Last week I spent an evening sitting beneath a mammoth painting of Alfred Inciting the Saxons to prevent the landing of the Danes in Committee room 10 at the Houses Parliament in London. A Member of Parliament called Slaughter introduced two peace-building academics in an irony I'm sure he is very tired of.
We were there to listen and discuss the notion of Conflict Resolution in the context of Islam. Professor Mohamed Abu Nimer, the Director of the Salaam Institute for Peace and Justice spoke first about how Islamic peace-building was no different from any other in that it was all about justice, peace, mercy, forgiveness, compassion and equality. It’s the basic teachings, he professed that a parent offers a five-year-old child. He went on to describe the nuances that were different when working in Muslim communities. Unfortunately he spent longer on the nuances than he did in examining common ground and the nuances themselves underplayed the vast diversity in Islamic tradition across the Muslim world (which he later acknowledged). Time was short.
I disagreed with the second speaker, Dr Ayse Kadayifci-Orellana who claimed, when an Afghan in the audience challenged this broad-brush approach, that culture and religion are entirely separate. Surely one is bound up in another?
There was more than a fair share of British, middle class, liberal-minds in the audience (and some atheists even). Many got prickly when the Dr presented a peaceful Islam that was kind to women and when Professor Nimer dared to suggest that separation of state and religion wasn’t always necessary. One person asked whether strong identities based of faith or nationality were useful in a peace-building context. A valuable question – you could write an excellent thesis on the subject - but not properly explored by the Professor in his response. He is after all in the business of "training people to be more aware of their religious identity" - the question attacks his very purpose and he responded which much hand waving. A chord was struck and my ears pricked up. There seemed to be so much more going on in the room than was actually being said.
Another question from the audience in reference to cross-faith initiatives made me sit up and start writing. “Isn't the real problem between people of faiths and people of no prescribed faith? Shouldn't we be working to bring understanding between these groups?” Someone had switched a light in my mind, and there she was, both majestic and lumbering – the elephant in the room, flicking her trunk at the crowd. And the conflict resolution professionals floundered: The Dr claimed that "because secular people are rational thinkers and those with faith come from a divine starting point the two will never meet".
I shifted in my seat. A flashback to an earlier contributor who claimed "everything is bollocks" and then left. Maybe he spotted the elephant before I did.
I can be quite divine, even spiritual - despite what the professor says about the secular being soulless. And I know many Muslims and others of faith who can be quite rational thinkers. Brilliant rational thinkers in fact. I held the word "bollocks" deep inside, clambered on top the elephant and decided to write this instead. My concern is that senior thinkers in this new “peace building industry” - that the Professor alluded to – fail to see the common ground between those with a prescribed faith and those with their own belief systems.
Once I saw the "rational vs spiritual" divide that the Dr had stressed I couldn't help but view the remainder of the evening that way. It felt at the very heart of so many problems - from personal, internal struggles, to full-scale war and loss of life of thousands. It’s hearts vs minds. And it is as clear to me as ever that we need both to survive.
The Professor continued to rant at the notion of secular states and inferred that "we Muslims might want to try something else". When I know that not all of them do. He absurdly compared what he described as the promulgation of the scientific age to the actions of colonial Catholicism of old. I thought about the many Muslim scientists I knew in life and in history. For a peace-builder he seemed to be preparing a very “them and us” stage.
Resolving conflict may begin with an understanding of the issues arising, but for all his wise words of understanding the cultural, historical and structural context before beginning work, the Professor seemed to have failed to do this himself and dropped his anti-secular bomb in the heart of "rational thinkers".
Both speakers warned against the dangers of Islamising social problems and the Professor in particular referred to issues not as Muslim ones, but as "human problems". We all nodded sagely. Likewise I suggest we don't make every problem down to colonial legacy or the perception of a hidden secular agenda. Things are more complex.
Many have hailed initiatives that bring together a bishop and an Islamic cleric. Or Sunnis and Shi’as. The Professor rightly celebrates the fact that they often part saying, "they are just like me". In my own art and writing work I have used Mary as an Abrahamic cross-faith mechanism. However, the real challenge facing all of us is understanding that people of all faiths, no faiths, own faiths, unsure faiths, two faiths, multi-faiths also share a lot of common ground.
Most of us want to be able to earn a living, support and enjoy our families, be good people, learn things, and live in peaceful society. We need to end the perception that somehow it is "rational thinkers vs faith believers" if we are really going to make progress. At times both the secular and the religious act with morbid superiority complexes – and as was clear from the speakers and some of the audience that evening, some feel under attack by the other. It’s not a useful starting point.
I don't think Alfred succeeded in fighting off the Danes over 1200 years ago and they have been back to invade since. We have Danish words, ways and wisdom in our land that hasn’t turned us into monsters. In today's connected world of information we have no excuse to feel under siege from one another and every reason for us to build identities on things that we share – whether it be religion, nationality, the love of reading or playing elephant polo. There are nuances, both subtle and bold - but we are essentially the same species. The Professor is right conflict is a “human problem”. Solutions never lie in highlighting differences, but in a search for common ground. We don’t need to look far.
The event described was organised by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Conflict Issues.
The writer is very keen to hear about initiatives that build relations between faith and secular communities. Please contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org.