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Public discourse on faith ‘must improve’ in age of Brexit and Trump

16 December 2016


Autumn cheer: the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, celebrates with Sarah Olney MP, after she won the Richmond Park by-election at the beginning of his month, beating the Conservative candidate, Zac Goldsmith, into second place. Mr Goldsmith had resigned the seat after the Government's decision in October to approve a third runway at Heathrow airport

Autumn cheer: the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, celebrates with Sarah Olney MP, after she won the Richmond Park by-election at the beginning of...

AN INTERFAITH committee set up to propose an overhaul of religion in the public sphere has said that its recommendations are even more relevant today, in the era of Brexit and Trump, one year after it de­­livered its report.

The committee, the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, which was set up by the interfaith Woolf Institute in 2014, published the report Living With Difference: Community, diversity and the common good in December last year. It contained recommenda­tions on ensuring that non-Anglican faiths were better re­­presented in the UK’s institutions, politics, and culture (News, 11 December 2015).

And, at a discussion held in Westminster last month to mark 12 months since the publication of the report, speakers argued that greater understanding of religious belief was essential in an increasingly di­­vided and uncertain world.

The leader of the Liberal Demo­crats, Tim Farron, an Evangelical Christian, said that, while religion and politics were not supposed to be talked about in polite society, they were actually the only things that mattered, and must be discussed more openly.

“It’s very easy to face complex problems and come up with easy solutions like Trump. They are very nearly always completely wrong,” he said.

The Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi said that she “wholeheartedly” en­­dorsed the report, which had come at just the right time.

She had helped to set up a new All-Party Parliamentary Group on religion and the media because of worries, expressed in the report, that the press was not fairly explaining the diversity of religious practice and belief in modern Britain.

”There is a specific form of abuse being reserved for Muslim politi­cians,” she said. “[If] you look at the comments in my local newspaper — all of them are about my faith and my gender. People have said I should be raped, and murdered, and sent back to such and such country.”

A Sikh barrister and community leader, Jasvir Singh, said that, across the Western world, attitudes to­­wards minority faiths were harden­ing. In France, for instance, a Sikh lawyer like him could not work as a barrister, because turbans were not permitted to be worn by advocates in court. “We need to not just toler­ate the differences, but celebrate them,” he said.

The director of the Woolf Insti­tute, Ed Kessler, said that a number of his report’s recommendations had already been picked up: a re­­view of religious education was under way to ensure that the full breadth of world-views were included; the Government had or­­dered an investigation into the running of sharia courts; and meet­ings with the press regulator IPSO, to urge greater religious literacy among the media, had begun.

“The widespread rise of illiteracy fuels antagonism. If there is one thing we would like, it is that we listen to one another more,” he said.

Britain should grasp the oppor­tunity, while it is redrafting its relationship with Europe, to begin a “national conversation” on what our shared values are. “In this changing society, we want people to feel part of this ongoing national story.”

The director of BBC News, James Harding, said that journalism was taking a renewed interest in cover­ing religion, offering as evidence the appointments of the high-profile correspondents Caroline Wyatt, and recently Martin Bashir, to BBC religious affairs. But it would be naïve to pretend that there were no tensions, he said.

A counter-argument came from the Conservative MP Nus Ghani, who spoke about balancing her iden­tity as a Muslim and a feminist Conservative, and suggested that faith should remain in the private sphere. “I’m not sure my faith has any impact on how I conduct myself as a public servant, and nor should it,” she said. “I’m also concerned when you try to make people identify themselves primarily by faith. It’s human nature to make one faith trump another.”

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