OPINION: It’s time for change in the Government’s relationship with faith communities

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OPINION: It’s time for change in the Government’s relationship with faith communities

Why I have hope in these otherwise depressingly tormented times, writes Laura Marks

From left: the hustings’ chair, Laura Marks; Hina Bokhari; David Burrowes; and Sir Stephen Timms. CREDIT: FAITHS FORUM FOR LONDON
From left: the hustings’ chair, Laura Marks; Hina Bokhari; David Burrowes; and Sir Stephen Timms. CREDIT: FAITHS FORUM FOR LONDON

One thing I have learned over nearly 20 years working in the community, is that every faith group feels it is the most hard done by. There is no way to measure this, but the competitive victimhood in this space is one of its hallmark and less endearing characteristics. This is particularly the case when it comes to the relationship with Government and policy makers, where special pleading from individual communities runs riot.

This is why the interfaith hustings I hosted last week were so uncharacteristic:  more than 80 influential people from ten faith and belief traditions packed into a sweltering room in the crypt of the iconic St Martins in the Fields Church, Trafalgar Square, to quiz politicians about how their parties, if elected to office, would not just work better with one community, but with us all.

This was the first truly inter-community/faith hustings that I have seen.  A distinguished panel of three politicians each fully engaged in their own faith community and also with their political party: Sir Stephen Timms MP, the faith champion lead for Labour, David Burrowes, founder of Christian Conservatives and PMs deputy envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Hina Bokhari, Lib Dem Assembly Member and a leading light on interfaith relations.

Extraordinarily, there was no arguing, no interrupting and no heckling – either from the audience nor even from our panel of politicians  – all of whom are deeply embedded in their religious identities.

Truth is, that whilst there are significant differences on foreign policy between the faith communities (never mind within them), the agreement on almost every other policy area between the communities was remarkable and brought me hope in these otherwise depressingly tormented times.

On almost all of the issues raised by the Faith Forum for London’s audience of a multitude of Christians denominations, Muslims from multiple traditions, Bahais, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Scientologists, Humanists, Zoroastrians and the two brand new co-chairs of the London Jewish Forum, there were shared values and interest, even though questions were sometimes submitted through a single faith lens.

We need to be honest: the issues that matter to us all have been ignored for years.

Laura Marks

Out they came – the appalling decline in religious education (only 51% of RE is taught by specialist teachers), the lack of ‘religious literacy’ (understanding about faith and belief communities), the growth in crime against faith communities, the lack of definitions of specific forms of hatred, the opaque policy around religious ‘extremism’ determining who government will and won’t speak to. Every one of these areas directly affect our Jewish community, as does the lack of focus on community tensions and social cohesion at a time when it is at rock bottom.

Add to this the abrupt defunding of the Interfaith Network. Sir Stephen Timms seemed to sum up the mood in the room when he said that this decision was ‘utterly foolish’. It’s easy to see how the faith and belief communities, including ours have been badly neglected.

Whilst our Jewish community has been lucky enough to receive millions to fund security, not enough has been done to actually prevent the ignorance and prejudice which underpins antisemitism. Similarly, the other faith communities have been impacted feeling that their shared or specific issues have been ignored or deliberately excluded from the conversation. This has bred resentment and frustration which benefits no one at all, certainly not us.

We need an incoming government to do it differently. We need the wise, thoughtful, value driven voices of the faith communities to be heard and fed into policy development (as it was so very fleetingly in Covid). We need our contribution to society to be recognised and properly supported. We need to bring women round the table in the same way as they are in all other areas of government. We need religious literacy in our police forces, local government, NHS and institutions so that prejudice, including antisemitism are recognised for what they are. We need support for inter community and interfaith connections so we can find ways to talk about the conflict in Israel and Gaza respectfully (and many other situations around the world, including in India), recognising that these topics evoke the strongest of fears in us all.

As a Jewish community, and as part of the diverse faith and belief community, we have so much to give. It’s time for government to recognise that rather than allowing or even driving division between us, it’s time to let us in, to hear our voices (alongside those of other sections of society) and to give us the support and resources that will ultimately ensure we can live safely, and in constructive friendship with others.

All the political parties are saying the right things about the value of the faith and beleif communities –  but after years of such damaging neglect,  for whatever reasons, now is the time to actually turn the goodwill into action.

  • Laura Marks, co-founder of Jewish-Muslim women network’s Nisa-Nashim
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