Patrick Sookhdeo was born in Guyana (then British Guiana) in 1947, from a South Asian background, and was brought up as a Muslim. His father was a political activist, agitating against British colonialism, and by 1959 the situation in Guyana had got too dangerous for his father, so the family moved to London. The immigrant community in the UK was small at that time, and Patrick and his brother found themselves the only non-white pupils at their school. They faced much hostility, encountering discrimination, racism and violence.
In the mid-1960s Patrick became a Christian and in 1967 began to study theology at London Bible College. Two years later he left college and married one of his fellow students, Rosemary Jamieson from New Zealand. The newly-weds intended to go to South Asia as missionaries, but their hopes were dashed when they found that no mission society would accept either racially-mixed marriages or national (i.e. non-white) Christians as missionaries. A second option – to pastor a church in the UK – also proved impossible, as very few churches at that time accepted non-white ministers.
In 1970 Patrick was invited to work for the British Evangelical Alliance to help white churches in Britain to understand ethnic minority communities and to try to heal the growing divide between white and black churches.
He was also appointed the secretary of one of the first race relations bodies in the British Church. His purpose in this role was to increase racial understanding within the white-led churches, to enable them to make closer links with the black-led churches, and to increase understanding of ethnic minorities – their backgrounds, cultures and religions.
His second book All One in Christ was published in 1974. It sought to address the deep racism within Christianity and the then contentious subject of racially mixed marriages. The book was banned in South Africa.
In 1975 Patrick and Rosemary started a ministry to British inner cities, caring for the poorest and weakest, the deprived and the ethnic minorities. They pioneered one of the first “reverse mission” programmes in the UK, whereby pastors and missionaries from non-Western countries came to minister in Britain.
It was in the mid-1970s that Patrick’s passionate opposition to mission society policies on mixed marriages and nationals as staff finally bore fruit, as mission societies abandoned their former prohibitions.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he taught in various theological institutions including, in the UK, Oak Hill Theological College, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and Ridley Hall, Cambridge, as well as others overseas. His main involvement was to train clergy and missionaries in culture and religion.
During this period, the Sookhdeos lived in Plaistow in the borough of Newham, east London, where they led a multi-racial church congregation. Patrick helped to bring into being the Newham Community Renewal Programme and engaged in other initiatives related to urban deprivation and racial justice. He strongly opposed the neo-Nazi movements, including the National Front, and was even physically assaulted by them. In recognition of his work in the community, he was awarded the Spring 1990 Templeton UK Project Award to an Individual, and received this honour at Windsor Castle from the committee that included the Duke of Edinburgh.
Alongside his work in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, he was also working with international Christian bodies. In the 1980s he was closely involved in shaping the global thinking on Islam of evangelical churches across the world, as coordinator for Islam of both the World Evangelical Fellowship and the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization.
In 1989 Patrick convened an international conference on the plight of the Church in Muslim-majority countries. During this conference, the appalling suffering of Christians in many such contexts was outlined, and as a result two new organisations were created. The first was a research and training institute called the International Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity (IISIC); its aim was to study contemporary Islamic movements and their impact on Christian minorities. The second was a charity called Barnabas Fund, which sought to alleviate the plight of Christians suffering discrimination and persecution under Islam, by providing aid and relief, raising awareness of their situation, engaging in advocacy on their behalf, and encouraging prayer.
In the early 1990s, it was the Institute IISIC that took priority, and its ground-breaking research soon revealed the Islamist terrorist organisations that were brutally attacking Christians in various Muslim contexts. A database recording details of thousands of radical Islamic organisations and groups was created. In the early 1990s the Institute produced a paper about Osama bin Laden and his influence. As a result of this research work, Robert Lambert from Special Branch of the British police force made contact with Patrick Sookhdeo, as Director of IISIC, and requested his assistance in locating and analysing these Islamist organisations and their ideological positions.
During the 1990s Patrick pursued and gained a Ph.D. from the Department of Languages of the Near and Middle East at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
After 9/11, Special Branch approached Dr Sookhdeo again to look at how the Islamist movements had developed since the early 1990s, their current expressions in the UK, and their objectives. This work with Robert Lambert later developed into the Muslim Contact Unit of Special Branch. It was during this period, as unpaid adviser to Special Branch, that Dr Sookhdeo wrote his book Understanding Islamic Terrorism, which was one of the first of its kind.
In early 2003, as war in Iraq was contemplated, he was requested by the British army to advise them on Iraq. Few British people had first-hand experience of Iraq at this point, but Dr Sookhdeo had visited a number of times, beginning in 1999 when he was part of small group of British church leaders, led by Canon Andrew White, invited to visit by Saddam Hussein. As a result of this first visit, he was able to return to Iraq on various occasions, making contact with senior church leaders and, through Barnabas Fund, was able to promote humanitarian assistance.
His briefing to the British military was essentially to help the senior officers understand the culture, religion and social structures of Iraqi society. The primary aim was that soldiers would learn to respect Iraqi people and, particularly in the post-war situation, would be better able not only to understand them but also to meet their needs. Dr Sookhdeo believes that the coalition forces signally failed the Iraqi people in allowing the complete breakdown of society; this particularly affected the minorities, not least the Christians, who were left unprotected in the post-Saddam chaos and lawlessness. He also believes that the legality of the invasion of Iraq was highly questionable.
Subsequently he was involved a number of times in providing pre-deployment training to Iraq, again in the area of culture and religion. As before, the objective was to help officers understand Iraq, its people and their needs, so that they could be more effective in the post-war situation. In 2007 he was deployed as cultural adviser to southern Iraq, helping to pioneer this newly re-created role.
Dr Sookhdeo has also been involved in Afghanistan, where he undertook a similar role, being involved in Kabul in 2007 and Kandahar in 2010. One aspect of his involvement was to work closely with senior Muslim clerics so that NATO forces could better provide for the needs of the Muslim communities as well as to facilitate greater understanding of the Afghan people. He believes that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable and that, although there was much justification for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to remove Al-Qaeda, the later military deployments in Afghanistan not only lacked clear objectives and purposes, but have contributed to the destabilisation not just of Afghanistan but of the whole region, especially Pakistan. He questions Western policy-makers in their current approach to both Afghanistan and Iraq.
During this period Dr Sookhdeo was also adviser to the Permanent Joint Headquarters (UK), helping in the analysis of Iraq and Afghanistan. He was teaching at Cranfield University, the Defence Academy of the UK (where he is currently Visiting Professor), his role being chiefly to train senior officers in the areas of culture, race and religion. He is a Guest Lecturer at the NATO school, Oberammergau, and Adjunct Professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, where many of his students are Muslims including senior government officials from Muslim-majority countries. He has lectured and taught to military and security audiences in the US, Australia, New Zealand and other countries.
Alongside this, calling on his earlier knowledge and experience of both Islamist terrorism and academic studies, Dr Soookhdeo was one of the first to be involved in the movement to understand the ideological underpinning of violent extremism and terrorism and hence to facilitate counter-terrorism and deradicalisation policies.
His involvement as a civilian with the military was not unique. Following the Iraq invasion, the British military turned increasingly to academics to help increase both their knowledge and their understanding. They recognised that their difficulties were partly due to deficiency in these areas. Dr Sookhdeo was therefore one of an increasing number of academics who were brought in, not only in the UK but also in the US and other countries, to assist, particularly in the area of civilian-military affairs and post-conflict situations.
In the 1980s he worked closely with the late Dr Zaki Badawi in the field of social justice to promote good community relations and social cohesion between ethnic and religious groups in the UK. With Dr Badawi, who was then president of the Muslim College in London, he was involved in Bosnia where they stood together against the violence being perpetrated against Muslim minorities.
This work for justice for minorities and his strong opposition to all forms of religious violence led to his being asked to represent the Duke of Edinburgh at discussions in Amman, Jordan , in the late 1990s, with then Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan, Lord Rothschild and Christian leaders, the aim being to find common solutions and work for peace-making. For his work in this field and in defence of Christian minorities, Dr Sookhdeo was awarded the 2001 Coventry Cathedral International Prize for Peace and Reconciliation.
In his peace-making role, Dr Sookhdeo was invited to be part of a group of British bishops and senior church leaders who visited Israel under the auspices of the Anglo-Israel Association. They met with Israeli and Palestinian political and religious leaders in a quest to foster greater understanding and promote peace-making endeavours.
In 2007 he was invited to the Counterjihad conference held at the European Parliament in Brussels, where he gave the keynote address, arguing that it is important to recognise the dangers of violent extremism but equally to avoid any linkage to neo-Nazi movements. He warned delegates that involvement with any Fascist organisations would be counter-productive.
He has been honoured by various Christian denominations, including being appointed Dean-Theologian of Abuja (Church of Nigeria) and Non-Residentiary Canon of Peshawar (Church of Pakistan), and receiving the St Ignatius Theophoros Decoration as Commander (the highest award of the Syrian Orthodox Church). He was awarded a doctorate from Western Seminary, Portland, Oregon, for his work in the area of pluralism, and a doctorate from Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary, Wisconsin, for his work in the area of human rights and religious liberty.
He was also greatly privileged to be invited to lunch with a small group of others by Her Majesty the Queen.
Throughout his life, Dr Sookhdeo has been an ardent social activist in the field of rights of the individual. In the 1970s he opposed racism and likewise today he opposes the Islamists and Islamo-Fascists who deny justice to converts from Islam, full rights to women and full freedom to non-Muslim minorities, and who wish to transform societies into religious totalitarian societies, whether in Muslim-majority countries or in the UK and Western societies. He has always argued passionately for social justice. This includes the freedom of every individual to choose or reject a religion, the rights of women to full equality, and the rights of minorities not to be discriminated against. This passion has resulted in Dr Sookhdeo being opposed by both neo-Nazi organizations and the left, who are increasingly associated with some of the worst forms of oppression, whether of race, religion, culture or gender. He has spear-headed campaigns to recognise the vulnerability of Iraqi Christians, to end the Apostasy Law in Islam, and to make vital amendments to religious hatred legislation in the UK. In his role as International Director of Barnabas Fund, he continues to work to provide practical assistance for Christian minorities and to speak in defence of their rights. He believes that all human beings are created in the divine image and have inalienable rights to life and liberty.