Tag Archives: interfaith dialogue

Two peace walks compared and contrasted.

It is increasingly common for towns and cities in the UK to arrange peace walks as a concrete expression of interfaith dialogue, and many such peace walks are arranged to coincide with, or take place just before or after, National Interfaith Week in November. This year I took part in two peace walks in North-East England and thought it would be of interest to compare them.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Newcastle-upon-Tyne

One peace walk took place in a city and is in its twelfth year, and the other took place in a town a third of the city’s size and is in only its second year. Although the walk in the city could draw on many more local people to swell its ranks and is now a well-established event, it attracted less than double the number of people who joined the walk in the much smaller town.

The peace walk in the city started at the Hindu mandir before stopping at an Anglican church, a Sunni Muslim mosque and a patch of grass where a Jewish synagogue is said to have once existed, and concluded at a Sikh gurdwara, where everyone was given excellent langar. Light refreshments were available at the mandir, the church and the mosque. Other than the stop at the patch of grass, this was exactly the same route that has been undertaken for at least the last seven or eight years. Although the city has two synagogues, a Roman Catholic cathedral, many expressions of Christianity other than Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism (e.g. a Coptic church), a Bahai centre, a Buddhist centre and an ISKCON centre, to list a few other manifestations of religious diversity, visits were made to only four functioning houses of worship.

The peace walk in the town started at the Friends’ meeting house before stopping at a Roman Catholic church, a Methodist church, the town’s only mosque (Sunni), an Anglican church, the town’s only gurdwara and the town’s only Buddhist centre, and concluded at what might be deemed a neutral space, a local authority facility with a swimming pool and large rooms for public functions (e.g. concerts). No refreshments were provided until arriving at the gurdwara, where everyone was given excellent langar. The town has Pagans and Bahais in small/very small numbers, an Eastern Orthodox chapel and a small synagogue that opens very rarely to meet the spiritual needs of a community in terminal decline, but the organisers of the town walk did far better to make the route inclusive than the organisers of the city walk.

Darlington

Darlington

The city walk began with a few important people saying some words to those about to leave, but those who spoke represented only Hinduism, Anglicanism and the local authority itself. This said, someone managed to persuade the organisers that, in a welcome break with convention, a Bahai should read a passage from Bahai scripture. The passage from Bahai scripture better summarised some of the values and principles that underscore peace walks/interfaith dialogue than the words of any other speaker during the event.

The town walk began with some words said by two Friends and a Humanist. The Friends and the Humanists have commitments to peace more rock-solid than many people who subscribe to other religions and beliefs.

The city walk attracted a considerable number of high profile figures including the local Lord Lieutenant, two senior police officers, senior religious figures in the Anglican and the Roman Catholic churches, senior religious and community leaders in the Hindu, the Muslim and the Sikh communities, and councillors representing the Labour and the Liberal Democratic parties. Also present were Bahais, Humanists, unaffiliated agnostics and atheists, and a Shia Muslim sheyk who has resided in the city for about six months.

The town walk attracted very few high profile figures, two councillors representing the Labour Party being the most obvious exceptions. But throughout the walk there were Christians of at least five denominations, Bahais, Buddhists, Muslims and, in very impressive number, Sikhs. There were also Humanists and unaffiliated agnostics and atheists and, for all I know, a Pagan or two. It was good that a few members of the local LGBTQ community were also present.

The city walk felt like an event organised by a small group of influential movers and shakers reluctant to broaden its appeal and reluctant to tinker with something tried and tested, despite it being far less inclusive than the town walk.

The town walk felt like an event shaped from the bottom up and was thus more inclusive and democratic in atmosphere. I liked how some people had come with their own, home-made brightly decorated banners declaring their background and commitment to peace.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The police were the stewards for the city walk (the police did a brilliant job and their presence was much appreciated, not least because they inflated the number of people taking part. But their presence as stewards confirmed that the event had an official seal of approval, as it were). Ordinary people in high visibility jackets were the stewards for the town walk.

At each stop along the city walk, someone welcomed the walkers and engaged in a talk lasting between 15 minutes and half an hour. I have attended five of the city walks and the same people usually do the talks every year. Even worse, the speakers rarely say anything different or get much beyond the usual platitudes about how their religion is peaceful (despite obvious evidence to the contrary, whether of a contemporary or a historical nature). Also, women very rarely, if ever, get a chance to contribute to the talks – which was why this year it was so refreshing that the Bahai who spoke at the start of the walk was female. Yes: convention was challenged in a second welcome way!

At each stop along the town walk, someone welcomed the walkers and engaged in a talk lasting no more than 15 minutes. An almost equal number of males and females provided the talks. Although some of the speakers could not get beyond the usual platitudes about how their religion is peaceful (despite obvious evidence to the contrary, whether of a contemporary or a historical nature), I was impressed how speakers at the Roman Catholic and the Methodist churches (a female and a male respectively), and the speakers at the start of the walk (two males and a female), spoke with unusual insight and genuine emotion.

The worst thing about the city walk was that it had not occurred to those responsible for its organisation to make the event more inclusive (e.g. by increasing the number of religions that the walk embraced, by giving women a more prominent role in the formalities). Nor had it occurred to the organisers to ensure that the non-religious majority in the city, who are among the most loyal/enthusiastic supporters of the walk, had the opportunity to reflect on the merits of such events, perhaps in the first instance by urging Humanists to reflect on their thoughts and feelings.

I have only one complaint to direct toward the town walk, and I am confident the problem can easily be rectified in future years. We arrived at the town’s only mosque to find about twenty dour-faced Muslim men, all but two with beards and skullcaps, standing in front of the main entrance (no women of Muslim origin could be seen anywhere. The mosque was the only place where women were not present, or where the impression was given that women lacked a substantive role in the religion). It was obvious we were not getting inside the mosque, even though entry was routine everywhere else. Instead, the imam and an ordinary member of the congregation (both male, of course) quoted a chapter from the Qur’an, translated the text into English and told us Islam is a religion of peace, despite all the wars, death and destruction Muslims presently engage in.

I will be honest: empty platitudes and an almost complete absence of Muslim women characterised the visit to the mosque during the city walk, but at least we got inside the mosque and, in an interesting departure from convention, non-Muslim women did not have to put on a scarf. But the disappointments associated with the town’s mosque were not so great as to confound what I have said above: the town’s peace walk was far more inclusive and democratic (and more people-led and people-centred) than the city’s peace walk, which is undertaken largely to help movers and shakers feel that they are doing the right thing. The movers and shakers ARE doing the right thing, but it is time for the organisers of the city’s peace walk to learn some lessons about inclusion and democracy from the peace walk in the much smaller North-East town.

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

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

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“It’s not Islam that’s the problem; it’s Sunni Islam.” Discuss.

It is a very sobering time of the year. In France and many other nation states, thousands of people have gathered to remember the anniversary of the Paris terror attacks that killed 130 innocent men, women and children last November (2015). In Iraq, Islamic State suicide bombers are slowing the advance of Iraqi and Kurdish forces into Mosul. Also in Iraq, a mass grave has been found near Mosul containing the bodies of about a hundred people, children included, murdered by the Islamic State. And in Baluchistan in Pakistan, a suicide bomber said to have links with the Islamic State has killed at least fifty people at a Sufi shrine. What did the perpetrators of these acts, criminal or otherwise, have in common? They were Sunni Muslims.

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

Iraqi government armed forces, Iraqi Shia militia and Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, backed by American airstrikes, have for about three weeks been moving in on the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, where it is estimated that 1.5 million civilians remain, most, presumably, against their will. Yesterday we learned that Syrian Kurdish armed groups have started an assault on the Islamic State “capital” of Raqqa with American, French and British air support.

Despite the involvement in recent years of some non-Muslim nation states in the wars that engulf Iraq and Syria, most of the death and destruction in both nation states are directly attributable to the failure of Sunni and Shia Muslims to live in peace with one another (although people such as Christians and Yazidis, who have nothing to do with the Sunni and Shia struggle for supremacy/survival, have themselves been targeted for expulsion, murder and/or genocide, more often than not by Sunni Muslims). Yemen is also a nation state where war, death and destruction are directly attributable to Sunni and Shia rivalry, and in Pakistan such rivalry leads to the loss of innocent life on a regular basis, with Shia Muslims the most frequent victims. Tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims remain high, but at present rarely result in deaths, in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Turkey (in Turkey, the Muslims most often considered Shia are the Alevis and the Bektashis). Sunni and Shia tensions cannot be blamed for the conflicts/wars in Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia or Sudan, or for the communal tensions that exist, and the bloody violence that occasionally erupts, in Nigeria, Egypt, Mali or Bangladesh, but in the nation states just listed Muslims are largely responsible for all the death and destruction (in these cases, Sunni rather than Shia Muslims are usually the guilty party, with their victims being Christians, Animists, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs and/or self-confessed atheists or humanists). This is not to say that wars, death and destruction are the responsibility of Muslims alone (note, for example, how non-Muslims such as Christians are destroying South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and how Russia and Ukraine are at war over eastern Ukraine) or that Muslims are not sometimes the innocent victims of death and destruction deriving from non-Muslims (note, for example, the persecution of Muslims in Buddhist-majority Myanmur), but globally Muslims are the cause of more wars, death and destruction than any other group of people that can be identified because of their religion or belief. However, I have yet to list the nation states where worries about Islamist extremism and radicalisation remain a real threat, or where Islamist groups with violent agendas remain in place and occasionally engage in acts of terrorism. Such nation states include Algeria, Chad, Mauritania, Tunisia, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Uzbekistan, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, France and the UK.

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

I mention all this to give what follows a context: there are worrying signs that Indonesia and, even more obviously, Bangladesh are subject to changes that will lead inevitably to more hardline and intolerant attitudes toward minority groups. Indonesia, the nation state with the largest Muslim population on the planet, first. Note the following:

One, Archipelago Islam or Islam Nusantara, traditionally noted for its moderation, tolerance of diversity and protection of minority rights, has been under threat ever since the Bali bombings of 2002.

Two, a higher proportion of males and females, some of the latter from a very young age, wear overtly Muslim dress than they did in the past.

Three, once-popular transvestite beauty contests are now rarely if ever held.

Four, some Muslim groups apply pressure on the government to legislate about issues of morality that have in the past been matters of personal conscience.

Five, hardline Hizb-ut-Tahrir has had a presence in the country for some years and its influence is growing.

Six, polls suggest growing numbers of Muslims want a caliphate in Indonesia and the imposition of sharia law.

Seven, the government is considering legislation to ban alcohol, gambling and prostitution.

Eight, in recent years, members of religious minorities have suffered assault by their Muslim neighbours, and the government has backed the demolition of churches, mandirs and temples.

Last, Jakarta’s governor, Basuki Purnama, is currently under attack from Muslims because he told voters they should not allow themselves to be fooled by the common interpretation of a qur’anic verse instructing them not to vote for non-Muslim leaders such as himself (Purnama, an ethnic Chinese, is Christian). For being so “outspoken”, Purnama may face blasphemy charges.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

I will now spotlight Bangladesh.

One, Islamists have murdered, often openly in the streets of large urban centres, an educationalist who was assumed by his assailants to be secular/humanist even though he never said in public that he was, Hindus, Christians, a Buddhist monk, members of the gay community and openly secular/humanist bloggers.

Two, rather than the government protecting secularists/humanists and confirming their right to express their opinions, it has urged such people not to “attack” Islam or cause offence to conventionally pious Muslims, and to respect the sentiments of the Muslim majority.

Three, in July this year, 22 people, most of whom were non-Muslim foreigners, died when a bomb exploded in a bakery or cafe in a prosperous part of Dhaka.

Four, extremist groups said by group members themselves to have links with Al-Qaeda and/or the Islamic State have grown in number and popularity in recent years.

Five, Bangladesh is experiencing a process called Arabisation, which, among other things, has led to Persian-origin words and phrases being replaced by Arabic words and phrases, and women dressing in ways more resonant of the Arab Middle East than the Indian sub-continent.

Six, in recent decades, Bangladesh has witnessed the opening of a growing number of madrasas, or religious schools, funded by Saudi Arabia and, inevitably, the madrasas reflect the oppressive and intolerant version of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism.

Last, in recent weeks, more than a hundred Hindu homes and seventeen mandirs have been looted and vandalised by groups of Muslim men, simply because of an unproven allegation that a Hindu youth shared a Facebook post that some said denigrated the Masjid al-Haram, Islam’s holiest site in Makkah because it encloses the Ka’aba.

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Bangladesh has in the past been celebrated as a Muslim-majority nation state in which respect for diversity and a live-and-let-live attitude prevail. This is clearly no longer the case, just as it is no longer the case in Indonesia. But one is inevitably compelled to ask the following: If conditions are so dire for non-Muslims in Indonesia and Bangladesh, how much worse are they for non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia or Pakistan, or in those parts of Nigeria, Syria or Iraq terrorised by groups such as Boko Haram or the Islamic State?

Turkey is sometimes held up as an example of how government by an Islamist party need not pose a threat to democracy or to the individual or collective rights of members of minority groups, but I know from first-hand experience that the reality is not as many people wish to believe. Consider the following.

First, all Turkey’s Christian, Yazidi and Jewish communities are substantially smaller than they were fifty or a hundred years ago, discriminatory legislation, Muslim antipathy for non-Muslims, pogroms, massacres and genocide all playing their part in such declines in population.

Second, the AKP government’s determination to enhance the influence of orthodox Sunni Islam, an agenda supported by influential Naqshbandi Sufis who are probably the least Sufi-like Sufis on the planet, means that Alevi, Shia and most Sufi Muslims feel that, as in the past, the state no longer respects the rights of all Turkey’s citizens.

Third, because the AKP monopolises power in Ankara, billions of Turkish liras have been spent on the construction of Sunni mosques; Sunni Islam is taught in many/all the nation’s schools; non-Sunni manifestations of Islam and/or Alevism are excluded from the classroom; and only in recent years has some money been channelled to the Alevis so they can build themselves cemevis for social, cultural and/or religious purposes.

Fourth, the recent failed coup has been used by the government as an excuse to purge the armed forces, the judiciary, the civil service, the school system and the universities of individuals whose loyalty toward the AKP and its Islamist programme is questionable, and to close down newspapers, publishing houses and TV and radio stations deemed unreliable allies of the existing regime.

Last, in recent years the AKP has sounded increasingly like a party that subscribes to Turkish nationalism, albeit not in the ludicrously triumphalist and murderous form subscribed to by some groups on the far right, but this has inevitably done much to alienate even further those small Greek, Armenian, Georgian and Arab communities that remain in the republic, and the 20 million Kurds who once again feel as if their rights and lives are under threat from the state because of the president’s misguided decision to resume the war against the PKK.

In other words, for millions of citizens of the Turkish Republic who are not Sunni Muslims, Naqshbandis and/or ethnic Turks, life stinks. And life stinks because the political scene is dominated by the Islamist AKP, which has scant regard for anyone who is not Turkish and/or in sympathy with increasingly inflexible and intolerant Sunni Islam.

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool. The mosque belongs to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community

P.S. I recently attended a National Interfaith Week event at St. Nicholas Church of England Cathedral in Newcastle-upon-Tyne where, in a welcome departure from convention, speakers from the Ahmadiyya rather than the Sunni Muslim community were given an opportunity to reflect on the themes of peace, justice and reconciliation. Formalities over, everyone chatted around a spread of food and non-alcoholic drinks. I learned that the two Ahmadiyya Muslims present were husband and wife, and that they had fled from the Punjab in Pakistan earlier in the year because of death threats directed toward them by their Sunni Muslim neighbours. The husband had taught for thirty years in a college near Lahore; his wife had engaged in many charitable endeavours to help disadvantaged Pakistani citizens, no matter their religion or belief. The couple were still delighting in the fact that in the UK, as a general rule at least, people with different religions and beliefs, in this case Christians, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims and atheists, meet, mix and mingle as equals and as friends.

Because Ahmadiyya Muslims had been given the chance to represent the Muslim community at the event in the cathedral, no one attended from the region’s large Sunni community.

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

How can humanists and Muslims live and work together in 21st century London?

This blog is predicated on the perception that interfaith dialogue, in the UK at least, very rarely engages with substantive issues in a way that requires those who participate to subject their beliefs to much-needed critical analysis. Below, however, is an example of interfaith dialogue that goes far beyond the norm and therefore provides us with an example of what might be deemed best practice in the field. My thanks to Chris Butterworth in Northumberland (the UK) for bringing this remarkable article to my attention, and thanks to humanists in London for setting up the occasion that made what follows possible. I have changed nothing but a few typographical errors in the original, thereby preserving all the wisdom, insights, comments, opinions and perceptions that make this encounter between humanists and Muslims so invaluable. What follows is a lesson to us all. We now have a benchmark against which to measure future interfaith initiatives.

The original article appeared in “Humanist Life” and was entitled “Common ground dialogue”.

London

London

According to the 2011 census, one in eight Londoners identifies themselves as a Muslim. In November 2014, a group of us (humanists) decided it was time to move beyond the black-and-white “Isn’t Islam terrible” rhetoric and start talking with, and listening to, fellow Londoners who are Muslim. The aim was not to debate whether Islamic beliefs were right or wrong, but to respect the fact that most Muslims will continue to see their faith as an element of their identity. We wanted to get behind the media stereotypes and start to understand what real Muslims think, and where the real differences and common ground lie. Above all, we wanted to start seeing Muslim Londoners as fellow human beings, and not as “the other”.  So we invited four Muslims to a dialogue at Conway Hall on 25th November 2014, a dialogue chaired by Alom Shaha, author of “The Young Atheist’s Handbook” and an ex-Muslim with a Bangladeshi background.

Our guests were Mamadou Bocoum – Public Relations Officer for the Sharia Council; Huda Jawad – Advisor at the Centre for Academic Shia Studies and Research Coordinator for Solace Women’s Aid; Sara Khan – Co-Founder and Director of the human rights charity Inspire, and Yasmin Rehman – from the Centre for Secular Space and a researcher into polygamy and the law. 140 people turned up – mainly humanists but also a number of Muslims. The feedback afterwards was overwhelmingly positive. As one of the attendees said, this was “a chance for humanists to hear a range of views from intelligent and non-stereotypical, politically-engaged Muslims, without anyone demanding that they justify their religious belief”. We see this as a valuable first step in mutual understanding.

Muslim identity, racism, victimhood.

Yasmin’s parents came to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s. Growing up in a small mining town in North East England meant facing routine racism and the threat of violence. On the day of her father’s funeral, someone posted a note through their door saying, “That’s one less Paki to worry about.” Then there was the Rushdie Affair, the point at which it felt that the government started to consider Muslims as a group that needed special attention. That was powerfully reinforced by the 11th September (9/11) and 7th July (7/7) terror attacks in New York and London respectively. Unfortunately, even now when dealing with officials, Yasmin reports that “you get a seat if you say the right thing”. Faith leaders were only too happy to respond by providing a strengthened faith identity. From being a Punjabi Muslim with more in common culturally with Hindu and Christian Punjabis than Muslims from other parts of the world, Yasmin found her Muslim identity promoted to the top of the list and, with it, increased pressure on her generation to practice their faith and adopt its outward signs. Racism then morphed into anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred. Yasmin’s son, then aged eighteen, was brutally assaulted on a London bus in the wake of the 7/7 attacks and has moved to the Far East. She fears he will never return to the UK.

Huda was a child in a Sunni area of Saddam’s Iraq. She was taught to conceal her Shia identity in order to protect her family from persecution. When she came to the UK, she did not even identify herself primarily as a Muslim, and the Islam she heard about in school RE lessons seemed unrecognisable. But things changed after the Rushdie Affair “when the question became, ‘Are you British or are you Muslim?’” Thus began a personal journey to explore her faith and its key texts.

Alom grew up in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s where racial prejudice was considered normal and unremarkable. He saw 9/11 as the turning point when his generation began to be pigeon-holed as Muslim and racism evolved into anti-Muslim prejudice. In his experience as an ex-Muslim, sometimes people use their atheism to mask covert racism and anti-Muslim bigotry. And, too often, terrorist is equated with Muslim.

But the Muslim communities themselves also had to take some responsibility for the current “us and them” position. Firstly, in Sara’s view, they have been let down by poor leadership, which has made them vulnerable to pressure from extremists. Frequently she had seen leaders unwilling to counter extremist on-line narratives, simply claiming “there’s no problem. It’s all to do with British foreign policy”. Inadequate leadership was particularly serious when failing to confront issues of gender inequality. When the police or representatives of the local authorities approached mosques to discuss issues such as violence against women, they were often told there was no issue and they found it impossible to talk directly to Muslim women. Mosques became “gatekeepers, not gateways”.

Secondly, in Yasmin’s view, a sense of victimhood pervaded Muslim households, especially on the back of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Satellite TV channels were filled with reports of Sunni victimhood from Chechnya and other places across the world. Yet, when she tried to challenge this sense of victimhood, she found herself accused of Islamophobia.

The speakers felt that the media provided an extremely misleading picture of British Muslims, which then formed the basis for opinions of the wider population, which added to a Muslim bunker mentality. The result, in Mamadou’s view, was that Islam was being hijacked by the hardliners. Sara quoted the example of the BBC giving Anjem Choudary the key 8.10am interview slot on Radio 4’s “Today” programme after the Lee Rigby murder, despite his extreme views being detested by most British Muslims.

London

London

The rise of ISIS and of extremism in the UK.

All the speakers were horrified by ISIS and what Sara referred to as their “takfiri” form of Salafist/jihadist Islam, in which anyone who does not share their extreme dogma is considered not a true Muslim and is therefore dispensable – a “school of thought alien to most Muslims”. Sara pointed out that the Islamic state, as defined by ISIS, was a modern idea. She saw it as part of the wider challenge of reconciling Islam with modernity.

Extremist ideas generally, and ISIS in particular, posed a serious challenge to Muslim parents in the UK. Young British Muslims who were already feeling alienated and angry were easy prey for jihadist propaganda. But the underlying causes of radicalisation are complex. Sara explained that the government’s “Prevent” strategy had evolved considerably in recent years, and there was now a wealth of academic research about extremism. The research shows no single cause or route to extremism, and no correlation between extremism on the one hand and poverty or lack of education on the other.

It was true that British Sikh and Hindu communities, which had also suffered from racism, did not incline toward extremism to the same degree as the Muslim communities, though Huda pointed out that every religion had the capacity for extremism and violence. She gave the example of Buddhist monks who persecuted Muslims in Burma. A number of factors had affected the position of Muslims in the UK. Foreign policy was one. But it was also significant that, unlike some migrant communities, most British Muslims had their origins in relatively poor rural areas in the Indian sub-continent. Children of first generation immigrants often came from homes where they were told not to question their parents’ views and authority, while at school they were being taught that questioning and enquiry were a good thing. At the same time, in addition to the influence on them of extremists in social media, Sara pointed to the millions of pounds that have been spent by Saudi Arabia on pushing Wahhabism, a hardline variety of Islam with a bigoted view of those who do not share it, and which takes no account of cultural background.

The pressure toward hardline thinking was therefore significant. And, as Huda said, ISIS were especially good at media management and recruitment, while at the same time in Britain “my sons are being told they are the enemy and potential terrorists. How do I prevent them from walking into the arms of ISIS?”

Extremism affected both Muslims and non-Muslims: a Pakistani police colleague of Yasmin’s had been killed by a suicide bomber when he shook his hand in a mosque. In Belgium, a Shia mullah had been killed by Sunni extremists, and in the Edgware Road in London, a mob of Anjem Choudary followers had attacked a man simply for being a Shia. Meanwhile, the Far Right was exploiting ISIS and other Islamist extremists to fuel anti-Muslim hatred. Huda felt the pressure acutely: “This is home. But I’m increasingly feeling there will be a time when I need to find the bags that I’ve packed, but I don’t know where I’m going. I’m not Muslim enough, not secular enough, not Shia enough. How many more headlines do I need to read in the Daily Mail before it’s time to go?”

Yasmin felt that women could play a vital role in combating the extremist trend, citing the example of Northern Ireland where women from both sides of the sectarian divide had lost children in the conflict but came together to work for peace.

There was agreement that it was better for Anjem Choudary and other hardliners’ activities to be visible rather than driven underground, but disagreement over whether there was any benefit in attempting dialogue with such people.

London

London

We have a problem with the text.

Mamadou knows the Qu’ran intimately – he memorised the whole book when he was fourteen and can quote chapter and verse. But he thinks “we have a problem with the text”. In his view the main issue is people taking verses out of context and interpreting them literally. He agreed with the Christian theologian who said, “Any text without context is a pretext”, and pointed out that, if he were following the Qu’ran literally, “I would not be sitting here” because humanists are not Muslims and there is a verse in the Qur’an which says non-Muslims are enemies.

But the Qu’ran itself asks readers to contemplate and think for themselves about its meaning so that “the understanding of the text is greater than the divinity of the text”. Mamadou called for Muslims to be brave enough to question the meaning of the text and to understand and apply Kant’s approach to hermeneutics in order to move beyond literalism.

Sara and Huda shared this interpretive thinking: “The text will be as moral as the reader”, as Sara said. Like Mamadou, Huda saw the text as “all about enquiry”, with verses requiring Muslims to reflect, ponder and understand too often overlooked in favour of simple dos and don’ts. It concerned her that many Muslims forget the blossoming of science and philosophy which took place in Muslim Spain, an empire which lasted for three centuries where rational enquiry was valued. In Mamadou’s view, Muslims could learn from humanists to “put human beings at the centre of what we do. I have a human being in front of me, not God,” he conceded.

London

London

Multiple Islams.

On the panel were three Sunnis – if we include Yasmin, who preferred not to discuss the details of her beliefs – and one Shia Muslim.

Huda explained the split between Sunni and Shia (the latter literally “the followers of Ali”) as originally a political disagreement about the leadership of Islam after Mohammed’s death, with the Sunnis backing the leader chosen by all Muhammad’s followers, and the Shia believing that leadership should devolve on Muhammad’s descendants, starting with Ali, his cousin and son-in-law. Despite agreement about the basic tenets of Islam and the centrality of the Qur’an, over time religious, cultural and political differences of such significance have emerged that the Sunni and Shia schism is one of the main factors shaping wars in the Middle East. Conservative Sunni clerics do not consider Shias true Muslims. Huda sees ISIS as “an unholy alliance” between jihadis and Baathists formally loyal to Saddam Hussein who consider Shias “the number one enemy”, thereby echoing Saddam’s view that they are “worse than Jews, worse than flies”.

Huda saw massive diversity within British Islam. She regarded her faith as a framework for people to find their own path. Her mother was a science teacher and her family includes converts and secularists. Her personal view was that “Islam is all about rationality – we are told to forget tradition”. Unlike Yasmin and Sara, Huda wears a hijab, not because it is a religious requirement but because she has worn it for so long it is part of her personal identity.

Mamadou was born and brought up in Senegal. Among his identities was Sunni Islam with an African flavour, which he continues to foster. Arriving in the UK he found an alien “chicken tikka masala Islam” in which the culture and practices of rural villages of the Indian sub-continent dominated. He argued for the development of a British “fish and chips Islam” reflecting both the diversity of the Muslim communities and British values and culture.

Feminism and women’s rights.

Sara identifies herself as a Muslim feminist, a term that some atheists and Muslims tell her is an oxymoron. For her, “My faith… has given me a notion of equality, freedom of belief”, and it was her reading of the Qur’an that inspired her to fight for justice regardless of the personal cost which has included abuse and death threats. Attacks and threats have come from jihadists and, ironically, jihadists’ most virulent critics. For example, Rod Liddle referred to her in the “The Spectator” as a “pseudo-apologist for the jihadis” because she challenged media generalisations about British Muslims.

In her view, many Muslims do not know their own history. Islam promoted women’s rights in 7th century Arabia. She recommended that Muslims should study “Islamic Humanism” by Lenn Goodman. Unfortunately, the faith has been largely developed by men opposed to gender equality. Ultra-conservatives are trying to extend this thinking, for instance, by introducing gender segregation into British universities and denouncing those who oppose them as “non-Muslims”, thereby echoing ISIS. Globally, extremist Muslims are targeting Muslim feminists, as in the case of a Libyan feminist who was recently murdered.

But that was not the only source of opposition to progress. As Huda said, moderate Muslim feminists in the West find themselves in a triple bind: they have the general challenges associated with being Muslim in the West; their co-religionists use “feminist” as a form of insult; and their co-feminists attack them either for being too religious or not religious enough. Sara has even been accused by white, non-Muslim feminists of being an Islamophobe.

London

London

LGBT rights.

A member of the audience referred to a Gallup poll of five hundred British Muslims in which no respondents had considered homosexuality acceptable and asked, “How can gay people live freely alongside Muslims, for example, in East London?”

Huda’s view was that “God is the only judge” about what is right and wrong in relation to sexuality. But she was not surprised by the data because people will tend to answer this question the way they think is required of them. In fact, Muslims in her community talk about the issue in private all the time, but consider it taboo to discuss publicly.

Huda said there was no question that the current view across Islam is unfavourable toward homosexuality. A particular reason for resistance to change was that, for a community that feels under siege, the traditional teaching is seen as a bastion against the West.

Mamadou compared the development of Christianity and Judaism with Islam, which he saw as still a relatively young religion that needed time to reform. But things may be slowly shifting. There is an organisation called Imaan set up to support LGBT Muslim people – it held a conference earlier this year (2014). TellMAMA, which monitors anti-Muslim attacks in the UK, had recently recruited Peter Tatchell to its board. Shereen El Feki’s book “Sex and the Citadel” addressed the reality of gay life in Arab society, and the Safra Project supports Muslim LBT women. Mamadou had worked with a gay mullah in Washington.

On the other hand, the Safra Project had received threats for campaigning against forced marriage and the liberal Muslim Institute had come under attack for a recent discussion about gay rights.

Yasmin singled out the East London Mosque, which she said had been taken over by Islamists who were strongly homophobic. Sara demanded zero tolerance of homophobia, pointing out that Muslims cannot complain about Islamophobia without at the same time challenging homophobia.

Freedom of speech.

In response to a question about threats of violence directed by Islamists at people deemed to be insulting Islam, Huda said that those who issue such threats must always be condemned, provided it was done even-handedly. “God and the Prophet can take care of themselves”, and she thought most Muslims don’t take violent offence to challenges. But she wondered whether sometimes the target is not so much faith but a particular community. For example, she wondered what the headlines would have looked like if Harold Shipman had been Muslim rather than Jewish.

Faith schools.

There was a clear difference in view among the speakers on faith schools. They did not all support Alom’s call to back the British Humanist Association’s position opposing faith schools as sectarian, divisive and, in a majority of cases, openly discriminatory.

Huda said she did not send her children to a faith school, but understood the need for a safe space where parents could ensure children know enough about their religious and cultural backgrounds to defend themselves against ISIS propaganda. Mamadou thought that some faith schools were “doing a wonderful job” and they should not be closed down. But support for them also meant being ready to criticise them when they got it wrong.

Yasmin had herself attended a convent and considered separating children on the basis of faith a form of apartheid. She had been disturbed to come across a junior school where young girls were wearing hijabs. She felt strongly that the state should not fund faith schools, which only increased division on the basis of religion and class, and she wanted to see world religions taught as an academic subject with less “eurocentricity”.

Sara had two daughters at a local community school. She had no confidence in what a Muslim faith school or a madrassa would teach them and preferred to do “religious education” herself. She recognised that there are some good faith schools and felt parental choice should be respected, but good governance was essential.

Sharia and apostasy.

Although Mamadou is the Public Relations Officer for The Sharia Council, there were only a couple of references to sharia during the meeting. The first reference derived from Yasmin, who pointed out that there is not just one sharia law: there are “four distinct schools within Sunni Islam alone”. She was “really troubled by government support for sharia councils for dispute resolution”, and wanted “all women to have equal access before the law”. She wondered why it was that only in the past twenty years have British Muslim women who want a divorce been expected to go to a sharia court. Did this mean that all the previous divorces were invalid? Huda later pointed out that there are five schools of sharia law, four Sunni schools plus one Shia.

Surprisingly, the issue of apostasy did not come up in the questions, although the speakers’ rejection of qu’ranic literalism suggested what their views might be.

London

London

Were the speakers representative of the wider Muslim community?

A questioner cited opinion polls suggesting the speakers’ liberal views were not representative of the general Muslim population in the UK.

Yasmin was critical of much of the polling data, which she did not recognise on the basis of the many people she knew. It was often unclear who actually got to fill in the questionnaire. Sara pointed out that over 80% of British Muslims were very patriotic, and even the extremists seemed to prefer the benefits and freedoms of living in the West.

Messages to humanists.

During the discussion there were a few points directed at the humanists hosting the event.

  • Sara: “We value your support and assistance in combating extremism.”
  • Huda: “It’s better to ask and enquire than hold back for fear of causing offence.”
  • Mamadou: “It’s important to avoid the arrogance of exclusiveness – what I believe is right, what others believe is wrong.” He called for the non-religious to be “modest enough to accept the religious person”.
  • Huda: “When I’m reaching out to humanists and secularists, I do so in the hope that they will accept me without trying to demonise my religious beliefs or identity or ignore me because I’m not rich enough or educated enough.”

I for one would like to think that these misconceptions about humanists were greatly clarified by the event.

All four speakers welcomed the opportunity for the dialogue and wanted to see it continued.

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.

Phil:

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.

For those who value inclusion and seek to challenge religious, etc. stereotypes…

…the following is welcome news from South Africa (the BBC first ran the story in September 2014):

A Muslim academic has opened a gay-friendly mosque in South Africa, despite receiving death threats and fierce criticism from groups in the local Muslim community. Women will also be allowed to lead prayers at Taj Hargey’s Open Mosque in Cape Town.

“We are opening the mosque for open-minded people, not closed-minded people,” Mr. Hargey told the BBC.

He says the mosque will help counter growing Islamic radicalism. Mr. Hargey, based at the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford in the UK, told the BBC’s Newsday programme that it was time for a “religious revolution”. “In South Africa twenty years ago, there was a peaceful revolution changing from apartheid to democracy and we need to have a similar development in the area of religion,” he said.

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Mr. Hargey, who was born in Cape Town, said the mosque would welcome people from all genders, religions and sexual orientations. “As well as leading prayers, women will be allowed to pray in the same room as men,” he said. He contrasted this to the current Islamic practice which sees “women at the back of the street, back of the hall, out of sight, out of mind.”

However, members of Cape Town’s large Muslim community have taken to social media to criticise the new mosque, with some calling him a “heretic” or “non-believer”. One group tried to block the opening of the mosque. South Africa’s umbrella body for Islamic groups, the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC), says it is investigating the new mosque and has noted concerns raised in the community.

In his sermon, Mr. Hargey condemned the increasing hatred in the world between Muslims and Christians and blamed it on “warped theology”, reports AFP news agency. When asked about his qualifications as a religious leader, he said, “I have a PhD in Islamic Studies from Oxford University, unlike my opponents who went to some donkey college in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.” He told the BBC that he wanted to revive “the original mosque of the Prophet Muhammad where there were no barriers. This idea of female invisibility is an innovation that came after Muhammad. Unfortunately it has become entrenched,” he said.

It’s a pity about the ill-considered reference to “some donkey college in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia”, but we know what Mr. Hargey is getting at. I would suggest that similar “educational” facilities exist in parts of the Bible Belt in the USA, for example. “Going cheap: certificates to confirm you are a pastor in some weird and wacky Christian ‘church’ following a one-month distance learning course. Assessment by multiple choice questions is available on request.” Charlatans exist in the world of religion and belief? Perish the thought!!!!

I have done some research about Taj Hargey on the internet and he is a somewhat controversial figure with a colourful track record to date. However, given that some of the most vehement criticism leveled against him derives from extremist groups which seek to impose on others their oppressive brand of religious belief and practice, I would suggest that Taj Hargey is well-meaning in his efforts to open such a mosque. It’s more inclusive than exclusive, so has to be welcomed. As it is, Taj Hargey enjoys quite a lot of support for his plans from Muslims, both male and female, so this in itself is interesting.

For those who can make use of the information, the following websites seek to meet the needs and aspirations of the millions of gay or lesbian Muslims:

www.imaan.org.uk/

www.lgbtmuslimretreat.com/

www.safraproject.org/co.htm

http://www.thekissgroup.co.uk/

www.qwoc.org

Some of the websites above lead to yet more websites sympathetic to the plight and predicament of gay or lesbian Muslims. No doubt all religious groups can direct me (and others) to websites generated within THEIR faith tradition that also seek to meet the needs and aspirations of gay or lesbian believers. For example, I’ve recently been examining websites for gay and lesbian Latter-day Saint people.

St. Mary's RC Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

St. Mary’s RC Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

What follows is also worth examining. It is not often that excellent news derives from the Roman Catholic Church about matters to do with gay rights, but this appeared recently in “The Guardian” newspaper:

An Irish Catholic priest received a standing ovation from his congregation when he revealed he was gay and then declared his support for same-sex marriage from the pulpit. Father Martin Dolan, who has been a priest at the Church of St. Nicholas of Myra in Francis Street, Dublin for fifteen years, made the unexpected comments during mass.

The priest, who was unavailable for comment and is reported to be on holiday, urged his congregation to back same-sex marriage in the forthcoming Irish referendum. Parishioners are understood to have applauded when Dolan announced “I’m gay myself” last Saturday.

Speaking to “The Irish Sun”, community youth worker Liz O’Connor said, “We are all very proud of Father Martin. Because he has admitted that he is gay, it doesn’t change the person that he was before.”

Gay equality groups in Ireland, including Marriage Equality Ireland and the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, have praised the priest’s decision to come out in front of worshippers.

A referendum on legalising gay marriage in Ireland will be held on a date to be fixed in May. An opinion poll in “The Irish Times” last month found that 71% of the Republic’s electorate would vote yes to allow gay marriages in the country. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church has fought against gay marriage in the Republic, however, warning it would be a “grave injustice”.

How odd to characterise gay marriage as a “grave injustice”. Surely it’s a “grave injustice” that marriage cannot be undertaken by everyone who wishes to marry.

Jesus in Malaga, Spain

Jesus in Malaga, Spain

Last, and for good measure, here’s something which challenges our perceptions of older people. Thanks to Sohan Singh for forwarding this information to me (Sohan: I hope my small amendments to the text have not misrepresented what has been discovered):

Ageing does not have to bring poor health and frailty, according to scientists who have discovered that the most active people in their seventies are as fit as people in their fifties. Researchers working at King’s Cross station, London, approached cyclists aged between 55 and 79 and tested physical functions associated with ageing such as aerobic fitness, resting heart rate, skeletal mass, breathing ability and muscle density. The researchers were hoping to learn whether physiological markers could determine age, but found it was hard to tell who of the participants were older based only on the data collected.

“If you didn’t know the age of the older people, the data relating to many of the functions would point to a person much younger in age,” said Professor Stephen Harridge, director of the Centre of Human and Aerospace Physiological Science at King’s College.

By exercising you do what your body wants it to do and are allowing it to age as nature intended. It is not ageing itself which brings about poor bodily function and frailty, but the fact that people stop exercising and are no longer active.

The 84 men and women who participated in the study, published in “The Journal of Physiology”, had to be able to cycle 100 kms in less than 6.5 hours if aged 55, and 60 kms in less than 5.5 hours if aged 79.

Hmmm: no wonder Sohan says they were “superfit cyclists”!

It looks as if a long and healthy life IS predicated on more exercise! I’m a couch potato no longer, I promise!

Religion: does it facilitate or inhibit gender equality?

Shiva and Parvati, manifestations of the divine in male and female forms. Gender equality in Hinduism?

Shiva and Parvati, manifestations of the divine in male and female forms. Gender equality in Hinduism?

Why is it that so many expressions of religion deny girls and women the same opportunities as boys and men? Is it that God, gods, the supreme being/beings, ultimate reality and/or the divine are all too often described as if they are male? Is it that men and not women wrote all or most of the world’s scripture? Is it that men edited scripture in such a way that women’s contributions were suppressed? Is it predicated on daft ideas that the physically powerful (males) should always shape life for the physically less powerful (women)? Is it predicated on the equally daft idea, no longer sustainable of course, that males are intellectually superior to females?

Goddesses and women have played varied and significant roles in many religions throughout history, so why have they been nearly invisible in the official stories of most religions? In the contemporary world, women often make up the majority in any congregation/gathering for religious ritual purposes, but they are less well represented in leadership positions.

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

The qur'anic class concludes with refreshments, Arapgir, Turkey. Note the difference in headwear

The qur’anic class concludes with refreshments, Arapgir, Turkey. Note the difference in headwear

I am not convinced that religions are necessarily sexist in their beliefs, practices, predispositions or general character. By way of opening up discussion about this matter of supreme and fundamental importance about religious commitment (a religion that cannot treat males and females as equals is highly suspect and deserves condemnation of epic proportions to encourage it to mend its ways immediately), I will dwell on the case of Christianity, which, in its very earliest decades, looked as if it would present a formidable challenge to prevailing norms about gender roles. Too bad, therefore, that, in a relatively short time, males of sometimes questionable character (e.g. note in the first three or four centuries of the religion’s existence the disquiet expressed about the abuse of children, some of it of a sexual nature. Have things changed that much since?) seized the reins of authority and quickly marginalised women. In other than only a few fleeting instances thereafter, it was not until two centuries following the Reformation in the 16th century that some of the Protestant churches began to address the issue of gender equality in a holistic and serious manner (although, in fairness, some expressions of Christianity prior to the Reformation allowed women to attain positions of considerable influence, but only within monastic orders).

A general comment to begin with. To a very large degree, the Bible has been written by men for men about men (to what extent is this also the case in relation to scripture in other religious traditions?).

However, in John’s Gospel, women are active, innovative and ministers of the kingdom to come. They are affirmed in roles unusual/unacceptable in contemporary Middle Eastern society.

Books of the Bible written before John’s Gospel make it clear that women should be the bearers of their husband’s children and satisfy their husband’s sexual needs. Biology shapes women (and men of course) and determines their roles in society. In a lot of early Jewish literature, women are defined as unclean and sexual temptresses, and contact with women should therefore be avoided. Because they were “responsible” for male temptation/deviation from an ethnically sound life, women were barred from public life lest they cause men to sin. Because women were not thought to have the intelligence of men, they were discouraged from using their initiative. In fact, it was sinful for women to study the Torah. Moreover, because they lacked intellectual ability, they could not act as witnesses.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus calls women to public ministry despite male opposition to the idea. He engages in theological discussion/debate (“I am the messiah”) with a Samaritan woman (who is doubly suspect, for being a woman and for being a marginalised/distrusted Samaritan). He talks with Martha about resurrection. The news of his resurrection reaches the disciples via Mary Magdalene.

Jesus is happy to interact with a marginalised Samaritan who is also a woman, someone whom many Jewish people at the time would have regarded as unclean. But it is the unclean Samaritan woman who is persuaded that Jesus is the messiah – and she drops/abandons everything to share her knowledge with others. She is therefore a model for apostolic activity and would therefore seem to be on an equal footing with the disciples. Her role in John’s Gospel is described in the same way that John’s Gospel describes the disciples’ ministry.

The Samaritan woman is the first person in John’s Gospel to whom Jesus reveals himself as the messiah and she is the first person who acts on that recognition. She is therefore the recipient of important theological information. Jesus treats her seriously and responds to her comments patiently and thoughtfully. To a very real degree, therefore, she is a model of female discipleship. This seems to imply that women can be messengers of the kingdom.

In John’s Gospel, Marta of Bethany is introduced/described in such a way as to suggest that she is more important than Lazarus. Jesus delivers “I am” speeches to Martha and Martha’s response to them mirrors that of Simon Peter in Matthew’s Gospel. Simon Peter’s response is generally viewed as confirmation that he has a leadership role, which would therefore imply that Martha is like a leader within the Jesus sect. Jesus sees Martha as capable of perceptive and discerning faith.

Even in stained glass windows, men invariably outnumber women. St. Vitus's Cathedral, Prague

Even in stained glass windows, men invariably outnumber women. St. Vitus’s Cathedral, Prague

If Chapter 20 of John’s Gospel is taken at face value, it would seem to provide the ultimate confirmation that Jesus is the resurrected Christ, the Son of God. Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty and tells Peter and the Beloved Disciple. Mary Magdalene is told to tell Jesus’ brothers the news of the resurrection. She is therefore entrusted with the supremely important message of Jesus’ triumph over death. It is due to this role that Mary Magdalene has been called the apostle of the apostles. A woman is informing/teaching the male disciples about the most basic tenet of the Christian faith, about the most startling mystery at the heart of the religion. One is therefore compelled to ask, “Is Mary Magdalene the equal to Peter?”

In some key respects, therefore, Jesus in John’s Gospel is revealed as distinctly radical/revolutionary in relation to the cultural norms of his age. He seems to suggest/confirm that women do not seduce men and that they should have access to public life. He seems to say that women should benefit from education. However, the Bible very soon confirms that all the disciples are male. Does this therefore confirm that Jesus is really a man of his time despite the above? Or does this merely confirm that others who came after him subverted his original intentions?

There is an indication in Chapter 12 verse 2 of John’s Gospel that Martha may have served at a table, perhaps as what became known as a deacon or, eventually, a minister in a house-church.

Although the earliest Christian texts attest to the importance of women in Jesus’ entourage and in the running of the first Christian house-church meetings, women rapidly disappear from the official history of church leadership (is this so because leaders within the church conformed with Paul’s hostility to women playing an active, public role in society/the church comparable to that of men?). However, sufficient evidence exists (historical and biblical) to confirm that, in those early days of innovation, Christianity accorded to women a role within the emerging religion that was indistinguishable from that of men. Consequently, far from the Church of England’s recent ordination of a woman as a bishop being a departure from early Christian tradition (of course, women bishops have existed for some years in the Episcopalian Church, the US version of the Church of England), Anglicans have simply brought practice within their denomination into line with the seeds sown in the decades immediately following the execution of Jesus.

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. For a number of years now, the synagogue has had a female rabbi

Although the great majority of religions worldwide discriminate against women in favour of men, or withhold opportunities to women that they grant to men (can anyone come up with examples of sexism that are more blatant?), the Church of England, the Episcopalian Church, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church are among the Christian denominations that have female priests/ministers, and within Judaism all “schools” except Orthodoxy encourage women to train as rabbis. Men and women share priestly responsibilities in ISKCON and in many manifestations of what is collectively called Paganism. Women also play a key role in rituals associated with the religion known variously as Vodou, Voodoo or Vodun (e.g. female Vodou priests are called “mambos”). In some manifestations of Sufism, men and women assume an equal role in ritual practices, and monasticism for males and females exists in many forms of Christianity and some forms of Buddhism.

Where are the girls? Where are the women?

Where are the girls? Where are the women?

Can anyone identify the other religions around the world which accord women exactly the same opportunities as men to play a full/leading role within their faith? I’m not interested at this stage in those religions which say women are equal to men (this is frequently alleged by expressions of religion, but quite rarely carried through in practice); I seek instead evidence that this is so in terms of their authority within the religion. Put another way, if authority figures within a faith are men, can women fulfil exactly the same roles? And if not, why not? If they can’t fulfil such roles, don’t tell me it’s mere tradition because, if it is, tradition needs to be challenged yesterday. Slavery was traditional, but it no longer exists in most parts of the world (it is most common in India, however, where an estimated 14 million people – yes, 14 million people – suffer from different types of bondage/false imprisonment, children and women primarily). Female infanticide was traditional, but it is rarely encountered today (it appears to be most common in the People’s Republic of China). The burning of witches was traditional, but today it seems to be confined to only a few places in Africa and Melanesia. Human sacrifice was traditional, but it would appear to have died out everywhere (except in Louisiana, if “True Detective” is to be believed).

Unnecessary differentiation by dress, Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Unnecessary differentiation by dress, Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Who can say for certainty what form the divine assumes (if it exists at all, of course)?

Who can say for certain what form the divine assumes (if it exists at all, of course)?