'We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.'
On 24 April, Lord Ian Blair, chairman of the Woolf Institute Board of Trustees and former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, delivered the 6th Woolf Institute-Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID) Annual Lecture in Qatar. It was chaired Dr Ibrahim Al Naimi, head of DICID.
The lecture took place in Hamad bin Khalifa University, located in the grounds of Education City (the home of numerous universities, including Georgetown with whom the Woolf Institute has an academic partnership). Among the attendees were UK Ambassador to Qatar, Ajay Sharma, and Sheikh Thani, brother of the Emir.
Blair emphasised the importance of promoting understanding and dialogue, especially "when actors with a political stake in driving people apart and blocking dialogue occupy the pages we read and the screens we watch, wherever we may live in the world".
The title and theme of the lecture were prompted by the words of MP, Jo Cox, who was murdered by a fanatic opposed to immigration in 2016. She sought to unite communities from different ethnic and faith boundaries. Her most well known remark, Lord Blair suggested, was that 'we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us'.
He read out a series of quotes from different religions and jokingly suggested he had repeated them so often that he had forgotten to which religion they belong. Regular readers of the Woolf Institute blog may enjoy identifying their source:
- There is only one breath; All are made of the same clay; Light within all, is the same.
- The poor long for riches, the rich long for heaven but the wise long for tranquillity.
- Prayer carries us half-way to God, fasting brings us to the door of his palace and alms-giving procures us admission.
- The highest form of wisdom is kindness: the divine spirit does not reside in any except a joyful heart.
- The other is my brother.
The second half of the talk was a reflection on the challenge to interfaith understanding and tolerance from the religious claim of absolutism and exclusivity, a characteristic of Judaism and Islam but also Christianity, demonstrated by in the Gospel of John, 14.6:, 'Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me'.
Ian Blair considered the meaning of this tenet in today's pluralist world. Throughout its history, he suggested pointing to the Reformation, Counter Reformation and Enlightenment, Christianity adapted its understanding of God's purposes to changing circumstances. A claim to absolute exclusivity sits uneasily with the past and with the comment of a former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, that the Church is 'an unusual form of Club, as it cares equally for non-members of it'.
He quoted Queen Elizabeth II, speaking as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, who said in 2012 that the role of the Church "is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country. It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely".
The lecture ended with a reflection on a word unfamiliar to all the audience, I suspect, except Lord Blair: Philoxenia.
The word goes back to Genesis 18 and the story of Abraham hosting three men (understood as angels) as guests, repeated in Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews, Chapter 13, 'Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares'.
Philoxenia means 'the friendship of strangers'. It is the exact opposite to Xenophobia, Blair pointed out. "It surely is a fulfilment of one of two of Christ’s main commandments: 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself', a viewpoint common to all Abrahamic faiths in the tradition of the sacredness of the guest...
We live in real time. Muslims in Britain feel under pressure, a 'watched' community. Some parts of our media mix up immigration and terrorism and Islam into a heady mix representing the 'other', who are to be feared and excluded. The church needs to stand openly against this, not just in policy but also in deeds. And that is where the Woolf Institute comes in.
A few days after the worst of the recent terrorist attacks, the London bombings of July 2005, the then Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, spoke at the first, rather makeshift memorial service for the 52 dead and 100's injured. He said that 'It is believed that there are over 300 languages spoken in London but there is one universal language, the language of tears'."
For Lord Blair, human suffering is a universal condition, shared by all of humanity. And it is this commonality, which needs to be highlighted and explored by institutes such as the Woolf Institute as well as DICID.
Indeed, everyone who attended the lecture was left with no uncertainty: we are all tasked with contributing to the interfaith endeavour.
Lord Blair's lecture can be read here.
Dr Ed Kessler MBE is the Founder Director of the Woolf Institute.
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