|Speech to Coexistence Trust Campus Ambassadors - 22 March 2012|
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Assallamu Alaikum, Shalom and Good Evening.
Before I start, I would like to welcome each of you to the Palace of Westminster.
When I was asked to take part in this evening’s event, I was only too pleased to say yes.
I have a great deal of respect for the Coexistence Trust, their aims and objectives, and so it really is an honour and privilege to speak to you today.
What has added more significance for me about this event this evening are the tragic events which have unfolded over the last two weeks, 700 miles from here.
Three days ago, a gunman attacked the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse and killed Jonathan Sandler, a teacher and a Rabbi and his 2 sons Gabriel and Arieh aged 4 and 5. Myriam Monsonego the 7 year old daughter of the headteacher, was also shot and killed.
Four days earlier three young French soliders, Corporal Abel Chennouf, Private Mohamed Legouad and Corporal Loic Liber were shot in nearby Montauban. Abel and Mohamed died of their injuries, and Corporal Liber remains in intensive care. A week earlier another soldier, Staff Sergeant Imad Ibn Ziaten, was shot and killed in Toulouse.
It is right and proper that we send our condolences to all the families, friends and communities affected and remember them in our prayers, and pause to reflect on these hate fuelled acts. The trauma of these murders is being felt by communities in our country and all around the world.
But I want to make something absolutely clear, and in plain English. The killer is alleged to be a follower of the same faith as me and there are reports that his faith may have been used as motivation or even justification for his actions.
This man did not act in my name or the Islamic faith. All of us who properly understand the teachings of Islam unequivocally condemn his actions. The maturity of Britain in 2012 means, that unlike in the past, Muslims are not being asked to justify the actions of a killer who happens to have a Muslim name or have a perverse understanding of our faith.
We mustn’t forget the killer’s victims over the last week included followers of both Jewish and Muslim faith.
We must not allow individual acts of madness to divide us. And the Coexistence Trust is crucial in helping cement our bonds.
When I was the Communities Minister, I was responsible for implementing the recommendations of the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Anti-Semitism, which set out a political roadmap for tackling anti-Semitism here in the UK. And I am really pleased that Gerald Ronson, Chairman of the Jewish Community Security Trust, is here tonight and will be speaking later. They do important work helping to make fellow citizens safe.
As both a Londoner, and the Member of Parliament for a multicultural constituency, I know that people of different faiths can live side-by-side as neighbours, with not just tolerance but respect for one another.
However, for some people, there is an assumption that followers of different religions must be in perpetual conflict. Of course, this isn’t true – but dispelling long-held myths can be a difficult task.
This is where the Coexistence Trust plays a very important role – by bringing together intelligent, articulate and engaging young followers of Judaism and Islam, and then providing them with the tools and inspiration to make a difference, they are helping to foster a future Britain where there is greater co-operation and understanding between these two world religions.
I want to pay tribute to the fantastic leadership of Rokhsana Fiaz OBE, her team and Trustees who do a great job. I have no doubt that the Coexistence Trust will continue to go from strength-to-strength in the years to come.
But I am here, primarily, to speak to you – the Campus Ambassadors. We have two groups with us today – the 2011 graduates, and the new 2012 intake. I would like to give my warmest congratulations to the 2011 Ambassadors, and wish ‘good luck’ to those beginning their journey.
I have a huge admiration for the roles that you are either just completing, or just starting. University, as I remember it, is a wonderful time with many distractions, not all of them educational! In addition to your studies, you will meet people who will become lifelong friends, and have experiences that will help shape your outlook on life. I believe that there is a lot of truth in the saying that at university you become ‘the person you are for the rest of your life’.
And it is for this reason that the role of Campus Ambassador must not be taken lightly. Yes, we are all ambassadors at different times in our life – when I speak in Parliament, I am an ambassador for the people of Tooting, and when I do media as a Politician I am an Ambassador for the Labour Party. We all have multiple identities and are often Ambassadors for a different layer of that identity.
Ambassadors, in all forms, must conduct themselves accordingly at all times – and remember that you should not give ammunition to those who look to criticise people of a faith or organised religion. You will also be expected to show leadership on your respective campuses, and represent the Coexistence Trust as best as you can.
Some of you, or some of your friends, will face difficult tests and challenges at university. Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are realities of life for Muslim and Jewish students in the UK, reflecting experiences of these two communities in broader UK society today. In the past 6 months alone there have been numerous incidences and allegations of discriminatory behaviour and violence against either Jewish or Muslim students on campuses, in addition to other instances of racism and discrimination, such as the murder of international student Anuj Bidve in December 2011.
This is where the tools of the Coexistence Trust will help. You will meet people in your lectures, seminars and halls that have never knowingly met a practicing follower of Judaism or Islam – and you will be able to shape their perception accordingly, and dispel the dangerous myths that can be propagated by ignorance.
Equally, you will meet young people who share your faith, but buy into some of these myths, and who may actively seek or promote conflict between our faiths and others. They too should be challenged, openly and in a spirit that promotes peaceful and constructive dialogue between members of all faiths and those who aren’t a member of any organised religion.
Our universities are rightfully places of ideas and enquiry, where many young people find their voices for the first time, many using them to rightfully highlight the injustices they see in the world around them. An open mind and a different point of view should always be welcomed, but it should never go unchallenged.
I have the same advice for Campus Ambassadors of both Muslim and Jewish faiths, because, unsurprisingly, there is more that binds our faiths than separates us.
Yes, both faiths – alongside Christianity – are ‘Abrahamic faiths’. The holy texts of all three faiths feature individuals, and lessons, that are taught by the other two religions. Indeed, all three of the Abrahamic faiths share fundamental concepts – such as a Day of Judgement, and an afterlife in either Heaven or Hell.
Christianity, Judaism and Islam all teach of the ‘Golden Rule’ – whereby we must live a good life and treat others as we would hope to be treated ourselves, in the hope that we will be rewarded in the afterlife.
Of course, many would dismiss a similarity of worship as being nothing like reality – surely politics must divide the faiths? I disagree.
Most British Jews and Muslims want the same things in life as British Christians, British Hindus, British Sikhs and also those who aren’t members of an organised religion – to fulfil our potential, good provision of education for our children, a health service which treats us effectively and efficiently, and an economy where jobs and opportunities are plentiful – but more than that, we both want a Britain where we can hold our beliefs and practice our religion safe from prejudice or fear.
Even on the most seemingly divisive of political issues – the Middle East – I believe that there is more that binds the followers of the two faiths than that which divides us; a two-state solution, where both Palestine and Israel have agreed borders and live peacefully by each other is what most people want. When I visited Jerusalem last year I saw followers of all three Abrahamic faiths struggling to live together peacefully. But no matter how bad things may get 2250 miles away, they can’t justify incitement of hatred, crimes and violence here.
To someone who does not know better, the perceived truth of a situation may not reflect the reality on the ground. This is the importance of the Campus Ambassadors – you and your university colleagues will be the future leaders for this country (political leaders, business leaders, community leaders, youth leaders, parents and teachers) and working together to proudly promote the truth of your faith will open the eyes of those who might otherwise be misled by whispered gossip or sensationalised news stories.
Being misunderstood, or misrepresented, is not the only thing that followers of our faiths have in common. Many in the Jewish and Muslim communities in Britain have a shared experience of immigration – whether our families were fleeing persecution or poverty, or maybe they were simply seeking work – they came to Britain to seek a better life. And it cannot be said that we have not integrated and contributed to the collective British culture – can you imagine a British High Street without either a Marks & Spencer or a Sainsbury’s? Or one without a curry house? And just imagine how many Brits will be cheering on Mo Farah at the Olympics or Amir Khan on in his title fight in May.
Indeed the Labour Party would look very different were it not for immigrants. The Leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband’s Jewish parents were driven from their homes by Nazis and came to the UK as a safe haven. I am also the son of first generation immigrants whose parents came to the land of ‘hope and glory’ where their children have led a much better, safer and more secure life than their peers in their country of origin. My father could only have dreamed, when he faced discrimination as a new arrival to London, that 3 decades later his son would be the first ever MP of Muslim faith to be elected in London and also to attend Cabinet!
Unfortunately, followers of both faiths will know the prejudice and danger that previous generations have faced, whether here or abroad. Wherever the far right have been able to get a foothold in the public consciousness, persecution of minority groups has not been far behind. There have been attacks on UK synagogues in recent years, and the English Defence League have fought to incite Islamophobia at every opportunity. And followers of both religions know that unchecked hatred of our faiths can turn to genocide – as it did in mainland Europe in the 1930s, or at Srebrenica in the 1990s.
I believe that by standing together proudly, and working together on shared goals, we dispel the myths peddled by the far-right and, unfortunately, some misguided people who claim to share our faiths. They seek to incite hatred and undermine the fundamental aspects of our faiths – to praise our God, make a positive contribution to the world, and love one another.
Our country should be proud of the work we do on a daily basis to fight anti-semitism and islamophobia. We are a beacon to many other parts of the world where intolerance and hatred leads to people following the same faith as us, being victims not just of hatred and violence, but death as well. You should be proud of the role you play. We must never be complacent.
As a Campus Ambassador, you’ll be on the front line of helping make respect, empowerment and change a reality. I have no doubt that what you will learn – or have learnt – as a Campus Ambassador is sure to benefit society, and you in your future career and in life.
Good luck with your studies and good luck with your future.
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