Bridging the Gap between British Christians and Muslims
London - I was recently invited to deliver the Peter Bell Memorial Lecture in Leeds, in honour of a local interfaith champion, Dr. Peter Bell, who worked tirelessly to raise the profile of interfaith dialogue in that Yorkshire city. As a Methodist lay preacher, he was keen to foster better understanding between people of different faiths, and was a teacher and pioneer in the field of interfaith dialogue. I discussed 70 ways of enhancing interfaith work, surveying the myriad of approaches that are commonly used to promote interfaith efforts in schools, churches, mosques, prisons, government and even in wider society.
My hope is that by reading about these efforts, people will understand that amongst stories of segregation, isolation and Islamophobia, goodwill and understanding between Muslims and Christians here in the UK do indeed exist.
Interfaith initiatives are a powerful way to tackle misunderstandings prevalent in society, and promote understanding and tolerance. Some of the myths about Islam frequently presented in the media have now become entrenched in British psyche – so much so that if we do not address them now, we could have a dangerously polarised society on our hands in the near future.
Some of the widespread myths that Brits have about Muslims are that they kill “infidels”, are inherently violent, that all Muslim women wear the hijab (headscarf), and that Muslim men treat women as second class citizens. There are also serious rumours that British Muslims are not loyal to Britain and that they are the so-called “fifth column”, clandestinely working to undermine the UK political and social system for their own gain.
Such grave misunderstandings can only be removed by serious engagement, the kind that happens in interfaith gatherings and meetings.
Last week a member of my congregation informed me how his seven-year-old daughter was upset by her classmate who told her, “I hate you Muslims because you destroyed the World Trade Center.” This begs many questions: who taught this child these things? Why? What was the motive?
The Muslim community is a significant minority in the UK: three million strong and predicted by the Pew Forum to increase to 5.6 million by 2030, which at that time will be 10 percent of the UK’s population. Furthermore, it is a very young community; 60 per cent of British Muslims are under the age of 30.
Professor Hugh Goddard, Director of the Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal Centre for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World at the University of Edinburgh, has rightly pointed out the problem with Christian-Muslim relations in the UK. According to Goddard, “The level of mutual understanding between these two communities... is often very low; indeed it could be said that mutual ignorance is far more widespread than mutual understanding.”
So, I want to encourage us to move forward, for Muslims to take steps to get to become familiar with their Christian neighbours, and for Christians in the UK to make an effort to understand Muslims’ cultural and religious backgrounds.
But on a very practical level, what can you do?
First, be prepared to get out of your comfort zone; interfaith work is really challenging and requires taking risks.
Then, there are several options to reach out to those of different faiths: you can read the scriptures of another faith and then share what you have read with people of your own faith; invite someone of another faith to your home; invite someone of another faith to your place of worship and give them an opportunity to observe your religious practices; make a charitable donation to a charity operated by people of a different faith; give a copy of your scriptures to a friend of another faith (but not with the intention of converting them).
Already, all around you, Muslims and Christians in Britain are enthusiastically engaged in exciting interfaith projects, ranging from an imams-versus-clergy football match to academic discussions on the Qur’an and the Bible, and from interfaith pilgrimages to preparing and hosting shared meals. Not all such activities are easy; indeed they require – as the Archbishop of Canterbury says – “strong and committed relationships”, and an openness to counter one’s resistance to new ideas and new people.
Ultimately, however, a multitude of interfaith activities bodes well for a cohesive, faithful and trusting British society. Musharraf Hussain is the former Co-Chair of the Christian-Muslim Forum in the UK. This article is part of a series on religious leaders speaking out about tolerance written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).