24th May 2016 – Contribution by Lord Waverley
My Lords, all forms of extremist behaviour are to be deplored. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, who is not in his place, was absolutely right to draw attention to the challenges of defining extremism. However, when he went on to refer to the need to defend the freedom to speak fearlessly, I say to him with respect but concern that that should surely be only within the parameters established by law. I hesitate to say this out of sensitivity to the French, but I think that lessons need to be learnt from Paris.
I sense that Islam, together with Judaism, is a victim of unawareness in large parts of the United Kingdom, sometimes bordering on ignorance. This is unhelpful. The British people have a reputation for fair-mindedness, so I have little doubt that the right explanations of background and facts will assist greatly the passage of the counter extremism and safeguarding Bill. There is a clear role for clerics.
I was delighted that the Pope, after five years of disagreement, yesterday met the senior imam from the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, who represents the highest authority in Sunni Islam. It should be remembered that extremism does not begin and end at national borders. It is a practical reality that politics and religion are part and parcel of national governance and politics on the international stage. Those policies inevitably affect us in this country and region. There is an undoubted role, therefore, for state actors to recognise their contribution by advocating and implementing moderate, inclusive policies. This would assist enormously in creating an environment of tolerance that would defuse religious tension and, by extension, extremism—and, equally importantly, perceptions.
Living in Portugal and travelling often to the neighbouring countries of Spain and Morocco, I am constantly reminded of a golden age of Iberia where in Spain and Portugal Islam was pre-eminent over many centuries, and remains so in Morocco. Learning about the history and perspectives of Sunni and Shia Islamic sects, for example, and the advance of Islam along the north African coast from Damascus, is always helpful and assists in marshalling one’s thinking as to why differences exist and how best to engage across Israel and the Arab and wider Islamic world.
I was grateful, therefore, to the Minister responsible for Islamic affairs in Rabat for agreeing to my request at short notice last week to visit the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, Morchidins and Morchidats in order to meet the director-general and the vice-president of the al-Quaraouiyine University in Fes, one of the leading spiritual and educational centres in the Muslim world. The institute is a unifying school of jurisprudence formed by His Majesty the King to counter terrorism and offer spiritual guidance to imams and women. Among many matters we touched on, their explanations of differing interpretations of jihad and their thoughts on segregation were edifying, and particularly applicable when referring to returning jihadists, as “jihad” has differing connotations in the Islamic world. To the less radical, it is the cleansing of one’s soul.
Thirty-eight imams have already been sent from France to the institute, and I also met two anglophone imams from Nigeria. They vouched for the spiritual learnings of the institute. There are examples of signed agreements with Mali, Libya, Tunisia and many others, and, more latterly, with France, with the support of the union of French mosques in agreement with the French state. The Minister might wish to explore with British imams whether there is a role for the institute, as I sense that its teachings may well resonate with mainstream Islamic thinking in this country. This would help the Government in many of their aims.
This Government have the opportunity to show the world how religion, politics and civil society can have increased relevance in a modern world, but that tolerance and respect must prevail. Ordaining this in isolation is not the answer; the Government need to take great care not to be drawn into contentious turf wars.
Link to full contribution: http://bit.ly/2wgrg4q