Some who read my blogs will recall me writing on the recent London Terror Attack (see here) and making the point there IS a connection to religion, in this case Islam, which we will do well to recognize and my sadness that “friends” have fallen out with me trying to make the point, one suggesting this will undermine the good relationship that I claim to have with a good many Muslims, which I take pride in.
I was reminded of an exchange I had with a Christian convert from Islam nearly two years ago (see here) explaining why I had been happy to plug an event at my local mosque (pictured above) despite having a view of Christianity that sees this as the one true way to God. It got me thinking about my early days in my third career as a community activist, in the early 2000’s. I was involved in helping to set up a project called “Growing Together”, which is still going (under the banner of Trust Links). We were one of a number of government funded “SRB” projects under a “regeneration” agenda that sought to elevate deprived communities. A further example was a project that was hosted by the afore-mentioned local mosque.
It was around that time I met Dr. Mohamed Pasha MBE, a retired hospital consultant, who was the secretary of that mosque, an intelligent, wise, humble, gracious man, who became my mentor and friend. At the time, my project was getting off the ground, bringing together an unlikely Christian led, enthusiastic yet naïve group that I was representing and Southend Borough Council, committed to equal opportunities and suspicious of anything that might be deemed as proselytizing, as was the one which at the time was being hosted by the mosque, which Dr. Pasha was representing. His advice and support in those early days was invariably timely and appreciated. It was he that encouraged me to stick to my guns on the religious question while at the same developing a project that indeed met the aims behind the SRB scheme. He graciously invited me to join the social committee at the local mosque, which I accepted. I recall not long after sending my own son there for tuition classes to help pass “the 11-plus” exam, which was much appreciated.
I well recall my first visit, when I was given the guided tour. Like many mosques, it had taken over a building that was built to host a Christian congregation, but had to close because of declining interest, compared to the Muslim community that was on a sharp increase, and has been ever since. One thing that particularly struck me at the time was the pride he took in converting the church into a mosque, the amount of work entailed being by necessity significant. Yet, concerning architecture, he proudly explained why he considered certain original features needed to be retained. This resonated with me in one particular regard: the ornate interior ironwork was similar to that in my own church and was produced at the beginning of the twentieth century. Dr Pasha’s rationale was this was all part of our heritage and this needed to be preserved.
In those early years I encountered Dr. Pasha on several occasions, before he moved away from the town (he now lives in Kent and I believe he is well), and invariably it was meetings that I enjoyed, as was his continued encouragement. We didn’t discuss religion much and I suspect his more “syncretist” views did not quite align with my more fundamentalist ones, but we were in agreement that our religion should inform how we interacted with the wider community. There was much that Dr. Pasha did get involved with, and I have no doubt there will be many Old Southendians who will testify to this. As for the new generation, many of which will no little or nothing about the man, whether Christian or Muslim or non-religious, some of what they now enjoy is as a result of the foundations that Dr. Pasha had laid. One Old Southendian, now dead, shared with me some years back his recollection of Dr Pasha in action, when employed as a consultant at the local hospital. As far as my friend was concerned, he was a fine doctor, with the common touch, who went out of his way to help his patients.
He also did much when it came to encouraging respectful inter-faith dialogue (he gifted me with his book exploring the matter), and the good relations enjoyed now (e.g. evidenced in groups like SIWG) is partly because of his example. I recall seeing first hand the genuine warmth he showed toward Jewish folk. One incident for me that marked Dr. Pasha out as being someone who is special was when I was organizing a diversity event where he played a small yet significant part. The Islam stall was manned by one quite zealous for his faith and one consequence was he managed to upset two quite different people. One was a Jewish lady, upon finding that he believed all Jews should be expelled from Israel. Another was a gay man with HIV+, upon reading a leaflet arguing AIDS was God’s judgement on homosexuals. Dr. Pasha proved in both cases to be a peacemaker and thereby render a service. In the Jewish case, by affirming the right of Jews to live in Israel. In the AIDS case, by recognizing some of the information on the leaflet was false.
One of the biggest changes in my lifetime is the presence of Islam on my doorstep. While I have been quite forthright in my opposition to the politically correct narrative that Islam does NOT provide a threat, I have also recognized the importance of engaging with and befriending Muslims. While Dr. Pasha is the prime example of how I would love Muslims (and Christians come to that) to be, I recognize gladly there are others, including from his mosque, of a similar vein. The issue of the Islamification of UK culture, and the associated one of Muslim immigration, is unlikely to go away, and has been and will no doubt be taken up by far right groups, with every bit as worrying consequences as that coming from head in the sand liberals. I fear that there is a version of Islam that is hostile to the British way of life and hope there would be more of similar ilk to that Dr. Pasha.
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A few years ago I was lucky enough to visit Hagia Sofia, in Istanbul. It started out as a Christian church, became a mosque and is now a museum. It is a beautiful place and you can see both Christian and Islamic symbols on the walls. If only we could make all religious buildings ‘Hagia Sofias’, united in the worship of something greater than ourselves…