Where Unity Is Strength

We’ve just come back from a wonderful holiday exploring glacial valleys and stunning mountain scenery. We also experienced warm and kind hospitality despite our distinctly our foreign appearance. It was in Norway and we left the country on the same day that Anders Breivik launched his murderous assault. Since then, I’ve been asking myself how could such an outrage have taken place in such a wonderful and tolerant country?

There is a well known verse in Sikh scriptures which says
There is a the inner light of God in all and it becomes manifest as we reflect and act on religious and ethical teachings, centred on a belief in the oneness of all humanity..

Unfortunately the opposite is also true and, as we saw in Norway, we can also carry within us, ungodly concerns and suspicions about those who appear different , especially newcomers to our country, despite evidence that immigrants generally bring new skills and vigour into a community. Fear of possible economic or social disadvantage, can all too easily lead to irrational prejudice and hatred, and I believe it’s this is that triggered the recent carnage in Norway, as it has done in countless other hate fuelled outrages throughout history.

Travel can help us develop more enlightened attitudes to others, when we see people in different lands with similar concerns and aspirations, laughing, joking, rejoicing and, grieving at the same sort of things.

But, we don’t really have to go very far to understand this truth ; we can see it in the lives and concerns of those of different cultures who are our near neighbours—if we care to look! I remember the suspicion and stand off a few years ago when Sikhs sought planning permission to extend a gurdwara in Southfields in London. There was no dialogue between Sikhs and local residents and rubbish was sometimes thrown into the existing gurdwara premises. A few of us decided to knock on every door in the immediate neighbourhood and invite the residents to discuss their concerns over refreshments. To our surprise, most came. Few concerns were raised and much of the discussion was about recipes for making chapattis.

We are told that it is good to talk, and dialogue between different cultures helps understanding, but both settled communities and new arrivals need to make an effort to change prejudice and misunderstanding into mutual respect.

As we have learnt this morning, the wanton violence and looting seen in Tottenham and other parts of London over the last few days has now spread to places like Birmingham and Bristol. It has its origins in the police shooting of a member of the public in still confused circumstances. But while the mindless violence has taken the headlines there are legitimate concerns over the balance of the right to life and freedom of individuals and how far the police should go in the course of their duty.

In a different area of the balance of rights and freedoms, the Equality and Human Rights Commission chose last weekend to suggest that the banning of satellite dishes in conservation areas may infringe an individual’s human right to freely practice their religion by denying the right to services beamed from abroad.

Both these examples show the importance of getting a sense of perspective on human rights. When the Human rights Act was first brought in, it was generally seen as an overdue protection of fundamental freedoms, but today many see it, and associated European legislation, as undue interference in the right of our country to its own interpretation of individual rights. I doubt if many will see access to a satellite dish as high on the scale of national priorities.

Over-focussing on comparative minor infringements of religious liberty simply blurs real issues.

For many of us religion is much more than formal worship. For Sikhs and I believe for most faiths the essence of religion is responsible living. This is something far removed from, and perhaps an antidote to, what has been termed ‘the recreational violence’ seen on our streets over the last few days.

Religion takes us away from a narrow obsession with self and my rights, to concern for those around us and respect for our surroundings. It is because of this that I believe that it would make for a more contented society if rights were seen in their true perspective, and the proposed new Bill on Human Rights framed to encompass both rights and responsibilities.


Yesterday, in a sombre response to last weeks riots, Prime Minister David Cameron spoke of a slow motion moral collapse that Britain had suffered in recent decades. In a hard hitting speech he attacked society for ‘twisting and misrepresenting human rights’ to undermine personal responsibility. He went on to say policies on education, welfare, parenting and drug addiction would be examined to help mend a broken society. Opposition leader Ed Milliband, in a parallel speech, drew attention to what he saw as the effects of economic deprivation and lack of job opportunities.

Curiously, religion and the role of faith communities hardly figures in this comprehensive call for action, although religion addresses many of the issues involved: such the family, and the harm done to both the individual and society by greed and selfishness. It’s a reminder that religion, at one time recognised as the main determinant and arbiter of moral values, is now seen as largely irrelevant,

For me the riots were not only, what the Prime Minister described as, ‘a wake up call for the country’, but also one for our religious communities. The problem is that there has always been a disconnect between religious teaching, and living true to religious values. Living true to such values is not always easy as seen in the death of Jesus Christ, and the later martyrdom of Guru Teg Bahadhur, whose anniversary of Guruship falls this week. Even when life is not threatened it’s not easy to stand up to the bully, or to look to the rights of others at the expense of benefits to your own.

The initiatives announced by the Prime Minister involving government departments are a welcome step in bringing sanity back to society. But religious communities also have a responsibility to translate lofty teachings on right, wrong and responsibility, to positive action to address underlying needs of society.

Today there are many initiatives by religious charities to tackle social deprivation. Sikhs have the institution of langar to feed the needy and the concept of seva or service to others. I believe there can be a huge multiplier effect if our different religions combine their individual efforts, in joint initiatives to bring respect, responsibility and cohesion back to all levels of society. In doing this we will simply be doing what the founders of our different faiths taught us to do.