The Clash of Beliefs: Secularism and Faith Communities and the Need for InterAction on Shared Values

The recent speech at the Vatican by Baroness Warsi on militant secularism and the aggressive stance that it has taken against faith and faith communities, sparked a debate for a few days in the UK and followed on from her recent speech in which she stated that anti-Muslim sentiments were now part of the after dinner discussion in many living rooms in Britain. The debate on faith has many times been heated and intemperate and secularists and faith communities have taken increasingly aggressive positions, though the former having been angered that faith communities have become increasingly prominent in the public sphere since the premiership of the Tony Blair and his desire to see faith brought into public platforms.

Between the bus poster campaigns, the London Underground poster card campaigns and the various dearth of magazine articles suggesting that there probably is no God and others suggesting that there is a Creator and he loves us all, the haze of a media war has left outcomes blurred and with some strange alliances being made by both sides. Yet, recently secular groups and leading media pundits like Dawkins have been of late, on the attack against faith communities suggesting that they are somehow ‘irrational’, somehow ‘illogical’ and racked by superstition and religious guilt. As you can imagine, this has not gone down well at all and we have reached a point where many people of faith feel that the next threat to such communities comes from what they regard as ‘militant secularists.’

Yet within all of these discussions there does seem to be a bizarre confluence of sort. Both faith communities and secularists talk about the protection of human rights and the need to ensure that all people are free from hate crime, as well embracing the diversity of communities, at least in the mainstream of these two communities. They agree that there will always be tensions between the two and that there will be those who believe in faith and those who do not, despite the sometimes heated and aggressive public debates. Dawkins also agrees that elements of faith such as Christmas carols, architectural designs based on faith and the visions of faith that inspired men and women to greater social heights for example, are things that he has not disagreement on. Indeed he says that even enjoys singing carols at Christmas time. All well and good, though it is usually the history of faith and issues around personal choice and religious traditions that most irk the secularists. So, in fairness there are confluence points and there has been very little focus on developing these areas so that some form of trust can be built up before the more difficult issues are tackled.

So the next 2 – 3 years should be based on faith communities and secularists (including the more militant tendencies) trying to support greater discussions on looking at areas where they may be some commonality whilst also legitimately debating areas of disagreement. Much has been done on interfaith dialogue and so entrenched has this form of activity become that it will continue to roll on and gather pace. However, little has been done on what I call the need for InterAction on Shared Values between these two groups. These engagements will shape the future for engagement between faith and non-faith communities and Baroness Warsi’s comments have simply brought these issues to the foreground of social debates. If anything, I believe that she has done the debate a great service. She has honestly said what needed to be said; that we need to talk about the difficult issues and stop hiding in the shadows, whilst attempting to score points against ‘the other’. That helps no-one, let alone the Allmighty, if there is one.

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The Disgraceful Face of Political Expediency Between the UK & Syria

Much has been said and reported on the ‘deals in the desert’ that were done by the previous Government to bring the unhinged Gaddafi back into the ‘mainstream of the international community.’ The deal was that Gaddafi and Libya would have trade sanctions lifted and a rehabilitation of their ‘image’ in the UK and Europe. The benefit for Blair was that he would be seen as someone who could deliver ‘a safer world’ after the disaster of Iraq and the illegal invasion of Iraq for which he was the chief cheerleader. This whole debacle saw our then Prime Minister shake the hand of an unhinged dictator who had no problem using torture against his people. All for the sake of cameras and political kudos – sick really!

Yet, what nobody has picked up was that the previous Government was also warming up and developing links to the Syrian regime of Assad. These took place through two departments, namely the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government and they took place through Prevent (Preventing Violent Extremism) conferences in Damascus and through meetings in Syria. Believe it or not, Assad’s government was touting Syria in 2008 – 2010 as a beacon for countering extremism – within that read torturing and killing individuals who stood against the Government whether religiously or politically inclined. Yet officers from the UK were directed to attend these conferences and they were co-ordinated through a grade 6 civil servant at the time in the FCO. Through that individual, UK civil servants spent time in Damascus ‘learning how to counter extremism’. Furthermore, visas were approved through the UK office of the Syrian Embassy and under the Ambassadorship of Sami Khiyami, the now embattled mouthpice of the disgraceful Assad regime. (Nonetheless as a person Sami Khiyami seemed decent enough, save for the cloack of the regime and its murderous track record.)Nobody seems to have picked this up and it is very much an unsaid story. Yet, seeing what Assad has done to his people, there is a time for the truth to out and for these ‘links’ never again to be developed with such regimes. But as a realist, I know that little will change for the sake of political expediency. I just hope we learn that bringing in muderers from the cold does nothing for our morality in the long term. It just means that we are steeped in the lies and untruths that eminate from such links.

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Militant Secularists & Faith

Baroness Warsi has again spoken about something which has not been spoken about in the public sphere. The issue of faith in the public arena and where policy making and policy shaping may be involved with faith. For those who will feel that faith and politics / public policy should not mix, I am afraid to say that historically they have mixed and will always mix to lesser or greater degrees depending on the personal and political motivations and drives of politicians. Let us also not forget that organised religion still wields wealth and power, from the Vatican to the Religious structures in places like Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan and many other countries.

The speech made at the Vatican by Baroness Warsi raises something important. The fact that there are secularists that believe that using debate is a way forward to countering what they regard as the ‘irrational beliefs’ of religious people is a perfectly reasonable stance to take in our country, though one that I would not completely agree with. Debate is positive and should be protected, though outright abuse, attacks against faith from prejudiced positions based on limited facts and accepting hate against faith groups since they may be seen as somehow inferior are what we

all need to stand against. This was what I believe, Baroness Warsi was trying to outline. A breed of militant secularists that simply try to out-shout and talk over others and who believe that not giving others with different views on faith the space to talk is unacceptable. It is this intolerance and authoritarianism that was being outlined. It is neither helpful nor acceptable and it is damaging to the very public position that they are trying to re-inforce.

In light of this, whilst we need to carry on with a public discourse on the role of faith in our country, the least we can do is to give others the chance to talk. We may not agree, but by God, the Almighty, our common humanity (whatever you want it to be), we need to accept that we all deserve some basic respect and dignity. Let’s try and maintain that basic premise.

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