Where Unity Is Strength
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Last week I attended a meeting jointly called by the Home Office and Department for Communities, for faith communities, police and other stakeholders about the alarming rise in hate crime. Many saw the solution in greater vigilance in reporting unacceptable behaviour, and firm action by the police and courts. To me, as a Sikh this in itself, was like applying sticking plasters to surface sores without tackling the underlying malady, namely irrational prejudice that leads us to place negative connotations on superficial difference like colour of skin, dress or foreign accent.

The problem is that when two or more people find sufficient in common to call themselves us, they all too often find someone to look down on to strengthen their sense of unity. We see it in rivalry between football fans, and in its worst form it can lead to the horrors of the holocaust. Unscrupulous politicians all too often exploit the same irrational prejudices for political gain, particularly at a time of economic or social difficulty. We all know that in a fog or mist, familiar objects can assume grotesque and frightening forms, and it is the same when we look at fellow humans through a lens of ignorance and prejudice.

Some people suggest that keeping religion in the private sphere well away from politics is one way of addressing prejudice. Nothing could be less helpful. The Sikh Gurus taught that people of religion and political rulers should work together to build a tolerant and inclusive society. Living at a time of religious conflict, they were well aware of the dangers of prejudice, and stressed the equal dignity and respect of all members, male and female, of our one human family.

Guru Gobind Singh, 10th Guru of the Sikhs wrote:

God is in the temple as He is in the mosque
The Shia and the Sunni pray to the same one God
Despite differences in culture and appearance
All men have the same form. All pray to the same one God.

Today the fog of ignorance and prejudice is still very much evident in attacks on minority groups including the Polish community for speaking their own language. Much of this hate crime is directed against religious communities and responsibility lies with the secular and religious to address the language and actions arising from prejudice, to help us recognise common ground and imperatives for true community cohesion.

 

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The latest Ministry of Justice (MOJ) statistics show violence against prison officers has reached almost 6,000 incidents per year, up 43% from the previous year. Prisoner-on-prisoner assaults are up 32% from last year to 17,782 incidents. The rise in violence has given rise to calls for a public inquiry by prison governors.

Last week peers discussed the concerning trend. Responding to Lord Patel’s question on how the government is going to address the issue, The Advocate General of Scotland, Lord Keen of Elie said,

“Improving safety and decreasing the level of violence is an urgent priority for this Government. We recently set out our plans for prison safety and reform in a White Paper. We will invest in 2,500 more prison officers across the prison estate. This includes the recruitment by March 2017 of 400 additional prison officers into 10 of our most challenging prisons.”

Lord Singh of Wimbledon, Head of the Sikh Prison Chaplaincy Service said, “Overcrowding is a major contributory factor to violence in prisons, and a major cause of overcrowding is repeat offending. Sikh chaplains are instructed to work with local communities to break the cycle of reoffending by providing work and accommodation for released prisoners.”

He went on,“Does the Minister agree that the National Offender Management Service and the chaplaincy council should encourage chaplains of all faiths to make rehabilitation central to their work? Does he further agree that an element of competition between different faiths to reduce reoffending would be no bad thing?”

The MOJ do not currently breakdown re-offending statistics by faith.

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Yesterday’s service at the Cenotaph was a touching reminder of the tragic loss of millions of young lives in the first and second world wars and in numerous subsequent conflicts. Today we are all too aware that lasting peace, based on universal respect for human rights, still remains a distant and elusive goal.

Guru Nanak whose birth anniversary Sikhs celebrate today, was himself a witness to the savagery of conflict, with forced conversions and atrocities. He was a man far ahead of his time. Instead of restricting himself to praying to God for peace, he also attacked the underlying causes of conflict, including supposed religious superiority and exclusive relationships with God; then used, and still used today to justify cruel and intolerant behaviour. The Guru in his very first sermon taught that the one God of us all was not in the least bit impressed by our different religious labels, but by what we do to ensure peace and social justice for our fellow human beings.

The Guru also criticised the belief that any one nation or group of people were inherently superior to those around them. He taught a belief in the equality and interdependence of all members of our one human family. Following the huge loss of life in the second world war, similar thoughts led to the creation of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The reality of the world today is that while instant communications and interdependence in trade and commerce, push us to the realisation of a shared and common destiny, long engrained attitudes and prejudices, make it difficult for many to accept the new reality. We cannot have it both ways. We cannot be true to those, who, in the words of the Kohima Epitaph, ‘gave their today for our tomorrow’ unless we look towards a world that recognises an equal respect for all. It’s not easy to change deep rooted attitudes, but as Guru Nanak reminds us, it’s the only way to true and lasting peace.

 

 

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Prevent one of the four strands of the government’s counter terrorism strategy Contest continues to divide public opinion. Significant government funds have been invested since 9/11.

Six years after the London 7/7 bombings, £80m has been reported to have been spent on 1,000 schemes across 94 local authorities. The government however, has been accused of stigmatising Muslim communities, causing disquiet among groups, one of which has announced an alternative counter-terror scheme.

Last week Lord Lester of Herne Hill asked the government whether they intended to set up an independent inquiry to evaluate the operation of Prevent. Minister of State for the Home Office, Baroness Williams of Trafford responded, informing peers that since 2011 Prevent had been expanded in order to account for an increased terror threat.

Defending the strategy she said, “Prevent is working; it is safeguarding people from being drawn into terrorism. The statistics on Prevent delivery are reported in the Contest annual report. We have committed to updating Contest in 2016 and Prevent will be included as part of that refresh.”

Lord Singh of Wimbledon, the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations talked about the difficulty with Prevent because of ambiguity.

He said, “Words such as “extremism”, “fundamentalism” and “radicalisation” all leave us none the wiser—and “Islamist” is a positive insult to the Muslim community. Would the Minister agree that the real target of Prevent is the out-of-context use of religious texts to justify the abuse of human rights and the cruel treatment of women and people of other faiths?”

He went on, “Will she try to engage with faith leaders to ensure that they interpret religious texts in the context of today’s times?”

Baroness Williams responded, “The noble Lord, as always, makes very wise points. So often in the case of religion, religious texts are misinterpreted to the extent that they are completely out of context with the actions of those who would seek to undermine the true tenets of those religions.”


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