Today I had an interesting experience, which happened to be a first. I was invited to talk on the subject of “Understanding Islam” at a symposium organized by our local Citizens Advice Bureau, loosely around the subject of Immigration, held inside one of our High Street banks. Some of the issues that came out were of particular interest, which I hope to return to in a future post. While a lot of what I said is contained in the writings and blog of this website, I thought it would be helpful to give a synopsis here …
When I walked into this building today, I was welcomed by a member of staff who helpfully gave me directions. I knew she was Muslim because of the headscarf she was wearing, although nowadays such an encounter would not be something one would want to comment on but for the fact I came here today to talk about “Understanding Islam”, and it illustrates the changes that have occurred in recent years, for I grew up in Southend in the fifties and sixties, and never, to my knowledge, had I met a Muslim.
Although I have read what Muslims, Christians and others have written about Islam, followed events related to the Islam religion and what is taking place in the Muslim world (right now events in Gaza and Iraq are headline news), and have engaged with a number of Muslim folk over the years, I am no expert. What I am about to share is my personal experience and observations and I will try to do so in a way that is objective and does not impose my views on a subject that many people have strong views about.
When I went from school to university, I met many Muslims. Our college had students from all over the world, and many of them were Muslim. A little prior to that I had a Christian conversion, which made me curious about other religions, although part of the motive was to convert those from other religions, especially Islam, to Christianity. Yet I found when I met with Muslim students, we often ended up friends, and it has been friendship that has under girded how I have tried to relate to Muslims ever since.
When I left university for the world of work, again I did not get to meet Muslims, unless part of my overseas travels. This changed around 2000 when I started to get heavily involved in community work. I helped to start a project called Growing Together, which was to help people with mental health issues, in particular using the means of therapeutic gardening. We were funded by something called SRB (Single Regeneration Budget) and there were a number of other projects that began around that time that were also funded by SRB, one of which happened to be based at the local mosque. One of the leaders, Dr Pasha, a well respected, retired, hospital consultant became my unofficial mentor. I was also invited to become a member of the social committee at the mosque and got to know a number of its members.
Ever since 2000, I have been involved in community work and have frequently had to rub shoulders with Muslim folk, some of which I have come to regard as friends. The next big community activity I was involved in was Community-in-Harmony, known particularly for its big annual events. Muslims have been actively involved in this and its chair was a member of the same mosque: Ahmad Khwaja. Dr. Pasha and Ahmad were good examples of what I saw in a number of other Muslim folk: community minded, peace loving, articulate, wanting to be good citizens and concerned for good relations with the wider community.
In my community work, I have helped publicise activities at the mosque, and on one occasion I sent my son to a 11-plus preparation class being held there. I have had some involvement promoting good community relationships, especially when there has been Islamophobic activity. These days I am part of the Southend Interfaith Working Group which involves all the main religions. Two of our achievements, pertinent to Muslims, is working with schools in rolling out the religious education syllabus and involving faith communities, and the burying of the dead without undue delay. One of my strangest experiences was earlier in the year unexpectedly becoming a member of the VIP party when another of our mosques was opened, and described in a previous posting.
When looking at the Census results of 2001 and comparing with 2011, we can see that although the majority of British people still regard themselves as Christian, a lot more declare themselves to be of no religion. In 2001 there were 2000 Muslims living in Southend and in 2011 that number had risen to 3000, overtaking Judaism as the second main religion in that time. There are some that predict that Islam will eventually overtake Christianity as this country’s main religion. The growing number of Muslims is in part due to immigration, in particular from the Indian sub-continent, but Muslims come here from all over the world. They tend to have large families. Growth is also assisted by people converting to Islam.
When looking at the national picture, I would like to cite five “Islam” issues that have been in the news recently: Halaal meat, the wearing of the Burka, the “Trojan Horse” incidents, Sharia law, Islamic banking, all of which have implications that have yet to be fully resolved. Halaal meat has sometimes been introduced by stealth; the wearing of Burka in public places has been a divisive issue; a repeat of another Trojan Horse incident is being countered by the sledgehammer of teaching of British values that has given offence to some as those values have not been agreed, having Sharia and British law co-existing can be lead to conflict, Islamic banking with the radical notion of stakeholder rather than ursury will attract more interest given the investment by Islamic countries in our financial institution and newly empowered local Muslims.
Looking internationally, we see the rise of militant, fundamentalist Islam, notably at this time in groups like ISIS in Iraq / Syrian and Hamas in Palestine / Israel. In many Muslim countries, there is persecution of those whose faith is not Islam. While this is a far cry from the moderate, peaceable, neighborly Muslims one often gets to meet here in Southend, this pattern has to raise concerns.
I would encourage folk to understand Islam and our Muslim neighbours, and befriend them if you can, which I have found mutually beneficial. But also exercise due caution and not bury your heads in the sand as to what is happening around us.