Just after the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013, I spent an evening with a group of friends at a local pub. The conversation turned to Islam and it soon became evident that there was a deep antipathy towards Islam in general and Muslims in particular following 9/11, 7/7 and other much publicised atrocities. I became increasingly concerned though, that although none of us sitting around that table knew any Muslims or had ever been in a Mosque, most held the opinion that Islam was a religion that promotes violence.
Later that week I came across a quote from Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Kung which distils his ethic for a post 9/11 world:
‘No peace among the nations without peace among religions and no peace among religions without dialogue…’ (www.goodreads.com)
Words which seemed pertinent and prophetic for me and which just wouldn’t let me go.
I decided to do something practical in response both to Kung’s challenge and my ignorance about Islam. I contacted the Derby Multi-Faith Centre and explained to the Director that I would like to be put in touch with a Muslim family who might be willing to meet and help me understand their faith and how it impacted upon their daily lives.
A few months later, following a flurry of emails I met my Muslim contact in his home. We spent an hour chatting and he listened to the back-story that had led me to our meeting, and answered many of the questions I had been pondering. It quickly became obvious that he was repulsed and embarrassed by what I’ll call Islamic extremism/terrorism and felt this had absolutely no place in authentic Islam and was responsible for a widening gap between his faith community and non-Muslims in the UK. The evening finished with a meal at which I met many of his extended family and was a time of prayer (I observed), laughter and a truly sublime curry!
Sometime later I visited my friend’s Mosque and after observing prayers I spent time in conversation with other Muslim men. Again it quickly became clear that they were all repulsed and saddened by those fanatics/terrorists who murder innocent people in the name of their religion. Many of them feel that antipathy towards Islam is increasing in the UK and that their religion is seen as a threat. They are also feeling increasingly threatened and some fear for their safety. One older man told me how whilst walking to work holding a bag, someone shouted from a passing car: ‘Is the bomb heavy!’
Through numerous conversations it has become obvious that my Muslim friend and I agree on many things; here’s a few: firstly we accept that a liberal democracy is the least worst political system and whilst not perfect is worth championing for the freedom it proffers us; secondly we accept that part of such a democracy is free speech and the right to express our thoughts as we wish, as long as we don’t incite violence against anyone; thirdly we accept that one can be conservative in religious belief and practice without being an extremists and fourthly we both feel enriched by our dialogue and deeper understanding of our faith traditions.
Of course there are things that we disagree about too. I feel that it is right for the magazine Charlie Hebdo to produce cartoons of all religious figures, whilst he doesn’t. I also believe that Jesus Christ is the definitive expression and revelation of God; he disagrees. Then there are specific practices in both our religions that cause us concern. But we’ve agreed together that these, though important, shouldn’t stop us from learning to understand each other’s context and through dialogue, seeking to embody a command close to the heart of each faith: ‘Love you neighbour as yourself’.
I’ve now been able to explain to some of my friends just how compassionate, welcoming and peace-loving my Muslim friend and his family are, which of-course will be true for many Muslims both here in the UK and around the world.
I wish to do all I can to challenge the misunderstanding held by some that Muslims, are by their very nature, a threat to society. My experience shows that just isn’t the case and I would encourage everyone to seek to get to know members of this faith community for themselves and so build some bridges of reconciliation, peace and hope. The events of the last week in France, Belgium and other European countries perhaps highlight the enormity as well as the urgency of this task. There may not be peace with dialogue, but there certainly won’t be without it!