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More than just about a suit and tie

world Updated: Feb 11, 2010 17:53 IST
Sujata Anandan
Sujata Anandan
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Can malaria be effectively used to combat terrorism? Strange as that might sound, that is exactly what is under experimentation by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

After ceasing to be premier, Blair, who was always interested in bringing up people of different religions together, set up the TonyBlairFaithFoundation (all one word) which has a project underway in Asian and African countries which hopes to achieve just that.

But the experiment is not about any kind of bacterial or germ warfare. The TBFF has undertaken to 'catch 'em young' – children of different faiths, of school age, from countries as diverse as India, US, UK, Canada and other African and Asian nations and "mix them all up together".

That is done with the aid of video conferencing among schools across the world but some older groups of them are also selected to work shoulder to shoulder fighting malaria and other basic diseases in Africa, Asia and elsewhere in the world.

According to Annika Small, Director of Education at the TBFF, the idea of the 'Face to faith' programme is to make sure they work together to elevate common human misery, in the hope that working in such close proximity would help to make them forget the differences brought about by religion and other divisive factors. "When they really get to know each other, they will realise they are all the same and the difference is only in the details. They would then be less prone to indoctrination by fundamentalists as they grow up and it would eventually help to combat all the problems that exist today on account of religion."

Adds Susie McShane, Communications Manager at TBFF, "Mixing them up ensures they know they may be different but yet are the same. For example, events like births, deaths, marriages all involve the same emotions and the same kind of people – family, friends. The way they may go about the rituals may be different but it all leads to the same thing. It is very important to bring that home to them at a young age."

India has just recently been brought into the programme and some video conferencing has happened between schools in the UK and some in New Delhi, the NCR and Manipur. The TBFF is looking to expand those activities to Mumbai and the South in the next few weeks.

Says Simmi Kher, local co-ordinator of Face to Faith for India, "We have so far done this programme only with children from municipal schools. They believe that the students they are talking to are just a building away. But even if they cannot meet them personally, they exchange knowledge and even their parents appreciate that we are teaching them about religion -- not just that of the other children but also their own. For many of them do not have the time to teach their own faith to their own children."

Kher will be scouting Mumbai and Kerala next for schools that could be brought into the programme.

The UK is on a massive drive to integrate all its minorities into the mainstream and the TBFF adds to efforts like that currently underway at the Kitchener County Primary School in Cardiff, Wales, where the Head Teacher Jane Evans has put together an impressive programme of integration of children from all across the world – none of who know English, as yet. Ranging from the ages of three to 10, they come from Asia, Africa, East Europe, Latin America, the Gulf region et al. They are all allowed to wear their traditional costumes (there is even a little Indian girl called Preetha here, all of three and in a salwar kameez) and the concentration is mainly on the three 'R's. They may leave this school later for other schools run by their own faith. "But many of them return," says Mrs Evans, proudly. "Many parents prefer our way of teaching to those at faith schools. We make them very rounded individuals."

But that is so far as the young go. There are, however, many older and even adult British citizens, particularly from Pakistan and Bangladesh, who are a great cause for worry. The latter particularly fail all their grades and large numbers of them are unfit to integrate into British society. They are now being taken care of by organisations like the Runnymede Trust and the Aik Saath (Together) foundation which bring them together with Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Christians and people belonging to other minor religions. They are being helped not just to get degrees but also integrate into an increasingly suspicious British society which is nevertheless bending over backwards to help them become part of the mainstream.

For example, in parliament one particular evening, Ministers, MPs and other officials from the Biritsh Home and Foreign offices hold a kind of 'durbar' that has brought to court Muslims, young and old, male and female, from all across Britain. The heated subject of discussion is racial profiling and it is clearly evident that both sides – the British government and its Muslims citizens – are more than willing to meet half-way.

British officials are determined that the 'stop and search' orders that are currently in force will not be withdrawn. "But if the police stop and search and find nothing on the person of the particular individual, then they have to let that person go," says one officer.

Muslim MPs are quick to accept that reasonable stand and all the authorities take the time to answer each and every question raised at the council – it lasts for over two hours. Unlike other European countries, Britain will not stop Muslims from wearing their traditional beard/scarf/head dress and even in London, in parliament, as in Bradford which is now almost entirely peopled by Pakistani Kashmiris, there are many women in burkhas and head scarves, even if the men are not wearing long beards and traditional long kurtas as Lord Adam Patel of Blackburn is.

A member of the House of Lords, Lord Patel was the first ever Muslim who was allowed to not wear the traditional British suit and tie when he was nominated to the upper house. "I told them 'take back the Lordhsip but I will not given up my traditional attire'," says this 70-year old, whose brother Mohammad Patel was an MLA in the Gujarat assembly until a few years ago.

"This country is the best country in the world," says Lord Patel. "But there were some things that were important to me and I could not give them up."

So the British government set a precedent and gave in to him. But in every other way, Lord Patel is as much a Britisher as his peers in suits and ties."

As Dr Omar Khan of the Runnymede Trust says, "It is important to belong."

And the British government, is clearly, is determined that they will. With or without the suit and tie.