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Author Archives: Hardeep Singh

(Above: Lord Singh)

(Above: Lord Singh)

Leading a debate last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury put forward a motion in the Lords exploring, “shared values underpinning our national life and their role in shaping public policy priorities.”

Celebrating British values of generosity, fairness, justice and the rule of law, the Archbishop reflected on post-Brexit Britain. He said: “unless we ground ourselves in a clear course and widely accepted practices, loyalties and values—what I will call values in this speech—we will just go with the wind.”

Contributing from a Sikh perspective, NSO Director Lord Singh’s speech is reproduced in full below:

“My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for initiating this important debate. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and to build on some of the things he has just said. In the last few years of the 20th century, I was part of the Lambeth group, representatives of different religions who met at Lambeth Palace to plan celebrations for the new millennium and the layout of the Faith Zone in the Millennium Dome. We were conscious of the fact that in the 20th century more people had died in war and conflict than in the rest of recorded history, and we reflected on hopes for a better future.

I was asked to head a small group to draw up a list of values for peace and justice in the 21st century. As a start, I put forward a list based on the teachings of the Sikh gurus, and the commonalities between different faiths became evident as the list was virtually agreed as it was. It was prominently displayed in the Faith Zone of the Millennium Dome and talked about in various conferences; then it was filed away in the archives of Lambeth Palace and the repositories of other faiths. Let us fast-forward a few years to another meeting at Lambeth Palace—in the very same room where we used to meet—and a charismatic preacher from America saying that what we needed were values.

There are plenty of values about and plenty of guidance in our different religious books. For most of our faiths, it can be put on one sheet of A4. The problem is that although stating those teachings and values is relatively easy, it is extremely difficult to live by them. So we humans find surrogates and alternatives for true and difficult commitments, such as rituals, penances and pilgrimages; such actions give a sense of satisfaction and spirituality. But as Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, observed, in themselves they are,

“not worth a grain of sesame seed”.

The guru taught that living true to such values is what really counts. The task then given to the nine succeeding gurus was to live true to those teachings in very challenging social and political times—and it was not easy.

One value that we call a British value is tolerance and respect for others. Guru Arjan, the fifth guru, showed that respect by inviting a Muslim saint, Mian Mir, to lay the foundation stone of the Golden Temple, which was constructed with a door at each of its four sides to denote a welcome to all coming from any geographic or spiritual direction. Inside the temple or gurdwara and in all gurdwaras, a vegetarian meal called langar is served to all, without any distinction of caste or creed. When the Mughal emperor Akbar visited the guru, he, too, was asked to sit and eat with people of different social backgrounds.

The guru also added verses of Hindu and Muslim saints to our holy scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib, to show that no one faith had the monopoly of truth. However, living true to such basic values is not easy: the guru was arrested and tortured to death in the searing heat of an Indian June, for daring to suggest that there was more than one way to God. Sikhs commemorate that martyrdom not by showing any sign of bitterness but by serving cool, refreshing drinks to all near their homes or gurdwaras.

Some years back, I decided to organise the serving of free cooling drinks in Hyde Park, and the initial reaction of the Hyde Park authorities was not very encouraging. They said, “You can’t do that sort of thing in a royal park—everyone will start doing it”.

Guru Arjan’s successor, Hargobind, was imprisoned in Gwalior Fort for his belief, along with 52 other princes. On the festival of Diwali, the Mughal emperor said, as a gesture of good will, that Guru Hargobind was free to leave, but he stunned the emperor by saying, “I’m not going unless all the other 52 are also released”. He emphasised the importance of individual liberty for all—another British value.

In living true to exacting values, the ninth guru gave his life defending the right of another religion to worship in the manner of its choice. Voltaire said, “I may not believe in what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. It was Guru Tegh Bahadur who years earlier gave that noble sentiment practical utterance. The 10th guru, Guru Gobind Singh, emphasised the importance of democracy, another British value.

The Sikh turban that we wear is supposed—and perhaps I should emphasise “supposed”—to remind us of the ideals by which we should live. The values that I have spoken of and those taught in Britain today are in fact universal values, taught by different faiths, and should be referred to as universal values. We urgently need to go beyond simply making lists or paying lip service to universal human values; we need to incorporate them, as the founders of our different faiths intended, into how we live, move and have our being.

It is hypocritical to talk of the commitment to democracy and pally up to tyrants such as the rulers of Saudi Arabia, or to say, as our Trade Secretary said a couple of years ago, that we should not mention human rights when we talk trade with China. It is wrong that the weak and vulnerable in society should depend on charitable appeals for basic necessities when their needs should be a first charge on all of us. It is wrong to talk of respect for all, and then use families settled here for generations as bargaining chips for Brexit.

Britain has led the world in many ways. My hope is that we will now lead in closing the gap in our long-suffering world between values that we all accept and the lure of self-interest in both personal dealings and the way we view the world.”

Genocide in Syria and Iraq

December 1st, 2016 | Posted by Hardeep Singh in Current Issues - (0 Comments)

 

ap_608778470134_wide-a4f98f81d6c31900088386d873dbe889e641cd78-s900-c85In a debate last week Lord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty’s Government what progress had been made to bring those responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity in Syria and Iraq to justice. The Minister confirmed the government support the UN Commission of inquiry in Syria and have launched “a global campaign to bring Daesh to justice.”

Our Director Lord Singh, said: “My Lords, while members of ISIS responsible for open slave markets and the systematic humiliation of Yazidi and Christian women must be brought to justice, does the Minister agree that the systematic bombing by Russia and the West – to near extinction—of the people of Syria is also a war crime for supposed strategic interests? Does she also agree that the constant repetition of the mantra that Assad must go does nothing whatever to address the underlying religious tensions?”

Why no ‘Action Against Hate’ for non-Abrahamic faiths?

December 1st, 2016 | Posted by Hardeep Singh in Current Issues - (0 Comments)

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This week the NSO has written to the Home Secretary following our lengthy campaign for a level playing field for all faith victims of hate crime. The letter has been supported by a number of prominent Hindu and Sikh organisations, and we are confident that the government will take steps to address community concerns.

We would like to see ‘Action Against Hate’ updated, so that it reflects the predicament faced by non-Abrahamic victims of hate. As things stands, the government appears to only acknowledge the suffering of Muslims, Jews and Christians. The communication to the Home Secretary, follows on from FOI figures released to us, which indicated 28% of victims of ‘Islamophobic hate crime’ recorded by the MET Police in 2015, were non-Muslims. This includes Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and those of no recorded faith.

Further to our initial concern about ‘Action Against Hate’, a Faith Community Forum meeting was organised by The Inter Faith Network on the 27 Sep. At the meeting a senior Home Office representative acknowledged the omission of non-Abrahamic faiths, and said that this would be rectified. We have not been informed of any steps taken since to update the government’s four year hate crime plan, so were left with little choice but to inform the Home Secretary of ongoing community concerns.

The NSO is confident that the government will take note and ensure all faith based victims of hate are treated equally. A change to the government’s strategy is urgently required to give reassurance to Britain’s Sikhs, Hindus and other non-Abrahamic faith groups.

NSO Co-Chair Karamjit Singh Thind presents talk show

December 1st, 2016 | Posted by Hardeep Singh in Current Issues | Videos - (0 Comments)

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY – 22/11/16

November 24th, 2016 | Posted by Hardeep Singh in Thought for the day - (0 Comments)

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Last week I attended a meeting jointly called by the Home Office and Department for Communities, for faith communities, police and other stakeholders about the alarming rise in hate crime. Many saw the solution in greater vigilance in reporting unacceptable behaviour, and firm action by the police and courts. To me, as a Sikh this in itself, was like applying sticking plasters to surface sores without tackling the underlying malady, namely irrational prejudice that leads us to place negative connotations on superficial difference like colour of skin, dress or foreign accent.

The problem is that when two or more people find sufficient in common to call themselves us, they all too often find someone to look down on to strengthen their sense of unity. We see it in rivalry between football fans, and in its worst form it can lead to the horrors of the holocaust. Unscrupulous politicians all too often exploit the same irrational prejudices for political gain, particularly at a time of economic or social difficulty. We all know that in a fog or mist, familiar objects can assume grotesque and frightening forms, and it is the same when we look at fellow humans through a lens of ignorance and prejudice.

Some people suggest that keeping religion in the private sphere well away from politics is one way of addressing prejudice. Nothing could be less helpful. The Sikh Gurus taught that people of religion and political rulers should work together to build a tolerant and inclusive society. Living at a time of religious conflict, they were well aware of the dangers of prejudice, and stressed the equal dignity and respect of all members, male and female, of our one human family.

Guru Gobind Singh, 10th Guru of the Sikhs wrote:

God is in the temple as He is in the mosque
The Shia and the Sunni pray to the same one God
Despite differences in culture and appearance
All men have the same form. All pray to the same one God.

Today the fog of ignorance and prejudice is still very much evident in attacks on minority groups including the Polish community for speaking their own language. Much of this hate crime is directed against religious communities and responsibility lies with the secular and religious to address the language and actions arising from prejudice, to help us recognise common ground and imperatives for true community cohesion.

 

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The latest Ministry of Justice (MOJ) statistics show violence against prison officers has reached almost 6,000 incidents per year, up 43% from the previous year. Prisoner-on-prisoner assaults are up 32% from last year to 17,782 incidents. The rise in violence has given rise to calls for a public inquiry by prison governors.

Last week peers discussed the concerning trend. Responding to Lord Patel’s question on how the government is going to address the issue, The Advocate General of Scotland, Lord Keen of Elie said,

“Improving safety and decreasing the level of violence is an urgent priority for this Government. We recently set out our plans for prison safety and reform in a White Paper. We will invest in 2,500 more prison officers across the prison estate. This includes the recruitment by March 2017 of 400 additional prison officers into 10 of our most challenging prisons.”

Lord Singh of Wimbledon, Head of the Sikh Prison Chaplaincy Service said, “Overcrowding is a major contributory factor to violence in prisons, and a major cause of overcrowding is repeat offending. Sikh chaplains are instructed to work with local communities to break the cycle of reoffending by providing work and accommodation for released prisoners.”

He went on,“Does the Minister agree that the National Offender Management Service and the chaplaincy council should encourage chaplains of all faiths to make rehabilitation central to their work? Does he further agree that an element of competition between different faiths to reduce reoffending would be no bad thing?”

The MOJ do not currently breakdown re-offending statistics by faith.

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY – 13/11/16

November 14th, 2016 | Posted by Hardeep Singh in Thought for the day - (0 Comments)

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Yesterday’s service at the Cenotaph was a touching reminder of the tragic loss of millions of young lives in the first and second world wars and in numerous subsequent conflicts. Today we are all too aware that lasting peace, based on universal respect for human rights, still remains a distant and elusive goal.

Guru Nanak whose birth anniversary Sikhs celebrate today, was himself a witness to the savagery of conflict, with forced conversions and atrocities. He was a man far ahead of his time. Instead of restricting himself to praying to God for peace, he also attacked the underlying causes of conflict, including supposed religious superiority and exclusive relationships with God; then used, and still used today to justify cruel and intolerant behaviour. The Guru in his very first sermon taught that the one God of us all was not in the least bit impressed by our different religious labels, but by what we do to ensure peace and social justice for our fellow human beings.

The Guru also criticised the belief that any one nation or group of people were inherently superior to those around them. He taught a belief in the equality and interdependence of all members of our one human family. Following the huge loss of life in the second world war, similar thoughts led to the creation of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The reality of the world today is that while instant communications and interdependence in trade and commerce, push us to the realisation of a shared and common destiny, long engrained attitudes and prejudices, make it difficult for many to accept the new reality. We cannot have it both ways. We cannot be true to those, who, in the words of the Kohima Epitaph, ‘gave their today for our tomorrow’ unless we look towards a world that recognises an equal respect for all. It’s not easy to change deep rooted attitudes, but as Guru Nanak reminds us, it’s the only way to true and lasting peace.

 

 

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Prevent one of the four strands of the government’s counter terrorism strategy Contest continues to divide public opinion. Significant government funds have been invested since 9/11.

Six years after the London 7/7 bombings, £80m has been reported to have been spent on 1,000 schemes across 94 local authorities. The government however, has been accused of stigmatising Muslim communities, causing disquiet among groups, one of which has announced an alternative counter-terror scheme.

Last week Lord Lester of Herne Hill asked the government whether they intended to set up an independent inquiry to evaluate the operation of Prevent. Minister of State for the Home Office, Baroness Williams of Trafford responded, informing peers that since 2011 Prevent had been expanded in order to account for an increased terror threat.

Defending the strategy she said, “Prevent is working; it is safeguarding people from being drawn into terrorism. The statistics on Prevent delivery are reported in the Contest annual report. We have committed to updating Contest in 2016 and Prevent will be included as part of that refresh.”

Lord Singh of Wimbledon, the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations talked about the difficulty with Prevent because of ambiguity.

He said, “Words such as “extremism”, “fundamentalism” and “radicalisation” all leave us none the wiser—and “Islamist” is a positive insult to the Muslim community. Would the Minister agree that the real target of Prevent is the out-of-context use of religious texts to justify the abuse of human rights and the cruel treatment of women and people of other faiths?”

He went on, “Will she try to engage with faith leaders to ensure that they interpret religious texts in the context of today’s times?”

Baroness Williams responded, “The noble Lord, as always, makes very wise points. So often in the case of religion, religious texts are misinterpreted to the extent that they are completely out of context with the actions of those who would seek to undermine the true tenets of those religions.”

['The Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland': image by Gryffindor under license CC 3.0]

[‘The Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland’: image by Gryffindor under license CC 3.0]

Talk given at the Palais des Nations, the United Nations Office at Geneva [22-09-16]

Friends,
It is a real pleasure to be with you to give a Sikh perspective on Religious Literacy and Freedom of Religion and Belief today. Religion is very much in the news, often for the wrong reasons. Religion, and religious bigotry are often wrongly seen in the public mind as one and the same thing. There is therefore, a clear need for religious literacy to help us distinguish between religion and the misuse of religion.

Basic literacy
Unfortunately, instead of explaining the essentials of different religions and what motivates people of faith, the inter faith industry has made religious literacy a subject for academics who voice their understanding in highly abstruse and difficult to understand lectures and seminars. We need the basics in clearly understood language.

Let’s start with Sikhism: a little known religion in the West, although tens of thousands of Sikhs gave their lives for the West in two world wars and were briefly welcomed with smiles and flowers. Today, Sikhs are confused with Muslims and often referred to as Bin Laden, although, as you will see, they are clearly two different faiths.

Sikhism is a religion with about 25 million followers that began in Punjab some five and a half centuries ago; a religion that believes in one God who is beyond birth and timeless. Teachings stress the equality of all members of our one human family, full gender equality, rejection of all notions of race or caste and a commitment to tolerance and respect between different religions; a belief that God isn’t a bit impressed by our different religious labels, but in what we do in serving our fellow human beings. That is all anyone needs to know about Sikhs and Sikhism in my understanding of basic religious literacy.

We need to adopt the same basic approach in looking at other religions, and then go on to look for and rejoice in shared commonalities, and be aware of irreconcilable differences that should be questioned, respected, or possibly be challenged.

The real purpose of religious literacy is to remove dangerous ignorance. Prejudice thrives on ignorance and leads to irrational hate. We all know that in a fog or mist, even normally familiar objects like a tree or bush can assume sinister or threatening proportions. It is the same with people of different religions or cultures when we see them in a mist of ignorance and prejudice. Remove the fog or mist of ignorance and we see them as fellow human beings.

Let me now talk briefly about Freedom of Belief. Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights declares that we all have a human right to practice and manifest our religion, and in precept at least, it is binding on all members of the UN. Unfortunately, the Declaration is often more honoured in its breech than in observance.

There are two difficulties:

1.Secular society can, at times, be antagonistic to beliefs that they may regard as a challenge to secular politics.
2. Arrogant behaviour of religions and factions in religions that look down on both other religions and secular society.

Secular Challenge
A history of oppressive religion in France at the time of the French Revolution, led to religion being seen as a threat to material progress, leading it to it being banished to the margins of society. In France and some other countries any public manifestation of religion like a Sikh turban is banned, despite France being a signatory to the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

A European Court of Human Rights ruling that discrimination against the turban is illegal, is simply ignored. Ironically France’s narrow interpretation of secularity is similar to the narrow interpretation of religion by some religious bigots. Today we need to understand that a truly secular state is one in all systems of belief can flourish and in which no religion or system of belief dominates political life to the exclusion of others.

Sikhs reflect on this discrimination against the manifestation of religious belief as we mark the centenary of World War 1, in which tens of thousands of Sikh soldiers were briefly welcomed with flowers before going on to fight and die in the freezing and vermin infested mud filled trenches of the Somme, and in Gallipoli and other battlefields, fighting for those who now discriminate against the turban. We feel particularly bad as the Sikh turban reminds us to be true to freedom of belief, tolerance and respect for others.

Demonising of religion in schools is also counter-productive. If children do not acquire some basic religious literacy in school, they will simply carry their ignorance and prejudices to adult life. In the USA which bans the teaching of religion in schools, the first person shot in revenge for 9/11 was a Sikh. This was followed by other incidents including Sikh worshippers being shot dead in a gurdwara in Wisconsin as a result of mistaken identity. Such incidents, also suffered by other faiths, result from ignorance and prejudice.

 [Above: Right to Left, Baroness Berridge and Lord Singh during panel debate]

[Above: Right to Left, Baroness Berridge and Lord Singh during panel debate]

Religious arrogance and rivalry
Freedom of Religion does not carry a right to harm or disparage others It must conform to basic human rights including full gender equality. Historical religious texts sometimes contain harsh strictures on geographic neighbours and other faiths at a time of the early development of that faith, as well as dated social attitudes. These have become embedded not only in some religious scriptures, but also in the psyche of unthinking believers.  These need to be removed or disregarded if religion is to realise its true role in society.

As a Sikh, I believe that that a major impediment to religious harmony is the claim that the one God of us all is prejudiced or biased towards any particular faith, or that ours is the only way to God. This is not only insulting but a recipe for conflict. In the same way, the killing of innocents in the name of God, is the ultimate blasphemy.

Discussion in this area is also made more difficult by a jargon jungle of pejorative language. Words like fundamentalist, extremist, moderate, terrorist or Islamist do not enhance discussion and are simply used by governments and others to smear those they do not like. Let me give an example: Many of you will be aware that in 1984 that the Indian government pandering to latent majority Hindu racism in an election year, invaded the historic Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar on one of the holiest days in the Sikh calendar, on the pretext that it housed some ‘separatists’.

Thousands of innocent pilgrims in the vast complex were brutally killed and much of the complex destroyed. The Indian propaganda machine labelled all practising Sikhs as terrorists and even sought to pressurise those like myself abroad, protesting in the media about the Indian Government action.

Early one Sunday morning two Scotland Yard police officers knocked on my front door. I invited them in and offered them a cup of tea. Somewhat embarrassed, they asked if I was an extremist or a moderate. I replied that I was extremely moderate. Then they asked if I was a fundamentalist. I replied ‘well I believe in the fundamentals of Sikhism, like the equality of all human beings and commitment to work for greater social justice, yes I suppose I am a fundamentalist.’ The two officers finished their tea and left thoroughly confused.

Negative Political Influence
Unfortunately, politicians throughout the world also show a reluctance to be even-handed in their approach to human rights and religious freedom, basing their stance on trade and power block politics. Some examples from Britain, but it’s much the same across the world. At the time of the mass killing of Sikhs in India in 1984, I went to see the British Home Secretary who I knew well and asked him why was the government silent on this near genocide. He turned to me and said ‘Indarjit we know what is going on; we’re walking on a tightrope; we have already lost one important contract (the Westlands helicopter contract) what can we do?’

More recently, a minister in the House of Lords rose to state that Her Majesty’s Government wanted an international inquiry into human rights abuse in Sri Lanka. I rose and asked: ‘will the government support a similar international inquiry into the killing of tens of thousands of Sikhs in 1984? The minister’s dismissive response: ‘that is a matter for the Indian government’. The great human rights activist Andrei Sakharov declared: ‘that there will never be peace in the world unless we are even-handed in looking to human rights’. We should heed his sane advice.

The trumping of trade over human rights was even blatant at the time of a visiting Chinese trade delegation in 2014. The Minister then responsible for trade publically stated that: ‘when we are talking trade with China, we should not raise issues over abuse of human rights’. I have cited examples from Britain, but sadly most countries in the world behave in exactly the same way.

Conclusions
Religious literacy and inter faith dialogue is a basic need for religious harmony. It is too important to be the sole preserve of so-called scholars, or religious leaders who meet and make virtuous pronouncements, and then go away to denigrate the beliefs of their inter faith colleagues and say to their congregation that they and they alone, are the one true faith.

We also need to urgently get away from arguments of religion versus secularity. They are not mutually exclusive and can be mutually enhancing. Religion emphasises responsible behaviour and secular politics emphasises behaviour that conforms to society norms. Religion emphasises ethical values that do not change with time and can or should underpin secular society. Basic religious literacy can not only show that different religions are not all that different in ethical values, but also that our shared ethical values can help make secular society more humane and caring and our world a more peaceful place.

Lord (Indarjit) Singh, Vice Chair APPG International Religious Freedom

Note: Lord Singh’s contribution was received with rapt attention and warm appreciation. Bishop Duleep De Chickera from Colombo, was moved to comment that ‘Lord Singh’s talk was so full of common sense that I wish we had him as President of Sri Lanka‘.

He was invited to join a select Panel to talk to and take questions from national representatives the next morning


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