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7/7 and Beyond - Peace for Our Communities

KEYNOTE ADDRESS BY THE CONFERENCE CHAIRMAN

DR PREM SHARMA

Patron, South Asian Development Partnership
Chairman, India Development Trust;
Founder, Patron and member of the Conservative Parliamentary Friends of India.
Chairman, Patient Panel, Royal Berkshire Hospital NHS Trust
BBI Forum member, Commission for Patient and Public involvement in Health
Patron, Europe/India Chamber of Commerce, Brussels

16th September 2006 9.00am – 4.30 pm
Bulmershe School, Chequers road, woodley, Reading RG5 3EL

‘My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen

We are meeting today in the shadow of tragic events.

Two months ago was the first anniversary of the July 7 bombings in London. Just four days later, terrorists struck again in Mumbai and over 200 innocent people were killed. The situation in the Middle East has been grave all summer. Then came the news of the ‘Air Plot’ to blow up large numbers of passenger flights.

We grieve for the bereaved and for these blows to peace. We are here today because we want peace - in our own communities, in our world community. But what steps can we take?

On the anniversary of 7 th July we watched the dignified response of the bereaved, the survivors and the emergency services. Many expressed their amazement and gratitude that they are still alive. Others shared their sense of loss, pain or anger. I was struck by the words of a young Muslim whose wife was killed in the London bombings. “… what happened eats inside you…” he said.

Some are still struggling to forgive. All of them were determined to keep going.

We appreciate their spirit. But we have to ask, with them, ‘Why?’ What motivates people, anywhere in the world, to destroy their own lives and the lives of others? What continues to cause such bitterness and violence in the Middle East? What is that we - the majority - have done, or not done? Why are individuals and communities still divided?

In November 2005 we convened a conference: 7/7 and Beyond: a South Asian response to the London Bombings . This brought together South Asian teenagers with faith community leaders, civil servants and representatives from business, academia and the media. The teenagers wanted a Britain in which everybody can participate, accepted equally and treated with respect, ‘not judged by race but as a person’. Key words from the conference were inclusion, acceptance, truth, reconciliation and justice.

These are the qualities that all of us are looking for. Without this the work of the police and other agencies of law and order will not be effective. This is the whole area that the Government’s new Commission on Integration and Cohesion is concerned for.

Since then we have continued to produce resources for education and discussion for inter-community work. I want to acknowledge the leadership of Ram Gidoomal in all this and I welcome him as co-chair of some of our sessions today.

Today’s conference is another step in our commitment to work together for peace. I want to highlight four responsibilities for all of us:

1. We are responsible to acknowledge the vast majority, in all religions, who want peace and reject violence.

Sometimes we are more aware of the differences between us. But we have more in common than we often realise.

As I was preparing for this conference I met Christians from a number of churches in Reading. I have to tell you that in my naivete, I thought that all the churches here are Church of England or Roman Catholic. I soon discovered that they are not! At first I was surprised at the differences. Then I realised that they are actually united in their main beliefs.

I already knew that Hindus have different groupings, for example, Arya Samajis and Sanatana Dharmis. They have internal discussions about these issues, but they have much more in common.

All Muslims believe in the holy Qu’ran and the Prophet Muhammad, whether they are Sunni, Shia, Ahmadiyya or Sufi.

Many Muslim leaders have highlighted the commitment of Islam to freedom of faith and conscience, with examples from the teaching and practice of the Prophet Muhammad. The Muslim community is hard working and law abiding. They make an immense contribution to our way of life.

We do not ignore our differences in our approach to God. But we can agree on our common service to our fellow human beings and our common desire and duty to work for peace.

2. We are responsible to speak out against extremists.

This is a challenge to all of us. But it has been a particular challenge to Muslim leaders to tackle those who use jihad as a basis for suicide bombings.

When the cartoons were published we saw extremism on both sides. Some appeared to have no understanding or respect for religious feelings. Others used their protest as an excuse to call for violence. Both deserve our condemnation.

This does not mean ignoring the factors that lead people to violence. We must acknowledge and deal with them. But we cannot condone violence as the solution. And we unequivocally denounce violence in the name of religion.

I welcome the call of the new Sufi Muslim Council for ‘moderate Muslims to stand up and be counted’. They have spoken of ‘an urgent need for the British Muslim community to engage in an internal debate to isolate the ideologies that falsely claim to represent Islam’.

We must encourage moderate Muslim voices to be heard clearly.

Let me express here my concern at some who have coerced or maligned the followers of other faiths. Many Muslims have experienced hatred and prejudice. This is wrong and we must condemn it. But some Muslims have spoken badly about Christians and Jews. And in Pakistan the blasphemy laws have been used by some to oppress their opponents of a different sect or religion. Churches have been attacked. This also is wrong and we must condemn it.

We are responsible to speak out and not remain silent. I will come back to this.

3. The media are responsible to portray fairly what is happening.

We are grateful for free and fair media. But we all know the power they have - and the temptation to misuse it, sometimes unintentionally.

For example, we hear a great deal about ‘Islamic terrorists’. This can be very misleading. Many Muslim leaders have clearly stated that suicide bombers are opposed to the teachings of Islam. The use of the word ‘Islamic’ by the media can give the impression that all Muslims are potential bombers. This is plainly false: the media must be more careful in their words.

No doubt there are challenges here for Muslim leaders as they wrestle with the understanding of jihad, and the motivation of some of their young men. There are connections, however distorted, between their faith and their misguided actions. But we need to support the leaders as they face these questions, and not make their task harder by simplistic presentations.

4. The majority community has a special responsibility to reach out and build links with people of other communities.

At last November’s conference, we found that the underlying issue is the on-going lack of relationship between different communities.

The teenagers at the conference were mostly Muslim. They opposed the terrorists’ actions. What they wanted was acceptance and respect. They wanted to be part of a society that was genuinely equal and inclusive. What excited them most at the conference was the opportunity to meet people of different backgrounds and actually be listened to.

This brings us to the heart of our concern at this conference. How many of us really know people from different backgrounds to our own? Are we prepared to work at this?

What divides us, as individuals or as communities? It may be genuine concerns. More often it is simply ignorance or apathy. Sometimes there are vested interests, selfishness, even hatred. All of us need to examine our attitudes and ask God’s help in these matters.

It is high time that all of us, and especially our politicians, take seriously the need to speak and work for peace, to start a peace movement around the world. Then the hardliners, on all sides, will understand that they don’t have support.

‘Tit for tat’ violence will never work. You cannot dismantle a movement, or destroy a people, by bombing or shelling. Others will take their place. Change will only come when the majority are prepared to speak and work together for peace.

Can we learn from Northern Ireland, where ordinary people, on both sides, decided they had had enough of violence. They created pressure on the political leaders to ‘talk to the devil’ - to begin a dialogue with those they bitterly opposed. They had to swallow their pride and try to understand and forgive. Even stones may produce tears.

 

So what are we going to do, from today?

This conference is a great opportunity. We have a winning combination here – young people, local and national community leaders, police, politicians and media.

Our speakers have a lot of wisdom. I am excited about listening to the teenagers and learning from them.

Let us work hard today to plan - and implement - specific, practical actions that will bring us together.

 

I want to see a peace initiative which will be carried all round the country. We need your support. All of us need to be involved, from the grassroots to the leaders. I would like to challenge the leaders of our political parties not just to deal with symptoms but to go to the roots, in a systematic, committed, strategic campaign. This is a long term commitment that includes us all.

Conference Report | Keynote Address by Dr Prem Sharma

   
   
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