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7/7 and Beyond - Peace for Our Communities 

CONFERENCE REPORT

7/7 AND BEYOND

PEACE FOR OUR COMMUNITIES

16th September 2006

‘The threat to our country is on-going: we need a long-term, committed campaign for peace’, said Dr Prem Sharma, in his keynote address to the ‘7/7 and Beyond’ conference at Bulmershe School, Woodley, Reading.

‘Our greatest challenge is the lack of relationships between people of different faiths and communities in Britain’, said Rob Wilson, MP for Reading East, inaugurating the conference. Young people generally are alienated from the political process, and some from society as a whole, which leads to frustration. The impact of Government policies, including foreign policy, cannot be ignored. But young people, of all backgrounds, hold the key to the future.

Muslim leaders condemned suicide bombers and urged greater understanding of the issues their community faces. ‘But don’t wait for others’, was the overall message of the conference: ‘Each of us has a responsibility, so take the initiative and build bridges of friendship with people of different backgrounds.

The conference was organised by South Asian Development Partnership, of which Dr Sharma is Patron, with help from JCI Reading. It brought together over 100 people from different ethnic and faith communities, who were addressed by an impressive line-up of local and national political and community leaders. Local speakers included Angus Wilson, Chairman of Wokingham District Council, Rev Dan Tyndall of St Nicholas Church, Chief Constable Sara Thornton and Supt Steve Kirk of Thames Valley Police, Dr HS Bindra and Alok Sharma. The conference had a special section of teenagers from local schools, who presented their findings to the larger group.

Three Muslim speakers emphasised the commitment of Muslims to peace, while pointing out the pressures they face. Khurshid Ahmed, Chairman of the Muslim Forum UK and a Commissioner for Racial Equality, deplored extremism, both in the actions of terrorists and in some of the policies of the West. Lord Mohammed Sheikh pointed to the increasing number of successful Muslims and the positive role models they bring, while also acknowledging the identity crisis of many young people. ‘The Muslim community must accept that there are problems in their midst and take positive steps to tackle the issues’, he said. ‘Suicide bombing is NOT jihad’. Azad Ali of the Muslim Council of Britain referred to the common perception of a ‘victim mentality’, which he preferred to see as a cry for help. He called for honest debate and discussion to reach a common starting point from which all of us can work together. Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, Secretary General of the MCB, was prevented at the last minute from attending but sent a paper in which he stressed the need to give young people ‘space and time to formulate their identities’. They are the ones who will ‘determine what British identity looks and feels like’.

The search for our overall identity - the values that define our ‘Britishness’ and hold us together - was a recurring theme. Multiculturalism has been much criticised recently, but ‘it is a fact’, said Dominic Grieve MP, Shadow Attorney General. ‘It has brought us respect for different cultures and greater knowledge of their needs. But we have turned it into a philosophy that leads to apartheid’. He called for recognition of the multiple identities that many of us have, within a larger identity, which we need to work at more.

Baroness Sandeep Verma illustrated this multiple identity from her own experience, brought up in Britain, with close links across many communities. But she pointed out that many young people feel disenfranchised, in a vacuum which is easily filled by destructive ideologies.

‘We live in a global village’, said Anil Bhanot of the Hindu Council UK, ‘but what we want is a global family, in which compassion enables us to resolve differences’. He challenged young people to ‘question, debate and reform where reform is required’.

‘Terrorists have no religion’, said Ranjit Singh, President of the Sikh Forum. But he warned of the danger of draconian ‘anti-terrorist’ laws which can lead in a totalitarian direction.

The commitment of the police to engage with the community was stressed by Chief Constable Sara Thornton. Supt Steve Kirk spoke about celebrating similarity as well as diversity. Communication and values are important, not just religious identity. Dan Tyndall of St Nicholas called for a positive search to identify what makes people feel good in their community – ‘appreciative enquiry’.

Ram Gidoomal CBE, Chairman of SADP, chaired a lively panel session in which the audience raised questions about Britishness, faith schools, foreign policy, multiculturalism, democracy and religious freedom. ‘How do we engage with our neighbours in this internet/ iPod age?’ was a key question. ‘Don’t wait for others – take the initiative yourself’ was the consensus advice. ‘What will I do to fulfil my responsibility?’ is the question to ask.

The teenagers led a second panel session, reflecting their own wide-ranging discussion. What came out was a sense of alienation from the current political process, along with their willingness to engage with and try to understand others from all backgrounds. This session was one of the conference highlights.

And the conclusion?

‘The issues our society faces will not be resolved overnight’, said one speaker. ‘We must be in this together for the long haul’ – echoing Dr Sharma’s challenge at the beginning. What everybody agreed was the need for more and more of the honest discussion and debate they had experienced during the day.

The conference was recorded and a 22 minute DVD of the highlights is available. Click here to order a copy.


   
   
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