The Times they are a-Changing: The Commonwealth, Faith, Tolerance and Multi-culturalism

'The Times they are a-Changing: The Commonwealth, Faith, Tolerance and Multi-culturalism', by Dr Jenny Taylor, Director of Lapido Media, a paper given at 'The Commonwealth After Valetta' Round Table Conference, Cumberland Lodge, 5-6 January 2006

For the better part of a century, Western governments have sought to eliminate the spiritual from their political discourse - and have succeeded merely in deepening the exclusion and hence the poverty and resentment of billions of people for whom spirituality is either a blessing or a curse. Multi-culturalism works - but only within a spiritual, not a secular, discourse. This paper, based on a presentation to the Commonwealth Institute on 6 January 2006, explores what that might mean.

I begin in Finsbury Park - the location of a famous, or infamous, mosque. The place where my family has made its home. It is one of the most diverse places in Britain. If you walk under the seven green bridges that span the Seven Sisters Road you will find there a termite heap of human enterprise, tracking outwards across the globe. The London Council for Hajj and Umrah adjoins Josee's Braiding Studio where black women come for 'cornbows' and 'twists'. You can buy Bulgaria Hot Meze or Mississippi style chicken after you've had your clothes dry-cleaned by Artemis at KYIIPIAKO's. If you want a cup of tea, there's one at John Aladdin's, the Lebanese teashop where a Cypriot woman wearing a small silver crucifix calls you darling as she hands you a large mug of brew. Just opposite are the glitzy bridal-war shops frequented by rich Africans: Fonthill Road, rag trader to the Nexts and Dorothy Perkinses of more up-town streets. This one is advertising a £10,000 reward in its front window for information leading to the return of its safe... Less lucrative, but just as ambitious - the Sudanese Islamic bookshop where you can buy chewing gum and kaftans and books that explain The Myth of the Cross and Jesus, A Prophet of Islam. A serious conversation is under way by the photocopier, where an imam points out some passages in a Qur'an propped up on it to a young female inquirer.

This shop is where my sister comes to buy her Idh Mubarak greeting cards. The end of Ramadan is a cause for celebration in my family, for her husband comes from Indian Kashmir, and we all try and enter into the festive spirit with him. A Jewish actress friend brings fresh-baked apple cake, I bring sweets. Vici sends a big card. Vici is known to us all as Mama. She is the church warden at the local church, but she comes from a Muslim village in Nigeria, and she understands such etiquette. She and Auntie Esther used to look after my sister's kids at the local creche, strapping them to their backs for comfort, when they cried.

My sister married in a registry office in Delhi. Two rickshaw wallahs were co-opted into the ceremony as witnesses. Rafiq had no trouble getting into Britain. An ill-educated houseboatman from Dal Lake, whose father had trained under the British in tourism, Rafiq is courteous, handsome and has never been out of work, albeit menial. When the family gets together, he sits and is able to make polite conversation with my other brother-in-law, a Scottish Presbyterian Minister from the dour east coast of Fife. They discuss the relative merits of sheep sacrifice... Rafiq's three beautiful daughters are approaching adolescence now. There are unlikely to be problems with boys - they would rather die than disgrace him. But he lets them go to church, have dancing lessons and take school excursions. They are all named after flowers that can be found in both countries - Jasmine, Lily and Fazana Rose. They all attended the local church school, an inner-city primary once in special measures, where all the children had unpronounceable names and there was no one exactly English. The English teacher was Australian and the head is a saint from the Caribbean.

My sister does massage to three groups of local woman, two of whom are Asian. Massage is much more common in Bengali culture, where there are fewer patent nostrums for aches and pains, especially for children. The women are less shy then they were, learning to massage each other through their saris. They talk of their successful children, now lawyers and doctors in the NHS, and complain how things are not what they were in Britain.

This is the happy side of the Seven Sisters Road. But there is another more dysfunctional side.

Just behind is the council estate where the church does its friendship evangelism, among the asylum seekers and refugees - and where last year two young girls were sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering the old lady for whom they used to do errands. In the other direction is the Finsbury Park Mosque, now boarded up, where the hook-clawed Sheikh Abu Hamza wrought such havoc upon our dreams of integration. I nearly bought a rather smart, business-woman's flat a few doors up from the mosque before we knew how murderous it was. If you went past then, you'd see children in shalwar kameez mucking about, and blokes in pyjamas and bushy beards throwing kids up in the air before taking them home for chai.

Here, if you were such a bloke with a beard, you used to be able to go in and join Al-Qaeda training sessions. I have an American missionary friend who was well-known there. No one shut him out. On the other hand, no one tried to shut the sessions down. No one took multi-culturalism's shadow side seriously - because no one took religion seriously.

How much we wanted to believe in the happy face of diversity. Why? Because it is delightful. It helps us to know we are not alone; that the earth of full of our potential lovers and friends. A third example of it - again along the Seven Sisters Road. Mr Oyelowo owns an electrical goods shop. He also owns several palaces in Oye in Nigeria, for Mr Oyelowo is actually King Oyelowo - only they didn't like his conversion to Christianity so he came to Britain and dropped his title. His son David went to the nearby Baptist Church, where my niece Lily's best friend goes. A girl he fancied there got David involved in acting classes for youngsters that the Royal Shakespeare Company were running at the Barbican Theatre. Now David's the most famous actor in Britain: he was the first non-Caucasian to play a Shakespearian king in RSC history. For the past few years he's been the far-from-token black spook in the BBC series of the same name. His Henry VI at the Young Vic was so moving, I wept. He played it straight - not the mad king of contemporary stagings, but a Christian king fighting to be true to Christian kingly virtues of meekness and pacifism in a time of macho posturing. His Director called him a genius and he was loaded with bouquets. No one had tried to play Henry straight for a generation - but as a black man, he could get away with it. Faith is cool when it's black faith.

David's now married to a close friend of my family - a talented young actress I grew up with in Suffolk, whose parents brought me to faith 30 years ago. He calls me 'sister'. We say we are family - and mean it.

Multi-culturalism works - but only within a visionary framework bigger than its component parts; a framework that binds people together enough to be free to pursue their gifting - and then to give it back compound.

Religion means to bind - and we need that. But binding is itself a double-edged word. You can be bound to each other with liberating bonds of affection and respect - as the Anglican Communion likes to say. Or you can be dedicated literally to dark spirits through rituals of animal sacrifice, idol worship, ritual scarring and so on - which do literally bind you -through fear - to old ways of thinking and feeling.

Some vision has to hold the ring for any society - and some visions are better, more productive than others. The State cannot enforce a particular religious vision, but it certainly has a duty to protect the vision upon which it is founded. Religion is the source of vision, the dynamic around which a society bonds together. This was very clearly seen during the 1970s and 80s, when Muslims and Hindus who migrated to Britain were helped to reconstruct their cultural identity with state funding for religious buildings, Qur'an schools, Hindu libraries and so on. Fifteen years ago, in 1991 Pnina Werbner recorded the following:

Local authorities provide libraries of South Asian imported books in Urdu and Punjabi as well as Urdu or Punjabi language classes or courses, while multi-cultural education units produce specialised 'ethnic' materials for schools. The Arts Council and Cultural Services fund minority art activities and multi-cultural festivals. The Manpower Services Commission and DHSS fund welfare and communal activities, together with the local Social Services. There are in addition, special radio and television programmes, for minority listeners and viewers. Indeed, the expansion of specialised services for minority groups appears to have taken on a momentum of its own, with important long term implications...[1]

She described the results as 'institutional completeness on a quite remarkable scale' - a scale hitherto achieved only by European colonial settlers in the developing world. Her and others' warnings about separate development went unheeded. My own book published in 1998 warned of the emergence of 'discrete territories where vastly different norms prevail, shut off and sometimes resentful, a breeding ground for ferment and a target for hostility'.[1]

Such discrete settlement was no accident I wrote, 'but was created by dint of prevailing legislative and intellectual norms.' There was no thought of any higher loyalty. Respect for the individual meant respect for the culture through which he realized his identity, effectively robbing him - and especially her - of her liberty, and at the same time robbing society of its glue. As Alain Finkielkraut has pointed out in his book The Undoing of Thought, what began as a post-Nazi ideal has ended ironically in a new kind of ghetto. Blunkett's citizenship tests are a frail and tardy solution. Secularism cannot deliver vision.

In 1992 the third Thatcher government attempted something new, after decades of fruitless spending on the so-called inner cities that resulted in the worst mainland riots in British history - to quote the Guardian. A solitary civil servant, responsible for the inner-city Task Forces, was particularly concerned about social problems for people who had no English, and no idea how to tap into wider social provision. Aware that churches ran small projects on council estates, and that where there were churches there were often now gurdwaras, and temples and so on, he decided to channel money into the religious (as opposed to fractious race) networks, by means of a secretariat serving a forum of faith leaders.

This forum became the Inner Cities Religious Council, attached to a small secretariat in the Department of the Environment. Research into five years of the workings and documentation of this small office show several quite dramatic things:

  1. That a 'new religious discourse' began to emerge from the useless rubble of purely bureaucratic discourse previously used in government
  2. That civil servants and council officers began to break tabus against the use of religious language and sentiment in public
  3. That government ministers began to address citizens as if they had souls, not just a race and a taxable income
  4. Legislation began to reflect this new awareness.[3]

Eventually, some ten years after the ICRC was set up, Minister Fiona McTaggart issued the requirement that all departments should consult faith groups before initiating any piece of new legislation - counter to the classical formulations of secularization theory.

In all these ways, it became possible to help, to govern and to include a broader swathe of the populace of Britain than had been the case. The research went even further in its conclusions: that government could not govern in the inner cities without the language, the plant and the motivation of religious agencies.

Indeed, a senior member of the Commonwealth Secretariat admitted as much in the post 9/11 world. At a private symposium at Cumberland Lodge in January he said that 'we have no language' with which to address (what he dubbed) 'the tolerance issues' thrown up by Islamic terror. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office are now initiating work, through the Commonwealth Foundation, that will help them find such a language. They are setting up the first ever 'Multifaith Advisory Group' that can advise the Foundation on the role of culture and faith in development and in the promotion of social cohesion . . . between the diverse faith communities across the Commonwealth.'[4] It will report back to the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kampala in 2007.

The discourse of faith, tolerance and multi-culturalism is back.

In India 250 million people are not written into any discourse recognized by the world's élites. Now maybe we can begin to understand how absolute has been their subjection for three millennia, as a result. The dalits - a quarter of the population - are beginning to be recognized socially, after various efforts to incorporate them more fully into the nation's economy. But historically and religiously, they do not exist. As Professor Kancha Ilaiah has said recently, at a conference in London, they were not countenanced by God. God made Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras from different parts of his body, but he did not make the tribals. They were not even not created.

For millennia these people have not been able to read or even hear the Hindu scriptures, or practise Hindu rites - on pain of having their hands cut off, or ears filled with hot lead. Admittedly, cases of such torture are very rare today - but that they happen at all is indicative of an historic oppression that has prevented them from rising to take any meaningful part in national life. Their rituals and customs are not recognized by brahminical religion. They think they are part of the Hindu mass, but in truth they are not.

Professor Ilaiah, Head of the Department of Political Science at Osmania University in Hyderabld, wrote a book in 1996, which has been reprinted almost every year since, called Why I am not a Hindu which caused immense upset - much as was caused here when Britain was accused of 'institutional racism'.[5] It was not that he did not want to be a Hindu, but that Hinduism did not want him. Professor Ilaiah is a sudra, created from the lowliest part of God's anatomy, the feet. He told us: 'When I read Genesis I wept. I read that God created men and women in his image. This is a liberation for me. And I am not a Christian.' Ilaiah is a leading Communist, who has freed his consciousness and fought his way out of his benighted village, attracting many threats to his career and life in the process.

We are ignorant of the reasons for world poverty - which are as much spiritual and social as they are economic and political. At a recent conference, an Anglican interfaith expert told a story that was supposed to win our admiration and hope. A kindly Muslim, he told us, had recently suggested extending the epithet 'People of the Book' to Hindus so that they might feel more included in the interfaith process. This is a courtesy title accorded by the Qur'an to Jews and Christians, and this Muslim no doubt thought it a way of healing age-old enmity among peoples of the Indian sub-continent from which he came. Neither he nor the 'expert' can have known that a people almost the size of the population of the US are not written into any 'book'.

Religions cannot be dragooned into our political agendas as they were during the Raj and have been ever since. We must accept the fact that we are ignorant on a vast scale about a subject too important for such a strategy not to backfire, however well-meaning. "By their fruits shall you know them" should be the basis by which international institutions proceed in any strategy of inter-religious understanding. I want to suggest we embark on a massive programme of religious literacy, earthed not in texts, but in lived facts. For without it our plans to make poverty history are but blunderings in the dark.

* * *

Bad theology, as Andrew Walker at King's College London reminds us, can be very bad for your health. I know - I went to an Anglican boarding school! I work for an African pentecostal church and so could be deemed guilty-by-association with child abuse in the interests of 'deliverance'. This does not mean that Christianity or even deliverance ministry should be banned. It's not the sacred but its manipulation that stands accused.

True faith reminds me all the time that I not only may get it wrong - but that I am bound to do so, because I am a sinner in need of grace that comes to me from outside this world in a way I cannot possibly merit. True truth makes available the possibility of repentance and forgiveness. We've just been through Advent - the season when God promised to make all things new. The promise of a fresh start has real psychic and social impact. Our international discourse must reincorporate the language of faith and truth - in order to help us manage the complexity of human response to circumstances. No other discourse has proved sophisticated or nuanced enough to comprehend the nature of things.

A war has been being waged in Northern Uganda for 20 years. Its victims are children. The leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, Joseph Kony, is a mad witch given to speaking in tongues, and calling for the Ten Commandments as the basis for future governance in Uganda - actually there's more than ten: the eleventh forbids a man from enlisting as a soldier if he has only one testicle. Because Kony's mad and religious, no one's tried very hard to stop him or to understand the situation that keeps 1.7million people in thrall in concentration camps across the northern plain of Uganda. Within 40 years, the entire population of the co-called protection camps will be dead, through disease, suicide or abduction. And of course, seen in political terms, Britain has 'no material interests' in this particular nightmare.

Why do those 1.7million people not fight back? Unless we understand the spirituality of unpunished and unforgiven murder in a lawless country, we are bound to condemn these people as craven or stupid. If we merely subject them to our own peculiar rationalist discourse, we eliminate them from serious engagement. Because we cannot understand, we cannot act.

Yet fear is every bit as destructive of human existence as drought or flood, tsunami or earthquake. Fear of marauding spirits let loose by unhallowed wickedness; fear of Kony's alleged supernatural powers. Uganda Defence Minister Ruth Nankabirwa, quoted last year in the Monitor concedes that 'the spirits cannot be ignored . . . The people believe it and we cannot ignore it. It is very difficult to get information from them' - information that would lead to Kony's whereabouts. Fear fetters the soul, saps initiative, destroys hope, prevents government action. Spiritual terror can only be addressed spiritually. The courage of church leaders - the only professionals to stay in this terrifying wasteland - comes from belief in the action of a stronger spirit, not from the denial of the spiritual. The power of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ over the spirit world is well-documented in the Bible and elsewhere.[6] It receives a ready response among those with access to it. But what access is there? How much do we care whether people are given the means of addressing their fears?

The Africa Commission warned this summer that unless the religious worldview of the recipients of development aid are incorporated into efforts to combat poverty over the next ten years, the work will fail. That means accepting religion at face value. Instead of doing 'religious studies' on the cultures of the world, we must return (to use the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo's word)[7] to a religious way of thinking and being ourselves.

Instead of trying to objectify religion - and the most recent issue of the Round Table is replete with academic definitions that explain religion in all terms but its own - I suggest we start to practise it.[8] We cannot address the deepest drives of the vast majority of the people we share the planet with unless we rediscover reverence and humility. Religion matters. You become what you believe.

Secularism and the patronising reductionist platitudes it breeds do nothing for the poor. Tolerance of the intolerable will not build modern plural societies at ease with themselves. Tolerance when it means indifference is a licence to kill. The tolerance the world needs is an act of religious faith: of faith in a god who made men and women free: who died for us, rather than insisting we die for him.

One final story...

It concerns a Canadian missionary whom I met, called Doug Curry, and his attempt to pioneer development in Okharpatha in the valley of the most remote tributary of the Karnali River in Northwest Nepal. This is a place beyond the reach of motor cars; a place of the little known Bon religion, on the trade route to the great sacred Mount Kailash, where yak trains pass with their cargoes of salt; a place where child sacrifice is still practised. Just before I visited, Doug had seen a man running through the village bleeding. It was his sad task to bleed to death to make the rains come.

More prosaically, even to defecate twice in the same place is to anger the local gods. Such a people are less likely to achieve health than a people whose fear is dispelled by a God who came uniquely saying 'do not be afraid'. In the Bible, angels always begin their salutations with the words 'Fear not'.

Doug Curry, who headed up the United Mission to Nepal's work in the Jumla valley spent three years doing nothing at all - before beginning his work. He just lived among them. They thought he was an idol smuggler. He patiently learned the language, learned what they believed and tried to help them. He did not try to convert them, or condemn or criticise. He learned and he built a relationship with them. One day the headman asked him to build him a latrine, having seen Doug using the one he had built for himself, with no ill-effect.

The Government's own latrine-building drive in the hills had failed, because it was imposed from the top by secular aid workers in cohoots with government bureaucrats. The people were not going to risk the anger of the gods, without proof that there was good reason to.

With level ground to build on at a premium, the exercise involved Doug manhandling the sludge out of the old pit, witnessed by the entire village, and rebuilding on the same spot.

When asked why he was doing this for them, Doug drew a parallel with the Easter story: of a God who had given His life to lift mankind out of the pit of death and who had taken our stinking sin away.

Latrines are now a common sight in the valley.

©Jenny Taylor. No part of this paper may be reproduced without permission of the author.

Dr Jenny Taylor is Director of Lapido Media

End Notes

The notes in the text are hyperlinked into the end notes; to return to the text, click on the end note number

[1]Pnina Werbner 'The fiction of unity in ethnic politics' in P. Werbner and M. Anwar (eds.) Black and Ethnic Leaderships in Britain: The Cultural Dimensions of Political Action (London: Routledge 1991) p.132.

[2]L. Newbigin, L, Sanneh, J. Taylor Faith and Power: Christianity and Islam in 'Secular' Britain (London: SPCK, 1998), p. 107.

[3]Findings are documented in my unpublished PhD, After Secularism: Inner-City Governance and the New Religious Discourse (SOAS, London University: 2002), or for a synopsis see "There's Life in Establishment but not as We Know It" in Political Theology 5.3 (July 2004), pp. 329-49.

[4]Commonwealth Foundation People's Forum Minute: 'Commonwealth Dialogue on Faith and Development, St Julians, Malta, 24 November 2005 - Main Outcomes of the Meeting'.

[5]Kancha Ilaiah Why I am Not a Hindu; a Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy (Calcutta: Samya, 2005 [1996] ).

[6]See for instance Keith Ferdinando, The Triumph of Christ in African Perspective: A Study of Demonology and Redemption in the African Context (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1999).

[7]Gianni Vattimo Belief (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999).

[8]See 'Book Reviews' by Terry Barringer in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs 382, (October 2005), pp. 653-63.

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