When is a Humanist not a Humanist?

Paul Hedges, author of Towards Better Disagreement, considers asylum, philosophy and human rights in light of the recent situation with Hamza bin Walayat.

If somebody asked you to prove what you believed – whether that is belief in a religion like Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism, or a non-religious stance such as atheism or Humanism – how would you do it? Maybe you would mention how many times you go to church or meetings, mention your membership of particular organisations or communities, or show you have a lot of knowledge about your tradition, movement, or belief system.

Facing Death Threats and Asylum

This was the situation that faced Hamza bin Walayat, except for him it was not an idle exercise about his Humanism. Rather, it was an asylum hearing where he had to prove to the authorities that he was a Humanist or face deportation back to Pakistan from where he had received death threats.

In February 2018, Walayat met with British immigration officials, who questioned him on his knowledge of Humanism. According to the report on his hearing, because he was not able to identify Plato and Aristotle as Humanist philosophers his asylum claim was denied. The case has gathered both national and international support, and the British Humanist Association in particular has garnered support for him to seek to overturn the decision. A petition of over twelve thousand signatures was delivered to the Prime Minister at Downing Street, while an open letter was written to the Home Secretary Amber Rudd signed by over fifty philosophers and academics across the country.

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Interfaith Meetings: Working out how to conduct vigils

vigil

We sought out Reverend Tom Wilson, co-author of Learning to Live Well Together, to find out any advice he had for frequently encountered issues with regards to interfaith meetings. In the second of two common scenarios, Tom discusses what must be considered when working out how to conduct vigils.

You never know when you will have to conduct a vigil; the nature of tragedy is that it takes us unawares. But this does not stop us planning. Many may know of the existence of plans for Operation London Bridge, the code name for the activities that will take place across the United Kingdom when the Queen dies, as she must do one day. Whilst it is inevitable that every individual dies, and so we must of necessity plan how to mark those deaths, the nature or fact of a terrorist attack is not as clear-cut. But given recent history, with four terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom in a few short months, it is nevertheless important that we have some ideas of what we might do should something terrible happen. Continue reading

Interfaith Meetings: How to handle concern about a planned mosque visit

Interfaith Meetings

We sought out Reverend Tom Wilson, co-author of Learning to Live Well Together, to find out his advice for frequently encountered issues with regards to interfaith meetings. In the first of two common scenarios, Tom considers how to respond to concerned parents who have approached a head teacher about the prospect of a planned visit to a mosque.

A significant proportion of the work that the St Philip’s Centre undertakes is educational work with school children. We are recognized providers of learning outside the classroom. Our focus is on bringing religious education to life. Rather than pupils reading about Sikhism in a textbook they visit a Gurwara, see the reverence afforded the Guru Granth Sahib and smell the vegetarian food cooking for langar. Instead of discovering that Muslims wash before they pray from a book, they are taken into the Wudu area of a mosque, and their guide explains, step-by-step, the process of purification he undertakes before joining in congregational prayers.

It is the scenario of visiting a mosque that can, at times, unfortunately become problematic. In the past few years, after there has been a major terrorist incident in the United Kingdom, it has become not uncommon for a school visit to be cancelled or postponed. The situation might not be this drastic; it might simply be that parents begin to voice concerns about whether such a visit is appropriate. Continue reading

Why do we need to talk about Religious Education?

Although Religious Education (RE) is a legal requirement in UK schools, it is an oft-neglected and misunderstood subject. It is important to seriously re-think this key subject at this time of low religious literacy and rising extremism, to protect communities from the consequences of hatred and misunderstanding.

We spoke to Mark Chater about his new book (co-edited with Mike Castelli) that brings together essays from prominent thought leaders in the theory and practice of RE, to promote wider discussion of what exactly is needed from a new model of RE within our education system to benefit wider society.

What were your motivations for writing We Need To Talk About Religious Education?

A creative anger that the voices of very able younger teachers are not being properly heard, that they deserve to become thought leaders for RE; also, an interest in listening to voices of experience and wisdom who can see change coming and welcome it; a desire to pump some life-giving fresh air into the old body of RE, to save it; and a professional and personal commitment to promoting the change debate in RE.

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The Way of the Hermit – an interview with Mario I. Aguilar

 

 

Mario I. Aguilar is Professor of Religion & Politics and Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion & Politics at the University of St Andrews. He is also a poet, an eremitic Camaldolese Benedictine Oblate, and has published widely in his interests in the theology of contemplation, the history of religion and issues of interfaith dialogue. We asked him some questions about his new book – The Way of the Hermit – and his life as a hermit. 

 

A hermit’s lifestyle is one of solitude and seclusion from society. When and why did you decide to become a hermit?

As I mentioned in the opening of my book I always wanted to be a hermit. However, this wish had to wait for years as I was a missionary in Africa and then started an academic career. To become a hermit or a monk requires a long process of discernment and this process was carried out over a period of twenty years with the informal support of different spiritual directors. I would say that the decision was taken when Cardinal O’Brien encouraged me to follow this different path within the archdiocese of St. Andrews and Edinburgh. The hermitage and the daily routines developed out of an ongoing prayer life rather than out of an institutional setting. This was seven years ago in Scotland and then I opened a hermitage in Chile.

Some people might find it surprising that you are a professor of religion and a political activist, as well as a hermit. How do you balance these two different sides of your life?

There is only one single life in every human being, thus a hermit relies on a discipline of life where the day is marked by several activities. The life of a hermit, in my case in the Benedictine tradition, starts very early (3.45am) with meditation and silence until it is time to start the university day. During the day, I extend that prayer to those whom I teach and my fellow researchers. Political activism happens naturally because it is an extension of God’s action in the world, a world that should live more deeply justice, peace and understanding. I return to the hermitage happy to be left with God but with reports to be written on behalf of asylum seekers, correspondence, and my own academic studies currently related to India and Tibet.

Your book, The Way of the Hermit, documents your conversations with hermits in Scotland, Chile and India. Did the lives of these fellow pilgrims seem similar or different to your own, and in what ways?

The lives and hopes of all human beings are very similar as the Dalai Lama would reiterate. Thus, I have found a deep communion and friendship with others who seek the Absolute in India and Chile. Particularly in India I have met over the years Buddhist monks, Hindu Sadhus and Sikh scholars with whom we have shared not intellectual thoughts but our very souls, eating together, chanting, and laughing about the joys of being together. I must confess that I have found that many people who live a religious commitment tend to be sad, I do not understand that. On returning to see others at the Golden Temple or in the bathing areas of Varanasi I have always found a warm hand and a ready smile. God has given us a journey and it is great to do it with others even when in silence.

The book explores how living a life of silence and contemplation can contribute to interfaith dialogue. Could you explain how this is so?

The Western world uses too many words, too many texts and too many twitters. We try to understand something to accept its relevance. In silence the quarrels disappear because in silence and contemplation we cannot run away from who we are: human beings on a journey. The many dialogues between faith practitioners in conferences and formal meetings are very fruitful indeed. However, I have found a deeper dialogue sitting in silence with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Sikhs because it is that very silence that binds us. I cannot speak Punjabi or Hindi but I can understand our common language of silence, reverence and devotion.

What have been the toughest challenges you’ve faced while living an eremitic lifestyle?

It has always been the challenges from outsiders who want a writer and a monk to become a small celebrity. I have had to clarify many times that hermits do not need other hermits to carry on their lives and that I do not have meditation classes in my hermitage. The keeping of a daily structure and discipline gets interrupted sometimes but I return to read the lives of hermits I admire and that set a very clear example for me: Abishiktananda, Bede Griffiths, Raimon Panikkar, and those sadhus without name who have inspired me in India over many years.

Do you have any advice for readers who would like to apply eremitic practises to their own lives?

Set a small routine of prayer and meditation for your daily life, start and keep to it. Do not read about it, or talk too much about it, just do it! And the Absolute will be waiting for you.

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“We simply cannot afford to be complacent.” Fiyaz Mughal on why we need a book that presents the true nature of Islam

On the publication of ‘Muslim Identity in a Turbulent Age’, we spoke to one of the book’s editors, Fiyaz Mughal. Fiyaz is also the founder of Tell MAMA and Faith Matters

– Why did you think there was a need for a book that presents the true nature of Islam?

There is little literature that highlights the deep reflections and introspection that is taking place in parts of the Middle East around Islam. This work is being driven by Muslims and from an Islamic theological set of principles and this has been ongoing for over a decade. There is much talk about ‘Muslims not doing enough’ and we try to set out that maybe people are not looking over into what is happening and taking place in the Middle East to tackle extremism, but also in bridging the East and West.

There are lots of books and articles about Islam and whether it is ‘compatible’ with Western values. We outline the fact that Islam and its interpretation are flexible enough and compatible enough with a Europe that is based on secular and liberal traditions – though these are also being challenged by the rise of populist and xenophobic parties in Europe. This book thereby undermines the view that Europe and the Middle East will be in perpetual conflict. From within the heart of the Islamic world, in Jordan – with a deep Islamic history – we see that some of the solutions to extremism have come through strong leadership and from Islamic theological leaders coming together. There is hope and this hope must win over the politics of fear which is fuelling anti-Muslim prejudice and Islamophobia in some parts of Europe.

– Could you briefly summarise the King of Jordan’s Amman Message for people who are unaware of it?

The Amman Message, in summary, is a nationwide Jordanian attempt to provide a set of theological frameworks to tackle extremism. At the core of this, was a response from Jordan’s Royal family that something needed to be done to provide an Islamic theological set of positions against extremism post the Beslan massacre that horrified so many. The Beslan massacre was a driver for the His Majesty King Abdullah II to push for a theological framework through which religious leaders, civil society activists and community leaders could challenge extremism and build resilience in Jordanian communities. Yet, the vision was wider and there was a genuine belief that that Amman Message could be promoted and pushed in the Middle East and also within Europe, so that it could also challenge perceptions of Muslims in Europe which have been progressively been turning negative. It was a vision of a Europe and Middle East that were co-dependent and reliant on each other to tackle issues of extremism.

– In your opinion, what is the most interesting issue that the book raises?

The book raises a range of issues. It looks at Muslim communities in Europe, challenges that they face and how there are developments emanating from the heart of Muslim majority countries that can reduce Islamic extremism. It also looks at the challenges within Europe of a rising set of issues around migration, integration and extremism, whilst reflecting on Islamophobia and anti-Muslim prejudice that further fuels separationism and grievances. This cycle is one that the book explores with views from across Europe and the Middle East.

– The book presents perspectives from writers of various faiths, including those with no religious affiliation at all. What was the thinking behind this?

The reality is that the writers reflect Europe in all of its pluralism. It also reflects a world which is complex and with competing world views which are precisely reflective of debates on Islam and Muslims and on the relationship between Europe and the Middle East. This complex and fast shifting environment is what the book captures and provides a snapshot into a world where communities seem to be more fractured.

– What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

We hope that readers take away the hope that from within Muslim majority countries, the theological solutions to extremism are developing. They will have long lasting impacts over the next 50 years and readers should also take away the fact that there are challenges in Europe in reducing the xenophobia and populism that could well fuel further grievances and extremism in the future. We simply cannot afford to be complacent.

For more information and to buy the book, please follow this link.

Muslim Identity in a Turbulent Age – join our mailing list for more information

 

 

Engaging with the 2004 Amman message, which sought to clarify Islam’s true peaceful nature, this book debates what it means to be Muslim in Europe today. Shining a light on Islam’s religious, political and cultural tenets, and its portrayal in the media, this book explores the role Islam can play in interfaith dialogues on peace and reconciliation.

“We have never more needed a greater understanding of both Islamic extremism and Western Islamophobia than now. This collection of essays is a real contribution to that understanding. Bridges are more difficult to build than walls, and these essays, in their accessible and reflective tones, aim to make a difference more than a point. Their purpose is to ensure that the gift of diversity is not curdled into the curse of division and they know the path to making this happen can only open up by challenging misconceptions on every side.” – Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor, St Paul’s Cathedral

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Be the first to read an extract from ‘Muslim Identity in a Turbulent Age’

How can Islam be understood in the context of internal struggles for unity and identity, a rise in anti-Muslim hate crime and continued media portrayals of violence, extremism, warfare and oppression? Looking at Islam as a faith, a whole system with political dimensions and through the lens of Western media, this book sets out to clarify the nature of true Islam and the true nature of Islam.

“In a world in which ISIS and other terrorists are a global threat and Islamophobia has grown exponentially, Muslim Identity in a Turbulent Age will be welcomed by policymakers and the general public alike. This timely volume discusses and demonstrates the importance of The Amman Message, a major statement by hundreds of major global Muslim leaders and scholars written as a refutation and delegitimation of violent extremism and terrorism in the name of Islam.”

John L. Esposito, University Professor of Religion & International Affairs and author of The Future of Islam

Follow this link to read an extract from the Introduction to Muslim Identity in a Turbulent Age by Mike Hardy, Fiyaz Mughal and Sarah Markiewicz.

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