… for the seventeen people murdered in Paris by jihadi/Islamist extremists, January 2015.
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
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 the religious cranks who wish to take us a few steps closer to Armageddon.
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 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
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 give substantive expression even 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 also benefits from them. This 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
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 mosque leaders who should arrange such acts of remembrance. Moreover, for such acts of remembrance, it is mosque leaders who should reach out to people of all faiths and none to show solidarity with Muslims ashamed of and/or disgusted by the actions of co-religionists capable of such crimes against humanity. We are all on a steep learning curve, quite clearly.