Bishop causes uproar with attack on Islamism and 'Christian nation' fears

By staff writers
January 6, 2008

Islamic extremism has turned some communities into no-go areas for people of a different faith or race, and Britain is disintegrating because it is no longer seen as a Christian nation, claims the Bishop of Rochester in a newspaper article.

The Rt Right Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali has been strongly criticised by politicians, other faith leaders and community cohesion advocates after he wrote in The Sunday Telegraph that non-Muslims may find it difficult to live or work in some parts of Britain. He said there was "hostility" in those areas and described the government's multicultural policies as divisive.

Dr Nazir-Ali was a candidate for the archbishopric of Canterbury at the time of the appointment of Dr Rowan Williams, and he is seen by some Anglican conservatives as a more credible 'alternative leader' for the divided Communion than Nigerian Primate Peter Akinola, who has dominated the self-styled 'Global South' faction.

But Dr Nazir-Ali sees himself merely as someone prepared to "speak his mind", and though he is an implacable opponent of liberals in the Church, his instincts for loyalty and unity are likely to overcome attempts to turn him into a leading political figure in the internal batles over morality and biblical authority - though he has said he may find it difficult to attend the next Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishop in July 2008.

Muslims and some politicians have accused the bishop of scaremongering, while others say he is highlighting a real problem. Writing in a leading conservative weekend paper, Dr Nazir-Ali said there had been a worldwide resurgence of Islamic extremism, leading to young people growing up alienated from the country they live in.

He writes that there have been attempts to "impose an 'Islamic' character on certain areas", for example, by amplifying the call to prayer from mosques - something the Muslim Council of Britain says is no more or less intrusive than traditional church bells.

Dr Nazir-Ali said it raised questions about "whether non-Muslims wish to be told the creed of a particular faith five times a day on the loudspeaker". Ironically, hardline secularists are likely to use this as part of an argument that all overt manifestations of religion in the public sphere are an "imposition".

The bishop also returned to his regular theme that a multi-faith "mish mash" results from government promoting an integration policy at the expense of both difference and a predominant 'Christian culture'.

He said religiously rootless multiculturalism was "an agenda which still lacks the underpinning of a moral and spiritual vision", citing the role of chaplains in such places as hospitals, prisons and educational establishments being in jeopardy "either because of financial cuts or because the authorities want 'multi-faith' provision, without regard to the distinctively Christian character of the nation's laws, values, customs and culture".

"Not only locally, but at the national level also the establishment of the Church of England is being eroded," Dr Nazir-Ali said, adding: "If it had not been for the black majority churches and the recent arrival of people from central and eastern Europe, the Christian cause in many of our cities would have looked a lost one."

He added: "In the past, I have supported the establishment of the Church, but now I have to ask if it is only the forms that are left and the substance rapidly disappearing. If such is the case, is it worth persevering with the trappings of establishment?"

Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, which has backed calls for disestablishment, said that some of the bishop's views were based on an outdated and counter-productive attempt to reclaim the social and political power of the church. But he welcomed the resulting debate.

"Dr Nazir-Ali has echoed the fear many people feel about the changing demography and make-up of Britain, and while I disagree with his overall analysis it is better to get the issues out in the open than to mumble in the dark", he commented.

"The bishop has also named the core issue that needs addressing in terms of the future of Christianity and the West - the demise of Christendom, the era in which the church could expect privilege and largely unquestioned influence in society. Ekklesia argues that establishment religion is a contradiction of the subversive heart of the Christian message, but Dr Nazir-Ali has vividly illustrated the anxiety felt by its defenders. We invite him to consider a positive, alternative future in which Christians become known for modelling new possibilities of peace and justice rather than competing for control and power," added Barrow.

Meanwhile, the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, was highly critical of the bishop's claims, describing them as "a gross caricature of reality". "I strongly disagree with him. I don't think he has produced any evidence that there are really no-go areas - that is an extraordinarily inflammatory way of putting it," he told Sky News TV.

He added: "That is not to say that there is not a legitimate debate to be had within our Muslim communities about the identity of modern Islam in modern Britain. Clearly there is a legitimate debate to be had there, because of the rise of extremism, particularly for young men in these communities."

Ibrahim Mogra from the Muslim Council of Britain's inter-faith relations committee described Dr Nazir-Ali's comments as "alarming", adding: "If there is no evidence he can put forward then it boils down to simple scaremongering... To suggest that a handful of people are beginning to create such areas where nobody else can go unless they are Muslim needs evidence to back such claims."

A Communities and Local Government spokesperson told the BBC: "We need to keep this issue in its proper context. The overwhelming majority of Muslims are peaceful, make a huge contribution to British life and find the views of a small minority of violent extremists completely abhorrent. Britain also has a proud tradition of different communities living together side by side."

He continued: "We are not complacent - the government has completely rebalanced its community cohesion strategy putting far greater emphasis on promoting integration and shared British values (as the Bishop acknowledges in his article)."

Dr Nazir-Ali was previously Bishop of Raiwind in Pakistan, where he stood up for Christians and other minorities, and moved to Britain to become general secretary of the Church Mission Society, one of the Church of England's oldest international agencies.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.