Opening Address to our conference

This text was sent in by Reverend Larry Wright who opened our “Healing The Nations” conference on 30th July. The conference is still ongoing and if you wish to join us please use this link.

As a person of faith, ‘healing’ and ‘nations’ are words resonant with meaning, promise and longing, while also evoking concepts to be approached with caution, as their definitions are many and their usage often controversial.

But as a general statement of intent, who would not wish nations and their peoples to be healed?

The question presumes two things. We have an understanding of the malady or illness from which people are suffering and we understand what a nation is. For how can we heal what we cannot describe and whom do we heal if we do not know the patient? To put it in medical terms.

Let’s begin with nation, or nationhood. Any reading of history will soon lead us to understand nations are a relatively recent concept.  Ancient history refers to peoples, ethnic groupings, religious cults and empires. Only in recent centuries has the concept of nation states become a feature of political history and geography.

In the ancient texts cherished by my faith, it is empires that dominate the Near and Middle East of our founding stories. For many post-colonial countries their borders and boundaries were fixed by former colonial powers. We see in the changing geography of the last 100 years, nations emerge, separate or succumb to war and defeat. Nations incorporated – willingly or unwillingly- by new imperial conquests and later liberated to pursue their own national self-determination.

Are we seeking healing of nations or between nations? Surly the wise and the good seek to do both. We have nations divided among themselves and at enmity with each other in a globalised and regionalised world. And let us not exclude the possibility of healing between our species and the natural world we inhabit, for without the earth, our one constant source of life giving resources, peoples and nations will inevitably perish.

So what healing is needed?  Throughout this conference the sufferings and realities of different countries and regions will be examined and analysed. Their historical, ideological, political and economic complexities scrutinised.  Maybe in the course of this conference, new thinking may emerge and new possibilities proposed.  However our conversations unfold, may we be watchful we do not rely on addressing only the more obvious expressions of suffering and conflict in our world. Partial claims for political, economic or ideological remedies to humankind’s needs, address the material aspects of our human nature, but we are flesh and spirit, body and soul; however we choose to define this: A remedy which only concentrates upon the body is deficient, a cure which only addresses the soul incomplete. We must strive for integrated and holistic remedies which are both transformative and healing.

But we must begin with ourselves. The ancient Jewish proverb puts it plainly; “Physician heal thyself!”  In the recognition of our own need for healing and transformation we begin a journey of self-discovery taking us outward to the world in the full knowledge we are less than we could be while celebrating we are more than we were.

It is a journey from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, from self-centred egotism to world embracing compassion, from indifference or resignation to action; for people of faith it is the complete reorientation of our lives towards God.

In a highly medicalised world, we are encouraged to put our faith in medical science to cure human sickness, but there is no pill or procedure for the most serious afflictions of our world:  poverty, malnutrition, lack of education, unemployment, environmental degradation, conflict, racism and economic inequality and exploitation. These are the recurring and endemic causes of so much suffering.

To play any meaningful role in the notion of ‘healing the nations’, we must nurture certain values as global concepts: conciliation, justice for all, meaningful and respectful engagement, conflict avoidance, global economic reform and cooperation. Underlying these aspirations must be the recognition of our need for spiritual, moral and religious renewal and reform. Then we will bring to the world’s problems the fullness of our physical and intellectual energies and the transformative power of the spiritual life.

Reverend Larry Wright

 

An open letter: the Hagia Sophia.

Ambassador Hambley has asked us to publish this open letter from his colleagues working in Germany and Scotland to the Turkish President. The views expressed are their own however the NCF’s religious affairs advisor comments: This was a blatantly political decision wrapped in a religious cloak. However, it is the culmination of a 16 year legal case to restore it as a Mosque and as such should be acknowledged as a valid legal decision by Turkish terms, even though many disagree with it. Turkish courts do award cases against government actions occasionally, so there is a degree of judicial independence. Turkey’s political isolation from the West continues and while protestations against the conversion are manifold, there is little chance of a reversal. However, the site is a UNESCO world heritage site and it’s possible UNESCO has more leverage:

“We are permitting ourselves to express our grave concern about the recent decision of the Turkish Government to re-convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. We are writing to you as individuals in our private capacity, committed to dialogue and peace on Planet Earth, and not on behalf of the institutions, networks and projects mentioned in this letter.

“More than most other monuments not just in Istanbul and Turkey, but anywhere in the
world, the Hagia Sophia is an interface of Orient and Occident, of Christianity and Islam.
Furthermore, it is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The arrangement instated by President Kemal Atatürk in 1935 – as a museum – was a very good and balanced solution, reflecting its past as a church from 537-1453, and as a mosque since then, but also the sadly at times violent episodes in its history and generally between the two major religions of our part of the world. Given its history, and that of the city around it, it has been a holy site and focal point for both Islam and Christianity over the almost 1,500 years of its existence.

“The recent decision to re-convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque will inevitably cause
offense among much of the Christian (in particular Orthodox) community, and we would
appeal to the Turkish Government to re-consider this step.

“In light of this history, it is impossible for either side to claim sole ownership of this
monument. Whatever arrangement is found, it should equally reflect the significance and holiness of the Hagia Sophia to the faithful of both religions: The museum was a very good arrangement, but we could equally imagine an inter-face venue of worship.

Sincerely,

Frithjof Kuepper and Hartmut Dreier.”

 

 

 

Hartmut Dreier, born in 1938, since 1977 resident in Marl/Ruhrgebiet, Protestant Christian theologian, pastor emeritus, one of the pioneers in Christian-Muslim dialogue, friendship and cooperation since 1984 on the local, regional and national level and in German-Turkish cooperation. Selected activities:

• Intercultural, interreligious projects Marl/Gireson and Marl/Kusadasi
• Solidarity after the Marmara earthquake in August 1999 in Adapazari
• Establishing close working relations with DITIB, Cologne, IGMG (Islamische
Gemeinschaft Milli Görüs), Zentralrat der Muslime in Deutschland
• Co-founder of CIAG Marl in 1984, for example enabling the construction of Fatih
Moschee Marl, the first new mosque building in Germany
• Co-founder of the annual Abraham’s festival in Marl, Kreis Recklinghausen, in 2001 (in this context Bundespräsident Johannes Rau visited the Fatih Mosque in
December 2001 – this was the first time that a German federal president visited a
Mosque in Germany; Diyanet president Prof. Dr. Ali Bardakoglu gave a keynote
speech in the Fatih Mosque and signed the “Goldene Buch” of the city of Marl)
• Sukran-Plakette of the Republic of Turkey, awarded by the General Consul of Turkey, Mr. Günes Altan, in Münster (March 5, 1997)
• For our current work as an intercultural and interreligious team and for further
awards see https://www.ciag-marl.de/

Frithjof Kuepper, born in 1972, Professor and Chair in Marine Biodiversity at the University of Aberdeen, resident in Newburgh, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, and Marl, Germany. Selected activities:

• First prizes at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists and the Young
Europeans’ Environmental Research Competition (both 1992).
• Marine biologist with extensive academic research and teaching activities in SE
Europe and the Middle East, besides other parts of the world. Personal and
professional network in the region includes a sizeable number of both Muslims and
Christians, with whom he fundamentally recognizes the common roots of our faith
and with whom he shares the desire to learn from a difficult history to build a more
peaceful and harmonious ecumenical coexistence based on shared values and
mutual understanding.
• Strong commitment to the peace process in Cyprus and to Greek-Turkish
rapprochement in general, with numerous contacts in both communities in Cyprus – led the first academic publication since the Cyprus War in 1974 which is jointly
authored by scientists from both communities in Cyprus as well as from Turkey and
Greece.

 

Are we born like this or did we learn this growing up?

The word “racism” was only added to the Oxford English Dictionary less than a hundred years ago, but racism started long before. Since the dawn of time, there have been people who feel superior either because of their bloodline, race, money, language, or gender. It comes to the surface in various ways, each a different picture, like that of the slave trade, racial discrimination, or of gender discrimination.

When the religious era came to the world, there were scripts against such behavior. The prophets came with a clear message that promoted the idea of equality and how we all must love each other. Some examples include one in the Torah, “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman, but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love those that live around you as much as you love yourself: I am the lord” Torah (Leviticus 19:17). “You shall love the stranger like yourself” Torah (Leviticus 19:34). And the Bible “This is what I command you: Love each other as I have loved you.” Gospel of John 15:12. And the same ideal is mentioned in Islam, “And among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Surely in this are the signs for people of sound knowledge.” The Holy Quran, Al-Rum (The Roman), Surah 30: verse 22. And furthermore: “An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black, nor a black has any superiority over a white except for piety, all mankind from Adam, and Adam from dust.” The Farewell Sermon of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH).

Some people may qualify these quotes claiming one has only been sent to the Jewish people, one to the Christians, or one to Muslims, and maybe accuse them each of being an exclusive message on discrimination to one religion, but anyone who really understands the essential significance of religions would know that these messages were sent to all people. After all aren’t we all from same mother and father, Adam and Eve? And aren’t all religions originated from one another?  Wrong understand of religion would only add another type of discrimination which is religious discrimination.

I believe that some engaged in politics in many countries may have induced discrimination indirectly, for example, when a crime happens, the media would place emphasis on the nationality and the religion of the criminal instead of just mentioning the cause and the circumstances of the incident. Rather than just put all the blame on the individual, they give them an excuse for what they’ve done, and that, in my opinion, provokes the aversion of citizens against each other, and greater chaos would be produced as a result.

Another perspective is that, as the whole universe is linked together either by land or water and of course we all share the same sky, it’s impossible to not live together. One way or another people will inevitably find themselves with other people, some of whom they don’t like because of discriminatory reasons; so we should learn how to live in harmony together. As Carl Schurz, a German revolutionary who subsequently emigrated and became an American journalist, said “From the equality of rights springs identity of our highest interests; you cannot subvert your neighbor’s rights without striking a dangerous blow at your own”.

Admittedly, I’ve always found myself fascinated by the differences; different colors, languages, accents, cultures, food, thoughts, and differences in the way of living. These diversities, in my opinion, are what give the world its balance and its equilibrium. After all, no one gets to choose his color, race or to where they belong, so it’s inequitable to treat someone according to something they didn’t have a choice in. As a matter of fact, people do not wait for others to accept them, rather they want to be treated with the same rights as everyone else. Honestly, that’s not much to ask and as Abraham Lincoln, an American statesman and the 16th president of the United States, said “These men ask for just the same thing: fairness, and fairness only. This, so far as is in my power, they, and all others, shall have”.

The whole universe is based on differences, not only human beings but you can see it if you take a deep look at mother nature, and just wonder what do you think the view would be if there was one color for the flowers or one shape for the trees or if the sky is always blue? How would you feel if all animals sounded the same, or if all foods tasted the same?

Probably it’s not a fair comparison, although it gives us signs and pictures for the balance in the world. One perhaps would think if animals and other beings can live together in a limited environment why can’t we do in such a huge unlimited world? Speaking about this kind of thing will just leave us with many questions, but maybe the way to change things is to start by questioning yourself.

Why the Chief Rabbi was (almost) right

About two weeks before the 2019 parliamentary elections, UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis wrote an article for The Times accusing the Labour Party of antisemitism. The allegations were twofold:

  • Firstly, the leadership failed to account for the antisemitic behaviour within the party.
  • Secondly, Mirvis wrote, Corbyn is personally ‘complicit in prejudice’.

Unlike some commentators, I do not question the right of religious leaders to intervene when the stakes are this high. ‘Challenging racism is not a matter of politics’ Mirvis said. It is also not a matter of beliefs –  those with authority should always call it out. 

There is no doubt that antisemitism is a problem in the Labour Party – as it is in wider society. However, we have little evidence for its systemacy; the only extensive report on Labour’s antisemitism, the Chakrabarti inquiry, mentioned an ‘occasionally toxic atmosphere’, but concluded that the Party ‘is not overrun by antisemitism’. Be that as it may, we should not dismiss the allegations of Corbyn’s antisemitism lightly. Although some of his words and actions could have been misinterpreted, or should perhaps be excused because of the context, the amount of serious evidence is too great to to ignore.

There is no denying that by attacking the leading opposition party, Mirvis endorsed the Conservative government. While 85% of British Jews think that Corbyn is antisemitic, the institution of a Chief Rabbi is not the same as that of a megaphone. The Tories’ obsession with ‘Cultural Marxism’ or Jacob Rees-Mogg’s denunciation of two Jewish MPs as ‘illuminati’ is as worrying as cases of antisemitism in the Labour Party. Not to mention other types of racism common among Conservatives, which certainly should concern Rabbi Mirvis. Even though we might have got so used to the old antisemitism of the far-right that we do not register it anymore – it is still there, almost three times more frequent than on the far-left. 

Regardless of how prevalent the anti-Jewish attitudes in Labour truly are, my stance is that Mirvis was right to call out the cases of antisemitism that he saw. But, by ignoring the other side of the equation, he not only overlooked the duty to ‘challenge racism in all forms’ that he mentions in his article, but also left the door open for more antisemitism to come, this time from the opposite side of the political spectrum.

Photo of Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis above by The Foreign and Commonwealth Office

 

Is Ukraine’s spiritual independence from Russia really a political win?

In Istanbul as the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople handed a Tomos – a decree granting independence, or autocephaly – to the future head of the local Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the spiritual authority Russia once held over its former Soviet neighbour was severed once and for all. This was a political blow just as much as a spiritual setback for the Russian Federation.

On 6thJanuary 2019 the Ukrainian Orthodox Church declared independence from Muscovite Patriarchal authority after being under its jurisdiction for over 400 years. ‘We have cut the last chain that connected us to Moscow and its fantasies about Ukraine as the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church’ proudly declared the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko. On the contrary, however, President Putin predicted ‘a heavy dispute, if not bloodshed’ over the schism.

Why was the Russian president so furious about the church split?

Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, autocephaly has long been a tour de force for nationalism in Eastern Europe – and Ukraine is no exception. An independent Ukrainian Church undermines President Putin’s efforts to re-establish Russian influence over its former Soviet territories. Ukraine’s national identity has long been associated with, and influenced by Russia.

From 1917 until the Second World War, the Crimean Peninsula was an autonomous republic within the USSR. In 1944, Stalin forcibly deported all of Crimea’s indigenous population, the Tartars, to Central Asia – ostensibly as punishment for their collaboration with the Germans. In turn, many Russian and Ukrainian settlers moved to repopulate the Peninsula. As such, when in 1954 the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred control of Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the proportion of ethnic Russians in Crimea increased significantly. Characteristic of the arbitrary style of Soviet leadership, there was no vote to transfer control of Crimea to Ukraine; the decision was made solely (and in the eyes of many, illegally) by Khrushchev.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a majority of Ukrainians – over 90% –  voted in a referendum for independence from Russia. Initially it seemed as though Russia would respect the result – promising to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty in 1995 in return for their Soviet era nuclear arsenal. Again, in 2000 Russia signed an EU deal to formally acknowledge the sovereignty of all former Soviet territories. However, Ukraine’s national identity was still closely tied with Russia. Many ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea continued to feel an affinity with their former Soviet identity; the Russian language and church remained a core part of Ukraine’s cultural landscape.

In Ukraine’s Presidential elections in 2004, the election of Russia-friendly Viktor Yanukovich was widely alleged to be marred by corruption, voter fraud and intimidation. The protests that erupted in response to his incumbency, known as the ‘Orange Revolution’, were successful in triggering a re-vote and a decisive victory for the opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. In contrast with Yanukovich, Yushchenko’s political agenda was more liberal and notably favourable toward European integration.

By 2010, however, Yushchenko’s popularity had decreased and the Presidential election was once again – although this time legitimately – won by the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich.

In 2013 Yanukovich rejected a political agreement to strengthen ties with the European Union in favour of forming a closer economic relationship with Russia. Small-scale protests in Kiev by pro-European Ukrainian citizens soon escalated into the ‘Euromaiden revolution’, which ultimately resulted in Yanukovich being ousted from power and a temporary government being installed in February 2014. This was the backdrop against which Putin sent Russian forces into Crimea – ostensibly to protect ethnic Russians and to ‘return Crimea to Russia’. Despite the ‘referendum at gunpoint’ in which Crimea voted to secede to Russian control, this outcome has not been recognised by the international community.

So what has been happening since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014?

Since the annexation of Crimea, Russia has asserted control of both sides of the Kerch strait, a highly strategic waterway connecting the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea. On May 16th2018, the construction of a bridge over the strait was completed, joining Crimea and Russia. The bridge is too low to allow large merchant ships through the strait. This greatly restricts access from Ukraine’s eastern ports of Mariupiol and Berdyansk to the Black Sea (and in turn, the Mediterranean). Indeed, between May and August 2018, Russia detained over 140 merchant ships attempting to pass the strait, many of them Ukrainian.

kerch strait

On November 24th, three Ukrainian merchant vessels and 24 crew members approaching the strait were seized and detained by the Russian coast guard for supposedly breaching Russian territorial waters. The Ukrainian Government claimed that the vessels were travelling in shared waters, established under a bilateral treaty in 2003. Ultimately, however, there is very little that the Ukraine government can do on its own to stand up to Russia, having lost up to 80% of its own navy in 2014 when Crimea was annexed. The current Ukrainian President, Poroshenko’s declaration of regional martial law on the 28thNovember did little to stabilise the situation although may well help his public standing ahead of the 2019 presidential election.

Therefore, with such little room for manoeuvre, Ukraine’s declaration of autocephaly was clearly, and rightly, an attempt to stand up to Russia in the absence of more effective political channels. We should, however, expect significant push back from Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church. Many parishes in Ukraine that belonged to the Russian patriarchate are technically owned by the Russian state and Putin has already warned that he is willing to fiercely defend ownership of church property.

It may well be decades until there is a resolution, but for now this is an important victory for Ukraine. It is also a moral victory for the idea of the Ukrainian nation taking its own course independently from Moscow that is likely to help Poroshenko in upcoming elections in March.

The International Response

As well as sending a Royal Navy Ship to the Black Sea, the UK’s Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson visited Odessa in December and made a point of meeting with families of the 24 Ukrainian sailors being held in Moscow. Symbolic actions such as these are incredibly important. Not only do they set an example to the international community but also show Russia that Ukraine will not be left to fend for themselves against Russian aggression.

On 19thDecember the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights presented the findings of its periodic report on the situation of human rights in Ukraine. It was disappointing, while unsurprising, to learn that Russia refused to allow the UN mission into Crimea where reports are emerging of rights violations such as arbitrary imprisonment and suppression of freedom of speech and assembly. In eastern Ukraine casualties are still being incurred from shelling activity and there are no means for civilians to receive compensation for injury or death resulting from the conflict.

In addition to its condemnation of the Russian Federation, the report was clear that many casualties were attributable to Ukrainian government forces. It also highlighted a reluctance in Ukrainian law enforcement institutions to investigate the human rights violations by state actors.

After such a comprehensive, balanced report it was disappointing that the international community had nothing to say on the role of Ukrainian state actors in committing human rights violations. While we cannot allow Russia’s actions to go unchecked, all UN members must be held to similar standards so as not to undermine the legitimacy of our peace-keeping institutions and the very concept of universal human rights.

Is Labour’s new code of conduct a gateway to antisemitism?

The ongoing row over the Labour Party’s new guidelines on antisemitism has understandably drawn a lot of attention in the last few weeks. It turned particularly heated when Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge directly called out Jeremy Corbyn as an “antisemite and a racist” in the House of Commons on 17th July, subsequently facing praise and criticism in equal measure. She since has been threatened with an investigation into “abusive conduct” and potentially disciplinary action by the Labour party, should she demonstrate similar behaviour in the future. It has also emerged that Peter Willsman, a member of Labour’s national executive committee (NEC) had been recorded at a meeting the same day, passing off reports of antisemitism as little more than “duff information without any evidence at all”, peddled by Jewish “Trump fanatics”. This all comes after Labour’s national executive committee ratified a decision to accept the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism in its own code of conduct, but to omit 4 of its 11 accepted examples of contemporary antisemitism. 

The IHRA definition has been accepted by 31 countries, and 130 councils across the UK, the Crown Prosecution Service and the judiciary; having been accepted as a working definition by the European Monitoring Centre for Racism and Xenophobia in 2005, and by the UK government in 2016. Labour’s NEC however, deems it unnecessary to include the full text of the code in its own party rules; despite opposition by over 60 Rabbis and a vote on Monday 23rd July by the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), to accept the IHRA definition, with all its working examples, in full. But what do these omissions actually mean? And what does Labour’s own code of conduct mean for a party already controversially embroiled in a trail of antisemitic scandals?

What’s missing in Labour’s code of conduct?

The Labour Party has accepted, unaltered, the full IHRA definition of antisemitism:

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities”

However, in its examples of conduct “likely to be regarded as antisemitic”, the NEC has included only 7 of the original 11, intentionally leaving out the following 4:

1. “Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.”

This first example does seem to clearly construct a perception of Jewish citizens collectively, of acting purely in the interests of their own group to the detriment of others, and so not only denies Jewish people a sense of agency and independence from the worldwide Jewish community, which is itself derogatory, but accuses them of working against other groups because of their own innate loyalty. This of course is dangerous because it might cause individuals to be treated with suspicion, or even cause them to be targeted as a member of a ‘duplicitous’ group of people. Labour instead chooses to describe this as “wrong” in Article 14, rather than explicitly antisemitic.

It is clear that the working examples included in the IHRA code are intended to prevent a slide towards treating Jews, as a collective, as second-class citizens in their own countries. This would suggest that any act which makes generalising claims about Jewish people as a whole, is damaging. And that is exactly why this first is important, especially when such a claim might foster distrust of a collective group.

2. “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination (e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour).”

This second example is to deny Jewish people autonomy and a right to their own security. By claiming the State of Israel to be inherently racist in its existence, an individual questions the legitimacy of the state – this in theory might deny the right of the Jewish community to a state at all. If an individual wished to criticise the particular acts of particular people who helped established the state of Israel, they may freely do so. If one wishes to criticise the acts of the current, or a former, Israeli government, they may also do so. But to label an Israeli state as an inherently racist endeavour is to view its very existence as wrong, based on an illegitimacy at its core. This would then be to deny the right of Jewish people to their Israeli state.

It does seem somewhat moot in the sense that, regardless of the circumstances of Israel’s creation, it now is unquestionably a state and has been for 70 years. Thus, one cannot exactly question the legitimacy of the state itself today anyway. Nevertheless, denying its original legitimacy is akin to claiming that Jewish people do not have a right to self-determination, which was a key principle underlying the state’s creation in 1948.

In fact, rather than including the example in the list, the NEC code of conduct does actually make very clear in its Article 12, in reference to Article 1(2) of the UN Charter that “the Jewish people have the same right to self-determination as any other people”. It does not make reference to the “racist endeavour” example, however demonstrates clearly that to deny this right to Jewish people does constitute antisemitism. It does acknowledge also that “discussion of the circumstances of the foundation of Israeli state […] forms part of modern political discourse”. This therefore allows members to discuss freely those circumstances as they happened without challenging the current right of Jewish people to self-determination or the legitimacy of the current state of Israel.

3. “Applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

The inclusion of the third example also makes sense, as to hold Israel to higher standards than any other democratic nation would be to single out Israel in particular. It would certainly not be wrong to expect the state of Israel to behave at the same high standards of international cooperation and/or human rights as other democratic states, or even to place pressure on them to do so, but to demand more from the state without justification would be itself discriminatory. Rather than include the example in its list of examples, Labour’s code labels such conduct as “wrong” in Article 14, as it would be to hold “Muslims or Muslim organisations to a higher standard than others”.

4. Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.

A comparison of contemporary Israeli policy with that of the Nazis seems particularly troubling. If a critic wishes to condemn the hypothetical acts of an Israel whose policies might involve targeting or subjugating minorities, or totalitarianism, the critic may make that claim without using Nazism as a comparison – there are other comparisons to be drawn from history which are not so loaded with a particular historic and emotional weight for the Jewish people. The full code does not prevent criticism. It only excludes that comparison. And that seems reasonable given the weight of that chapter of Jewish, and world, history and the possibility of this being used with antisemitic intent.

This has been particularly relevant since Jeremy Corbyn made a statement earlier this week, apologising for having appeared at a Holocaust Memorial Day event in 2010, at which the keynote speaker, Hajo Meyer, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, drew a comparison between Israel’s actions in Gaza, and Nazi Germany. Mr Corbyn acknowledged that he had shared a platform with people “whose views I completely reject”; and apologised for any “concerns and anxiety” that it might have caused. 

It might be argued, however, that to prevent a critic from using a selected example of policy or action deployed under Nazi totality as a comparison, may insulate contemporary Israel from the full extent of scrutiny that any other state should be subject to. It is not impossible to imagine a hypothetical scenario where a selected policy under the Israeli government might leave some feeling systematically subjugated, targeted or discriminated against. We don’t refrain from drawing similar comparisons with Germany in the 1930s and 40s when other states implement dangerous or prejudicial policy – in this sense, Israel alone might be seen as being immune from that comparison. On the other hand, such acts could very easily still be condemned with the very same force by a member of the Labour Party, without drawing a direct comparison between the two cases. This merely acknowledges the specific sensitivity of the historic metaphor and instead places the onus on critics of Israel to be more creative with their criticism.

What’s been added to Labour’s code?

Labour’s code of conduct does in fact elaborate on one of the other examples in IHRA guidelines, pertaining to the use of symbols or images associated with classic antisemitism, to include the use of derogatory terms and stereotypical and/or negative physical depictions of Jewish people. This is undoubtedly positive in providing specific and unmistakeable examples of antisemitic language and has sadly been overlooked in many criticisms of Labour’s new code.

Labour Party guidelines also include the phrase, “likely to be regarded as antisemitic”, in the preamble to the examples. This is intended to imbue the examples with a greater degree of force in judging cases of antisemitism, than treating cases as “potential” acts of antisemitism. However, it does seem odd that the Labour Party would be willing to use that phrase, and then not include the 4 remaining examples. If the NEC had concerns about the ability of party members to exercise free speech in those cases whose context did not constitute antisemitism per se, the use of the word “likely”, rather than “certainly” may still accommodate for such specific cases to be judged in their own context. The original IHRA code of conduct provides for such cases when it describes antisemitic examples which “could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to [x]”. This suggests that there may be more examples of antisemitism not included in their own code, and that each should be judged in the context of their particular use, before the label of antisemitism is given. It would seem that the benefit of increased force that comes from using “likely” rather than “could”, is not great enough to outweigh the negative signal that the omissions send to many, including Jewish people, who feel the code has missed the mark.

What the code of conduct means for Labour

I don’t believe that a failure to accept the full definition automatically renders Labour or its leader antisemitic. However, an unwillingness to do so does signal to Jewish people that some of those acts deemed unacceptable as antisemitic by the widely accepted IHRA definition, might not be subject to the same scrutiny, or the same label, by the Labour party. This obviously must be a cause for great concern among those experiencing, or at risk from, such acts; and particularly those who have felt targeted by members of the Labour Party in the past and who are unable to gain recompense under the new rules. This is a critical juncture for the Party, at a time when over 200 cases of alleged antisemitic conduct are under investigation, involving roughly 75 members. This is a time when the Labour Party should be making very public moves to address these past offences and to take a firm line against abuse and systemic prejudice in party ranks. It is clearly a time when the party should be making gestures to ensure all its members feel welcome and to make clear its opposition to antisemitism of all kinds, taking into the consideration the views of the target group itself.

The importance of the examples is undeniable. They offer a clear standard by which one may be held to account. And when these cases are spelled out explicitly, as they are in the IHRA code, it creates a space within which any critic of the current State of Israel and its policies might freely exercise their right to free speech, condemning the policies of a modern state, as per that individual’s right to freely criticise any other state. At the very least, an acceptance of the full code removes many grey areas, and merely requires critics to temper their language to a lexicon acceptable and inoffensive to a certain group. This still allows the content of their criticism – provided it is not discriminatory or anti-Semitic inherently – to be conveyed clearly and forcefully.

It is perhaps true that Labour’s code goes further than the IHRA code in providing examples of unacceptable language and stereotypes targeted towards Jewish people. It may also be the case that the use of the word “likely” rather than “could” carries a greater degree of force. The concerns of Israel’s critics may also be valid, if they fear a state being able to avoid the full extent of scrutiny otherwise levied without question against other states. However, the Labour Party would not be denying contextual discretion in judging each case of supposed antisemitism, by including the other 4 working examples. These are all included in one way or other in its code already. Instead, it would lay out clearer guidelines by which certain acts may be judged; and signal a willingness to treat acts of that nature with the same level of scrutiny as other cases in the other examples. It would also be a very small concession to make, to ensure Jewish members of the party, or those subject to abuse and/or discrimination by members of the Party in the past, are made to feel safe and welcome. Most importantly for Labour, it would communicate a willingness to listen to the concerns of a minority, to acknowledge their right to stand up publicly against any abuse they feel they have been subjected to; and to entrench this at the core of their party code.

ISD’s YouthCAN Lab, Brussels – an optimistic hive of youth activism

Violent extremism and hate speech continue to be two of the most pernicious threats to life in Western Europe today, and are too often a reality for countless groups and individuals made to feel marginalised in their own homes and online. It not only perpetuates division and fear between groups, it also can isolate those most at risk of slipping further down the stream of extremism. That makes events like the Institute of Strategic Dialogue’s Youth Civil Activism Network (YouthCAN) Lab in Brussels particularly important, and particularly promising. 

The workshop

Typically, these 2-day workshops bring together roughly 30 participants from around the world and from diverse backgrounds, drawing them together through a shared passion for civil activism and an ambition to enact real change in communities at home and abroad. The group I joined included Belgian Imams countering extremism daily in local prisons, and communities like Molenbeek in Western Brussels – home to at least three of the Paris 2015 attackers – alongside grassroots student activists and members of the global campaign #TurnToLove, the group whose poignant messages of peace and unity filled newspapers in the wake of the 2017 Manchester Arena Bombing. People of all faiths and none, from India to Slovenia, joined together to exchange personal stories of marginalisation, hate speech and even attempted recruitment, in an effort to learn, share and teach about what makes a compelling counter-narrative to those of hate, fear, insecurity and ignorance.

The lab itself, run by ISD and generously supported by the King Baudouin Foundation, encouraged a healthy mix of informal dialogue, panel discussions and lectures to teach us participants about successful online campaigns and grassroots projects making waves throughout Belgium. We were given insights by, among many others, Youcef Naimi of CEAPIRE, an Antwerp-based organisation offering training, prevention and support to counter radicalism in Muslim communities; and Ihsane Haouach who, through the Talented Youth Network (TYN) in Brussels, works directly with young people at the community level, to foster engagement and unity to overcome the pull towards extremism. We were also given training into campaign strategy and social media analytics; giving us the tools needed to create our very own campaigns.

The remainder of the lab was spent in groups, divided by sub categories like ‘youth’, ‘faith’ and ‘gender’, and set free to build our own campaigns, to then be presented at the end of the workshop to a panel of insiders. These sessions gave us the opportunity to interact with the others in our groups to share expertise and ideas; and gave us an insight into designing a campaign from the foundations up. This prompted us to think about targeting, message and monitoring of prospective campaigns and helped us form the bare bones of the projects.

A few criticisms

The issue though was that much of these skills seemed to be applicable to any online marketing campaign. Somewhat lacking was any in-depth context framing the practices of extremist groups themselves or indeed exposing attendees to some of the messages deployed by these groups. It would have been valuable to be given an insight into how these groups recruit members, communicate between themselves, and/or target and disseminate their information, as well as engage in online activity like ‘raids’, the use of ‘bots’, or campaign hijacking. Some access to comprehensive field research might have been useful, as would a specific session focused on research into our particular target groups and their demographics, motivations and so forth, rather than merely brainstorming sessions. I often felt that for us to be expected to create an effective, targeted campaign, each group should have had access to input from experts on those extremist groups themselves. Instead, it felt as though we were creating campaigns on behalf of the marginalised but which would only resonate with those already sympathetic to their struggle, without really knowing who we needed to convince or how we could go about doing so

The second key issue with the event was one of structure and (understandably) constrained time. Being only a 2-day event meant that it was difficult to both educate us about online campaigning and extremism; and build our campaigns from the foundations up. I felt that for either of these tasks to be done thoroughly, they would each require 2 days alone, or at the very least a whole day committed to creating the campaign. In reality, we spent a few 10-15 minute sessions thinking through conceptual ideas for the campaign, interspersed with lectures and presentations, then only 45 minutes to fully create a whole campaign message and strategy, and consider logistics. Perhaps this might have been enough for groups whose target audience was other ‘young people’ and their message about general political open-mindedness (which one of the campaigns sought to address); but for such a complex and pervasive issue as Islamophobia among lower-middle-class and working-class whites in the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands, such brevity simply made any thorough campaign design impossible. In this sense, the event did seem somewhat overly ambitious or its programme poorly balanced.

The campaigns

Nevertheless, the workshop produced several potential online social media campaigns, designed to break into echo chambers and provoke engagement by offering alternative narratives to those of mistrust and hatred, pedalled by extremist groups online. One campaign, titled #MyValues, sought to counter the fear among some white working-class Western European groups, of Islam, fuelled by a misperception of the religion as one of violence and hate. It imagined Muslim citizens integrated in their local communities, and engaged in acts of day-to-day compassion and unity; their good deeds all underpinned by values of kindness and respect, so familiar to their extremist opponents, yet themselves informed by Islamic scripture so feared by them. In stark contrast, another campaign tackled the conservative views of older generations, by inspiring young people online to “Make Our ‘Grannies’ Cool Again”, informing them about the threat of fake news and offering information to people’s less technologically savvy relations.

The campaigns themselves were imbued with a tremendous sense of hope; and the enthusiasm of the participants to foster real change online and in their own communities. What the ISD’s YouthCAN Lab demonstrated, was real willingness on the part of young global activists, to counter the most damaging messages of hate they see online daily. It also showed the promise of such fledgling projects, powerfully put forward by a dynamic group with real insights into social media and an understanding of grassroots, online extremism. I’d like to see future YouthCAN events more focused on certain categories of extremism. While the four campaigns were diverse and innovative in their own ways, a greater division of labour in two larger groups may have allowed more thorough research into targets, message and monitoring. This might replace four half-formed and un-costed potential campaigns with two comprehensive, research-driven and immediately implementable campaigns.

The YouthCAN lab in Brussels was undoubtedly a positive experience and certainly productive in bringing together diverse young activists and in giving them the most crucial tools to build their own grassroots and online campaigns. There were also clear ways in which the experience could have been improved. In truth, much of this simply came down to time; but much could also have been improved by dividing the event up in larger blocs, one focused on education, the other on implementation and campaign planning. This is, however, certainly not to overlook the success, importance and enjoyability of the workshop – and other events like it run by the ISD – or to deny the sense of hope derived from having so many enthusiastic and inventive young activists working together to counter the hate and extremism so sadly widespread in our communities and on the internet.

Freedom of Religion in Iraq and Bahrain

Oral intervention to be given by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Item 3 on 2nd March 2018, the special report on Freedom of Religion:

Mr President. Freedom of Religion is one of Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” and is a basic pillar of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Middle East is riven by a sectarian divide between Sunni and Shiite Islam, the consequences of which have been dire. Levels of hatred in this internecine strife have now reached unprecedented heights.

The Republic of Iraq and the Kingdom of Bahrain are two nations on the faultline of this disturbing rift and both have national elections this year.

The Iraq elections are unlikely to generate full participation from the Sunni community. If the majority of the Sunni community were to boycott these elections out of a sense of vengeful resentment of the Iraq central government it would be a grave error.  New Sunni politicians untainted by the past are emerging in areas like Anbar province. It would be wrong to disempower them at a time when their voices should be heard.

Bahrain’s elections will be held later this year and as in 2014, the Islamic Republic of Iran is likely to put pressure on Bahrain’s Shiite community leaders to encourage the non-participation of the Shiite community as a whole in the forthcoming elections.  This nonparticipation serves no purpose other than to weaken the voice of that community. It is essential that Bahrain’s Shiites participate fully in the forthcoming elections. Thank you.

Don’t Forget Me

And, sir, it is no little thing to make mine eyes to sweat compassion”, (William Shakespeare, Coriolanus).

This is my last blog post for The Next Century Foundation. During my time at the NCF, I addressed several hot issues, speaking about different situations and topics, even very controversial ones, which have sometimes generated harsh reactions. I suppose it is inevitable if you are speaking about politics, human rights, dictators, victims or perpetrators. These social fabrications give us a social identity and lead us to often take on conflicting and controversial positions, dictated by interests, simple visions or specific goals. In such circumstances, the “political animal” inside each of us reveals itself trying to impose its own point of view.

However, in spite of the ideas and values that humans can have, every person is made up of feelings and emotions. Before being classified as political animals, humans are sentient beings, with emotions and feelings which define us and make us unique. The same sort of emotions and feelings that are gradually being extinguished with the frenetic and uncontrolled evolution of this world. And today, I want to talk about this. Today I want to talk about who we are. Today, I want to write about the emotions, hopes and feelings that define us and how this world is changing them. And I will do it by speaking through the lense of one of the generations that, more than any other, is experiencing this change in full; a generation that particularly expresses the contradictions of our society but also the dreams and the betrayed hopes: my generation, that of the Millennials.

We live in strange times. Times of great uncertainties, immense fears, incessant and fast changes. I am the son of a generation that has been living through the golden years of development, where entrepreneurs would invest in the job market and believed in the value of their employees. Years where politicians would constantly strive to find new ways to improve people’s lives. The high level of births, the prolific job market, the certainty of the future, the first and the second car, big savings, the summer holidays by the sea or in the mountains. And then the great investments, the incentives to progress, research and development, the high general morale, the man on the moon, the hope for a future of well-being for everyone.

But sometimes expectations about the future are bigger than what reality has to offer and, just like a bubble that swells excessively, sooner or later reality explodes right in your face. And here, all of a sudden, we have a system where the excessive well-being and the immeasurable potential of the third industrial revolution clashes with the individual economic interest. The big industries and multinationals come into play and alter the balance. Human greed grows stronger and stronger while the big multinationals knock on the doors of politics for some “boosts”. And there you go; the first agreements born to maximize profits by damaging workers’ rights; national factories shutting down to re-open in those countries where labor costs 1$ a day, or renegotiating workers’ union achievements with politicians in exchange for a few bribes or support during election campaigns; the high transnational finance getting hold of large company shares and becoming the main protagonist of a new global perverse game. The cost of labor for multinational companies drops dramatically while working hours increase. As a consequence, the price of produced goods decreases. Small and medium-sized businesses close or fail for they cannot compete with similar standards, whereas those able to make it through are the big names of industry or those entrepreneurs who, through criminal support, have managed to reach out to and influence politicians to get some extra procurement contracts or personal favors. The West becomes the center of unbridled capitalism, with no rules, with no ethics or respect. Everyone for themselves. It is against this backdrop that my generation, the Millennials, is born. The first true generation without any clue about its future.

The final blow comes with 2000 and all its technological capacity. It started with the first mobile phones and laptops on a large scale, up to smartphones and tablets. Technology moves; the great giants of Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Amazon develop; technological power becomes incredibly significant. And here’s Black Friday, the purchases with a click, the ads in every corner of the city, superfast transportation and trains in the underground every minute. The illusion of a world as a global, super-technological and limitless village is born. A sense that all this frantic lifestyle is necessary and inevitable emerges.

The savings of our parents are spent in this super-technological world while employment becomes more and more an urban legend. The new contemporary frontier of slavery 2.0 is born. Jobs poorly paid with meal vouchers; fixed-term contracts; easier layoffs; unbearable working hours. The prediction of Charlie Chaplin in his movie, Modern Times, comes true. Man becomes a productive factor with no rights, little money and a need to spend money without worrying too much about the future. It is the betrayal of the dream of a global Californication that we all expected: a happy world with more freedom and less problems to think about; a world where everyone can work and build a better and sustainable future.

But man’s greediness has shattered this dream. The betrayal from a global political class of spineless servants of high finance and powerful world lobbies has sanctioned the end of this dream. And while constitutions drown in an ocean of decay, my question is, what is left of all this?

On the one hand, there is an army of clueless kids, educated in the best prep schools which are financed by international magnates, who repeat as robots notions of economic and political theories aired on televisions and published in newspapers by those same people responsible for such a global delirium. Those same theories that legitimized the unbridled capitalism that is crushing us; theories such as those of the great industrialization or those that ultimately justified the plundering of the marvelous African countries or wars of interest such as those in Iraq or Libya.

On the other hand, there are people who live in the moment, who believe in what the World tells them to believe, only able to find their own identity in the television culture of the Big Brother, phony talk shows or in the trashy pop-porn culture spread throughout the day by MTV. George Orwell’s predictions have never been so true, huh?

And then, what remains is a people of perfect strangers.

I turn around every day, in the train, on the bus, down the street, and I see hundreds of people far away. People with a blank look on their face, lost in the void or on the screen of their smartphones. Lonely, sad, aloof people, with not much of humanity left; people walking quickly through the streets remorselessly hitting whomever is in their path because they are too intent on continuing their virtual conversation with someone miles away; people unable to express emotions or feelings; people too busy masking their loneliness behind the perfect image of their virtually perfect life on Instagram; depressed people no longer connected to reality; people who get together and break up through a telephone because they are incapable and afraid of meeting or knowing each other in a normal, real, natural way. And finally, people unable to associate, to connect, to unite and resist the power, or to oppose unjust decisions.

So what is left of feelings, of humanity, of us being people? For some reason, I’ve always been afraid to answer this question. Particularly, in the last period of my life.

During my time at The Next Century Foundation, I have been able to reflect a lot on politics, religion, people and the complicated relationships that bind us to each other and that bind us to society. I have not really ever considered anything I am writing right now. Not because I did not think about it but rather because this complex machine of intertwined relations, politics, economy, religion and power is difficult to fully understand and, above all, to make it work. And in this sense, in the end you end up accepting it because you understand that things are almost always impossible to change, peace will always be difficult to establish, power will always preserve itself and religion will always be used as a political tool to manipulate the masses. So, almost passively, you end up accepting the status quo of things. Almost like a condition of the universe, immovable and immanent. Everything has always been this way and it will always be this way.

At least until this World decides you are the next target and this status quo affects you in person, lashing out at you with all its strength. And then everything changes. You withdraw, let yourself down, look for explanations, seek yourself and your role in the world. You frantically turn around to find yourself, unsuccessfully. And you cannot help but compare your situation to that of the contemporary world, that of a world that perhaps will never change; and that of the Millennials, that of a simple person surrounded by lonely individuals, unable to sense or feel emotions in one of the largest cities in the world. You wonder if maybe it is just the natural order of things that you eventually have to accept, because perhaps that is how it works, because it has always been and will always be like this. In the last few months of my life, I have been looking for an answer to this question, without luck.

Until something happens; that deus ex machina you need to get you out of trouble. And here comes the answer to your questions. Something that helps you to understand; something like a trip to Holland, a beer with a trusted friend, an exhibition of an artist or walking in the rain in the streets of London without a destination. And it is at that precise moment that when you look into people’s eyes – those you’ve been so reluctant about or that you’ve lost hope in – you suddenly see something different, something you’ve never seen before, something that changes your perspective. And you can suddenly feel a vibe, a feeling, a sparkle that leads you through their eyes. And, like a flash in a pan, you are able to feel all the power and the emotions that each of them has locked within and that can be conveyed through their story or personality. Pure energy, pure emotions, pure humanity. The people’s smiling faces at the Tulip market in Amsterdam; the encouraging wink of a friend down at the pub that – around a pint and some good indie-rock in the background – shows you the right way of looking at things; the power of humanity in the symbolic life scenes of Banksy’s works that lead you to reflect on the true nature of people and humanity; the feeling of the rain falling on your skin in the gray of London’s streets that brings you back to life and connects you to reality again. Your prospects start to change and now you can see things differently. Suddenly you can find an answer to that question in that stream of people and things around you.

And, like a flashback, everything suddenly made sense.

During my time at the Next Century Foundation, I met ambassadors, Lords, religious leaders; I even spoke to the World for 2 minutes before the UN Human Rights Council. All exceptional experiences. However, I now understand that none of these experiences would have made sense without a particular detail that each of them has in common, the confrontation with people. Before the NCF I had not realized how even simply talking with people is essential; how much people can express through their words, their looks or their smiles. And, above all, I had not realized how effective it is to be able to talk with them to try to solve problems.

This is exactly what humanity is. Humanity is talking, confronting each other, solving problems together, uniting different and opposite perspectives. When you can achieve that; when you can take your eyes off your smartphone for a moment and you turn around; when you abandon the social and political fabrications for a moment and drop the mask they gave you, it is only then that you see potential and opportunities in those stranger’s faces rather than indifference and solitude. In that precise moment, you can hear the flow I was talking about earlier. And you understand that that potential is unimaginable and terrifies governments and institutions, and shakes the establishment. Just like the stories I tried to tell you about so far in my articles. And whether it is the Christmas truce or the international mass mobilization for the death of a young man in Egypt, you realise it is all about looking at the world from another perspective. If some people managed to refuse to fight, to kill and be killed, on European soil a little less than a century ago, destroying the socio-political fabrication of wars; if some people managed to get together to protest against a fierce dictator in Egypt without being afraid of the consequences; if one man could revolutionize his country after being imprisoned for 27 years, upsetting the entire institutional set-up based on violence, lies and terror; if other great men like Martin Luther King or Gandhi or so many others have managed to mobilize millions of people around an idea of peace, justice or freedom, then we too can change this mad world.

It is all about being able to channel those vibes into positive, collective paths. And you can only do it through dialogue, confrontation and associationism. Talking and dealing with people, precisely. Alexis de Tocqueville once said that the only way to resist power in a positive and constructive way is through the democratic instrument that starts from the bottom, by means of associationism from the municipal level, from small realities.

People are the solution to the world’s illnesses. And the positive dialogue that you can have with them. Social Capital. It is so simple. The greatest evils of our generation come from this absurd lifestyle that is offered to us in the form of well-being, technology and comfort. Loneliness, depression, indifference, hatred and division are all the fruit of a society that tends to divide us and speculate on our collective incapacity to react, associate and confront each other. It is that simple, and we are the cure.

It is possible. And you can find the proof around you. Turn off the TV, put down your smartphone for a moment. Go down the street, talk to people, listen to what they have to say. Take a hike in the park, maybe in the pouring rain. Try to feel something. Go to the pub, read a newspaper and comment on the news with bystanders. Have a coffee or a beer with them. Ask them how they are and give them a smile. Everything will change, everything will be different.

And speaking of smiles.

Once, a bearded man told me that if you try to smile while walking down the street, this will positively influence your attitude towards others and, above all, your self-confidence. I will never forget those words. I recently tried to do it often and, I’ll tell you something, it worked. If you try to walk down the street smiling at the people you meet, most of them will reply with a smile. And you will feel different as well, more secure, more positive towards others and the world. It’s all about that. Those emotions and feelings I was talking about before. They can come out, if triggered.

We only have to reconsider our values, our priorities for a moment. What we want from life and what we are looking for. And above all, remember who we are and where we come from, always. Love every single rise and fall and take them as an opportunity to grow and improve yourself and the world around you. I think this is the solution, the cure for the ills of mankind. Creating a community of people based on diversity and dialogue. Only then can we overcome all this. And we, Millennials, have boundless potential to do so.

By the way, I have gone too far. And now it’s time to conclude this post.

My time at the NCF gave me a lot. I grew up a lot professionally but mostly as a person. I owe you a lot, William and Veronica, to your kindness and warm welcome. I was welcomed and treated like a son. You gave me a lot to think about and work on. You gave me a smile in tough times and support when needed. And for this, thank you.

Then there is you, Rory, William and Yousef. Some young minds full of passion and desire to change things. You are fantastic. Every day, I saw in your eyes that power and passion of which I spoke about right above, waiting just to be fully exploited. And I know you’ll find a way to do it, it’s just a matter of time.

You were my second family here, in this gigantic crazy world of sharks. I’ll never forget that. And I’d like to conclude this blog post with this thought, while sipping my double espresso in some coffee shop somewhere in London and listening to these fantastic notes of Redemption Song, one of Marley’s masterpieces. He succeeded! He succeeded in uniting people around words of peace and hope. Like Hendrix’s solo or Mercury’s unique voice or even the Boss playing a piano version of Thunder Road. This is the right time, the perfect moment.

Ciao NCF, a presto!

Luctor et Emergo ex Flammis Orior, Per Aspera ad Astra

#lastblogpost #peoplehavethepower #believe #change #ciaoncf

 

Ruminations of a Sufi Master

Sufism is a means of focussing away from the commonplace, and the temporal, and transcending oneself as a means of encountering unity with God.

The absolute otherness of God is central to the Sufi approach. While humankind may perceive, comprehend and aspire to the attributes of God; such as Justice, Truth, Love and Mercy, the Essence of God is unknowable through the usual human means of knowing. This unknowability is the realm which Sufis endeavour to inhabit; the way of mystery and wonder. For Sufis the material world is a manifestation of God therefore all nature is imbued with the Divine while having its own temporal existence. God is the Prime Mover, the Progenitor and yet transcends space and time.  This is far from being a cause for humanity feeling abandoned by God in creation, rather a spur to search for the means by which we may glimpse the essence of the Creator through devotional practice, study and opening the heart and mind to a higher level of enlightenment. Such a life committed to seeking God is of necessity all-consuming. Religious language, practice and ethics draw us near to the Divine but the way of the Sufi is beyond traditional confessional faith structures and institutions; it is the way of the mystic, the spiritual pilgrim who is longing and striving to experience God is a way beyond knowing.

This God, who is the beginning and the end of all existence, is also the author of all existence so we, as humankind, are ourselves manifestations of God. Such an elevated view of humanity is a source of hope for a human universalism; if all could recognise our essential oneness with each other all ethnic, gender, religious or ideological differences would melt away. The Sufi is in this sense the vanguard of a New Humanity.

All world religions are subject to the limitations of their projections of God and God’s purposes. These projections are often based upon fear rather than love hence the tendency to binary opposites: Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil, Sinner and Saved etc.  These are well meant but are misconceptions; they detract from the Ultimate search for God and leave us in half-way state of comprehension and understanding. The Sufi pursues the essence of God and conceives it obliquely through the Beautiful and the Good; all that is life giving and life enhancing in the world. The Sufi is a practitioner of love in this world as their identity rests not upon any human esteem but on the deep understanding that they are loved by God in a reciprocal relationship of lover and loved.

“Soul, if you want to learn secrets, your heart must forget about shame and dignity. You are God’s lover…” Rumi

The above reflections on Sufism were penned by Rev Larry Wright, Convenor of the Religious Affairs Advisory Group, following an evening in discussion with Ayatollah Safavi, a man who radiates the calm, intelligent, enlightened personae of a dedicated and seasoned devotee. As a Sufi master he commands the respect and admiration not only of his followers but of people of good will from other faiths and none. As an Iranian he embodies the traditions of Persian and Shia Islamic culture with their poetic imagination and natural wonder.

Safavi shared his discourse  on the Sufi approach to The Divine, the Ultimate Cause;  God for some, Allah for others.  He began with a meditative chant or mantra which is part of his daily practice for centring his being and mind upon God.  Such practice is indication of the highly prayerful and mystical nature of Sufism.

Love

God made this universe from love,
For Him to be the father of,
What duty more exquisite is,
Than loving with a love like His?
A better task no one can ever ask.

Rahman Baba, Peshawar