Some commentators claim that five years after 9-11, most westerners are Islamophobic. John Allan explores whether the UK Christian church is prepared to understand and relate to its Muslim neighbours.As soon as the local community knew that Nissar and Yasmin had become Christians, the persecution started.
There were bricks through the windows and graffiti on the walls. Their car was vandalised too. In the street, they were spat and sworn at, threatened with death, told to move out and go somewhere else. On one occasion, Yasmin was trapped inside the house for two hours while a hostile mob held her hostage. The authorities don’t seem interested in helping; no charges have ever been brought; the police have simply advised Nissar and Yasmin to leave the area.
But it didn’t deter them. And now Yasmin runs a support group for other Christians who have dared to leave Islam. Because of the danger, the group has to meet in secret, and it isn’t easy to join. New applicants are always carefully questioned and treated with suspicion; there are so many enemies who are constantly trying to infiltrate…
Where is all this happening? The Middle East, Afghanistan, somewhere in Asia? No. Bradford.
“It’s been absolutely appalling,” Nissar told The Times. “This is England — where I was born and raised. You would never imagine Christians would suffer in such a way.”
Stories like this have made the British Christian community very suspicious of Muslims. It all seems very unfair, doesn’t it? British celebrity converts to Islam – from Jemimah Khan to Cat Stevens – are greeted with a media fanfare; but the far greater number of ex-Muslims converting to Christianity (it’s something like ten times as many, according to BBC estimates) have to go into hiding. Aggressive Islam seems to be making inroads all over the place, opening its own schools and youth centres, suggesting Bank holidays for Muslim festivals, demanding that cartoons be banned and writers silenced…
But from inside the Muslim community it doesn’t look like that. What British Muslims can see very clearly is that Western society has treated them with much more fear and suspicion since the events of 9/11. After the attack on the Twin Towers, surveys showed that a surprisingly large percentage of British Muslims thought seriously about moving away from this country. And now, on the fifth anniversary of the attack, a YouGov poll shows that a majority of UK citizens – 53% - has come to believe that the Muslim faith is a threat to democracy. Not Muslim extremism, notice – but Islam itself.
Perhaps that’s why one-half of young UK Asians say that they feel no allegiance to Britain as “their country”. 36% of British Muslims would rather have Muslim than non-Muslim neighbours.
Surprisingly large numbers of Muslims hold some bizarre beliefs: that Princess Diana was murdered to prevent her from marrying a Muslim (36%); that 9/11 was an American-Jewish conspiracy (45%); that the Holocaust never happened (only 29% agreed that it did). Eager acceptance of ideas like these betray how threatened Muslims feel in our society.
Yahya Birt, son of the former BBC Director General, and now a Muslim convert, argues that “to move forward, we need to establish trust. Since the London bombings, people seeing someone on a bus who looks like a Muslim might feel uncomfortable. Fear does that. A police officer I know, who works at Scotland Yard and wears traditional Muslim robes, has been prevented from getting on trains: people obstruct the doors and won’t let him on. This is someone who devotes his life to defending us, but he’s seen as the problem.”
Perhaps that’s why, since 9/11, Sikhs in Leicester have taken to wearing T-shirts bearing the legend, “Don’t freak, I’m a Sikh”. I may be Asian, they’re saying, but don’t confuse me with those dangerous Muslims. Birt, who is now a research scholar at the Islamic Foundation, believes that young Muslims are well aware of the hostility they encounter in society, but that their own community is not doing enough to help them forge a credible British Muslim identity. “My work suggests that young Muslims are searching for a form of Islam that makes sense in a multicultural context. They find it hard to get answers, particularly where they rely on imams from overseas who often don’t speak English. Imams should be giving young people tools to integrate on their own terms. Too often they have tended to say ‘Live at peace with your neighbours’ and at the same time, ‘We don’t want to live like them’. So the message has been, ‘Be good but be separate’.”
What turns young British Muslims to terrorism? In my opinion it’s not physical deprivation, or economic unfairness; but the invisible stigma which says silently to Muslims, several times a day, “You aren’t like us. You don’t belong here.” After all, those convicted of terrorist offences have often turned out to be well educated and affluent, young boys from the privileged and Westernised end of British Muslim society. If they identify with the exploits of Hamas, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda, it isn’t because they are disadvantaged in financial or career terms. It’s because they feel they are living in a country which doesn’t want them and makes no attempt to understand them.
This, at least, is the view of young Muslim Shalim Farouk. “There are many young people who feel humiliated by how the police treat them in this country,” he warns. “Many develop extreme views but they are afraid to express them. They are vulnerable and can be manipulated by those with evil thoughts. There are more young people like that around than the government know. They need to find a more gentle way to reach out to them.”
According to Shareefa Fulat, of the Muslim Youth Helpline, “there are no support services, or support from within the [Muslim] community, for people struggling with resolving their identities. There are huge cultural and generational differences within the community which also play a role.”
And so this year four leading Muslim youth organisations have come together to sponsor ‘Radical Middle Way’, a movement which draws together large numbers of young Muslims across the country to hear leading imams speak in youth-friendly concert halls about the dangers of extremism and the possibility of forging a new, radical Muslim identity which isn’t based on violence but upon contextualizing Islam in Western culture. The title of one talk given by Shaikh Abdallah bin Bayyah – ‘Between Ignorance and Extremism’ – sums up precisely what Radical Middle Way wants to achieve. “Brother and sisters,” he told his young audience, “the world today is living in an immense amount of anxiety and some of it is directed towards us. The question that is being put to us, is who are we? What do we want? What are we going to do? And our answer to those questions is that we’re Muslims… The greeting that we have among ourselves is peace. So this is a question that we have to ask ourselves, is how can we introduce a culture of peace.”
“Do not be afraid in this country,” urges Habib Ali Al-Jifri. “You are a part of it. Feel that you have a responsibility towards improving it and remedying its ailments. If you see good, follow it through, and if you see wrong, be the first to reject it. If someone wants to do harm to the country in the name of Islam, we are the first to reject him.”
But while Radical Middle Way is a hopeful sign – and while we’re seeing lots of other amateur attempts to make sense of the British Muslim experience, on websites, chat rooms and young Muslim Internet forums – there’s still a long way to go. And anti-Muslim scare stories in the media aren’t helping. Where does the Christian church stand in all of this?
A Christian responseThe first thing that we have to face is that there is an appalling ignorance among Christians of what exactly Islam believes and what Muslims stand for. It isn’t enough, any longer, to know vaguely about the story of Mohammed and the five pillars of Islam; there are 1.6m followers of Islam in this country, and if we are to deal with them honestly and sensitively, we need good, detailed information about what they hold most dear. (Yet how many evangelical Christians are far better clued up about the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses, of whom we have only 120,000 in the UK?)
We need to know what makes Sunnis different from Shi’ites, and where the terrorists disagree with the vast majority of Muslims. We need to realise that Islam contains heretical groups, just as Christendom does, and that none of them reflect the true heart of the Muslim faith. We need to be able to squash the hoary myths (such as that the Quran prescribes death for apostates, that it allows Muslims to lie in certain circumstances, that women are always unhappy within Islam). We don’t need to be experts in comparative religion; but we do need a basic understanding of how Muslims see the world. Or how will we ever make Christianity intelligible to them?
But this mustn’t just be an intellectual exercise either. More importantly, we need to gain a sense of how the world looks through British Muslim eyes; to understand the ‘feel’, the preoccupations, the priorities of a British Muslim mindset. It can be very helpful to look at some of the hundreds of websites I’ve mentioned above, and eavesdrop on the conversations which Muslims are having with one another as they thresh out the difficult questions of living out a Middle Eastern faith in Western culture. But what’s to stop us actually taking initiatives to get to know our local Muslim community? If anyone in Britain is to extend a hand of friendship to new citizens, shouldn’t it be the Christians? And if we don’t, how long do they have to live in our midst before they will be able to hear the gospel clearly, in a way that’s relevant to them?
Second, we need to recognize that British churches haven’t always been good at befriending the alien and outsider. Back in the 50s, for example, white churches failed miserably to welcome black Caribbean immigrant Christians into their midst; and today’s lively black churches were often born out of necessity – because black believers just weren’t welcome within our structures. How many immigrant families struggled to keep their children within the faith, when they experienced uncomprehension, fear and rejection in British society? And how much more could we have done to help them bridge the cultural gap?
But this was the fifties, when British churches were not always the warmest friendship groupings on earth. After the charismatic movement had made its impact in the 60s and 70s, ‘body life’ became much more important, and fellowship between Christians flourished in new and vital ways. So after all we’ve learned, are we better equipped this time around to take initiatives, build bridges, offer unconditional love? It would be nice to think so. But how many churches are doing so?
One Christian youth worker I know was shocked recently at the attitudes he found among teenagers in his youth group. “They were extremely confused about the issues which they claimed to feel strongly about,” he reported. “Their argument was based on a dreadful mismatch of 40´s and 50´s immigration prejudice, illegal immigration, UK minority communities, race, religion, terrorism, unemployment, you name it.” The attitudes we pass on to our young people – consciously or unconsciously – are one litmus test of just how far we’re open to others as Jesus was.None of this is to say that we shouldn’t fight against those features of Islamic culture which need to be challenged: the hostile attitude to ‘apostates’ like Nissar and Yasmin, for example, or the persecution of Christian believers in Muslim cultures around the world. But we will make more headway if we make our objections in a context of respect and understanding, rather than sniping away from the other side of a massive rampart. When people know that you love them as they are, they start to listen to the things you have to tell them.
The tragedy about the origins of Islam – it seems to me – was that Muhammad himself never really understood Christianity. There were several key doctrines (such as the Trinity, and the sonship of Jesus) of which he had only a distorted grasp – because the only ‘Christians’ he ever encountered were a decadent, nominal bunch who represented their faith very badly indeed.
And so for fourteen hundred years his failure to understand has distorted the perceptions of millions of his followers. If only somebody had been there to show him the true challenge and reality of biblical faith!
It’s too late for Muhammad. But must his followers in Britain today suffer the same lack of contact with real Christians? Or might we just be ready for the risk of real encounter?
John Allan is based at Belmont Chapel, Exeter.