On Thursday I was meant to have tea at the House of Lords with Baroness Warsi and a group of good ladies connected to the British Pakistan Foundation. Unfortunately, not for the first time, my domestic responsibilities prevented me from entering the Houses of Parliament. I say “unfortunately” – but I am more than happy to spend time with my son during half-term holidays. Especially as I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to say to Warsi.
I was meant to be writing a piece about Great British Pakistani women – which I will – but Warsi’s opinion piece about religion in Britain’s best selling quality newspaper rattled my cage before I had the chance to reflect on her role as Britain’s first female Muslim minister. It rattled the cages of friends on Twitter too. When I humble-bragged that I would be drinking tea with the Baroness, Tweeps got in touch and asked me to pick bones with the lady.
In her article, entitled “We stand side by side with the Pope in fighting for faith”, she claims that “militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies”. Warsi’s words come hot on the heels of the prime minister’s pledge to remind Britons that they live in an essentially Christian country. As a non-Christian, who has represented Britain overseas, and is incredibly proud of diverse Britain, my heart aches when our prime minister feels the need to state a single religious identity on my country.
The Baroness claims that the “values we hold and the things we fight for all stem from centuries of discussion, dissent and belief in Christianity”. Like the great philosopher, Nietzsche, I don’t disagree that in Europe our system of moral judgment, is essentially inherited from Christian values. And in turn many of our religious festivals stem from our pagan times. It’s how history works. But I do query how useful it is.
Britain has been amongst those who promote less faith-based governance in Islamic countries – and eyes have rolled at the involvement of “religious elements” in the new Egypt. In many places, Britain has attempted to undermine traditional tribal and Sharia systems in favour of our western notions of democracy. And yet, in Britain we still have 26 un-elected Church of England Bishops* involved in the Parliamentary process, making decisions on our laws, and more than a nuance of Christianity in our governance and legislative structures.
As my Twitter followers will tell you, I claimed I would come off the fence about religion. Like Warsi, I am not afraid to stand up and say what I believe in. Until I see a stronger argument against, I am in favour of secular rule. The Baroness expressed concern that when “secularisation is pushed to an extreme” it would result in the “complete removal of faith from the public sphere”. This is the very definition of secularism. What Warsi doesn’t do is present an argument for what faith brings to public sphere. I believe, as human beings we are perfectly able to govern at a national and local level on the basis of an agreed set of policies not based on faith, and ones that do not serve to alienate anyone.
Governance free from faith, should not be confused with failure to recognise the rights and frankly the beauty of the multitude of faiths that exist in Britain – or in other countries. I personally believe spirituality and belief should occupy a personal space, and never be imposed on anyone else. This is about an ultimate tolerance – a tolerance which is professed by many religions, not least the Abrahamic ones. I fully agree with Warsi when she writes, “If people understand that accepting a person of another faith isn’t a threat to their own, they can unite in fighting bigotry and work together to create a more just world”. I would add to her words, an understanding that people who are not aligned with a single faith also pose no threat, and can equally contribute to debate and take action towards a more just world.
The British government has waded in this week on issue in Devon Council – overturning a High Court decision that it was unlawful to pray before local council meetings. Some might suggest a proper evaluation of the pros and cons of official prayers, before we decide that our tax-paid councilors should or shouldn’t. Is the alienation felt by non-prayers less relevant than any clarity of mind that praying evokes?
I’m not against praying. I myself am prone to pause for contemplation and thanks from time to time. And the right to pray for civil servants in prayer rooms, for employees during religious festivals and for Ahmadis in Pakistan – are all issues I fully support. However, I do not believe that prayer should be part of official business.
It’s not the first time I have disagreed with the Baroness. My readers will know that I have previously ranted at Warsi’s stance on Islamophobia . As I said in that piece, if the British government are serious about cohesion and integration they should focus on Warsi’s other strengths, perhaps as a lawyer, for fear of turning her into their honourary Muslim token.
Disappointingly, Warsi again sounds little more than Cameron’s token female, minority messenger – who resides safely in the House of Lords. I may have blown the chance to write about her other strengths – like anyone and anything I am sure she is multi-faceted.
*It’s worth noting that in Britain’s “democracy”, we also have unelected Government Ministers, like Baroness Warsi having input into policy.
Caroline Jaine is a UK based writer, artist and film-maker with a background in media strategy, training and diplomacy. Her book A Better Basra, about her time in Iraq was published in August 2011. More about Caroline’s work and her contact details can be found on www.jaine.info and facebook.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.