Faith groups working towards a more sensitive and tolerant society

Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford recently hosted a conference on Religion and Belief in British Public Life arising out of the the report of the same name from the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, convened by the Woolf Institute and chaired by Baroness Butler-Sloss. Hugh Boulter reports.

The conference was organised by the South East England Faiths Forum and supported by the Oxford Diocesan Committee for Inter-faith Relations. The two lead speakers were the Dean of Christ Church, The Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy, and Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, Assistant Secretary of the Muslim Council of Great Britain and himself an imam from Leicester. Respondents included Rabbi Norman Solomon who was a member of the Butler-Sloss commission, Fakhera Rehman who spoke of her inter-faith work in Kirklees and Jeremy Rodell of the British Humanist Association.

All speakers referred to the changing religious scene within Britain with the arrival of significant numbers of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs over recent decades and the decline in Christian observance reflected in the increasing numbers of those who claim to have no religious affiliation at all. In his opening address, Martyn Percy outlined a number of social trends in British society which affected all communities. He mentioned consumerism, an emphasis on the right to choose, and a questioning attitude. He felt that we were also a more caring and tolerant society, especially in relation to diversity. This raised challenges for religious communities where people felt that they could choose where they worshipped and did not have to agree with everything they were told by the religious leaders.

In encouragement he suggested that in all different religious traditions we should be ‘the salt of the earth’ throwing light on the dark places of society in relation to justice, peace and reconciliation. A small number of activists can make an important difference. Shaykh Mogra spoke as a Muslim who feels deeply English and sees the religious diversity in the UK as enriching. He has a vision of a society at ease with itself, in which all groups want to contribute to the general flourishing. To achieve this we need to enter into dialogue and develop “religious literacy.” He and his wife speak Gujarati to their children but they always reply in English. He quoted the Qura’n where it says: “None can be a believer if your neighbour is not free from harm of hand or tongue.” There is no place in Islam for so-called ‘honour killings’ or ‘forced marriages.’ Such practices are cultural and not religious and are abhorrent.

He is a member of a group called Imams Against Domestic Violence. He pointed out the power of the tongue to hurt the heart and whilst accepting the ideal of free speech, said that the discourse of derision has been encouraged by the recent referendum debates and the social media leading, to an increase in hate crime. In relation to Britishness he mentioned that the Muslim Council of Great Britain supports the Church of England as being the established church with Bishops in the House of Lords and the Queen as Head of the Church.
In the discussions three related themes emerged: religious literacy, the need for dialogue and the responsibility of the media and politicians. There was general agreement that both students and older people need to be aware of the teachings, practices and sensitivities of other religions.

But religious literacy is more than just this. We need to create situations where people can explain their understanding of their own faith or none, and where they can be listened to with respect. This is particularly important in schools and colleges. Fakhera Rehman gave examples of her work in Kirklees and explained how she gained acceptance by a male-dominated mosque. For Jeremy Rodell as a humanist the ability for people to explain their lack of faith is also important, whilst respecting those who do have beliefs.

This programme of engagement will also need resources and the support of politicians and the media who I hope can also become part of the process.

Dr Hugh Boulter is Secretary to Oxford Diocesan Committee for Interfaith Concerns (ODCIC).