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The difference friendliness makes

by
17 October 2014

Elizabeth Butler-Sloss is chairing the Commission on Religion and Belief
in Public Life. She reports her initial observations

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WE LIVE in dangerous times. The threat from Islamic State, even in our own communities, is very real. Our citizens are being murdered.

Those who subscribe to its dangerous ideology are the minority, and imams up and down the country denounce them. One slightly comforting outcome of the horrific murder of Alan Henning was the forthright condemnation of it by the Imam of the Manchester Mosque as unIslamic. It is clear that the Islamic State does not represent mainstream Islam.

For many years, we have in this country subscribed to the theory and practice of multiculturalism. This seems to have been interpreted in many places and by agencies as, so long as English laws are not broken, each religious and, usually, ethnic group can live in its own community with its own language rather than English, side by side with other communities, but not communicating with them.

This failure in many areas to make the effort to understand and support the culture of other groups, or to work together as a wider community, has led to forms of ghettoism, and even, from time to time, to such practices as forced marriages and honour killings here in the UK and by those born here. It may also have contributed to young people's going to Syria and joining the Islamic State. On the contrary, to try to create wider communities is in no way a failure to respect the personal identity and culture of others.

Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim demonstrations are, of course, unacceptable - but they are the open manifestation of the mentality of those who are not prepared to be tolerant of others. There are, it is sad to say, many others who have the same thoughts as those articulated by the English Defence League.


IT IS obvious to me that people outside Government and the Armed Forces can do nothing directly to help to resolve the issues in the Middle East; but there is much that we, as citizens, can do to help to resolve some issues that create jihadists on our own doorstep. Perhaps we can thus help to prevent another 7/7.

I have learnt much from the meetings the Commission has had across the country. A number of points are made again and again by the Churches and other religions, and by civic leaders.

Most notably, there is a widespread perception among all communities who have spoken to us that Muslims are viewed almost entirely negatively. This is particularly seen in the approach of the media.

This negativity is based largely on religious illiteracy, which, of course, extends far beyond Islam. A most perceptive assessment of the media is that they see all religions as intolerant; and that, I think, is an entirely apt description. This attitude causes problems when the tragic events in Gaza, Syria, and Iraq are seen by all the communities in this country only through the eyes of the press and television.

In this dangerous world, there is no quick fix for these problems. They are coming home to families in this country: the families of those kidnapped, and those whose sons/husbands have been so cruelly murdered, and the families of the young men and teenage girls who have gone to join the jihad. Our sympathy should be extended also to so many of those families.


ALTHOUGH global conflicts take place far away, there is much that we can do. One splendid organisation is Near Neighbours, which now has some public funding. It is Christian-based, but reaches out to all religious and ethnic groups with great success.

Many cities are actually a collection of neighbourhoods or urban villages. The impression I got was that the work done by local people in their small area is, in many cases, often better than when larger charities go in and take over. For instance, the local football or cricket match; a tea party; a coffee morning (not during Ramadan), and so on - all are barrier-breakers.

Education is, of course, crucial. RE is often badly taught, and generally inadequate for the needs of today. The Commission was told of the importance of teaching children from the first year in primary school - not so much facts about religions as values and morals. A Sikh told us that they should be taught the importance of truth, love, and compassion.

We should cease being defensive, and reach out to other communities. Join a local group. Become involved.

Underlying all of this is the need for tolerance of others, and a respect for their views, drawing a distinction between reasoned criticism and closed-mind opposition to their culture. It is crucial to make genuine efforts to communicate and to have dialogue - with a desire to learn and not to teach.

It reminds me of the character in Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies: Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby. This is really the minimum response we should be making towards those who are not like us and whom we do not understand. If we want to be treated fairly, politely, and respectfully by others, it follows that we should do the same.

This is an edited extract from a speech given by Lady Butler-Sloss in Leicester Cathedral last week. The views are her own. The Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life, set up by the Woolf Institute, welcomes the views of the general public. Its website, www.corab.org.uk, contains a set of questions for people to answer. The commission is working towards the publication of a report in 2015.

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