United we stand


A writer and journalist reports on recent interfaith events in Glasgow and reflects on the rich diversity and commitment to inclusion expressed by speakers and participants.

On October 4th, 1936, Oswald Mosley’s Black Shirts marched on London’s East End with the intention of breaking the spirit of the Jewish community through intimidation.

In 2016, eighty years on, the UN had cause to criticise UK politicians for encouraging a rise in hate crime based on racism during the so-called Brexit campaign.

A cause for despair that eight decades have failed to change society?  There is no question that a River Styx oozing racism and hostility towards Muslims and Jews seeps through some parts of British society.

But we cannot forget that 100,000 people signed a petition against Mosley’s march and thousands more united on Cable Street to battle against the Fascists, bringing together all facets of society to defeat the Blackshirts.  And we can take heart from today’s strength and growth of Scotland’s interfaith movement.

Although some voices of insularity and intolerance are in the ascendancy, as Nicola Sturgeon reminded us at the Third Annual Peace and Unity Conference held in Glasgow’s City Chambers recently, neither the First Minister nor those who met and mingled at the conference could feel discouraged.  Think of the positives: the major role that faith groups have played in welcoming Syrian refugees to Scotland; the inclusive and open attitude that is promoting a celebration of diversity; the progress that the interfaith movement is making.

Scotland has by no means a perfect record in terms of inclusiveness, either with regards to race or religion – but two recent events suggest that we are moving in the right direction.

As well as the Peace and Unity Conference, there were lectures, delivered in the Trades House of Glasgow, under the auspices of the Scottish Ahul Bayt Society (SABS) in collaboration with the Church of Scotland Presbytery of Glasgow Ecumenical Relations and Interfaith Matters Committee, the Scottish Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Interreligious Dialogue, and the Scottish Episcopal Church’s Committee for Relations with People of Other Faiths.

This was SABS theological forum’s inaugural lecture event, entitled ‘Christians and the Muhammadan Covenants’.  The keynote speakers were Dr Anthony Allison of the Bishops’ Committee for Inter-Religious Dialogue, and Shaykh Sayed Ali Abbas Razawi, Director General of SABS.

Despite our shared history – our shared prophets – today’s technology makes it too easy to be misled by myths and misinformation.  Dr Allison blamed what he called the ‘Google Bubble’, a distorting echo chamber in which people’s own views are reinforced (search engines make assumptions and feed us a far from balanced diet).  This, said Dr Allison, clearly affects our religious literacy, and both Muslims and Christians suffer from it.  We too often believe the insidious memes spread about each other’s faiths, but reassuringly, Dr Allison believes the bubble can be burst.

The process can be as simple as dialogue and discussion, which both Dr Allison and Sheykh Sayed Razawi encouraged.  Sheykh Razawi, however, wanted us to go further and focus on the distinct difference between a covenant and a contract.  A covenant is morally binding, offering freedom with responsibilities. A contract contains the element of gain and can be cancelled.  A covenant, said Sheykh Razawi, is a moral obligation on people to look after each other.  It was this that Mohammed offered to Christians.

He explained that the Prophet Mohammed told his followers ‘And if they transgress, forgive them.  Don’t take retribution’ (such a familiar thought for Christians).  And the Prophet also encouraged diversity – Muslims were told to take care of the people of other faiths.  Sheykh Razawi warned that the danger in compelling people to conform to a belief system is that compulsion leads to extremism.

We all, Sheykh Razawi said, have covenants within our religions.  With contracts, someone has to compromise.  With covenants, ‘you will try to find solutions’.  Generously, he suggested that this caring diversity is what he sees ‘being built in Scotland’ – a situation said he does not see elsewhere in the world.

That same complimentary tone was adopted towards Scotland at the Third Annual Peace and Unity Conference, organised by Ahl Al-Bait Society Scotland in collaboration with other faith and community groups.  Azzam Mohamad, director of Ahi Al-Bait Society, told us not ‘walk away without making new connections’.  We didn’t.

But Dr Mohammed Shomali gave us further food for thought: ‘Many people think diversity is a threat because their idea of their own identity is based on what they are not, rather than what they are’.

I chatted with a Hindu – a charming man who said he had come to Scotland in the 1960s to work on the buses during the period when people in the Sub Continent were recruited for a range of jobs here.  In time he set up his own business.  He was justly proud of his contribution to Scottish society.  At the event in the Trades House, I spoke with teenage Muslims whose accents were undeniably Scottish and they were happy to celebrate both their faith and their Scottishness.  As indigenous Scots, perhaps we need to take a leaf out of their book and be proud to be Catholic or Presbyterian or Free Church, and of our contribution to a diverse nation, which Dr Shomali reminded us will become still more diverse.

‘Identity is based on the positive things we possess and are proud of, but we have to open a space for others,’ Dr Shomali said.  We will be ‘inclusive’ when we stop trying to remove the differences.  In the manner of St Paul, he reminded us that the body’s organs are all different but can’t function on their own.  ‘We all have to function together’.

He offered the image of human as robot – ‘mass produced human beings’ – contrasted with his vision of the beauty of diversity.

‘People should feel confident and secure,’ Dr Shomali insisted.  ‘What is destructive is to be forced to assimilate’.  And one of the ‘beautiful things about Scotland’, he asserted, is that people are open to unity in diversity.  He told a fable of a man trying to cross a clear stretch of water.  His horse wouldn’t move, but when a passing sage muddied the water, the horse crossed the stream.  Why?  The sage explained that when the water was clear, the horse could only admire its reflection.  Muddy water allowed it to move forward.  ‘We have to stop looking at ourselves.  We have to change from being the centre of the world and move to the centre of the world’.

Dr Anthony Allison had quoted Hans Küng, the Swiss Catholic priest, theologian, and President of the Foundation for a Global Ethic.  Küng said, ‘No peace among the nations without peace among the religions.  No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions.  No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions’.  At the Peace and Unity Conference, Professor Saied Reza Ameli, Dean of Faculty of World Studies at Tehran University reminded us that minority discrimination can cause majority discrimination.  ‘If a minority is insecure, larger society will feel insecure’.

The professor added ‘Justice is the main source of peace’ – an echo of Pope Paul VI, who said ‘If you want peace, work for justice’.  So much in common: surely we can burst the Google bubble together.

Marian Pallister is Just Faith Coordinator, Justice & Peace Commissioner, and SCIAF Ambassador for the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.