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Since 2015 the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) has been lobbying to get parity for all faiths when it comes to the government’s existing ‘Abrahamic-centric’ hate crime policy.

During this time, we have achieved a number of important milestones:

  • Uncovering through FOI significant numbers of non-Muslims are recorded by forces like the MET under the ‘Islamophobic hate crime’ category (data for 2015/16)
  • Commitment from ministers that religious hate crime figures will be disaggregated from April 2017
  • Submission of written evidence to the Home Affairs Committee inquiry into hate crime and its violent consequences (2017/18)
  • Submission of written and oral evidence to the APPG on British Muslims inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia/anti-Muslim hatred (2018)
  • Articles (news and opinion editorials), letters and radio interviews in the mainstream media including the BBC, The Telegraph, The Spectator, The Daily Mail (since 2016)
  • A clarification from the Evening Standard on an article to make sure it acknowledged statistics included non-Muslims, who also face ‘Islamophobia’ (2018)
  • A complaint to the Guardian to correct an article to include non-Muslim victims which was reported on by the Press Gazette (2018)
  • Our Director has raised the issue in several debates in the House of Lords and in correspondence with ministers. (2015 onwards)
  • Engagement with senior officers in the MET police to highlight concerns about recording and reporting (2018)
  • Engagement with Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (2018)
  • Commitment from government in early 2017 to help Sikh and Hindu communities report hate crime through True Vision portal. (2017)

 

Proposed APPG definition (from Islamophobia Defined):

“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”.

Over the summer we provided oral evidence to the APPG on British Muslims inquiry into a working definition of Islamophobia/anti-Muslim hatred further to submitting written evidence explaining how Sikhs have suffered since 9/11. We believe our work over the last few years has put Sikh concerns firmly on the government agenda. In a recent debate about the proposed ‘Islamophobia’ definition suggested by the APPG earlier, a few peers independently acknowledged Sikhs suffer ‘Islamophobia’ and Baroness Warsi mentioned Sikhs in interviews she gave to the media further to publication of the report Islamophobia Defined. However, we are not sure ‘Islamophobia’ is the best word to describe a complex amalgam of issues, and believe anti-Muslim hate, like anti-Sikh, is far clearer, precise and more helpful language.

During the debate last month, our Director Lord Singh said, ‘We all sympathise with the suffering of the Muslim community, encapsulated in the word “Islamophobia”. It is our common responsibility to tackle it but we have to be clear about its meaning to do so. To me, the suggested definitions are still woolly and vague; I will try to give a more precise one. If we do not have a clear definition, “Islamophobia” risks being seen as an emotive word intended to get public sympathy and government resources—a concern raised by the APPG on British Muslims.’

He went on, ‘Unfortunately, it is a fact that some communities use government funding to produce questionable statistics to show that they are more hated than others; groups without a culture of complaint, such as Sikhs, fall off the Government’s radar. We have had debates on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, but what about other communities? Should we not be thinking about all communities, not just those in more powerful positions? I believe that the Government must be even-handed.’

During the debate Lord Singh pressed the minister about what work was being conducted for other faith groups aside from Muslims and Jews. He also clarified that although the APPG on British Muslims considered a variety of evidence from academics, organisations and victims’ groups in helping come to the proposed ‘Islamophobia’ definition, not all of it was agreed in the definition. In fact, when Lord Singh gave oral evidence to the APPG, Lady Warsi ended the session by saying, ‘I disagree with everything you’ve said Lord Singh.’ Some of our evidence was echoed by that of Southall Black Sisters and the National Union of Students, as well as in a letter published in the Sunday Times coordinated by the National Secular Society.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine gave a compelling speech in which she challenged the racial component of the proposed definition. She said, ‘When you define a religion—in other words, a belief system—as an adjective and declare that this is rooted in race, which is biological, you ascribe to belief an immutability which cannot work’. She also discussed the prejudice her family had faced moving from India to Pakistan in 1947, and that she had personally faced from her co-religionists in Muslim countries for being ‘insufficiently Muslim’, adding ‘but that experience was as nothing compared to the discrimination that Ahmadiyyas, Shias and various others still face today at the hands of other Muslims.’

The NSO believes ‘Islamophobia’ is an unhelpful and vague term, because it could include a number of distinct and separate components. These include anti-Muslim hate, a racialization of Islamophobia and ‘mistaken identity’ attacks on non-Muslims (like Sikhs), a reaction to the perceived teachings within Islam, and the perceived behaviour of a minority of Muslims. As Baroness Falkner rightly suggests, it also includes prejudice within Muslim communities against one another for being ‘insufficiently Muslim.’ There is no mention of this aspect in the APPG report Islamophobia Defined. We are strongly of the view that anti-Muslim hate crime, (like anti-Sikh) is the best terminology for policy makers to use moving forwards.

The debate and Lord Singh’s full speech can be viewed here.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) have made recommendations for the content of the 2021 Census, which was published in a White Paper titled, ‘Help Shape Our Future: The 2021 Census of Population and Housing in England and Wales’.

The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) is delighted common sense has prevailed and the ONS has not recommended the inclusion of a Sikh ‘ethnic’ tick box for the 2021 Census. We’ve been strongly opposed to this ill-conceived campaign led by the Sikh Federation UK (SFUK) and the APPG for British Sikhs whose secretariat is the SFUK and Chair Preet Gill MP. The ONS has conducted significant research and consultation on this matter across the British Sikh community over a long period of time. They revealed focus groups conducted showed, ‘younger second-generation participants wanted to express their Sikh background through the religion question as this is how they expected Sikh identity to be recorded.’[i]

Our position has always been clear. Firstly, Sikhs are already recorded appropriately in the Census under religion. The SFUK suggested there might be an undercounting of Sikhs, because the religion question is voluntary. However, research commissioned by the ONS in 2017 found, ‘There is no indication from the findings that the religious affiliation and ethnic group questions are capturing different Sikh populations. All respondents who stated they were ethnically Sikh also stated their religious affiliation was Sikh. This is in line with findings from the 2011 Census data.’[ii]

Secondly, the SFUK say we are an ‘ethnic’ group because of Mandla v Dowell Lee. The case involved a schoolboy discriminated against by his school for wearing his turban. When it went to the House of Lords they for the purposes of the then Race Relations Act 1976, ruled Sikhs could conveniently fit into an ‘ethnic origin’ box based on a few tests, like sharing common language, culture and geographical descent – this is because religion wasn’t protected under law at the time. If you apply the same tests today, Sikhs wouldn’t necessarily fit in the ‘ethnic origin’ box, because most Sikhs today are British born and speak English as a first language. Moreover, the Race Relations Act 1976 has been repealed in its entirety, and replaced by the Equalities Act 2010, in which all religions are equally protected from discrimination. In any case, from a doctrinal perspective, Guru Nanak was the founder of a great world religion, not an ‘ethnic’ group. Sikh teachings reject division of society on grounds of caste, creed. colour and by the extension of this debate ethnicity.

 

Concerns about the APPG’s methodology

We’ve seen a communication from the APPG for British Sikhs in response to the ONS decision, and it’s clear the SFUK and Preet Gill MP are upset and angry. They have put a lot of effort and energy into lobbying. On August 23rd 2018 (at 19:15) the SFUK put out a tweet suggesting Hounslow gurdwara (Alice Way) was one of the gurdwaras which supported their campaign with a letter written to the APPG.[iii] We asked the Hounslow committee if this was the case or not, and they informed us they did not support the APPG and believe Sikhism is a religion not an ethnicity. They had also made this clear in a meeting with the NSO, SFUK and Iain Bell from the ONS. Given the SFUK announced 112 gurdwaras have supported the APPG, and this figure has been reported in the press and provided to the ONS, we would like to see 1. The briefing given to gurdwaras by the APPG 2. Redacted versions of the letters received 3. The specific question asked to elicit a response. We have serious concerns that gurdwaras may have not been provided with a balanced view of the subject matter, which could lead to survey bias, and if there are 112 gurdwaras signed up in the first place.

The APPG have alleged the ONS has ‘misrepresented’ the survey of Gurdwaras they conducted.[iv] This is a serious allegation and given what we know about Hounslow frankly risible. Secondly, they go onto to claim the survey and response from 112 gurdwaras have an official membership of 107,000 and an estimated congregation of 470,000. How they came to these figures is not clear, however we can see that 470,000 is a larger number than the total population of Sikhs from the 2011 Census (423,000).[v] 112 gurdwaras is approximately 1/3 of the total number in the UK,[vi] so the suggestion is that more than the total population of British Sikhs (up to 2011) attended a fraction of UK gurdwaras. It is not clear whether the figures include overseas visitors or non-Sikhs coming to gurdwaras, or gurdwaras in Scotland which has a separate Census. They suggest 100% of gurdwaras that responded to their survey did so as an ‘independent decision’, however this again is unclear, until we see the particulars of the briefing provided to them by the APPG.

 

John Pullinger’s assurances to Preet Gill MP

What the APPG remarkably failed to disclose was a letter addressed to their Chair from the UK’s National Statistician John Pullinger. He has given Ms Gill significant reassurances that although the ONS don’t recommend an ‘ethnic’ tick box, they will support those who want to write in Sikh as an ethnic group under ‘other’. He informs her, ‘I want to assure you that everyone who wishes to identify as Sikh will be able to do so under our proposals for the Census.’

He describes the various options for Sikhs who may want to say they are ‘ethnically’ Sikh with the development of ‘search-as-you-type’ functionality online, which will assist those who want to fill the ‘other’ box under ethnicity. He confirms data outputs from both religion and ethnicity will be analysed and will, ‘increase the analytical offering and outputs for those who identify as Sikh.’ He also confirms there is a commitment to utilise the Digital Economy Act 2017 for data linking research purposes, so information about Britain’s Sikhs will be available across public services, not just Census collected data.

There are other clear commitments which aim to improve data collection beyond purely the Census, whilst encouraging collaboration with local authorities and British Sikhs. The ONS want to improve data collection and promote wider Census participation, as well as ‘raise awareness of the options of writing in their identity in the ethnic group question’.

We are surprised Preet Gill MP or the SFUK run APPG for British Sikhs have failed to mention this accommodating and conciliatory letter. The offer to help Sikhs who would still like to be categorised under a Sikh ethnic group is serious and goes much further than expected. It appears they are so obsessed with a tick box, they have lost sight of their initial goal.

[Ends]

[i] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-2021-census-of-population-and-housing-in-england-and-wales
[ii] https://www.ons.gov.uk/census
[iii] http://nsouk.co.uk/why-we-need-the-appg-for-british-sikhs-to-be-transparent-with-their-ethnicity-campaign/
[iv] https://twitter.com/appgbritsikhs?lang=en
[v] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/religion/articles/religioninenglandandwales2011/2012-12-11
[vi] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-21711980

 

Last Wednesday the NSO held its UK Parliament Week event in the House of Lords with guest speakers Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi MP, Mandip Sahota and Gurpal Virdi.

The NSO was an official partner with UK Parliament Week in a year we commemorate the centenary of women’s suffrage and the right for women to vote in Britain.

Opening the event Lord Singh told the audience, ‘everyone of us can make a real difference in not only articulating our concerns but also making others aware of our incredibly modern religion and we’ve failed to do this properly.’

Giving an example of how individuals can make a difference, he described how he used a pen name ‘Victor Pendry’ to highlight discriminatory treatment of Sikhs in Punjab, at a time when the largely Hindu owned media in India automatically rejected anything coming from a Sikh.

Dhesi the MP for Slough, highlighted the importance of being proactive and talked of his efforts to lobby (cross-party) for The National Sikh War Memorial Trust (NSWMT). He talked of how ‘socially minded activists’ also have a key role in today’s digital age.

Echoing these views, Mandip Sahota Strategist & former Civil Servant said, ‘We’re all change-makers – so it’s important to understand how to navigate structures of power. This is your Parliament.’ She was clear that ‘megaphone diplomacy’ has its place, but conversations in private are sometimes also as powerful and that we must build relationships to succeed.

Summing up, she emphasized effective engagement is achievable, but we must be strategic, clear and ambitious.

Gurpal Virdi, former Councillor and Community Activist, gave pointers on how to get involved encouraging people to join local resident’s groups. He said, ‘You’ll need to start building your profile with local people and working out your position on local ‘hot’ issues such as crime, traffic, the environment and schools.’

Lord Singh concluded the meeting by saying, ‘I urge you all to get fully involved in understanding strengthening and improving the democratic process in this country, in a way that is consistent with Sikh teachings.’

An attendee e-mailed the NSO following the event showing appreciation, ‘for hosting and delivering a wonderfully enthused and innovative meeting.’

You can access the UK Parliament Week resource produced by the NSO in partnership with UK Parliament Week here.

 

This weekend, Sikhs will be celebrating the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh faith. He lived at a time of conflict between the two main religions of the subcontinent, Hinduism and Islam, with each claiming superiority of belief. An important thrust of his teaching was to show that despite superficial differences, both faiths recognised common ethical values of truth, justice and responsibility. He also emphasised the oneness of our human family and the dignity and full equality of women.

Guru Nanak, born in Punjab, taught that the one God of all people is not in the least bit interested in our different religious labels, but in what we do for wider society.  Yet five and a half centuries on, in the same Punjab, the 9-year incarceration on death row of a Christian, Asia Bibi, and in Myanmar the appalling persecution of the Rohingya remind us that religious bigotry is still very much with us.

We claim to live in more enlightened times and yet in many parts of the world, religious bigotry continues to grow at an alarming rate, often leading to horrendous conflicts and the death of innocent people a situation made worse by the ready availability of guns and the trade in arms.

Religious bigotry will not go away by itself. It has to be challenged by the adherents of all faiths and by wider society. Faiths that seek to teach us how to live must be open to question and criticism. This was the approach adopted by Guru Nanak when religious rituals and superstitious practices had virtually obscured ethical teachings that are the essence of true religion. Importantly, he did not rubbish cultural practices that attach themselves to, or distort religious teaching, but in a manner reminiscent of the sermons of Jesus Christ, questioned their relevance.

When I speak to young people in a gurdwara, I say that if something said by a priest in a gurdwara defies common-sense, question it. Religious texts referring to challenges faced by a community thousands of years ago, need to be placed in the context of today’s times if they are not to be misused. Only then can religion become a true force for good in our troubled world.

 

 

Jallianwala Bagh massacre April 13, 1919

In a debate earlier this week Lord Ahmad asked Her Majesty’s Government what initiatives they had in place to commemorate the contribution to the Great War of people who came from what is now Pakistan, or in other words undivided India.

The contribution to the war effort of all faiths was duly acknowledged by Lord Bourne, who said: ‘Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains, Baha’is and people of all faiths and none, fall side by side with their Christian and Jewish comrades on the fields where they fought and died together.’

Whilst reflecting on the British Indian army’s contribution, Lord Singh took the opportunity to ask the Minister to address historic wrongs of Empire.

He said, ‘My Lords, undivided Punjab played a substantial part in the greatest volunteer army in history. One of the reasons that was done was because people were promised a substantial measure of independence following the end of the war.’

He went on, ‘Instead, there was fierce repression under the Rowlatt Act and, following that, in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of several hundred unarmed civilians. We British are justly known for our sense of fair play and justice. Given that, should we not now make an unequivocal apology to the people of the subcontinent?’

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0

The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) has requested the BBC to acknowledge a glaring omission following a segment [57:13-57:54] in its Cenotaph television coverage today in which David Dimbleby forgets to mention Sikhs amongst the 22 faith leaders in attendance for the centenary commemorations.

During the coverage of Remembrance Sunday, he said:

“There are 22 faith leaders here today”.

Dimbleby then goes through the names of faiths being represented as they appear in the footage, listing them one by one – “Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Jain, Baha’i, Mormon, Humanists and Spiritualists”. He forgot to mention Sikhs, despite our Director Lord Singh’s clear presence.

The omission which may have been inadvertent, has resulted in several complaints to the NSO. Given the size of the Sikh community in Britain, as well as the fact that today’s Remembrance Sunday commemorations marks one hundred years of the end of the Great War, we believe the inordinate contribution of Sikhs deserved recognition. To illustrate why, at the outbreak of hostilities in the Great War, 20% of soldiers in the British Indian Army were Sikhs, despite comprising less than 2% of British India’s population.

In the circumstances the NSO feels the BBC should make an urgent correction.

We would like to pass on our deepest condolences to Jewish communities around the world for the terrorist outrage in Pittsburgh, which resulted in the killing of 11 innocent worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday.

Anti-Semitism has no place in any civilised society, and we are saddened by these terrible events in the US. The Sikh community in the US has also faced hate filled violence since 9/11. In 2012, six worshippers were murdered by a white supremacist gun man in a gurdwara in Wisconsin.

During what are increasingly polarised times for all faiths, we stand in solidarity with a religious community we have always viewed as our older brothers and sisters.

Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO)

(above) Sikhs participating in a vigil following the Wisconsin gurdwara massacre in 2012

This week the government announced a ‘refresh’ of Action Against Hate (2016) their four-year hate crime action plan, to ‘address specific concerns across all 5 monitored strands of hate crime.’ New measures like a Law Commission review into whether additional protected characteristics like misogyny and age should be legislated for, and ministerial round tables to specifically address Muslim and Jewish concerns headlined. However, despite being subject to serious violence and hostility since 9/11, the ‘refresh’ has managed to marginalised British Sikhs yet again. This has been particularly galling for the NSO for the following reasons:

  • Our Director has expressed Sikh concerns in numerous debates in the House of Lords
  • We’ve provided detailed evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee on hate crime and violent consequences over two consecutive years (2017/18)
  • We’ve written about the issue in the print media and discussed it on BBC Radio
  • We unearthed data (through FOI) showing significant numbers of non-Muslims and those of no recorded faith are being recorded as victims of ‘Islamophobic hate crime’ by the MET police, and gone onto successfully push for disaggregation of religious hate crime
  • We’ve got a correction from the Evening Standard reporting on increased ‘Islamophobic hate crime’ in London, to clarify the attacks, in accordance with the FOI data are not solely against British Muslims
  • In partnership with Hindu groups, we lobbied the government to address reporting issues for Hindus and Sikhs, and they responded with a specific policy (announced in January 2017) to help both communities report hate crime via True Vision

Although Sikh groups like the NSO, The Sikh Council, The Sikh Federation UK and City Sikhs have all expressed concerns about Action Against Hate (2016) when it was first published, the ‘refresh’ makes it clear the government is unwilling to address the wider ramifications of Islamophobia on Sikhs, or the ‘Muslim looking other’. A simple acknowledgment that Sikhs face Islamophobia would have allayed concerns. Like us, many will be right to ask the government why ministerial ‘round tables’ are the preserve of Jews and Muslims, and why the True Vision project announced in 2017 has still not been implemented.

Earlier this week Lord Singh contributed to a debate following a motion tabled by minister Lord Bourne, ‘That this House takes note of the challenges posed by religious intolerance and prejudice in the United Kingdom.’ The debate coincided with the launch of the government’s ‘refresh’ of Action Against Hate (2016) their four-year hate crime plan.

The NSO has historically pushed back against government policy in this area, primarily because we believe the focus on religious groups is far too narrow, and all faiths should be treated with parity when it comes to tackling prejudice. In response to the government’s announcement of a ‘refresh’ to Action Against Hate (2016), Lord Singh expressed his disappointment at the continued marginalisation of non-Abrahamic faiths, including Sikhs. He highlighted the continued backlash Sikhs have faced since 9/11 with personal anecdotes, whilst referring to the government’s inordinate focus on Jews and Muslims said, ‘Why the disparity? To echo Shakespeare: if we are cut, do we not bleed?’

During the debate Lord Morrow (DUP) independently referred to Hardeep Singh’s efforts (our Deputy-Director) in unearthing FOI data from the MET police (2015/16) which showed significant numbers of non-Muslims and those of no recorded faith, are recorded as being victim of ‘Islamophobic hate crime’.

In response to Lord Singh’s speech Lord Cormack (CON) said: ‘Lord Singh of Wimbledon, has given us several thoughts for the day in that rather splendid speech, the subtext of which was that hostility is bred from and fed by ignorance.’

Winding up the debate for Labour peers, Lord Griffiths referring to Lord Singh’s speech saying, ‘I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Singh, that we must be careful to be more inclusive when we mention those who are on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination—represent a broad canvas.’

He went on to congratulate the NSO’s Director on his criticism of superficial interfaith dialogue, and said: ‘Indeed, I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Singh, who came nearest to where all my thoughts were as I prepared for this debate. It is true that those conferences and symposia, those seminars that you go to, full of blandishments and fine words unrelated to causes, are about ephemeral and marginal issues. I am so pleased to hear that said. I would not have had the courage to say it, but I am delighted to have the courage to echo it. We must find a way to get to the core of the things we need to discuss together, the things beneath all the things that happen on the surface.’

We reproduce Lord Singh’s speech in full below:

‘My Lords, I want to thank the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for initiating this important debate. I shall take my cue from the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and be a little controversial. ​

I read the Government’s half-time review of their hate crime strategy and find it disappointing in that it completely fails to address the underlying causes of hate crime—for much of this evening, we have done the same—and, while repeatedly addressing the concerns of the Abrahamic faiths, virtually ignores the equally real suffering of other faiths. The review details some 20 initiatives to protect against anti-Semitic and Islamophobic hate crimes. A condescending reference to occasional round-table meetings with other faiths is no substitute for action. Why the disparity? To echo Shakespeare: if we are cut, do we not bleed?

There are no comparative statistics on hate crimes suffered by different religions to justify partiality. Figures presented to justify additional resources for the Jewish and Islamic faiths come from those communities. Chief Superintendent Dave Stringer of the Met has made it clear that a significant proportion of hate crime recorded as Islamophobic is against other communities. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, referred to a freedom of information request made by my colleague, Hardeep Singh, which showed that there is no clear definition of whom hate crime is committed against.

Many of the hate crimes described as Islamophobic are directed against Sikhs out of ignorance or mistaken identity. In the States, a Sikh was the first person murdered in reprisal after 9/11, and six worshippers in a gurdwara there were shot by a white supremacist in another mistaken-identity killing.

The day after 9/11, I was going to a meeting with the then CRE at Victoria. As I came out of the station, two workmen digging the road looked at me in a hostile way. Fortunately, their lack of religious literacy saved the day. The elder turned to the younger and said: “He’s not a Muslim; he’s a Hindu.” I did not argue the point.

Few Sikhs have not been called “bin Laden” at some time or other, and some have been violently attacked. We heard about the gurdwara in Leeds being defaced and partly burned and, only a couple of months ago, a gurdwara in Edinburgh that I had recently visited was firebombed.

I do not in any way begrudge the protection that Jews and Muslims receive against hate crime. The Jewish community has suffered grievously from anti-Semitism, and Muslims are suffering hate crime today. I have always had a warm working relationship with both communities. All I ask is that the Government are a little more even-handed to non-Abrahamic faiths in both policies and resourcing.

Let me now turn to the important causes of hate crime. Prejudice, in the sense of fear of—or irrational, negative attitudes to—those not like us, is not something found only in others; it is common to all of us. The existence of heathens in distant lands gave us a perverse sense of unity and superiority based on a shared, irrational dislike of those not like us. We find this again and again in literature. John of Gaunt’s speech in “Richard II”, with its reference to,

“This precious stone set in the silver sea”

  Against the envy of lesser breeds’,

simply an example of how we viewed foreigners. Some on the leave side of the Brexit debate will probably say Shakespeare did not go far enough! ​

Today, the one-time distant foreigner, with a different culture and religion, can be our next-door neighbour, and it is imperative that we set aside our own prejudices and see people as they really are, equal members of one human family.

It is equally important that we look openly and honestly at prejudice embedded in religion. What generally passes for religion is, in fact, a complex mix of superstition, rituals, culture, group history and uplifting ethical teachings. While ethical teachings are easy to state, they are extremely difficult to live by, so we tend to focus on other things.  Often we have a perverse, unifying but naive, belief—we find it again and again in different religions—that the creator of all that exists has favourites and takes sides, regardless of merit. As Guru Nanak reminded us:

“The one God of us all is not the least bit interested in our different religious labels but in what we do to serve our fellow beings.”

This bigotry of belief is widespread and is often found in religious texts. As a Sikh, I feel that the ultimate blasphemy is to say that texts condoning the killing or ill-treatment of the innocent are the word of God. Such beliefs lead to horrendous crimes and savagery—not only between faiths, but even within the same faith—and to increasingly familiar terrorist outrages in the name of religion. It is important to understand that religious extremists and far-right extremists need each other to thrive.

Today, despite all the lip service paid to interfaith understanding, there is virtually no dialogue between faiths to explore and understand their different religious teachings, with each remaining smug in its beliefs. I have been a member of the government-funded Inter Faith Network of the UK since it was founded in 1987 and am a member of other bodies committed to religious dialogue. Meetings rarely go beyond pious statements and academic discussions on safe peripheral concerns, with members going back to their congregations to stress the exclusivity and superiority of their teachings. Looking at an internet learning site about Islam, I was startled to see a colleague saying that he felt sorry for people of other faiths because they were “all going to hell”. I once attended a meeting of the Three Faiths Forum where Christians, Jews and Muslims were talking in a superior way about the three monotheistic faiths. According to the opening line of the Sikh scriptures, there is one God of all humanity. We need to learn a little more about each other to combat religious prejudice.

It is not all up to the Government. People of religion have a common responsibility to look afresh at negative cultural practices such as discrimination against women and others that attach themselves to religion. Religion will become more relevant if we separate dated culture from abiding ethical teachings. Secular society, which sometimes shows an aloof superiority to warring religions, should also encourage more open dialogue.

With the best of intentions, we skirt around questionable beliefs and practices by using coded camouflage words to address symptoms, rather than looking to the underlying causes of violence and hatred. Words such as “Islamist”—insulting to Muslims—“radicalised”, “extremist” or “fundamentalist” are loaded ​euphemisms or vague innuendos, devoid of real meaning. The absurdity of such language is illustrated by the true story of a visit to my home by two Scotland Yard officers following my criticism of the Indian Government’s involvement in mob violence against Sikhs. The men from the Yard asked if I was an extremist or a moderate. I replied that I was extremely moderate. They then asked if I was a fundamentalist. I replied, “Well, I believe in the fundamentals of Sikh teaching, such as the equality of all human beings, gender equality and concern for the less fortunate. Yes, I suppose I am a fundamentalist”.

If religions presume to tell us how we should live, move and have our being, they must be open to discussion and challenge. The same openness is absolutely essential in combating prejudice and working for a safer and more tolerant world.’

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