Sayeeda Warsi Ebor Lecture 2012
Thank you very much for inviting me.
Giving the Ebor Lecture is very significant for me.
Not only because I’m Yorkshire born and bred.
But because I have spent my governmental career arguing on your very theme:
The growing need for faith to interact with public issues in today’s society.
It started with a speech in 2010 when I declared that our government would make a clean break with the past administration and would ‘do God’.
Since then many have pointed out that, as a Cabinet Minister without Portfolio, I have assigned myself the portfolio of faith…
Even His Holiness Pope Benedict referred to me during his 2010 UK visit as the Minister for God!
Exactly one month ago today I led our country’s reciprocal visit to the Vatican.
It was our largest ever ministerial delegation to the Holy See.
As I walked through a sun-drenched St Peter’s Square with the Archbishop of Westminster it was a very special moment.
Knowing that he a Catholic, me a Muslim, and many of my colleagues were united in a common aim:
To demonstrate the importance of faith and the important links between our respective beliefs.
When I then spoke at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy there I wanted to make one simple point:
That Europe needs to feel stronger and more confident in its Christianity.
That you simply cannot erase Christianity from our heritage any more than you can erase the spires from our landscapes.
And that this firm basis creates a space for people of minority faiths.
I wanted that point to ring out beyond the Vatican walls.
To be heard far away where states were repressing religion.
To be heard closer to home where secularism was squeezing out faith…
…perpetuated both by the well-intentioned who want to create a level playing field for all beliefs by diminishing faith…
…and by those ideologically opposed to faith altogether.
In the month since I made that argument, it has started quite an interesting debate.
With Her Majesty the Queen expressing similar thoughts the following day in her speech at Lambeth Palace…
With atheist Richard Dawkins, during a Radio 4 interview, invoking the Almighty when he tried to dismiss faith…
With the backlash against councils attempting to ban prayers…
And, finally, when I was travelling back from a Conservative Social Action project in Bosnia…
…and ended up on a plane with Alastair Campbell – the very Labour spin doctor who famously declared that the last government did not ‘do God’.
It may have seemed like fate…
But instead of confronting Mr Campbell I decided I would continue to tackle militant, intolerant secularism in more public forums, such as this.
So today I intend to look back over the last month, at the reaction to the speech I made.
At those who hit back and said faith was irrelevant.
At those who said Britain and Europe are not Christian.
At those who said faith is not under attack.
And at those who said faith should not have a seat at the table in public life.
RELEVANCE OF FAITH
First, there were many who said I shouldn’t have even been talking about faith at all.
That faith is irrelevant to today’s society.
That I was backing the wrong horse.
But look at all the responses I’ve had – my biggest postbag on any issue.
Thanking me for ‘standing up for God’.
For being a Muslim willing to defend Christians.
For putting faith on the agenda in the face of much opposition.
Look at the fact that it remained on the news agenda for weeks – from the USA to the Indian subcontinent to North Africa.
It kept the commentariat busy and it continues to do so.
Even those hell-bent on dismissing the relevance of faith demonstrated the hunger there is for discussion of the issues through the sheer number of column inches they racked up.
One interesting strand of criticism was from those who said faith was outdated, outmoded and obsolete.
And that nearly 80 per cent of people in Britain who claimed to have a faith in the last Census, including the 72 per cent who said they were Christian, were wrong.
They said that many people who say they are Christians don’t go to church.
A study was even rolled out by our friend Richard Dawkins claiming that half the people who claim to be Christian don’t read the Bible.
But faith isn’t necessarily measured in Church attendance or Bible study.
You cannot quantify what the Holy Father described as ‘the ultimate mystery…the transcendent truth’.
Or measure a person’s connection with their faith or their God.
You can, however, see the expression of faith in public life.
The Bible and the Koran, and I have often quoted both, say that the expression of faith is in public works.
I see the evidence of this every day in the UK.
In the giving of charity.
In the thousands of faith based charities.
In the faith schools that are outperforming their rivals.
In the way that faith has driven great acts of human kindness and has changed history.
And deeper than that, in the solace offered by religion.
One letter I received after the Vatican visit was from a person in Croydon, who, despite the social unrest, the turmoil on their estate, found a refuge in a place that has stood there for centuries:
Their local church.
Second, there were those who took issue with my claim that Britain was a Christian country and Europe a Christian continent.
This was a central plank of my argument last month.
The argument that a millennium and a half of the teachings of Jesus have permeated every corner of society.
Shining through our politics, our public life, our culture, our economics, our language and our architecture.
I said that you cannot erase these Christian foundations from the evolution of our nations any more than you can erase the spires from our landscapes.
Or extract it from our values.
Like loving our neighbours…
Acting as the Good Samaritan would…
And doing to others as we would be done by.
Now of course I didn’t mean that you have to be a Christian, or indeed a believer, to do any of these things.
But they are concepts ingrained in our nations through centuries’ presence of Christianity.
Look at the influence of the Bible.
As the Prime Minister argued in his speech last year, this Holy Book, the King James edition in particular, has bequeathed a body of language that permeates every aspect of our culture and heritage.
Shaping our political system and giving us the values which define our country.
Like responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities.
Values which are needed now more than ever.
FAITH UNDER ATTACK
Third, there were those who said faith was not under attack in the UK, in Europe or further afield.
I see it different. In the UK, in words of the Archbishop of Canterbury, faith is looked down on as the hobby of ‘oddities, foreigners and minorities’.
Religion is dismissed as an eccentricity because it’s infused with tradition.
This is a view put forward by the well-intentioned liberal elite.
Who think that by marginalising faith in society they are creating a space for all faiths.
These people think that I, as a Muslim, would feel more welcome in society if there were no religious symbols, no Established Church.
But they are wrong.
Take my own example in my current role as a British peer.
I am proud to sit alongside Church of England Bishops in the House of Lords.
I’m confident to find myself in the voting lobbies with my Catholic colleagues on issues of conscience.
And I like the variety of debate we have in the Upper House with representation from different faiths.
Indeed, as one elderly correspondent wrote to me following my Vatican visit, she has been given the most help on her bus journey to her church every day by her Muslim and Jewish neighbours because they understood the journey she was making.
But there is a second type of less well-intentioned person perpetrating what I term intolerant secularism:
The anti-religionists, the faith deniers.
Who make a religion out of criticising religion.
Particularly telling was the reaction to the author Alain De Botton who was pilloried for writing a book entitled ‘Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion’ on the unexplored merits of faith for those who don’t have a faith.
It reveals the extent to which this type of closed-minded secularism has taken hold.
There are examples of intolerant secularism across Europe.
First we had no mention of Christianity in the preface of the European Constitution.
Then we had countries banning the wearing of religious symbols in government buildings.
Others banned the building of certain places of worship.
Some refused to fund faith schools.
And now one is writing into its constitution which religions the state will and will not recognise, leaving certain denominations out in the cold.
Further afield religions throughout the wider world, as we know too well, are being persecuted, repressed, silenced and censored.
For me, any such repression stems from insecurity.
Because just as the bully bullies because he or she is insecure…
…so too the state suppresses, marginalises, dictates and dismisses…
…when it feels its identity is at stake.
As I said at the Vatican, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularism is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant.
It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity and failing to understand the relationship between religious loyalty and loyalty to the state.
That’s why in the 20th Century, one of the first acts of totalitarian regimes was the targeting of organised religion.
Why? Because, to them, a religious identity struck at the heart of their totalitarian ideology.
In a free market of ideas, they knew their ideology was weak.
And with the strength of religions, established over many years, followed by
…their totalitarian regimes would be jeopardised.
FAITH AT THE TABLE
Fourth, there are many people who said that faith in society is tantamount to theocracy.
But what I am calling for is simply for faith to have a seat at the table in public life.
Not the only seat, not a privileged position, but that of an informer of our public debate.
So we are not afraid to acknowledge when the debate derives from a religious basis.
So that we are as confident in taking onboard – and taking on – the solutions offered up by religion as we are in rejecting them.
As I have said, it is the predominance of Christianity in Britain which I believe has created the space for minority faiths.
I have reached this view partly through personal experience.
For growing up in a country where religion is such a fundamental part of society made me feel free to practice my own faith.
I felt that I could be both British and Muslim, and it was the Established Church in this country which reassured me of my identity.
My father explained this very well.
Telling me to see my religious identity, my faith, as a river that changes its appearance according to the bed on which it flows.
The river reflecting the colour and the texture of the bed.
Like the river, my faith reflects the nation I belong to.
So what made me feel even more confident as a British Muslim…
What truly enabled me to learn about my faith and to practice it…
Was that my country – the bed over which the river of my faith flowed – had a strong Christian identity.
This defined, shaped and gave me confidence in my own faith…
Which, combined with the confidence of my country’s principles and values…
Made me feel free to believe, free to practice, and free to be me.
So strongly have I felt this was the case, that I have chosen not an Islamic school for my daughter, nor a secular school…
…but an Anglican convent school.
Where faith was not looked down on or denied or repressed.
Where she found her faith strengthened…
…even adopting the Lord’s Prayer as her own by simply substituting the word ‘Amen’ with ‘Ameen’.
I am not a theologian and I am not a historian; I am a politician.
And as a politician of strong personal faith…
Hailing from a country which has its heritage rooted in another faith…
Co-chairing a political party whose history is entwined with Christianity…
Representing a government which has declared its commitment to our Established Church…
I am proud to stand up and to make a stand in the name of faith.
I have had the privilege of speaking on this subject at home and abroad.
And more than anything I am heartened by the appetite there is to engage in the debate.
And yes, of course there are some who doubt that faith is under threat, just because they haven’t seen it.
There are some who doubt faith’s importance in society, just because they haven’t felt it.
There are some who doubt that religion is a guarantor for religious freedom, just because this theory is counter-intuitive.
To those Doubting Thomases I say this:
Whether you have any faith or none, you should take a step back and look at how important faith has been in the past, how important faith is today and the important role it can play in our society’s future.
Thank you very much for listening.