Tag Archives: National Interfaith Week

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 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 cathedral), 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 fifteen 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 fifteen 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 let 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 do 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 antipathy 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.

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 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, twenty-two 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 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 twenty 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; and 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.