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Tuesday, 23 February 2016
Feeling passionate that schools should be a place where faith can be openly discussed, Headmaster of Bolton School Boys’ Division, Mr Philip Britton, chaired a panel discussion focusing on “Living a Life of Faith Within Society.” He said: “It is absolutely essential that we provide safe spaces to have discussion in schools about these very serious issues rather than allow the Prevent strategy to cause teachers to close down debate.”
The over-riding message of the multi-faith panel comprising nationally renowned speakers was that the government’s Prevent strategy was shutting down debate and is not the answer to the problem of radicalisation. Dr Siema Iqbal, a GP and entrepreneur, said: “I am not denying there is a problem with radicalisation but I do not think Prevent is the answer. Prevent needs to go back to the drawing board and we need to look at it again. By shutting down the debate, it takes away safe places for children and students to discuss issues which then makes them more vulnerable to extreme views. I find it insulting that a statutory duty is imposed upon me – and other doctors, tutors and teachers – to report any worries I have about extremism. If I was worried that somebody who was sat in front of me was going to harm somebody else I would naturally report this – that is basic humanity - but I do not need to have a statutory duty imposed upon me. I should not be policing the community and I am not trained to do this. Prevent does talk about what makes people vulnerable to radicalisation such as socio-economic deprivation, mental health issues and a lack of sense of belonging and these are the issues that we need to address.”
Imam Qari Asim MBE, a senior imam and lawyer from Leeds, agreed, saying: “radicalisation has enveloped us but it is a very small minority. Prevent has put pressure on teachers and doctors – they are not trained to make such judgements. The Muslim community needs to engage with itself and work out what the causes of extremism are. The government and Muslim community also needs to also work together to address this challenge.”
In response to the question of whether admissions policies based on faith have a positive or negative effect on the community cohesion and should the exam timetable be scheduled mindful of religious observance, a range of views were elicited.
The Reverend Mark Poulson, Secretary for Inter-Religious Affairs to the Archbishop of Canterbury and former Vicar, said that we urgently need leadership in the community to advise young people about how they can accommodate exams and fasting. He also admitted that some Church of England schools have been at their worst in terms of admissions policies and he proposed a major national conversation about faith schools and a rethink.
Rabbi Rickman, Head of Religious Studies at Manchester's King David School, felt faith schools were brilliant but that there is a big responsibility on such schools to educate students to be understanding of others.
Dr Iqbal was happy for her two boys to attend a non-faith school during the week and the mosque at weekends. Addressing the exam question, Imam Asim said we live in a multi-faith country and where possible we should take into account religious observance. Dr Iqbal said that if children don’t fast on the day of the exam they should make up their fast afterwards. Mr Britton, from the pedagogical perspective, hoped there would be agreement before the Summer!
The Prevent and education questions were just two of many that the panel addressed. There was broad agreement on many issues with a sense of “we are one but we are not the same” emanating from the stage.
Considering the question of faiths working together, it was agreed that much good work already exists in this area but it is often a case of preaching to the converted.
Rabbi Ben Rickman told of how working and studying in a Jewish school involves fencing around the campus, terrorist drills and security guards but how once you go beyond this façade it is a regular school with all the good and bad that comes with that. The Rabbi said he likes to dream that we can live in a better society, saying if you can find common ground anything can happen. Muslim boys came into his school to help deliver an assembly and were allowed to pray in Jewish classrooms and he took a Jewish class to teach Muslim girls about Judaism. The Rabbi said we need to dream of a world where a Jew can walk through a Muslim area unmolested and vice-versa. He also cited an example of Jewish, Muslim and Christian children working together to raise funds for Manchester’s Children Hospital by fundraising at what he sees as the most ethnically diverse Tesco’s in the world, which is in Cheetham Hill, Manchester. He also said young people have a duty, including the students he had met with earlier today, to stand up when they hear inappropriate comments about any religion. Rabbi Rickman spoke about the success of his Sunday night classes in modern Hebrew for Jews and Christians. He also talked about how he is in discussion with the military about the possibility of an “All Souls Chaplaincy”, which would open up the position of Chaplain to people of a non-Christian faith so that spiritual guidance can be offered to soldiers of all creeds.
Reverend Mark Poulson suggested that faith should takes it place at the centre of public life and should be unapologetic and passionate about what it says; in a perfect world the Reverend would ban the words moderate and extremist. He reminded the audience of parents, teachers and pupils that we have a precious freedom in the UK that we must not take for granted and that we are allowed to believe passionately but we can also be challenged about our views. The Reverend spoke about the Faith Forum in Southall and told how it had taken years to build this precious alliance and that the Near Neighbours project had generated a whole plethora of grassroots schemes.
Professor Mona Siddiqui OBE of Edinburgh University and a well known commentator in the media, told the audience how, as a girl, she had wanted to be a spy or a journalist but her parents had said these were not respectable jobs! Having read for a PhD in Islamic Studies at Manchester University she has also always been interested in public life. She told how the spotlight is currently on the Muslim world for all the wrong reasons. She said that whilst religion has an emotional hold on her, life has endless opportunities to develop new communities and make new friends and she would refrain from saying she has one identity or belongs to one community.
Imam Asim said that as Muslims there are two key challenges that we are facing – we need to guard against extremists who are a small minority on one side and Islamophobia on the other side. We should not forget that there are millions of people in between these two extremes who want to live peaceful lives of faith. He spoke of how Islam recognises other faiths and encourages co-existence. He said it was a press stereotype that religions do not get on so it is important that faiths show their commonality and make the world an even more beautiful place to live in.
Dr Iqbal spoke of her work with the Greater Manchester Police on the We Stand Together campaign which works to promote community cohesion and on her work with the Challenging Hate Forum with Manchester Cathedral. She also reflected that people that come to inter-faith forums are already on board so it can be a case of preaching to the converted. It is vitally important for school children to learn all about other faiths at school and this should help them become tolerant in later life.
Answering the question, what is the most significant single thing that can be done to shift public perception from faith being part of the problem to faith being part of the solution when we talk about community cohesion, Professor Siddiqui said we only talk about faith in the West when there is a problem and consequently religious voices then sound defensive. In the UK, we allow people to express their views but we don’t really make space for religious voices to be heard. Educational establishments are a good place to have a debate – secularism affects religion and religion affects secularism.
Rabbi Rickman conceded that it is more difficult these days to raise your family in religion because of so many outside distractions. He said we need to avoid the distractions of technology but we cannot shut the door on the modern world. The danger with events like this is that we are preaching to the converted – he said that his challenge to the audience was to find someone in your street tonight and to spread our message.
Reverend Poulson said I wish we could take a vow of silence for a year across religious communities in order to make people realise that we are a gift to the nation. We pray, we serve and we build bridges. We are part of the answer but many times we are too defensive. We need to be unapologetically ourselves, we are one but we are not the same.
Wrestling with the question, should religions change to fit into the modern world which is becoming more atheistic, various responses were forthcoming. Imam Asim said religions have been with us since Adam and that Islam has the flexibility to adapt to the environment it is in. The teachings do not need to be reformed but he stressed it was important to make things relevant. Dr Iqbal said the Qur’an teaches being kind, tolerant and accepting and we need to stick to these fundamentals; a lot of these values tie in with the values of this country.
Professor Siddiqui reminded the audience that religions are not born in a moment, they change gradually and constantly reform. The Reverend Poulson said even though the Church had the Reformation, we did not change what we fundamentally believe. For people to understand religion we had to move away from the Bible and Church services being in Latin, hence the Church of England was born. All religions need to go through that constant reformation. Not God, not what we believe in but the way that we communicate needs to be constantly reformed. His belief was that the country is not becoming more atheistic but more agnostic. He did worry that people have lost faith in religious institutions because we are not speaking their language and answering the questions that people are asking.
From an Orthodox Jew perspective, Rabbi Rickman said there are significant limitations on what can be reformed. The rules of the Sabbath do not allow for technology or electricity for 25 hours which takes you to another zone and completely removes you from twenty first century living.
Addressing the question, are there lessons from history that can be learnt from when religion has caused radicalisation in the past? Dr Iqbal felt radicalisation is more about people misinterpreting religion. Often this comes about because people are left feeling vulnerable through a lack of identity with the country that they are in. The media can also make people feel that they don’t belong and the maladjusted can start to look for answers by misinterpreting religion. Professor Siddiqui said that, as Muslims, we have to be honest and say that there are radicals who are not misguided or vulnerable. We cannot dismiss this, we have to face up to it. Dr Iqbal concurred but asked where can young people go to talk about their radical views? If we shut down debate in universities, schools and madrassas where do they go to have their opinions challenged? Shutting down debate, she said, is a worry for me as a parent.
Reverend Poulson reflected that Christianity has done all the beheadings and burnings but you cannot divorce religion from the people. He said Christianity is at its weakest when it is in power and at its strongest when it is being persecuted – as evidenced by the recent growth of churches in China, where there is not freedom of religion. He believes that radicalisation is an issue for every single faith community around the world. Christians, he surmised, are often a disaster when they are in power and are better when we are being persecuted!
The evening ended with panellists offering their advice to pupils and parents on how best to live a life of faith in today’s society.
Reverend Poulson said for young people his advice would be to pray, to study the scriptures and to always ask questions. He also told them to not be defensive about their faith. He advised parents to encourage their children to ask questions and to be honest when you don’t know the answer and to share in their journey.
Imam Qari Asim told young people to be proud of your faith and to see how you can make a difference to the world that you live in via your faith. To parents, see how you can have a better relationship with your children to make them become better Muslims or whatever creed they follow.
Dr Iqbal advised children to never stop asking questions and told parents to try and have a friend from each of the major religions, telling them it is the example that you set that your children will follow.
The debate marked the end of a day’s conference which had earlier seen 120 local pupils from a dozen schools consider the same issues.
Click here to watch the whole panel discussion or press the play button below:
The panel comprised:
Professor Mona Siddiqui, OBE, who joined the University of Edinburgh’s Divinity School in December 2011 as the first person to hold a Chair in Islamic and Inter-Religious Studies. Her research areas are primarily in the field of Islamic jurisprudence and ethics and Christian-Muslim relations. Amongst her most recent publications are ‘My Way: A Muslim Woman’s Journey and The Good Muslim: Reflections on Classical Islamic Law and Theology. She is well known internationally as a public intellectual and a speaker on issues around religion, ethics and public life. She is a regular commentator in the media, known especially for her appearances on BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day. In 2014, she spoke on religion and politics at the World Economic Forum in Davos as she is a member of the Global Agenda Council on Faith for the World Economic Forum. In 2015, she was named in the Debrett’s top 500 list of the most influential people in the UK.
Revd. Mark Poulson is the Secretary for Inter-Religious Affairs to the Archbishop of Canterbury and National Inter-Religious Affairs Adviser for the Church of England, advising the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church of England in relating to the great world faiths nationally and internationally, as well as at a local Parish level. He was Vicar of St. John’s Church, Southall, for over a decade, an extraordinarily diverse area of West London with flourishing relationships across different faiths and communities. He has been involved nationally in the Church of England’s Presence and Engagement Programme as a long-standing member of its Task Group, and sits on the Board of the Church’s successful partnership with Government, the Near Neighbours Project.
Qari Muhammad Asim, MBE is a senior Imam at Makkah Masjid. He is also a senior lawyer in a global law firm, DLA Piper, specialising in Real Estate. He is a visiting fellow at Leeds Becketts University and has been awarded an honorary doctorate by the University. Qari Asim is a member of the Government’s Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group, focusing on tackling Islamophobia. He is passionate about fostering relationships between communities and, consequently, is a member of a number of inter-faith organisations. He is senior editor of Imamsonline.com, a platform developed to promote mainstream Islamic voices and combat on-line radicalisation.
Rabbi Ben Rickman is an experienced educator and religious broadcaster who synthesises a passion for teaching with a desire to have all students enjoy the process of learning. As Head of Religious Studies at King David School in Manchester, he launched an interfaith portfolio, opening lines of communication between Abrahamic faith schools. The media has covered a number of his projects on both local and national news outlets on TV and radio. He has a strong local voice for building community relations through faith and takes part regularly in conversation on local radio. In 2013, he led the project to twin the Manchester Islamic High School for Girls with King David’s to advance interfaith understanding and relations.
Dr Siema Iqbal is a Manchester based GP, Entrepreneur and writer as well as being MEND’s (Muslim Engagement and Development) Head of National Events. She also works on hate crime with Greater Manchester Police, is on the Challenging Hate Forum with Manchester Cathedral and part of the ‘We Stand Together’ initiative which works to promote community cohesion.
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