The south Asian communities are bringing a palpable warmth to the chilly British Isles and to classic British reserve, a reserve which is expressed even in the very architecture of British homes. London streets are lined with row houses that boast lovely little gardens and picket fences, any back door accessible only from a circuitous route, all tastefully sealed off.
And to this, the south Asian communities have something special to offer. With their values on community cohesion, expressed in large family get-togethers, neighborhood parties, and communal events, the Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi cultures offer a welcome warmth.
And Mr Afzal Choudhry is building upon this. Journalist for three Urdu – speaking television news channels, one based in London, the other two in his native Pakistan, Afzal Choudhry is broadcasting his special message of peace making via his unique synthesis of South Asian community values and the civil rights, freedoms, and high value on tolerance that he discovered, to his delight, upon his immigration to the United Kingdom. The multi-tasking Search Peace Foundation, of which he is founder and president, is his avenue.
“I came to Great Britain and was so impressed by the civil rights and the culture of tolerance that is promoted here. After being associated with Robin Marsh’s Universal Peace Federation for several years, I wanted to form my own group. I saw that religion was getting a bad name, being blamed for every act of intolerance, and I wanted to address this. I believe it is the extremists that are giving religion a bad name, not religion itself.”
The Search Peace Foundation’s slogan is, “Cohesion Among Mankind”, followed by, “Embrace everybody, accept everyone, no matter which religion, community, color or race he/she belongs to.”
From Sufi music to cross cultural cricket matches to intercultural workshops, SPF is committed to community cohesion, offering its activities and services to everybody. SPF also assists those immigrants who are detained at the border, providing legal assistance when needed. A foreign worker from Hungary had complications with his immigration papers, it was SPF that assisted him. SPF also provides support to the Sadia camp for the disabled, a children’s school for orphans, and is now increasing its activities in interfaith dialogue and enhancing women’s empowerment.
I suppose I was the beneficiary of the latest two initiatives, as I was invited to speak at the Search Peace Foundation’s two day annual peace conference, September 2019. There, leaders from various religions gathered to receive awards for their work in building bridges. I took the opportunity to set forth a message of unity by recalling the scriptural roots of the very Parliament in which we were sitting, reformed by John Selden in the 17th century, one of the Christian Hebraists who revived the study of the ancient Hebrew Commonwealth as a basis for modern political science. I used my allotted time to declare,“according to the vision of John Selden, who reformed the English Parliament, decreasing the powers of the monarch in line with what he saw as the balance of powers described in the ancient Hebrew Commonwealth, the role of the government is to enforce only the minimum amount of laws that ensure civil order, and left room for deeply religious communities such as the Quakers, Seekers and Ranters. Various Christian groups would be granted religious freedom, with ‘no windows into men’s souls’.”
Indeed, the Qur’an also possesses sources for tolerance, here are two:
To every people (is given) a rasul (law giver): when their law giver comes before them, the matter will be judged between them with justice and they will not be wronged. Al Yunus 10:47
Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians, any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. Al Baqarah 2:62
Tolerance cannot be far from an authentic Muslim world view if the moment Muslim immigrants land on British soil, and upon encountering the many efforts at harmony that are being promoted in the UK, they feel they have returned home. A study by the University of Essex found that the percentage of British Muslims who strongly identify as British is actually higher that their compatriots, including those of Anglo Saxon stock. I saw this in Mr. Choudhry’s enthusiasm for the tolerance and civil rights that he found in the UK.
He quipped, “Pakistan is more fundamentalist, it does not have the culture of tolerance that we enjoy here in the UK.”
And at his position as reporter for Urdu – language television stations Takbeer TV, based in the UK, and the Pakitsani based Hum News, and ARY News, which broadcast in the Urdu language by both internet and satellite, Mr. Choudhry is paying back the good that he has found in British culture, spreading the word of harmony globally. He has also written a book called, “The Search”, which summarizes the major world religions. He states his view that two parent religions branched into the many we have today.
“I understand that there are two major religions in the world, one is the religion of prophets, which stems from Noah, to Moses, Jesus, then Muhammad (pbuh) (branching into Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Noachidism). The other, Hinduism, is a philosophy of life based upon the customs and culture of the Indus valley. The parent Hindu religion branched into Buddhism, Sikhism, Taoism, Jainism, Shintoism, Confucianism. But regardless of nation, culture, race or religion, all people are born the same way, we die the same way, so we should embrace each other. All religions have different schools of thought. But even among those various schools of thought, they read the same books and share the basic core beliefs.” He went on to stress underlying unity: even among the Abrahamic faiths, we are monotheists who believe in prophets, the Last Day, prayer, fasting. Every religion has its extremists, and every religion has those who are bridge builders.
And this enthusiasm drove him to convene the recent conference, which was against the backdrop of the controversial Brexit issue, currently being debated heatedly in Parliament and among the British people. Independence, or stay united with the European continent? When the referendum was voted upon in June 2016, the results were neck and neck, 52% of Britons voted to withdraw, 48% to remain. This issue is threatening to divide the UK itself, with Scotland pledging to exit the UK if the UK exits the European Union. Protesters outside Parliament represented both sides, one in a chicken costume, clucking in a mock gesture that you need courage to stand up and leave, others demanding a unity borne of global values.
Against this backdrop, Afzal Choudhry stated,
“…in Parliament I hosted an event on interfaith and humanity, with Search Peace Foundation. I am honored to highlight the importance of interfaith work…, especially against the backdrop of the current climate. With the increase and spike in hate crime, and society now divided more than ever, we must work on promoting interfaith and intercultural harmony.
”It was great to hear contributions from a diverse line up of panelists, including Parliamentarians and representatives from the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist faiths.
”All faiths share universal values rooted in harmony, humanity and respect. It is important that we build bridges and encourage interfaith engagement and dialogue.
No religion teaches division and hatred, and to echo the words of the late Jo Cox, ‘We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us’.”
There are indeed many efforts currently in promoting tolerance in the UK. Among the speakers at the conference, one mayor described the interfaith day that his town hosts, with a parade that visits every house of worship, followed by group discussions of the teachings of each faith.
One recipient of the award was Hafiz Abdullah Muhammad, who
runs the Qur’an Study group, an inclusive framework in which
people from all walks of life can learn the Qur’an in an authentic,
non-judgemental space. You will meet women scientists who wear full
hijab (one is a neuroscientist, another just finished her PhD in, gulp,
chemical engineering), students, Muslims, non Muslims, anyone who just
wishes to learn. Now that deserves a peace award!
The British Council, an independent organization with offices in 110 countries, whose stated purpose is to“build mutually beneficial relationships between people in the UK and other countries and to increase appreciation of the UK’s creative ideas and achievements”, encourages students from abroad who wish to study in the UK:
“As a multi-faith society, students of all religions can expect to feel welcome in the UK, along with plenty of places to practise their faith. With a history of multiculturalism dating back hundreds of years, we have well-established communities representing all major religions, and a deep commitment to supporting students’ religious needs on campus.”
And, the home page of one typical English school states:
“The Government emphasises that schools are required to ensure that key ‘British Values’ are taught in all UK schools. The government set out its definition of British values in the 2011 Prevent Strategy.”
“The five British Values are:
- The rule of law
- Individual liberty
- Mutual respect
- Tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs”
So efforts at tolerance abound in the UK, among tensions surrounding Brexit and among tensions that any modern society faces. British Muslims attested to these positive efforts in conversation with me; a recent immigrant from France noted the contrast between the UK and France, “here,” she said, “people are really making an effort to be friendly and tolerant. The leaders are at the forefront of this, and what leaders do, one hopes, influences the rest of society.”
And the roots of those efforts at tolerance, revived by the Christian Hebraists including John Selden, and promoted in British culture today, are scripture itself.
South Asian flair for the communal, and tolerance as promoted in the UK, are the inspiring forces behind Afzal Choudhry’s work. Expect to see more from the dynamic, multi-tasking Search Peace Foundation.