Review of the Westminster Faith Debate: Religious identity in ‘superdiverse’ societies

This is a guest post from regular site contributor, Graham Goldsmith, who attended the First Westminster Faith Debate at Whitehall on 8th February.  You can watch the video of the debate at the end of this post:

I was recently privileged to attend the first in a series of six debates arranged by the Religion and Society Research Programme and Christian think tank, Theos.  The debate was entitled Religious identity in ”Superdiverse” societies and was chaired by Linda Woodward and the Rt Hon Charles Clarke M.P.

Research was presented by Kim Knott Professor of religious and secular studies from the University of Lancaster and Dr Therese O’Toole senior lecturer in sociology from the University of Bristol.  Responding was the Attorney General Dominic Grieve and Trevor Phillips Chairman of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.

The debate presented the issue from the cultural backdrop of 60 years of inward migration bringing with it unprecedented religious and ethnic diversity to assimilate with the host culture.  The biggest tension has been the Rise of Islam and the fear of terrorism. Certain dramatic events have highlighted polarising differences, such as the Salman Rushdie affair, riots in the northern towns of Burnley, Oldham and Bradford in 2001 and the 7/7 London bomb attacks.

Religious expression has often suffered from a ‘them and us’ mentality and this issue is only increasing with the added ingredients of a more politicised Secularism and the rise of the far right in many parts of Europe

The central questions were:

  • How well are we coping with integration, what are the obstacles to it and where do they come from?
  • What role should the government be playing in the integration process and have they proved a help or hindrance in the past?
  • What do we mean by integration or multiculturalism and what is distinctive about religion in all of this?

The available research  recognised how important religious identity is and how deeply it is felt, but also that increasingly belief is something changing, not fixed and for many incorporating elements of different faiths and creeds.  Minority religions or those under threat tended to be clearer in their beliefs and more assertive.

Kim Knott in her submission pointed to local studies which showed that there is a lot of good will and integration within communities between different religions. There are of course some groups who withdraw from the wider community  but the ”clash of civilisations” is not at all the norm in the U.K. We are considered to be well ahead of the European curve on this issue and have done much more than anyone else in the promotion of interfaith dialogue. Underpinning this is an anxiety around both religious extremism and national identity but also an awareness that we are multicultural and need to live peaceably together, that we cannot do this by a one set of ”British values suit all” approach. We need to recognise difference rather than create a homogenous mould.

The idea around ‘superdiversity’ is that we are bound by something other than just our religious identity; this may include race, class, gender or sexuality, and it recognises that we are complex, multifaceted and that we all share a common humanity. Despite the challenges, this should be a cause of optimism for the future and something that we can build on.

Therese O’ Toole presented her research around the role of Government in this process. David Cameron in his recent King James Bible speech highlighted the important role that faith communities play in the nation particularly in relation to the Big Society initiative.  On the surface this seems quite distinct from the New Labour ”We don’t do God” approach.  The Religion and Society programme however, which Therese directs, is aimed at engaging with Muslim communites and was fully supported by the last Labour Government. Faith leaders were encouraged to deliver social cohesion after the Cantile Report in 2001 pointed to religion being a major cause of social division.

There was a feeling during the debate that though the Government finds faith groups useful in furthering its social agenda , it does not really seek to understand them in any depth.

The coalition Government has put forward two policy initiatives; ”Prevent 2” and ”Near Neighbours”.  Prevent 1 was initiated under the previous Government’s counter terrorism strategy to identify those involved in violent extremism but was criticised for stigmatising the Muslim community as a whole.  This work now continues under ”Prevent 2” but contains another strand that encourages civil engagement in local communities.  The East London Mosque at tower hamlets for example has a very active role in community and voluntary work and is part of a very rich, mature and emerging Muslim approach to civic society.  The idea is that through engagement will come moderation but the efficacy of reducing extremism by these means remains to be seen. Can we reach the hard core of Islamists in this way?

Near Neighbours is a Big Society initiative aimed at providing grants to interfaith and non-faith groups for projects that bring faith groups together so that communities can generate their own solutions. True to David Cameron’s claim of the centrality of Christianity, he has charged the Church of England with administering this programme because the Church of England has both the infrastructure and a rich history of interfaith work.  The question remains whether the Church can carry off the role of broker to the satisfaction of multiple faiths and whether the coalition government shows a deeper understanding of the needs of various religions.

Dominic Grieve in an optimistic response said a lot of positive things about the Church; that it is more than able to bring together diverse peoples, that in the main it was a force for good and that the Government needed to understand faith based motivations beyond good neighbourliness and good works.  He supported any initiative that would create a benign environment in which improved relationships and understanding between faiths could grow, that social cohesion and tolerance could be achieved through the ”funds” of ability that each particular group possessed.

Trevor Phillips felt that we could learn to live together graciously and accept one another’s differences, but added that laws on discrimination needed to be upheld.  He recognised that there has been some conflict of rights but felt that religious people have not been particularly disadvantaged.  In his opinion, we should concentrate more on who is worse off rather than concentrate too much on religious rights which he felt could open the way for Sharia law. In working out an agreement for the future we need to maintain core values.

In conclusion, I found the debate very interesting and I wholeheartedly support all those initiatives that help to bring people together in love and understanding. The Government clearly values what the Church has to offer in practical terms on the ground and very much espouses the Christian ethic.

Of all the speakers, I found Trevor Phillips to be the most challenging. As a person with a strong Christian identity I found it a bit concerning that the Equality & Human rights Commissioner admitted that faith revelation (I take this as the Bible, Koran, etc.) was not his particular interest and could not attach equal weight to discrimination on the grounds of the expression of faith as other forms of discrimination.  He was rightly indignant of racism in the same way that I would be indignant about religious prejudice.  I found it astonishing that he believes nobody has been disadvantaged by religious prejudice.  I wonder if most Muslims post 9/11 and those Christians who have been sacked, suspended or disciplined in the workplace in recent times would agree with his viewpoint.  I doubt it.

My concern about ‘superdiversity’ is that it seems to want lop off the contentious bits about faith; those aspects which they feel may jeopardise the agenda. (Trevor Phillips actually said that certain faith expressions should remain behind the church door.).  If in so doing Christian practise is limited or marginalised or our identity is lost to a kind of state manipulated Christianity, then it would not be a price worth paying.

The way forward is to respect difference without denying what we are ,for me the only way forward is to allow one another more space, so that all people get access to services but where we also leave room for conscientious objection via the principle of ”Reasonable accommodation” as exists already in the Abortion act of 1967 and value the ”agree to differ” principle.  Organisations such as Christian Concern who put this forward as a solution are often accused of just ”wanting their own way” but if we are to avoid inequality and a hierarchy of rights whereby religious identity is inferior to sexual or racial identity we need to offer this as the only practicable way forward. The Government should facilitate this space rather than choose sides or force changes in religious attitudes by using the law.

Categories: Church, Faith in society, Parliament

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