My experience over more than 30 years in Northern Ireland convinces me that finding our common humanity is the key to peace. As they say, blood is the same colour whatever your race of creed. Personal or group identity is, however, highly important for most people. We have seen this very clearly in the conflicts that have followed the break-up of the Ottoman, Russian/Soviet and British Empires. Artificial successor states such as Jugoslavia, or Iraq, and now Syria, have proved unstable, except when controlled by “strong-men”, such as Tito, Saddam Hussein, or the Assad family. Today’s young generation is NOT keen on strong men.
Religion is an obvious component of identity. The faith that underlies religion is a strong motivator of behaviour. Let’s take the case of Ireland. This was Britain’s first colony. The Reformation in England and Scotland meant that the ruling class in Ireland came to have different religious views from the majority of the indigenous population. When the Rulers behaved oppressively, this was deeply resented, and accounts for the strength of the Nationalist and Republican movements. Successive rebellions and uprisings, sometimes with foreign support, led to Partition in 1922. This left a catholic minority in Northern Ireland still resenting discrimination at the hands of the protestant and unionist majority.
The result was violence from 1969 until the Belfast Agreement of 1999, with terrorism used by both sides and barely contained by the police and British army. Northern Ireland remains deeply divided, in spite of full devolution, as we have seen from riots this summer.
Majority-minority relations, linked to perceptions of identity, are a current political problem in many parts of Europe, for example England, France, Spain and Bosnia. In Iraq, Shia/Sunni tensions cause very serious difficulties. In Syria the small Alevi minority has long held power, and no-one knows what may happen if this control is removed.
I suggest that the great monotheistic religions can all make valuable contributions to solving majority-minority issues. To do so they will need to develop and to apply their understandings of forgiveness. These understandings are not the same, but they can all help to heal grievances and strongly-felt injustices. The aim of forgiveness should always be the common good of the whole society, which needs to live together. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and others can all contribute to the politics of forgiveness, even if people working in a purely secular context do not always appreciate this.
We have heard today from “Faith Matters, and they have done good practical work on relations between religions in Britain. Inter-Faith Dialogue is certainly very important, but good communication between strands of the same faith traditions, can be just as much needed, as we have seen from Northern Ireland and Iraq. In the latter, Canon Andrew White, an Anglican based in Baghdad, has done much work with the senior Shia and Sunni leaders, ever since the fall of Saddam. This has led, for example, to joint fatwas against suicide bombing and for the protection of all Iraqi minorities.
The Gulen Movement, which arose in Turkey, in an Islamic context, is also well worth examining. It has spread outside Turkey, always in a way that respects other religious traditions. It has developed schools and even universities in several countries, but always in ways that fit in with the local education system.
I should like to conclude by mentioning two charities with which I am involved. “Forward Thinking” arose from Christian inspiration. In England it works through Muslims for better relations between the many local Muslim communities and their neighbours, especially the national and local institutions. In Israel and Palestine, Forward Thinking has formed close links with the political and religious extremes on both sides. These are the people who have often been excluded from negotiations, and who have the potential to upset any agreement that might be reached. These two programmes, though apparently very different, are in fact mutually reinforcing.
They are backed by a third international network, called the Nyon Process, after the town in Switzerland, where it first met. This brings together Sunni and Shia leaders, with Christian Evangelicals and secular representatives. The events of this year’s Arab Spring have made these connections even more important, and Forward Thinking is proud to provide the secretariat.
Last of all, I mention the Ammerdown Centre, in Somerset, near Bath. This Christian ecumenical conference and retreat centre, began in the early 1970s , near my home. It was concerned with personal and corporate renewal, but soon included Christian-Jewish dialogue. This has broadened to bring in other faiths and every second year it organizes a Jewish/Christian/Muslim Summer School, probably the only one in England. There are plans for further work with the rising generation of young English Muslims. I would like to invite you all to sample the special environment and warm welcome, that Ammerdown seeks to provide. Individual visits are possible, as well as group courses and event.
We live in a world that is becoming daily more globally connected. It faces acute problems to do with majorities and minorities. Mutual respect, non-violence and forgiveness are therefore urgently needed. These, coupled with dialogue between and within the faiths, will take us to the essential heart of our common humanity.
Lord Hylton/July 2011