We all have a duty to promote inter-faith reconciliation and co-operation for it is painfully obvious how much potential there is for inter-religious conflict and how much havoc it can create. Yet if the question of religious harmony is one of social good and social harm, then it is an issue of public policy. It concerns all citizens and those responsible for the commonwealth. It cannot be left to pious hopes and private goodwill, to meetings in the Bishop's parlour and the drafty, run-down community centre. No more than can the problems of economic decline or racial disadvantage.
A look at newspapers and recent publications shows that religious pluralism and its potential for conflict is rising up the agenda, only a few years after religion was supposed to have ceased to be a policy issue in countries like Britain. In this recognition of religious communities as posing potential problems as well as providing a social resource, the Department of the Environment, as part of its long-standing programme of partnership with community and business organisations to tackle some inner-city problems, has now set up an Inner Cities Religious Council.
Yet there is in some circles strong resistance to religious groups occupying public space or linking with aspects of the political process. As we all know from our particular faith communities, there are some in each community who oppose inter-faith initiatives because they believe it weakens the integrity of particular faiths. Radical secularists, however, also stand in the way of inter-faith harmony as a basis for overcoming social divisions and exclusions. For they resist the claim upon the public space that inter-faith work must eventually make if it is to be a social force.
In Britain (or is it England?), the presence of religion in the political arena has come to be limited to two aspects. One is, through the Church of England's link with the Crown and the bishopric seats in the House of Lords, a contribution to the dignity of the state and a sense of national community, and an access to a national forum where the Church of England is able to give voice to matters, including sometimes the concerns of minority faiths, that otherwise are filtered out by the political process.
The other religious presence is in an area of policy and resources, namely, the state education system. Not only is a daily collective act of worship required in all state schools, but nearly a third of all tax-funded schools are denominational schools (the majority are Roman Catholic). While the introduction of the new obligatory National Curriculum leaves few arguments remaining against incorporation of those private religious schools who wish to join the state sector (the ardent desire of several Muslim schools), the delaying of which only generates grievance and militancy, the Government's decision to reassert in law that the collective worship should be Christian is potentially unhelpful.
While non-Christian parents may get permission also to hold alternative assemblies or to replace the Christian assembly where the number of a particular faith in a school warrants it, many schools in multi-faith neighbourhoods have evolved sufficiently diluted and integrative worship so as to keep pupils together in one assembly - an important symbol of, and contribution to, both school and social unity. It would be a setback for multicultural unity if such assemblies were now to disappear, for multiculturalism requires not only legitimising differences but also the coming together of cultures in creative ways. Indeed, we should work to see the birth of schools where those of different religious traditions actively seek to educate their children together - as some Catholic and Protestant parents are endeavouring to do in Belfast.
More generally, there are two major tasks for the embryonic inter-faith movement: to maintain a religious presence in the architecture of the state and our sense of national community, and within the state educational system; and to pluralise this presence to give effect to the religious diversity that exists in Britain. The tasks are necessarily in this order: if there is no presence, it cannot be pluralised; and yet to preserve this presence against ideological secularists is to bring together the various faiths in common cause and lay the foundations for a more substantial harmony.
It is ironic, therefore, that the growing movement among constitutional reformers to disestablish the Church of England constantly appeals to multiculturalism. Yet no minority faith supports this stand. Muslims, for instance, have conspicuously not argued that the rights they seek depend upon the dispossession of Christian privileges. The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, cogently stated the appropriate inter-faith view when he argued in the Reith Lectures that the emphasis on diversity needs to be balanced by a strong over-arching public culture; if this is to have any religious dimension, it must centre upon the Church of England, which all minorities must support as a national institution.
My greatest fear is that 'progressive' secular reform, by squeezing religion out of the political centre, will strengthen the separatist tendencies that exist in each religion and each sect. When, consequently, minority faiths such as Islam, which are sill in the process of experimenting with forms of representation, find greater rewards in pursuing separatist options, we can be sure that it will be 'religious backwardness' that will be blamed, not the exclusionism implicit in radical secularism. Multiculturalism, however, requires sharing the public space with religious communities, not ghettoising them into some private realm.
Tariq Modood's Not Easy Being British: culture and citizenship was recently published by Runnymede Trust and Trentham Books, pounds 7.95.Reuse content