12 May 2007

Marching together on common ground

By Marguerite Finn

Last summer a Peace Camp was held at the Forum in Norwich. There were no tents or caravans – just a gathering of people representing a variety of different groups and organisations in Norwich coming together to exchange views and learn from each other.

The gathering was unique in that it was the brain-child of members of the Norwich and Norfolk Muslim Association. So often accused of retreating into their own communities and not integrating with wider British society, members of the Muslim community took the lead on this occasion, in a bid to find the common ground between individuals of different cultures and faiths – including those of no particular faith. And it worked! In fact, it was a phenomenal success and lasting friendships, across different faiths and cultures, were made.

This month, on Sunday 27 May, the Norwich Peace Camp will be there again – and this time it will be even bigger, covering half of the Atrium in the Forum. All last year’s member organisations will be taking part again along with some new ones and everyone, young and old, is invited to come along and participate in this day-long event devoted to peace and better inter-communal relations. There will be stalls, a great atmosphere, information galore - and maybe even some food to sample!

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of events like this in today’s polarizing world. Multiculturalism – as a dogma – is not delivering liberté, égalité or fraternité in the ways originally intended. I watched the Panorama programme on television earlier this week and was surprised and saddened by the situation which has developed in Blackburn where the Asian Muslim and white populations have virtually retreated into separate parts of the city, with little or no interaction between them. The commentator said that the two communities lived "parallel lives" and that separation had entered "every aspect of their lives". This separation means that young people tend to stay strictly within their own areas. Neither group uses the city centre much, other than for visiting hospitals, shopping – and for marches and processions.

The Blackburn Muslim community organised a march to celebrate an aspect of their religion. The march was peaceful in origin and execution but all the flags, banners and chants were in Arabic. As a result, the non-Muslim section of the community looked on nervously, uncertain what the banners and chants were about and this peaceful and colourful event produced negative feelings of fear and exclusion in on-lookers and passers-by. A few days later, a march organised by the white community to celebrate St. George produced similar feelings of unease and exclusion in the non-white community! Leaders of both communities are working hard to overcome this fear and unfamiliarity before it degenerates into hatred.

Perhaps the most poignant example of the divisiveness of flag-waving is the 'orange and green marching season' in Northern Ireland. The recent, long overdue power-sharing agreement between Unionists and Republicans, which this week ushered in the new Northern Ireland government at Stormont, will, we hope, see the hatred that infused these marches being replaced, as the two communities become more accustomed to working with instead of against each other. Will we then see the aggressiveness of the marching season' replaced by all inclusive, joyful celebrations of life - such as Mardi Gras and the Notting Hill Festival – and not a flag in sight?

Some people argue that multiculturalism is failing women, others argue that the political left-wing of western society is too silent on the often reactionary agenda of political islamist groups, in order to preserve alliances or to be seen to be 'politically correct'. Either of these subjects would fill a whole column on their own! However, we do live in a multicultural society and we do need to make it work for all. The best way to do that is to respect those following a different cultural or religious path from our own, while our understanding of them develops in a non-judgemental atmosphere.

A woman friend said recently that fear is a very negative reaction, which is the root cause of so much dis-ease in social relations. So let us substitute awareness for fear as far as we humanly can. Trying to understand the other does not necessarily mean justifying anything – but it is practical, for that is how we can peacefully live together – so necessary on our over-crowded, fragile planet.

That is what the Peace Camp in the Forum is all about: learning to appreciate the common ground and respect the differences. Come and see for yourselves between 10am and 4pm at the forum on Sunday 27 May 2006.