Where Unity Is Strength
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The weekend post brought its usual appeals for donations to help in alleviating suffering in Syria, Iraq and other areas of the Middle East The scale of suffering, wrought by internecine political, religious and ethnic conflict, is truly devastating and it is important that we support such appeals and help those risking their lives to help the victims of war and violence.

Next month representatives of different faiths and secular society will meet at a service at Westminster Abbey for Humanitarian Aid workers killed in conflict. At the inaugural meeting, 4 years ago, I referred to the extraordinary dedication and concern for others of an American, 26 year old Kayla Mueller, captured by ISIS and reportedly killed in a Jordanian air strike. In a letter smuggled to her family, she wrote: If I have suffered at all throughout this experience, it is only in knowing how much suffering I have put you through….The thought of your pain is the source of my own.

No self-pity; no harsh word about her captors. Only a concern for others. There are many others like Kayla, and they all deserve our prayers and support. The reality however is their dedication and international aid efforts alone, cannot cope with the suffering of those caught up in the fighting, and in the huge displacement of people we have witnessed, which just goes on and on.

I believe it is important to look more closely at the causes of such suffering. True, that violence begins with local rivalries, but unfortunately, these are magnified and made more horrific by larger factional rivalry between the great powers, supporting rival factions with ever-more sophisticated means of killing in pursuit of strategic interest. The Sikh Guru, Guru Amar Dass, looking at the dubious alliances fracturing the society of his day wrote:

I am of Gods Faction. All other factional alliances are subject to death and decay.

Speaking from a Sikh perspective, if we wish to avoid the continuing man made suffering of innocents, I believe we must continually remind all in power to look beyond, solely, their own self-interest, to what Sikhs call Sarbat ka Bhalla, a single-minded resolve to secure the well-being of all.

Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dicks’ weekend statement that police had prevented as many as five near imminent terrorist attacks over the last few months-, reminds us that we still have much to do to understand and combat the roots of such terrorism.

The seeming paradox behind increasing terrorist outrages and much of the violence in the world today, is how can religious teachings designed to help us be better human beings, be manipulated to lead to the deliberate killing of innocents?

Sikh teachings remind us that what generally passes for religion, is, in reality, a complex mix of superstition, rituals, culture, group history and uplifting ethical teachings. No religion, including my own is immune from followers going against its ethical teachings. Ethical teachings are easy to state, but difficult to live by, and in practice, greater emphasis is often placed on culture and rituals, and sometimes, a perversely unifying belief, that God favours our faith over that of others.

Guru Nanak, looking at conflict between religions in the India of his day, reminded us: ‘the one God of us all is not the least bit interested in our different religious labels but in what we do for others.’ It’s a perversion to believe that God condones killing and murder in His name, and to horrendous crimes and savagery not only between faiths but within the same faith. Today, despite many years of earnest effort for inter faith understanding, there is virtually no dialogue between faiths to explore and understand their different religions. Religious leaders come together, deplore the violence in the world, share tea and samosas, and then, often go back to their congregations to preach exclusivity.

There is an urgent need to look at the environment in which the cancer of terrorism thrives. We need legitimate discussion of questionable attitudes and practices, beginning with those that discriminate against women, gay people and others. Prime Minister Theresa May was right when she recently spoke of the need for difficult conversations about religion. A bold, but courteous, questioning of seemingly divisive practices will help make religion, what it was always intended to be, an active player in working for the common good of all.

 

Yesterday’s Commonwealth Day Service in Westminster Abbey was on the theme of peace. But, with the firing of Kim Jung Un’s ‘look at me’ rockets fuelled by the blood and sweat of his impoverished people, Russia muscling in on the chaos and suffering in the Middle East, and a record 20 million refugees without, food and shelter, a truly peaceful world still seems a distant dream.

I found the service and prayers at the Abbey, both moving and uplifting. In the Sikh view, prayers are essentially a charging of spiritual batteries to help us move in a better ethical direction. In this case, to a more active search for peace. And for this we clearly have to look beyond today’s policies of deterrence and containment.

Sikh teachings remind us that peace is more than the absence of war; it is a universal respect for the rights of others, and I find it hard to believe that this can be achieved by narrowly focussing on deterrent might, with its inherent dangers of an escalation of rival power. New technologies and new ways of killing make yesterday’s lethal weapons obsolete, not to be disposed of, but sold to developing countries, fuelling conflict in a world awash with arms.

A moving Christian hymn reminds us that new occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth. They must upwards still and onwards, who would keep abreast with truth. Today’s strategic alliances, while providing a measure of mutual security for some, do nothing to prevent continuing human right’s abuse for others. Guru Ram Dass, writing of pacts and alliances made in self-interest, taught that the only pact or commitment worth making was to God to be committed and uncompromising in our pursuit of social and political justice, – not only for our side, but for all people; a sentiment that has its echo in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Today, while many agree with such sentiments, some political leaders find it expedient to overlook human rights abuse in what are sometimes called friendly countries. The great human rights activist and scientist Andre Sakharov, made clear his view that there can no lasting peace in the world unless we are even-handed on the abuse of human rights. Words we must take on board in our search for a more peaceful and fairer world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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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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The 17th century poet John Dryden, reflecting on democracy wrote:

‘Nor is the people’s judgement always true, the Most may err as grossly as the Few’.

Many on the ‘remain’ side of the referendum may feel this speaks to them. While both sides agree that the democratic decision must be respected no matter how close the result. The incoming Prime Minister Theresa May has already pledged to respect the decision to leave as she begins the task of steering the country through uncertain times, as for the first time in many years we are now forced to look afresh at basic questions of identity, sovereignty and aspirations, in our relations with Europe and the rest of the world.

It’s a sad aspect of human nature that sometimes the easiest way in getting someone on our side in discussion or debate is to find someone else we can blame for all our problems. In the 50s and 60s it was people from the Commonwealth. In recent debate we have heard unhelpful nasty language about immigrants and refugees which has led to a rise in hate crimes. It all reminds me of what I call Indarjit’s law: that when two or more people can find sufficient in common to call themselves ‘us’, they will immediately look for a ‘them’ to despise; to strengthen their new found unity. We see it in rivalry between football fans but in its extreme form, it can lead to horrors like the holocaust and more recent genocides.

In the India of the 15th century, Guru Nanak witnessed unnecessary divisions in the religions around him and stressed the importance of recognising common beliefs and aspirations. Guru Arjan, the fifth Guru, took this emphasis on commonalities further by incorporated some verses of Hindu and Muslim saints into our scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib, to emphasise common ethical teachings, while the ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadhur gave his life defending the right of all people to freedom of belief of all people.

My hope is that later today when Theresa May assumes office as Prime Minister, she will similarly use her considerable experience to focus on commonalities like the pursuit of social justice and respect for the rights and beliefs of others, as she leads the country to a new future.

 

In the recent media coverage of the bravery of those killed on the battlefields of WW1, I was particularly moved by a piece in the Times by Daniel Finkelstein about the courage of both his paternal and maternal grandfathers. Both regarded themselves as intensely patriotic and both were decorated for their heroism. However, they were on the German side of the conflict. Courage can be found in both friend and foe, and patriotism is entirely subjective.

While it is right and proper to honour the memory of those who gave their lives for their country, we will never learn from history if we fail to reflect on its lessons. This thought was in the mind of the Queen’s grandfather, King George V as he looked on rows and rows of endless graves in Flanders and commented that ‘we will have failed to honour the memories of those who gave their all, if we allow such slaughter to ever occur again’ Later generations, with the advantage of hindsight, need to ask, questions like did the war advance the cause of peace and social justice in Europe or elsewhere? And did the punitive reparations demanded of Germany in any way contribute to the rise of Adolf Hitler?

Today, with the publication of the long delayed Chilcot inquiry into the 2003 war in Iraq there will also be similar questions and inevitable recriminations. What is beyond dispute, is that the long suffering people of Iraq are – as we saw in the weekend terrorist outrage in a shopping Mall in Bagdad and the death of many innocent people – still far from hoped for peace and true democracy.

I was recently invited to the formal unveiling of a beautifully illustrated short prayer included in prayers said before the start of formal proceedings in the Lords. It reminds Parliamentarians, of a responsibility to put ‘all selfish interests and partial affections’ to one side in all our deliberations. It is remarkably similar to the Sikh daily prayer the Ardas, that concludes Sikh services in gurdwaras, and closes with the words ‘sarbat ka bhala’ – a pledge to work for the greater good of all. Such sentiments should be central to all debate and political decision making, in helping us to reflect objectively on the past, and work together towards a better future.

Yesterday HM the Queen, now her 90th year, attended the Annual Commonwealth Day Service at Westminster Abbey. As Head of the Commonwealth, her commitment and dedication have been central to making this loose linking of 53 countries a tried and tested force for stability and mutual cooperation.

The Commonwealth is a fortuitous creation of recent history. The name itself is a bit of a contradiction and an odd way to describe a grouping of countries at different stages of economic development with huge disparities in wealth. Member countries also differ considerably in their adherence to human rights and freedom of worship. And yet to my mind, it is a grouping of countries that carries hope and a sense of common vision necessary in an uncertain world.

I believe there are two reasons for this. The first lies in the curious ability of British people to turn people of countries they conquered and once ruled, into friends and equals, united by a shared history of respect and understanding.

Equally important is the central role of Her Majesty as Head of the Commonwealth. Her warmth and enthusiasm has been a noticeable feature of the Commonwealth Day Service for many years, and it is also evident in her Christmas day broadcasts. The service in the Abbey always includes readings and prayers from other Commonwealth faiths.

This warm welcome to those of different faiths echoes the central Sikh teachings that we are all members of one human race and that no faith has a monopoly of truth, The Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib itself contains the writings of saints from other faiths to highlight shared core beliefs.

To me, this improbable grouping of multiple identities gives strength and inclusivity-the theme of this year’s celebration- to the Commonwealth, to help it meet many of the challenges of human rights, religious freedom and sustainable development facing it. It has already gently helped the Sri Lankan government set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate alleged human rights abuses against the Tamil Tigers and it could lead to similar initiatives to address other concerns. A common ethos of respect and unity of purpose can achieve much, and in this the Commonwealth has much to offer.

The news that Royal Navy vessels are to be sent to the Aegean to curb the activities of people smugglers has much to commend it, but for some, it masks the fact that many of those risking their lives and savings to clamber onto leaky and overcrowded boats are refugees.

Not so long ago the word ‘refugees’ conjured up images of innocent men, women and children fleeing terror. Today, the word refugee is sometimes interpreted as alien hordes, and tear gas and razor wire fences have been used to keep would-be refugees, including young children at a distance.

This morning’s decision on agreed controls goes to the heart of the moral dilemma of deciding whether refugee applies only to those fleeing a war or whether it can also encompass those seeking a better life for themselves and their children. Ongoing violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, abuses in Eritrea, as well as poverty in Kosovo, are also leading people to look for new lives elsewhere, and not just in Europe.

As a Sikh, I applauded the initial welcome given to refugees fleeing from Syria. It was a welcome that resonated with Sikh teachings that, even in the height of conflict, we should never forget that we are all members of the same one human race and our highest religious duty is to look to the needs of others.

The crisis in Syria is linked to the wider turmoil in the Middle East following the second Gulf War.  The pro-democracy demonstrations, cracked down on in 2011, were followed by the emergence of ISIS with its brutalities and beheadings and the horror of bombs raining down on the long-suffering people of Syria, from all directions, including Russia, ISIS, the coalition allies and President Assad himself.  Who would not wish to leave? The inevitable exit of refugees has almost become an unstoppable tide.

The problem, now, in dealing with such large numbers is immense. The current tentative ceasefire in Syria is perhaps the best hope for their future, but there are very real difficulties in translating this to peace and stability.

Sikh teachings are not alone in emphasising our common responsibility to help those fleeing tyranny. I believe it’s important that any agreed system of controls on the grounds of expediency should not reduce our sense of our common humanity, or blind us to the importance of our values and ideals.

 

Today’s debate about the rights or wrongs of air strikes against ISIS, will be focused on what constitutes a just and proportionate response to ISIS atrocities in Paris and elsewhere. While much has been said and written about criteria that need to be met for a just war, less has been said about imperatives for just and lasting peace.

Syria, like much of the Middle East, is a cauldron of competing rivalries, not only those of Sunni and Shia Muslims but also smaller groups: Allowites, Kurds, Christians and others. While we would all like to see functioning democracies in the region, this is easier said than done. The history of the Middle East, and many other parts of the world shows that majority rule does not always equate to just rule. Majorities insensitive to the rights of minorities, can all too easily morph into tyrannies. What is important is, not so much the process of acquiring power, as the way power is exercised.

I was reminded about this at an event celebrating the birth anniversary of the Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who lived in the 19th century. He ruled over a vast area of northern India, including present day Pakistan. Although the Maharaja gained power through military might, he reached out to all communities winning both love and loyalty.

Totally illiterate, he spent hours as a child in the gurdwara, listening to Sikh teachings on respect for all communities. He was deeply influenced by the Sikh belief that that token respect for other ways of life is not enough, and that for true respect, we should be prepared to put our own rights and freedom on the line, in support of those of others.

The Maharaja kept this teachings close to his heart. There were more Hindu and Muslim Ministers in his government than Sikhs. He also gave generously for the upkeep and development of places of worship of all communities, bringing peace, stability and prosperity into a region that had been subject to factional rivalry, not unlike that seen in the Middle East today.

Yes, this is history from the 19th century, but it contains fundamental truths that we would be wise to learn from. Reaching out to others in this way is not easy, but is possible, and to my mind, essential for true and lasting peace. We should give our full support to any group working in this direction.

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