Monday, January 31, 2011

One to Watch

Keep an eye, if you please, on Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. She is the co-chair of England's Conservative party, and deeply engaged in questions surrounding religion and the public square.

Briefly, Lady Warsi was born in Pakistan, but raised and educated in Britain. She is young, wealthy, and located near to the center of political power in her adopted nation. She is also Muslim. Or, perhaps just as important, she is overtly religious in a society which in recent years has become markedly more hostile to public displays of any religious faith (making allowances, of course, for neopaganism and Jedi).

Warsi has made a series of notable speeches on the intersection of religion and society. The first was to the Conservative Conference in 2009; the second, to the CofE Bishops' Conference in September 2010, and the most recent was the Stamberg Lecture at Leicester University. She has made the point that (a) religious faith, despite its detractors, remains a powerful fact of British life; (b) the Conservative government takes this seriously (or "does religion"); and most recently, (c) that Britain must guard against a rising tide of anti-religious bigotry, especially but not exclusively represented by Islamophobia.

The speeches are extremely interesting, although by no means above criticism. For example, she said to the bishops that

[i]n Britain the resilience of religion gives us the confidence to reject the intolerance of secularist fundamentalists. It should also give us the confidence to recognise fully the huge contribution of believers everywhere.

And to do that, we need first and foremost a government which understands faith, which is comfortable with faith, and which when necessary, is prepared to speak out about issues of faith.

The first claim, about the "resilience of religion," is important and worth quoting. But the second -- that the government must not only recognize this but "speak out about" it, will make many Americans uneasy. Because it is one thing to acknowledge religious communities, and even to work deliberately with them for the common good; it is another to dictate to them, exploit them, or -- in a worst case scenario -- to offer them special privileges.

The most pressing danger, in this speech, was exploitation. Warsi promotes an idea called "the Big Society," which aims to "build a culture where we don't just look to government to solve all our big problems." Indeed, Warsi says that her team wants to give faith groups and other volunteer organizations "the chance to do even more good." Uh-oh. Any American can see where this is going -- toward Bush Sr.'s "Thousand Points of Light" or Bush Jr.'s "Faith Based Initiatives." It goes, in other words, toward the familiar effort of a government to pinch pennies by farming out to churches the onerous tasks of caring for the poor and otherwise needful. The fundamental idea may have some merit -- partnership between church and state can be very powerful -- but in practice it rarely works well. The government never ponies up enough cash, and only a few religious organizations have the skill and accountability to do the job. (There is also the difficult question of favoritism and accountability. Elected governments feel, at least in theory, an obligation to the entire electorate; faith communities, especially marginal ones, often work very hard to serve "their own people" first. Pastors hate this, but we see it all the time.)

Her speech to the bishops apparently provoked readers of The New Humanist magazine to call her the fifth-most dangerous enemy of reason, just after Prince Charles and before Terry Jones.

It is the Stamberg lecture which has received the most press. One might not think that a protest against anti-religious bigotry would offend many people, except for course for anti-religious bigots. And, honestly, much of the speech had us pumping our fist and crying "Here, here." She argues, for example, that "faith and reason go hand in hand," and cites both the Prologue to John and Benedict VXI's speech at a mosque to support her case. Her argument against facile caricatures of religious believers will be familiar to any one. And in her comments on the evil of religious extremism, she quotes, at some length, from The West Wing's Jedediah Bartlett, who after all these years is still our personal president. Her final call for an end to "religious illiteracy" is far too brief, but it is important if Britain is to become, as she suggests, "a more open, inclusive and, frankly, a more grown-up society."

Hard to argue with any of that. And yet, Warsi has been accused of, for example, of placing religion -- and especially Islam -- "beyond critical debate." The idea is that her case against bigotry is also a case against voicing any criticism of a religion or its faithful. Frankly, we didn't see that in her speeches, but we aren't party to the whole discussion in Britain, and therefore to any political nuance. In our experience, there certainly is a kind of political-arena "call for respect" which includes a call for relaxed scrutiny -- whether of a a racial or ethnic group, a religious community, or of people who share an unpopular hobby or predilection. And obviously, in a an open and grown-up society, nothing is beyond reasonable and peaceable. debate.

The speeches aren't especially well-written. Churchill's ghost has nothing to fear. But they are timely and interesting, and they mark Lady Warsi as figure worth paying attention to in years to come. They also raise, as a side issue, a question for Americans: who is the highest-ranking Muslim in our own government? (Besides the president, obviously.)

1 comment:

LiturgyGeek said...

Well, we do have 2 Muslim members of Congress: Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Andre Carson (D-IN). According to Wikipedia, Ellison is the "highest Muslim elected official in the United States." I suppose because he was elected before Carson?