I think this is a subject that we need to face up to and discuss more. There are many people who frown on religion and who say religion causes wars and constant conflict. And for large chunks of human history this was true. But more recently we appeared to be moving into a different era of a growing mutual respect and a real understanding that the core beliefs are the same in all the world’s great religions. This was leading to a drawing together of the goodness of religion. I fear that this important new understanding is now being ripped up and God and religion are being used to divide the world again. People of faith need to face up to this and we need to discuss what is to be done.
It’s extremely good to share a platform with John Hick. John and I came together in 1975 – John, do you realise it’s 30 years ago – in Handsworth through an organisation called AFFOR. John was on the committee and I became what was called the Director. It was a community-based organisation and AFFOR stood for All Faiths for One Race. It was a time of the rise of the National Front getting 15% plus in elections across the country. I am sure there are people here who do remember those days. We were determined to work to draw all the religions of Birmingham together to stand against that pernicious racism in a united spirit. One of the things we did was organise for people to visit each other’s religious institutions – mosques and Gurdwaras and so on. People of different faiths were much more distant from each other then and had much less understanding of each other’s religions. It was the beginning of that journey that Birmingham has travelled to its great pride. And of course John was then writing what seemed like revolutionary and shocking books that suggested that all the world’s religions were equally valid routes to God – which now seems to me to be completely common sense but at the time was shattering for the Christian establishment coming from a Reverend Professor!
There are other cities with a similar experience, but Birmingham in particular, became a real jewel for the world in the way we came to learn from each other and celebrate our diversity. In my time as Secretary of State for International Development I visited places like Bosnia after the horrendous experience of ethnic cleansing and the attacks on Sarajevo or Rwanda after the genocide, or Kosovo after the people were pushed out of their country; and sometimes in the discussions after the meetings of the day, people would talk despairingly about whether ever people of difference could learn to respect each other and live with each other. And I used to say, of course they can, come to Birmingham, we’re on that journey, we have all the world’s great religions here, children learn in the curriculum in school about the fundamental teachings of the different world religions and say how lucky they are to celebrate all the festivals of the great religions. And I had this enormously optimistic sense that humanity was advancing compared with the periods of the Crusades or the wars between the West and the Ottoman Empire or the horrendous wars that followed the Reformation and the ugly and vile things people have done to each other in the name of the differences of religion. I believed that we were on a trajectory that was very much finer and there was something very special in particular going on in this city of ours of which we could be very proud. This was not just about tolerance, it was about learning from others in a way that made us all bigger and that somehow we understood our own religious spiritual traditions more deeply when we reflected on and learned from others about theirs. There was something very fine and good in it.
And then came 1989/90 – most of the people here will remember those wonderful years of hope – when the Berlin wall came down and Nelson Mandela was released from prison and a mood of optimism and hope flashed across the world. The Cold War was over, the Berlin Wall was down, no longer did we have to spend massive amounts of money, and the most talented of our engineers use their knowledge to create armaments. And no longer would we have to live with the fantastic military doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction which laid down that we would prevent war in the world by arranging that if it broke out the world would be destroyed. That was an extraordinary way to organise the world. But you remember ‘89, the end of Mutually Assured Destruction, and this enormous sense of hope that the world could come together, that we didn’t have to waste money on defence spending, that we could share our knowledge and ideas. Very much in that spirit of that kind of growth that there had been in Birmingham of different people coming together and learning from each other that those kind of values could reach across the world and we could organise the world so much better.
And if you remember in 1992 Mrs Thatcher went to the UN’s first ever summit on the environment in Rio. Remember the sort of softening of Thatcher and she and Gorbachev got on and there was a sense of hope and shift and change and the dream of a new world order that I think was very much in the same mood of people reaching out to each other and learning from each other. And there were some developments of hope. There were some Velvet Revolutions in Eastern Europe when dictatorial regimes that had been cruel and vicious fell because people came out on to the streets without violence and bloodshed. Apartheid was ended and Nelson Mandela elected as the President of South Africa, again without violence, and there were those enormously moving pictures of people queuing up all day in order to exercise their first democratic vote. So this is very recent, a period of humanity moving forward in very large ways. Speeded up by the integration that comes with globalisation, people were coming together, learning from each other, respecting each other’s cultures and religious traditions and then for a little time there was a glimmer of the possibility of those kinds of values applied to the way we ran this planet of ours. But then something started to go wrong as you will remember. A UN Mission supported by the United States was sent to Somalia to try and deal with the humanitarian crisis that had come out of the effects of civil war and Pakistani troops were killed in large numbers and then an American helicopter was brought down and American soldiers dragged through the streets and humiliated and this led on to a US withdrawal. There was a failure of the UN peacekeeping operation and Somalia to this day is a failed state with no state order and Somalian people are refugees in Ethiopia, Kenya, all over Europe – a considerable community building up in Birmingham. And then Rwanda – the genocide of 1994 which was threatened and predicted. There was a UN peacekeeping operation there at the time but its messages weren’t listened to and nearly a million people were killed in a 100 days, mostly by machete while the world did nothing.
And then in our own continent, in the Balkans, former Communist leaders reached for ethnic difference and the incitement of hatred and division as a way of keeping themselves in power and we saw ethnic cleansing and concentration camps return to Europe. So, what I’m trying to say here is there are a set of values trying to move the world forward that we lived and contributed to in Birmingham and I’m sure all of you have been part of. There was a period of enormous hope that we could take those values into the wider world after 89 and the end of the Berlin Wall. And then there was a series of failures that made us realise that the Cold War had been so deeply entrenched as the structure around which the world was organised for 50 years, that when that order fell away, and there wasn’t a new order. There was an inability to act and respond and to take action to prevent dreadful events that could easily have been prevented – the Rwandan genocide could have been very easily prevented. After the holocaust in Europe, we all signed up to a Genocide Convention that said we would always intervene to prevent genocide whenever it was threatened and failed to do that thing in Rwanda. Similarly in the Balkans, if we’d acted earlier, some of the horrors that went on could easily have been prevented. But there wasn’t a structure, there wasn’t a new order.
So there we were, dreaming of a new world order and we were starting to get a new world disorder. I think this because a vacuum of values and ideas about how we were to organise this new period of history. We also saw at the same time the speeding up of globalisation as it’s called. Globalisation is really a speeding up of the integration of the world economy, partly because of the end of the Cold War and therefore one global world economy rather than two blocks but also because of technological change and the enormous improvement in global communication. This meant that ideas, money, investment, technology could be moved across the world very speedily. And alongside that came a lack of restraint, part of the spirit of the Cold War ended, Western capitalism won, the spirit that was in Fukuyama’s The End of History. We know how to run things There’s no resistance now. There developed a rather ugly exhibition of excessive materialism which I think scars our society and all the OECD countries and that people are increasingly conscious of and worried about. Riches flowing, people richer than our great grandparents could ever believed, problems of obesity, problems of binge drinking, problems of lack of meaning. Does meaning come from knowing what you’re against? What happens when there’s enough for everybody and there’s nothing to be against?
It was a very secular spirit, a moving away from religion. The churches were empty but the beginnings of a growth in interest in Buddhism, in meditation, in people going on retreats. Not wanting to go into churches to be told the dogmas they ought to believe in but a sort of yearning for some spiritual space which was lacking in this grossly ugly material order.
So into this muddled period in history when there was the hope and the possibility of a great advance, we get the attack on the twin towers on September 11 2001. That spectacular attack by the two aeroplanes when 3000 people from 40 different countries were killed. And if you remember, because I think it’s important that we do recall this, there was a fantastic response, a united response across the world that this was a monstrous and evil thing and that the world ought to unite together to try and deal with it to help those who’d suffered and to unite in trying to prevent such things happening again. The Security Council passed a resolution to say all countries should create laws that tightened up on money laundering, exchange information on those who were planning such acts of violence. The General Assembly also unanimously supported that provision and there was a mood of enormous concern for the people of the United States and a determination to act together against such evil.
In fact, there were two distinct responses to the end of the Cold War and the threats from September 11. One was to keep the world together to seek for just solutions and try and get everybody united to prevent the use of excessive violence. The other was to divide the world into good and evil and to seek to generate conflict and to say that we are right and they are wrong. I am afraid that the road we’re going down is the wrong road, it’s the dividing of the world into good and evil and it’s the use of religion and God in the course of that which is where we’ve now got to in the modern world, The new Cold War is the divide that’s drawn along religious lines.
But in the immediate aftermath of September 11 2001, there was a new agenda that was trying to be born. At the millennium assembly at the United Nations to mark the year 2000 which was attended by more Prime Ministers and Presidents that had ever attended any other UN meeting, there was agreement that the way in which we marked the beginning of the new millennium was a determination that the whole world would act together to deal with the problems of extreme poverty. We were living in our globalising world with massive increases of material wealth but amongst the 6 billion of us 1.2 billion were still abjectly poor, 800 million hungry on a daily basis. A billion people had no access to education, living with illiteracy, not having access to clean water and therefore living with constant ill health. The Millennium Assembly agreed that this was intolerable. The whole world would unite to meet these famous Millennium Development Goals that were set at that meeting – the halving of the proportion of people living in extreme poverty, getting all children in the world to school, the reduction of infant and maternal mortality and so on. And the targets weren’t just a list of well- intentioned good things, they were distilled from the great UN conferences of the 90s and they were achievable. They were the collection of things that needed to be done in order that countries and people can lift themselves up out of conditions of abject poverty. They need more income of course but we know for example that the most powerful driver of development in any poor country is to get a generation of children to school, including the girls. Girls who have been to school, even if it’s only primary education, transform their country as they grow up. They marry slightly later, have slightly fewer children who are more likely to survive and they’re better at increasing household income, getting their own children to school and getting access to healthcare. The Millennium Assembly took place just before September 11 2001 and reflected the hope for the new world order.
There was in this period a big reduction in defence spending. There was failure to deal with the problems of Somalia, Rwanda, and the Balkans but there was a growing agreement that we had to prioritise the problems of poverty and inequality and it was the UN that was bringing the world together to reach these kinds of agreements. The Kyoto Protocol was also negotiated through a UN process and agreed in 1997. Again through a UN process the Montreal Convention was agreed and ozone depleting substances were being phased out right across the world. We were beginning to tackle the problems of environment that are the new monstrous threat that’s coming up to threaten the future of human civilisation.
And following the attack on the twin towers there was a UN meeting on financing development in Monterey which reached a consensus on the proper role between state and market – the issue that had divided the world for 50 years. And there were commitments to increase aid. And then in Doha and this was in November 2001, just shortly after the attack on the twin towers, a meeting of the World Trade Organisation took place where it was agreed there would be a new trade round focused on making trade rules more fair for developing countries.
After September 11 2001, I think because things have gone wrong now, we’ve slightly forgotten some of the wisdom that was out there that if we’d only pursued it would have been a much better way to deal with the crises that we were facing. Very interestingly in Johannesburg in September 2002, there was the environmental meeting, 10 years after the Rio meeting convened by the UN. There was a coming together of the world around the environmental questions. This was a very big move. Because the environmental movement had started in the north, in the OECD countries, the rich countries, it was focused on the fact that if we went on using the world’s resources as we had been using them the world would hit catastrophe and there would be trouble in the future. But the proposals that were made for change were seen by the developing world as a massive threat to their possibility of development. There was a real feeling that we’d plundered and polluted the world to get our wealth and now we were trying to introduce rules that would prevent the developing world from having the chance to develop their economies and reduce poverty. And that was one of the bitter divides at the time of the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organisation if you remember that. The northern countries and the trade unions and our NGOs and President Clinton just before they were coming up to a presidential election were saying, we want to put into the world trade rules, rules about basic conditions for the environment and basic conditions for the protection of labour, in order that trade would not lead to a decline in standards. This all sounds very reasonable but the poorest countries were saying, just a minute, it’s in our countries where children go to work because their families have nothing and if you make those kinds of rules you’ll be cutting us out of the world economy.
So at Johannesburg there was a coming together on this, an agreement that there had to be a guarantee of development for the poor countries and then a sharing of the responsibility to share technology and provide investment and then fair rules for dealing with the world’s environmental resources in a way that would be equitable for everyone and that would secure the future.
So here we have the end of the old world order, a period of disorder and hope. Conflict was burgeoning because of the unresolved conflicts in the Middle East But a wise agenda would seek to make the world more fair, that I would argue builds on the kind of progress we’d made in places like Birmingham where people were meeting as people, respecting each other and understanding the only way to run the world was to respect all people equally and all of their origins.
And then we got post September 11 2001, the axis of evil, and the declaration of the “War on Terror” which of course all military strategists say is a nonsensical concept. It’s like the concept of a war on war and it makes me think very strongly that we should all go back and read George Orwell’s 1984. But it’s a war that can be an endless war that can endlessly divide people and I think Dick Cheney said today that the war on terror might well take decades. And of course we’re reminded, and we should be reminded, of the warning that President Eisenhower made to the people of the United States in his final speech before he came to the end of his period in office. Eisenhower had been a general in the Second World War and a Republican President but he warned the people of the US about the military industrial complex. He warned them about the vested interests that there are that want to make military equipment and to sell it and need a war and need an enemy. And I do honestly believe that the unwise, un-thought through destructive response of the United States of America to the attack on the twin towers and the other incidents that had preceded it is inexplicable unless you take into account the role of “the military industrial complex”. It is notable that most of the people who are leading lights in the neo conservative movement and went into senior positions in Bush’s government had been working for big military companies. I don’t suppose any one explicitly think they will deliberately generate a war because they want to sell lots of defence equipment. But when one tangles oneself up in the military industrial complex, it is a warlike mindset that is brought to the world. But what’s interesting about this group of people is that many of them are also strongly committed Christians or they claim to be strongly committed Christians and they have the votes of a very strong Christian lobby in the United States of America. And it’s a Christian lobby that believes, dangerously I think, that the end of the world is inevitable, that the Messiah will come back, that those who have been saved will go straight up to heaven in the rapture and the rest of us will be cast into outer darkness and they even believe that the Messiah won’t return until there is a Jewish state in the whole of historical Palestine. Therefore they are great supporters of Likud and of those who are organising settlements in the Occupied Territories in the West Bank and Gaza. And they sent substantial amounts of money to those settlements and support politicians in their country that says there must be a Jewish state across historical Palestine, that the Palestinian people have no rights and are not to be recognised. This is one of the grave injustices of the world which is of course generating anger in the Arab and Muslim world and that helps make some young people feel that only the use of violence will get them listened to and is the way to resist the injustice that as been done to them. So again we’ve got religion at the root of this new ugly divide.
We now know of course that the neo conservatives that went into government with President Bush had already published their Project for the New American Century and they were convinced with the end of the Cold War that American values had won. They believed their victory was almost God-given, that America is the blessed country, that God blesses it and had made it a very lucky country. and that therefore they have a right to project force and reorganise the world in the way that they think is right. And one of their plans was to take control of the Persian Gulf in order to have long term US bases and in order to remove their bases from Saudi Arabia because they knew it was objectionable to Muslim people to have American bases in the land of the holy places. They said publicly – and anyone can go back and look at these documents now though sadly they weren’t brought to our attention at the time – that getting rid of Saddam Hussein would be beneficial but wasn’t the main point of the exercise. So there’s no question now that the anger and upset of September 11 2001 was used in order to deceive the American people into a war and our country went along with it and British people in turn were deceived about why we were supporting it. And that that war continuing as it is right now to be explained as part of the war on terror is causing an ever-growing divide between Western countries and the Muslim world. And as you know, there is agitation in our own country and many other countries because many Muslims feel they have to resist the oppression and the killing and suffering of Muslim people and the disrespect for people of the Muslim religion in the holy lands in which that religion originated. And as a consequence the Government argues the rule of law must be weakened and so the divide deepens. The world is now spending as much on military equipment as we were in the heyday of the Cold War, so the military industrial complex is satisfied. And, for example, when we had the discussion about whether Turkey should begin negotiations to join the European Union, I don’t know if you noticed the way that there was all this talk about a Christian Europe inviting a Muslim Turkey and that this would be a good thing. Personally I’m strongly of the view that it would be a good thing for Turkey to become part of the European Union but I don’t remember in my lifetime people talking about the European Union as a Christian construct. Something is happening, a redefinition of who we are and what kind of society we are that fits in with this new divide.
And of course the tragedy of it is, the origin of the conflict lies in the Holy Land, lies in the land that is holy to the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It lies in the establishment of the state of Israel after the Second World War because Jews needed somewhere safe to go after the horrendous experiences of the Holocaust in Europe. And the trouble we are in flows from the failure to bring a just settlement to the conflict that probably inevitably flowed from that. There is I am afraid no doubt that Israel has an expansionist objective and keeps taking more and more territory in breach of international law. And the Palestinians are endlessly humiliated and impoverished. The Palestinians in Gaza – their children, according to UNICEF as poor as children living in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Zimbabwe.
So, again, religion is flaring up in a big way round the core issues which are dividing the world. And the tragedy of all this is that a just settlement is possible. The Palestinian people have voted for and a majority of Israeli people say they want, a settlement based on two states living side by side – a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 boundaries which in international law is land that can never be incorporated into Israel because the founding principle of the order that was established in the world after the Second World
War was that no country could ever take territory by force. So a just settlement is possible. We can have two states in Israel/Palestine. We could, I believe, negotiate an end to the occupation of Iraq and help the Iraqi people to invite other countries to come in and help stabilise their country. Many countries have proposed this. And it would be agreed that all WMD should be removed from the region including Israel’s nuclear weapons. That’s a package that would produce settlement that would bring an end to the conflict that there is in that region. Peacekeepers could be put in to make sure things were secure and this would lead to the burgeoning of democracy and advance across that region. But no, we’re not going that way. Instead, we’re going for conflict. So we have a choice, we’ve got the end of the Cold War, the historical vacuum, the chance to move forward or back. There is an agenda for a multilateral order that would address poverty and the environmental challenges that we’re facing, strengthen UN and strengthen international law. Or we can declare that we have a new enemy, and a new divide, the “war on terror”, the goodies and the baddies. And I do think we’ve got a terrible failure of political leadership when the leaders that are there feel more comfortable and are able to understand their power better if there’s an enemy they can organise themselves against. Erasmus wrote that princes like wars. I fear he was right. But there I think is where we’ve got to and I think it’s a terribly troubling time.
My own view is that the current US policy will inevitably fail. It makes you think about the Roman Empire and how that crumbled, at least in the West. But this war on terror could go on for a very considerable period of time. It can cause more and more bitterness and suffering and division and religious division. It’s enormously important in a city like ours that we don’t allow any of that division to come in to ourselves. But there’s no doubt that the Muslim community in Birmingham and in Britain and across the world that doesn’t approve of course of the use of violence and the attack on civilians, is feeling frightened, separated, worried for its children. You can see it if it’s out there and it is dividing people. So God is being used by wicked forces in my view. As before, as in the Crusades as in the post-Reformation wars. And the question is, what is the role of people of faith? Is it rendered to Caesar that which is Caesar’s? Or are we saying it should not be done in our name. It’s our taxes that are paying for it. I’m very struck, and I would be interested in your views, on the fact that we have brave, rebellious pensioners in our country who are refusing to pay Council Taxes which are unfair and should be updated and willing to go to prison, while all of this is being done in our name and we are paying for it and there is no similar rebellion. To their credit all the churches, almost all the Christian churches in the world including all the American churches except for the Southern Baptists – and of course dear old President Carter is a Southern Baptist – spoke against the war in Iraq. The Pope opposed it, the Archbishop of Canterbury opposed it, and there was a massive and more united opposition from Christian churches than we’ve seen on previous historical occasions. But since then the resistance has gone quiet because it’s very difficult. What are we to do? But if we do nothing or if we march and are ignored then somehow we are implicated in the divide that’s opening up. The other thing that I think very strongly is that when we say to young angry Muslims like the young people from Leeds who because suicide bombers killed people in London – and they could just have easily come from our city, those young people – if we say that is wrong and clearly it is absolutely wrong to kill innocent civilians because you’re angry at an injustice, don’t we owe it to them to say there is another route to justice? Put your anger into this positive route that we can work together with you in order to achieve justice and it seems to me after the resistance to the calling of the war as such, we don’t have that option. So there we are. God, or the concept of God, because for me actually God is humans wanting to adore goodness, beauty, truth and justice and we made these ideas into the construct of a person in our imagination in order that we can love those beautiful things. But in whatever way each of us interprets God, that concept that is the core of all world’s religions that says in all the world’s religions that we should love our neighbour as ourselves, we should speak the truth, be just, be compassionate, be kind, love beauty, care for nature, God stands for that for all the people who love their God that God is being traduced into a God that divides us again and that justifies a massive growth in military expenditure, of killing and endless warfare and the rejection of justice. And my question tonight to us is, will the people of God speak or is this just going to happen to us? If we read back, we see that the early Christians in the Roman Empire refused to undertake military service. At the time of the first Crusade, the Pope had to go through a big preparatory period to get people to think it was possible to use force because Christian tradition had it that Jesus had always said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ and ‘turn the other cheek’ and that Christians didn’t go to war. That tradition has been lost and now in our name and in the name of political leaders who claim to be representing Christian civilisation all of this is being done. Must God divide our broken and bitter world?