Interfaith dialogue is one of those things it can seem impossible to be against. What reasonable, rational person could possibly object to people of different faiths coming together and discussing their differences? Well, as with any negotiation, the problem only really comes if one individual, or group of individuals, heads into the discussion ignorantly or naively while another knows exactly what he is planning to get from it.
Such is the case with much of the interfaith dialogue conversations in Britain today and there can be no better exemplar than that thrown up by an old friend of this column – the disgraced ex-Labour peer Lord Ahmed of Rotherham.
Lord Ahmed, it will be remembered is the serially expelled "first Muslim peer" in Britain. Having been hastily promoted by the Labour party, his career in public life reached a nadir a few years ago when, whilst texting on his mobile phone, the noble lord ran over and killed a man on a motorway. Ahmed went to jail for driving offenses, and has cropped up a number of times since – most recently a few weeks ago, when a recording came to light – courtesy of the Times (London) newspaper – showing Ahmed on television in Pakistan. In that interview (conducted in Urdu) Ahmed was shown, among other things, blaming his conviction and imprisonment for driving offences on Jewish lawyers and Jewish media.
Swiftly expelled by the Labour party, Ahmed had to face yet another disciplinary process (he has been reinstated before). He has now said that he does not wish to go through the process and has resigned from the Labour party. So far, so sad. But one of the matters least considered was his membership in numerous groups which held themselves out as providing "interfaith dialogue" between the Muslim community and – in particular – the Jewish community. The Joseph Interfaith Foundation, for instance, featured Ahmed as a Trustee.
The Joseph Interfaith Foundation declares itself to be "committed to fostering engagement through constructive and realistic dialogue and interaction between the Muslim and Jewish communities in Britain. The Foundation also aims to promote a deeper understanding of both faiths among the general public." How that squares with having one of your Trustees blame the Jews for his driving offense and sentencing is a difficult question to answer. What seems at least plausible is that Ahmed – who had a long track record of sympathizing with the most extreme Islamists – used interfaith networks to give himself credibility.
When the Times revealed the story of the Pakistan interview, Ahmed took the opportunity of an interview with a Muslim journalist to say how sorry he was to the Jewish community. Now – true to form – he has backtracked on that backtrack. And the manner in which this has been done speaks as much to the naivety of "interfaith dialogue" as it does to the matter of Ahmed's sincerity.
For, as London's Jewish Chronicle recently reported, before Ahmed's final resignation, he chose once more to play the victim card. Ahead of his suspension hearing with the Parliamentary Labour party, he claimed that he would not receive a fair hearing because he had not seen the evidence against himself. Despite the fact that the Times posted the expository video on its website and paid a number of translators who all agreed that the words that came out of Ahmed's mouth on the tape were the words that come out of his mouth, Ahmed said: "I don't have the evidence against me."
"I would love to get to the bottom of it," he went on. "If I can see the film then we can put it to bed. I would be utterly devastated to know that I have said that." And who should now leap to Ahmed's rescue? Why an "interfaith" friend, of course.
Another habitué of the "interfaith" racket, Rabbi Mark Winer, appeared alongside his friend Ahmed and listened to his friend's obfuscation and lies. And the rabbi said, "We all have our demons, of hatred and bigotry and sexism. I assumed he had said it. Lord Ahmed hasn't asked me for help. I wrote to him and said, 'Let's get this straight,' because this isn't the Nazir Ahmed I know."
Did he mean that the man saying on tape that the Jews were responsible for sending him to prison probably wasn't exactly the same person who had turned up at all those endless high-profile interfaith shindigs? The rabbi went on, "I have no problem acknowledging the possibility that he might have spoken badly. People are very confusing and very complex and I was willing to accept that from him." And then, just to make things easier, the rabbi said, that because Ahmed was the first British Muslim peer, people were "looking to knock him down."
Could anyone get anything more wrong? People wanted to "knock [Ahmed] down" because he was the first Muslim peer? Because Ahmed was the first Muslim peer, most people were eager to do anything they could to cover for him, forgive him, reinstate him time and again – and even now, as the rabbi has just shown, are not able to believe the words that came from his mouth in Pakistan because they so differed from the words that came from his mouth at interfaith meetings in London.
Somewhere in the heart of this misguided burlesque lies the tragedy not just of a community, but of a society. Not once learning a lesson might be dismissed as ignorance. To keep on refusing to learn it begins to look deliberate.