It is a great sadness that I cannot be with you to participate in – and benefit from – this Conference on “Islam and Muslims in the World Today”.
However, I particularly wanted to take this opportunity to say a few words to preface the vitally important topics which you will be discussing over the next two days. I also wanted to express appreciation to the Prime Minister for making time, before he steps down, to organize this exchange of views by so senior and experienced a group of speakers.
For more than twenty years I have been fascinated by the relationships between the Abrahamic Faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. This fascination stems partly from the particular interest I have in the ethnic, religious and cultural diversity which makes up modern Britain.
For me, this “unity through diversity” can represent a great richness and a great strength for our society. But my fascination has been leavened with a concern that while there is much which binds the children of Abraham together, there is also much which prevents us from coming closer. This concern has been steadily growing.
As long ago as 1993, some of you may recall that, as its Patron, I gave a speech at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, in which I said: “… I believe wholeheartedly that the links between these two Worlds matter more today than ever before, because the degree of misunderstanding between the Islamic and Western Worlds remains dangerously high, and because the need for the two to live and work together in our increasingly interdependent World has never been greater”.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I have rarely hoped more fervently to be proved wrong. Sadly, events have shown that there was at least some truth in my analysis. Despite advancing these thoughts nearly fifteen years ago, however, I have never subscribed to the view that a so-called ‘Clash of Civilizations’ is somehow inevitable.
Indeed, I believe that by redoubling our efforts to promote tolerance and understanding, people at all levels of society can make all the difference. This, of course, is very easy to say. But I have a feeling that the ‘doing’ may also be within our grasp…
In fact, while many commentators have expressed reservations about the resurgence of spirituality around the World, I find this a profoundly heartening sign. I cannot claim to be qualified to interpret the sacred texts of any of the great Faiths – that is for those called and properly trained to be spiritual leaders. But I do think that there is great wisdom in the Arab proverb which says “What comes from the lips reaches the ears. What comes from the heart reaches the heart”.
When my heart tells me to work towards greater tolerance and understanding, my head tells me that to translate this into action we could do worse than begin by reassessing – calmly and rationally – our perceptions of one another. There is so much ill-informed and reactionary commentary that it is hugely difficult for the man, or woman, or indeed the young person in the street to know where the truth really lies.
Western perceptions of Islam, and Muslim perceptions of other Faiths, seem to me rather like the two ends of a balance: what affects one immediately and unavoidably affects the other. Ladies and Gentlemen, I believe that resolving imbalance - through balanced thoughts and balanced actions – is an essential first step and one which each and every one of us can take.
I am not trying to say that we are all the same. We are not. But when we think about it, we do share common values and I have no doubt that this conference will enhance and enrich our understanding of them. As the Christian tradition teaches us: “Let brotherly love continue. Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”. This text, which means so much to Christians, is based upon an episode in the life of Abraham, whose example is cherished also by Jews and Muslims.
Our common values celebrate humility, greatness of soul, honour, magnanimity and, indeed, hospitality. It is these values which define our worth and status as human beings and which, when held in proper balance, manifest the harmony between mankind and the temporal order in which we live. Promoting greater understanding of our shared values, in plain and simple terms, seems to me another area where we can all make a valuable personal contribution.
A third area in which I believe we all have a role to play is in educating those who confuse extremism and the norm. Extremism is, by definition, the exception. It is not the standard by which any informed judgment can be made.
Tragically, extremism exists within every faith, within every culture and tradition and none is immune from the devastating consequences which result from its confusion with the normal thoughts, words and deeds of the overwhelming majority. But to confuse extremism with the norm is to ignore – in some cases, perhaps, deliberately – our common values. It is to be part of the problem, not part of the solution.
By working together, we can move mountains. By working in opposition to each other, we simply create bigger mountains and cancel each other out – and worse. In all of this, I am struck by the great challenges which we must all face together. Perhaps the greatest of all is climate change, where common actions in each and every country are urgently required to protect the common inheritance that has been given to us by the Creator – by our “Sustainer”. And when we consider the sacred texts of Islam, Christianity and Judaism we find common themes of stewardship and justice towards the environment. If only the great Abrahamic faiths could work together from their sacred texts to stand on common ground and work towards the protection of our planet…
Ladies and Gentlemen, I do hope that the great minds and the wealth of practical experience gathered together in this room will be able to move the debate forward. By getting to know each other better; by listening at least as much as we talk; and by translating talk into action, I trust and pray that we might be able to advance just a few steps further along the road towards tolerance and understanding.