My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hameed, on initiating the debate on interfaith dialogue, which is a subject very dear to my heart. Unfortunately, in view of the time constraint I am not able to deal with the matter fully.My life has been shaped by a multicultural and multifaith background and it has been greatly enriched in consequence. I was brought up in Uganda and my formative years were spent in an environment where my fellow school pupils came from different religions and racial backgrounds. Uganda at that time was an affluent country, and one of the reasons for the prosperity was the existence of peace and harmony between the communities. In 1972 General Amin expelled the Asians and a significant part of that community came to United Kingdom.
Britain is a land of opportunity. This country provided us with the environment and circumstances where our hard work and positive attitudes towards other communities enabled us to flourish. I honestly believe that the British, for all their faults, are tolerant. This country for many years has welcomed people from abroad who have been able to settle and work here and have contributed towards the advancement and well-being of the United Kingdom. I am indeed proud to be British and to live in a country where the freedom of an individual and his or her religious beliefs are respected.
In 2003, the Conservative Party formed the Conservative Muslim Forum and I was asked to chair it. I was subsequently asked to chair the newly founded Ethnic Diversity Council of the party. One of the issues that we are actively promoting is interfaith dialogue and the building of harmony among the various religious and racial groups. There are more similarities between people than differences and it is important that we promote the similarities, as all religions have a message of peace and harmony.
I am a practising Muslim and proud of my religion. Islam regards Muslims, Christians and Jews as people of the book and we believe that the books of Allah are the Koran, the Torah, the Gospel and the Psalms. There is frequent reference to Jesus Christ, Moses and other prophets in the Holy Koran. The Koran contains a chapter on Mary, mother of Jesus. Islam is indeed a religion of peace and forbids any form of suicide bombing. Jihad is an Arabic word which means to try one’s utmost, and a Muslim must carry out good deeds. I am mentioning these points because I have spoken on these and other matters on a number of occasions at various meetings. I feel that I should dispel any misunderstandings and correct wrong ideas. It is important for us to do that as part of the interfaith dialogue, as it creates understanding and respect for one another.
Unfortunately in certain parts of the United Kingdom, particularly in the north of the country, there is a lack of interaction and engagement between the various communities. I am pleased that there are initiatives that are creating good relationship between the communities. There is a need for interfaith dialogue at every level, including parliamentary groups, national organisations, community leaders, religious groups, places of worship and, of course, the communities. It also requires support of the Government and local authorities. I am indeed an optimist and believe that with a holistic approach we can achieve this.
I wish to mention the role of the media and I ask that they show restraint in their choice of stories and words relating to any religious group. We are proud of our free press in Britain and we applaud that freedom, which is the key part of our democracy. We need, however, to exercise this freedom with care and responsibility.
I conclude by saying that we must all strengthen the interfaith dialogue, which will enable our diverse communities to live in harmony.