Tag Archives: act of remembrance

Will there soon be a conference addressing the question, “Is religion divisive?”

I ask, because the more such conferences there are, the better. And they are urgently needed.

Someone actively involved in interfaith work in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (the United Kingdom) advised me recently that the Newcastle Church of England diocese (which arranges/co-ordinates all the most worthwhile interfaith activity in the city and further afield) plans to hold a conference or seminar to discuss the question, “Is religion divisive?”

I hope the event is nothing less than a seminar because, if it is less than a seminar, it will be of little or no merit. In truth, a conference of at least a day’s duration is necessary to do justice to the question.

Of course, based on evidence in this blog as well as evidence from numerous other sources, it is impossible to deny that religion IS divisive, but, as the question is subjected to scrutiny, it would be helpful if the conference or seminar also addressed some or all of the questions that follow:

How is religion divisive?

Why is religion divisive?

Is religion more or less divisive than in the past (e.g. twenty, a hundred or a thousand years ago)?

What needs to change to make religion less divisive?

To enhance matters of universal concern such as community cohesion, inclusion, equality and justice for all, must some rights currently enjoyed by religious people be restricted (because religion IS divisive, and because religion often IS detrimental to community cohesion, inclusion, equality and justice for all)?

To enhance matters of universal concern such as community cohesion, inclusion, equality and justice for all, must some religious beliefs and practices be outlawed (because religion IS divisive, and because religion often IS detrimental to community cohesion, inclusion, equality and justice for all)?

Are all religions, most religions, some religions or no religions fully in accord with the so-called “British” values of democracy, individual liberty, the rule of (secular) law, mutual respect and tolerance for people who subscribe to different religions and beliefs?

Are all religions, most religions, some religions or no religions fully in accord with the golden rule, that is, treat others as you would expect others to treat you?

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

Not so long ago I took part in a conference that addressed precisely the same question – Is religion divisive? – and the structure of the day helped ensure that something meaningful emerged from the event (the structure also ensured that the supplementary questions just listed were addressed, albeit not always in the detail their importance required). Here is a summary of the day which I provided for my contact in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the hope he can ensure the idea for a potentially very worthwhile event fulfils expectations:

I once took part in an excellent whole day conference (for university under- and post-graduate students and members of the general public) on the motion, “Is religion divisive?” Someone spoke for the motion (it is divisive) and someone spoke against the motion (it is not divisive), then people in the audience (the audience included people with and without religious convictions) had the chance to ask questions of the people who had just spoken. There was also a panel of “experts” drawn from different religion and belief backgrounds (e.g. a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Sikh, a Humanist) and scholarly disciplines (e.g. a biologist, a psychologist, a historian, a philosopher), all of whom provided additional information for or against the motion (people in the audience had the chance to also question the “experts”). Everyone then broke into smaller groups to discuss the motion in more detail with a facilitator (the facilitators were the “experts” just identified), then a plenary was held in which the facilitators summarised deliberations in each group. The people who originally supported and opposed the motion were given a last chance to state their case, then a vote was taken on the motion (a vote on the motion started the day. It was interesting to see that about 30% of the audience changed their opinion about the motion).

It was an outstanding event, benefiting in particular from the two people who spoke for and against the motion at the beginning and the end of the day. Both people avoided meaningless platitudes because they provided concrete/reliable/irrefutable evidence in support of their case. It was this grounded, evidence-based nature of the introductory and concluding inputs which ensured the event was worthwhile, rather than a platform for people to allege things about religion and religious traditions that defy all knowledge and understanding (indeed, that defy common sense itself).

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

I was particularly impressed with how one speaker explored the critically important idea that religions can be divisive by not only dividing/separating/splitting people along distinct religious lines (e.g. many religious people insist that their faith is the only source of “truth”; many religious people live in de facto segregation because they want to preserve their identity without “corruption” from outside; many religious people demand separate schools for their children so they secure an Anglican, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, etc. education), but also by dividing/separating/splitting people within the faith group itself (e.g. along sectarian lines, an obvious and undeniable fault-line; but also in terms of, say, males and females dressing in gender stereotypical ways; males and females worshipping apart; males but not females ascending to positions of religious power/responsibility; males and females undertaking different rites of passage; women being ritually impure at times during their monthly cycle; people with disabilities/special needs not being included to the same degree as the so-called able-bodied/able-minded; gays, lesbians and bisexuals suffering disadvantage and discrimination, or worse). This I thought an important but sometimes neglected insight: divisiveness operates within as well as between religious traditions. Not unnaturally, much was made of concepts such as community cohesion, inclusion, equality, justice for all, the golden rule and democratic decision-making, and how some (many?) expressions of religion struggle with these core values underpinning universal declarations of human rights. 

Above all, the conference was memorable because people had to critically evaluate their standpoints with evidence and argument rather than platitudes and wishful thinking. But events of this nature are very rare, partly because conventional approaches to interfaith dialogue ENCOURAGE platitudes and wishful thinking rather than analysis of the evidence and critical evaluation.

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium


Asad Shah is murdered for “disrespecting” Islam.

Below is the statement released by Tanveer Ahmed, of Toller in Bradford, explaining why he murdered Asad Shah in Glasgow on 24th March 2016 (I have left the punctuation, etc. errors as they appear in the original). In effect, the statement says that Asad Shah was murdered for “disrespecting” Islam:

This all happened for one reason and no other issues and no other intentions. Asad Shah disrespected the messenger of Islam the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him. Mr. Shah claimed to be a prophet.

When 1,400 years ago the Prophet of Islam Muhammad peace be upon him has clearly said that: “I am the final messenger of Allah there is no more prophets or messengers from God Allah after me.” It is mentioned in the Qur’an that there is no doubt in this book no one has the right to disrespect the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him and no one has the right to disrespect the Prophet of Islam Muhammad peace be upon him.

If I had not done this others would and there would have been more killing and violence in the world.

I wish to make it clear that the incident was nothing at all to do with Christianity or any other religious beliefs even although I am a follower of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him. I also love and respect Jesus Christ.

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

As we now know, Asad Shah was a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. His “crime”, other than being a member of the Ahmadiyya community? Just before Easter, he offered Easter greetings “to my beloved Christian nation”. But what follows appears to be the more significant “crime”: the Ahmadiyya community faces persecution (most recently in Pakistan and Indonesia) and is treated with open hostility by many orthodox Muslims because its members do not subscribe to the orthodox Muslim belief that Muhammad is the final prophet (orthodox Islam teaches that Muhammad is “the seal of the prophets”).

By the way: I have not found anything said or written by Asad Shah to suggest that he “claimed to be a prophet”.

The thrust of this post is as follows: Tanveer Ahmed is not only a person whose actions are terrible, inexplicable and contemptible; he is someone who appears to possess very little reliable knowledge about Muhammad, the birth of Islam or early Islamic history. His knowledge of Muhammad, the birth of Islam and early Islamic history is predicated on wishful thinking conceived long after the events the wishful thinking purports to describe and/or explain. Many other Muslims – perhaps a majority of Muslims – suffer under the burden of similar wishful thinking, but, to their credit, they do not murder others because of it.

The idea that Muhammad is the final prophet is based only on words attributed to him and contained in books of scripture assembled long after he died (the Qur’an and the Hadith). Despite the idea having such unreliable foundations, it necessarily calls into question (from an orthodox Muslim perspective) the legitimacy of every expression of religion dating from after Muhammad’s death in 632CE (e.g. Sikhism, Mormonism and dozens of manifestations of Christianity and Islam predicated on the teachings of inspirational figures all too easily confused for prophets). I therefore wonder if Tanveer Ahmed also wants to kill all the world’s Sikhs, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, to name but a “few” people who, for perfectly sound reasons similar to those Tanveer Ahmed no doubt attributes to the Ahmadis, cannot subscribe to the idea that Muhammad is “the seal of the prophets”. But more to the point, around the globe, how many Tanveer Ahmeds are there in mainstream Muslim communities (and in mainstream Sunni communities in particular)? And what are leaders in mainstream Muslim communities (and in Sunni communities in particular) doing to provide reliable and convincing evidence that Islam need not be a religion in which such prejudice, ignorance and unthinking conformity to aspects of religious faith encourage the Tanveer Ahmeds of the Muslim world to engage in the murder of innocent people?

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

In relation to the latter, leaders in mainstream Muslim communities are very reluctant to provide such evidence – but, to some degree, they cannot be blamed for this. Why? Because anyone within mainstream Muslim communities seeking to offer alternatives to the oppressive and/or violent narratives that lead directly to the persecution/expulsion/murder/genocide of non-Muslims and so-called “heretical” Muslims are immediately threatened with violent retaliation, death included (the names applied to such oppressive and/or violent narratives are many and include Islamist, Salafist, jihadist, Wahhabi and militant Deobandi. The proliferation of such names reflects how pervasive the narratives are within the Muslim umma and how widely they are endorsed). Moreover, as the murder of Asad Shah, the murder of other Ahmadis, the murder in the last two years of a large number of Yazidis and the level of support in Pakistan and elsewhere for Mumtaz Qadri confirm (Mumtaz Qadri was recently executed in Pakistan after murdering the governor of Punjab over his opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws. Thousands – millions? – of Sunni Muslims want Mumtaz Qadri recognised as a “martyr in the cause of Islam”), large numbers of mainstream Muslims (millions, without question) condone the spilling of innocent blood if they believe that Islam, Muhammad and/or Allah are being in any way “disrespected” (the vast majority of Muslims accuse the Yazidis of worshipping the devil. Although it is utter nonsense to suggest that the Yazidis worship the devil, the accusation is enough to qualify as “disrespecting” Allah and/or Islam). This is exceedingly worrying, not least because violent Muslim reaction inspired by anything thought to be “disrespecting” Islam, Muhammad and/or Allah stifles legitimate debate about the merits of Islam, the life of Muhammad and/or whether Allah exists or not (and, even if we assume that Allah exists, the fear of violent Muslim reaction stifles legitimate debate about what sort of god Allah appears to be).

Extremist Islam will never be defeated by military might alone. Nor will extremist Islam be defeated by non-Muslims such as myself flagging the innumerable ways in which Islam is predicated on myths about Muhammad, the origins of Islam and early Islamic history that are no longer sustainable, given the state of contemporary Muslim and non-Muslim scholarly knowledge and understanding. Extremist Islam will be defeated only when the vast majority of Muslims openly acknowledge that Islam is predicated on such unsustainable myths. Only then will Muslims in sufficient number be in a position to critically evaluate their foundational tenets of faith, their scripture and their early history in the same beneficial way in which the vast majority of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews and Sikhs, to name but the most obvious people of faith around the globe, evaluate theirs, with respect for the evidence deriving from detached, objective and unbiased scholarly knowledge and understanding.

I have lost count of the number of times in recent years that it has been alleged, primarily by Muslims themselves, that Muslims who incline toward extremism, violent or otherwise, are poorly educated about their religion and/or that they do not understand that Islam is a religion of peace which respects diversity of opinion and is underscored by compassion and forgiveness. This being the case, I urge Muslims with the power and the resources to do so to embark on a systematic global programme of education designed to ensure that all Muslims acquire the detached, objective and unbiased knowledge and understanding about Islam that is long overdue. Such an education will necessarily require critical engagement with the unsustainable myths about Muhammad, the origins of Islam and early Islamic history, myths that provide justification for the extremism that has blighted contemporary Islam for far too long. In the process, the vast majority of Muslims will then have the opportunity, just as the Ahmadi, the Alevi and most Sufi Muslims already do, to critically evaluate their scripture and early history in a detached, objective and unbiased manner. Such critical evaluation will allow the vast majority of Muslims to align themselves with passages in the Qur’an and the Hadith that are morally commendable (and/or that are relevant to the world as it currently exists) and to dissociate themselves from passages that are morally unacceptable (and/or that are irrelevant to the world as it currently exists). In other words, the vast majority of Muslims will be in a position to build an Islamic worldview predicted on all that is best about Muslim scripture rather than have to accept uncritically those passages that anyone of sound mind must regard as intolerable, especially in the contemporary era when, correctly, due emphasis is paid to concepts such as equality, inclusion, mutual respect for diversity of opinion and treating others as you would expect others to treat you.

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

There is no doubt that the study of Muslim scripture and early Islamic history allow people to conclude that Islam can be a religion of peace that respects diversity of opinion and is underscored by compassion and forgiveness, but such a reading has to be highly selective (but don’t forget: the extremists engage in a highly selective reading of the scripture and early Islamic history to establish the conditions in which girls, women, homosexuals, people with disabilities, non-Muslims and Muslim “heretics” suffer disadvantage, discrimination, persecution, enslavement and/or murder, the latter sometimes on a genocidal scale). Moreover, morally uplifting and life-affirming manifestations of Islam are today most likely to be encountered (as in the past) among groups such as the Ahmadis, the Alevis and many Sufi groups; sadly, mainstream Sunni and Shia groups are (as in the past) far less likely, through their actions rather than their words alone, to give expression to peace, compassion, forgiveness and mutual respect for people who subscribe to religions and beliefs that differ from theirs. If Muslims receive an education about their religion rather than mere indoctrination, the latter being so often the case at present, the admirable manifestations of the faith most evident today among the Ahmadis, the Alevis and most Sufi Muslims will also be evident among a majority of mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims, thereby rendering extremism, violent or otherwise, far less common a phenomenon.

In other words, it is through such a process of education that Islam can experience the sort of transformation that it missed out on when religions such as Judaism and Christianity were confronted with the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment presented Jews and Christians with many challenges to their most cherished beliefs, but it did not lead to the demise of either religion; the Enlightenment merely convinced Jews and Christians that they had to adapt their beliefs (and, to some extent, their practices) to contemporary knowledge and understanding predicated on developments in science, philosophy, medicine, politics, the arts and changes in social structures brought about by, among other things, the mechanisation of agriculture and accelerating industrialisation. In other words, Judaism and Christianity had to adapt to modern realities, realities which included people who agitated in growing numbers for greater liberty, equality and the power to shape their own circumstances. Mainstream Islam, whether Sunni or Shia, also needs to adapt to modern realities. In so doing, it must respond constructively and sympathetically to the wishes of ordinary Muslims for greater liberty, equality and the power to shape their own destiny, whether individually or collectively.

But where would this leave the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of Muslim extremists, violent or otherwise, most of whom subscribe to the idea that a perfect society existed when Muhammad led the slowly growing Muslim community in what is now Saudi Arabia (for many extremists, the desire to recreate the embryonic Muslim society led by Muhammad provides their motivation)? It would leave the extremists far more isolated and powerless within the umma than is presently the case, not least because their idea that there was once a perfect Muslim society ruled by Muhammad will be exposed as untrue. The idea will be exposed as untrue because the detached, objective and unbiased education about Islam that is required throughout the Muslim world will confirm that such a golden age is wholly fictitious, something confirmed by careful study of the content of the Qur’an itself, no less.

By the way, can you imagine the extremists sacrificing all the “goodies” that contemporary life provides, the sacrifice of such “goodies” being a necessary pre-requisite if that mythical golden age is to be created on our fragile and overcrowded planet? Muslim extremists seem to have an insatiable appetite for deadly modern weapons, the internet, easily accessible pornography, expensive mobile phones, violent interactive video games and carbonated drinks full of sugar, to list only a few things not available when Muhammad was alive. Muslim extremists are inspired by a golden age that never existed, but, if they ever created that golden age, they would hate it almost as much as everyone else on the planet.

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

P.S. I am not suggesting that the only thing required to solve the problem of Islamic extremism is that all Muslims acquire an education about Islam. For example, Western nation states must conduct their foreign policies with more regard for legitimate Muslim concerns; more must be done to alleviate Muslim disadvantage and discrimination when Muslims in predominantly non-Muslim nation states suffer higher levels of unemployment, poverty, exclusion and prejudice than other groups in society; Muslim leaders and gatekeepers must do more to respect, value and empower Muslim girls, women, young adult males, gays and lesbians and people with disabilities; and the world of Islam must minimise rather than exaggerate the sectarian divisions that exist within the umma, such sectarian divisions having at the present time far more deadly consequences than in any other religion on the planet.

This said, it is inaccurate/fictitious knowledge that Muslims have about Islam and its early history which allow extremist narratives to prosper. Furthermore, I would argue that, if all Muslims understood their religion with greater respect for the facts as currently understood, immense benefits would result in relation to the issues just listed. Muslims would realise that the West often intervenes in Muslim nation states at the request of Muslims to improve conditions for Muslims. Problems associated with unemployment, poverty, exclusion and prejudice would reduce when most non-Muslims realise that Islam is an enlightened religion, and when the vast majority of Muslims subscribe to respect, tolerance, equality and inclusion for everyone, no matter their background or circumstances. The empowerment of marginalised Muslims within their own communities would grant Muslims a louder and more unified voice when negotiating for their rights. And the reduction and eventual eradication of sectarian tensions within the umma would make war in predominantly Muslim nation states (and murders such as that of Asad Shah anywhere) far less likely to occur.

Am I therefore suggesting that if Muslims acquire an education about Islam many of the problems Muslims currently face can be resolved, whether such problems are self-inflicted or imposed from without? Yes, most definitely. And a growing number of Muslims globally are openly expressing the need for such an education sooner rather than later.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

Religious people behaving badly (and far, far worse), three.


At last, attention of a popular as well as a scholarly kind is being given to the innocuous-sounding World Congress Of Families (WCF), an Illinois-based alliance of conservative religious groups (to date, most such groups exist within the embrace of the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Why is the WCF a manifestation of religious people behaving badly? Because it is leading a global legislative and public relations campaign against LGBTQ and reproductive rights. It is being listened to far too readily in Africa and Russia, two parts of the globe where LGBTQ and reproductive rights are already most under threat. For anyone who wants confirmation that the activities of the WCF must be challenged, type “World Congress of Families” into your search engine and, if short of time, examine articles only by Political Research Associates, Right Wing Watch and the Human Rights Campaign. You will get the full picture very quickly.


It is almost certain (even the Israeli government believes that what follows is true) that the fatal arson attack on 31st July 2015 that left eighteen-month-old Ali Saad Dawabsheh dead in his family’s West Bank home was carried out by Jewish settler extremists (whether Hassidic or Haredi settler extremists we cannot, at this point, tell, but, if I were pushed to hazard a guess, I would say responsibility lay with Haredi settlers).

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build


A devout Jewish protester armed with a knife ran amok during Jerusalem’s Gay Pride March stabbing six people – one woman seriously – in the worst incident of homophobic violence in the city for a decade.

According to eyewitnesses, the attacker, named by a police spokesperson as Yishai Schlissel, had hidden in a supermarket and waited for the march to arrive. Witnesses described seeing Schlissel, “an ultra-Orthodox Jewish male” who had been released from prison three weeks earlier after serving a sentence for stabbing several people at a gay pride parade in 2005, run screaming through the crowd in a central Jerusalem street stabbing people at random before being overpowered by police.

A few days after the stabbings, Shira Banki, aged sixteen, died of the wounds inflicted by Yishai Schlissel.


Leaders in the Methodist Church in the UK have apologised for failing to protect children and adults following nearly two thousand reports of physical and sexual abuse dating back to the 1950s.

When people feel that members of a religious group behave in a reprehensible manner (e.g. priests in the Roman Catholic Church sexually abuse children and young people), expressions of outrage can be violent. Malaga, Spain

When people feel that members of a religious group behave in a reprehensible manner (e.g. priests in the Roman Catholic Church sexually abuse children and young people), expressions of outrage can be violent. Malaga, Spain


A former minister who held one of the most senior roles in the North-East Anglican Church is facing trial for a string of serious sex offences dating back to the 1970s. The Venerable Granville Gibson, aged seventy-nine, former Archdeacon of Auckland, County Durham, has appeared at Newton Aycliffe Magistrates Court charged with eight offences in total relating to two alleged victims, both of whom were teenagers at the time.


The Islamic State continues to deny Muslim women under its control the same rights as Muslim men and exploits non-Muslim women as sex slaves. Moreover, Yazidis who have escaped from territory ruled by Islamic State militants confirm that Yazidi males have been murdered in substantial numbers. Despite the brutality of the regime, considerable numbers of men and smaller numbers of women travel from Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia to lend their support to the Islamic State. Worries about the Islamic State and religious groups almost as extreme are so acute in the UK that David Cameron, the prime minister, announces a five-year plan designed to combat extremism and radicalisation.


Mohammed Fakhri Al-Khabass of Middlesbrough is believed to have persuaded at least sixteen medical students to travel from Sudan to Syria to join the Islamic State.

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK


Matthew Syed, a Muslim, writes in a passionate but informed manner about the need for Muslims to address the misogyny that exists in some expressions of Islam, misogyny that makes scandals such as the sexual abuse of children and young women in Rotherham more likely to occur.


Sajda Mughal, the only known Muslim survivor of the 2005 7/7 terrorist attacks in London, is given an OBE for services to community cohesion and interfaith dialogue.

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

The Act of Remembrance at St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne…

…for the seventeen people murdered in Paris by jihadi/Muslim extremists, January 2015.

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

The Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

The following is a joint effort by two friends, one Jewish and one Muslim, who prefer to remain anonymous.

We begin with commendations. First, Newcastle Church of England (CE) diocese did the right thing when it organised the act of remembrance, and must be congratulated for putting everything together in only four days. Second, for an event organised at such short notice it was a remarkable achievement that about fifty or sixty people attended, and that the event was promoted and then described positively in the region’s news media (we congratulate in particular the Newcastle-based “Evening Chronicle” and “Journal” newspapers and the Darlington-based “Northern Echo” for how they covered the event). Third, the simple format of the act of remembrance, which unobtrusively and sensitively utilised Jewish and Christian elements of worship/practice that no one could have objected to, was ideal for an event of such seriousness, and for an event attended by people belonging to some religions and none. Fourth, important public figures such as Newcastle’s mayor, the leader of the city council and some of Northumbria Police’s most senior officers were able to attend. Fifth, a Muslim, two Jewish people, a Sikh, a Zoroastrian and six or seven representatives of the city’s Christian denominations contributed as spokespeople. Sixth, some of the spokespeople found words that had a universal ring, that reflected the seriousness of the events in Paris the previous week, and that, perhaps most important of all, transcended their confessional and/or ethnic backgrounds.

Sohan Singh at the Act of Remembrance

Sohan Singh at the Act of Remembrance

But, and we realise there must always be at least one but.

Some of the spokespeople FAILED to transcend their confessional and/or ethnic backgrounds and their words therefore did not suggest that genuine dialogue can be undertaken to bring diverse people, religious or otherwise, together to challenge ALL forms of extremism.

No one spoke on behalf of the Pagan, the Bahai, the Buddhist, the Hindu, the ISKCON, the Jehovah Witness, the Latter-day Saint or the Coptic Christian communities, to name but a few of the city’s religious groups who, as far as we could tell, did not even send a representative to sit in the audience (of course, this “but” is understandable given the short amount of time between the decision to hold the act of remembrance and when it took place).

No one spoke on behalf of secularists, humanists, atheists and/or agnostics (people belonging to one or more of these “communities” were murdered in Paris, so why were such people not asked to share their thoughts during the act of remembrance?).

No one said that the terrible events in Paris required their community to subject their religion/belief system to rigorous scrutiny to ensure that it did not possess within it the potential to breed the same sort of hatred and extremism that motivated a few jihadi militants to murder completely innocent cartoonists, police officers and Jewish shoppers at a kosher supermarket.

But you know what is perhaps saddest of all? Although Muslim and Jewish people were present at the act of remembrance, nothing but a brief exchange of hellos took place between them. What an opportunity missed for genuine dialogue. For example, would it have hurt the Muslims present to say something such as the following to the Jewish people (or, indeed, to everyone present): “Rest assured that, from now on, we will do everything in our power to challenge the anti-Semitism that exists among Muslim people both in the UK and further afield. We will condemn every act of violence against Jewish people by Muslims anywhere. Moreover, we will say loudly that the state of Israel must be supported as a necessary condition for Jewish survival in a world often hostile to a Jewish presence, and condemn every shell, rocket or bullet fired from Palestinian, Lebanese or Syrian soil.” And would it have hurt the Jewish people present to say something such as the following to the Muslims (or, indeed, to everyone present): “Rest assured that we will, from now on, do everything in our power to challenge the Islamophobia that exists among Jewish people both in the UK and further afield. Moreover, we will petition the state of Israel to recognise the right of the Palestinian people to have a state of their own as soon as possible, and remind the state of Israel that it has never lived up to its responsibility to comply with the second half of the Balfour Declaration of 1917.”

Okay: we know the above ISN’T much to ask of Muslim and Jewish people, but you’ve got to begin somewhere. And where we currently are we’re going nowhere but back to war and an era of even greater prejudice, racism and religious intolerance. This suits no one but those religious cranks who wish to take us a few steps closer to Armageddon.

The Act of Remembrance

The Act of Remembrance

As we all know, interfaith dialogue is ineffective, and long-term peace will never be achieved, unless empathic understanding exists. A pre-requisite for meaningful interfaith dialogue and long-term peace is that we see the world from the perspective of those whom we distrust, those whom we fear, those whom we vilify and those to whom we deny justice.

It’s possible that a discussion such as the one outlined above DID, in fact, take place. If so, perhaps someone can write to reveal what was said and what was promised. But if such a discussion did not take place, we urge Muslim and Jewish people to engage in one very similar very soon. Why? Because, if we fail to do so, things WILL get far worse before they start to improve. We know already that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are widespread in Europe and the UK. The longer that Muslim and Jewish people fail to resolve the problems that divide them, the more that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism will manifest themselves (although it is obvious that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are not a “product” of unresolved problems between Muslim and Jewish people alone).

The Act of Rembrance

The Act of Remembrance

Before Muslim and Jewish people allege that the sort of conversation outlined above is unimaginable, just consider this. Four days ago we brought together a few Muslim, Jewish and atheist friends so we could exchange thoughts inspired by the courageous decision of Newcastle CE diocese to organise the act of remembrance (we communicated intermittently by email for over five hours). All nine people involved agreed with us that a wonderful opportunity had been missed to initiate meaningful discussion at a local level that could possibly have sent beneficial ripples much further afield. Together, the nine of us came up with the formula of words above (in other words, the conversation above is an example of Muslim, Jewish and atheist people working together). Yes, the nine of us were in agreement that, in an ideal world, the above is what Muslim and Jewish people should be saying to each other to improve relations between the two communities. But you know what? Only three of the people who helped draft the conversation are willing to be identified by name because they fear that their ethnic and/or confessional group will disown them (for this reason, all nine people will remain anonymous). Pathetic? Yes it is. It is pathetic that you might be disowned because you wish to acknowledge past and present injustices and point people toward peace.

Oh yes. The same group of nine friends agree with the statement above, that the “longer that Muslim and Jewish people fail to resolve the problems that divide them, the more that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism will manifest themselves.”

The Act of Remembrance

The Act of Remembrance

But let’s end on a positive note. Many thanks to Newcastle CE diocese for arranging the act of remembrance. Many thanks to the few spokespeople who examined the world from outside the confines of their narrow ethnic and/or confessional boxes. And many thanks to the few spokespeople who could find words of universal rather than mere sectarian relevance. But the act of remembrance remains, at the most fundamental and meaningful level of all, a lost opportunity of considerable proportions (unless the imagined conversation above DID take place, or takes place very soon).

P.S. I (Phil is writing now) have just received the following from someone who used to be very active in interfaith matters in North-East England but has since moved to another part of the country where her efforts to bring people together are much valued. She is Jewish:

Anonymous spokespeople for sanity, you have confronted Newcastle (and perhaps even the North-East region) with a challenge it needs to respond to in a positive and constructive manner. If you are correct, the Muslim and the Jewish community representatives missed the chance to use the act of remembrance to begin dismantling barriers to interfaith harmony and understanding. Time and time again, when I attended interfaith events in Newcastle, I was told that the city has faith groups that are constantly in discussion with one another and working towards peace, interfaith understanding and justice for all, not least justice for those with whom we are frequently at odds. I must be honest: this is simply nonsense, and nonsense despite the tireless efforts of remarkable people such as Hari Shukla, and people within the CE diocese who have for years tried to encourage the faith groups to shed their narrow sectarian preoccupations.

Now would be the perfect time for Newcastle’s faith communities to live up to their much-vaunted reputation for working towards peace, interfaith understanding and justice for all. And, as a Jewish person profoundly concerned by the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Britain and Europe (and the rising tide of Islamophobia, for that matter), I think it is the responsibility of the city’s Muslim and Jewish communities to begin immediately to dismantle barriers to meaningful discussion about problems of mutual concern. I am an optimist, despite everything, and know this can be done. And I believe that, if Newcastle can do this, Newcastle can impact positively on other parts of the country. Dare I suggest Newcastle might even impact on the mess that is the Middle East itself?

One last thing about your imaginary conversation about Muslim and Jewish people offering to assist each other as they combat injustice, etc. If Muslim and Jewish people cannot even give substantive expression to your imaginary conversation (and some Muslim and Jewish people will be unable to get even that far, I fear), what hope is there? Very little. But you have clarified exactly what should be done as a meaningful first step.

I am therefore issuing a challenge to the Muslim and Jewish communities of Newcastle. Admit that there is right and wrong on both sides. Identify the aspects of injustice that must be addressed. Set up a group of Muslim and Jewish people who acknowledge what the aspects of injustice are and take action to promote justice for Muslim and Jewish people alike. We will then have a situation in which Muslims are campaigning for the rights of Jewish people and Jewish people are campaigning for the rights of Muslims (albeit in Newcastle only, at first). What could be more sensible and reasonable, not least in so far as both communities allege that they are committed to individual, civil, community and human rights. But we cannot be advocates for justice, committed to diversity or described as empathetic people if we are committed to OUR individual, civil, community and human rights alone. If WE benefit from such rights, WE must ensure everyone else benefits from them as well. It is an aspect of the golden rule and, as a Jewish person, the golden rule inspires my actions on a daily basis.

You won’t be surprised that this courageous woman does not want to be identified. What a dire world in which we live.

By the way: I support every word she has written. You, the readers of the post, are reasonable, responsible, informed and empathetic people, so I know you will support her every word as well.

The Act of Remembrance

The Act of Remembrance

P.P.S. I’ve been asked what an atheist or a humanist might have said during the act of remembrance, had the opportunity arisen for an atheist or a humanist to speak. I cannot speak for all atheists, obviously, and, although Humanism is a belief system with which I have immense respect (it is one of the few belief systems, religious or otherwise, that makes a lot of sense), I do not define myself as a humanist. This said, I would have liked to hear someone say the famous comment originally attributed to the remarkable film-maker of Spanish origin, Luis Bunuel. Bunuel is reported to have said (and I hope my paraphrase encapsulates the essence of his wisdom), “I admire the person who seeks the truth, but live in fear that one day the person finds it.” As we all know, it is often those who think they possess the truth that want to impose their truth on others. Therein lies tyranny. Therein lies extremism. Therein lies the denial of individual, civil, community and human rights.

P.P.P.S. Just before uploading this post, the following exchange of views took place between Sohan Singh and me. Sohan:

The act of remembrance (for the people murdered in Paris) was held yesterday in my area and was well attended. People from different religious traditions recited their respective prayers, but the Muslim representative lamented that the Church of England had not organised a similar event last month when the Taliban murdered about 150 people, most of whom were children, at a military school in Pakistan. After the Muslim representative had spoken it was my turn at the podium, so, before giving my presentation, I praised Mr. R. for pointing out that atrocities have occurred in parts of the world other than Paris.

After the reciting of prayers we chatted for a few minutes in small groups. A senior police officer pointed out that they are very aware of Boko Haram’s activities in Nigeria, but nothing like their mass killings could happen in this country (the UK).

It suddenly occurred to me that we were all speaking from our narrow sectarian perspectives. What would Nigerians say about an act of remembrance that only recalled the recent events in Paris? And what would Christians and other minorities living in Iraq and Syria make of such an act of remembrance when they face genocide at the hands of ISIS?

We are all far too parochial in our outlooks.


Can I congratulate you, Sohan, for your ever-so-perceptive point about how we are still locked into seeing the problems of the world from our narrow confessional/religious and/or ethnic point of view. This is precisely the criticism that, for me, was most obvious about the act of remembrance last week (although I congratulate the Church of England for arranging it at such short notice and I think the diocese did the best possible job that it could. No other faith group than the Anglicans could have brought together people of so many different backgrounds so quickly). Only two or three spokespeople found words that had a universal ring to them or suggested they could look at problems from a perspective other than that of their religious or ethnic group. We have a long way to go before interfaith dialogue becomes meaningful.

When I upload the next post on “Faith and Belief Forum” (this post, in fact), you will find that it is precisely this idea (we are too parochial in our outlook and, consequently, not yet in a position to resolve many of the most serious problems currently confronting humankind) that enlightens the text. In fact, your comments confirm I MUST upload the post. It will appeal to people with perceptions not significantly different to yours.

P.P.P.P.S. This is a much-delayed post because I wanted a number of trusted, detached, objective and perceptive people to critically evaluate it before it entered the public domain. Such people, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Bahai, Hindu, humanist and atheist included, have engaged in such critical evaluation and I now feel it deserves exposure. But will anyone rise to the challenge described above? Time will tell.

Oh yes: the criticism levelled at the diocese for not arranging an act of remembrance following the terrible events in Pakistan (when the Taliban murdered about 150 people, most of whom were children, at a military school) is most unfair. In a case of such brutality committed by Muslims on Muslims, it is mosques that should arrange such acts of remembrance and, as in the case of the diocese last week, reach out to people of all faiths and none to show solidarity with Muslims ashamed of and disgusted by the actions of co-religionists capable of such crimes against humanity. We are all on a steep learning curve, I fear.