By Dr Khalid Hameed
This is the text of a speech delivered by Dr Khalid Hameed, CBE, on "Citizenship and Harmony" during a dialogue between Hindus and Muslims at the Nehru Centre in London on May 19:
The main divisive influence in our lives now at the beginning of the 21st century, even ahead of race, is religion. We are witnessing an upsurge of extremism which the psychologists blame on all sorts of reasons. For whatever reason, religion is under threat of being exploited by extremists to achieve their nefarious political agenda.
Religion can be a force for peace, or war; it can heal, or hurt. It can create or destroy on a scale unimaginable to previous generations. History has recorded enough bloodshed in the name of religion. Moses, who led his people from slavery to the brink of the Promised Land, gave them a choice: "See I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore choose life so that you and your children may live."
When extremists inflict violence on society, it is often the innocent who are their main victims. They invoke religion as a justification for their violence. This must be resisted by the community at large. Voices must be raised in protest. We must withhold the robe of sanctity when it is sought as a cloak for violence and bloodshed, even if the perpetrators are from our own faith. These misguided people thrive on divisive appeals to our basic instincts of "Us" and "Them", which amounts to being comfortable with familiarity and resistant to others of different demeanours.
Most societies have been suspicious and aggressive towards strangers. Strangers are non-kin, they come from beyond the tribe. And therefore can I, as a Muslim, recognise God’s image in a stranger who is not a fellow Muslim? That is, can I see God’s image in a Hindu, in a Sikh, or in a Christian, or a Jew? Islam tackles this confusion by saying to the Muslims in the Quran to respect all of God’s creations, regardless of their religion or method of worship. In Surah Kafirun, verse 109, the Quran says: "Tell the disbelievers I do not worship what you worship nor do you worship what I worship. I will not worship what you worship, nor will you worship what I worship. To you: your religion, and to me: mine".
Let’s examine how different faiths advise us to interact when faced with the same problem of strangers.
The Hebrew part of the Bible commands, and I quote: "When a stranger lives with you in your land do not ill-treat him. A stranger who lives with you should be treated like the native born. Love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God."
From the ancient Hindu scripture Subhashith comes this advice: "This man is ours, that man is a stranger. Discrimination of this kind is found only amongst mean-minded people. Those who are noble, to them the whole world is one family."
Following on from this, from the Vedas comes the message: "Vasu dheva kutumbbakhan (The world is one family). Ano bhadraha kratava yantu vishwataha (Let noble thoughts come to us from all sides).
The Quran gives a similar message: "O you men — we have created you male and female and I have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. Lo, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the best for conduct."
Let us next review what is the state of affairs here in the United Kingdom. I must, first of all, voice my gratitude to the United Kingdom, my adopted country. Like many of you, I am grateful to this great country for the opportunities that we have received to fulfil our objectives and goals.
There is, of late however, a shadow cast on our community relations in this country. The events of September 11 brought that into sharp focus. On that fateful day the killing of thousands of innocent people created a great paradox for Islam. A religion which sees itself as a religion of peace was associated with murder and mayhem. Voices were raised and questions were asked: Does the Quran preach violence? Do Muslims hate other faiths? Is Islam mainly the religion of fanatics? Does it nurture extremists and terrorists? Are we to witness the start of a clash between Islam and other faiths? As these questions reverberated, for many Muslims this was a time of challenge and despair.
I was born into the Muslim faith and brought up with the guiding principles of Islam, which I find now are in serious conflict with the activities and utterances of some of the extremists in my religion. I am sure that the question in the minds of many Muslims must be: How does one respond to this serious threat? As responsible citizens we need to put our house in order and convey the true message of Islam, which is of peaceful and harmonious living with our neighbours.
The accepted teachings of Islam, which have prevailed throughout the centuries, are based on a belief in peace and compassion. It is appropriate to say that terrorists are evil, regardless of what religion they belong to. In today’s world each community and continent is faced with this problem in some shape or form. The terrorists are a tiny minority. The majority in the world, including Muslims, condemn them.
The 1.5 billion Muslims who live in this world are mostly peaceful and law-abiding — they also make good neighbours and exercise responsible citizenship and resent being stigmatised with negative religious profiling, which is inflammatory. Human history is full of episodes involving every religion, of misguided believers responsible for the slaughter of fellow humans on the altar of religion. We are occasionally misled to believe that, if faith is what makes us human, then those who do not share our faith are less than fully human. From that equation flowed the Crusades, the Inquisition, the jihads, the pogroms, the blood of human sacrifice through the ages. From this logic, when substituting race for faith, came the Holocaust and the ethnic cleansing that we saw recently in Europe. Man has demonstrated his genius for creativity. However, in spite of all his glorious achievements, man has lost none of his ability to destroy and kill with impunity. In anticipation of this human frailty Islamic ethics forbids any attempt at extinguishing life, and I quote to you a verse from the Quran: "...if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the lives of all mankind" (5:35).
There is equally a clear instruction against taking your own life with the act of suicide in many faiths. In the Hindu faith, from the Gita, I quote: "One should help oneself and not kill oneself". And the Quran states: "Do not kill yourself, as God has been to you most merciful" (4:29).
And therefore kidnapping, hijacking, torture and killing of innocent people in buses, bazaars, aeroplanes, schools, places of worship, or anywhere else, is totally un-Islamic and against the teaching of the Quran and all other world religions, including the Hindu religion.
There is much in common between Hindus and Muslims. You can see it not only in day-to-day life but in a million other ways. Alas, extremists on either side never allow these to be highlighted. The greatest link between Hinduism and Islam is the contribution of two giants: the highly regarded Hindu philosopher Swami Vivekananda, and the greatest of Muslim Sufi poets, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi. Their works inspire the best among Hindus and Muslims. Maulana Rumi said to the Muslims that any destructive activity by them amounts to the betrayal of the truth as propounded by the Prophet, peace be upon him. Though deeply devoted to Islam, when confronted Maulana Rumi said to the Muslims: "Oh Muslims, what shall I do? I cannot put a label on myself. I am neither a Hindu nor a Jew or the kind of Muslim like you, and yet you insist on knowing my creed, then listen: I am a lover of love, my love transcends all creeds."
In the Hindu religion, and in Islam, claims of superiority and exclusivity in the interpretation of the ultimate truth are discouraged as are intolerance and violence in the name of religion. The famous Hindu philosopher saint, Swami Vivekananda, through his writings and discourses, expounded the universality of God. Let me quote to you something I read which he had written in the 19th century, and I quote: "Suppose we all go with vessels in our hands to fetch water from a lake. One has a cup, another a jar, another a bucket and so forth, and we all fill our vessels. The water in each case naturally takes the form of the vessel carried by each of us. So it is in the case of religion. God is like that water filling these different vessels and in each vessel the vision of God comes in the form of the vessel. Yet He is One. He is God in every case. This is the only recognition of universality that we can get."
This universality of God is reflected in the teachings of other religions as well. Let us look at some examples from the Sikh religion. The great Sikh Guru Gobind Singh said about God and those who worship Him, and I quote: "He is in the temple as He is in the mosque. He is in the Hindu worship as He is in the Muslim prayer. As out of a single fire, / Millions of sparks arise; / So from God’s form emerge all creation, / Animate and inanimate. / Men are one although they appear different. / The Hindus and Muslims are all one, / For each the habits of a different environment."
The Christian religion, along with its many other good values, teaches us to think in agreement and to live peacefully. It also tells us in the Bible, in Matthew, chapter 7, verse 12: "All things, therefore, that you want men to do to you, you also must likewise do to them..." The Bible also goes on to teach us how to live a life of peaceful co-existence with the famous instructions in Matthew, chapter 22, verse 39, and I quote: "...you must love your neighbour as yourself".
From the Jewish religion there are similar noble messages, and I quote from the Old Testament in Isaiah, chapter 2 and verse 4, which is appropriately written on a plaque in front of the United Nations building in New York: "And He will certainly render judgement among the nations and set matters straight respecting many peoples. And they will have to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning shears. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore."
In a similar vein, I next quote from the Quran, which every Muslim must believe and obey: "Say, O Muslims: we believe in Allah that which was revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham and Ismail and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes, and that which Moses and Jesus received and that which the prophets received from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have surrendered" (2:136).
Religion and politics speak to different aspects of the human condition. Religion binds people together in communities and politics helps to mediate peacefully between their differences. The great tragedies of the 20th century came when politics was turned into a religion. The single greatest risk of the 21st century is that the opposite may occur not when politics is religionised, but when religion is politicised. What makes religion incapable of being politicised is what led Aristotle to criticise Plato’s The Republic. Plato, in The Republic, sought to invest the state with the characteristics of a religion. Aristotle replied by saying that without difference there can be no politics, and without politics there can be no democracy. For democracy we need the space for diversity of views, pluralism and multiplicity. And, whereas once we needed these things at a local level, we now need them globally.
Over 2 million Hindus and Muslims live in the UK. It is entirely ethical for them to have an obligation to be good citizens. They must support good community relations with a commitment to maintaining the dignity of human rights. They should work towards a thriving multi-faith society with all faiths living in peaceful co-existence. We are grateful that, in this country, our democracy entitles us to many rights, including the freedom to practise one’s faith. It is imperative that we do not import into the United Kingdom any regional political conflicts from the outside world, thereby destabilising community relations in this country.
We have here in the UK a multi-religious and multi-ethnic society. Here, dialogue is the only way forward for addressing our differences. We ought to celebrate our commonality and discuss our differences based on mutual respect and trust for each other. It is imperative that we engage together in a continuing dialogue.
Dialogue is no longer a luxury of a few well-meaning individuals. It has become a necessity demanding action without which only catastrophe stares us in the face. We should work towards making Britain as the role model to the rest of the world in terms of diversity, pluralism and interfaith harmony. Those of us who have chosen to come to the West and put our roots here, have a responsibility to protect the interests of both our future generations and these lands which are our home.
In our midst, this evening, are a sprinkling of young people representing millions of the young outside who will take the responsibility from my generation as the next set of guardians of a civilised world. My ongoing work with the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council has amply demonstrated to me that it is these young people whom we need to leave a legacy of peace and brotherhood on which they can build a happier world of the future.
In order to achieve this they need to know of the world religions and the common denominator in every religion of love, compassion, kindness and tolerance.
Lord Khalid Hameed, who has been chairman of the Commonwealth Youth Exchange since 1997, is also a board member of the British Muslim Research Centre and the Ethnic Minorities Foundation. The former Chief Executive of Cromwell Hospital is now Chairman of Alpha Hospitals. He was honoured with a Sternberg Award in 2005 for his involvement in interfaith relations and has received other national awards from around the world for the work he is involved in.