Reflections on religion this Ramadan
By: Peter Millett
During Ramadan, the pace of life in the Middle East changes. Office hours reduce and the rhythm of meetings slows down. The traffic in the morning is quieter and the roads are almost empty in the early evening before dusk. The social round concentrates on iftars and family gatherings.
Muslims all around the world show great self-discipline in fasting during this holy month. Just as they use this time to achieve greater self-awareness, so others can use this month to think about the role of religion in the world.
Religion is an unusual subject for a diplomat. But it is clearly relevant to the problems and conflicts we have to deal with. It is also a hugely sensitive subject that stirs up deep-rooted emotions. So we should tread with extreme care.
Does tolerance mean simply turning a blind eye to the demands of others? Should tolerance extend to those who preach hatred, revenge and the use of violence? Obviously not
Religion is a massive source of good. It helps to guide people in their daily lives and inspires compassion and understanding for others. It has helped to create some of the most beautiful buildings in the world. These cathedrals, mosques, synagogues and temples are testament to the power faith.
Too often distorted
But religion is too often distorted to inspire hatred and violence. It is also used as a cover for those who want to grab land, money and power.
This distortion isn’t new. History is littered with the corpses of people killed in the name of religion. The Crusades were launched in the 12th century as a “just war,” though they led to terrible suffering. In 16th century England, both Catholics and Protestants suffered horrible deaths for their faith. The Thirty Years War in Europe in the 17th century caused the deaths of almost 10 million people.
Discrimination and persecution on religious grounds continue in modern times. This year we have seen religion abused in different ways, e.g. to justify the kidnap of Christian girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria. The Muslim extremists in Syria and Iraq have persecuted those who do not accept their doctrine, culminating in the declaration of the Caliphate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. And in Jerusalem, the crucible of three great religions, the status quo at Al-Aqsa mosque is at risk.
Religious extremists are characterized by the poison of bigotry. As we have seen on many tragic occasions, they are prepared to commit atrocious terrorist attacks in the name of religion. This includes sending their own followers to commit suicide, often killing people who belong to their own religion.
What they lack is tolerance
What they lack is tolerance: the ability to respect and accept the views of others. These extremists believe that they have a monopoly on truth which they use to justify the crimes that they commit against their innocent victims. The concepts of brotherhood, understanding, mercy and forgiveness are not part of their vocabulary.
These concepts are the core values of all the major religions along with tolerance, compassion and mutual respect. Between religions there is a rich diversity of practices but many shared values.
We should celebrate these common values: the desire for justice, fairness and personal dignity that unites faiths. We should insist on freedom of religion as a basic human right and vigorously combat religious intolerance. And we should encourage interfaith dialogue as a way to promote mutual understanding.
Does tolerance mean simply turning a blind eye to the demands of others? Should tolerance extend to those who preach hatred, revenge and the use of violence? Obviously not. A strong, fair, confident society tolerance should not mean overlooking instances where religion is used as a cloak for dogmatism and enmity. There must be a limit to tolerance where extremists use violence to impose their will.
Tolerance is at the heart of countries round the world that enjoy stability and prosperity. During Ramadan it is worth recalling one of the verses from the Quran: “There shall be no compulsion in religion.”
Peter Millett is the British Ambassador to Jordan. Previously he was British High Commissioner to Cyprus from June 2005 to April 2010. He has served in a number of positions in the British Diplomatic Service since joining in 1974. He was Director of Security in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 2002-2005, dealing with all aspects of security for British diplomatic missions overseas. From 1997-2001 he served as Deputy Head of Mission in Athens. From 1993-96 Mr Millett was Head of Personnel Policy in the FCO. From 1989-93 he held the post of First Secretary (Energy) in the UK Representative Office to the European Union in Brussels, representing the UK on all energy and nuclear issues. From 1981-1985 he served as Second Secretary (Political) in Doha.