Lecture given at Princeton on 7th March 2016
There is a story in the Talmud about Honi the circle-maker
Honi asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”
The man replied, “Seventy years.”
Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?”
The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”
It takes a generation to transform communities and attitudes. Dialogue is the first step. From dialogue you have commonality. From commonality we can build communities together.
Dialogue in action. The Home We Build Together
At the University of Surrey we are trying to build a purpose-built Multifaith Centre with specific spaces for Jews, Muslims, Christians and the Dharmic faiths alongside a dialogue space. The building which has won planning approval came out of focus groups and student participation. The students only had altruistic reasons coming into the discussions. Indeed the 200 or so involved immediately in the project knew that they would not benefit from the facilities. Planning, fundraising and build take time and most the students were in the first or second year of their three to four year degrees. The aims of the students initially were to develop facilities for their own faiths. Indeed a great deal of intra-religious dialogue took place. Sitting with an architect Jewish students from progressive, orthodox and secularist backgrounds along with faculty members transformed a modern looking synagogue in a Jewish Common Room that borrowed as much from the Apple Store and Starbucks as it did from Temple Emmanuel or Harvard’s Synagogue: plasma screen, coffee and comfortable sofas with a nod and a wink to Ark for the Torah scroll. Muslim and Christian students did likewise. Then they came together to negotiate space. In this process Muslim students learnt that whilst Jews face east they are not always looking for the exact orientation to the Temple Mount; Jews learnt all about Sacristry’s and Christians about the need for extensive Muslim ablution facilities. To coin a phrase from Rabbi Lord Sacks: This was the house they built together. Whilst it remain unbuilt for those students it remained an education about the other. The need and want to understand the other grew and soon there were interfaith seminars, an interfaith council, shared pilgrimages and social action project. The particularistic was transformed within a year into a universal vision. There was a bit of borrowing too: our plasma screen was replicated in Ecumenical Chapel; our Kosher kitchen was later replicated in the Muslim Prayer Hall. I am wondering whether this cross-pollination is common during so called Golden eras of the la convivencia. We are still building the centre and since have commenced with a centre without walls.
Violence: using dialogue to undo violence
So what about the use of dialogue in inner city areas. For many years dialogue meant encounters. It was enough in the 1990s for a group of Catholic and Protestant to play football. What about more interesting models in areas with heightened tensions, divisions based on either confessional or ethnic lines. So let me give you a few other examples from my years at the Commission for Racial Equality where I was assigned both to a social policy and action group and eventually took on the lead for extremism or counter-extremism.
We looked at various cities impacted by the 2001 riots in the UK in northern cities: high-level youth unemployment, estates divided along ethnic and religious lines. In the north it tended to be two groups who self-identified as Muslim and white – labels used by the two groups. In these estates we discovered that innovation, lateral thinking to enable connectivity was most important. Even in terms of schooling we saw up and down the country including in these towns schools which were either predominantly white or predominantly from an ethnic minority situated 500 m away from each other. Ted Cantle called these parallel communities and I was sent in to help in many cities following disturbances or where there were perceived heightened tensions: by the way most riots seem to occur over a girl or a perception that one part of the estate is getting public provisions or over private security or police acting inappropriately.
In Tower Hamlets in London I worked with schools that were 90% Bengali Muslim next to ones 90% white. Why? Parental choice according to all the research backed up by well-meaning schools servicing the dominant culture within the school with either language or religious curriculums closer to the needs or desires of the parents from that community.
In Tower Hamlets we saw what Ted Cantle claimed where parallel communities but three communities: Asian and White populations living in one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Western Europe living next to Canary Wharf and the city of London, two of the wealthiest square miles in Europe. In setting up mentoring schemes with JP Morgan we were able to bring together Bengali, White and Somalian children from five secondary schools. They were given life skills and worked together on a community project with JP Morgan learning about themselves, each other and the world of the city. Throughout this conference we have heard about economic factors: as well as breaking down ethnic and religious barriers we wanted them to have the confidence to apply for at least entry level jobs in the banks. Most participants claimed they would seek employment there.
What happens in more conservative communities?
We have had examples where very conservative religious communities who have no interest to engage in textual dialogue. We found this in Hackney, one of the poorer Boroughs of London which has a strong Haredi community and Indian Muslim community. A rabbi who knew I was into dialogue invited me over and we discussed he told me he did not want to engage in theology or scriptural reasoning. I thought about it. The problems around here are large: police brutality; Kosher and Hallal provision, housing, welfare, and the need for public services to be better deliver culturally relevant services. Three years later he told me that he had set up the Jewish-Muslim Forum. They worked on housing, welfare and police issues. On several occasions this forum was able to shut down violence at a time of heightened international tensions just because they could pick up the phone to one another and convey one message: cut out the violence, not here in our neighbourhood; not now, not ever…
Playing on multiple identities: Faith in Football
In other areas I set up a system of links between single faith schools. Shared Futures was borne out of political necessity. In many ways those encounters are more on subject and more symmetrical, removing the issue of dominant and subculture: there is no dominant culture in these cases but equal parties coming together and exploring their identities as a child from a Jewish school, a Catholic school or a Hindu School. One-third of our schools in England are confessional.
When as chair of the Football Association’s Faith in Football Group I brought this programme to the FA we played on multiple identities: in a country obsessed with football Manchester United and Arsenal are strong identities; more so than Jewish, Muslim or Catholic? Maybe, maybe not? But if differences and commonality can be explored through sport then we had a chance of breaking the them and us mould. The FA, 3FF and Wembley Stadium plc brought together single faith schools – Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, CofE and Hindu over three years. They meet for a year, explore their identities, discuss issues cohesion issues and play football at the home of Team England. Today Wembley plc have taken this on and others are now considering at club level how best to replicate it.
Indeed this model is being used increasingly to build bridges between the Muslim and Jewish communities. The use of sporting and cultural platforms is one where we can find common ground outside of the complexities of the Middle East crisis. The Three Faiths Forum has led much of this work in Britain through either their shared futures school linking platform that I set up ten years ago or through their choir, their Parlamentors programme which takes university students and gives them internships at Westminster or their Faith and Fashion project. Other groups have collaborated on theatre and even hip hop. The creative arts seems to be a place where theatre, music, fashion and fine arts can create a fusion of Islamic and Jewish music and art to create a new British Jewish Muslim form.
Artistic fusion confronts the issue of extremism and segregation head on. It asks new questions of artists without compromising their religious values. It creates a new form of art and collaboration that brings young people together.
Sharing Aspects of Our History and Faith
The process of sharing goes on: some are able to share more easily than others. There are sometimes religious barriers to sharing but the more difficult barriers tend to be those of the human mind: the need to overcome our personal prejudices, both conscious and unconscious.
Sometime we need mainstream cultural providers to take the lead. This notably happened in the UK when the British Library put together it’s exhibit Sacred: looking at the artistry around calligraphy and book illustrations with a fantastic exhibit of sacred texts from the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions.
However, it can be simply opening our doors to others.around four years ago the Office of Religious Life, JDC and the CEDAR Muslim Network put on a conference on social action. We had hoped that this would spark a number of joint initiatives by key faith stakeholders working together on social action. It was a few months before the Olympic Games and we had been working with Secretary Clinton and the State Dept (Hannah Rosenthal and Farah Pandith) to develop a programme around the Olympics called 2012 Hours Against Hate. We had managed to get the Olympics and Olympic Peace Truce movement to award us recognition and enable us to produce a mega coalition where we could co-brand a number of activities by many organisations. Most the UK charities and community relation groups wanted to be involved as it was their way of gaining the branding which had proven difficult until now.
It did open doors for a number of projects which included a music festival led by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics and Hans Zimmer. One of the other outcomes was a new collaboration between the Islamic Society of Britain and a small Dutch project. In effect, we put two organisations in the room and the Big Iftar UK was born. The aim of the project was to open up a series of Iftars to non-Muslims and have a dialogue on social and political issues. Now, to be honest, I did not know that it had happened until I received an invitation to speak at its first event and asked the organiser why she had asked me to speak. Julie looked at me puzzled and said: you created this… The Big Iftar was relaunched the next year and events take place in synagogues and mosques. The Jewish community response is to invite imams and mosques to participate both in events around Sukkoth and also Mitzvah Day which has become British Jewry’s day of social action. You have not made it as a Bishop, Imam or Mayor unless you have a photo of yourself planting trees or cleaning up the park in a green Mitzvah Day shirt.
The Germans and French have their own models of sharing: the Coexisters in Paris coming out of a student-led group at the Sorbonne; the House of One (a Church, Synagogue and Mosque) building planned in the centre of Berlin; the Muslim Jewish Conference which is usually held in Berlin is a young leadership programme. The Cambridge Coexist Programme is for British Jewish and Muslim leaders: they build relations whilst being hosted at Windsor Castle, one of the Queen’s residences. There have been a number of programmes in local communities: Belgium, the Netherlands etc.
Politics: stronger together
There have been several attempts in Europe for Muslim and Jewish to do politics together. The idiom that there is more that unites the communities than divides them is an idea we touched on with the Hackney Jewish Muslim Forum. However, serious attempts have taken place to show unity in the face of attacks on the Jewish and Muslim way of life in Europe: especially circumcision and dietary requirements. There is a European Imams and Rabbis group that went to lobby the Danish food minister who had banned shechita and halal (despite the fact that not much Kosher and Halal meat was being produced in Denmark). It was a powerful act of meeting him together and one taken up by the world’s media. In a region where tensions that have led to violence are no longer rare this is an alternative to the increasing isolation.
The source of increased Antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe are different. However, the targeting of the Jewish Museum in Brussels, a number of Jewish targets in France, the synagogue in Denmark and foiled attempts against targets in my own country come from a small group of radicalised extremists whose ideology is steeped in hatred. They in turn feed off and recruit from acts of violence and the rise of Islamophobic prejudice in the UK. The violence tends to come from the far right. The prejudice is unfortunately coming from wider circles.
My own experience in recent months includes being stopped for 30 mins when I was travelling with a group of imams and rabbis. We were questioned by UK border officials exiting the UK to visit Calais and the refugee camp there (another act of political solidarity). One of the strictly orthodox rabbis asked why we had been stopped. Someone in the group answered him directly ‘driving whilst being with imams’…
Once again, our trip ended in success but we have a fight on within all our communities. Our fight is with those who want to build walls and not bridges; with those who wish to alienate; for those who don’t wish to have a meaningful dialogue and build communities together.
The future is uncertain but I think we have resilient interfaith movement and increasing examples of inter-community action and dialogue. In the market place, the idea of mutual respect, coexistence and common action has been anchored though perhaps we have to improve our appeal, our audience and our message to counter the voices that have a singular or limited worldview at the exclusion or near-exclusion of all others.
I have come to the end so let me finish with one point:
Governments work on four or five year cycles. It takes a generation to change people totally. When I worked on the Olympics there were 40 year projections on how the geography of the Olympic Park would develop before, during after and decades after the Games. Little attention was paid though to how community relations would develop and planning their needs seemed to be a tickbox exercise. Like the carob tree planter we need to plant the seeds for future generations: these will grow into shared communities, with sustainable jobs, housing opportunities for all (and not the highest bidder) and common future. And how does dialogue help? As Martin Buber says: “The world is not comprehensible, but is embraceable: through the embracing of one its beings”. In all my dealings it is embracing the others humanity that has led to solutions… It is erecting walls that has led to disaster…
We are looking for a way to combat the growth of radical extremism. They build armies and so must we. We must build an army that aims to promote our values: equality, diversity, human rights and the belief in humanity of all: those that seek to build bridges rather than walls. It takes a generation to transform communities. So when we build this army they will need to plant many trees, an orchard of carob trees: planting the seeds for future generations, for our children and grandchildren.