7/7 and Beyond - a South Asian response to the London Bombings
To Crack the Silence
An Inter Faith Response to 7/7
By Dr Brian Walker
There can be no peace among nations without peace among the religions.
There can be no peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions.
Justice, peace and harmony
Full of hope, we awoke that glorious summer morning on Merseyside. It was Thursday 7 th July 2005. The night before we had joined with hoards of teenagers from Rainhill, for a rousing ‘Make Poverty History’ celebration. This was the day for G8 world leader’s to take an historic step forward for justice, peace and harmony across the world.
Whilst we waited their announcement, we shared a day of workshops, focusing how we could also make a difference for some of the poorest people in the world. We were unaware of the terror exploding, here, in our capital city.
As we said farewell and drove out onto the M62, the overhead signs screamed out at us
I switched on the radio to learn that, 7 hours before, a morning of high hopes had been shattered by the London bombings. Our first response was to call our family living in the city. After several tries, we made contact. Personally relieved, we were aware that many other families would not share that relief; now or ever.
During those first hours, there was understandable confusion. What was made clear, however, was that the bombers were ‘Muslim terrorists’, ‘Muslim fundamentalist’, ‘Muslim extremists’ and that Muslims were to blame for these atrocious acts of terrorism.
As I drove, I began to reflect on a day of hope, turned to despair; a day for justice, peace and harmony, turned to injustice for those innocent victims, to violence in our midst, to discord between communities. Where do we go from here? What can we learn that will allow us to rebuild our sense of a community at lasting peace with itself?
An African experience
As the bombs went off, we were asking who the poorest people in the world are. Well, according to the United Nations, it is the people of Sierra Leone, a small country in sub-Saharan, West African. With life expectancy at birth of only 34 years, 64 out of every 100 adults unable to read even a little and income per person less than 80p per day, they rank 177 th out of the 177 countries measured. How do they cope with terrorism?
During the last decade, they have suffered 10 years of atrocious violence. Rebels were killing, shooting, and hacking the limbs off children, women and men alike. Many of the terrorists were young people, including teenagers; others even children themselves, some as young as 7 or 8 years. They destroyed homes, businesses and communities, leaving tens of thousands dead and over 2 million people homeless, their country desolate.
Today, they live in peace, but who can be complacent that violence will not return? Is there anything we can learn from their experience?
During the last four years, I have traveled throughout their country, from the capital Freetown, on the sweeping Atlantic coast, through the tropical rainforests and the ‘Lion Mountains’, to the diamond mining area, close to the Liberian border, where unrest was fanned into ferocious conflict. Despite the apparent hopelessness of a country on its knees, every where I went I found a people full of hope, full of a belief that they could live in peace.
Most of the people are Muslim, although a significant minority is Christian. Together, they are lead by a Muslim, President Amhed Tejad Kabbah. For seven years, Muslim leaders tried unsuccessfully to persuade the rebel fighters to come out of the bush and lay down their arms. Christian leaders did likewise. Leaders of both faiths found themselves under personal threat. Bishop Humper lost his home; Imam Sheik Conteh had to escape armed rebels, disguised as a woman. Then, something special happened.
With the help of Religions for Peace, Muslim and Christian leaders came together, to form the Inter Religious Council of Sierra Leone. Muslims were still distinctively Muslim, Christians still distinctively Christian. Together, however, they became special. Together, despite the very real threat of death, they went into the bush, met with the rebels and persuaded them to give up their weapons and talk, talk to the president and his ministers.
January 2002, peace was declared. Now came the difficult task of building long-term, durable peace. Not least was the problem of those young people, many illiterate with few skills beyond wielding a machete or firing a rifle. Why had they turned to such violence? Many, if not all, had been coerced, forced, brutalised by an older generation seeking to destabilise society for their own personal gain, with total disregard for the long-term future of the young. So, how can those young terrorists re-discover a place within their society? How can local communities accept those who have terrorised others back into their midst?
Today, through a process of truth and reconciliation, Muslims and Christians are working together to help provide education, training and support for both victims and ex-terrorists. Some need general education; others understanding of difference and how people of different cultures, different faiths can be enriched by sharing together. Some need skills to be able to lead a quality of life that is valued and rewarding; others benefit from training on how to handle conflict, transforming it from a source of violence to a source for peace by peaceful means. Some need support just to survive; others support to become leaders of their progress towards restorative justice, sustainable peace and creative harmony.
A religions perspective
What role did religions play in that African conflict and division? Well, the Rebel War was not a religious war. Bishop Humper says,
When the rebels came, they did not discriminate between Muslims and Christians, they cleared everything that they found in their way.
Muslim and Christian alike were caught in a spiral of terror and atrocity. This violence grew out of conflict over the inequality, injustice and corruption throughout society.
Where there are people and communities, conflict has always existed and always will. Conflict can be, and often is, a source of violence, but conflict can also be a source of change for the good, peacefully transforming communities for the benefit of all. Bishop Humper talks of the violence, the terror in his country,
When it became so precarious, when it became so uncertain as to where we were heading on to, when it became so unpredictable as to what would happen the next day, the Muslim and Christina leaders came together and put together a programme .
First, they had gone into the bush together and persuaded the rebels to lay down their arms. Then the real working together began.
Designing programmes to address the AIDS epidemic, the many social and economic issues of the country, the process of re-integration, rehabilitation, reconciliation. These are the long-term problems. And, more particularly, addressing the issue of abject poverty.
What do our faiths say about Bishop Humper’s belief that, despite the terror that has been inflicted on his people, we should focus not on violent conflict and division, but on overcoming our long-term problems, particularly the injustice of abject poverty? Just a few extracts from the holy texts of different faiths suggest the need to focus upon helping those in need and upon seeking peace.
The Holy Bible asks about faith:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, `Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill', and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. James 2:14-17. (NRSV)
The Qur’an tells us there are two paths, the right and the wrong. The right path is:
the setting free of a slave, or the giving of food in a day of hunger, to an orphan having relationship, or to the poor man lying in the dust. Then he is of those who believe and charge one another to show patience, and charge one another to show compassion. Surah 90: 13-17
From The Katha Upanishad, the teacher, Yama, speaks of the fire sacrifice; unity; and the three duties:
Those who have thrice performed this sacrifice, realize their unity with father, mother, and teacher, and discharge the three duties of studying the scriptures, ritual worship, and giving alms to those in need, rise above birth and death. Knowing the god of fire born of Brahman, they attain perfect peace. Part 1 : Mantra 17.
From The Bhagats of Guru Granth Sahib, the1 st Guru teaches:
By virtue of good fortune and good deeds done in the past mortals have come into this world and are now doing deeds to shape their future mode of life. p. 75
Enshrining duty and justice in the mind man gains profit. Then one obtains what is written in his lot and stills his ego. p. 420.
In The Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says of the best Yogis
He who hates no single human being, who is friendly and compassionate to all, who is free from attachment and egoism, to whom pain and pleasure are equal, who is enduring, ever content and balanced in mind, self-controlled, and possessed of firm conviction, whose thought and reason are directed to Me, he who is devoted to Me is dear to Me. He by whom the world is not afflicted and who is not afflicted by the world, who is free from joy, envy, fear and sorrow, he is dear to Me. 12. 13-15.
In The Acharanga Sutra, Lord Mahavira teaches of Ahimsa, non-violence, in a violent world:
Above, below and in front, people indulge in violent activities against living beings individually and collectively in many ways; discerning this, a wise man neither himself inflicts violence on these bodies, nor induces others to do so, nor approved of their doing so. Chapter. 1.
The Dhammapada , describes the traveller journeying to eternal Nirvana.
His thoughts are peace, his words are peace and his work is peace. Verse 96.
But why even consider other faiths? Why is there more than one faith?
The Qur’an explains:
… if Allāh had pleased, He would have made you a single people: but that He might try you in what He gave, therefore strive with one another to hasten to virtuous deeds; to Allāh is your return, of all, so that He will let you know that in which you differed. Surah 5.48.
Imam Conteh interprets this literally, with a vision of tapping the combined resources of religions to ‘crack the silence’ of the vast majority of peace-loving people. This empowering of the silent majority of the world is, perhaps, the most significant and the most challenging task for all who seek a way to conflict from a source of violence to a source for peace.
Muslims and Christians, in Sierra Leone are helping to crack the silence in Africa by their example of working together for reconciliation, restorative justice and sustainable peace. They are helping to crack this silence across the world by their membership of Religions for Peace, the world’s largest coalition of religious communities, working to transform conflict, promote peace and advance sustainable development in over fifty countries, including some of the most troubled regions, including those in South Asia.
A South Asian perspective
South Asia, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldive Islands, Nepal, Pakistan and Ski Lanka, has a population of some 1.6 billion people. The vast majority belong to a community of faith. Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism all originated on the sub-continent. Today, Islam and Christianity are also present. The majority are some 1,000 million Hindus and over 400 million Muslims.
Religions for Peace is currently working with people of the many religions found throughout South Asia. For example, during November 2004, the South Asian Inter-Religious Council (SAIRC) on HIV/AIDS was formed. Currently, South Asia is home to more than 5.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS and almost one-fourth of them are children and young people under the age of 25. Experts have expressed concern that the pandemic may begin to move into general populations, where young people and women, due to limited access to services and lack of knowledge, are extremely vulnerable to infection. SAIRC is seeking to work with governments and civil organisations, helping to mobilise communities in South Asia to confront HIV/AIDS together, by raising awareness, reducing stigma and discrimination, and advocating stronger policies. Their aim is to reduce, in particular, the impact on children and young people.
In India, Dr Deepali Bhanot is helping to develop a programme of activity for Indian women of faith. Next year there will be a major meeting in Asian for youth leaders from 16 Asian countries to strengthen their network and agree upon the issues which they feel they should address. Action in Sri Lanka is focused upon ongoing water-tank building and Tsunami relief projects, including a programme to protect and empower 200 children in the Ampara and Tricomalee districts in the Northeastern Province.
In Britain, most Muslims have roots in South Asia and those who are not Muslim will also share concerns about family and friends in South Asia, as well as issues affecting their own way of life, here, in their homes and their communities. So, how can South Asians, young and not so young, cope with and respond to conflict and of terrorism, often attributed to religion, whilst living in a multi-cultural society?
They can respond with violence of their own. But, that leads to a continuing spiral of violence. They can seek to live in isolation. But, that will not address their concerns. They can seek ways of working and sharing with people of different communities, finding ways of transforming conflict into a source of peace, together.
Religions for Peace sees religious communities as a vast untapped resource for a peaceful world – a resource that can be unleashed thorough inter-religious cooperation. No form of cooperation has a greater potential to improve conditions for more people worldwide than the working together of the world’s religious communities. Already, there are over 180 groups in the Inter Faith Network for the UK, where people of different faiths are meeting, sharing and beginning to understand each other, whilst remaining true to their own faith. In London alone there are around 40 such groups. You could join one if them.
All peoples of faith, interested in furthering the work of Religions for Peace, are also welcome to free membership, sharing in our work and, perhaps, starting up a group of women or young people empowered to work together on shared concerns. We currently support inter faith action for UNICEF, helping to provide health, education, equality and protection for vulnerable children in Dhaka, Bangladesh. We working with the government to help orphans affected by AIDS.
Why not help to crack the silence by helping to start up an inter faith working group in your area? You could be working on an issue of concern to you, whilst helping to make your community a place of peace.
Chair: Dr Brian Walker (Christian)
The translation from Arabic into English of the Qur’an is by M. H. Shakir of Pakistan.
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