Baroness Warsi’s speech on tackling religious intolerance and fostering religious freedom and pluralism

High Level Ministerial Meeting, Lancaster House

Thank you all very much for joining me today. Welcome to those who have travelled a long way to be here. I am delighted to have such a distinguished group of Ministers, Ambassadors and senior officials here.

I believe that tackling religious intolerance and promoting freedom of religious belief are two deeply important issues.

Religious intolerance too often is used as a pretext to deny an individual their basic freedom. It is used to deny them their rights to participate as equal citizens in society. To deny them the ability to manifest their faith, to share it and to practice it.

These are issues that are consistently raised by Parliamentarians in the UK, by our media and by our constituents.

But they also matter to me personally – as an individual, as a proud British person and as a practising Muslim in a majority Christian nation, and as a Minister responsible for promoting freedom of religion or belief both at home and abroad.

I wanted to get a group of key individuals together to share experiences of what we each have done to date on Freedom of Religion or Belief and religious intolerance, and to see how we can work more closely together. How we can communicate better.

I know all your countries have been active in this area. I believe that between us we can influence the international debate.

I reject outright the notion some peddle that groups with different faiths and beliefs cannot co-exist peacefully, with respect for each other’s views.

However, some look to manipulate religious intolerance to achieve their own ends, sowing discord and conflict.

So what can we do to put a stop to that, and promote our vision of religious tolerance?

I think it is significant that we have all jointly signed up to a call to action in the shape of UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, and now under the umbrella of the Istanbul Process. This is a hugely important step. I am delighted that OIC Secretary-General Professor Ihsanoglu accepted my invitation to today’s meeting.

Yet there remain differences of opinion – which, through our discussions, I hope we can work to bridge. I believe we have made a good start today, at the lunch I hosted earlier. I hope we will be able to continue these discussions here and in the months ahead.

I want this meeting to strengthen the consensus on Resolution 16/18 and contribute to the programme of actions to implement it.

As you know, we hosted a meeting of experts in December as part of the Istanbul Process. I thank you those of you who took part in that and were able to send representatives. We had an excellent discussion, and are working on a list of practical best practice ideas, such as toolkits and training for government employees, which we will send round to you all shortly.

But I would like today’s meeting to be the continuation of a process of dialogue which focuses on political consensus.

I want to begin by explaining the UK perspective. And I hope that with each intervention we will understand each other a little better, so we can then have a deeper, more meaningful dialogue about the issues we face.

I want to make clear at the outset that we absolutely condemn all forms of intolerance based on religion or belief, as well as violations of freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.

I have asked you to come prepared to share with us what your country is doing on a range of issues – all of which are drawn from the language of UN Resolution 16/18.

I will get the ball rolling by telling you about what the UK has been doing in some of these areas.

1. First of all, on tackling intolerance, discrimination and related violence on the basis of religion or belief:

We published our plan to tackle hate crime – Challenge it, Report it, Stop it – in March of last year. The plan focuses on challenging attitudes and behaviours that foster hatred; encouraging early intervention; increasing reporting by building victims’ confidence in the justice system; and improving the way in which we respond to hate crime.

In practice, this means doing things like:

combating negative media stereotypes;
developing resources for teachers and funding local projects to support victims;
working with voluntary sector organisations to improve the way that hate crime is reported;
and amending and reviewing legislation;
I can give you some specific examples…

…our police forces have been formally collecting data on the five monitored strands of hate crimes, which are race, religion, sexual orientation, disability and transgender, since April 2011 to improve recording;

…we have a strong record in tackling anti-Semitism. We work closely with the Community Security Trust to ensure that Jewish communities are protected and also that anti-Semitic incidents are recorded and dealt with.

We fund The Holocaust Educational Trust which takes students from every school in England to Auschwitz-Birkenau to understand for themselves where anti-Semitism, if not tackled head on, can lead. We also fund the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and we have made study of the Holocaust a compulsory part of the secondary school curriculum to ensure that the lessons are learned by students across the country.

And now, more recently, we have started to tackle the recent scourge of anti-Muslim hatred by funding the MAMA project, Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks, which records anti-Muslim hate incidents and provides victims with support;

…and we have set up cross-Government working groups on anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred – bringing in representatives from Jewish and Muslim communities – to explore what more can be done to prevent and tackle these social evils.

Secondly, I want to tell you about what we have done to combat any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.

The UK is a firm protector of freedom of expression. We permit the airing of views even if some may find those opinions offensive or insulting. We believe in creating the space for healthy debate and disagree with silencing voices.

However, we are clear that there is no place in our society for speech or material where the intention is to stir up religious hatred. So the UK has taken legislative steps to combat this:

…we introduced legislation in 1998 to define religiously aggravated offences under UK law (Crime and Disorder Act);

…we have placed a duty on courts to treat more seriously any offence that is shown to be racially or religiously aggravated or motivated by what is in section 145 of Criminal Justice Act 2003);

…and we made it an offence to use threatening words or behaviour, or to display any written material which is threatening, if the intention is to stir up religious hatred (Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006).

Thirdly, what we have done to ensure that everyone has the freedom to adopt a religion of his/her choice and the freedom to practise it in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

We have ensured that people in the UK have an absolute right to hold whatever religion or belief they choose.

We fully support people’s right to hold and express religious and non-religious beliefs and their right to conduct their lives in accordance with their faith, so long as this does not unlawfully interfere with the rights of others.

And we have introduced the 2010 Equality Act, which we believe strikes the right balance between people’s right to manifest their beliefs and any legitimate restrictions that wevmay need to impose, such as health and safety rules relating to the wearing of certain religious garments or symbols while at work. We do not support the outright banning of religious dress or religious symbols.

Fourthly, what have we done to ensure that individuals do not face discrimination on the basis of their religion or belief, and to guarantee to all the equal and effective protection of the law?

These freedoms are also protected by the Equality Act. Any actions that would directly discriminate against those of a particular religion – for instance in employment or education – are unlawful.

Fifthly, what have we done to foster religious pluralism, and how do we promote the ability of members of all religious communities to contribute openly and on an equal footing to society?

In the UK we are fortunate to have an established Church – the Church of England, of which Her Majesty the Queen is the Head.

But today Britain, as well as being home to 33m Christians – which includes 6 million Catholics – is also home to nearly 3m Muslims, 817,000 Hindus, nearly 450,000 Sikhs, 263,000 Jews and to many other religions and beliefs too.

The Government works closely with faith organisations to ensure that the views and needs of people of faith are taken into account;

…we fund faith schools, which make up a sizeable percentage of British schools. We have ensured that Kosher and Halal slaughter are permissible in the UK. And we have chaplains in our health service and armed forces. And those chaplains are from a wide range of religious faiths.

To give an example of what we are doing in my own Department, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, we are ensuring that our staff have a grasp of faith and the way that it can shape foreign policy. We are putting on a series of seminars, which I launched with His Grace the Archbishop of Westminster shortly before Christmas. And we are working with the Woolf Institute on a training course for our diplomats. The first session is taking place today.

…and we are keen to support dialogue, co-operation and inter-faith co-operation on social action projects. This is why we are bringing communities together through Inter Faith Week, developing positive relationships through the Near Neighbours project and providing funding to the Inter Faith Network.

And so, I believe that we have a strong domestic record on tackling hate crimes and ensuring equal participation. Over the years we have made it socially unacceptable to be racist. In the years to come we all have to work harder to make it equally socially unacceptable to be anti-Muslim, anti-Christian, or anti-Semitic.

I hope, Ladies and Gentlemen, that this has given you a good overview of what we have been doing in the UK to implement Resolution 16/18.

I would now like to invite you all to share with us your country’s experience in these areas. Perhaps I could ask His Excellency the Secretary General of the OIC to take the floor first?