Where Unity Is Strength
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A Report commissioned by the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has found that the persecution of Christians in many parts of the world amounts to what some see as near genocide. Millions of Christians have been uprooted from their homes, and many have been killed, kidnapped, imprisoned and discriminated against.

Sadly, the experience of Christians is mirrored in the experience of other faiths. Looking at my own faith, Sikhs are prohibited from opening a gurdwara in Saudi Arabia and most Middle East countries. In Afghanistan, a prosperous Sikh population of more than 20,000 has been reduced to a few hundred. Similarly, once thriving Sikh communities in Tehran and other cities in Iran, have almost disappeared without trace. Regular reports of the All Parliamentary Group for Freedom of Religion and Belief and other agencies, remind us of similar suffering of religious communities across the world.

A follow up report to examine the response of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to growing religious persecution will be published later this summer. I do hope that this will lead to positive initiatives to counter world-wide abuse of the UN Universal Declaration of the Right to Freedom of Religion and Belief.

I feel part of the problem is a failure of religious leaders to interpret religious texts in the context of today’s very different times. Candle lit vigils and expressions of religious solidarity following an atrocity are fine, but in the Sikh view such sentiments must also be carried to our different places of worship, to replace centuries of easily exploited bigotry and misunderstanding, with emphasis on respect and tolerance for all beliefs.

Two of the Sikh Gurus gave their lives stressing the importance of inter faith understanding. Sikh believe that our different faiths are like paths up a mountain towards an understanding of God through pursuing truth, equity and justice in our daily lives. The further we go, the greater the similarity of the view ahead. Guru Arjan, our 5th Guru, included some writings of Hindu and Muslim saints in our holy scripture the Guru Granth Sahib, to emphasise that no one faith has a monopoly of truth. The freedom to practise our religion, of whatever tradition, should be similarly valued as an important universal freedom in our strife torn world.

 

I’ve been watching a fascinating YouTube interview with Kapil Dev, a former Indian Test captain, feared pace bowler and record wicket taker. Kapil Dev, a Punjabi Hindu, said he had many Sikh friends and had visited gurdwaras in India and around the world. He was saddened by the complacency with which Sikhs took the Gurus’ teaching on equality, service to others and respect for the teachings of other faiths; treating them simply as background, rather than placing them to the fore in all they did.

He saw Sikh teachings as unifying principles of responsible living that could benefit all humanity. He felt so strongly about this that, instead of writing his own cricketing memoirs, he got his friends to help him write a beautiful illustrated book about Sikhs and Sikhism to promote a better understanding of Guru Nanak’s teachings, not only in the outside world, but importantly among Sikhs themselves who did not seem to understand their true worth. Though himself a Hindu, he called the book: ‘We the Sikhs’.

Kapil Dev’s outsider’s view of the true worth of Sikh teachings, often simply taken as a background by many Sikhs themselves, reminds me about the story of an art dealer, who when visiting the house of a friend, was struck by the beauty of a painting hanging on the wall. He pointed out to his astonished friend that the painting was a masterpiece, worth thousands.

Our view of our own religion is often distorted by a parallel immersion in culture and customs that are easily mistaken for religion. The outsider looking in, can often see things in a clearer perspective. As an outsider to Christianity, I sometimes feel, that some of my Christian friends do not fully appreciate the power of the uplifting teachings of Jesus Christ in his sermon on the Mount to move us to more responsible living, or the importance of the parable of the Good Samaritan in reminding us of the good in other people.

Over the centuries, we have erected barriers of exclusivity between our different faiths. I believe that the outsider looking in, can help us understand that what seem like barriers, are simply gateways to a greater understanding and enrichment of life. We will also find that seeming areas of difference, are much smaller than that which we all hold in common.

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.

 

 

The excitement and wall to wall press coverage of the football World Cup, has temporarily diverted our attention away from appalling suffering in Yemen, Syria and much of the Middle East. Former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s famous saying that football is more important than life or death, has a ring of momentary truth for many.

It is much easier to lose ourselves in the excitement of England’s thrilling victory last night over Tunisia with Captain Harry Kane’s winning goal in injury time, or Christiano Rolando’s hat trick in Portugal’s earlier match against Spain, and other highlights of the tournament, than come to terms with the continuing suffering in the Middle East, made worse by Saudi Arabia’s attack on the Houthi rebel port of Hodeida, now mostly under Saudi control. Peace imposed by force, simply tilts things in favour of one of the combatants, and can even add to suffering and a heightened sense of injustice.

Guru Nanak, reflecting on similar suffering in 15th century India, courageously declared that: the one God of us all, looks beyond supposed superiority of birth or creed; that we all belong to the same one human family of equals, all deserving the same rights. God, he taught, is not interested in religious or other labels, but in what we do for our fellow beings.

Following the suffering of the second world war, the UN Declaration of Human Rights carried similar sentiments The Security Council was created to ensure such rights were respected. The tragedy of politics today, is those charged with keeping us to norms of civilised behaviour, without taking sides, (referees of political foul play) are often active offenders, sometimes taking sides to further their own self-interest. It is worth reflecting that much of the weaponry fueling conflicts across the world is supplied by members of this peace keeping body.

Football may at times be fractious, and has its own share of problems, but in football and sport generally, there is genuine respect for different teams, as well as for members of different faiths within teams. The world of sport readily accepts, what the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks called: the ‘dignity of difference’, and has a lot to teach the world of politics.

My computer and I are not the best of friends. It frequently accuses me of being a robot, or not even knowing my own date of birth! Fortunately, when it is in one of its really ratty moods, I can usually re-set it, back to a date when it was working properly, or make it behave itself, by closing it, and restarting.

It’s far more difficult to see what we can do about an increasing human ‘rattiness’ in discussion and behaviour towards those who do not share our opinions or prejudices on Brexit, immigration or anything else. A little re-setting of the tone of debate towards respecting the sincerely held beliefs and opinions of others is clearly needed.

I believe, religion in its true essence, is supposed to help us to do just this, and help us develop more tolerant attitudes to those who may not share our views. But, unfortunately, over the centuries, religions themselves, have displayed intolerance and violence, not only to others, but even to members of their own faith.

This week Sikhs are commemorating the martyrdom of Guru Arjan, the 5th Guru of Sikhs, who literally gave his life trying to end fractious in-fighting between religions, by building bridges of understanding and respect between them. Guru Arjan was the founder of the famous Golden Temple in Amritsar. To emphasise Sikh respect for the followers of Islam, he asked a Muslim saint, Mia Mir to lay the foundation stone. The Guru was a prolific poet and scholar and the main compiler of the Sikh holy scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib. In it he also added verses of Hindu and Muslim saints to emphasise important commonalities.

Guru Arjan was well aware of the dangers of emphasising tolerance and respect in an age of bigotry. He was arrested by the country’s rulers and tortured to death in the searing heat of an Indian June. In traditional commemoration of Guru’s martyrdom, and in the spirit of his teachings, Sikhs make no show no anger or bitterness Instead, sweetened cold drinks are served to all who pass by Sikh homes or gurdwaras.

Guru Arjan gave his life for interfaith understanding, and tolerance and respect for the sincerely held beliefs of others. His life serves as an inspiration not only to Sikhs, but for all seeking to nudge society in a less fractious direction.

Outsourcing is clearly a growth industry. If we make a call to any service provider it might well be answered by someone in Mumbai or Bangalore. It’ something we all face every day. As we juggle our complex personal lives, we can find ourselves entrusting the care of our children to childminders we sometimes scarcely know.

This outsourcing of responsibility goes much wider. Questions to ministers in Parliament, are often couched in terms of: ‘what is the government going to do about the care of the elderly, the grooming of vulnerable children, hate crime, knife crime, obesity, alcoholism, the dangers of the social media and much else. Over the weekend we had dentists calling for the government to act over an alarming rise in tooth decay in young children often caused by too many sugary drinks. These are complex social issues which can never have a single answer. With the best will in the world, government policy cannot simply make up for the neglect of personal responsibility.

Escaping personal responsibility is nothing new. In the India of Guru Nanak’s day, people would sometimes leave their families to wander in the wilderness in a search for God. The Guru criticised this abandonment of social responsibility and suggested that they go back home and look to the care of their families and wider society.

I was reminded of this while attending the official opening of a new, Sikh ethos school in Leeds recently. Running through the school’s DNA is an underlying ethos, common to many faiths and beliefs, of commitment to personal responsibility and service to those around us.

I was given a tour of the school with the Lord Mayor of Leeds, Councillor Jane Dowson. Brightly coloured posters on the walls, and writing in exercise books, emphasised what I think of as the often missing other 3 Rs: Right, Wrong and Responsibility. The Lord Mayor looked at the list of British Values prominently displayed on one wall, and then at the summary of the essential ethos of Sikh teachings on another, and said they are one and the same! She continued, ‘if only we could get adults to live by such values’. Not easy. But a little less outsourcing of personal responsibility, can have huge benefits for us all.

 

At the start of a New Year, we all look to our concerns and hopes for the year to come. For me, a major concern is the potential for populism rooted in xenophobia that looks only to economic prosperity for ‘me and my’.

Last weekend, Sikhs throughout the world celebrated the birthday of Guru Gobind Singh, who through his life and work, taught us to look beyond narrow sectarian interests and work for the wellbeing of wider society,

Guru Gobind Singh was the last of the founding Gurus of Sikhism whose role was to show that the teachings of Guru Nanak stressing the equality of all, including gender equality and a willingness to put others before self, were not impracticable ideals, but a necessary, though demanding, blueprint for a fairer and more peaceful society.

The task of Guru Nanak’s successor Gurus wasn’t easy, and two were martyred for stressing the need for tolerance and freedom of worship at a time of intense religious bigotry. A similar fate was suffered by many of the early Sikhs, but despite such persecution, the resilience of the infant Sikh community continued to grow to such an extent that Guru Gobind Singh decided he could now end the line of living Gurus and ask Sikhs to commit themselves to following the teachings of his predecessors, contained in the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, as they would a living Guru.

The Sikh Gurus were not the only ones who taught that ethical living, with concern and compassion for those around us, was the way to true contentment. Centuries earlier, Jesus Christ had taught much the same in parables like the Sermon on the Mount, and the story of the Good Samaritan. It is important that we recognise the common thrust for more responsible living found in our different faiths and work together to make these central to life.

Today’s populism can lead to such imperatives being ignored, encouraging a drive to self-interest. Rather, I would suggest an alternative movement rooted in common ethical teachings across faith traditions and secular society, while acknowledging and respecting differences between cultures and religions. But we need to look beyond mere lip service, and begin to walk the talk if we want to move from the bigotry of 2017 to a better 2018.

The weekend post brought its usual appeals for donations to help in alleviating suffering in Syria, Iraq and other areas of the Middle East The scale of suffering, wrought by internecine political, religious and ethnic conflict, is truly devastating and it is important that we support such appeals and help those risking their lives to help the victims of war and violence.

Next month representatives of different faiths and secular society will meet at a service at Westminster Abbey for Humanitarian Aid workers killed in conflict. At the inaugural meeting, 4 years ago, I referred to the extraordinary dedication and concern for others of an American, 26 year old Kayla Mueller, captured by ISIS and reportedly killed in a Jordanian air strike. In a letter smuggled to her family, she wrote: If I have suffered at all throughout this experience, it is only in knowing how much suffering I have put you through….The thought of your pain is the source of my own.

No self-pity; no harsh word about her captors. Only a concern for others. There are many others like Kayla, and they all deserve our prayers and support. The reality however is their dedication and international aid efforts alone, cannot cope with the suffering of those caught up in the fighting, and in the huge displacement of people we have witnessed, which just goes on and on.

I believe it is important to look more closely at the causes of such suffering. True, that violence begins with local rivalries, but unfortunately, these are magnified and made more horrific by larger factional rivalry between the great powers, supporting rival factions with ever-more sophisticated means of killing in pursuit of strategic interest. The Sikh Guru, Guru Amar Dass, looking at the dubious alliances fracturing the society of his day wrote:

I am of Gods Faction. All other factional alliances are subject to death and decay.

Speaking from a Sikh perspective, if we wish to avoid the continuing man made suffering of innocents, I believe we must continually remind all in power to look beyond, solely, their own self-interest, to what Sikhs call Sarbat ka Bhalla, a single-minded resolve to secure the well-being of all.

Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dicks’ weekend statement that police had prevented as many as five near imminent terrorist attacks over the last few months-, reminds us that we still have much to do to understand and combat the roots of such terrorism.

The seeming paradox behind increasing terrorist outrages and much of the violence in the world today, is how can religious teachings designed to help us be better human beings, be manipulated to lead to the deliberate killing of innocents?

Sikh teachings remind us that what generally passes for religion, is, in reality, a complex mix of superstition, rituals, culture, group history and uplifting ethical teachings. No religion, including my own is immune from followers going against its ethical teachings. Ethical teachings are easy to state, but difficult to live by, and in practice, greater emphasis is often placed on culture and rituals, and sometimes, a perversely unifying belief, that God favours our faith over that of others.

Guru Nanak, looking at conflict between religions in the India of his day, reminded us: ‘the one God of us all is not the least bit interested in our different religious labels but in what we do for others.’ It’s a perversion to believe that God condones killing and murder in His name, and to horrendous crimes and savagery not only between faiths but within the same faith. Today, despite many years of earnest effort for inter faith understanding, there is virtually no dialogue between faiths to explore and understand their different religions. Religious leaders come together, deplore the violence in the world, share tea and samosas, and then, often go back to their congregations to preach exclusivity.

There is an urgent need to look at the environment in which the cancer of terrorism thrives. We need legitimate discussion of questionable attitudes and practices, beginning with those that discriminate against women, gay people and others. Prime Minister Theresa May was right when she recently spoke of the need for difficult conversations about religion. A bold, but courteous, questioning of seemingly divisive practices will help make religion, what it was always intended to be, an active player in working for the common good of all.

 

Yesterday’s Commonwealth Day Service in Westminster Abbey was on the theme of peace. But, with the firing of Kim Jung Un’s ‘look at me’ rockets fuelled by the blood and sweat of his impoverished people, Russia muscling in on the chaos and suffering in the Middle East, and a record 20 million refugees without, food and shelter, a truly peaceful world still seems a distant dream.

I found the service and prayers at the Abbey, both moving and uplifting. In the Sikh view, prayers are essentially a charging of spiritual batteries to help us move in a better ethical direction. In this case, to a more active search for peace. And for this we clearly have to look beyond today’s policies of deterrence and containment.

Sikh teachings remind us that peace is more than the absence of war; it is a universal respect for the rights of others, and I find it hard to believe that this can be achieved by narrowly focussing on deterrent might, with its inherent dangers of an escalation of rival power. New technologies and new ways of killing make yesterday’s lethal weapons obsolete, not to be disposed of, but sold to developing countries, fuelling conflict in a world awash with arms.

A moving Christian hymn reminds us that new occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth. They must upwards still and onwards, who would keep abreast with truth. Today’s strategic alliances, while providing a measure of mutual security for some, do nothing to prevent continuing human right’s abuse for others. Guru Ram Dass, writing of pacts and alliances made in self-interest, taught that the only pact or commitment worth making was to God to be committed and uncompromising in our pursuit of social and political justice, – not only for our side, but for all people; a sentiment that has its echo in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Today, while many agree with such sentiments, some political leaders find it expedient to overlook human rights abuse in what are sometimes called friendly countries. The great human rights activist and scientist Andre Sakharov, made clear his view that there can no lasting peace in the world unless we are even-handed on the abuse of human rights. Words we must take on board in our search for a more peaceful and fairer world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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