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7/7 and Beyond - a South Asian response to the London Bombings 

CONFERENCE REPORT

7/7 AND BEYOND

A South Asian response to the London Bombings

A place where we can be heard

“Young people need places where they can express themselves safely and be listened to by adults - however controversial their views.”

7/7 AND BEYOND – A South Asian Response to the London Bombings offered such a place. The one day conference (23 November 2005) was organised by South Asian Development Partnership to tackle questions related to the London bombings from a distinctively South Asian perspective.

23 South Asian teenagers from Birmingham and London debated among themselves and then shared their perspectives with a larger group of faith community leaders, politicians, civil servants and representatives from business, academia and the media.

The teenagers wanted a Britain where everyone is genuinely able to participate, accepted equally and treated with respect, ‘not judged by race but as a person’. They were united in condemning the suicide bombers’ actions without qualification, but had also tried hard to understand the complex factors that drove them.

They were very clear on the need for politicians and religious leaders to listen more, and for religious leaders to teach clearly and relevantly, with respect for other faiths: ‘Think before you speak’ was their advice.

What they appreciated most about the day was the opportunity to meet people of different backgrounds and ages, to hear from them and express their own views. They were enthusiastic about the need for more such workshops and proposed using work experience periods to encounter people of completely different faiths and cultures within Britain, for example through exchanges.

It wasn’t only the teenagers who valued being heard. Key words from the conference speakers and plenary discussions were: inclusion, acceptance, truth, reconciliation and justice. The speakers and participants represented a cross-section of the British South Asian communities and beyond - Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Zoroastrian and Christian. A strong recommendation was the formation of inter-community groups that meet on a regular basis to discuss issues of common concern. These would enable people who disagree, or appear to have little in common, to discover their common humanity, as well as to probe each other on areas of difference .

The conference raised questions about the way religious groups interpret their beliefs and called for more transparent structures for discussion of key issues, through which they can communicate more effectively with each other and so to the wider society. Jihad was one such area, though each faith has its own issues .

On ‘multi-culturalism’ opinions differed. No ‘-ism’ or system is a solution. Change comes through relationships. But there is a need to respect and actively value our different cultural and religious groups within a larger unifying identity - being ‘British’. Above all the issues arising from the London bombings affect all of us in our multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious society.

Introducing the conference, SADP Chairman Ram Gidoomal emphasised that the purpose was to listen to each other. His Honour Judge Mota Singh examined the role of religion and called for a return to the real ‘fundamentals’ of true faith. He also examined the criticisms of ‘multiculturalism’, which he regarded as a ‘positive endorsement of communal diversity’. He called for celebration of diversity, in which there must be open dialogue, discussion and argument.

Lord Michael Hastings said that terrorism is an issue for the whole community. Only we can solve it, not the police or the politicians. Attitudes are not changed by laws, nor by ‘isms’. They will be changed through relationships and mutual respect. He concluded with four affirmations:

  • Truth and reconciliation work
  • We must recognise the compulsions of faith
  • Society needs economic levelling - which includes dignified work for all
  • Transparent democracy, open for all to participate, is the bedrock of freedom and stability

Dr Girdhari Lal Bhan said that ‘multiculturalism’ must give way to ‘universalism’, with positive respect and acceptance, rather than ‘tolerance’. He called for dialogue with recognition of difference and open debate, an end to discrimination, and active efforts to include young people.

Andrew Wingate and Shaikh Ibrahim Mogra shared their experience of working together in Leicester, particularly in response to 7/7. They stressed the importance of having structures in place that ‘are not just emergency linked, but founded on trust, partnership and friendship’. Because of these, they were able to bring people together and defuse tensions effectively, giving people the opportunity to express themselves, like this young Muslim mother:

“…we are only asking to be treated equally, as we have always been, for example at the school gate. Now we feel suspicion; we hear voices talking of ‘your community’… I want to say that ‘our community’ is the British community, it is not Pakistani, even if that is our family history.”

Shaikh Ibrahim emphasised the need to be careful about language: he would like to be considered an ‘extremist’ in his love for God and his neighbour, or a ‘fundamentalist’ in adhering to the basics of his faith. He cautioned against stereotyping, sometimes affected by the media.

Dr Prem Sharma’s call for peace had four practical recommendations:

  • Develop at least one new relationship with a person of another faith or culture
  • Form inter-community groups that will meet on a regular basis to discuss issues of common concern
  • Enthuse and involve young people from all backgrounds, in projects that respond to injustice, inequality and suffering with practical help
  • Call on the leaders of the major religious groups to share with us how they are working to create more transparent structures for discussion of key issues

He quoted Ashutosh Varshney, Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, who points out the value of inter-community groups to interpret and defuse critical events. They appear to be "small steps, but when put together, they end up producing large utility."

Every religious group faces the question of different interpretations of scripture, some of which can be harmful to society. He commented, following Judge Mota Singh, on the need to clarify the different understandings of ‘jihad’, which was one of the motivating factors for the suicide bombers, and so an issue for Muslims.

Trying to understand the bombers’ motivation, Maria Mahmood, a 15 year old from Hillingdon, referred to the pressure on young Muslims from

  • the all-encompassing nature of Islam
  • the suffering of Muslims around the world
  • the stark choices of the ‘war on terror’ and all that flows from that
  • their understanding of jihad
  • their isolation from ‘mainstream’ British culture
  • the teaching of some imams

She pointed out the danger of stereotyping from the media and urged Muslims to speak out, both against terrorism and about their experiences of discrimination or alienation. Muslim women particularly should speak out and Muslims should not keep themselves separate. She stressed the importance of education in citizenship and community cohesion.

In the teenagers’ group presentations, they agreed with Maria’s analysis of the bombers’ motivation, adding their perception that some young Muslims are alienated by their lack of opportunity in employment and education, as well as their disagreement with Britain’s foreign policy and its effects.

Some other factors mentioned in the conference:

  • the goal of Islam to be accepted as the religion of the whole world
  • Muslim sense of victimisation
  • some young Muslims are not enthusiastic about ‘mainstream’ Islam and its leaders
  • lack of role models
  • lack of self-worth

Charmaine Rasiah introduced a resource for groups, the ‘Masala BridgeBuilders’ produced by SADP to bring people together across barriers, by discussing issues of common concern

Nazir Afzal of the Crown Prosecution Service acknowledged their failure to connect with young people and women. “A good law badly enforced becomes a bad law”. He challenged South Asians to take responsibility for tackling community issues like so-called ‘honour killings’.

Plenary discussions and questions from the floor included

  • the importance of expressing dissent
  • the need to mobilise the moderates
  • the strengths and limitations of secularism in relation to the power of faith
  • the importing of religious extremism from the sub-continent
  • the importance of leadership - what kind do we need?
  • the contribution that companies, particularly Asian companies, can make, for example in local communities and schools
  • some South Asian young people may have difficulty communicating their feelings to their ‘fathers and uncles’
  • the fundamental importance of justice

Some closing practical recommendations

  • Form inter-community groups that will meet on a regular basis to discuss issues of common concern
    • these are desperately needed, especially for young people
    • workshops like this one can be part of the Citizenship curriculum
    • parents need to be involved
  • ‘Work experience’ in another culture
  • Exchanges between affluent and deprived areas (mono-ethnic / multicultural)
  • Smile! – Develop friendships (these don’t need funding)

A DVD of the conference will be produced as a tool for starting discussions and all the papers will be available on the South Asian Development Partnership website (www.southasian.org.uk).


   
   
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