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Category: Identity

Finding our voice

I fear we protest too much, self-centred as we are. In the wake of Parliament’s vote to permit military action in Syria, BBC Question Time invited Maajid Nawaz to join the panel along with Nicky Morgan, Diane Abbott, Caroline Lucas and Jill Kirby. The inclusion of Mister Nawaz prompted immediate consternation online: “Couldn’t the BBC find another Muslim voice?” protested one of our many vocal activists.

I instantly wondered what it must be like to be a Sikh or Hindu living in Britain today, or to be of Chinese or East European heritage. Where are their voices in the clamour for representation?

Over the past year and beyond, Question Time has featured numerous Muslim contributors on its panels. Two weeks ago, for the second time this year, the journalist and commentator Medhi Hassan sat on the panel. Other Muslim voices over the past year have included the politicians Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh and Humza Yousaf. Others of Muslim heritage, who do not actively subscribe to religion in their personal lives have also contributed to the programme.

Now the contributors may not be our kind of Muslim — whatever that means — but individuals of Muslim heritage appearing in 25% of all episodes or making up 5% of all panellists is pretty good representation for a group (if we insist on identifying people purely by religion) that makes up just 4.5% of the UK population. By contrast, there are many other minority groups under-represented and consistently absent in the make-up of Question Time panels.

There is of course a hierarchy of people we really do not like representing us — the likes of Maajid Nawaz, Anjem Choudary and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown most frequently lamented — but the daily reading of the morose Muslim presence on Social Media reveals constant dissatisfaction with any kind of representation. No matter who speaks up, others will be quick to point out that they are the wrong kind of Muslim, or that they do not represent the mainstream, or that they are excluding other voices. Each of us demands that only our voice or interpretation or narrow sectarian viewpoint or political perspective deserves attention, and everything else is condemned.

We protest an awful lot for a community so divided. The truth of the matter is that we each represent ourselves. Religion plays an important part in some of our identities; for others ethnicity, class or political affiliation is more important, or not important at all. For some a love of baking, motherhood, football or mountain climbing is the overarching marker of social belonging. And even for the self-described religious, various sectarian affiliations or philosophical leanings take precedence over a simplistic unified whole.

One of the beauties of maintaining an unpopular blog, rarely read, is that it enables one to represent not the world or a whole religion or community, but personal thoughts, beliefs and sentiments. Within our community are those — of all sorts of persuasions — quick to judge others as heretics and write off their contributions without even first investigating their ideas. We do enjoy to listen to yes men, who reflect our own prejudices and views precisely. We’re not so keen on voices which challenge us and nudge us out of our comfort zones.

In my frequent forays online amongst Muslim activists, both political and apolitical, Traditionalist and Salafi, I frequently regret that I find I have little in common with my compatriots in faith. Perhaps I am too much a cynic, or reside too much on the periphery, to ever see the world through populist eyes. But that’s absolutely fine; it’s as it should be. Blind group think will lead us to disaster.

Bemoan the inclusion of an opposing voice if you must. Bewail those who do not represent you. Weep in sorrow at the amplification of extremist voices on the Left and Right. Petition those who seek to silence the voice of reason, or the voice of puritanical zeal, or of presumed orthodoxy. Protests as much as your like.

Just know that the only person who can truly represent you is you. So speak if you must.

The politics of identity

From our children we are learning the politics of identity as we hear what they have learned from their white and brown friends, who regurgitate the opinions of their parents.

In modern times, Muslim does not mean follower of the Islamic faith, but is shorthand for non-white. These little kids have been brought up to view all white people as Christian and all non-white people as Muslim.

Our children come home from school confused, adamant in face of all contrary evidence that what their friends say is true.

One day their teachers are going to have to address this nonsense, but it will be hard work in the face of the politics of identity at home. Our own counter-arguments, though momentarily convincing, are soon forgotten back in the playground.

And so I guess our children will keep on coming home repeating the preposterous notions they have learnt from their friends.

There is only them and us: the world neatly divided into two vast camps. Muslim and Christian. There are no Sikhs, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Atheists, Agnostics. No Catholics, Protestants, Methodists. There are the Muslim kids and the Christian kids.

It’s terribly sad.

The Propagandist

In one breath you dismiss the faith of millions of your brothers, writing them off as sell-outs, apostates and hypocrites, while in the next you agitate on behalf of millions of others, unknown. Here are the contradictions of the Muslim propagandist. A brutal oppression is raging out there, elsewhere, in distant lands, and it is the duty of every believer to respond. Yet in times of peace, those same oppressed would stand repudiated by your tongue, their faith undermined, their words and deeds attacked. Yours is a call to action which demands no questions be asked. Your propaganda paints a compelling portrait, edited, refined and contorted: Muslims alone are victims, persecuted around the world, relentlessly. But about Muslims killed by Muslims of a certain kind, you are silent. Of those maimed and cut to pieces by a bomb in a marketplace, you have nothing to say. About Christians killed by Muslims, Christians killed by Christians, Hindu-Buddhist rivalries, ethnic conflict, drug wars, persecution of other minorities… not a word. There is no room for acknowledgement of the suffering of others in the propagandist’s toolkit. We must be moved, by whatever means possible. Yours is a humanitarian mission that demands that nobody asks, “Where is your compassion for your neighbour and brother near at hand?”

Inverted Beauty

Who convinced these people to embrace the hideousification of the face? Why uglify yourself that way? Grateful to have preceded Generation Mipster; we were blessed with the natural elegance of an unassuming modest beauty. The grotesque, gargantuan inventions of today’s fashionistas are like comic turn. Clowns revelling in an identity without its core.

More than bricks and mortar

Recent months have seen a sudden upsurge in devotion to the Christian faith amongst followers of the British National Party (BNP) and the English Defence League (EDL). In June the BNP chimed against the Islamic colonisation of Britain, seen in the widespread conversion of churches throughout the land: the Central Mosque of Brent; the former Forest Gate Church; Peckham’s St Mark’s Cathedral; West Didsbury’s Albert Park Methodist Chapel; Oldham’s Glodwick Baptist Church; and 250 year old Brick Lane Church in London’s Spitalfields (once a French Protestant church, a Methodist chapel, a synagogue and now a Bengali mosque). All of these churches — and many more — have fallen to the Islamic invasion.

The BNP are not alone. As the EDL prepare to descend on Manchester on 10 October to protest against Islamic extremism, a video has appeared on the internet, making a rallying cry for England’s Christian heritage.1 In his video entitled, ‘EDL: Defending our heritage & birthright – Manchester Oct 10th 2009’, Lionheart of Luton, Paul Ray, builds a picture of a nation under siege. While it begins with headlines captured from the Daily Mail and the Express to illustrate how Muslims receive special treatment — whilst England’s natives suffer at their hands — this is another ode to the churches of England.

‘Manchester England,’ reads a slide midway through the video, ‘The destruction and desecration of a Christian Church and graveyard to make way for a Mosque’. The slides intersect a video showing a tracked Komatsu digger moving earth within the grounds of Longsight’s St John’s Church. The next slide reads:

Are yesterday’s politically correct Church leaders irrelevant to us in todays United Kingdom? Psalm 81:9 There shall be no foreign god among you; Nor shall you worship any foreign god.

In this video, the EDL has messianic pretensions, likening church leaders to the corrupt Pharisees of old, but they would rather not share the Christian message here. Instead, invoking the book of Samuel, they turn to an earlier saviour for inspiration. The EDL is David to the Muslim Goliath in England’s midst:

The Saul generation of Church leaders is coming to an end with the emerging David’s poised to take their place. Please show God where you stand and pray for the United Defence Leagues and their members

The video from St John’s is followed by newspaper clippings about the resignation of Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali — the only bishop, we are told, who grasped the extent of the threat of Islam to British civil society. Nobody mentions Kenneth Cragg these days, while the intellectually brilliant Rowan Williams is dismissed as some sort of loony. And so it is left to the EDL to defend Christianity, not just from the Muslims, but also from parish priests, pastors and impotent Bishops:

The David generation leaders are already in place and speaking the truth on-behalf of His people
Are you one of them who is willing to stand against the Islamification of this Christian land?

A little probing reveals that the source of the video showing building contractors working on the church site is a BNP supporter, who posts the full version on YouTube entitled, ‘Saint Johns, Christian Graves Desecration’2 with the description, ‘Graves desecrated at Saint Johns Church in Longsight, Manchester, England as Church is converted into Mosque.’ The BNP itself has an article featuring both the video and further photographs on its website.

There is a problem, however. When I researched the history of St John’s, Longsight, I found that it was decommissioned in 1999. Neighbouring St Agnes — ‘in this place will I give peace,’ inscribed above its entrance — now houses the abandoned church’s statue of St John the Evangelist in its nave. It has taken the BNP and EDL an entire decade to lament the loss of this historic place of worship and its descent into disrepair.

Of course, the key issue riling the nationalists is the desecration of the site. But here again there is a problem. A quick enquiry with the City Council reveals that St John’s Church is a Grade II listed building, which means that it is considered nationally important and of special interest.3 To make any changes to such a building requires the owner to apply for building consent.

Lo and behold, we discover that planning permission for a 16 space car park in the church garden was granted early in 2007. In the intervening period, the owners have spent £50,000 repairing the building, which now houses Dar-ul-Ulum Qadria Jilania mosque and Islamic Centre. A photograph on the BNP website clearly shows that the graveyard has been carefully preserved, although the picture has been tagged, ‘grave-in-front-OF-DIGGER’, since the work in the church garden can be seen in the background.

It turns out that the graveyard has not been touched at all. But if it had been, should we not expect the BNP and EDL to be enraged whenever a graveyard comes under the developer’s gaze? Locals certainly protested when a builder obtained planning permission to redevelop a derelict chapel in Coedpoeth, Wrexham, which included plans to build luxury flats and a car park on top of approximately 100 graves in 2007. But as far as I can tell, the BNP did not join their protests.

The truth is, the redevelopment of graveyards is a fairly common occurrence in the United Kingdom. Rehoboth Baptist Church in Horsham, for example, has just completed construction of a seven space car park and garden of remembrance on its former graveyard. Planning permission to remove the headstones without disturbing the actual graves and to block pave part of the site was granted in 2005. The BNP and EDL, of course, will not be protesting about this car park on this graveyard.

And that’s the problem. The BNP and EDL wish to use the redevelopment of church buildings as ammunition against Britain’s Muslim population, but the facts do not support them. Reading their literature, you would imagine that hoards of Muslims were running amok throughout the land, confiscating church property at the expense of lively congregations. Nowhere is the reason for church closures mentioned — ironically for people that speak of a David Generation, a term commonly employed by those concerned with conquering the personal Goliaths of the ego, there is no introspection here.

Nor are the numbers of closures put in context. For while seventeen hundred Anglican churches have been made redundant since 1969, there are still over 48,500 churches of different denominations serving their communities nationwide. Moreover, over the same period, The Church of England opened more than 500 new churches, while continuing to maintain over 16,000 others. If, as some claim, there are now seventeen hundred mosques in the United Kingdom, this is still only 3.5% of the total number of churches in the country (interestingly the Muslim population of the UK is a similar proportion of the whole).

If Muslim worship appears to be more visible than that of the Christian, it could only be because the Muslim still views the Friday Prayer as England’s Christians viewed Sunday Worship one hundred years ago. Even a believer on the borders of his faith still feels duty bound to put on his Friday-best once a week. But it would be misleading to suggest that seventeen hundred mosques have sprung up in place of the seventeen hundred Church of England buildings closed over the past forty years, for Anglican churches have covenants conferred upon them which usually prevent them from being used by other faith communities. While BNP leader, Nick Griffin, has claimed that Church of England buildings are being turned into mosques, ‘up and down the country,’ it is actually rather hard to find any. The closest I can find are a couple of gurdwaras utilised by the Sikh community.

If my own experience reflects a wider trend, I would suggest that only a handful of mosques in Britain are of great note. Converted houses, rooms above shops, disused warehouses and hired halls in multi-cultural centres are all included in the number of mosques in Britain. The Archbishop’s cubbyhole under the stairs for private prayer would not seem out of place in our sometimes ramshackle collection of prayer halls. Nevertheless, it is true that Muslims have bought former churches — notably redundant Methodist chapels which seem to be in great supply.

So the BNP and EDL have a point? Well I don’t think so. While ranting about St John’s, Longsight, they completely ignore St George’s, Hulme, a Grade II listed building built in 1823 which has been converted into a place of residence, a mere two and a half miles away. But why should this surprise us when they also ignore the conversion of former churches into restaurants, gyms, pubs, nightclubs, shops and private apartments? Brixton’s St Matthew’s church is now the Mass nightclub, which promises revellers loud music, all night dance and expensive spirits. O’Neill’s on Muswell Hill Broadway, housed in a grand old church, offers cheap food and Guns ‘n’ Roses. Cheltenham’s St James’ is now an Italian restaurant. St Luke’s in Heywood, Lancashire, located 14 miles from Manchester City centre, has been turned into a huge family home, featuring six double bedrooms. And for between £250,000 and £500,000 you too can own one with estate agents listing hundreds of former chapels, rectories and churches, already converted or waiting to be converted, with planning consent already obtained.

If the BNP and EDL were genuinely concerned about the loss of historic places of worship and the demise of their Christian heritage, they would say to their members, ‘Look, churches are closing all around us because we don’t use them. We need to start making Sunday special again.’ That task, however, would entail asking their followers to take personal responsibility for their lives: that only ten percent of British Christians regularly attend church cannot be blamed on the mainstream political parties, on multi-culturalism or political correctness. It certainly can’t be blamed on the Muslims.

But the likely response of such people would be to say, ‘Don’t bring religion into this.’ Though they claim to be defenders of the faith, they are in fact like the utilitarian jihadis who dispense with the boundaries of religion, claiming that the end will justify the means. Like those who ignore the prohibitions of their faith, the BNP and EDL ignore the message at the heart of the religion they claim to hold dear. When Jesus — peace be upon him — was asked which were the greatest commandments, Christians believe that he replied:

“The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”4

If this message is unclear to those of the David Generation, Jesus — peace be upon him — is reported to go on to say, ‘But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’5 And if they insist on bringing, ‘I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword,’6 let them read it in context: Jesus — peace be upon him — knew that most of his people would reject his teachings, which would divide both families and communities. His was a vision of a just society: he overturned the tables of the moneylenders in the temple, he promoted fair treatment of the poor and forgave his enemies. In the context of his time, many of the parables appear as much an assault on the social injustices of his society as messages for spiritual growth.7

More famously, perhaps, we have the Beatitudes: blessed are the are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, the meek, the merciful, those pure in heart, and the peacemakers.8 A worthy message indeed, but one clearly lost on those self-declared champions of Christianity in Britain, the BNP and EDL.

Last Thursday, twenty Muslim gravestones were pushed over and a number were broken at Manchester’s Southern Cemetery on Barlow Moor Road.9 It is not possible to say at this stage who was responsible and what motivated them, but the Police are treating it as a racially-motivated crime. It is not inconceivable that it was a revenge attack for the alleged desecration of Christian graves at St John’s, Longsight — a mere ten minute, four mile drive away.

Love your neighbour as yourself? Love your enemy as yourself? Blessed be the peacemakers? I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about the authenticity of the nationalists’ new found faith, and where it is liable to lead us.

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWcGOt4btwY (spiritofstgeorge)
  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Z6o5Ccwb0A (SuperAceofDiamonds)
  3. Listed buildings in Manchester by street, Manchester City Council — http://www.manchester.gov.uk/info/514/listed_buildings_register/1908/a-z_of_listed_buildings_in_manchester/18
  4. Gospel of Mark 12:29-31
  5. Gospel of Matthew 5:44
  6. Gospel of Matthew 10:34
  7. See for example Jesus the Prophet: His Vision of the Kingdom on Earth by R David Kaylor, John Knox Press, 1994
  8. Gospel of Luke 6:20-23 and of Matthew 5:1-14
  9. Manchester Evening News, 2 October 2009 — http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/s/1153293_muslim_graves_targeted_in_hate_attack

The Semitic Way

In British politics today, there is so much talk of identity, of what it means to belong, of shared values. Sometimes it is assumed that we must all trace our values back to Hellenic roots, as if this were the foundation of civilisation. Yet my heart has always felt comfort in the Semitic pathway. As a child, the Parables spoke to me, but Paul’s Epistles did not. As an agnostic it was the Letter of James. And now: well you know the journey I am walking, the road I am taking.

My burgundy-bound Bible from those days before faith is filled with scribbles in pencil, with scruffy underlining and highlighter ink: the etchings of a searching soul. But one book stands out. On the title page of the Letter of James there is a handwritten note which reads, ‘The most beautiful book in the Bible.’ I was yet to learn of Islam—yet to tread this path—but looking back now it seems clear to me that the author was a Muslim. A Muslim of the era before Muhammad, peace be upon him.

I’m not alone in reaching this conclusion though. James’ address of the twelve tribes dispersed throughout the land nods to the Judaic-Christian world, whose resemblance to another tradition has been widely noted over the years. Hans Küng et al point out in their work on the World Religions, ‘the traditional and historical parallels between early Judaic-Christianity and Islam are inescapable.’ Meanwhile, while I would naturally dispute the case of dependence given my belief in revelation, Hans-Joachim Schoeps writes in Theology and History of Jewish Christianity:

Though it may not be possible to establish exact proof of the connection, the indirect dependence of Mohammed on sectarian Jewish Christianity is beyond any reasonable doubt. This leaves us with a paradox of truly world-historical dimensions: the fact that while Jewish Christianity in the Church came to grief, it was preserved in Islam and, with regard to some of its driving impulses at least, it has lasted till our own time.’

When I put the teachings of the Letter of James and the teachings of Islam side by side, the similarities are striking. About six years ago I began work on a small text that would do just that, for I felt that the parallel presentation conveyed meanings that have sadly escaped many. Much is made of difference when we encounter the Other, but there is a great deal to be gained from highlighting the common ground.

The reality of the focus on identity, on what it means to belong, on shared values, is that what defines our present is a hugely diverse past. While the phrase ‘our Judeo-Christian heritage’ has emerged over recent years, that old focus on Hellenic and Grecian ancestry remains dominant. I have seen it in the current debates on multi-culturalism. That is wrong: Semitic pathways have had a huge influence on our culture. What is more, where would Britain be had the no one translated those ancient works held up so high?

So talk of identity, of what it means to belong and of shared values, but don’t give me a hard time when I say I am proud of who I am: a devotee to the Semitic way.

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