I never tire of Wikipedia. I only really grasped its significance, when it was threatened by a well-intentioned, but destructive legislative initiative. Since then, I keep discovering more from a gift that keeps on giving. Not only is its content huge; 4.7 million articles in the English language edition alone, but its range is far broader than other Encyclopaedias, being less biased to a pale male and stale agenda.
This morning, for instance, I looked up an article on Theravada Buddhism as part of a general research into inter faith matters, and the difference between universal and ethnic religions. I followed that with reading articles on silver service and ‘service a la russe’ in the forlorn hope that the next time I am invited by the Baron to lunch, if there is a next time, I will not reveal my plebeian origins too clearly.
Fortunately these origins were not tested at a recent event, in the splendid surroundings of Marlborough House, that I attended as a representative of Wikimedia UK an organisation affiliated with the parent Foundation of Wikipedia.
The first party to the event was the Commonwealth Institute, and here it is worthwhile to mention some, I think, interesting statistics. Since the 1920s the British Empire and its successor the Commonwealth has contained more than half the total world Muslim population, which today amounts to approximately 1.9 billion people. In other words there are more Muslims who are citizens living in the Commonwealth than there are outside it.
This is not so surprising when one remembers that states with huge Muslim populations such as India Pakistan Bangladesh and Nigeria are all within the commonwealth. But the commonwealth has also by far the largest number of Hindus in the world; Hinduism, being the world ‘s third largest religion by number of adherents. It also contains substantial numbers of Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and Bahais.
The number of Jews in the Commonwealth is substantial though smaller than those outside it. It should be remembered however that the two countries with the largest Jewish populations in the world, USA and Israel, together accounting for almost 90% of the world’s Jewish population were both at one time ruled by Britain, in Israel’s case until only 75 years ago. Both are steeped in British legal, political and cultural traditions. The Commonwealth is therefore a testing ground for inter faith work worldwide.
The number of Jews in the Commonwealth is substantial though smaller than those outside it.
The other party to the event was the Khalili Foundation which is the creation of Sir David Khalili. The event itself was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Foundation and the Commonwealth Institute.
The Foundation is also an embodiment of the inter faith enterprise. Sir David is an Iranian born Jew now living in the UK. He has put together one of the most impressive collections of Islamic art in the world, standing comparison with national collections
He has, in addition, an impressive collection of Aramaic documents-Aramaic being the lingua franca of the Middle East, and of the Jewish world, for over a millennium before the rise of Islam. He has also one of the most impressive collections of Japanese Meiji art work, outside national museums, as well as collections of Spanish Damascene metal work, Swedish textiles and enamel work amongst many other subjects.
The meeting could not have come at a more opportune time. As Trevor Phillips has written, in today’s times, ethnic and religious tribalism is engulfing much of the world. Its waves are lapping at our shores.
The atrocities committed by Hamas on 7th October have, predictably, shaken Israelis and Jews all around the world. The architects of these atrocities must have realised that they would provoke a fierce response from Israel, which has equally predictably provoked mass anger on the streets of Western cities.
Apart from the frightening dangers of escalation in the Middle East, the conflict will test communal relations between Jews and Palestinians, inside the mixed Jewish -Palestinian cities in pre 1967 Israel.
In addition they will test relations between the Jewish and Muslim communities, in the UK and in other Western countries. The sharp rise in cases of, both antisemitism and Islamophobia attest to this. This is a dark prospect to be avoided, for which we will need good leadership.
Wikipedia is an organisation dedicated to the spread of knowledge and the fight against ignorance. Ignorance is the father of prejudice and a catalyst for conspiracy theories and fake news.
In eradicating ignorance Wikipedia has a vital role to play in promoting knowledge about faith matters and therefore understanding between faith communities. The Wikimedia Foundation like the Commonwealth Institute, and the Kalili foundation are small forces. None of them has any military force. Stalin, with his remark, ‘how many divisions has the Pope’, would not have been impressed by them. But what they lack in power they make up in influence.
As Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady the founder of Lubavitch, the mystical Jewish sect, said, a little light can dispel a great darkness. Hopefully they can dispel some of the increasing darkness around us.
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