Friday, October 27, 2006

Reminder for Halloween - Ghosts have feelings too

A guest blog by Isadora, Pagan priestess and psychic.

Halloween is fast approaching and, as a Pagan, I celebrate the festival of Samhain (the Pagan word for Halloween). This would have been the time in the past when our ancestors would have decided which livestock to slaughter, to see them through the time when food would be short in the coming winter months. The old and sick of the tribe or village may not make it through a tough winter; there were countless reasons to think about death. This is why we believe the veil between this world and the next is thin at this time and why is an opportune moment to contact our ancestors and friends who have passed on and invite them to join us if they wish.

It is also believed that all kinds of supernatural beings walk at this time of year. Many old folk traditions live on today, including lighting lanterns and dressing up as ghosts and ghouls. I feel that this is harmless fun that at least has some connection with the folk traditions of Britain.

However, I find the increasing number of ghost hunts run by paranormal research teams, with a medium in tow, quite sickening.

I went to once in Powys. As a medium and psychic myself, I had been aware of presences during the day, watching what was happening at a mind, body and spirit fair.

Then, when everyone gathered in the theatre for the ghost hunt, the atmosphere turned to one of absolute terror and despair - not from the audience but from the disembodied spirits, once people who had lived their lives and laughed and cried in that place.

They realised they were now to be hunted and jeered at, goaded into performing tricks to prove their presence to satisfy the grisly needs of the paying public. I left in tears, feeling their pain and distress.

People forget what spirits are. They are disembodied people, for the most part. That’s right people; it could be your great grandmother; it could be a child the same age as yours who is wandering between worlds desperate for help to pass over to the light, to be reunited with their loved ones.

Very occasionally, I have met ghosts who love the attention they get during a ghost hunt. Far more concern me, particularly those who do not know they are dead and those trapped by unresolved issues. These are distressed spirits who need help to pass over. I cannot understand why, once researchers have discovered a spirit, they do not call a medium to find out what that spirit wants and then help it pass to the light? I believe this is their duty, if they are ethical.

In the Victorian era the wealthy paid to go to lunatic asylums, to poke fun at the mentally infirm. This horrifies us now and, I hope one day we will be equally appalled at the way we treat our lost spirits.

If you ever think about going on a ghost hunt, ask yourself this one question: would you pay to see a frail old lady or a child locked in a cage? One who can never feel the warmth of human touch or taste the sweetness of food and drink? Someone who is in distress because their family has disappeared and they don’t know why? A human being who will stay in this state for all eternity unless their anguished cries are heard and heeded?

If you wouldn’t support that kind of explotation, please don’t go on a ghost hunt.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

BA is wrong to ban the cross

British Airways check-in desk worker Nadia Eweida will learn this week whether or not she can keep her job. She is currently suspended for breaking BA’s uniform code by wearing a discreet cross around her neck.

This is the second time this year that this particular issue has risen in relation to an airline. Back in January, BMI suggested flight crew who were not prepared to remove their crucifixes or crosses and wear traditional Arab dress on flights to Saudi Arabia should be transferred to short-haul flight crews.

It is also the second time in as many weeks when the issue of wearing a cross has hit the headlines. Apparently there was heated debate in BBC boardrooms recently as to whether TV newsreader Fiona Bruce should be allowed to wear her cross when reading bulletins. It seems she is to be allowed to continue to do so. Whether BA will make the same concession to check-in worker Nadia Eweida, 55, of Twickenham, remains to be seen.
BA refused permission for Miss Eweida to wear her cross on the grounds that ‘jewellery is not allowed.’ But this is no fashion statement for her: her tiny cross, the size of a 5p piece, has deep religious significance. “I will not hide my belief in the Lord Jesus,” she told the Daily Mail. “British Airways permits Muslims to wear a headscarf and Sikhs to wear a turban…I stand up for the rights of all citizens.”

Okay, well let’s not get carried away here Miss Eweida, because I’m not convinced you’d be first in the queue to campaign for the rights on Muslim women to wear the veil. And, as my Druid friend Mark Graham points out, there is nothing in the Bible or Christian teaching that states followers must wear crosses and that BA surely has a right to stipulate a standard uniform for employees. I agree with his conclusion; this is not strictly a religious discrimination matter.

Nevertheless, it infuriates me beyond belief. I am becoming increasingly concerned at the numerous instances in this country where expressions of religion and belief in the workplace are accepted unless that faith is Christianity. As Miss Eweida said, sometimes it feels as if Christianity is being treated as a faith that is ‘null and void,’ despite the fact that 71% of us called ourselves Christian in the 2001 census.

Since 2003 we have had legislation protecting workers from discrimination on the grounds of their religious belief and, if anyone dares complain about a Sikh turban or Muslim hijab they are, quite rightly, considered to be out of order. So why, if Sikhs must be allowed to wear their turbans and steel bangles in the workplace and Muslim women should be allowed to wear hijab, is there an issue about Christians being allowed to wear small crosses? If Miss Eweida was wearing a giant crucifix, fine. She would be well out of order. But is making a fuss about a tiny silver cross really worth all the bad publicity BA has had as a result? I don’t think so. They have made a major blunder.

And what precisely is BA worried about anyway? It seems that in prohibiting the cross from being worn “outside the uniform” BA thinks it will offend its customers. This is nonsense. Apart from a small handful of secular fundamentalists who would do away with any form of religious expression, anywhere, and turn us all into a miserable bunch of atheists, I really don’t think people care. Many non-Christians wear the cross anyway, simply as a fashion accessory and those I have spoken to of other faiths certainly don't find it offensive.

“I feel BA have acted without thinking in this matter and have placed themselves in an absurd situation, Dr Indarjit Singh, Editor of The Sikh Messenger and regular BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day contributor, told me. “An item should not be dismissed as jewellery if it has another significance. A Cross is clearly a religious symbol and wearing one suggests that the wearer wishes to be identified with Jesus Christ's uplifting teachings. Banning it shows gross insensitivity.”

And this from Ronald Alexander:

"I was raised Catholic and am now a practicing Buddhist and ordained Zen Monk. To not allow one to wear a sign such as a cross to work on ones body and or on ones clothing is disrespectful to the rights of a spiritual person. All faiths are important and symbols are resresentations of ones faith."

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Warning - Ignore God at your peril

‘Is God Dead?’ The words that filled the front cover of TIME magazine on 8th April 1966 became one of the most controversial headlines in history. Religion, secularists argued, was no longer necessary. Faith, they claimed, had been superseded by science, technology and the ‘triumph’ of secular rationalism.

While ’66 was a bit before my time, the same message permeated my childhood in the 70’s, running into my time at university and work in the 80’s and 90’s. Then the ‘noughties’ hit; the twin towers fell and, so the commentators said, ‘the world changed.’ Religious hysteria and fundamentalism were ‘back’ on the political agenda.

The truth, of course, is they never went away. Religious wars never stopped; religious prejudices remained as strong as ever; persecution of religion only made matters worse; fundamentalists never stopped winning converts and religion continued to matter. All that really changed was the attitude of secularists who refused to accept religion still had a hold in society; failed to understand its power as a force for either good or ill; and influenced western governments too obsessed with fighting communism to see the dangers of future religious regimes in Iran and Afghanistan.

Those who claim not to be religious can find it impossible to understand why others embrace faith or spirituality. They also cannot understand why, if people of faith are ignored, ridiculed or persecuted, some of them will get very angry. They forget (or choose to ignore) the fact that religion impacts society in a positive way most of the time, dismissing the wealth of learning, teaching and common sense religion offers and arguing instead that it is always dysfunctional. It becomes easy for them to marginalise religion, to attempt to eliminate it and, when this happens, there is always trouble in store.

The rising tide of Islamist and other forms of fundamentalism is the inevitable harvest the West is reaping for promoting this kind of ignorance about religion, and snubbing its importance. This isn’t to condone it – let alone sanction the violence that too often erupts in God’s name – but it does point the way forward, giving clues as to how to tackle the problem. And, at long last, post 9/11 and 7/7, governments are beginning to do what they should have done decades ago; talk to people of faith; find out what they actually believe; listen to their concerns; seek their counsel; try to understand rather than condemn and aim to work with rather than in spite of them, while – importantly – refusing to compromise fundamental democratic values.

Good work is being done. The tragedy is it has come fatally late; that the overall messages are inconsistent and that different groups are so caught up in their own selfish agendas that there is no real change to seen on the horizon just yet.

Muslim leaders are too quick to focus not on challenging extremists in their midst but on lecturing non-Muslims instead, telling them their behaviour is not Islamic.

Secular authorities worry about a possible backlash if they appear to suggest otherwise and, with no skills or - so political correctness leads them to believe – the authority to critique Islam, they turn a blind eye to clear, anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynist statements made by supposedly moderate, mainstream Muslims.

Government ministers perpetuate the double-speak, insisting Islam is a religion of peace as they wage possibly illegal wars in Islamic countries, imprison Muslims without charge and refuse to call for immediate ceasefires when more wars break out. Muslims then point the finger of blame again, this time suggesting Western foreign policy fuels terrorist acts, while conveniently ignoring or not daring to challenge the twisted foreign policy and appalling human rights records of several Islamic countries.

Meanwhile, the growing ranks of fanatics in other faiths see Muslims getting attention and impacting the political agenda. Feeling this puts their own particular version of ‘The Truth’ under attack, they step up their own extremist efforts at every opportunity, shutting down still further the cause of pluralism, damaging the sensitive process of integration and thus storing up yet more trouble for the future.

The secularists seize upon this whole ungodly shouting match as grist to their own particular fundamentalist mill, spicing the whole vicious circle with a blend of ignorance, persecution and ridicule of the kind that gave rise to the problems in the first place.

Only a world steeped in confusion such as this could construct possibly the most horrific oxymoron ever created – ‘War on Terror.’ And until this hypocrisy stops, on all sides, there will be no shortage of takers willing to do bloody battle on behalf of the gods they have created in their own image.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Should we ban the burkha?

Suzanne Evans and Sadi Mehmood respond to comments by Jack Straw on the Muslim veil.

Sadi Mehmood, Director, Noble Khan Ltd.

As a Muslim Women, who doesn’t wear hijab, or a head scarf, I am stuck in the middle of this debate. It seems that Muslims are the target of every little issue. I think it’s about time we stopped targeting a particular religion and take steps to understand, integrate and mix with each other.

As a cultural training provider, I meet a lot of people who feel intimidated by the Nikab, or full veil. Then, after taking my experiential courses they come out not having any issue with it. Why? Because education and touching and feeling things in a secure environment, breaks down barriers. If people feel unnecessarily intimidated they need to talk to people who work in this field to get help combating their fears.

Those who wear Nikab may feel intimidated or insecure if they took it off. We would never expect a nun to take of her head scarf, so why do we expect Muslims, to take them off? How does a piece of clothing stop an individual from integrating? It isn’t about clothes but how we as individuals need to be educated and shown how to integrate with people. It’s OK for government to say Muslims need to integrate, but what’s stopping English people from doing it first? Rather than just tolerate each other, why don’t we start getting to understand each other?

That said, I personally do not understand the purpose of Nikab. It is not Islamic. When Muslims visit Mecca for Hajj, women have to have their head covered but their face showing. They are not allowed to cover their faces. If this is what is expected in the holiest place on earth, then why would you need to cover your face anywhere else?

The Nikab is a cultural dress, not an Islamic requirement. Some argue it started in Saudi Arabia, to offer protection from sand storms and hot weather, which is why. Saudi men dress in a similar way. Some argue the Hijab is also not something Muslims had to do, but came about because men in the days of the Prophet Mohammed decided to copy his example. The prophet would ask his wives to cover themselves when they entered out, so they would not be harmed or ogled at by men because of his high profile. Other women naturally wanted to feel of equal worth to his wives and covered themselves too. The issue of covering needs to be understood – why would we cover a precious stone? To keep it safe, dust free, and so it doesn’t get hurt or damaged by others. A similar metaphor can be seen to have been used in this case.

It is sad that this country is getting to a stage of breakdown, I used to be proud that in England we have the freedom to wear what we want and as long as we abide by the laws of this country. I enjoyed being able to wear a kameez with a pair of Jeans, without anyone making nasty remarks. Now there is debate in the Muslim community because some of us might like to wear a cross, and we may be giving the wrong image off. I’m a Muslim and I wear a cross. It doesn’t make me a blasphemer.

Suzanne Evans

We all have the right to wear what we like although, personally, I would prefer some women covered up a bit more in public. But, yes, I too would also prefer women not to wear niqab, or the full veil with only the eyes showing. Jack Straw is right when he says it is a visible statement of separation and difference that makes positive relations between communities more difficult.

The question is why should this be so? Walking through Wimbledon Village recently, I saw a Buddhist monk from the local Thai Buddhist Temple across the street and thought how wonderful he looked in his saffron robes. An hour or so later, I found myself feeling quite different emotions as a man accompanied by two fully veiled women stood behind me at the supermarket checkout. I was quite shocked by the difference in my reactions to what were after all only two different forms of religious dress. Why should I find one inspiring while the other made me feel angry? Why would I feel happy to speak to one in the street yet avoid the other?

As Jack Straw said, it is difficult talking to someone when you can’t see their face, be it because they are wearing a veil, huge reflective sunglasses or a motorbike helmet.

I suppose I also have problems with the niqab because I know it is not actually Islamic. Neither the Koran nor the Hadith demand it, requiring simply that women dress modestly, showing only the hands and the face. As Sadi Mehmood says above, the niqab is a cultural statement, not a religious one.

For these reasons, I wonder why a Muslim woman would choose freely to hide her face?

A few years ago I conducted some research into why British women were converting to Islam. Many of them spoke of the release Islam gave them from being ‘a sex object.’ I quite understand. There is tremendous pressure on women to be slim, attractive, young-looking and always well-dressed. The success of Trinny and Susannah, a million women’s magazines and a handful of lad-mags depends upon it. I don’t like it and welcome anything that aims to stop objectifying women in this way.

Yet I feel taking the full veil stereotypes and castigates men. It hints at the insulting idea that ‘all men are rapists who can’t control themselves.’ Worse, it implies that it is up to women to change this by hiding their personal identity. My whole being rebels against this idea. The vast majority of men are not rapists and they can control themselves. And as for those who can’t, why should it be for the woman to make the sacrifices?

The veil also causes resentment and division, I think, because we might feel those women who wear it are judging the rest of us who don’t. It is as if they are engaging in a kind of spiritual one-upmanship and assuming religious and moral superiority over me and their fellow Muslims who chose not to wear the veil. Our faces are a unique physical symbol of our identity and, when these women hide their faces, we feel they are effectively saying: ‘back off, don’t come near me, I do not wish to get to know you.’ I hope this is wrong, but this is the message given out and it is not a good one if we wish to create harmonious multi-faith societies.

To read Jack Straw’s original column in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, visit