On the 12th of September representatives of Christian and Muslim organisations met in north London to discuss and share ideas on the current situation of faith within society and the challenging faith -communities face in the UK. The one day meeting divided in two sessions; the morning session was held at the St Anne’s & St Andrew’s Centre, and the afternoon session at the Islamic Centre of England.
- Morning session: ‘Faith in a Secular Society’
First to address the meeting was Sheikh Ahmed Haneef – Researcher at the Islamic Centre of England. He expressed concern at how religions have been losing ground to Secularism instead of challenging it. He highlighted the fact that church congregations in western countries are increasingly made up of Christians from overseas alluding to a possible decline among westerners of church attendance. On a more positive note he expressed optimism to the fact that both traditions Christian and Islamic have a powerful spiritual and mystical component that could be utilised to rekindle faith within society. He believes that religion can still help people to make sense of the world.
Catriona Robertson – Interim Director of the Christian Muslim Forum and Convener of the London Boroughs Faiths Network, was the next speaker.
She highlighted the differences between secular institutions which adopt policies of separation between faith and state and the more aggressive secularist ideology. She stressed on the necessity for more ‘value-based’ voices to come together in the public space to demonstrate that religion is not the problem. She expressed concern at the level of confusion that exists among politicians about the current religious landscape, not fully recognising the strength of religious communities. According to Robertson there is plenty of scope for religions to work together specially on social activism and pursue of social justice. She acknowledged that quite a lot has been done in the past, citing the role of religious organisations in providing assistance in many fields especially after WW2. There is a need to challenge the assumptions that religion is only a private affair with no implications in our social life.
Hujjat al-Islam Dr Mohammed Ali Shomali – Director of Islamic Centre of England acknowledged that secular government might have a legitimate suspicious of religion based on some negative past experiences when religious authorities tried to impose their values by force but this should not mean that religion cannot contribute to the betterment of the life of individuals and society.
Islamic teachings are clear on the issue that religion should not be imposed. The Qur’an states that ‘there is no compulsion in religion’ and the example of the Prophet Muhammad(s) in Medina attests to this. In contrast today Secularism expresses an unnatural opposition towards religion. It does not take a neutral stance. Moreover secular institutions in governments expect religious people to endorse their values unconditionally. He identified ignorance and injustice, as two major problems with human vicegerency in this world and asked: “How can we face these problems without the guidance of religion?”
He stated that due to the great deal of moral ignorance without believing in God -as our Creator – we will not be able to overcome injustice. Without believing in our accountability to God, human beings will not be able to control their insatiable appetite, pride….
He acknowledged that religion can be misused but this is not sufficient to dismiss it. If this is the norm then many other things should be rooted out (…armies, politics, democracy…). In this antireligious climate it is very important that religions work together and stop assuming that other religions are enemies. We are real ally, stated Dr Shomali.
He also spoke of the necessity to acknowledge this new paradigm shift.He stressed that the challenges to religious cooperation come from two sides: secularists and co-religionists who are against dialogue. He reminded the audience that the ultimate goal is not to serve religion but to use religion to serve us.
- Afternoon session: ‘The Future of Faith in the UK’
The Reverend Dr Damian Howard SJ – English Jesuit priest, lecturer at Heythrop College, began by asking the question if ‘faith is just about faith in God? ’
Citing the story of Peter’s reluctance to walk on the water when was asked by Jesus(a) he called the event as a sign of doubt, limited in faith. Dr Howard pointed out that faith entails an element of trust and also of taking risk… persevering in trust. It needs to be sustained and constant.
Howard pointed out that faith is about believing that God saves us. On the question of whether there is need of faith in the future? His reply was: ‘Clearly yes!’ He further explained that humanity faces new challenges, the challenge of pluralism in the society; challenge of global injustice; challenge of care for God’s creation, all major problems beyond us. He stressed the faith that ‘God helps us’ will make it possible to overcome these issues to find the resources to keep going in seemingly hopeless situation.
Referring to life in today modern world, Dr Howard believes that despite the spread of the secularist ideology not all is bad. He emphasised that from a Christian perspective Secularism is a symptom rather than a cause. With society undergoing transformation towards individualism we have to learn to take responsibility for ourselves. Dr Howard explained that it has become more difficult to have faith partly because of a much greater sense of individuality. The emphasis is on autonomy. We are more disconnected from everyone, feeling difficulty to feel connected to God.
Dr Howard believes that faith today is possible but different to 500 years ago when the sense of individuality was less. He further added that people continue to come to religion, but more on their own terms, that there is tendency to re-invent religion in ones’ own image with also the possibility of more extremism.
Sister Nazmina Dhanji – Head of the Arabic Department at the Al-Mehdi Institute in Birmingham, spoke about her experience as a Muslim woman wearing the headscarf and the way she has lived through differences in attitude to Islam.
She pointed out that although faith has been on the increase in city such as London, according to statisticians it is declining. People appear to be disillusioned with religion, reluctant to mention God and also decline in the role of places of worship as centres for community life. But on a positive note she also pointed out that people are still networking by other means. She underlined the role of local authorities in sourcing provisions opening for faith groups and the necessity for these to work together to provide services.
On the issues of presenting Islam to other she advised not to waste energy describing misrepresentation of Islam, rather concentrate on showing positives. Dhanji also underlined the importance for people of faith to work together, not merely tolerating each other at a superficial level but protect and support one another. She believes that religion makes people happy and this is a very relevant thing that sometime we fail to realise.
The last speaker of the afternoon session was; Dr Chris Hewer – advocator of Christian – Muslim dialogue.
Dr Hewer began with asking what if atheists are right. What difference would it make? Some religious people say: ‘if I wasn’t religious I would have a good time’. Dr Hewer argued that we can subscribe to religion in a number of ways and for a number of reasons and that being religious or not being religious is not a matter of genes. He alluded to the Prophets role as those who are supposed to bring happiness not simply turning us into followers of a specific religion. Prophet Muhammad (as an example) brought us something that is natural for us not strange, said Hewer. He also lamented on the false idea of religion prevalent today. He asked, what draw in people, to both Jesus and Mohammad? As people of faith there should be something about us which will attract people, he said.
He cited the advice given by St Francis of Assisi to friars who travelled in Islamic lands which was: … silence, respect, subject to the custom, seek to serve most in need, live by example. Then you can respond when people ask questions. Dr Hewer also mentioned a nice anecdote of how, in a deprived area of Birmingham, local Muslims protected a local Church against vandals as they felt the Church also belong to their community. The church in the old days had given assistance the first Muslim migrants who arrived in the city. They warned the vandals with ‘don’t mess with our church’. Dr Hewer also emphasised on the necessity to tailor our religious approach to suit the custom of the place. He questioned the use of certain cultural way of dressing when express modesty that may appear alien to the local culture. There is a natural goodness in people, which we must awaken concluded Dr Hewer.
The conference contained Q&A sessions too.