Sayeeda Warsi: University of Leicester Sir Sigmund Sternberg lecture

Speaking at the University of Leicester Sayeeda Warsi said:

(Please check against delivery)

Back in September I made a speech about faith at the Bishops Conference.

It was the first time that a Cabinet Minister had spoken so frankly about faith for many years.

I think it’s fair to say that the speech caused a bit of a stir in some quarters.

The New Humanist Magazine ran a poll of their readers which ranked me the fifth most dangerous enemy of reason last year.

I was about to think that actually, I hadn’t done too badly, when I discovered that the Koran-burning Pastor, Terry Jones, came one place below me!

But overall I believe the impact of the speech was really positive.

And the main thing I discovered by doing the speech was that there is a large, untapped appetite for a more mature discussion of faith in this country.

I sensed that people were fed up of the patronising, superficial way faith is discussed in certain quarters, including the media…

….and that sadly there has been a rise in a sloppy kind of religious illiteracy.

So it was important to take stock of where Britain is with faith.

And I am delighted to be here today to build on what I said.

Your University is helping to raise the whole standard of faith-based debate in this country.

And I know that some fantastic people have given the Sternberg lecture before me.

Professor Hans Kung has spoken about his idea of the “global ethic” and the common values of the main religions…

…Lord Carey has talked about the relationship between Islam and The West, and why the idea of a clash of civilisations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy…

…and Cardinal Cormac O’Connor has explored the current global position of Christianity.

But I want to start my speech today by paying tribute to Sir Sigmund Sternberg.

Although he has connections with the Labour Party, I hope he won’t mind if I say that his life seems to me to be the epitome of the Big Society.

Since coming to Britain as a European Jew in the 1920s, he has spent his life helping to strengthen communities.

For me, as a Rotarian, a big part of that was what he did in the 1990s…

…when he re-established Rotary Clubs in Eastern Europe after the collapse of Communism.

But from the point of view of my subject today, it is his work with faith communities which is truly inspiring.

From helping to resolve a row at Auschwitz over a Catholic convent…

…to organising the first ever papal visit to a synagogue…

…to establishing the Three Faiths Forum with Reverend Marcus Braybrooke and Dr Badawi….

…Sir Sigmund has shown just how much one person can do to promote a richer, more tolerant, and a more integrated society.

And that brings me to the theme of my lecture today.


In my last speech I made the evidential case for faith in our country.

I showed that contrary to popular belief, faith in this country is certainly not fading away;

I explained that faith inspires many people to do good things which help build a bigger society;

And I announced that the aim of this government is to help not hinder faith communities in the good things that they do.

Today, I want to make a related argument.

I want to make the case against the rising tide of anti-religious bigotry.

In particular, I want to say three things:

First, I want to highlight what I mean by this rising religious illiteracy and condemn the bigotry which it feeds.

Second, I want to explain why I feel these problems are happening.

And third, I want to set out how we can start to deal with it.

In other words, in my last speech, I said that this government does God.

This time, I’m saying we get God.

What I mean by that is we understand faith.

I am not saying that people can’t be anti-religion.

What I am opposed to is the rise of unreasonable, unfounded, irrational bigotry.

Where religion itself becomes a loaded word…

…where free discussion is drowned out by a sensationalist media…

…and where there simply is no room for fair-minded debate.

Now some will be surprised to hear me using the language of reason to defend an essentially spiritual phenomenon – namely individual faith.

Others will say that it’s ok to be irrational about religion…

…because religion itself is not open to rational debate.

I don’t accept that.

Faith and Reason go hand in hand.

This is a point the Pope has made consistently over the last few years.

All through the Bible, there is a close relationship between faith and reason.

Perhaps the most telling are the opening words of the Gospel of John.

“In the beginning was the Word…

…and the Word was with God….

…and the Word was God”.

“The Word was God”

So, at the very heart of Christian faith, we find that Reason and God’s Grace go hand in hand.

And as the Pope made clear when visiting a mosque in Amman last year, this isn’t unique to the Christian religion, but to all the main religions.

“As believers in the one God, we know that human reason is itself God’s gift and that it soars to its highest plane when suffused with the light of God’s truth.”

“In fact, when human reason humbly allows itself to be purified by faith, it is far from weakened; rather it is strengthened to resist presumption and to reach beyond its own limitations.”

The point is just as religion shouldn’t fear reason, so reason shouldn’t be denied to faith.

But my worry is that is exactly what is happening right now.

Controversial stories are inflated by the media…

…detracting from serious faith-based debate…

…and leaving us with a situation where instead of philosophy, we’re fed anti-faith phobias.

One telling example of this occurred in 2005, when Ruth Kelly was made Education Secretary.

Now of course, it’s reasonable to scrutinise that appointment and have a discussion about whether Ruth Kelly was up to the job.

But what was it really right that her faith formed such a big part of that inquiry?

And was the appropriate language about her Catholicism used?

At its extreme, this kind of bigotry descends into absurd caricatures.

Where all Catholicism becomes “dodgy Priests in Ireland”.

Judaism becomes “murky international financiers”.

Sikhism suddenly seems to be all about a play in Birmingham.

And Evangelical Christianity is seen as anti-Abortion activists rather than campaigners like William Wilberforce.

For some faiths, these kind of characterisations have increasingly become mainstream.

Today, I want to touch on the way my own faith, Islam, is perceived.

Let me say right away to British Muslims that I acknowledge that there is a minority of people that try to justify their criminal conduct and activity by suggesting that it is sanctioned by their faith.

It is a problem that we must confront and defeat.

But that problem should not lead to unfounded suspicions of all Muslims.

Indeed, it seems to me that Islamophobia has now crossed the threshold of middle class respectability.

Let me give one example which is very personal to here:

It was reported several years ago that students at Leicester University persuaded their union cafeteria to ban pork and go exclusively halal.

The trouble was, that turned out not to be the whole story.

In fact, as I understand, it the Student Union decided that one out of the 26 cafes on campus should serve halal food.

And when you consider that there are a large number of Muslim students at Leicester, that makes sound financial sense!

For far too many people, Islamophobia is seen as a legitimate – even commendable – thing.

You could even say that Islamophobia has now passed the dinner-table-test.

Take this from Polly Toynbee:

“I am an Islamophobe, and proud of it”.

Or this speech title from Rod Liddle:

“Islamophobia? Count me in”.

But of course, Islamophobia should be seen as totally abhorrent – just like homophobia or Judeophobia – because any phobia is by definition the opposite of a philosophy.

A phobia is an irrational fear.

It takes on a life of its own and no longer needs to be justified.

And all this filters through.

The drip feeding of fear fuels a rising tide of prejudice.

So when people get on the tube and see a bearded Muslim, they think “terrorist”…

…when they hear “Halal” they think “that sounds like contaminated food”…

…and when they walk past a woman wearing a veil, they think automatically “that woman’s oppressed”.

And what’s particularly worrying is that this can lead down the slippery slope to violence.


So why is this happening?

We’ve got to start by understanding where this bigotry comes from.

We must learn the lessons of history.

Now I strongly believe that the British story of integration is a positive story.

You need to delve deep into the Dark Ages to find a time when the state was under the exclusive control of one tribe or ethnicity.

Instead, for centuries, our state has represented a set of common laws governing a diverse set of tribes, faiths and ethnicities.

The same can be said about the USA.

America prides herself on being a haven of immigrants, where you can be proudly Irish or Italian or Christian or Muslim – and still American.

As it says on the Great Seal of the United States: e pluribus unum.

This idea of unity from diversity runs through our own history.

It has helped to forge the values of pluralism, tolerance and diversity which define our society.

This gives us our moral authority to criticise, challenge and condemn those nations which far too often do not grant their religious minorities dignity, respect and equality.

But the British battle against bigotry will always be an ongoing battle.

And sadly, at no point does it totally disappear.

So Disraeli did become the first Jewish Prime Minister – but the cartoonists still drew him as an East-End bag-man.

Oswald Mosley’s Fascists never became a mainstream party – but the newspapers at the time were still littered with Anti-Semitism.

And now a Muslim woman is a member of a British Cabinet – but a British citizen today can still be attacked for merely wearing a headscarf as part of her religious observance.

Why is bigotry so resilient?

A big part of the problem is the intellectual challenge of reconciling religious and national identities.

If you look back at our history, you see that we have had particular trouble when it comes to this issue.

Again and again, we found it hard to believe that non-Protestants could be loyal to our country.

The debates on Catholic Emancipation in the 1820s are a fantastic case study.

Yes, a big part of the argument against letting Catholics into Parliament was old-fashioned anti-Catholic bigotry.

Up and down the country, the mob cried: “No Papacy”.

But the interesting thing was the intellectual argument which lies behind the rioting.

Deep down, it all boiled down to this:

Whether a Catholic, whose ultimate allegiance was thought to be to the Papacy, could still be a loyal servant of the British Monarchy.

The problem with Catholicism, as the Protestant establishment saw it, was that it transcended British sovereignty…

…ultimate loyalty wasn’t to the King of Britain but to the Papacy…

…which meant being Catholic and British were two irreconcilable identities.

It was only after Catholic Emancipation passed through Parliament…

…and after we began to break with the medieval European tradition of absolute religious conformity…

….that these problems began to disappear.

But fast forward two centuries, and there is still a sense of suspicion towards those subjects whose ultimate loyalty is presumed to lie with a supranational religion…

….or to an extra-terrestrial divinity.

Just think about anti-Muslim bigotry.

One of the most frequent arguments made against Islam in Britain is the idea that all British Muslims want to overturn British sovereignty and obey a transnational, Islamic authority.

Let me repeat again: extremists are a minority of a minority.

But from this flows a steady drip of suspicion and sense of sedition…

…all feeding the rise of a wider Islamophobia.


Obviously, I find the rise of Islamophobia particularly worrying.

As a Muslim, I’ve had to live with it for many years.

But I strongly believe that my problem is really our problem….

….because of the danger it poses to the whole of our society.

Ultimately, Islamophobia challenges our basic British identity.

One of the most important aspects of our identity is our belief in equality before the law.

But deep, entrenched anti-Muslim bigotry challenges that tradition…

…because it implies that one section of society is less deserving of our protection than the rest.

I commend those who understand and condemn the cancer of Islamophobia…

….whether that be John Denham, Seumus Milne, Peter Oborne, or the Metropolitan Police…

I know that there is also a perverted line of argument which says that Muslims have only got themselves to blame for this hatred.

After all, they’re the ones who blow up tubes and aeroplanes….

….so treating them differently is actually ok.

But think about it for one second, and you see that this argument is self-defeating.

The deeper Islamophobia seeps into our culture, the easier becomes the task of the extremist recruiting sergeant.

Those who commit criminal acts of terrorism in our country need to be dealt with not just by the full force of the law…

…they also should face social rejection and alienation across society….

…and their acts must not be used as an opportunity to tar all Muslims….

…or divide our society on the basis of faith.

So what I am saying is this:

At all times, we should be working to drain the pool of people where extremists fish.

The other worrying argument that also forms a basis for justifying Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred is the idea that Islam is a particularly violent creed…

….and therefore that an irrational reaction to it is somehow appropriate.

This line of argument takes place at many levels.

At one level, policy professionals push hard against Islam by focussing on a fraction of what makes up the Islamic faith.

And at another level, fascist literature used by the BNP circulates sections of Quranic text out of context.

But anyone who is familiar with the main religions can find phrases which aren’t appropriate to modern life in the ancient texts of these religions.

“An eye for an eye”, is the advice from Exodus.

“If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife…both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death”, is what it says in Leviticus.

And “The false prophets or dreamers who try to lead you astray must be put to death”, is what Deuteronomy says.

I could go on….

…and I will.

Some of you here might be fans of the “West Wing”.

This exchange between the Catholic President, Bartlet and a bigoted TV presenter seems relevant here.

President Bartlet:

I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an abomination.

TV Presenter:

I don’t say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr. President. The Bible does.

President Bartlet:

Yes it does. Leviticus 18:22….I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I have you here.

I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be?

While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff Leo McGarry insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police?

Here’s one that’s really important because we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town: touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point?

Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side?

Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you?”

Do you see, Ladies and Gentlemen, you couldn’t make the point more clearly?

These texts from the Old Testament could so easily be manipulated to cause mischief, and indeed have been manipulated in the past.

But being religious means making choices and understanding the central values of your faith.

It also means considering the context in which that faith was formed.

To be an adherent, one must also be a historian.

This is a point the late Benazir Bhutto, the first female Prime Minister of a Muslim country once put particularly well when speaking of teachings in the Quran:

“In an age when no country, no system, no community gave women any rights, in a society where the birth of a baby girl was regarded as a curse, where women were considered chattel, Islam treated women as individuals”.


So now that we have traced the rise of religious illiteracy, and explained why this is happening, the question now is what can we do about it?

The answers fall into three categories.

First and foremost, we need political leadership.

Government has got to show that it gets it.

And Andrew Stunnell, the Minister for Integration, has already taken a strong lead.

Not only are we ramping up the fight against all phobias – including homophobia and gender inequality…

…but we are also building on the positive steps taken since the APPG Anti-Semitism inquiry…

….and responding to the concerns of the British Jewish community in a focussed and concerted way.

…like giving funds for Jewish State Schools to improve their security…

…beginning to tackle anti-Semitism on the internet…

… and supporting the Holocaust Education Trusts “Lessons from Aushwitz” project.

At all times, this government is thinking hard about the challenge of stamping out hatred and bigotry…

…and looking at what lessons we can apply from the past, particularly from our work on tackling Anti-Semitism…

…to deal with the new challenges of today.

But in addition to this, we also need to do something else.

We need to think harder about the language we use.

And we should be careful about language around religious “moderates”.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot.

It’s not a big leap of imagination to predict where the talk of “moderate” Muslims leads:

In the factory, where they’ve just hired a Muslim worker, the boss says to his employees: “not to worry, he’s only fairly Muslim”.

In the school, the kids say “the family next door are Muslim but they’re not too bad”.

And in the road, as a woman walks past wearing a Burkha, the passers-by think: “that woman’s either oppressed or making a political statement”.

So we need to stop talking about moderate Muslims, and instead talk about British Muslims.

And when it comes to extremism, we should be absolutely clear:

These people are extremists, plain and simple, because their behaviour has detached them from the thought process within their religion.

Second, we need a response from society.

It doesn’t take rocket science to know what that means.

“Love thy Neighbour” may be a cliché, but it’s a cliche’ because it’s eternally relevant.

Ultimately, that’s the test for everyone in society:

“Do I do enough to make my neighbour feel part of the wider community?”

“Would I be comfortable if my neighbour heard what I said about him?”

“Do I treat my neighbour the way I want to be treated myself?”

Simple questions we need to ask.

As I go around the country I hear many British Muslims raising a number of concerns with me….

… so let me take this opportunity to address the British Muslim community directly…

… if, like me, you feel that anti-Muslim hatred is widespread and rising…

…start to make a difference by doing three things:

First, in his New Year message the Prime Minister asked: how we were allowing the radicalisation of some young British Muslims?

He stated very clearly that the overwhelming majority of British Muslims detest this extremism but they must help to find the answers, together.

Here’s what that means:

Muslim communities must speak out against those who promote violence.

Muslim men and women must make clear that any hatred towards others is wrong.

And above all, not stand on the sidelines, but step forward and help to lead a progressive, united fight.

Second, British Muslims need to learn from and build on the work done throughout history by other communities.

I want to refer particularly to the British Jewish Community and the work done by the Community Security Trust.

Week after week, the CST works with the police and the Jewish community to collect data and details of anti-Semitism in Britain…

….helping to defeat those bigots who say that British anti-Semitism no longer exists.

British Muslims should learn from them.

There is an urgent need for a data collection project.

The first step in addressing the problem is to measure the scale of it.

And I hope that this project will support the work of the newly formed All Party Parliamentary Group on Islamophobia, chaired by Kris Hopkins MP.

Third, and above all, British Muslims needs to remember that with rights come responsibilities.

That means no burying our heads in the sand and denying the problem…

…but standing up and doing something about it.

The reason I came into politics is because I felt my country can be better.

I want more Muslims to do that same thing and help ease the relationship between their country and their faith.


Finally, I want to finish with the third response to religious illiteracy.

If we really are going to combat bigotry against religion, faith leaders have to show greater leadership.

This is also your fight – and you need to take the lead.

In Germany, there’s already been a good example of the kind of cross-faith coalition we need.

Archbishop Robert Zollitsch spoke out warning against Europe’s rising Islamophobia last year.

And in America, in response to the ugly debate about Park 51, the Jewish Reform movement joined with other faith and advocacy groups in to take stronger steps to protect religious freedom today.

What we need now is for more faith leaders, and more faith communities, to stand up and speak out in defence of faith.

And not just to defend faith, but to explain it properly as well.

Faith leaders need to explain their religion – in a way that people of all faiths and no faiths can understand.

I had the privilege of raising this issue with the Pope when he was over here…

…and whilst he asked me to build on my speech at the Bishops’ Conference, I asked him to use his unique position to create a better understanding between Europe and its Muslim citizens.

If we do all these three things, together, as government, as society, as people of faith, then we can come a little closer to defeating anti-faith bigotry…

…and building a more open, inclusive and, frankly, a more grown-up society.