Speech to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation Summit in Cairo
Baroness Warsi with His Holiness Pope Tawadros II
Your Majesties, your excellencies, it is a pleasure to speak at this OIC Heads of State meeting – and a privilege that I’m the first British Government Minister to do so.
I am delighted to be here in Egypt, which among many other things is the home of Al Azhar, the ‘Manaratul ‘Ilm’ for many Muslims across the world. I was deeply honoured to have met his Eminence the Shaykh Al Azhar yesterday and His Holiness Pope Tawadros II today.
The invitation to speak here is a clear demonstration of the strengthening bonds between the OIC and the UK. I am grateful to our hosts, Egypt, who have of course taken over the OIC’s presidency this year.
I said at the meeting of OIC Foreign Ministers in Kazakhstan in 2011 that we in Britain are deeply committed to building our relationships with the Muslim world.
I am particularly pleased that we were able to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the OIC at the UN General Assembly in September.
This would not have been possible without the tireless efforts of His Excellency Secretary-General Ihsanoglu – whom I am sure you will agree has steered the OIC towards being a relevant and important player on international issues, and whom I personally consider to be a friend.
Freedom of Religion or Belief
We have heard today about many important issues. But I want to focus on one. One which threads into so much of what we have discussed. One which is in itself a challenge, but that if we get right, will unlock solutions to so many other challenges we face.
That issue is Freedom of Religion or Belief.
Now, I know that the OIC has for many years been concerned about the scourge of Islamophobia, or anti-Muslim hatred, and other hate speech.
As a practising British Muslim, as a proud member of a minority faith in a majority Christian nation, and as a Government Minister, I am also deeply concerned about this issue. But concern alone will not bridge divides.
The question is, how do we address this scourge? How do we defeat it?
I believe that the answer is to tackle religious intolerance head-on where and when it occurs, and to protect the rights of all in society.
In the UK we have sought to do exactly that. We legislate against incitement to hatred on the basis of religion or belief, be it behaviour that is anti-Muslim or intolerant of any other religion or belief. But legislation is not the only answer. While incitement to religious hatred remains an offence in Britain, a blasphemy law once on our statute book was abolished in 2008 – in part because we felt it was incompatible with the freedom of speech.
To truly achieve societies that are founded on tolerance and acceptance, on love and understanding, we need more than just legislation. We need to nurture these values, to engrain them into the way we look at the world.
There are no short-cuts here. It requires patience and time, sometimes a generation or two.
So in the UK we are seeking to combat negative media stereotypes…
To develop resources for teachers…To support victims……and to improve hate crime reporting.
Building a pluralistic society
But it’s not just about dealing with incidents when they arise. If we want to truly defeat this scourge we must put in place the building blocks that support a pluralistic society based on tolerance and inclusion.
A society where respect for the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief is universal.
One in which people are free to make the basic choices of how they decide to live their daily lives.
Those choices might include whether to be guided by one faith or another, or no faith at all…Whether to go to a church, a mosque or a temple…Whether to wear a cross around their neck, or to cover their head with a hijab or a kippah…Whether to read the Bible, the Torah or the Quran……or to send their child to a religious school or keep a religiously-proscribed diet.
In short, this is all about real life. It is about the choices that people across the world, myself included, make every day.
Over the past two years, people across this region have taken to the streets calling for dignity, for freedom, for jobs…demand for basic rights.
And of these, the Freedom of Religion or Belief is absolutely fundamental; a universal right for all.
And yet people across the world are still denied this basic freedom. They can be victimised or unfairly imprisoned simply for having a religion or belief, and some pay with their lives. For me, being a Muslim is about humanity.
I believe that human rights underpin Islamic values, and that those rights are not limited to a specific religious belief or ethnic grouping.
This is what motivates me to speak as passionately as I do about the rights of Christians, Jews and others of faith, or indeed of no faith – as I do about the rights of fellow Muslims. The basic duty of governments is to provide security for their people. That responsibility can have no exceptions.
So if there is just one message that I hope you will take back from my contribution, it is the universality of Freedom of Religion or Belief.
Your Excellencies, some peddle the notion that people of different faiths and beliefs cannot co-exist peacefully, with respect for each other’s views.
This misguided notion is held in the West, as it is in the East. Some use political ideology to justify this viewpoint…others use extremist religious views.
But I reject that notion. I reject it because history tells us otherwise, and I reject it because of my own experience.
The UK’s culture of tolerance
The UK is by no means perfect. But I am proud of its culture of religious tolerance; of its position as a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious state.
It is a country in which people have traditionally been confident of their nation’s Christian heritage and cultural identity. That confidence, together with a history of freedom of speech, has I believe made Britons open to the identities and religions of others.
So yes, I accept that there are challenges in tackling this problem, and that overcoming them is not easy. But I have seen through my own experience that in Britain we are rising to them.
Consider this simple question: in how many other countries could someone like me, the daughter of a poor Muslim immigrant, rise to a seat at the Government Cabinet table?
I believe that we can build consensus and lead efforts to influence cultural norms in our countries in support of religious tolerance. Tolerance between religions, but also tolerance within religions.
UNHRC Resolution 16/18 and the January Ministerial
And the foundation has already been laid.
UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 on combating religious intolerance, now under the umbrella of the Istanbul process, provides a strong basis from which to work. UN member states have all jointly signed up to a call to action to implement the resolution.
But what we need is greater political will.
Since the meeting in Istanbul in 2011, the discussions and debates on this agenda had only taken place within UN fora or among experts. I felt that we needed to go further.
Two weeks ago I hosted a high-level meeting in London on this very issue. I was delighted that His Excellency Secretary-General Ihsanoglu was able to join us, along with Ministers from Canada, Pakistan, the United States and representatives from a wide spread of other countries.
I hope that the discussions we had in London will be the beginning of this dialogue. A dialogue in which we speak with confidence and openness, learning from one another and sharing best practice about how we have tackled these issues in our own countries.
I am grateful that His Excellency the Secretary-General has agreed to host the next meeting as part of the Istanbul process.
This is important, because an honest, open and frank dialogue on Freedom of Religion or Belief and tackling religious intolerance is something we must sustain.
Your Excellencies, we live in an interconnected world; one in which we can communicate more quickly and over greater distances than we have ever been able to in our history.
I believe that it is outdated to view this world through the prism of Christians in the West and Muslims in the East. This is simplistic and historically untrue.
Solutions that accept the reality of the pluralistic nature of our nations – long-term solutions – may well be led by Christians in the East and Muslims in the West. By people of faith across the world. Because, like the OIC, I don’t accept that religion is constrained by national boundaries.
We need to continue to span these boundaries, to build a better future for our people.
It is why as a Muslim from the West, representing the United Kingdom, it is a pleasure and a privilege to be invited to speak and be allowed to play a small part in reaching out to better understanding.