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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Peers questioned the ethics of British and American arms sales to Saudi Arabia, with Lord Alton of Liverpool asking Her Majesty’s Government if since the devastating strikes they “are reassessing the licensing of United Kingdom weapons sales to Saudi Arabia since the conflict in Yemen began.”
Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Department for International Development, Baroness Anelay of St Johns responded thus, “The UK Government are deeply concerned by the conflict in Yemen, including recent events in Sanaa. As part of the careful risk assessment for the licensing of arms exports to Saudi Arabia, we keep the situation under careful and continued review.”
She added, “All export licence applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms and export licensing criteria, taking account of all relevant factors at the time of the application.”
Lord Singh, the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) said, “My Lords, bomb fragments found at the scene of the funeral carnage were those from an Mk 82 American guided bomb. Saudi Arabia is one of the most barbaric countries in the world, with beheadings, amputations and the enslavement of women, while, at the same time, exporting its medieval version of Islam to neighbouring countries such as Syria, Sudan and Yemen.”
He added, “Can the Minister give me a good reason why the West—principally the United States and ourselves—supplies some £7 billion-worth of arms to Saudi Arabia each year? I might add that boosting our trade by exporting the means of mass killings is not a good reason.”
In response Baroness Anelay reassured peers Britain complies with international humanitarian law and that she herself understood the sense of outrage felt by Lord Singh and others about the suffering of people in Yemen. She said, “I undertake that the UK will continue to press as strongly as we are able in the diplomatic sphere to achieve a peaceful resolution but, in the meantime, continue the aid that we provide there.”
Earlier this month Lord Alton of Liverpool asked her Majesty’s government what steps they were taking to promote Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Lord Singh’s contribution to this important debate has been reproduced in full below:
My Lords, I also offer my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating this important debate and for the vast amount of work he does in this field. All too often, debates and questions in this House describe the appalling treatment of religious minorities across the world. Unfortunately, the response from government is in my view far from even-handed. The world, it seems, is still seen in terms of friendly countries to be spoken to quietly, if at all, and the characterisation of those who are not dependent on us for trade or strategic influence as nasty regimes to be condemned in the most strident terms.
Let me give an example. In 2014, the Government described the human rights record of the Sri Lankan Government as “appalling” and called for an international inquiry. I asked whether the Government would press for a similar inquiry into the Government-led massacre of thousands of Sikhs in India. The short, sharp response was that it was “a matter for the Indian Government”. Why the lack of even-handedness? I have asked the same question several times both in the Chamber and in Questions for Written Answer, but always to no effect. On the last occasion, some six months ago, I was promised a considered reply from the Minister, but I am still waiting for it.
In France today, Sikhs are being humiliated by being asked to remove their turbans for identity photos in defiance of a UNHCR court ruling that the actions of the French Government are an infringement of the rights of Sikhs under Article 18. There was no mention of this in our Government’s recent report on human rights abuses across the world. France, after all, is a “friendly” country. These examples of religious discrimination are especially hurtful to the followers of a religion in which freedom of belief is considered to be so important that our Ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, gave his life defending the right of Hindus, those of a different religion from his own, to freedom of worship.
What is of concern to me and others is that we, like other members of what we euphemistically call the Security Council are still living in a world of 19th-century power politics, a world in which the abuse of human rights was conveniently overlooked in a greed-fuelled era of strategic alliances. If there are any doubts about the failure of our power-bloc politics, we should reflect on the current tragedy of the Middle East, which began a century ago with the carving up of the former Ottoman Empire by British and French diplomats.
As a Christian hymn reminds us:
“New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth”.
The great human rights activist Andrei Sakharov said that,
“there can be no real peace in the world unless we are even-handed in our attitude to human rights”.
We will fail future generations if we do not heed his far-sighted words.
Earlier this week, Lord Singh the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations, held the government to account following publication of their four-year hate crime action plan – Action Against Hate. The forty-page document contains not one example of hate crime affecting non-Abrahamic faiths, nor commitment to a single government funded project to deal with the problem. This is in stark contrast to the focus in the report on Abrahamic faiths, along with a firm commitment to implement taxpayer funded projects designed to combat hate crime faced by these communities, particularly Muslims and Jews.
Lord Singh asked Her Majesty’s Government: “Why their report Action Against Hate: The UK Government’s plan for tackling hate crime, published in July 2016, does not report on the incidence of hate crimes against non-Abrahamic faith communities.”
Disappointed with the Minister’s initial response, Lord Singh went on:
“My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response but it does not address my concerns over the narrow and biased thinking in a report that details 45 examples of hate crime against Abrahamic faiths but not a single example of the many, well-documented mistaken-identity hate crimes suffered by Sikhs and others—and this in a report emanating from a department with specifically designated officers to consider hate crime against the Jewish and Muslim communities but not anyone else.
He added, “Would the Minister agree that that omission is more due to ignorance than deliberate discrimination? Would she further agree that those who preach the need for religious literacy should first themselves acquire some basic religious literacy, and apologise to those they have offended in such a way?”
Minister of State, Baroness Williams of Trafford made some vague references to “common issues across the strands of hate crime”, and without specific examples said “we also accept that there are issues which affect communities specifically.”
On the question of religious literacy she said, “We have talked about this in the past. People such as the media have a role to play in improving their religious literacy.”
The NSO has been raising the inequalities in the government’s approach to hate crime for some time. Lord Singh has highlighted the wider affects of ‘Islamophobia’ on a number of separate occasions, and earlier this year the NSO released FOI figures obtained from the MET, which revealed that 28% of victims of ‘Islamophobic hate crimes’ recorded by the MET in 2015, were in fact non-Muslim or people of no recorded faith.
The Minister has agreed to meet with Lord Singh to further discuss community concerns.
Recognise the equality of all human beings’ – Guru Gobind Singh
The publication of the UK Government’s four-year plan for tackling hate crime, ‘Action Against Hate’ has demonstrated a clear bias against those of non-Abrahamic faiths.
The forty-page document published last month, gives 23 examples of hate crimes against Jews, 19 against Muslims and 3 against Christians. There is not a single reference to hate crimes against Sikhs, Hindus or those of other non-Abrahamic faiths.
There are in total 13 references to financial aid in tackling hate crime against Jews, Muslims and Christians. Measures with allocated funding are detailed in the plan to tackle both Jewish and Muslim hate crime. There is no parallel reference to similar funding assistance for Sikhs, Hindus or other non-Abrahamic faiths.
We are especially concerned about the contents of the document, given our prior communication with the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). Further to a FOI request by the NSO, it was made apparent that 28% of victims of ‘Islamophobic hate crime’ recorded by the MET in 2015 were non-Muslim. This was the subject of mainstream media coverage. Despite pointing this out to DCLG, it’s troubling that this important finding was not highlighted in the plan.
It is well known that Sikhs have suffered immensely post 9/11. The first person to be killed in retribution for the twin towers attack was a turbaned Sikh. This month we mark the 4th anniversary of the Wisconsin gurdwara massacre, where six worshippers were murdered by a white supremacist. In 2015 the FBI started to separately monitor hate crime against Sikhs, Hindus and Arabs. Prior to this violence against Sikhs had been incorrectly classified as ‘anti-Islamic.’
In 2015 a Sikh dentist was the victim of a machete attack in Wales, which was wrongly labelled ‘Islamophobic’ on a flagship BBC television programme. It was later confirmed the victim was attacked because of his race, not religion. Last month, three Islamic State inspired teenagers were found guilty of bombing a gurdwara in Germany. It is extraordinary that despite these events, the British government blithely ignores the vulnerability of a vast swathe of the electorate.
Lord Singh, NSO Director said, “The plan does not even recognise that Sikhs and other non-Abrahamic faith communities suffer hate crime.”
He went on, “In the 15th and 16th centuries the Sikh Gurus stressed that all members of our one human family were entitled to equal respect. UK Sikhs expect the UK government in the 21st century to give equal support and consideration to all faiths.”
Whilst we are acutely concerned about the marginalisation of non-Abrahamic faiths, we welcome the pledge that national statistics on the incidence of hate crime will be disaggregated from next year. We hope this will finally convince the government that hate crimes occur beyond the Abrahamic faiths, and must be taken equally seriously. The government should issue an unequivocal apology for its failure to acknowledge the very real concerns of Sikhs, Hindus and others.
Hate begins with fear and fear with ignorance. Hate crime will continue to be a blot on British society unless prompt action is taken to address ignorance and insensitivity towards other faiths and cultures at all levels of society, including government.
Lord Falconer’s unsuccessful ‘Assisted Dying Bill’ is old news, but the debate on the controversial issue resurfaced last week when peers discussed the implications of a Supreme Court decision in the case of R (Nicklinson) v Ministry of Justice  UKSC 38.
The issues in the case centered on whether the prohibition on assisted suicide in the Suicide Act 1961 was compatible with the appellant’s right to respect for private and family life (Article 8 ECHR). The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal and said although the courts could decide the question of compatibility, it wasn’t right for them to do so.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Lord Faulks said: “The Government recognise that strong views are held on this subject on both sides. It remains the Government’s view that any change in the law is an area for individual conscience and a matter for Parliament to decide rather than for government policy.”
Lord Singh, the Director of the NSO a fierce opponent of ‘assisted dying’, said: “My Lords, social as well as medical factors can influence a decision to live, and greedy or uncaring relatives can easily influence that decision—we hear about that every day in the press and in care homes.”
He went on: “Does the Minister agree that greater efforts should be made to show that we value all people, whatever their degree of sickness or disability, and that society must work towards better palliative care?”
Last year Labour MP Rob Marris tabled a private members bill on ‘assisted dying’, which was defeated on the second reading. The NSO described it as ‘a grotesque challenge to Sikh teachings on compassionate care.’ At the time some peers expressed concerns about the ‘financial incentives’ involved in ending the lives of the terminally ill. The failed Bill was further described as a ‘breeding ground for vultures.’
British lawyer and NSO Deputy Director Jas Uppal has been a leading campaigner in the case of missing Indian national Hamid Nehal Ansari, who has been unlawfully detained by Pakistani authorities.
Ansari’s mother Mrs Fauzia Ansari (based in Mumbai) first instructed Ms Uppal in her son’s case in November 2012. For years the Pakistani authorities had denied knowledge of his whereabouts. However at the beginning of this year it was confirmed that he was in fact in Pakistani Army custody and had been convicted by a military tribunal for ‘espionage.’
The case began when 28-year-old Mr Ansari, an MBA graduate who taught at the Mumbai Management College, traveled to Pakistan looking for opportunities. According to reports Mr Ansari had befriended a Kohat-based woman through social media and had crossed over into Pakistan. He had been staying in a hotel in Kohat, when on November 12 2012; police along with officials from the Intelligence Bureau arrested him.
This is not the first time Indian or Pakistani authorities have arrested citizens of each other’s countries under the pretext of ‘spying’ allegations.
Ms Uppal has raised Ansari’s case at the highest level, and in 2014 made personal representations before the UN on the matter.
She is optimistic that Ansari will be released and repatriated back to India. Ms Uppal said: “Hamid was naive to cross the border into Pakistan without the valid supporting travel documents; indeed his actions were illegal. However, Hamid was arbitrarily detained without trial in excess of three years during which time, the Pakistani authorities failed to notify the Indian authorities that they are holding their national as they required to do so under international law, Conventions and protocols.
She went on: “I formally complained to the UN on behalf of Mr and Mrs Ansari as well as raising the matter with both the Indian and Pakistani authorities.”
Mrs Ansari said, “It’s not that he is alone in pain and suffering the punishment of loosing his freedom, but the entire family is in trauma.” She told the NSO her family have been living in despair for the last four years, with a hope they will see their son again. So far she has been unable to obtain a visa to travel to Pakistan.
Earlier this year a 24-year-old Pakistani journalist Zeenat Shahzadi who had been working on the Ansari case was abducted. Human Rights groups and her family accuse Pakistan’s security agencies for her disappearance.
For further information contact firstname.lastname@example.org or Justice Upheld email@example.com