Nov 1 2017

Understanding complexity: Reflections on the centenary of the Balfour Declaration

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On the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, LSE PhD student Fatima Ahdash reflects on the complexities in her interfaith experience in the Holy Land and resisting the urge to take a position.

On the 2nd of November this year, millions of people around the world will commemorate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration- the 67-word letter that represented Britain’s endorsement of the establishment of a “national home for Jewish people” in the Holy Land. Some, including our Prime Minister, will celebrate. Others will protest- even silently, by declining invitations to attend formal celebratory dinners. In the midst of the heated debates and the, at times feverish, accusations and counter-accusations of every imaginable ism, it can sometimes feel like one should have an opinion on the event, and should share and defend it. And here social media platforms don’t help- ‘what’s on your mind?’ they temptingly ask you- and you begin to feel the urge to take a position, to have a say.

But on this occasion of the centenary, I have decided to resist the (for me usually irresistible) urge to take a definitive position and to vociferously share it. This is not to say that there are no moral rights and wrongs to the historic event itself and its perennial aftermaths. Of course there are, and people much more knowledgeable than myself have pointed them out and continue to do so. But every time I feel impelled to take a position, I remember the people I met on the LSE Faith Centre’s Interfaith Encounter trip to the Holy Land.

Earlier this year, a group of LSE students, from various religious and academic backgrounds, spent our first week of 2017 in Israel and Palestine as part of an annual interfaith trip to the Holy Land. Whether it was the entrancing proximity of the holy sites and the (almost) stifling spirituality in East Jerusalem, the serenity of the Galilee or the buoyant din and buzz of Bethlehem on Orthodox Christmas day, the trip was the intense learning experience you might expect it to be. And it certainly was not the type of interfaith activity that can be dismissed for conducting easy falafel interfaith – the cliché type of interfaith event where Christians, Jews and Muslims compare their similar attitudes and teachings and wonder why their respective peoples can’t (for the love of God!) just get along.

Sure enough, we met our fair share of Israeli and Palestinian peaceful hippies and co-existence activists. But they were part of a deeply complicated wider political conversation, that included settlers, refugees, politicians, ex-IDF soldiers turned radical leftists, ambassadors and ordinary Israeli and Palestinian people, challenging us with conflicting narratives of precarious peace, shaky trust, injustice and war.

And so on the occasion of this centenary, I will keep this bewildering complexity at the forefront of my mind. I will remember what the people of that land, in all their differences, told us- the thoughts, fears and hopes that they so generously shared with us. I will remember that for Henry, a Holocaust survivor, Israel represented a sanctuary, a haven where he could finally live in safety and prosper. And I will remember that for Sami, a Palestinian community organiser and co-existence activist, the establishment of Israel meant uprooting and displacement. I will remember Dr Yusuf’s haunting fears for the security and future of Al-Aqsa mosque and his determination that it shall endure the physical and epistemic threats to its survival. And I will remember Yaniv’s anxieties for the future of human rights and democracy in Israel in an increasingly polarised climate. I will remember that every day the likes of Shaul, Antwan, Sami and Ophir work inconceivably hard to understand each other’s languages, each other’s fears and each other’s aspirations in the hope that one less person dies as a result of the conflict, that one day they may live in something that resembles peace.

I will remember the many narratives and claims to the Land we heard from Israelis and Arabs, Jews, Muslims and Christians, the secular liberals and the religiously orthodox. I will remember that the narratives and identities we crossed throughout the trip defied categorisation and were as complicated as the history of land that they claimed a right to.

But above all, I will remember what Antwan, a Palestinian peace activist told us: “we suffer from people’s ‘pro.’ Don’t be pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, be pro-solution.” I will remember this brutally honest call for restraint, for checking our privilege, this reminder that one’s words, one’s positions and stances can have a real impact on the lives of real people with real names, real families and real stories. I will remember all of this whenever I feel the urge to take a position.

Fatima is a PhD Candidate in the Law Department, researching the place and role of the family in counter-terrorism. She is also a Legal Research Fellow at human rights organisation Rights Watch UK. 

Posted by: Posted on by Angharad Thain

Sep 4 2017

Interfaith Leadership for the 21st Century

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What is interfaith leadership?

At the start of an exciting new academic year Dr James Walters, Director of the Faith Centre, reflects on what is required for effective interfaith leadership for our time. 

The LSE Faith Centre’s mission is to promote interfaith leadership for the 21st Century. But what kind of leadership is this and who is it for?

Misconceptions about what “interfaith” means lead many to conclude that interfaith leadership would not be for them. Non-believers or agnostics feel that you have to be a committed religious person to qualify. But equally the religious can be suspicious of the interfaith agenda because they think it will involve compromising their beliefs. These fears are not without foundation. Towards the end of the 20th Century, many in the interfaith movement dreamed of a single “world religion” that distilled the common values of all the world faiths, values that (unsurprisingly!) seemed to reflect the liberal Western values of the movement’s leaders.

But in the 21st Century the world looks very different. Religion is resurgent in many forms, including fundamentalist expressions across all faith communities that are deeply hostile to other religions and interfaith initiatives. So our approach to interfaith is more pragmatic and more modest. LSE students come from 150 countries around the world and we want to resource them with skills and insight to counter the climate of hostility to religious difference that is growing in virtually every corner of the world. To do that, our understanding of interfaith leadership has three strands:

Leadership for Imagination

We view interfaith understanding less as a matter of gaining knowledge and more as a shift in imagination. In the religious literacy programmes that we run we are concerned that students don’t just learn what other people believe but rather how different religious believers imagine the world and their place within it.

Imagination is important in everyone’s worldview. No one sees the world purely empirically; we all hold beliefs, assumptions and ideals that frame our interactions with others and our shared quest for meaning. In the Western world, we have overlooked the predominance of religious narratives in this kind of imaginative framing and forget how much religion has shaped our own imagination. To address the challenges of religious conflict today, interfaith leaders have to make these imaginative leaps and empathise with worldviews very different to their own.

Leadership for Dialogue

Our view is that interfaith dialogue is not something a small group of religious people get involved in. As global citizens we are now all already engaged in complex religio-cultural dialogues about values and meaning. The question is how effectively and constructively we want to contribute to those conversations. Are we prepared to hear views that disturb or offend us and still consider them thoughtfully? When we disagree with people, are we prepared to engage in a respectful dialogue of persuasion rather than exclude them from the boundaries of acceptability that we have set? Everyone needs to be involved in these dialogues: the religious, the non-religious and all shades in between. And we seek to give people the interfaith leadership skills to make these dialogues inclusive, meaningful and effective.

Leadership for Transformation

We can learn more about religion to understand people better. We can learn more about religion to facilitate dialogue between different peoples. But maybe learning more about religion could also be a source of wisdom to address the intractable problems we face in today’s world. That would be a long way from the deeply ingrained Western perception that religion is simply a private matter that can only lead to division when it comes into the public sphere. But we believe our political culture could be deeply enriched, even transformed, by greater religious understanding. Think of the contribution that faith leaders have made to the climate change debate, such as Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si. Or consider the way in which a better understanding of religious motivations can transform situations of conflict. That’s why the Faith Centre is also currently working with the UK Foreign Office to develop their understanding of the kind of interfaith leadership that can be taken by British diplomats around the world.

So what is interfaith leadership? It is skills and insight to enable the imaginative understanding of others, to contribute to the kind of difficult dialogues that the world needs, and to bring the resources of religious understanding to address today’s problems. And who is it for? It’s for you. It’s for all of us.

If you are interested in finding out more about the LSE Faith Centre interfaith leadership programmes and activities, take a look at our Programmes page for more information.

Posted by: Posted on by Angharad Thain

Apr 6 2017

Church, politics and social action today

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In our age of such political volatility and polarization, Revd Canon Dr James Walters reflects on two very different political theologies and what they can teach us about the role of the church in society today. The below is taken from Dr Walters’ address given at the Dean’s Forum at Chicago Cathedral during his recent trip to the United States. 

On both sides of the Atlantic, we are currently experiencing an alarming new era of political volatility and polarization. Our societies are more divided and the political discourse more acrimonious than most people have known in their lifetimes. We are seeing a resurgence of forces that we thought history was leaving behind – extreme nationalism, explicit racism, isolationism. There is a lot of anxiety around, including in our places of worship.

So I have been reflecting a lot recently on how the church engages with all of this in the Anglican/Episcopalian tradition. Is it of course a diverse tradition, but nonetheless with common themes. In these reflections I have been inspired by two theologians, both called William who both have very strong connections with the London School of Economics, and somewhat contrasting views of how the Church should relate to the State.

The first is William Temple. He was Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War, another time of great political turmoil and a time of very different visions of the state. Europe had seen the rise of totalitarian states, espousing ideologies of racial superiority and military expansion. England itself was emerging from the Victorian free market state that had polarized wealth and led to a dramatic expansion in urban poverty.

Temple was not a fan of either- but he did believe in the state. The governance of the Church of England remains closed linked to the State and back then was even more so (Parliament had rejected the revision of the Prayer Book in 1927 for example).Temple was a member of the British establishment. His father had also been Archbishop of Canterbury and he went to the prestigious Rugby School where he became close friends with R H Tawney who was later to become Professor of Economic History at the LSE. Through Tawney, Temple became friends with the director of the LSE William Beveridge and he officiated at Beveridge’s marriage to Tawney’s sister.

William Beveridge was tasked by the post war Labour government to write a report for the rebuilding of the nation, a nation that would not allow those who had defeated Nazism on the frontline to return to slums and poverty. So Beveridge wrote a report that created socialized medicine, the benefit system, and universal access to schooling. In other words he wrote the blueprint for the British welfare state. But it was his friend William Temple who first coined the phrase.

Temple conceived of the Church at the heart of society, shaping the political order in ways that made it conform more closely to the Kingdom of God. So in contrast to a state that just allows the market to divide its citizens, or a state that is overbearing and oppressive, Temple believed that the life of the church could shape the state in ways conducive to the welfare of its citizens.

Temple’s understanding of the primary means by which it does that is what makes his political theology distinctively Anglican. And that is worship. Worship sanctifies the citizen and so, by extension, sanctifies society. The Anglican understanding of the sacraments, inherited from Augustine, as a sign and instrument of God’s grace also expresses, therefore, how worship is a sign and instrument of the society God is seeking to build. What we do in worship is both a sign and instrument of how society should be.

So Temple wrote about the Eucharist:

“There we bring familiar forms of economic wealth, which is always the product of man’s labour exercised upon God’s gifts, and offer them as symbols of our earthly life… The Eucharist divorced from life loses reality; life devoid of worship loses direction and power. It is the worshipping life that can transform the world.”

Temple’s vision is of a Church that works with the state, redeeming the state, and making it more able to serve the welfare of all its citizens. That is an expression of the fact that he does believe in the state; he sees it as a revealed manifestation of divine will. This is where Anglicans can sometimes be in danger of baptizing the state or being religious apologists for the state. Temple, for example, despite now being venerated by Christian Socialists, opposed the General Strike of 1926 as too damaging to the state, and he was a staunch defender of the British Empire.

The second William is William Stringfellow. He was a young American who came to study at the LSE in the late 1940s with the explicit intention of researching the thought of Archbishop Temple. He was an Episcopalian but had not had a privileged childhood. He was very active in student Christian organisations and frequently represented them at the international ecumenical conferences that were gaining some traction in the postwar years.

Like most of our students at the LSE, Stringfellow was a very high flyer and he clearly harboured political ambitions. But while he was in London he did something which LSE students don’t often do: he decided to abandon ambition. He would write in 1982, “I was politically ambitious in my student days. But I had died to that during the time that I was a research fellow in England at the London School of Economics. It was then that I determined not to pursue politics as a career.”

Whatever his reasons for doing that, Stringfellow set himself on a path that saw him identifying with marginalized and excluded communities all his life. He trained as a lawyer at Harvard and on graduation moved into a tenement block in Harlem where he worked with a local parish providing free legal advice to anyone who needed it. This was the beginning of a life of activism for the disadvantaged. He was a prominent campaigner for civil rights, for gay rights, and against militarism. Indeed he and his partner were indicted for harbouring a Catholic priest who had destroyed Vietnam draft papers.

In Stringfellow we have a more radical Christian witness in which political order is cast as more hostile to the Gospel. Running through his theology is a Christian dynamic of the struggle against death and the resurrection’s power to overcome death in all its forms. Stringfellow draws on the Letter to the Ephesians which speaks of a struggle, not against flesh and blood, but against the “principalities and powers.”

But Stringfellow is not unpatriotic about America. He has high ideals about what America should be. But it is clear that he is far less positive about the current configuration of the state, and indeed its possibilities, than Temple. He describes the nation state as “the preeminent principality,” that which is most likely to be idolized and lead to death, both literal (as through militarism) and figurative (as in the death of justice, freedom and opportunity).

Christian life is about overcoming the principalities and powers, and fundamentally, Stringfellow sees the Church as a community that points to something far greater and more universal than the State. The event that founded the Church, the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, was a moment at which different races and speakers of different languages were drawn together. Stringfellow’s lifelong involvement in the international ecumenical movement can be seen as a desire for the Church to embrace more of its universal character and avoid being constrained by nationalism or any oppressive political order of the fallen world.

I do believe though that Stringfellow’s theology is still thoroughly Anglican rather than non-conformist, primarily because, exactly like Temple, he roots the political action of the Church in worship as the living enactment of scripture. He writes:

“At no point in the witness of the Church to the world is its integrity as a reconciled society more radical and cogent than in the liturgy, the precedent and consummation of that service which the Church of Christ and the members of this Body render to the world.”

These two Williams– Temple and Stringfellow – have contrasting political theologies. One essentially positive about the nation state and the capacities of the church to shape it. The other more radical and critical about the state.

Considering our contemporary political situation, I think we’ve got something to learn from both Temple and Stringfellow, pretty much in equal measure. What can they teach us?

On the one hand, we need to give a place to the state and to people’s aspirations for their national community. It seems to me we need to recognize that the divisions present in our countries have, in large part, arisen through the effect of what we might call the “secular Pentecost” of globalization.

  • Markets have globalized ripping industries out of many communities and moving them to more competitive parts of the world.
  • People have become more mobile, following the jobs and the money, so communities have become rapidly more diverse.

So many people are feeling that their communities and their country have changed dramatically in ways that have benefited white collar workers more than blue collar. And we shouldn’t rush to accuse people of bigotry or xenophobia in their concerns about how their communities have changed. It’s often pointed out in the UK that concerns about immigration are lower in very diverse communities like London than they are in less racially diverse areas. And that’s often seen by the cosmopolitan-minded as evidence that if people just embrace the changes globalization is bringing to their communities, they’ll learn to appreciate this diversity.

But researching I saw the reason for this is in fact that in London we have given up on community. We do not talk to our neighbours and we just seek out the like-minded through our professional and social networks to construct our own sense of community. But in less metropolitan areas people don’t want to give up on community. It hurts them that they have new neighbours who don’t speak the same language as them and who don’t come and drink with them in the pub. They want a strong sense of community build on shared values, language and understanding. That isn’t racism.

In response to this I think we need a good dose of Temple’s understanding of the state as a force which protects its citizens from market forces and which allows people to take pride in their nation, in its heritage and traditions. The Christian tradition has a strong sense of the sanctity of place, of nations having patron saints and purposes under God. Globalisation has robbed people of that, making every place the same place and leaving us feeling that no place is sacred, no place is special, no place is home. So we need Temple’s commitment to the state, and his understanding of worship that sanctifies our national community.

But on the other hand, we are also in urgent need of some incisive and effective critique of the state on Christian terms. We need Stringfellow’s understanding that the state can be our most dangerous idol and a powerful source of judgement and exclusion. Stringfellow would tell us that no Christian nation worthy of the name secures itself by excluding the refugee or the poor in the way that both our countries are seeing as an almost unquestioned logic at the present time. It is in the suffering stranger that we most clearly encounter Christ and in response to whom we are judged by God. So we need Stringfellow’s radicalism. We need his suspicion of the state and his understanding of worship as a witness against the idolatry of nationalism, money and ethnicity.

So we have two Williams, two political theologies but both grounded in our primary act as Anglicans of participating in God’s transformation of the world through worship. I think both are as relevant today as they ever were and I commend both their perspectives to you as sources of inspiration in our uncertain political times.

Posted by: Posted on by Angharad Thain

Apr 6 2017

Faith & Leadership: Presentations and Celebration

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The Faith Centre’s flagship programme, Faith & Leadership, is a religious literacy and leadership formation programme that gives participants the chance to meet with and question leaders of faith from all walks of life to enrich their understanding of how faith can influence and drive leadership in our world. After running every Monday evening in Lent term, and including an intensive weekend residential of seminar, training and panel sessions, the last evening is always slightly different.

All participants are given a chance to reflect in groups on a key theme that has emerged for them in the course of the programme, to present to the group and to receive their certificates of participation. We were privileged this year to be joined by Baroness Butler-Sloss, Chair of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, and an expert on the challenges at the intersection of faith, politics and modern life in Britain today.

Topics presented by the groups included the challenges of religion in the workplace, including the need for managers and senior leaders to have an understanding of how religious observance can impact on work, and what this diversity can bring to the team; the role and challenges of Faith Schools and the nuances within this definition; the lines and possible limits of the separation of church and state; interfaith marriage and how this is viewed within the Sikh tradition, and the ongoing persecution of Baha’is and what the international community can do to support faith minorities in contexts of persecution and fear.

Baroness Butler-Sloss commented on each presentation, stating that many of the themes the participants had touched on had emerged also during her series of nationwide meetings and focus groups for the Commission. Each participant received their certificates before we shared food and refreshments as a celebration of what had been learned and shared during the course.

Posted by: Posted on by Angharad Thain

Apr 6 2017

My time as a Graduate Intern at the Faith Centre

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Sofia Jamal reflects on her experience and learning during her post working with the Faith Centre team.

In my first year at LSE I was given the incredible opportunity to go on the Faith Centre’s first trip to Israel and Palestine. Two years later I decided to apply for and was accepted into the same Centre’s flagship Faith & Leadership programme. Three years after my initial experience with the organisation, I found myself interning in the very same place that shaped much of my time at LSE.

At the beginning of my internship my manager Dr James Walters sat me down to discuss what I’d like to gain from this role. I guess that is probably the biggest difference between a job placement and an internship, the latter is truly focused on building your skillset. This was extremely useful and encouraging for me as having been my first graduate job, I not only wanted to learn but knew that I had much to learn (to say the least!) Moreover, what was helpful was that I was asked what *I* would like to gain out of this role. Having discussed that I was interested in conflict resolution, I was then again given the chance to go on the Centre’s Interfaith Encounter trip but this time as a member of staff.

This trip for me was invaluable. Going as a member of staff I was able to learn not only from the organisations that we were engaging with but also the students who took part in the programme. Interacting with the students both on this trip and during my time in the Faith Centre in general really reminded me of the type of institution that LSE is. By the end of this internship I felt humbled to be around such an amazing, diverse group of people, many of whom I have no doubt will go on to be future leaders.

This job also reminded me of the need for more interfaith work, especially in today’s climate. As a visible Muslim in a time where Islamophobia is rampant I was encouraged by the fact that so many students who took part in our programmes were genuinely interested in understanding the worldview of others.

I would definitely encourage any graduates to take such an opportunity if it were to arise. I’m extremely grateful to the Faith Centre for having given me this opportunity, thank you so much.




Posted by: Posted on by Angharad Thain

Feb 21 2017

Faith & Leadership: Residential 2017

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It was a privilege to be hosted once again at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine for the Faith & Leadership Residential 2017. Last year the residential was a close to the programme, giving participants a chance to step back out of the busy schedule of the LSE and reflect on the key issues surrounding faith and leadership in such a diverse world. RFSK is a perfect setting for this, a retreat centre very close to Shadwell, but a bit of tranquillity in the midst of a city that never stops.

This year, the Faith Centre ran the residential earlier on in the programme, giving students a chance to get to know each other more closely, to eat together, to discuss themes brought by inspirational speakers and form a closer group for the duration of Faith & Leadership which runs until March.

The first afternoon consisted of a stellar panel to open, with Jonathan Hellewell, the Prime Minister’s Special Advisor for Faith Communities, Francis Campbell, former Ambassador to the Holy See, and current Vice-Chancellor of St Mary’s University, and Baroness Butler-Sloss, Chair of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life. The panel reflected on the relationship of faith to politics, how we make space for diverse opinions in public life, the challenges of this and the work that remains to be done in this burgeoning area of academic and public interest.

For the second Saturday session we welcomed Jasvir Singh OBE, family barrister and Chair of the City Sikhs Network and Foundation, recently recognised for his outstanding contribution to interfaith relations, Barbara Ridpath, Director of the St Paul’s Institute, and Professor Nava Ashraf, Director of Research at LSE Marshall Institute and from the Baha’i faith tradition. Following a scrumptious dinner, the group reconvened to hear Dr Desmond Biddulph CBE, President of The Buddhist Society reflect on The Buddhist Imagination.

On our final day, Revd Canon Dr James Walters, Chaplain to the LSE presided over an optional Eucharist in the chapel, giving Christian students a chance to worship in unique surroundings, and participants of other faiths a chance to experience an act of Christian worship.

The residential sessions on Sunday focused on the concepts underpinning leadership. Ruhana Ali, CEO of Nasiha Consulting, Programme Director for Common Purpose and LSE alumna led an energising interactive session on faith and values-driven leadership, including how to have conversations that go deeper, build genuine connections and inspire communities to movements for change. The residential finished with two intensive workshops on the four temperaments of leadership led by Krish Raval, Director of Faith in Leadership.

With much gratitude to our incredible panellists and speakers, our hosts at RFSK for making it such relaxing stay, and David Beecken, LSE alumnus for his generous funding which makes the residential possible.

Posted by: Posted on by Angharad Thain

Feb 9 2017

The Promise of Religion

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Ben Reiff is a first year International Relations undergraduate. Here he shares with us some of his reflections following this year’s Interfaith Encounter trip to Israel and Palestine.

The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams
Like the air over industrial cities,
It’s hard to breathe.
– Yehuda Amichai, Ecology of Jerusalem

In November 2014, the Yad B’Yad (“Hand in Hand”) bilingual school in Jerusalemp1020592 – one of six joint Jewish-Arab schools in Israel – was the victim of a religiously-motivated “price-tag” arson attack attributed to Jewish far-right organisation Lehava. Graffiti reading “there’s no coexistence with cancer” and “death to Arabs” was also found at the site. For many, this must have been proof that coexistence and interfaith efforts are futile in the Holy Land. The fact that only six such schools exist throughout Israel-Palestine attests to this further.

I recently visited this school on the LSE Faith Centre’s trip “Interfaith Encounter – Israel & Palestine” – a trip that took us from East Jerusalem to West Jerusalem, and from the Galilee to Bethlehem. Having spent my gap year in Israel last year I’d already seen much of what we were shown in our short time there. I’d also seen enough of the damage done by religion in the region to make me overwhelmingly pessimistic about religion altogether.

The arson attack on the Yad B’Yad school is but another in a centuries-long line of religiously-motivated attacks in the Holy Land which Jews, Muslims and Christians have perpetrated in the name of God – and but another in recent history too. 25 members of the Jewish Underground were arrested in 1984 after being discovered plotting to blow up the Dome of the Rock, in order to liberate Temple Mount for the creation of a Third Temple. The activities today of the Temple Institute in Jerusalem, which is preparing items with which to decorate a future Third Temple (under the motto “may it be rebuilt speedily and in our day”) will do little to allay Muslim fears that this phenomenon is in the past. The Second Intifada (or “al-Aqsa Intifada”) saw over 100 Palestinian suicide bombing attacks in little over five years, which were fuelled to some extent by fears over the future of that same piece of holy land – sparked by then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon entering Temple Mount/ al-Haram ash-Sharif with other Likud politicians and hundreds of Israeli police officers. And aside from the holy sites themselves, the violence of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict (Operation Protective Edge) was triggerp1020523ed largely by the kidnapping and murder by Palestinians of three religious Jewish teenagers in Gush Etzion.

One of the first people we met on the trip was a Palestinian-Israeli Christian woman from Haifa, named Soher. “In Haifa”, she tells us, “you can’t tell who’s Jewish and who’s Arab. You don’t see people walking around wearing black hats or hijabs.” It has always struck me that Haifa, a mixed Jewish-Arab city, is almost never mentioned in the news for incidents of religious violence. When asked why Haifa doesn’t see the violence Jerusalem sees on a daily basis, Soher replies “coexistence is so easy because everyone is secular.”

Secularism creates peace; religion creates war. With the region’s history of religious violence, it seems only logical.

And yet this exact logic, according to Holy Land Trust (a Palestinian Christian organisation in Bethlehem) director Sami Awad, was the reason for the failure of what he calls the “Oslo two-state framework”. “Oslo completely ignored the religious voice”, he explains. “It failed to address, for example, the fact that over 80% of Jewish historic religious sites are in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.” And the story is similar for Palestinian Christians: “Jesus lived in Nazareth; what did he do in Bethlehem? He left when he was two years old. If you want to study Jesus’ life, it’s Jerusalem, Nazareth and the Galilee. Yet I cannot go there without a specific permit.” Clearly, when the secular elites of Tel Aviv and Ramallah come together to make secular peace, there is always something missing. “We have to have the religious voice involved in peacemaking”, he concludes. “They said religion was the problem, but look what happened when they took religion out.”

We also met members of a grassroots organisation called Roots, which is aiming to build bridges between religious settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank that will serve as the foundations on which a future peace can be based. Shaul, a Jewish Israeli living in a settlement in Gush Etzion, follows a similar line to Sami: “We need to talk about 1948 more [rather than 1967]. Jaffa was a part of Palestine as much as Hebron and Nablus were parts of Israel.” He too is critical of the current formulations of the two-state solution, suggesting that “if a peace agreement is signed tomorrow, there will be terror attacks and price tag attacks on both sides”, since there are too many people – many of them religious – to whom these solutions are unsatisfactory. As such, Roots has set itself the goal of creating trust between thimg_3060e two peoples on a grassroots level. “Negotiation is the so-called ‘short way’ which is actually very long, while grassroots trust-building is the so-called ‘long-way’ which is actually more short.” Another problem, Shaul explains, is the claiming of ownership over the land, which he and his counterparts have a different way of seeing: “The land doesn’t belong to anybody; we belong to the land. Both peoples deeply belong to this land.” The secular peace-makers would do well to bear this in mind.

The religious voice is not some tiny minority that might go away if left on the outside for long enough. In the vast majority of formal and informal peace efforts in recent decades, the religious voice has indeed been excluded, and naturally there is no peace to show for it. Too often it is labelled “extremist” in an attempt to silence it; the peaceful majority are lumped together with the violent minority and the whole lot are stigmatised. But it’s time we learnt to listen to what those voices have to say. Sami explained that “religious leaders here have a much bigger influence on their followers than secular and political leaders.” So regardless of whether or not you believe in God, it is both illogical and dangerous to neglect the religious voice – on either side.

During our tour of the Old City of Jerusalem, we were told a story that took place in the 7th century C.E.. Caliph Omar, the Muslim ruler at the time, went to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Upon arrival, he was invited to pray inside. But, knowing that if he did so his Muslim followers would order that the church be turned into a mosque, he declined. So instead he prayed outside the church, and on that location now stands the Mosque of Omar. It serves as a constant reminder of the need for religious understanding.img_1883

This understanding was on display everywhere we went. In Nazareth, we met the Imam of the White Mosque who is preaching passionately in favour of the two-state solution. In Bethlehem, Sami told us how the Holy Land Trust is raising money to send a handful of Palestinian leaders each year to Auschwitz in order to gain a deeper understanding of the Jewish people’s trauma. In Gush Etzion, Shaul told us how Roots activists on both sides pay visits to the sites or families that have just experienced violence or loss, to show solidarity with them and to condemn the attacks. And finally in Jerusalem, at the Yad B’Yad school, we heard how they received messages of love, support and strength from Jews and Palestinians alike, encouraging them to stand up in the face of adversity and persevere with their interfaith mission.

It is critical that religion no longer be viewed only as something that is problematic to peace in the region. A two-state solution will simply not be possible unless the fears of the religious are addressed. But if indeed their concerns are taken into consideration, and their leaders are brought into the peace process, then religion has the ability to serve as the means to that very peace. Religion might just be peace’s best hope.


Posted by: Posted on by Sofia Jamal

Oct 19 2016

Am I My Brother’s Keeper? Faith Communities Responding to the Syrian Refugee Crisis

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Syria is the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 4 million people have fled Syria since 2011 and almost 9 million people are predicted to be internally displaced in 2016. Responses from the international community to address this crisis have fallen short. However, faith communities and faith-based organisations have increasingly come together to engage in humanitarian work to help alleviate this suffering.

Last month, the LSE Fimg_2849aith Centre hosted a panel discussion “Am I My Brother’s Keeper? Faith Communities Responding to the Syrian Refugee Crisis”. This event highlighted the responsibility of faith communities to participate in humanitarian activities and introduced the audience to some of the initiatives already in place to address the Syrian refugee crisis. We were honoured by the participation of Dr Georgette Bennett, founder of the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees (MFA); Mr. Shadi Martini, Senior Syria Advisor of the MFA and Syrian refugee from Aleppo; and Mrs. Angela Afzal, Refugee Response Coordinator for Capital Mass (a joint initiative of the Diocese of London and Church Urban Fund). The discussion was chaired by Revd Canon Dr James Walters, Chaplain and Senior Lecturer of the LSE.  Continue reading

Posted by: Posted on by Luis Humberto Benitez Gonzalez

Mar 24 2016

Meaningful Mondays: Faith & Leadership 2016

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On March 7th Craig Calhoun, Director of LSE, presented the 25 Faith & Leadership 2016 participants with their graduation certificates.

Faith & Leadership is an extracurricular programme that aims to deepen student’s understanding of different religions, develop their leadership skills and enhance their potential as young world leaders.

Ruhana Ali SessionThe 2016 programme, which was over-subscribed 3 places to 1, received hugely positive feedback from participants and contributors, and has paved the way for its continuation in forthcoming years.

“Challenging”, “Transformative”, “Rewarding” are three words used to summarise the experience of the Faith & Leadership programme.

The first part of the course is dedicated to improving participants’ religious literacy. Each week guest speakers from different religious backgrounds are asked to expound the imagination of their particular faith. What is the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist imagination? A dynamic series of discussions were led by Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand (Director of JHub), the Rt Revd & Rt Hon Richard Chartres (Bishop of London), Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad (University of Cambridge), Dr Desmond Biddulph (President of the Buddhist Society) and Dr Opinderjit Kaur Takhar (University of Wolverhampton). Continue reading

Posted by: Posted on by Rebecca Hardie

Mar 16 2016

LSE Holocaust Memorial Commemoration

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HolocaustMemorialCommem2016LSE Faith Centre organized the Holocaust Memorial Commemoration on Tuesday 26th January in the Shaw Library. The theme of this year’s Commemoration is ‘Don’t Stand By’. The Holocaust is constituted of millions of personal tragedies and stories of suffering and loss. The historical undeniability of the Holocaust is borne out in how it has shaped our institutions in concrete ways that we may take for granted. This includes the LSE which played an extraordinary role of hospitality to refugees from the Holocaust (at a time when antisemitism was common in England too) and benefited immensely from their expertise, including that of the great Austrian Jewish philosopher Karl Popper. This need not have been so and former Director Ralf Dahrendorf remarked:

It is a comment on the LSE that those who came were made to feel at home, and that those who received them on the whole felt at ease with the newcomers.

At this year’s Holocaust Memorial Commemoration we were grateful for contributions from the LSE Choir, Professor Janet Hartley, Rebecca Hardie (Faith Centre Coordinator), Bryn Laxton-Coglon (LSE LGBT Officer) and Joe Grabiner (LSE Politics and Philosophy Student). Below Joe Grabiner transcribes his honest and moving story of what the Holocaust Memorial means to him and his family.

“Thank you. Talking about genocide, and thinking about the lost lives of many millions of innocent people is not an altogether obvious or easy way to spend a Tuesday afternoon. So thank you for being here. Continue reading

Posted by: Posted on by Rebecca Hardie