilisations – a Judeo-Christian West (roughly North America, Western Europe- with which Australia and New Zealand are also lumped); an Orthodox Eastern Europe; a Confucian Far East – and the Islamic civilisation. Huntington prophesied the coming clash between two quite different worlds. In a memorable phrase he wrote in 1997;
“Islam’s borders are bloody and so are its innards. The fundamental problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilisation whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power”.
The problem with statements
like that- indeed, the most
dangerous aspect- is that they run
the risk of becoming self fulfilling prophecies; that is, if enough people
believe the thesis, a clash becomes more likely. A seriously disturbing feature
of Huntington’s thesis is the assumption that the clash will arise not from
extremists on the margins of Islam but from the very being, the heart of Islam.
Once that assumption is believed then the ineluctable conclusion is reached: no
dialogue is possible; a state of war exists between two quite different
It is my opinion that we
cannot be content with this assumption and we must dig deeper.
Indeed, we must begin with
the ambiguities associated with the title of this lecture. The West and Islam
are not identical terms. The West is a geographical area but it is not
immediately obvious that it represents one common civilisation and cultures-
indeed, vast differences exist between Europe and America, let alone other
countries and cultures that are lumped together conveniently under the broad
category of the ‘West’. Islam, however, is not a geographical area. Although
it may be called a civilisation, it is more than a civilisation; it is
predominantly a religion and by extension, a culture and a civilisation.
Furthermore, just as the ‘West’ is diverse, so also is Islam. Like
Christianity and some other faiths, it too is worldwide. In the last twenty-five years it has grown greatly
in the UK, mainly through immigration and is flourishing throughout the world.
Statistics reveal some interesting facts. In
China, Islam only comprises 1.43% of the population but that yields 15 million
worshippers. It is a surprise to discover that 12% of the population are Muslim.
Indonesia is the largest Muslim country with 125 million adherents or 80% of the
population. However, Islam is not only diverse in extent, it is also diverse in
belief, custom and law. It consists of Sunnis, Shia and other groupings with
four different schools of Islamic law. Islam is therefore a complex family of
one billion worshippers and the vast majority are not terrorists but are
ordinary people who simply wish to live at peace with their neighbours. Like
other faiths Islam makes a significant contribution to the human family and has
a right to be respected and understood.
Fundamentally associated with the concept of a ‘clash of civilisations’ are stereotypes of each other that play mischievous roles in distorting the truth.
Why, we must ask, in the
Muslim mind, is the West associated with decadence and lack of faith? Why,
conversely, in the Western mind, is Islam associated with terrorism?
Dealing with the first, following the destruction of the World Trade Centre, the Financial Times of February 27, 2002, arranged a unique public opinion poll which canvassed 10,000 people in nine Islamic countries – Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Jordan, Morocco, Iran, Kuwait, Turkey and Lebanon, The survey revealed populations deeply at odds with the West in general and the United States in particular. The United States was regarded as ‘ruthless, aggressive, conceited, arrogant, easily provoked and biased in its foreign policy’. The respondents believed that ‘western nations do not respect Arab or Islamic values; do not support Arab causes and do not exhibit fairness towards Arabs’. Although the majority condemned the terrorist attack on September 11, significant minorities rejected the idea that Arabs, specifically Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaida network, carried out the attack. Significant numbers believed that Israel was behind it and was using it as a ploy to blame Arabs. Amazingly, a large number believed that the US engineered 911 for its own ends but none of those canvassed indicated what might have been the US motive for so doing.
As far as the West is
concerned I do not have the fruits of a similar opinion poll to appeal to. What
I do know from personal experience, gathered over many years, are the deep roots
of Islamaphobia. A good number of letters I have received since my Gregorian
lecture reveal a worrying ignorance of Muslim people and suspicion of their
presence in the United Kingdom. It is assumed by many that Muslims wish to take
over ‘our’ country and if we allow them to enter Britain in significant
numbers they will in time make the country Islamic. To dismiss such worries as
nonsense does nothing to remove such fears because they are as firmly grounded
in the minds of many in the West as many Muslims assume that a secular West is
determined ruthlessly to pursue its own interests through globalisation and to
destroy what they see as the true values of their societies by Western culture
Clearly then we are dealing with similar worries, fantasies and fears; clearly we are dealing with racial memories of bitter conflict and unresolved quarrels; clearly we are dealing with the baggage of the past.
And one of the most central prejudices on both sides goes back to a real clash of civilisations which happened in the early medieval period of the Christian era between Europe and the Muslim world – a clash that is called the ‘Crusades’. Muslims remember, and Europeans do not, that the Crusaders came upon the Muslim world like utter barbarians, destroying, looting, raping and terrorising. From the Muslim viewpoint, therefore, the Crusades to this day, are seen as the first black moment in a succession of Western military interventions with only Iran and Saudi-Arabia impervious to such penetration. On the other hand, Europeans remember, but Muslims do not, that, however we may deplore the Crusades today (which I do), the aim was to regain Christian lands taken by Muslim armies centuries earlier and to open up routes for pilgrims to visit holy sites. As Bernard Lewis notes ‘When some religious designation was required both used the same term infidel. By this both Christians and Muslims meant the same thing, differing only in its application’.
What we can conclude from the distasteful history of medieval conflict is that neither side can take the high moral ground because both Islamic and European countries have taken up arms against the other. In my Gregorian lecture I pointed out the threefold military expansion of the Muslim world from the birth of Islam to the 17th century. This experience of Islam is the mirror image of Muslim experience of the Crusades; it has led to an incipient wariness of Islam. Listen to Bernard Lewis again: ‘The thousand-year-long Muslim threat to Europe was twofold, military and religious; the threat of conquest and conversion’
If then there are racial memories of
conflict, strangely we seem to have little memory of another story, far better
and far more glorious – that of cooperation and dialogue. I refer to the
encouraging story of intellectual and academic fraternity during the medieval
period in which Christian, Muslim and Jewish thinkers engaged in scholarly study
and debate, and in remarkable partnerships, shared in the fruits of newly
discovered works of Aristotle. It is good to be reminded that the past has not
been entirely that of hostility and hatred. It is often, I find, a surprise to
western people to discover that Islamic civilisation was the conduit through
which the works of Greek thought entered Europe and thus changed the
intellectual landscape of western thought. However, long before the discovery of
Aristotle’s works which was so determinative for the renaissance and the
Reformation, early Islam was noted for its commitment to scholarship and
learning. As Franz Rosenthal has shown, during the period designated the dark
ages in western Europe, Islamic civilisation was rich and vast and able to draw
on a great wealth of resources from its encounter with the east as well as the
Long before the west, Muslim countries had imported paper from China and the
acceptance of positional numbering and the zero from India, which paved the way
for a great expansion of literary and scientific renaissance. Al-Kindi, the 9th century founder of Muslim philosophy acknowledged his debt to Greek
thought but there can be no gainsaying the domination of Arab philosophy for the
next three centuries with scholars like Al-Farabi, the brilliant Persian Ibn
Sina (Avicenna) and, surely, the most able of them all, Ibn Rushd, known to the
west as Averroës, whose translations of Aristotle were to influence the thought
of two other scholars, the famous and brilliant Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides
and the equally well-known and brilliant Christian scholar Thomas Aquinas.
Why is it then, we may wonder, that from this period on, Muslim scholarship began to fade away and European learning and scholarship began to flower and eventually dominate the world, whilst Muslim learning never fulfilled the promise so brilliantly outlined in such scholars as Averroës? Whilst the expulsion of Moors from Spain obviously affected the course of history, that alone cannot explain the demise of Muslim scholarship. The answer has to be sought in the political and cultural environment in which learning is set and the freedom from restraint that scholarship needs to fulfil its destiny. To be sure, Christian scholars did not find this freedom either in the short term; restrictions placed by the Church authorities on claims that might undermine tradition or biblical authority, backed by the Inquisition and the might of Rome, were enough to deter the stoutest hearts. Even Galileo had to succumb to the threats of the inquisition. But as Richard Tarnas states in The Passion of the Western Mind ‘Aristotelian attitudes were to transform drastically the nature and direction of European thought’.
The soil however in which it could blossom and flourish was freedom in which reason could do its work undeterred by the restraints of authority. It is no accident therefore that Western reformation, although principally a Christian protest against authority, with its two wings of Reformation and counter-Reformation, became the catalyst of a revolution which is continuing to this day. Again, it is no accident that as far as European and Western research and scholarship are concerned it was on Protestant soil that the fruits of Aristotelian scholarship first began to emerge in what was to be called in time science and technology. Reason had to be separated from authority and ideology in whatever shape or form it came. We should not conclude from this that reason and faith are incompatible; indeed, few of those pioneers would have agreed. They would have put it a different way; that the study of ideas and scholarship of any kind has to be unencumbered of constraints of all kinds it is to change what we know.
The challenge to Muslim countries, it
seems to me, is to create environments where learning – religious and
theological, scientific, artistic and literary -
can flower unrestricted and be open to women as well as to men. In his
book Wealth and Poverty of Nations, David Landes makes the point that
intellectual segregation is the chief burden of religious fundamentalism,
producing what he calls ‘technological lag’.
Protests may be expressed that this is not so, but the point I stress is
that such thinker like Landes believe the roots of such impoverishment is not
the intellectual ability of Muslim people - of which there is no doubt - as much
as a reluctance in Muslim countries to allow more elasticity between doctrine
Let me now take my argument forward in considering some of the roots of estrangement between Islam and the West.
In order to be as objective and as
straightforward as possible we need to pay attention to grievances from both
sides that need to be aired and made part and parcel of candid debates between
Muslim, Christian and other thinkers.
First, from the Muslim side there is great
resentment and anger at what is seen as the hypocrisy and deceit of the West in
its opposition to Arab and Muslim cultures and religion. My Gregorian lecture
received some criticism from my association of Christian and western values. A
number of my respondents dwelt at some length on the decadence of western
society and concluded that if this is the effect of freedom that Christianity
ushered it, so much the worse for Christianity and the West. However, my lecture
never made that connection - the values I was talking about were values that
overlap with religious values in other faith traditions, including Islamic
values - truth, justice, honour, love of one’s neighbour, duty, honesty,
service, devotion to God and so on. There can be little question that such
values, shaped by the gospel of Jesus Christ, were at the heart of this nation
for hundreds of years. Christians regret deeply that the decline in religious
observance has left many of our fellow citizens bereft of a code that can stop
the ‘drip, drip, drip’ of cynicism, hedonism and selfishness that goes with
rampant materialism. As Dr Abdullah Robin wrote to me in an open letter
‘uncertainty and doubt are the post-modern virtues of western culture and
there is no moral compass than that’. I largely agree with that although, as
in my last lecture, I would want to defend Western values and suggest that
adherents of other faiths should take into account that the vast majority of
western people, whether religious or not, have honourable ideals and seek to
live good lives. As someone who visits America regularly, I have a high regard
for American people. In certain respects America is more deeply Christian than
Britain. They may well fall short of the entire ethical standards of
Christianity as other Christians do, but of their desire to build stable
communities and to live at peace with others, there can be little doubt. Neither
should we overlook the great contribution America makes to development in all
parts of the world. However, it still remains true that the West needs to be
reminded that affluence and materialism are in their own ways as great dangers
to the human spirit as are dire poverty and lack of basic goods. I suggest that
here is a substantial challenge that Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Christians and
people of other faiths may respond to together by showing that there are abiding
values that transcend us all.
A second grievance from the Muslim side
that greeted my Gregorian lecture was my identification of democracy with
freedom of belief and human rights. I said: Democracy will be increasingly a
major challenge as more Muslim youth are educated and demand a say in the
running of their countries. Why the glaring absence of democratic governments in
Muslim lands, particularly in the Middle East, we might wonder? It is said that
modern Muslim experience suggests that Islam and democracy are incompatible. I
see no fundamental reason why this should be so’.
But let us look more thoughtfully at the
issue of democracy and the values that this form of polity safeguards. I believe
it was Winston Churchill who said of democracy that ‘it was the worst system
of government except for all the others’. Indeed, Churchill’s earthy and
honest appraisal of democracy recognises that it too can be subverted and
distorted as Nazi Germany illustrates in its most appalling of forms. There in
Germany, one of the most advanced nations in the world, Hitler, democratically
elected to govern, then destroyed it from within to permit injustice and evil to
reign. So, if I or others, am going
to promote democracy where true values might flourish, and proper learning and
science are maintained, I must argue why it is inalienably in this soil that
they grow. Why should I blame the failure of Muslim countries on the lack of
democracy when the evidence seems that western governments, though
democratically elected, do not often appear accountable to the electorate?
The answer to such questions are bound up
in our understanding of democracy and to the distinction that Ronald Dworkin,
one of America’s most prominent philosophers and jurists, had drawn between
‘majoritarian’ and ‘egalitarian’ democracy.
Majoritarian democracy, he describes as the ‘tyranny of the majority’.
It is that form of government that makes decision by arithmetrical
procedure. We may, for example, decide that a motorway should be put through a
valley of outstanding beauty because the majority demands it. Such a philosophy,
comments Dworkin, may deny the equality of all citizens, even if they are in a
minority, before the law. ‘Egalitarian’ democracy, on the other hand,
recognises the equality of all citizens and enshrines their rights in codes or
constitutions to protect minorities from violation by majorities. To be sure, a
minority cannot hold the rest to ransom simply because it is a minority with
rights. There are sometimes issues that defy simple solution and require a
careful balancing of interests to secure the best possible outcome. In such
disputed cases, the inalienable rights of individuals have to be weighted
against the needs of society generally and other factors that come into the
equation. However, the bottom line should always been values and principles that
are the bedrock of a good society. As Pope John Paul II stated in 1991 ‘A
democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised
It follows from this that how a society treats its minorities is a gauge
of its claim to be a fair and just society. Although it is my feeling that our
society treats religious minorities reasonably well, in allowing freedom for
worship and allowing the same rights as for all religious groups, perhaps we
should pay more attention to the needs of Muslim communities who do feel that
they are at times victimised and suffer unreasonably high levels of unemployment
and lack of opportunity which may lead to alienated young people. Simply put,
the claim to have democratic rights by itself does not solve the problems that
come the way of minorities. Nonetheless,
it is my clear conviction that democracy, for all its faults, is the best system
of government for safeguarding human rights and securing education, health care
and social provisions for all. It remains my hope that more and more Muslim
societies will in days embrace this form of political life and, of course,
include women in the electoral franchise. Nevertheless, it remains true that
Western critique of Muslim societies for being too closed and too authoritarian
should be balanced by Muslim criticism of western systems of government that, by
putting such a premium on individual freedom and rights, individual
responsibilities and corporate moral principles that make for healthy community
living may be undermined. We need to pay more careful attention to each other
and I, for one, do not rule out the possibility that Muslim experience of
democracy in days to come will influence western forms.
A third grievance, that I pointed out in my previous lecture, has to do with the unfairness of western governments in their treatment of Arab nations. From a Muslim point of view America’s uncritical support of Israel is at the heart of their anger of the West. Although this is a lecture sponsored by a leading Jew I have to say, with sadness, that the policy of the present government in Israel towards Palestine is indefensible and America’s bias in favour of Israel outrages millions of people throughout the world. I say this as someone who firmly believes in the right of Israel to exist, to live at peace, and to have safe and secure borders. Christians honour a legacy of faith derived from Judaism and must stand shoulder to shoulder with them in resisting anti-Semitism. Israel has done an extraordinary job in rejuvenating the land and becoming in fifty short years a powerful nation in spite of modest numbers. But the last fifty years has not been kind to another great people in the same land and neighbourhood. The Palestinian people have become a humiliated and downtrodden people; ignored and despised. They see the ease with which certain United Nations Resolutions have been used by powerful western nations and how others have been ignored. It seems to them that ‘might is right’ after all. From fifty years of unfulfilled hopes and rejected rights an ungovernable anger has arisen which is central to our present crisis. Let us make no mistake about it, the plight of the Palestinian people is the emotional epicentre of our current troubles and healing this deep wound will go a substantial way to creating a more peaceful world.
I need to add to this grievance deep
disquiet concerning America’s policy in Iraq. Many of us do not share
President Bush’s confidence that in a short while Iraq will be a stable nation
and the world a better place. In the short term it has made the world a more
dangerous place. It is little wonder that fifty former diplomats on both sides
of the Atlantic have expressed their opposition to current policies openly. Such
unprecedented public action by distinguished public servants, trained to be
discreet and deeply loyal to their governments, reveals the deep anxiety that
exists among those whose knowledge of the Middle East and the issues involved
are unrivalled. Let me add to that the sense of outrage felt by so many at the
shocking abuse of prisoners by soldiers in Iraq. War of course is a messy
business which enmeshes civilians in its terrible embrace and brutalises all who
takes up arms but there can be no excuse for humiliating and abusing others.
Let me now turn to grievances on the other side that fuel misunderstanding. Although there are many people such as myself who agree with Samuel Huntington’s description of the West as ‘duplicitous’, we are equally scandalised by actions and statements by Muslims that cause damage and create misunderstanding. Although most are agreed that despair, poverty, illiteracy and anger feed terrorism and should be eliminated by justice and fairness, nothing justifies the merciless and indiscriminate actions of suicide bombers. In the Alexandrian Declaration signed in January 2002 by Muslim, Jewish and Christian faith leaders which I had the honour of chairing with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar we stated that ‘ killing innocents in the name of God is a desecration of his Holy Name and defames religion in the world’. I remain unapologetic about appealing to Muslim leaders to condemn outright such actions and to go on condemning. I am glad that immediately following my last speech British Muslims did condemn such acts unconditionally. In actual fact I did not have British Muslims in mind, although I am delighted in their unswerving declaration. My primary focus was on Middle Eastern religious leaders where statements are much more ambiguous and diluted and where unconstrained hatred of Israel is often expressed. Let me press this point more firmly. Religious teachers have a responsibility to attack the theological roots of such a terrible dogma. If Islamic leaders give support to a theology that suicide bombers are in actual fact ‘martyrs’, this not only lends strong theological endorsement to such military tactics but also discredits Islam world-wide.
A second grievance stems from a sense of
injustice from non-Muslims who feel second-class citizens in Muslim countries. I
referred to this in my last speech and have had many letters from Christians
whose experience in Islamic countries has been that of victimisation and lack of
freedom of worship. Let me read from just one letter from a person who, sadly,
will not allow his name to be revealed because he fears reprisals. ‘I have had
first hand experience of the pressures under which Christian converts from Islam
labour.. and in all cases they suffer under such disabilities that they are
obliged either to conceal their change of religion or else live in a non-Muslim
country. If they remain (in my country of origin) and are known as apostates
from Islam, they face a lifetime of persecution and harassment’. That letter
is far from being uncommon. I need to say with firmness but with gentleness that
human rights, quite properly claimed by Muslims and others in the west, requires
the same right to be accorded to minorities in Muslim lands. I specifically
referred to Saudi-Arabia in my last address and asked for freedom for other
faiths to worship publicly in the Kingdom. A prominent Saudi replied to say that
‘those who live in the Kingdom are allowed to practice their religion and
worship in their private homes’. Cannot Muslims see that this is insufficient?
Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and other faiths are not private religions only
– they are faiths which, as much as Islam, need public expression and anything
that denies this is an affront to these faiths and a blow to human rights. The
fact remains that Christians do worship in Saudi-Arabia, but behind closed
doors. If found out worshippers can be, and have been, prosecuted and punished.
I urge Saudi-Arabia to think again and allow other faiths freedom to their
adherents to gather for worship.
So, these are some of the grievances felt
by both sides of this debate and clearly are the ingredients of a deepening
dialogue and debate. How are we to pursue it and with what tools?
First, I believe we should draw upon insights from our scriptures and cultures, laced with respect and understanding. I have recently read Jacques Dupuis’s wonderful book Christianity and The Religions. In it he challenges Christians to discover in the Bible those elements that make a strong case for inclusion and not separation. He shows how the Hebrew scriptures, followed by the New Testament, outline God’s compassion and love for those who appear to be outside the community of faith. He studies such concepts as ‘logos’ and ‘wisdom’, together with many passages of the Christian bible that lead to a broader interpretation than most Christians and Churches have usually given. Standing firmly within the Catholic tradition, Dupuis shows how it is possible to be orthodox in doctrine and yet receive other truths and insights from faiths, other than our own. I suggest that this presents a challenge for us all to embark upon a dialogue that seeks to find support from within our own teachings for the inclusion of others. Recognising that each of us may well maintain that truth is primarily to be found in ‘my’ religion, may we draw insights from our own faith that lend support for inclusion rather than exclusion? Does my faith say anything positive about other faiths? For myself I have often been drawn to Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s dictum that ‘for Christians God is defined by Jesus Christ, but not confined to Jesus Christ’. To use a Christian term; does ‘grace’ exist outside my faith-tradition? Without compromising our own commitment, is it possible for Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and members of other faiths to endorse this from different perspectives? For example, in the Holy Q’ran, Surah 5,8 it is written:
Nearest to you in love wilt thou find
those who say ‘We are Christians’ because amongst these are men devoted to
learning and they are not ignorant’. That appears to express a generosity of
spirit that invites closer dialogue and understanding.
Let me return to the awful prospect of a
‘clash of civilisations’. We may well dismiss the idea as absurd in practice
and abhorrent as an idea. But we cannot be complacent. The disturbing sequel of
terrorist attacks since September 11, 2001, has resulted in a climate of
paranoia that could, if not addressed, be
a worrying precursor of conflict. There is an urgent need to tear down the walls
of separation and the myths that give rise to conflict. No one single culture or
civilisation is superior to another; it is time for more humility and not a
little listening to one another’s story and journey. Britain has a heartening
story of inter-faith co-operation but there is still much to do. The fact that
two British Muslims left our shores to become suicide bombers in Israel shames
us all, and is a warning that even in open, tolerant societies there lurks
darker regions of hatred that must be tackled.
My final word is to recognise the context tonight in which I am giving this lecture. I have acknowledged Sir Sigmund Sternberg’s outstanding contribution to our nation. He came to the United Kingdom before the last world war as a refugee and, although a remarkable example, is an illustration of what others have brought to our country and will continue to bring.
Here in Leicester you offer a corporate example of what faiths may contribute to a largely Western and Christian culture and the possibility of reshaping it from within, through friendship, understanding and dialogue. Your experience is a heartening model of how we may develop leadership at community level that provides nourishment to counter the forces that lead to violence and extremism. If religions are to play the role we believe they are entitled to from the resources and values deeply embedded in their traditions, then they must, as a matter of urgency open up new channels between estranged communities and particularly with those individuals who are beyond diplomacy and argument at the present moment. I return to the point I made at the beginning of this lecture- we live in perilous times and each one of us has a role to play in creating conditions that lead to peace. There is a Canadian saying ‘No one snowflake thinks it is responsible for the avalanche’. However, each individual is significant because, combined, we have the potential to make a difference. We too, where we are, must move beyond talk of tolerance to take practical steps to engage those who cannot tolerate tolerance, those who use religion for evil ends, and those who harm the good name of Islam or any faith.
May God give us the vision to refute the
despairing lines of Matthew Arnold who wrote of being caught ‘between two
worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born’.
We are not powerless – together, we can
bring to birth a world of which we can all be proud and where Roosevelt’s four
‘freedoms’ become a reality everywhere: ‘freedom of speech, freedom of
religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear’.
 Bernard Lewis. ‘Cultures in conflict’.OUP 1995. See also A History of Europe by J.M.Roberts. Helicon 1996: ‘Islam, from the start, was a religion of conquest’, p.96
 Op.cit, p.68
 Franz Rosenthal, Classical Heritage in Islam, Berkeley, 1975
 See, Richard E Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children,Harcourt, 2003
 This too happened to Averroës also who was accused of heresy by Muslim peers and banished for a time.
 R.Tarnas,The Passion of the Western Mind,Ballantyne Books, New York, 1991, p.47
 See J.M.Roberts A History of Europe,p.190 ff
 David Landes, Weath and Poverty of Nations,1998
 R.Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously, 1978
 Centesimus Annus’,46
 Jacques Dupuis, Christianity and the Religions, Darton, Longman and Todd,2001
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