28 de março de 2006

Straw aos muçulmanos britânicos. Sem complexos e sem rodeios

Sem que VEXA veja nisto menosprezo pelo trabalho da Adida de Imprensa em Londres, transmite-se na íntegra cópia do que hoje mesmo Jack Straw disse aos muçulmanos britânicos, olhos nos olhos. Como aí em Portugal, ao que neste posto sabemos, há já umas 10 ou 15 mesquitas, algum dia alguém terá que falar aos muçulmanos portugueses sem rodeios, facilitando-se assim o uso do velho chavão «como já Jack Straw observava...»


Event: Muslim News Awards
Location: Grosvenor Hotel, Piccadilly, London
Speech Date: 27/03/06
Speaker: Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw

Assalamu Alaikum,

Thank you for that introduction. It is a great privilege to be invited here and to share the stage with the exceptional men and women who will be receiving awards a little later. Nowadays it can be hard to switch on the television or open a newspaper without seeing another awards ceremony for film stars and rock bands. All well and good – best of luck to them. But it is just as important – indeed, in my opinion, a lot more so – that we take the time to honour those who have used their talent and time in service of the broader community.

That is what tonight is all about.The first thing we are doing, of course, is paying tribute to the specific achievement of many individual Muslims over the past year. But there is another layer to tonight's proceedings. We are celebrating the very significant contribution which Muslim communities as a whole make year on year to our country.Tonight I want to say a little about why that second layer is so important. Let me be clear: it is not because I think that British Muslims have anything special to prove in this regard; they show what they contribute to British society - their society - every day: bolstering our economy, invigorating education, sport and culture. Those of us who are not Muslims but who have the privilege of knowing and working closely with many Muslims can testify to that.

The wider importance of these awards stems rather from this: by highlighting the success of the Muslim communities in Britain it reveals the nonsense in the claim that there is some sort of inherent contradiction between being Muslim and being British.At this time in Britain – and throughout Europe – there is a very passionate, but sometimes rather confused, debate about the role of religion and faith communities in our society. Some people worry that faith and modernity are in some way mutually exclusive.

The thesis goes something like this: we, in what might loosely be termed 'the West', live in a modern, secular environment; our values are post-enlightenment, humanist ones; religion and religious people, which draw their inspiration and teachings from Divine authority and not from human reason, are throw-backs to a less sophisticated, more superstitious time. As such they are a dangerous and potentially divisive anachronism.

Now, I've heard this argument applied to followers of all religions. There were echoes of it in the reaction to recent remarks which the Prime Minister made about his personal religious beliefs on a late-night chat show. And in some parts of the media it is used as a criticism of the current United States administration. But here in Europe, a lot of the time when people talk about inherent tensions between religious belief and the modern world, what they are referring to is a clash between what they – from the outside – perceive to be 'Muslim values' and what they define as secular European values.

One explanation for this apparent singling out of Islam might be its reputation as a new European religion. In fact, of course, there have been Muslim communities in Europe for centuries. But it is true that in recent decades those communities have grown in size and that Islam is now the fastest growing religion here. Another reason might be the feeling that many people seem to have that Muslims are in some way more religious than followers of other faiths. Again, I think it is probably undeniable that for most of the Muslims whom I know their faith is more obviously apparent in their daily actions and rituals than it is in the daily lives of the majority of people in Britain.

If people want to argue that God does not exist and faith is not necessary, then that is absolutely their right and I respect that view – though I don't happen to agree with it. Besides, the major world faiths have shown remarkable resilience over the centuries. But what I will take issue with is the idea that any faith community here in Britain – and that includes the Muslim community – is in some way excluded from our modern society simply because of a profound and devout religious belief.For one thing, it is wrong to assume that 'the West', including Europe, is essentially secular in nature. Here in the UK, in the last census 70 per cent of people identified themselves as being Christian. In the United States the figure is even higher and as many as two-thirds claim to go to Church every week. Religion is entwined into the political structures too. One of my first duties when I took over as Home Secretary in 1997 was to swear in new Bishops. England has a State church. Its bishops are nominated by the Prime Minister, and the lengthy oath which I had to administer prescribed the loyalty of the Bishop to Her Majesty the Queen, and no-one else. Each day the British Parliament opens with (off-camera) Prayers for a Parliament. They are more ecumenical that they used to be, but the Speaker's Chaplain who reads the prayers is an Anglican.

So are the prayers.It's a similar story across Europe. In Italy, for example, the teaching of the Roman Catholic religion is assured in the public schools of every order and grade except for Universities. Denmark and Greece both have established churches – the former Evangelical Lutheran, the latter Orthodox. Even in France, where the division of church from State is most thorough, the public purse helps pay for the upkeep of some religious buildings, most Christian and Jewish, built before 1905.

And, of course, many of our basic principles of common law here in the UK and the civil systems of jurisprudence throughout Europe have been strongly influenced by the Christian ethics and traditions of the vast majority of the population. It would be extraordinary if this were not so.My point is this: the story of Europe is not a simple, linear one of secular values steadily pushing out and eroding religious ones. Rather the European experience is one of an accommodation between faith and modernity.

And it is the future of Europe too. I was delighted last year to play a part in the historic decision for the European Union to open accession negotiations with Turkey – a country which has a large Muslim population and which is a thriving, dynamic democracy. For it to work, governments have to provide a space in which the rights and diversity of people of all faiths are protected and, at the same time, set a clear framework – through its domestic laws – of acceptable behaviour for all its citizens regardless of creed. The recent controversy over the cartoons showing the image of the prophet illustrated this well. I said at the time that the cartoons were reprinted in Europe – though not here in the United Kingdom – that doing so was needlessly insensitive and disrespectful. The right to freedom of expression is a broad one and something which this country has long held dear. It was the focus of our human rights work during our recent Presidency of the European Union. But the existence of such a right does not mean that it is right – morally right, politically right, socially right – to exercise that freedom without regard to the feelings of others.

A large number of Muslims in this country were – understandably – upset by those cartoons being reprinted across Europe and at their deeply held beliefs being insulted. They expressed their hurt and outrage but did so in a way which epitomised the learned, peaceful religion of Islam. In doing so they were not being 'unreasonable' or 'un-European'. They were not threatening anyone's values.A handful of Muslims reacted in a distasteful and unacceptable way. Their actions were roundly condemned, including by the vast majority of British Muslims. The Muslim Council of Britain called for anyone who was found to have broken the law to be prosecuted. And earlier this month the police made five arrests. Leading international Muslim also rightly condemned incidents of violence overseas in reaction to the cartoons. The distinction we are all making, then, is not between religious and secular or between Muslim and European. The distinction is between law-abiding citizen and criminal.That row over the cartoons was illuminating in another way too. It showed again the extent to which a small minority of people with fringe views can dominate the media – setting themselves up to speak for a much larger constituency than they in fact represent. I was struck – as I know many in this room were – by just how much more coverage was given to a couple of hundred noisy demonstrators outside the Danish Embassy as compared to the thousands who gathered for a dignified rally in Trafalgar square a few days later.Or here is another example. Ask most people in Britain who do not regularly attend an act of worship to name a Christian cleric, and they would probably say the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. It is a fair answer – members of other Christian denominations are, at the very least, unlikely to take offence at such an association. But ask those same people to name a Muslim cleric and you will probably hear the name Abu Hamza – a man who in no way represents the vast majority of Muslims in this country and whose views are indeed abhorrent to them.As long as we let faith communities be narrowly defined by a few fringe elements, we are giving ammunition to those who want to emphasise the divisions between us. All of us – the media, the government and the Muslim community – have to work harder to challenge such easy stereotypes and cliché. We all need to work harder to ensure our voices are heard more clearly over that of the extremists, domestically and internationally.We should be telling the story about how faith communities – including the Muslim communities – are making a visible, tangible difference to British society. The Charity Commission, for example, lists over 22,000 religious charities of all shapes and sizes working in England and Wales today. Some of those charities have the sole aim of advancing a particular faith but for many of them their faith is not the end goal but rather the force which drives them to work for a better world. It would probably come as a surprise to some non-Muslims in this country that Islamic Relief is a British-based charity – or that it works with world's poorest people regardless making no distinction between those of differing faiths.

The Department for International Development considers them an extremely valuable partner and has provided the organisation with over £3.6 million over the years to help their humanitarian relief efforts.Similarly, a great deal was made, quite rightly, about the generosity of the British people as a whole following the tsunami on Boxing Day in 2004. But I don't think that enough has been said about the quite exceptional effort which many Muslims made in the aftermath of the earthquake in Pakistan last year, as well as their efforts after the tsunami. Some British Muslims, tragically, lost family members in the Pakistan disaster but, on the whole, Muslims in this country supported the relief to an extraordinary degree motivated by a much wider sense of charity and community.

The release of the British hostage, Norman Kember, and two of his companions has been very prominent in the media over the past few days. I believe the calls by many Muslims in this country and fellow British citizens for the safe release of those kidnapped victims and showing their solidarity with their plight may have contributed to their survival.The truth is that people of conviction have always made a massive contribution to the life of this country. Not just through social and charitable work but in politics, science and the arts. The Muslim community today is no exception to this rule. They are giving so much to Britain. And they have much to offer the rest of the world. I would like to see more interaction between British Muslims and Muslim communities in other countries. British Muslims can lead the debate on how we can overcome challenges which matter to all of us – Muslims and non-Muslims. They can use their skills and thinking to help the economic and political development of others.

Ladies and GentlemenI can make the intellectual argument that faith and modernity, British and Muslim are complementary. But the most eloquent, living proof of this is in the people that are here tonight – and in those who will be accepting awards. British Muslims are where Britain and Islam intersect. Celebrating their success is the best way of showing that these two identities can and do thrive in the same place and in the same person.

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