Boris Johnson visited the Husseini Mosque in Northholt during his mayoral campaign in 2008. Photo: Getty
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Should religion ever play a role in policy-making?

As market and utilitarian analyses increasingly dominate our public discourse, religious voices could offer fresh insights.

This week Faith Minister Baroness Warsi resigned from Government. She was a keen advocate for David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ initiative and in particular played an impressive role in encouraging faith communities to be more involved in the policy making process.  These days there is, quite understandably, a surge of interest in religion when those purporting to act in its name do bad things. Much of the criticism of religion’s role in society derives from unfamiliar tenets, the real or imagined divisions it creates in society, and abuses carried out in its name. Indeed, for many it is regarded as an outdated and even dangerous impediment to the advancement of a civilised and mature society, replaced and made redundant by science and a secular humanism.

But this tells only one side of a very complex story, since huge swathes of the world's population hold religious belief as a powerful source of motivation and moral vision, and answers to the basic questions of human existence. Generations have passed on wisdom, justified values, and binded society through religion, creating harmonious and vibrant communities (if politicised variants of religion are avoided).

Indeed, as our public discourse becomes increasingly narrowed by strictly market or utilitarian analysis, it’s worth considering religious voices for fresh insights on the moral, ethical and spiritual dimensions of a wide variety of public issues ranging from climate change and education to poverty and urban violence.

You will find that religious actors are not reticent in coming forward with ideas, resources and proposals aimed at public policy change. Citizens of a religious background not only have a right to participate in the policy-making process but have valuable contributions to make to the common good when they do so. In recent years has been a surge in interfaith policy activism on both sides of the Atlantic across diverse policy domains, influencing visionary decisions by urban policymakers.

In the US, interfaith groups in states including Georgia, Hawaii, and Massachusetts have already made impactful contributions to the policy process. For example, in the most populous Hawaiian island of Oahu, Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE) has worked hard since its creation in 1996 to improve access to public services. FACE, a non-profit interfaith group that includes 38 churches, a Buddhist temple, and two Jewish congregations, helped end discrimination against non-English speakers who were unable to sit the driver's licence exam. The exam is now offered in 12 languages in addition to English, a welcome development that will help counter reduced access to employment and an increase in uninsured drivers.

In Europe, the traditionally Catholic Nordrhein Westfalia region of Germany has seen faith based social service agencies grow into a national advisory council that advises the government on social service policies. Interfaith activists in London have joined with community leaders, social activists and businesses to alleviate poverty by campaigning for a more equitable living wage. Since its inauguration in 2001, the Living Wage Campaign has boosted the wages of tens of thousands of low-income employees by over £210 million.

These examples contradict the view of religious actors as merely promoting forums for bland conversational niceties while ignoring the more difficult aspects civic life. Indeed, the process of arriving at a shared understanding of the common good and the approaches, methods and instruments by which this can be realised may contribute to greater levels of mutual trust and collective action among a diverse citizenry, a vital pre-requisite for a more cohesive, flourishing society.

Interfaith leaders engaged in this process deserve credit for their persistent and results-oriented work in the policy field and their capacity for innovative solutions. In spite of this, engagement with religious actors remains contentious among those who fear the illiberal consequences of a resurgent religion in the public square.

There are conceptual and practical challenges as well. There is no common denominator about the nature of religion and its potentially transformative role in the life of society. Policymakers need to set aside the common assumption that any role for religion in society is a Trojan Horse for conversion. Similarly, religious actors will need to reassure their secular partners that their efforts to contribute to the social good are free from any hidden agenda to coerce their views on others.

If this engagement between religious actors and policy makers can be optimised, the benefit to wider society, particularly in urban and deprived areas, would be enormous. It will require courage and tolerance from all of us.

Muddassar Ahmed is a Patron of the Faiths Forum for London and Kishan Manocha is a Vice-Chair of the Inter Faith for the UK.

Photo: Getty
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“I’m frightened, genuinely frightened”: how London terror attacks affect the rest of the country

What happens to tourism after terrorism? 

Like many children his age, Adele Pillinger’s six-year-old son is “obsessed” with dinosaurs. Last year, the mother of two from Silsden, West Yorkshire, booked a family trip to London so her two sons could visit the fossil-filled Natural History Museum. They were to go in October 2017 – next month. But last week, Pillinger cancelled the trip.

“I feel it’s too much of a risk,” says the 38-year-old, who made the decision to cancel after the Parsons Green tube attack last Friday. “I’ve got two young children… I wouldn’t put them in harm’s way and that’s what I feel like I’d be doing by taking them to London at the moment.”

Pillinger is not isolated in her decision. Although it is difficult to count the precise impact of terrorism on London tourism, the Westminster Bridge attack in March and London Bridge attack in June saw school trips being cancelled and many changing their plans to visit the capital. Headlines after terror often speak of resilient city-dwellers keeping calm and carrying on, but the effect of terrorism on the psyche – and plans – of others in the country is little discussed.
Adele's son, via Adele Pillinger
“I’m frightened. I’m genuinely frightened,” says Pillinger. “I feel genuinely sorry for you guys [Londoners] because you kind of have to crack on with it. I’m sure if it was happening on our doorstep we’d probably feel the same way… but I wouldn’t visit for pleasure at the moment, I can make a decision to not do it.” Instead, Pillinger plans to take her family mountain-biking in Wales.  

Cori Clarke, a 30-year-old teaching assistant from York, has recently decided against taking her six-year-old son Jude to visit his great-grandmother, who lives in London. “Last summer I took my daughter for a few days in London, a sort of girls’ weekend, and this year was going to be my son’s turn. But with what’s happened, I’m just not going to take him.”

Although she’s aware it may sound hypocritical, Clarke does agree with people who say that cancelling plans is “letting the terrorists win” – and she even persuaded her mother against cancelling her own separate trip, planned for November. “I would say you can’t let these people stop your plans, which I know is contradictory,” explains Clarke, “but I don’t want my son seeing anything; I think he’d be absolutely terrified if anything happened… I just thought it’s not worth it basically.”

Many other parents face similar decisions to Pillinger’s and Clarke’s. Primary school children were trapped in the Houses of Parliament during the Westminster attack in March, and schools across the country have been reassessing their planned trips to London. If schools go ahead with their plans, mums and dads then face the difficult decision of whether or not to isolate their children by pulling them out of the trip.

“I just said no, it just seemed too recent,” says Milli Brazier, a 27-year-old from Southend, Essex, who pulled her nine-year-old daughter out of a trip to visit the Science Museum after the Westminster attack. Though the school originally intended to cancel the trip, it went ahead after parents complained. Brazier and a few other parents decided against letting their children go.

“To be honest the school’s not the most organised school and the thought of if anything did happen… the idea of the school not being able to organise the children and keep them safe…” Brazier trails off. “I think as a parent if you’re not comfortable sending your child anywhere… if it’s not right for you as a parent, then you shouldn’t do it.”
Milli and her family, via Milli Brazier
Like Pillinger, the mother from Silsend, Brazier feels that the rest of the country doesn’t have to “carry on” like Londoners do after attacks. “If you live in London you have to carry on, but if you’re making an unnecessary trip to me it just seems a little bit pointless to take that risk when you don’t need to,” she says. “If I didn’t have children I’d probably do it myself but it’s different when you have children.”

Neither Pillinger, Brazier or Clarke know when they will feel comfortable enough to visit the capital again. “I don’t feel the government is doing enough to make people feel safe,” says Pillinger. When people accuse her of letting the terrorists “win” by changing her plans, she has a succinct reply.

“I would say that I think they’re already winning,” she says, “because we’re not doing anything about it. Everyone’s entitled to feel how they feel about it but I think they’re already winning because I’m frightened…

“It’s not normal what’s happening, it’s not normal and it’s not right and I do think the government needs to get a grip on it and do something more about it.”

By the end of the year, it will perhaps be easier to see the financial impact terrorism has had on London’s tourist industry. It's worth noting that, at present, you're more likely to be killed by a dog or by hot water than by a terrorist. But regardless, it is clear that some families' perception of the capital has changed. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.