We were pleased to host an interfaith forum (17 March) on important issues of governmental and institutional responses to religious extremism.
The debate brought together a number of outspoken speakers. It shone light into areas that interfaith dialogue does not often address, though necessarily should for real dialogue to take place.
Amongst several issues tackled, the panel suggested that Government subsidies to unrepresentative cliques is contributing to a failure to improve relations between faith communities. The meeting also emphasised the need for open, honest and truthful dialogue between all concerned.
The forum included striking comparisons of the ‘interfaith industry’ with 1970’s radical exploitation of the Trades Union movement, and suggested that increased radicalisation was a likely outcome of present policy, despite undoubtedly good intentions.
Titled “Who is My Neighbour? – A Multifaith Response to Critical Issues for the General Election“, the meeting at Church House in Westminster was attended by some 80 representatives of religious and interfaith organisations from a wide spectrum of faiths and localities around the country, as well as academics and policy makers.
Speakers examined the dangers of the uncritical acceptance of small groups of politically motivated individuals falsely purporting to represent religious communities, particularly when government financial support was on offer.
The Department for Communities and Local Government in particular was criticised for failing to understand the complex nature of minority religions, and for subsidising unrepresentative cliques as an easy solution. In some cases these cliques have direct and established links to violent extremism abroad, and certain prominent spokespersons have previously been convicted as war criminals.
We will be presenting a video of the meeting in the near future, but in the meantime we provide a brief summary of the contributions by our panelists.
Our moderator, Rabbi Reuben Livingstone, opened proceedings by pointing out the danger of notions of partisanship in religion, and its poisonous effects. The issues, he said, should be considered according to a standard of moderate multi-culturalism.
Dr. Damian Thompson, Editor of the Catholic Herald and a columnist in The Spectator, spoke about Blairist attempts to navigate a ‘Third Way’, and more recent Conservative attempts to move towards the ‘Big Society’, as attempts to deal with a period of intense technological and demographic change.
Mr. Thompson said the 1970’s approach of ‘tolerance, diversity and richness’ had been overtaken by changes in society, and that over the last 20 years it had become hard to separate problems of religion and problems of culture. For him the problem now was undoubtedly one of extremism. The Church of England had failed, he felt, by providing little or no support to the ‘Big Society’ initiatives.
In a unreserved criticism of interfaith activity which was not shared by all present, he said that any resolution of current problems would come only by digging deeper into ‘not what people’s religious beliefs are, but how they hold them’. Accurate study was a prerequisite to dealing with problems of religion and society achieving anything other than meaningless platitudes.
Sheik Dr. Muhammad Al-Husseini spoke about the recent Pastoral Letter issued by the Church of England in the run-up to the election, suggesting that under a Labour Government the State had too much power, while under a Conservative Government the market had too much power.
Recent attempts to create a Third Way by devolving power and providing funding to unrepresentative organisations such as the Interfaith Network was not only obscuring real issues but hampering attempts to create productive dialogue.
Inter-Religious dialogue, he said, should not become a smokescreen for power-hungry cliques who presented themselves falsely as spokesmen for communities they had no mandate from. Dr. Al-Husseini spoke with great passion and his words and sentiments were warmly received.
The Rt. Revd. Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, felt the Pastoral letter had received some unfair criticism. It was, he said, an attempt to encourage engagement with politics by everyone against a backdrop of flagging interest in the general population who had to a significant degree turned their backs on politics.
He also pointed out that this was about personal responsibility, and that change would only come from each and every one of us when we took that responsibility, however we chose to do it.
Despite well-aired conflicts between the Anglican Church and the Government of Mrs. Thatcher there had been, he said, a vision of morality and personal ethics under her Government which was almost completely absent from current political debate.
Educational Consultant Mrs. Judy Keiner spoke about similarities between racial tensions of the 1990’s and religious tensions of the present day, and said that ill-conceived Government-inspired attempts to teach ‘diversity’ had fuelled rather than defused racial tensions.
She felt the same mistakes were being made by current Government approaches, and drew parallels with 1970’s Trades Unions radicalisation by “Entryist” cliques, who succeeded in taking over and manipulating large organisations for their own political ends.
The same mechanisms were visible in increasingly radical and extremist religious organisations today, she said. The large sums on offer to ‘de-radicalise’ young people through Interfaith initiatices were, she said, sometimes funding organisations with direct links to extremist violence.
Pandit Satish Sharma, spoke of a “tale of two cities”, two distinct “cities” of InterFaith activity. One of these, he said, was the grass roots “city” where people of different communities were getting on with evolving and growing together, gradually discarding the dogmatic troublesome baggage of old bankrupt beliefs. The second “city” was that of professional Faith and InterFaith.
As a newcomer he had been saddened to find that in a sector purportedly “close to divinity”, duplicity and deceit were commonplace, amongst many other ills. He posed the question whether the InterFaith industry had become a religious Ponzi scheme, peddling sub-prime spirituality and friction in order to simply embezzle funds from the public purse.
He spoke about his own experiences where the Church of England had launched an attack on the British Hindu Community in an attempt to undermine the integrity and cohesion of British Hindus in this country, an attack which had been fostered by evangelical extremist Christians led by retired Bishop Lord Harries.
The ultimate solution, he felt, was for all faith communities to discard ‘nonsense’ – such as preaching that it was ok to rape and pillage for a lifetime and then, when at death’s door, to declare loyalty to an institution and be immediately absolved.
He expressed as the highest ideal the over-riding importance of upholding human rights. In this light, Christians should be true to the highest values enshrining human rights in their own religious texts, Muslims to theirs, Jews to theirs, Hindus to theirs.
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