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Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe urges 'pragmatic liberalism' in Brussels debate

Posted on: June 22, 2015 3:06 PM
Photo Credit: Diocese in Europe
Related Categories: England, Europe, Gibraltar, Interfaith, Islam, Scotland, Wales

[Diocese in Europe] On Tuesday 16 June 2015 Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe Robert Inness took part in a European Commission high-level meeting with religious leaders.

First Vice-President Frans Timmermans hosted European Parliament Vice-President Antonio Tajani and fifteen religious leaders from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Mormon communities.

The annual meeting this year discussed the topic “Living together and disagreeing well”.

Frans Timmermans said: "This dialogue has never been more important. Our societies face fundamental challenges, and churches and religions are among the actors that can play an important role in promoting social cohesion and bridging divides. The leaders here today are partners for the European Commission as they can share their experience in fighting against fundamentalism, discrimination and in building mutual trust and understanding."

High-level meetings and working level discussions are held regularly between the European Commission and churches and religious associations and communities as well as philosophical and non-confessional organisations. This meeting was the eleventh in the series of meetings launched by the Commission in 2005.

Bishop Inness told the meeting:

It seems to me that the best kind of state for securing friendly relations between people of different belief is neither a theocracy – and Europe has had plenty of experience of those - nor a state that suppresses religion, but one committed to what Archbishop Rowan Williams calls “pragmatic liberalism”. In this case the state functions neither to exclude faith nor advocate a particular faith, but to hold the ring between people of different faiths. In Belgium this has been called ‘active pluralism’, that is a society in which all religions can be practiced and expressed so long as they do not positively incite disorder, hatred or violence. In this kind of society, the state has the basic role of patrolling the limits –providing its citizens with security, fighting terrorism, legislating against hate speech, etc.

But, the question of how the state goes beyond this in actively building strong relationships between different communities is more difficult. In my view, the state itself is usually not the best party to bring people together. To be frank, the state cannot ‘fix’ the religious problem. This is at root a language issue. The maternal language of the religious person is the language of their faith. The language of liberal democracy - the importance of ‘tolerance’ for example – whilst it seems a ‘neutral’ language to us, feels like an alien language to those from traditions outside it. Its use actually entrenches a divide between secular and sacred. It makes it feel as though the basic divide is between a tolerant secular state and fundamentalist religion. Actually, what we call fundamentalism and radicalism are going to be pushed further away if we start by challenging them with Western liberalism and tolerance.

A better way of building community is to forge bonds and alliances between the different faith voices, which already bear a family resemblance amongst themselves. In this kind of dialogue we use language that ‘we’ as religious people share – language like valuing human dignity, being made in the image of God, and so on. Inter-religious conversation may well be a way to overcome extremism, if done on the basis of a shared and common language of faith, rather than in the terms of a secular world which is already seen as more ‘ours’ than ‘theirs’.

To give some concrete examples: I cite the importance (within the UK) of having chaplains in prisons. This is a context in which young Muslims are particularly susceptible to radicalisation. The important point is that Christian chaplains can be very effective in prisons as they may be trusted by Muslim prisoners, in a way that secular authorities are not. Or I could cite the experience of a friend of mine, a Christian Arabic speaker and sports coach who went from Belgium to work amongst young Muslim men at risk from radicalisation in the UK. Or the work of Bradford Cathedral in leading inter-faith relations and community building in a part of England which has a large Muslim population.

There are ways in which the state can actually heighten distrust, for example by unnecessary use of the law to regulate religious expression. This can be under the guise of equality legislation (e.g. the Northern Irish baker who was prosecuted for refusing to bake a cake bearing a slogan he disagrees with) or the promotion of a religion-free public sphere (there are well-known European examples of this). Using the law to restrain religious expression risks excluding religious groups from public life. This makes for ‘bad disagreement’.

By contrast, the state can help different groups feel they belong by promoting religious freedom at home and abroad. They can encourage high profile symbolic events (such as this event) that bring leaders from different communities together. And they can be unembarrassed about funding faith-based development work. Here the UK Government has done some really good work, and I give two examples. Firstly: ‘Near Neighbours’ which is a government funded programme that aims to bring together people from diverse communities and different faiths to enable them to get to know each other and to improve their neighbourhoods. Secondly, the Department for International Development (DfID) which in its ‘Faith Partnership Principles’ sets out its willingness to sponsor faith-based organisations and the way in which it engages with such organisations where there are differences of values.

So I have wanted to describe the kind of society we might characterise as ‘pragmatically liberal’ or ‘actively pluralist’, and to suggest that the fundamental role of the state in this kind of society is to undergird the peaceful co-existence of different groups. I have wanted to suggest that the state has a limited role in promoting positive agreement between different faith communities. It can engage positively by sponsoring local level engagement between different faiths, by promoting the right kind of symbolic events, and by supporting faith-based initiatives at home and abroad. On the other hand, the state can hinder the project of living together well insofar as it takes measures to remove legitimacy from religions and uses the law to restrict religious expression and make religious groups feel marginal to mainstream society.  

I should say that I as a Christian leader am willing to dialogue with anyone, provided that my dialogue partner is at least content for my voice to be heard. The only people I cannot dialogue with are those whose explicit position is that religions should remove themselves from the public square. It is hard to be in dialogue with someone who gives the impression that the solution to the religious problem would be for me and my kind to disappear. This kind of ‘programmatic liberalism’ (to use Rowan Williams’ term) is in reality an ‘illiberal liberalism’ which can only make religious believers like me feel marginalised and excluded.