Friday, 8 January 2010

The God Squad

In a little-noticed press release on Wednesday, the Department for Communities and Local Government announced a group of 13 "inter-faith" advisers to act as its "sounding board" on all things faith. The statement expresses the hope that the lucky thirteen will "will enhance ministerial understanding of, and engagement, with faith communities nationally."

The Secretary of State, John Denham, claims that the panel "brings together an unprecedented wealth of knowledge and experience that will help advise on the big issues facing society such as the economy, parenting, achieving social justice and tackling climate change....We should continually seek ways of supporting and enhancing the contribution faith makes to the decision-making process on the central issues of our time."

New Labour's belief that connecting with "faith" is the key to building its utopia has evidently survived the departure of Tony Blair. Denham, who claims not to be religious himself, nevertheless insists that "for millions of people the values instilled by their faith are central to shaping their behaviour." Terry Sanderson, of the National Secular Society, dismissed the claim as "insulting and patronising" to the non-religious majority. "Religious leaders are out of step with the way Britons live", he declared, citing religious teachings on divorce, abortion, homosexuality and voluntary euthanasia. It was, he said, "inappropriate for the government to invite specifically religious people to advise it on policy-making."

But who are these faith-advisers - each of whom, we are assured, have "an outstanding track record of achievement"? Who, if anyone, do they represent, and what qualifies them to give advice to the government? Here's your handy guide to the thirteen people the government thinks represent the cutting-edge of faith-based community engagement in 2010.


1. Rev Dr Alan Billings
Religion: Church of England
Professional Background: Clergy
Political affiliation: Labour
Interfaith Rating: 7/10

Billings, a regular contributor to Radio 4's Thought for the Day, is a member of the Youth Justice Board and the director of the Centre for Ethics and Religion at Lancaster University. He has also been a member of the Home Office Community Cohesion Panel. Now retired as a vicar in Kendal, Cumbria, in the 1980s he was deputy leader of Sheffield City Council - serving under David Blunkett, who was then part of the hard left. His research (originally for a doctorate) provided a significant element of the C of E's controversial Faith in the City report which strongly criticised the Thatcher government. He has also served on various quangos and committees, including the Big Lottery Committee for England.

During the Iraq War, Billings took the view that, as a Christian, Tony Blair deserved the support of other Christians in his effort to topple Saddam Hussein.

The DCLG press release chose to bill him as the former director of the Centre for Ethics and Religion at the University of Lancaster.

2. Dr Harriet Crabtree
Religion: C of E
Professional Background: Academic/Quangos
Political Affiliation: Labour
Interfaith rating: 10/10

Crabtree has built a solid career out of sitting on committees. Currently Director of the Inter Faith Network for the UK, an umbrella body that "links faith community representative bodies and inter faith bodies in the UK and works with them to promote good inter faith relations", where she has worked since 1990. She has also been a trustee Unicef UK and served on the Commission for Integration and Cohesion.

She is an unashamed enthusiast for increasing religious diversity which she sees as "a factor of great promise: diversity will enrich the UK in many ways and the country’s citizens will be able to draw on their different spiritual heritages to make society better for all." She has described inter-faith groups as "truly a resource for the 21st century" and "an important partner with the Race Equality Councils in the war against bigotry."

Crabtree studied theology at Harvard as a Fulbright Scholar and taught for some years in the US before returning to Britain. She is a member of the Christian Socialist Movement and the Fawcett Society.


3. Marcia Dixon
Religion: Pentecostal/Evangelical
Professional Background: Public Relations
Political affiliation: Unknown
Interfaith rating: 6/10

Dixon is editor of Keep the Faith, a magazine delivered to black majority churches; she also writes regularly for The Voice. She was voted Best Gospel Journalist at the first Oasis Awards in 2004. One of her Facebook friends is the left-wing theologian and Channel 4 presenter Robert Beckford. She, however, would seem to be quite conservative, complaining for example that "too few church leaders are courageous enough to remind believers of God’s plan for the family." Positive change, she predicted, would only take place when "Christian men and women re-visit the Bible".

During the row over the BBC's broadcast of Jerry Springer the Opera, Dixon left a comment on the Beeb's messageboard in support of Christians who objected to the screening, asserting that the corporation "clearly has no regards for their feelings or respect for their beliefs." Her columns for The Voice often treat sympathetically Christians who claim to have been persecuted by employers.

Her PR firm - which predominantly represents churches and community organisations, but has also done work for the police - was nominated for the European Federation of Black Women Business Owners Award in 2004.


4. Dr Doreen Finneron
Religion: CofE
Profession: Administration/ Quangos
Politics: Unknown
Interfaith rating 9/10

Finneron is the founder of the Faith Based Regeneration Network, which promotes the idea (dear to the government's project) that religion has a unique role to play in economic development and building communities. As such, she is a key person in the development of the government's faith agenda. Previously she was National Development Officer for the Church Urban Fund, a C of E body.

The FBRN website proclaims that "Our vision is to enable faith based regeneration practitioners to learn and gain inspiration from each other and to establish a conduit between policy makers and practitioners." The organisation is largely funded by the government. Finneron herself says that "everywhere in faith buildings you find people smiling, happy to talk to others, giving hours of their time every day and doing it because it springs from something deep inside them."

Finneron is also a Fellow of the Faiths and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths College, University of London.


5. Jenny Kartupelis
Profession: PR
Religion: C of E (?)
Political Affiliation: Unknown
Interfaith rating: 8/10

Jenny Kartupelis founded and ran her own PR company for 13 years. It is now part of Element PR, based in Cambridge - clients include several university institutes. In addition, she has been active in inter-faith work in East Anglia for many years, and is now Director of the East of England Faiths Council. She is also, like Finneron, a Fellow in the Faiths and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths.

According to Element's website:


Jenny now consults to a number of commercial and not-for-profit organisations on communications strategy and implementation; is a director of an internet PR company; has founded a liaison office to represent Churches in the East of England to the Regional Development Agency; and is undertaking interim management assignments to a range of businesses. In addition, she has several voluntary posts, including governor of a sixth-form college and of an enterprise agency; and Chair of Trustees of a mediation charity.


In 2008, she swam the Hellespont to raise money for Christian Aid.


6. Wakkas Khan
Religion: Islam
Professional Background: Dentist
Political Affiliation: Labour
Interfaith Rating: 7/10

Wakkas Khan is a rather more controversial character. In the mid Noughties, he was chair of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies. In this capacity he criticised government counter-extremism policy, which he described as "potentially the widest infringement of the rights of Muslim students that there ever has been in this country". According to a Guardian report, he had little objection to the infiltration of student bodies by the radical group Hiz but Tahrir:

Khan is not, himself, a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and although he says there are aspects of the group's policies with which he disagrees, he says he can give no examples. Neither does he object to the idea of Hizb ut-Tahrir gaining acceptability - and power - within Fosis. "I'm not going to say I'd prefer it if Hizb ut-Tahrir didn't get on to our executive. Isn't that democracy in action? If Hizb ut-Tahrir became the most well-oiled political group on campus, and persuaded our 90,000 members - well, that's democracy in action.


Since qualifying, Khan has been elected to the General Dental Council. He is a primary school governor and a mentor on the Young Offenders Mentoring Programme as well as being a trustee of the Manchester Youth Foundation. His work for religious and interfaith areas includes involvement in the Exploring Islam Foundation, which aims to combat negative images of the religion, and the Radical Middle Way (RMW) is "a revolutionary grassroots initiative aimed at articulating a relevant mainstream understanding of Islam that is dynamic, proactive and relevant to young British Muslims." The EIF is about to launch a media campaign "to dispel the notion that Jihad is just about physical violence, that women are considered second to men and that the Shariah is focused narrowly on crime and punishment."

RMW - which is funded largely by the government - invites "leading scholars" such as Tariq Ramadan to speak on such issues as foreign policy, faith and citizenship and the role of religion in the modern world.


7. Alveena Malik
Religion: Islam
Professional Background: Equalities industry
Politics: Unconfirmed, likely Labour
Interfaith rating 8/10

Alveena Malik was formerly Head of Communities and Integration Policy at the Commission for Racial Equality (where she was a close confidant of Trevor Phillips). In this role, she "was responsible for promulgating new thinking around the Integration agenda and mainstreaming this into Whitehall policy making." She has also been Deputy Convener of the Government's Preventing Extremism Together (PET) Task Group and advised the makers of the film Brick Lane on multicultural sensitivities. She'll obviously be right at home on this new committee.

She now leads education policy for the Institute for Community Cohesion (ICoCo), which is based at the University of Coventry and offers training courses aimed at "guide the private, public and voluntary sectors on how we build communities where people interact with each other in a meaningful way, experience true equality of opportunity and are active in civil society." It claims to offer "a new approach to race, diversity and multiculturalism." The Institute has been charged by the government with introducing its social cohesion agenda in schools. She is also associated with the Young Foundation.

A few years ago she spoke to the Guardian about returning to work after having a child.


8.Mehri Niknam
Religion: Jewish
Professional Background: Academic/ Interfaith
Political affiliation: Unknown
Interfaith rating: 10/10

Of Iranian extraction, Mehri Niknam describes herself as an "Islamophile Jew" and has devoted much of her career to bringing together Muslims and Jews in mutual harmony. She was formerly director of the Maimonides Foundation, named after the medieval Jewish philosopher who lived in Islamic Spain, and now heads the Joseph Interfaith Foundation. She has also spent time as a Fulbright Scholar at Temple University, Philadelphia working on Jewish-Muslim relations. Last year she convened a conference aimed at tackling both anti-semitism and islamophobia.

9. Rosalind Preston
Religion: Jewish
Professional Background: Voluntary work
Political affiliation: Unknown
Interfaith rating: 6/10

A cousin of Vanessa Feltz, Rosalind Preston was the first female Vice Chair of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. She has been involved in many charitable and community organisations, being currently President of the Jewish Volunteer Network. She also chairs Nightingale House, a Jewish old people's home. Since 2000 she has been a trustee of the Jewish Chronicle and since 1996 joint Honorary Secretary of the Council of Christians and Jews. She was awarded the OBE in 1993.

For many years, Preston was a leading British member of the Women's International Zionist Organisation: she was shocked, at a UN women's conference in 1980, at the amount of hostility she encountered from other delegates who objected to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

10. Jasdev Singh Rai
Religion: Sikh
Professional Background: Medicine
Political affiliation: Independent; Sikh nationalist
Interfaith rating: 5/10

Probably the most controversial member of the interfaith panel, Dr Rai has had a colourful career in politics and grassroots activism. In the 1980s, he was the first president of the International Sikh Youth Federation, which has since been banned as a terrorist organisation. He still leads the Sikh Human Rights Group, a direct descendant of the ISYF (as is the rival Sikh Federation, with which Rai maintains frosty relations.) He is also General Secretary of the British Sikh Consultative Forum and a member of the Faith Communities Consultative Council.

In recent years, Dr Rai has defended the Sikh protests against the controversial play Bezhti, on the grounds that "the sacred is beyond the discourse of human reason"; intervened in the French ban on religious symbols in schools, unsuccessfully trying to persuade the government that the turban is not a religious symbol; and written in support of Rowan Williams' view of Sharia, arguing that "there is no reason why the UK cannot have a humanist version of sharia."


Rai stood in the 2007 Ealing Southall by-election as an Independent, after he and a number of other Sikhs complained that Labour had not chosen "a turbaned Sikh" as its candidate. He apparently expected to win; Sunny Hundal, on the other hand, predicted that he would get only seven votes, all from members of his family. In the event, he got 275. One Anil Sharma left the following comment on Iain Dale's blog: "My Sikh friends say he is an opportunist that many do not trust. He will no doubt play the Sikh card. But local Gurdwaras do not like him and no way will Sikhs support him en masse."

More dirt on Rai on Pickled Politics here.


11. Bishop Tim Stevens
Religion: Church of England
Professional Background: Clergy
Political affiliation: Lord Spiritual
Interfaith rating: 8/10

The Rt Rev Tim Stevens is Bishop of Leicester and convener of the Bench of Bishops in the House of Lords. Before entering the church he worked for the Foreign Office. He is currently chair of the House of Bishops Urban Bishops' Panel and was instrumental in setting up a Commission on Urban Life and Faith.

A liberal, he was one of a number of bishops publicly to support the appointment of gay canon Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading and is now a leading proponent of women bishops.

He has been closely involved in interfaith dialogue with leaders of the Muslim community in Leicester. On September 11th 2006 he took part in a priests v. imams cricket match, explaining that it was "vital to mark 9/11 in a positive way." In a local newspaper article attacking the Atheist bus campaign, Camp Quest and the secular "intolerance" he associated with Richard Dawkins, he spelled out his multi-faith vision:

Alongside churches and chapels, Leicester's skyline includes temples, mosques and synagogues. Tolerance is one of the key values which has enabled this skyline to flourish and help communities to live together in harmony. This harmony was very much in evidence earlier this week when 40 faith leaders of the city and county gathered together at Bishop's Lodge to share food and conversation about many aspects of our city and country life.


12. Arjan Vekaria
Religion: Hindu
Professional Background: Business
Political Affiliation: Hindu Nationalist (allegedly)
Interfaith Rating: 6/10

Another controversial figure, Vekaria (along with his close colleague Ramesh Kallidai) leads the Hindu Forum, which aims to be the Hindu equivalent of the Muslim Council of Britain. Some Hindus object to what they see as the HF's adoption of MCB-style grievance politics.

Originally from Uganda, Vekaria arrived in Britain in 1974 and began work as a builder. Three years later, he and his brother set up Vascroft Contractors, which by 2005 had a turnover of £25m and employed 200. At the same time, he was active in numerous charity fundraising and community projects. He has been chairman of the charity Hindu Aid, worked with young offenders and was appointed a JP in 2004. He helps organise Diwali celebrations at the House of Commons.

On the other hand, he and Kallidai were accused by the Evening Standard of involvement in far-right Indian nationalism and of using their relief work as a cover for political activity.


13. Professor Paul Weller
Religion: Baptist
Professional background: Clergy/Academic
Political affiliation: not known
Interfaith rating: 9/10

A former baptist minister, Paul Weller is now professor of Inter-Religious relations at the University of Derby, where he has worked since 1990. He recently embarked on a three-year study into how the attitudes and experiences of different religious and non-religious groups in England and Wales have evolved since 1999. On the university's website he is listed as a "media-friendly academic" and states:

I focus particularly on the relationship between religions in the public sphere and between religions, the state and society in respect of the institutions and processes of governance. I also have research interests in relation to religions and statistics; religions and discrimination; religious freedom and human rights; and religions and dialogue.


Weller has a long history of involvement in inter-faith work. In the 1980s he was involved in Ecumenical Council in Greater Manchester, and later the national Inter Faith Network. In recent years he has been Chair of the Faiths Forum for the East Midlands.

.....

So there you have it: the movers and shakers of Faith UK, as chosen by the government. The people who, in John Denham's words, will best be able to provide "the unique insights that faith groups bring to contemporary issues." Seven Christians (so much for those who complain that the government is "sidelining Christianity") - although no Roman Catholics - two Muslims, two Jews, a Hindu and a Sikh. Three are ordained clergy, of whom only one (the bishop) is currently active as a religious leader. Five have had careers almost entirely devoted to inter-faith work, social cohesion, or diversity and multiculturalism. At least three are or have been actively engaged in Labour party politics; no other mainstream parties are represented. Two are professional PRs. All are involved in organisations that have received substantial public funding. All share the government's perspective on faith issues. No-one elected them. And, needless to say, there's not a humanist in sight.