Bonds of friendship will prevail over those who seek to divide us

8 July 2006
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 8th July 2006

A year after the terrorist attacks of 7/7, our first thoughts must be with the victims and their families. Today in synagogues around the country we will pray for the bereaved, the injured and those still traumatised. We will remember the human cost of terror. The news moves on, but for those affected, the loss and pain remain.

Yet something happened in the wake of 7/7, of immense consequence for the future of Britain. People stayed calm. The delicate filaments that hold a society together did not break. There was shock, trauma, the dawning realisation that what we had witnessed on 9/11 and subsequently — in Bali, Istanbul, Madrid, Beslan — had happened here. Distant conflicts had suddenly come close.

But there was little if any retaliatory violence. Instead, in the two-minute silence observed days later, and in the large crowd that gathered in Trafalgar Square to remember the victims, there was quiet grief. If there was ever a signal as to how terror is to be defeated, it was there.

I recall one particular moment in those etched-in-the- memory days. Within 24 hours the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, called together the leaders of the various faith groups in Britain. He was concerned about the danger of a backlash — about any spark that might ignite dangerously combustible ethnic and religious tensions.
What took him by surprise was the discovery that all of us around the table knew each other and were friends. We had worked at interfaith relations since 9/11. In doing so we were building on the strong foundations of the efforts that Jews and Christians have made to chart a new way after the tragedy of the Holocaust.

This had long struck me as one of the most significant developments in the religious history of the West. For almost 2,000 years, the history of Jewish-Christian relations had been scarred by tragedy. In 1942, in Europe’s darkest night, a great Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, and a great Chief Rabbi, Joseph Hertz, came together to create the Council of Christians and Jews. It was a pioneering moment, and it lit a candle of hope that was never extinguished by the rough winds of stress or change.

In recent years that friendship widened. It allowed Christian and Jewish leaders to stand together with that fine and much-missed representative of Islam, the late Dr Zaki Badawi, in the aftermath of 9/11, at the start of the war in Afghanistan, and again after 7/7. And I have cherished the wonderful relationship that exists between the Jewish community and Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians and Bahai. This has nothing to do with theology and everything to do with personal friendships. It is a very British way of doing things, and it works.

Crisis tests the underlying strength of an organism. I remember how I learnt this from a doctor. As part of a medical check-up, he had me jog on a treadmill. “What are you testing?” I asked him, “How fast I can run, or for how long?”

“Neither,” he replied. “What I am about to test is how long it takes, after you have stopped running, for your pulse to return to normal.”

That was when I learnt that health is measured by recovery times. The speed at which Britain recovered from last year’s tragedy suggested that our society is healthier than we sometimes fear.Without ceasing to be a Christian culture, Britain embraced successive waves of new arrivals who came with their own traditions and found not merely a home here but also absorbed the distinctive British values — understatement, a sense of humour, a default tendency to tolerance, and others — that make Britain unmistakably, admirably British. We must continue to strengthen the bonds of friendship between faiths, refusing to grant a victory to those who seek to divide us.