Open Discussions/ Gulf Cultural Club
Together we challenge the culture of hate
Sheikh Ahmed Haneef *
The current atmosphere of religious tension in many areas does not hold well with the people faith to discuss how to challenge the culture of hate. dialogue and hope. Thus they need to put their act together to challenge the culture of hate that is challenging their sacred values. For Christians Christmas is a festive season that reminds them of Jesus. Christians and Muslims believe their religious message is that of mutual respect. This seminar attempts to build more bridges and bring together who command the love and respect of Muslims and whose message of compassion and moderation is in line with what Prophet Mohammed instructed.
Tuesday, 15th December 2015
Chairman: This debate is taking place just before Christmas and just before the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed as we gather in mutual respect for dialogue and hope together. So remembering both Jesus Christ and Prophet Mohammed I am looking at how we can build more bridges and what we can do together to challenge the culture of hate, extremism and violence which we hear about so often. Our first speaker tonight is Alex Cameron.
Alex Cameron: Hello everyone. I am Alex, I live on the Loughborough Estate in Brixton with a chap from the Christian National Peace Service. We live there to work with young people who are on the edge of gang violence to try and come alongside them and hopefully to work with them so that that does not happen.
My inter-faith work is mainly with West London Synagogue developing inter-faith and social action projects in this specific area. I am not a Biblical scholar. I am Christian by going to church and that is my knowledge of the Bible but I have a question that I would like you to turn to your neighbour and ask. So preferably turn to someone you don’t know and ask how do you feel about marmite?
We have a few who love it and some who hate it. It is marmite’s best known slogan for those who don’t know it: you either love it or you hate it. These terms of love and hate are often banded about by adults, children and advertising agencies. But we are here to talk about something a bit more important than marmite.
We live in a culture of hate. We see it on our news as ISIS who want to destroy our culture. We see it as certain far right politicians who say they want to monitor mosques. We seem to hate everyone who is on benefits and we also particularly seem to hate those evil bankers. So how do we speak to culture and transform this tension that we see currently in our society?
I believe love is the answer. But I don’t mean that kind of love that some of you have for a certain yeast extract. Instead we need a continual pursuit of relentless love, the sort of love that forces us into vulnerable positions where we can be hurt, shamed and trampled but that also has the potential to birth something beautiful and be the first step to peace.
In the bible the prophet Zohier is used as a prophetic voice to demonstrate Israel’s infidelity to God. He is commanded to marry a prostitute who continues to commit adultery yet Zohier is asked to continue with her. In this way God demonstrates his love for his people promising to Zohier in Verse 19: I will take you for my wife forever, I will take you in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and mercy.
Through Zohier God demonstrates his continual pursuit of relentless love for the whole of his creation, not just for humankind. He promises that this covenant goes for the birds, the animals and the whole earth.
As a Christian I believe that the ultimate demonstration of this love is when God sends his son as a fulfilment of his law. By dying the shameful death on the cross Jesus paid the ultimate sacrifice to reconcile man to God and I believe that in his death Jesus made peace with God on our behalf.
So how do we take this sort of love that I see demonstrated in the bible and put that into practise in a very counter cultural way? It is a question that does not have a very easy answer. I am going to put that forward straight away. It can be done through using very simple steps. I mentioned that I live on this estate in Brixton and we moved in in April and the whole point is to try to get to know people in our area.
Those simple steps that we have seen is literally going to our local shop and trying to start a conversation which is harder than you think. We started doing a community meal where we wanted to invite people from our neighbourhood to come and eat with us and to start to share life together. That is what they are doing now. At the moment we probably have about 20 people in our house celebrating Christmas dinner. All people from around the estate.
These simple acts are starting to lead to bigger things. These are acts that make us vulnerable. We have moved into a very African-Caribbean majority area. They are struggling with the conflict of gentrification at the moment. They have a lot of young white professionals moving in. And guess what I am, a young white professional. We look very much like that yuppie culture that is moving into the area.
By opening our doors we are opening ourselves to possibly quite a lot of conflict that might come from that. And conflict in other ways as well. We have invited people before who started shouting at each other across our living room. There were past tensions that we did not know about. But we have started to see that these relationships have started to lead to better things.
There is one woman in particular. Her name is Mary. She runs an amazing little youth club on the estate but she has lots of problems with her home. The estate management board have not been fixing things in her house. She recently had to go court. One of my flat mates went with her because she had no one to go with her. The court appointed lawyer got caught up in another case and she stood there unrepresented in court. So my flat mate ended up representing her. This guy is the director of a charity with no legal experience but he explained her case in a clam manner to the judge. Unfortunately the court ruled against Mary and she ended up with a £900 fine but we managed to arrange for her to pay it in instalments of £5 a week. It is those little things that start a change in our society.
In my job recently we held a film evening at the London Synagogue and in London Central Mosque. I worked very closely with Jade from London Central Mosque and it is through that process that our friendship started to grow. We have begun to understand things about each other. We were stuffing envelopes in my office and he took a break for prayer. I just went with it and then I asked him a lot of questions that I had never asked a Muslim before. It is through things like this that we make a difference.
There is an amazing story from a group called Exile P. They work with young people in south London. These young people are near exclusion from their school and they work alongside them for a year and try to encourage them to stay in education.
There was one mentor who arranged to meet up with a boy on a Wednesday at 5pm. For three weeks he turned up read his book for an hour and left. On the fourth week he decided it would be the last week and just on 6pm the boy emerged from behind a bush. He told his mentor that he had been watching him for four weeks to see if he would stick it out. He had been let down so many times and he just wanted someone to stick it out with him.
I think that is where the heart lies. We can be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh – but it is through relationships that we can get to know the person behind the faith and understand that faith. We do that through love and that is the continual pursuit even when they don’t turn up for four weeks. It is hard to keep it up and it is hard to keep going to meetings where nothing seems to be happening. And it is hard to see organisations fight over logos for an event. But it is through that process that we get to know each other and break down barriers.
Sheikh Hamid: When I thought about the topic I got into an academic mode as we are talking about culture. The topic is quite controversial and culture has many different definitions but basically culture is a way of thinking and a way of action.
In modern society the generation of culture is very different to that in traditional societies. Before culture was an unconscious dynamic that grew out of a shared world view which was usually a religious world view. The idea in a secular state is that culture is something that is produced. And the means of producing culture is the media. The media is changing. If you look at Egyptian culture it did not change for 400 years. They wore the same clothes. Now you see clothing styles changing every year. This is the production of culture. It is produced by forces which are sometimes seen and sometimes are unseen.
And the media is very important. What does the media do? It creates for us a simple way of thinking and of imaging the world. Another way that culture is produced in society is through technology because technology influences our behaviour. It is seen as something positive and it has a cultural dimension of the application of science to one’s environment.
There is the view that science is something impartial. I will give you an example of technology being the application of culture.
The ancient Aztecs of Mexico when you look at their culture, their means of production, their social relationships you see they had a technology of the wheel. But they only used it on toys. It was never used to transport goods or people. Why is this? Because the circle had a very spiritual meaning that precluded them from applying it to very mundane things.
The American Indians, my ancestors, had a way of looking at the world where the actual nature itself was a holy book. I am referring to the plains Indians. For them changing nature, cutting down trees to build houses, damming rivers was a way of changing the holy book which they used for guidance. So their way of relating to the world was one where they walked on the world with soft steps and tried not to leave an imprint on the soil on which they walked. So technology itself is not devoid of cultural meaning.
And when we look at modern society and we see people having a world view that denies the metaphysical, that denies the beyond, that denies the divine we have a monstrosity of a human being that sees itself as the measure of all things. And there is no doubt that the technology that they produce will reflect that. There is no doubt the problem of modern technology is that it is destroying the world in which they live. It is a technology which is orientated towards ease of life but at the same time it is destroying the environment.
When you turn on a car engine to move from A to B you are destroying the environment at the same time. This is the dilemma of modern technology. It is driven by two things: comfort and the profit motive.
It is like the gun and sword. The gun is a modern weapon and the sword is a weapon that has been used by human beings for a long time. They come from two different head spaces. On one level you have an instrument that can cause tremendous damage from afar. On the other level you have an instrument which is adapted for close quarter fighting. On one level you have people who lose their lives literally not knowing what hit them and on another level you have somebody who confronts another person and he is brave and has a skill. It depends on courage and skill and in this culture you find stories of bravery, stories of the knights and the ninja. You have the images of true fighting men taking on challenges.
Now you have someone sitting somewhere with a high powered rifle taking people out. The movie American Sniper is glorified in the media. I am giving you an idea about culture and the sense of human beings and humanity. Culture was always spiritual. There was no such thing as a non spiritual culture and therefore it had meaning.
In Islam one of the words we use for spirituality is mamakawiya from makana – meaning. So spirituality is called meaningfulness, the symbolism of things at a higher metaphysical level. So modern society with its weakening of spirituality is one where people are suffering from a weakening and a lack of meaning. There is an absence of spiritual culture.
Modern society is suffering from a lack of love. Love has been replaced by desire. There is some kind of idealised idea of romantic love or just simply desire. Sacrifice is replaced by opportunism. People are no longer prepared to sacrifice because sacrifice implies getting something higher beyond the material world as a reward for what one is doing. Hope is based on a transcendent reality. If in this world we cannot get something we will get it in the next.
In modern society which is in denial of this reality you have people who end up being disillusioned, dissatisfied and angry because there is no hope. The biggest hope is in some kind of ephemeral them. I can’t wait for them to do something. And for them to cure that and for science to cure that.
So you have this environment of nebulism and despair. An environment of suicide. You have heard from the news about the lady who was afraid to lose her sparkle. She destroyed her liver with alcohol and now when confronted with imminent death she did not want to go on dialysis. She did not want to lose her sparkle. She wanted to die. Dying was an escape. It was not something that you look at with anticipation. There is a place you are going for your reward. There is a place you are going to get closer to your reality.
There is a dark place and in that place we find something as dark as hate taking root especially when we look at our democratic society. In a democratic society we do not want a population of people who are dissatisfied. So you need to create something more powerful than this dissatisfaction because you need to control them or you might loose them. And the biggest most visceral emotion that you can have outside of true love is fear. And hate is based upon fear.
This is why they have this punch drunk mantra that they want to take our freedom away from us. They want to take away from us our way of life. They are jealous of us. Modern society, whether it be capitalist, fascist or socialist must create an other in order to distract people from the fundamental dissatisfaction of a life that has no meaning or spirituality. Today the most significant other, the most significant enemy is an enemy that they themselves created. An enemy that they themselves funded and gave power to. That enemy is something we call Wahabism or Salafism or whatever kind of Islamic ism you want to put on it.
It goes back to Lawrence of Arabia. In Saudi Arabia they did not have this aberration. It is not unique. Every religion, every politics does have its fringes that reflect something negative in humanity. We can’t escape this. This Wahabistic attitude which is completely exclusive, which sees itself as a puritanical force which has the justification to murder and maim and take the lives of people who do not believe in what they believe in. Christianity had it too, the inquisition.
There was the genocide of the American Indians and the slavery of the black people. They have it too. So do not think we are the only ones who have it. But this was a backward movement in the back washes of Arabia. It is British involvement and oil money that put it forward.
When the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan began it was activated politically to defeat the Soviet Union. But that genie did not want to go back inside its bottle. ISIS is a morfing of that. You had that particular entity existing, created by them. And that genie does not want to go back into its box. It reflects a dissatisfaction of the people of the third world with the European imperialist domination over them. It is reflected within that particular context of hate.
So what is our duty? First of all to quote what Alex was saying we have to destroy this sense of otherness by bringing communities together on the individual level. We have to get out of own comfort zone and reach out to others. For us who are part of congregations we have to start working with each other. We are talking about inter faith. We are not talking about trying to convert people to Islam or Christianity. What we are trying to do is to find areas of common ground. And there are many areas of common ground between Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Jews. There are many areas of common ground. All of us want to live a moral life. All of us want to live a life of meaning. All of us feel ourselves at the mercy of people who come to power and do not have the interests of enlightenment and love and compassion. We have to overcome this on a personal level and on the level of the collective.
We have to create an alternative media. The media is a very powerful thing. We now have to create a media to counteract this. And in order to do that it is good for us to have an inter faith media. A media in which Muslims, Christians and others can get together and work together to bring something that can counteract the creation and manufacture of consent as Norm Chomsky would call it. The manufacture of a false reality.
Recently we had a march. Thousands of Muslims came out on a occasion called Arbeen: the 40th day. It was the 40th day after the martyrdom of the grandson of the holy Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) under conditions which are very similar to what is happening today. It was the first time in Islam when atrocities were committed against Muslims by Muslims. It was done by Muslims who were tyrannical and wanted to appropriate religious truth for themselves and it was done to destroy all the saintly people who opposed them.
They massacred in a very cruel way the remaining members of the Holy Prophet’s family. Seventy-two men against an army of 30,000 and they fought like lions. You should see how these guys fought from young boys – ten to 15 years old to old men 75 years old. So we commemorated this. The theme of this march was against terrorism, extremism and none of it was mentioned in the media.
The biggest mass movement in Nigeria which is a country whose very name is almost synonymous with corruption is a Shia Islamic movement which has as among its members Christians, Sunnis, Shias and Salafis who are against corruption. It has millions, maybe 15 million members. Four days ago the Nigerian army started gunning these people down under a pretext that they tried to assassinate somebody. They were gunning down unarmed civilian people. The last count was something close to a thousand people killed. You have not heard anything from the media about this. Why?
Because it is very important for the image of savage Islam to be imported as an element of fear to be able to control the people in the areas in which they want to control them. We need to strengthen our religious life and to challenge the myths that are put forward in our society. You have to become politically active. Christians feel a bit queasy about political activism because of their medieval past.
But if you do not become politically active you have to accept their policies. You cannot control the media. You have to become politically active on a broad based level and include other religious people. I think with these types of activities we stand a chance to save our society. If we do not get involved, if we do not work together I think the fault is with us.
John Woodhouse: I agree with the other speakers and I want to assure the sheikh that Pope Francis would agree with him as well. On Sunday we had a gospel in church which gave me something to think about on this question. I would like to read you a passage about John the Baptist. We hear a lot about John the Baptist. He was one of the greatest prophets.
“And the crowds asked him [that is John the Baptist] what then should we do? In reply he said to them whoever has two coats must share with him who has none. And whoever has food must do likewise. Even tax collectors came to be baptised. And they asked him teacher what should we do. And he said to them collect no more than the amount prescribed for you. Soldiers also asked him what should we do. He said to them do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations and be satisfied with your wages.”
People were questioning whether John might be the messiah. He answered them by saying I am baptise with water but one who is more powerful than I is coming. I am not worthy to untie his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
I heard a couple of sermons about this last Sunday. What would Christ do in this situation. There are some things that I have been doing and I have been working on that for a long time. I have been running the inter faith group in Westminster Cathedral for ten years. It gradually built up. It is a mixed group. We have discussed many interesting issues. We have people of different faiths coming to talk together.
Since Paris I have been to four mosques and I have found that a really interesting experience. First of all I was expecting a great increase in security. That did not happen. I was expecting somebody to check my bag and that did not happen. Perhaps that is a good thing. We had a meeting in the Stratham mosque and we discussed the soul and a lot people came to me afterwards and said it was a really good idea to have this discussion.
It is quite something to ask people to talk about their faith and belief to a stranger. Actually people were finding it very helpful. That is one thing that we can do. Dialogue. Talking to each other, getting to know one another. This is really, really important. Inter faith work now is so important that we cannot neglect it. It has to go to the top of the agenda. It cannot be pushed into the background. Some people think it is an extra. It is not. It is also very important.
It is also very important that mosques and churches are open to people and that they explain to people what they are actually doing. We have spoken about the media. I could not agree with you more. The media need to know what we are doing. We also need to know ourselves. We need to know about inter faith projects.
The one strong message that I really want to pass on is we need inter faith projects. One thing we could do is to talk about migrants. The government keeps talking about 2,000 people coming. When are these people coming? Where are they? I haven’t heard anything about them. Who is welcoming them? Who is going to give them accommodation? Where are they going to go to school? We could work on that.
I heard that in Luton that the council said we cannot have any migrants. We haven’t any housing. So Citizens UK went around the local estate agents and found out that there were properties to rent and they went to the council and said we have found 50 properties to rent, you can take 50 migrants.
The same thing happened in Lambeth. A friend of mine went with her local Jewish friends to estate agents and asked them do you have any properties that are hard to rent. Tell us where they are. I don’t know what has happened on that but it is the same idea. It is doing something practical to get ready for this influx. When this influx happens and we do these things together we have to tell the media, we have got to get the television cameras out and we have got to say that we are doing this together.
There are a lot of things going on. I was thinking about a series on the BBC called Sister Rita to the rescue. It is on early in the morning. I recorded them all. This marvellous Irish nun has been in Manchester for 50 years. She is reaching out to people who are lonely. She is getting them to come together. She has a lot of amazing projects. She gets presents for children who won’t get presents for Christmas otherwise. She has 1000 sacks and she has volunteers to help her.
This is fantastic. It is involving the community and these are the things I really want to talk about. What should we do? What can I do? Start with me and maybe something else will happen. I have several things I want to share with you.
First of all I want to point out a book which I have been reading called Towards a Global Islamic Community. Everything it says about a Muslim community is also what a Christian community ought to be like. There is so much agreement, so much common ground that we could actually take passages from the Quran and say that is what we are trying to do as well, or what we should be doing.
As I mentioned Pope Francis has said a lot about this issue. I just wanted to quote a few passages from this remarkable document which is the Joy of the Gospel. He particularly highlights the option for the poor. The Catholic Church has always had a lot to say about the poor. We are particularly enjoined to talk about the poor. He speaks about inter religious dialogue.
He says an attitude of openness and love must characterise the dialogue of the followers of the Christian religion. Despite obstacles and difficulties posed by fundamentalism on both sides inter religious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world and so it is a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities.
I will say that again because it is really important. Inter religious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world and so it is a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities. In a later paragraph he goes on to speak about the followers of other religions who are now significantly prevalent in majority Christian countries. We must never forget that they profess the faith of Abraham and together with us they worship the one merciful God who will judge humanity on the last day.
He finishes the paragraph: There is a need to respond to God with an ethical commitment and with compassion for those most in need. We have just entered into the year of mercy which I think it a wonderful idea. In our cathedral we have a door of mercy and we encourage people to go through that door. We have a beautiful display in one of the chapels about the works of mercy.
I must confess that even though I have been a Catholic for more than 50 years I did not know what they were so I am going to read them out to you because they are actually all the things we should be doing together.
The corporal works of mercy:
Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Clothe the naked. Visit the sick. Visit those in prison. Shelter the homeless. Bury the dead.
The spiritual works of mercy:
Instruct the ignorant, council the doubtful, admonish the sinner, comfort the afflicted, bear wrongs patiently. Forgive offences willingly. Pray for the living and the dead.
Those are all things we can do together. I see echoes of that in Judaism and Islam and in other faiths as well.
I will leave it at that point. There are lots of other things that I could say.
*Sheikh Ahmed Haneef is an active cleric working with the youth and within the interfaith circles. He was born in 1956 in San Fernando, Trinidad. In 1974 he migrated to Canada where he attended York University and graduated in 1982. In the 1970s Sheikh Haneef was involved in the struggle for the rights of the black people and was a staunch activist in the anti-racism struggle. He was also active in the anti-Apartheid movements of the 1980s. His interest in the Palestinian cause was natural, given his personal and religious background.
**John Woodhouse is Organiser of the Westminster cathedral interfaith group and a server at the cathedral. He has M.A. in Christianity and interreligious relations from Heythrop college. John is a retired librarian who plays the organ at St Michael and All Angels, Beckenham and directs the small choir. He is a Roman Catholic involved in studying to become a spiritual "director" or accompanier. He has interests in Arts and Culture, Children,Education and Environment
****Alex Cameron lives on the Loughborough Estate in Brixton as part of a missionary community with the charity CHIPS, Christian International Peace Service, in order to come alongside young people at risk of gang involvement. She works for the West London Synagogue as a Neighbourhood Community Worker in Marylebone developing interfaith and social action projects. And amongst all of that you'll find her in her free time in the kitchen baking something scrummy!