Speech at Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Muscat
Your excellencies, ladies and gentlemen.
It is a true honour to be here. I have had the privilege of speaking from the pulpits of Britain’s oldest cathedrals and from the lecterns of the world’s greatest universities…
But there is nothing quite like standing here at Muscat’s spectacular Grand Mosque, a place of deep spirituality and immense beauty.
For me, this is something of a home from home – not only because it is a symbol of the faith I hold so dearly, Islam, but because its construction was partly down to a British company!
And it is therefore the perfect backdrop for me to talk about religious tolerance. For Oman under His Majesty’s wise leadership is a symbol of that very co-existence we are all striving for. Proof that sectarianism is not inevitable – even when a religion is blighted by splits in a region that is constantly the focus of such tensions. Now I look forward to saying more about the lessons I think we can learn from your example later on in this speech.
Ladies and gentlemen, I serve in the British government, in which I am the first ever Minister for Faith. In 2010, I became the first Muslim to serve as British Cabinet Minister. Alongside my responsibility for South Asia, Central Asia, and the United Nations….my remit covers faith at home and religious freedom abroad.
In both cases, I have made religious freedom my personal priority: promoting and protecting people’s right to hold a faith, to manifest their faith, or indeed to change their faith.
This is something which I believe is not only integral to personal identity but also leads to fairer, more secure and more progressive communities.
My own faith – Islam – has been shaped by my upbringing, coloured by the country I was born in, shaped by my experiences as a lawyer, a campaigner and a politician and my personal experience as a daughter, a wife and a mother.
In my country, for a politician to talk honestly and openly about faith, especially one’s own faith, is not particularly fashionable. As Tony Blair’s advisor famously said “ we don’t do God.”. But back in 2010, when we came to government, the first major speech that I made was to state that we would “do God”.
What I meant when I said that was that the way in which faith was being sidelined and marginalised was wrong, and that it had to change.
That faith should be an important informer of public debate and that the role of faith charities, voluntary organisations and individuals motivated by faith to serve their societies would be supported.
I said that we would tackle head on, the tough issues like the rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe. In the UK I felt the bigotry of Islamophobia had increased, so much so that sentiment against Muslims had become acceptable even in the most civilised of settings.
I felt that it was time for government to respond. I’m delighted that this government has done so, including through working with partners such as the OIC.
I said that we would reach out to new faith communities as well as revive and restore some of our oldest relationships.
In 2012 I had the privilege to lead the largest ever British ministerial delegation to the Vatican, where I argued that Europe should be stronger in its Christian identity.
Because minorities are most welcomed and accepted in places where they are sure of their own identity, and that militant secularism creeping across our continent was alienating minorities rather than welcoming them.
I said that we would not shirk from our responsibility as a staunch defender of religious freedom. And it was right that last year, when I spoke at Georgetown University in Washington, I warned about religious persecution, especially against Christian minorities in parts of the Middle East. That is a tragic global crisis and it demands an international response.
These are difficult and complex subjects, which have the potential to arouse passionate and emotional responses. But I hope my approach is from a position of hopefulness and optimism for the future.
I also feel it is a responsibility – a responsibility to use my privileged position in politics to highlight injustice and encourage tolerance.
I am a proud Muslim. I am patriotically British – indeed, one who is at her proudest when standing here in a part British-built mosque. Despite the oft asked unanswerable question as to which I am first – whether I am Muslim first or British first – I see no conflict in these parts of my identity.
My patriotism and my faithfulness are both strong, positive forces which drive me.
But today ladies and gentlemen I want to focus on an aspect of my identity that I have rarely mentioned publicly: my Sunni-Shia upbringing.
The diversity of my religious teaching and the inquisitive approach to religion that was encouraged in our home. As a child Ashura was as much as part of my life as regular attendance at a Deobandi mosque.
In the past I have argued that faith forms the fault lines of modern conflict, something which has come into stark relief in recent years. But these cracks are as present – and often deeper – within faiths as they are between them. This infighting is rarely confronted; but it is something which, I feel, poses a great danger to faith and to our world.
Today I want to speak from a very personal perspective, in relation to my personal faith, Islam, and argue that hostile and violent sectarianism is not just un-Islamic: it is anti-Islamic.
It has no roots in the practice of our faith – indeed, I believe it is condemned in the founding tenets. It is tragically the cause of tension, turmoil and terrorism.
It should have no place in our world today, and is something we all have a duty to condemn and tackle. Now of course, sects, denominations, factions – in religions as in life – are nothing new. Cliques and rivalries are part of human nature. I should know that – I work in politics!
But whilst people have always defined themselves by a whole series of characteristics – I describe myself as British, as working class, as Muslim, as a mum – today, sadly, one’s sect is becoming the dominant identifier. With the faithful not only increasingly identifying themselves by sect, but also defining themselves in comparison and in superiority to others.
The hatred that can exist between sects – between people who follow the same God and share the same holy book – disturbs and saddens me.
And even in Britain we are not immune from this. With division being preached by some, and belittling another’s faith or denomination being used as a way of reaffirming one’s own faith. Often the strongest condemnation seems to be reserved for your brother or sister in faith.
The fact that their version of their faith does not replicate yours is no longer seen as an inevitable, healthy difference of opinion, but is seen as an insurmountable difference – to the point where sectarian difference is used as a way of justifying acts of religious extremism.
Around the world such violence is reaching an all-time high. In Iraq, according to the UN, at the height of the sectarian conflict, more than 50,000 Iraqis were killed as a result of terrorist violence. More than 8,000 Iraqis died in such violence last year alone.
In Pakistan, in the past two years, more than 1000 people have died in sectarian violence. Sectarian violence continues to blight in Lebanon. It takes place in Somalia, between al Shabaab and its opponents, and in Yemen, with the targeting of Shia Houthi Muslims. Now I accept that not all of these deaths were necessarily motivated by sectarianism alone. Some attacks were simply an attempt by terrorists to destabilise a community or a country.
But the fact that terrorists use sectarianism as a basis for their actions shows how deep and dangerous this problem has become.
It reflects an attitude that underpins a worldview that states you are only acceptable if you follow my version of my faith.
This Takfiri worldview, which rejects the longstanding Islamic tradition of ikhtilaf – of difference – is deeply worrying to me, where the faithful appear far more concerned with others’ faithfulness than with their own.
I’ve been a victim of this judgementalism myself; a few years ago attacked on the streets of Britain by a gang who accused me of not being a ‘proper Muslim’.
They didn’t approve of my involvement in politics and they didn’t approve of me appearing in public with my face uncovered.
They reduced my faith to a list of ‘don’ts’, defined only in the negative, defining their faith in terms of what they are against, rather than what they stand for. Stripping out the soulfulness and kindness of spirit that sits at the heart of Islam.
I believe that this approach is at odds with the teachings of Islam, and leaves the faithful vulnerable to extremists who justify violence in the name of Allah.
For I have always been taught that faith is at its strongest when people find their own way to the Almighty. And as Oman’s Religious Tolerance website so wisely states: “everyone must answer for himself before God”.
But there’s a deeply disturbing political element to sectarianism when negative political forces exploit these differences. And this approach takes on an even more sinister tone when sect is equated with nationality or loyalty to a particular country.
Where Shia Muslims in Sunni majority countries are seen as loyal to another country, and vice versa.
I’ve spoken about this previously, in relation to the tensions between different faiths, such as when Christians are persecuted in Muslim-majority countries because they are seen as agents of the west, and where Muslims in the west are held responsible for the actions of their co-religionists in the east.
Of course violent sectarianism isn’t peculiar to Islam. The United Kingdom knows all too well what happens when religious differences and divisions are used as a proxy for political problems.
Over decades the divisions in the historic struggle in Northern Ireland were aligned with religious difference – that of Protestants and Catholics.
Many lives were lost. The Troubles, and the scars remain.
Indeed, the course of our history – in the UK but more so elsewhere in Europe – has been shaped by the bitter and historic clashes within Christianity. One only has to recall during the Crusades the cry of Christians against fellow Christians “kill them all, God will know his own.”
Now Ladies and gentlemen, this is an incredibly complex problem. There are no easy solutions. But let me lay out an approach which I think we could start to tackle it.
Let me go back to basics. The universal Islamic definition of what constitutes a believer in Islam is extremely simple: la ilaha illallah Muhammadur rasulullah: a belief in God and Muhammad as his Prophet (peace be upon him). There are no other stipulations or conditions at all for belief. Even at the time of the Prophet, there were differences of opinion between his Companions over his religious instructions that were interpreted in different ways, even over sacred duties such as prayers. The Prophet viewed those differences of opinions as healthy, as an inevitable diversity, and even as a blessing of, the faith.
Therefore any notion of rejectionist sectarianism goes against the very foundation of the Muslim faith. Political and religious leaders must repeat this message, loudly and clearly, far and wide.
We need to point to history to show violent sectarianism is not inevitable.
We must look to times when different sects within Islam worked together and worshipped together.
They must look to the fact that Imam Jafar, a key figure in Shia Islam, was actually a teacher of Imam Malik and Imam Abu Hanifa, founders of two of the most widely followed Sunni Schools of Thought throughout the world today.
All of us, believers and leaders alike, must reclaim the true meaning of Islam, and focus on the things that unite us, rather than those that divide us.
And in reclaiming the true meaning of Islam we must also reclaim the language of Islam, much of which has been distorted and usurped for political ends So let me start by restoring the concept of ‘ummah’.
Ummah is, by its very nature, a definition of community, one that includes difference, not excludes it. The Prophet’s ‘Ummah’ in Medina was multi-faith and multi-ethnic. It was an Ummah of Conscience.
And let’s not forget: the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is constantly referred to as “Rahmat lil Alameen” – mercy for the world. There could not be a more clear statement than that of the inclusive concept of ummah in Islam.
So, we must reclaim the faith, and the language of the faith. But we must go beyond that.
We must highlight great living examples that show how violent sectarianism is not inevitable.
Oman is one such example.
It is an oasis of tolerance in a desert of division – proving that, right in the geographical centre of a troubled region, different sects can and do live side by side.
This is testament to His Majesty the Sultan’s wise leadership and the character of the Omani people.
The warm encounters between Ibadhi and Shia Muslims at the Al Lawati Wall; the praying side-by-side of Sunni and Ibadhi Muslims in mosques like this one.
The humility and openness seamlessly extended to other faiths; the welcome given to the new Christian church in Ruwi by the Omani authorities.
These are principles on which Oman thrives and I couldn’t put it better than the Omani Ministry for Religious Affairs, when it states: “Bloodshed due to theological differences is shameful.
Prayers in the mosques throughout the country are conducted with Sunnis and Shiites at the sides of the Ibadhis. The communal prayer to God knows no theological disputes. Everyone must answer for himself before God.”
And I couldn’t think of greater symbolism of this than His Eminence, the Grand Mufti of Oman, an Ibadhi, conducting a wedding between a Shia bride and Sunni groom.
So in conclusion ladies and gentlemen, those of us who have had the privilege of experiencing this social harmony must make the case for it, over and over again. To share, to provide, to demonstrate the benefits of such co-existence. To highlight the benefits of pluralism, and warn of the stifling impact of sectarianism.
In previous speeches I have made the case that Islam – by it’s very nature – is moderate. Today, I hope I have made the case that violent sectarianism isn’t just unIslamic, it is anti-Islamic. It is at odds with Islam’s principles and perspective and it jeopardises the future of the faith.
I want to thank my hosts for giving me the great privilege of allowing me to make this personal plea from yet another pulpit in the most soulful of surroundings. Thank you