Debate on Interfaith at House of Lords: now with added details

This is a guest post by ami

The location of the debate on Interfaith in the House of Lords on Tuesday night, has led at least one commenter on the first HP report on the evening
first HP report to mistake its tenor. To clarify, in the words of commenter mettaculture:

“The emphasis of the debate was not some kind of ecumenical discussion of ethics by Lords temporal and Spiritual but a chapter and verse denunciation of Islamist entryism into and exploitation of, the Inter Faith Industry with the collusion of prominent Christian and Jewish beneficiaries.

The event was in order to release this report, a blistering detailed document accusing the Inter Faith Network in particular and the Inter Faith Movement in general of a series of allegations; corruption, mismanagement, complacency, a failure to conduct due diligence to screen out Islamist extremism, a subsequent collusion in the cover up of and legitimisation of Islamist extremists, an illegal disbursement of funds in violation of Equalities legislation, a refusal to respond when presented with detailed evidence and a vicious campaign of persecution against those who did speak out.”

My heart did sink when Rev Peter Colwell, after asking himself whether he and his fellow interfaithers had been wrong headed, misguided or naive, echoed the Wittenbergian mantra “We have to take risks and engage with the philosophical Other”. But when he was put on the spot by Mehrdad he said of those who say gay people should be killed: “How to engage with them? I have no easy answer. I do not wish to participate in conversation with them.”

I do give Rev Colwell credit for being open in expressing his shock at hearing these things for the first time, rather than deflecting defensively, or just shutting off. There must be a strong temptation when one has invested so much personal capital in these ventures, to try and vindicate it by drawing in the laager ever tighter, to marginalise and de-legitimise those who question and expose. (Or even in extremis, to lash out as one such “risk taker” did at questioners at a past event and accuse the whole event of being orchestrated to stitch him up.)

It would be painful to announce publicly “I have made a terrible mistake”, but perhaps Rev Colwell is on the way to being one more cleric mugged by reality.

When in addition to this personal capital, there is massive funding at stake, the mix becomes toxic, the motivations to exclude and stifle become all powerful. This is the ugly face of the “monetised, gatekeeping” interfaith industry exposed when Sheik Muhammad al-Husseini cited case after case of intimidation and manipulation, tied to funding not only by our taxpayer’s money but by dictatorial Arab regimes channelling funds to chosen institutions here in the UK. There was a shock of recognition as his account of career-destroying denunciations by self beatified young acolytes of such benign seeming groups within the groves of academe resonated with what I have myself witnessed closer to home.

The earlier HP report that

“He lambasted many interfaith representatives, particularly Jews and Christians, noting wryly ‘it isn’t the Islamists’ fault at all’ – for they are just doing their job, as it were.”

is unfortunate in being too elliptical to convey the argument in context which explains al-Husseini’s focus on Jews and Christians in this extract.

As Mettaculture’s vivid account from the comments explains:

“Yes, he spoke passionately and eloquently about the persecution of Jews and Christians. I flinched at the raw power and hurt and anger in his words. I am an atheist, but I felt the power of a truly righteous man of God emanating from him, a man who can quote the Koran and from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and, apparently fluently cite Hebrew scripture. He was denouncing the insatiable greed and naked ambition that drove some liberal Anglicans and Jews (it’s all in the report) to engineer a circus of importance; junket tours, conferences, commissions, awards and adulation etc. etc. This racket, as he described it was first created by the already well placed, and then Muslim members were plucked from the ranks of their own eagerly thrusting -forward troops, full of their own self importance, desperate to be noticed. So it is in this context of an uncompromising polemic against the unconscionable acts of some liberal Christians and Jews, appropriating the already unconscionable Islamists (who were granted a negligently thrown open door for entryism) that Muhammad finds room for seeing the fault, for releasing the hydra headed Inter-faith monster, as lying more with its initial creators rather than with its subsequent Islamist exploiters.”

Khalil Yousuf gave an all too familiar presentation; what mettaculture so aptly termed “boilerplate, inter-faith compliant” which I found surprising, coming from a member of the Ahmadiyya community.

He started by asserting that the atrocities of secular groups such as Khmer Rouge vastly exceeded those of any religion. He criticised religion being used as a tool of political convenience, where inequalities were exacerbated, and said it was difficult for Muslims to accept publicly that Islam was in bad shape. But then he referred to “so-called Islamic groups”, you can’t blame Islam for “a few misguided crackpots” Extremism was not sanctioned by Islam. And then we were off on a roll: No compulsion in religion, no force in belief. Etc. When he got to the one about the duty to protect churches and synagogues, a well known spokesperson for Jewish refugees from Arab countries and I rolled eyes at each other. And all was lost for me, when he set out his mandatory fundamental rules and got to rule 2 (in the link below) That respect and reverence be paid to the founders of all religions and faiths. No religious sensibilities of any kind, says Rule 2, are to be offended, by anyone.

You can read his full speech, including rule 2 at his website here.

Douglas Murray referenced Kissinger who asked: What number do I dial to get Europe? in asking what number to dial to get Muslims or Jews. Murray’s answer is: No number. Treat all as equal citizens. An extra layer of unelected people who purport to represent communities aggregated by faith is a recipe for disaster.

He responded to Khalil Yousuf that there was no point in engaging in a game of comparing historic levels of violence perpetrated by secular vs religious forces. What there are, now, are Good verses vs Bad verses. Everyone seems to be able to agree that there are ‘bad verses. Generally this is when they are alleged to be quoted out of context. Perversely then the ‘no compulsion’ verse is called a good verse when it is claimed it is being cited “in context” and when it is called a bad verse, it is only because it is being cited out of context.

To illustrate this, he cited his recent debate with a Danish Muslim when he prompted his opponent to go on and complete the verse that he had just quoted. When Murray quoted the full text, his opponent accused him of quoting out of context!

It is most important therefore, to quote Douglas’ “I am delighted” response (as it appears in the earlier HP report) in context; a context where it loses its Pollyanna tone and looks somewhat bleaker. What Douglas said to Yousuf was

“If that is your version, I am delighted, but globally, the moderate voices of Muslims are not currently the most powerful. There is a deep struggle between versions. And we wish the better interpretation will win. I wish you the very best of luck in your reformist agenda and wish you all the support you need…but we cannot tie our futures, our need to protect ourselves to the outcome of a battle you may lose.”

When asked to sum up their visions, Douglas Murray was incisive and succinct: Treat everyone as citizens and not as believers, faith groups should not be taxpayer funded and organisations claiming to represent inter-faith initiatives should be more careful over whom they dialogue with.

Muhammad al Hussaini said: National and religious identity politics is idolatry; our relationship with God should manifest via our personal relationship to family and friends. (what Muhammad referred to earlier in his speech as dhu al-qurba the loving realm which encompasses family and friends)Where religious identity politics divides us communally, he believes, this expression of faith as personal sovereignty can unite us.

I believe mettaculture reflects the response of many when he says:

“At this debate I encountered a wonderful expression of diversity ( a breath of fresh air after years of stuffy speeches of cut and pasted platitudes), where brave speakers of truth to power challenged an entrenched dogma and practice wielded by men of temporal ambition for personal advancement. In the name of Inter Faith Dialogue these self selecting authorities reassure us with the promise of reducing extremist Islamist ideology, to drain the swamp that feeds terrorism.

A hypocritical, sinister clubby closed network of self appointed charlatans was exposed by a man who had personally suffered as a direct result of the decidedly non spiritual venal attempt to gag him. I flinched from Hussaini’s onslaught, at first, because I felt uncomfortable hearing such forensic precision in identifying what and who was responsible, while having to hear the hurt and outrage in someone else’s voice directed at the very real world sanctions (lost employment, smears, damaged reputations) that some of the senior figures in this Inter Faith Network seemed to have no hesitation in unleashing to maintain their status. I am glad that I did not have to sit through yet one more justification for ‘preventing extremism’ that simply seeks to defend the indefensible. I was delighted to encounter a strong, unequivocal defender of the rights of those persecuted by Islamist ideologues, and reactionary Muslim majority regimes.

I have no hesitation in introducing to HP a formidable figure of a man; Sheikh Muhammad al-Hussaini, a towering, shining, powerful moderate, who has no hesitation in putting himself in the line of fire to defend religious and sexual minorities against those who would make a dictatorship out of Islam. I am sure you will be genuinely delighted with him.”

Addendum: Mettaculture took strong exception to the framing in the previous HP report of the Rev Peter Colwell’s responses to a question about Islamists’ attitudes to gays, and I share his disquiet.
In reporting Rev Colwell’s response to Mehrad’s challenge on how he would deal with Muslims who advocated killing homosexuals, SarahAB illustrated why she found Colwell’s response that some Christians also take that position, “pertinent,” by linking to a Ugandan Christian homophobe.
Mettaculture responded:

“I am still at a loss as to why Sarah sought to elaborate a flailing excusatory comment, withdrawn unreservedly, as if it had any pertinence… Peter Colwell was pretty decent and he did not persist with such a line of argument… I would have simply left it at the retraction… My problem is that the Ugandan link is Sarah’s own invention. She is seeing pertinence in pursuing a false equivalence and grasping for a link that is illustrated with nasty Christian homophobes.

It is quite wrong to compare this … to this.

When Uganda starts hanging young gay men from cranes and when a Ugandan prelate, who preaches the correctness of this execution, comes to Britain, is feted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister and joins the Inter Faith Network and receives thousands of pounds in Tax Payer’s money then and only then may you make a comparison that is not wholly a misrepresentation.”