Shortly before Christmas I was privileged to be asked to speak at the vigil held at the Pakistan Centre for victims of the Peshawar massacre. I reflected at that time that this was not a Moslem issue but a human issue. Although using the cloak of Moslem legitimacy this small group of inhumane terrorists had targeted fellow Moslems and in that case Moslem children in their dozens.
I reflected on that again when I saw one of the most poignant pictures of the affairs in Paris. A terrorist was pictured killing a police officer. The description of an arrow pointing at the gunman was terrorist and the arrow pointing to the policeman had Moslem on it. Yes the first police officer killed, and one the following day, was a practicing Moslem who was not on some fanatical ‘Moslem’ side but on the side of the vast majority of us who want to live in peace together and respect the views, opinions and faiths of others.
My fear is that some will try and seek to exploit the situation to launch attacks, physical or otherwise on parts of the community that look and feel ‘a little different’. We have already seen the despicable Nigel Farage try to do just that. So what can we do to try and deal with the tensions that clearly have led up to this?
Firstly we must look far more closely at our (western) foreign policy which has ignited some of the problems. Yesterday a blogger received the first 50 lashes of a sentence that will see him whipped every Friday for 20 weeks. This is in a Country where public executions by beheading are common place and where women are not allowed to drive. Do we roundly condemn this behaviour? Oh no we try and sell them war planes and other arms and welcome their investment in our society. Even our Royal Family is trotted off to cement relationships with the Saudi Royal Family.
There is no doubt that our military interventions in the Middle East have been wholly unproductive and unsuccessful. The second war in Iraq, the one that the Americans ‘won’ in 50 days if you recall, was wholly unjustified. Vile though Saddam Hussein was far more people have been killed, raped and tortured since we blundered in to that Country. One can say the same of Libya which has descended into a mediaeval style anarchy since the downfall of the foul and eccentric Col Gaddafi. Look at Afghanistan where there might soon be a Taliban Governor of Helmand the place where 450+ British Squaddies died to keep the Taliban out.
I am not arguing that the West should have no engagement in the Middle East. I am not saying that we should stand by whilst girls are denied an education and opium is freely grown to be exported to the World. I am arguing for a more coherent long-term approach which commits us to working not with arms but with deeds and words to put right problems in those countries. In each Country there are people with whom we can work. If we had spent half the money on hospitals and schools in each of those countries; and a quarter of the money on the development of infrastructures then there might well be better outcomes within those Countries and less mayhem on the streets of the West.
This would not have been quick and it would not have been easy. Fine – there are no quick and easy answers to these problems. But perhaps by now far more would have been achieved with these totalitarian regimes than either appeasing or bombing them has achieved.
Lastly on foreign policy we must work together to deal with the problem in Palestine and Gaza. I have many Jewish friends and in fact met many of them last Thursday at the Liverpool Jewish Forum. But some of what Israel has done is unacceptable. They still occupy and are developing lands seized more than 50 years ago in defiance of UN resolutions. In a small way I am hoping to do something about this. I will soon be meeting Lord Beecham the former LGA Labour Leader, who is keen to develop activities between Jewish and Arab Mayors in Israel and Palestinian Mayors to help increase their capacity and ability to provide services. The idea is to train and support people jointly to help them see that they have more in common than they might think.
In our own country we must redouble our efforts to work together to ensure that people have a greater understanding of other faiths. That includes taking on some false prophets of the Moslem faith. All schools in this Country whether they are secular or faith based must ‘preach’ inclusion and toleration of other ideas and other faiths. This is similarly true in Northern Ireland where I am convinced that some of the continuing problems trace back to the fact that 95% of education in the area is delivered on segregated religious lines.
In Liverpool we have been blessed with having a series of national and faith based leaders to whom the concept of ‘togetherness’ is almost as strong as their belief in their own religion. Indeed they would say that toleration and understanding of others is at the heart of their religion. I knew some of the people who would be at the Moslem based Pakistan Centre for the vigil. I knew that Dr Shiv Pande would be there as an Indian Hindu, I knew that Chief Chukemega would be there from the Nigerian Christian community. These are people who with others who have passed away such as the late lamented Akbar Ali have worked together to keep the peace between groups, factions, religions and nations.
Last week a major refurbishment of the Pakistan Centre was started. Although of course the Centre is primarily for Moslems and connected with the Mosque I have visited that place so many times since I helped get a grant for it in the 70s that it seems like a second home. People of all faiths have been welcome there for all sorts of events.
Liverpool too might have a special role to play in UK events. Let us remember with pride that the UKs first Mosque was in Liverpool and opened in Brougham Terrace. This Mosque was reopened last year in time for Akbar Ali to see it and to receive his body for the first official prayers. The Mosque was opened by Abdullah Quilliam a covert from Christianity. He cared first for the Moslem seaman and traders who came to the city, some of whom of course stayed here. But from the start he preached toleration between all faiths. Today the Quilliam foundation is regularly quoted and involved in debates on multi-cultural and anti-extremism. These are my types of Moslem – people who I can work with irrespective of the deep inner faith they have which is somewhat different to mine.
Tom Maguire recently paid a lovely tribute to my wife on his Facebook page. It went something like this, “My mother told me never to judge people by their religion or politics and you will find out that you will have more in common than you think”. He then went on to say nice things about Erica. But his mother is absolutely correct. Most people of any religion or none are people who want to get on with their lives. They want to live in comfort are not too bothered about people’s way of life unless it impacts adversely on their own. They want to bring up their kids, have a holiday, live healthily and have a good old age. Black, white, Jewish or Moslem what unites us is infinitely greater than what divides us.
My next blog will be about the very successful steps we are making to create a Commonwealth Association in Liverpool. The Commonwealth seen by many to be an anachronism consisting largely of parts of our former Empire is actually growing in membership and stature because it does enable countries with different faiths and backgrounds to ‘rub along’ together. There are frictions and sometimes there are factions. Gambia has left just before it was suspended and some of the Countries have ideas about, for example, sexuality, which others (like me) would not deem acceptable. But in the Commonwealth a mechanism exists for ensuring that the differences are debated and not ignored and then by peer pressure or other means some positions are changed. Perhaps in Liverpool our new Commonwealth Association will be able to contribute to that.
You may think that this blog is not especially coherent and I accept that is the case. All the answers are not yet available to us but the lines of action seem clear. Internationally, nationally and within our communities we must follow the dictum of Winston Churchill who told us ‘Jaw-jaw is better than war-war”. The dialogue; the cooperation; the search for a greater understanding is vitally important to us all. I pledge myself to both seeking greater understanding of others and helping others to do likewise.

About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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