This New Year, the media’s focus was back on Northern Ireland, my home country. Only this time it wasn’t about bombings, shootings or kidnappings, but the extra- marital affair of NI’s First Lady, Iris Robinson.
Good old normal politics had finally returned to Northern Ireland. But while an affair between a 59 year old and a teenager could happen anywhere, the response to the affair was uniquely Northern Irish. Nowhere else could such an incident have triggered the threat of increased sectarian tension. And yet this is exactly what is at stake in a frighteningly fragile peace process. The slightest hiccup could bring the whole house of cards crashing down and threaten to restart the longest civil war in world history which claimed over 3,500 lives during the last 40 years and has left many living in segregation, still viewing ‘the other side’ through a prism of suspicion and fear. The causes of the ‘Troubles’ are complex but religious intolerance is clearly the main culprit.
Ireland has had a painful history of religious intolerance dating back to the infamous Penal Laws, banning or attacking anything Catholic in predominantly Catholic Ireland, the denial of soup to those who would not convert to Protestantism during the Famine which was to claim a million lives and vicious retaliations leading to the slaughter of innocent Protestants. And yet there is nothing whatsoever in the teachings of either Christian denomination that justifies this; nothing that should have lead to such violence. Rather, it has been ignorance and political opportunism that has caused so many of these tragedies; and continues to threaten them today. The ability to turn religious difference into religious intolerance relies on the ability to misrepresent differing opinions while alluding to political and social prejudice. I remember a ten year old Catholic child boy telling me that of course he knew Protestant beliefs, “Don’t they believe in God the dog and God the cow and all that?” Reverend Ian Paisley himself denounced the Pope as the antichrist to his face. It is when religion ceases to be about God and turns tribal that religious intolerance thrives. Catholicism means being a Republican and Protestantism means wanting British rule; these are hijackings of religion. There was never a petrol bomb thrown in the name of the Sacrament of Confession or a bomb in defiance of papal authority; rather it was people abusing religion for their own ends.
This is not just an Irish problem. Increasingly, being a Muslim can be seen to mean simply being against ‘American Imperialism’. A no doubt insulting thought for true Islamic believers and yet Islam was so clearly abused in the case of the failed December bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, ex-president of the UCL Islamic Society. It is against such people that all religions must unite. We cannot deny the immense and powerful beliefs common to all our faiths. We cannot allow prejudice to cloud our view of other religions. Yet it is people such as Abdulmutallab who claim centre stage- just as with Northern Ireland it has often been the extremists whose bombs spoke louder than the prayers of others. As the great Irishman W B Yeats said, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”.
But the ‘best’ are out there; challenging religious intolerance and promoting interreligious understanding. This year saw the birth of Imperial College Interfaith; a new society, comprised entirely of students, set up to do just that. Uniting Christians, Muslims, Baha’is, Jains, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs and Buddhists, the society is taking apart misunderstandings between faiths by encouraging dialogue. The fantastic opening event in November (Unifaith) was a perfect example of this, bringing together speakers from six different religions under the one banner of understanding. This coming week marks the Union’s One World week, at which Interfaith is set to have a large presence with stalls on Monday and a massive Question Time style event on science and religion. This is Imperial students standing against religious intolerance, creating not just passive tolerance but dialogue and understanding. This is Imperial College Interfaith.