Wednesday, 12 June 2013
A speech given at Strengthening Partnership Working Between Local Authorities and Voluntary and Faith Groups on 6 June 2013.
I found some time to read parts of the report ‘Faith and belief in partnership Effective collaboration with local government’. I noted that part of the report discusses the Near Neighbours programme, as the Christian Muslim Forum is one of the delivery partners of Near Neighbours, the most useful approach I can take is to describe our involvement.
I would like to take some credit, together with one of our previous Co-Chairs, Imam Musharraf Hussain, for the germ of the Near Neighbours programme. Musharraf had the idea of an ‘imams and vicars’ conference with a focus on community cohesion, learning from each other and being role models. Seven years on, although we have explored different ways of delivery we are still doing the same thing.
We are very conscious that nothing happens in isolation, our first Muslim co-chair, Dr Ataullah Siddiqui pointed out at our launch in 2006 that there is always a third partner in Christian-Muslim dialogue, secular society. There are various ways of describing society and when I say ‘secular’ I mean not explicitly religious, procedural secularism. We are also talking about different groups and sectors, people generally, statutory bodies, local councils, Government. What these groups tend to share, and it’s probably been mentioned already is a lack of faith awareness or faith literacy. This can sometimes be seen quite negatively by people of faith and I often hear Christians and Muslims talking about ‘aggressive secularism’. However, I believe that we must take the challenges of dialogue and relationship-building seriously and positively without applying negative labels.
So, after a little diversion perhaps, Near Neighbours exists in this shared space where government and the faith sector coexist and interact. It does represent government investment in the faith sector, but especially in the cohesion agenda. The report I referred to at the beginning rightly points out that this is less of an investment than by the previous government. However, I don’t think any of us can deny that money is tight and expecting more would be unrealistic, though Near Neighbours 2 has bigger ideas.
And Near Neighbours is about partnership, largely between Christians and Muslims, as the largest faith groups and also reflecting the areas where local grants are being made available. For us, partnership is at the heart of all our work and its possibilities inform the way we organise our Near Neighbours initiatives. Thus, Christian and Muslim leaders attending in pairs, exploring opportunities together and initiating local projects.
The report also talks about building relationships, for us this is crucial and is what we promote through Near Neighbours, and relationships take time. In many places we have a harmonious society and people of faith get along well with each other and with the local authorities, with Leicester being a very good example, as highlighted in the report. In other places not enough is happening, and the activities of the Far Right threaten peaceful coexistence. It would be a great benefit to our work, and others, if there was a wider appreciation and understanding of the intentions of faith groups, their needs and potential contributions. Many inter faith initiatives do not need a great deal of resourcing but, as Near Neighbours shows, a small grant can make all the difference. Local funding has brought communities together, enabled them to explore new ideas or serve the community, thinking of homeless and parenting support initiatives.
For ourselves a large part of our work has been our women’s initiative ‘Come to the Edge’ which has been both staggeringly successful and popular and was not originally one of our main themes. But, women were not being listened to, did not have safe spaces in which to meet or have their achievements recognised. We held a celebration and awards event a few months ago in London, bringing together women from around the country. One of the women to whom we gave an award convenes the London Boroughs Faith Network and is a leading inter faith and peace activist. I think that she would be better able to address the issues on the agenda today than I am. I note, as I often do, that the men on the panel today, outnumber the women. Which is why I highlight our women’s programme. My female colleague in Leicester has been able to connect different groups of women and put them in touch with each other. We are launching the Muslim-Christian Women’s Network in Leicester in a few weeks’ time, an expression of partnership.
But what is needed is local capacity-building. The Big Society is all about harnessing capacity, and passion, however the faith sector seriously lacks capacity. Busy people are busy and are asked to do more and often they do, but there are limits and groups are not geared up to do more. One of the issues that we constantly face is the problem, as we seek to promote greater engagement and interaction, of making additional demands on organisations and individuals who are already stretched, over-stretched. The beauty of the women’s network in Leicester is that a small amount of extra resource has enabled our colleague to make connections, meet people, do some outreach work, document it and manage the publicity and communications. We hope to sustain this work but funding is limited and I see a continuing need for people to do the outreach, development and networking work until it becomes self-sustaining. Local investment in capacity-building would be a good way forward and the benefits would be two-way if it enabled faith awareness and sensitivity to be communicated back to local authorities, though some of them are not lacking in this area.
There are further challenges in how local areas engage with the activities of the Far Right and there must be opportunities for the peaceful efforts and concerns of faith groups to be taken up more widely by local authorities and Government. Dialogue and meeting are an essential aspect of this and I believe that this is one of the key things that inter faith organisations can role model for the statutory sector and where there is a gap in society. In many ways we struggle to promote the things that should already be happening and fill the gaps that have emerged because we are focused on procedural approaches which fall short of promoting human flourishing. Witnessing this flourishing in Near Neighbours initiatives has been hugely encouraging and heart-warming.
Director, Christian Muslim Forum