Volume 11 Number 4
Islam and the West '- Bridging the Gap
01 August 1998

Michael Smith encounters the Western face of Islam--and meets British Muslims who are fighting back against Islamophobia.

There was an outcry in the south of England cathedral city of Chichester two years ago, when local Muslims wanted to turn a disused church into a mosque. The Bishop of Chichester was in favour, but Christians wrote vehement letters to the local newspaper and the plan had to be dropped. 'It could have become a bingo hall but not a place of prayer,' one Muslim leader commented.

The Yorkshire city of Bradford seems a world away. It has four purpose-built mosques and some 50 house mosques. The Anglican Bishop, David Smith, enjoys close relations with the Muslim and other faith communities. On Ascension Day, last May, he gave a dinner party for the leaders of all Bradford's minority faiths. He, in turn, is regularly welcomed to their religious festivals.

'This is a great place to live,' the young Muslim taxi driver said, on my recent visit there. I am glad to hear it, especially as I have a personal interest: while my mother now lives in Chichester, Bradford is the city of my birth. Once renowned as the wool textile capital of the world, today it is variously known as 'the gateway to the Yorkshire Dales', the home of Britain's national museum of film and photography--and Britain's Islamabad.

Bradford's Muslims--10 per cent of the population, the highest concentration in any British city--first came from Pakistan in the 1950s and '60s, encouraged by the UK government to fill the jobs vacant in Bradford's once 'dark, satanic' mills. Today those mills provide less than a quarter of the city's manufacturing employment, such has been the decline in the British wool industry over the last 40 years.

But it wasn't the jobs lost in the satanic mills so much as Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses which most upset the Muslims. Nearly ten years ago, they gathered in front of the city hall and, in a dramatic gesture, ceremoniously burnt the book. Its portrayal of the prophet Mohammed was, in their eyes, blasphemous. Their action became a defining moment in British community relations, provoking an anti-Muslim backlash.

Today, Bradford's Muslims are keen to put the Rushdie Affair behind them. 'Nothing can be gained from revisiting the ghost,' says Ishtiaq Ahmed, Director of Bradford's Racial Equality Council. The paperback edition came out recently, with hardly a murmur. Even Sher Azam of the Bradford Council of Mosques, who helped organize the book burning, agrees that 'it is a matter of the past'. Bradford's Muslims have realized that their outcry was counterproductive, generating a storm of protest from what Ahmed calls 'the fundamentalist literary lobby'.

Now the city's Muslims, like the taxi driver, project a picture of being far more relaxed about their role in the wider community. 'We are proud to be Yorkshiremen,' says Ahmed. 'There is a family- and community-based tradition here and many similarities with the Asian culture of community. There is a good atmosphere in Bradford and people take pride in it. It is a real home.'

But there are downsides. The far-right National Front still distribute anti-immigrant leaflets. And with most of Bradford's Muslims living in inner-city areas, some of the schools have an almost entirely Muslim attendance, giving the children no chance of interacting with non-Muslims. Ahmed describes it as 'an apartheid situation' which the city council will have to address.

The Rushdie affair and the reaction of Chichester's Christians ('We are dealing with the devil and his works,' one wrote), illustrate a growing Islamophobia in the West which worries Muslims deeply.

It has been exacerbated by the Gulf War against Iraq, the portrayal of 'Islamic fundamentalism' in the Western media, which has turned it into a pejorative term, says Ahmed, and a xenophobia in the Western press towards Islam in general.

The issue is all the more urgent as the number of Muslims living in the West, though still comparatively small, is growing. There are over a billion Muslims worldwide. In the United States, where there are eight million Muslims, Islam will overtake Judaism early in the next century, as the nation's second most populous religion after Christianity.

In the European Union there are seven million Muslims, with over four million in France and some 1.5 million in Britain. Many are second or third generation, born in these countries. Britain alone has 6,000 mosques. In Europe as a whole, including the former Soviet nations, there are some 24 million Muslims out of a population of 645 million.

'Islamophobia has been on the increase and the more so since the fall of the Soviet Union,' says Zaki Badawi who, as Chairman of the Imams and Mosques Council of Britain and Principal of the Muslim College in London, is one of Britain's leading Muslim spokesmen. The end of the Cold War saw a rise in nationalism, he says. 'This particularly affected Muslims because Islam in western Europe is an immigrant Islam. And nationalism is too often anti-immigrant. So attacks on Muslims in France and Germany have also become stronger.'

Ishtiaq Ahmed fears that, since the demise of the Soviet Empire, Islam has 'emerged from its shadow to become enemy number one'.

In the light of such concerns, the Runnymede Trust, an independent agency which looks into racial and cultural issues, set up the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia two years ago. Its 18 commissioners included the Bishop of London and Rabbi Julia Neuberger, as well as Dr Badawi, the Cambridge Muslim academic Akbar Ahmed, and Imam Abduljalil Sajid from Brighton.

Last year, they published their report, Islamophobia: a challenge for us all, the first study of its kind in the world. It aimed to highlight the dangers which Islamophobia creates for Muslim communities, 'and therefore the well-being of society as a whole', as well as to counter Western assumptions that Islam is a totally monolithic faith, lacking any pluralism or internal debate.

Badawi says the Western press in particular 'bears a great deal of the guilt' for Islamophobia. 'The media is now very cautious when it talks about the Jews. It is reasonably cautious when it talks about the blacks. But the Muslims are fair game.' The media too easily paints the Muslim world as a single monolith. But Badawi points out that such 'Islamic' regimes as Saudi Arabia, with its apparent archaic system of justice, and even the Iran of Ayatollah Khomeini, who issued a fatwa (religious decree) against Rushdie calling for his death, are no more representative of Islam than Benjamin Netanyahu is of all Jewish opinion.

Badawi himself had to hastily issue a counter-fatwa stating that under no circumstances could a decree which encouraged murder be regarded as sacred. But this received far less media attention.

Imam Sajid believes that the media 'demonizes Islam'. After the Oklahoma bombing, for instance, the world's media immediately speculated that a Muslim was responsible, 'without checking the facts'. One can understand, therefore, Muslim frustration when tabloid headlines scream about Pakistan's 'Muslim bomb'. Britain's and America's nuclear arsenal would hardly be called Judeo-Christian.

But not only the tabloid press are to blame, says Philip Lewis, author of Islamic Britain, who, as advisor to the Bishop of Bradford on interfaith issues, also served on the Runnymede Commission. 'We found that it was the quality press who were pumping out bile,' he says.

'Replace the word Muslim with Jew in any story on Muslims and it sounds anti-Semitic. That is Islamophobia,' says Yousif al-Khoei, who runs the al-Khoei educational and religious foundation in London. He wants to enlist journalists in an informal network to monitor the British press. But he believes the American media is far worse and has an 'ideological bias' against Islam. Edward Mortimer, till recently Deputy Foreign Editor of the Financial Times, says there is a need for more Muslims within the media. 'When you have Muslim colleagues, or even a Muslim boss, you have to think more about the resonance in what you write,' he says.

Ishtiaq Ahmed says that 'when Muslim leaders are identified with dictatorship, military regimes, coups and bloodshed their actions and approaches to the West get reported. Then it becomes very difficult for ordinary Muslims to suggest anything other in terms of our identity and our Islam.'

Ahmed believes the best way to counter Islamophobia is to highlight 'best practice' where things are going right between the communities. There are outstanding examples of the different faiths working well together, he says, such as at Bradford's Interfaith Education Centre. This city council initiative, in response to the religious education needs of all the city's faith communities, is still unique in Britain (see box). Ahmed also welcomes plans by Bradford's Anglican cathedral to celebrate the Millennium by including all the faith communities. Hardly headline stuff, but important for being where it matters most: at the grassroots.

In Brighton, along the south coast from Chichester, Imam Sajid has founded the Ethnic Minorities Representative Council. This has brought together some 70 local organizations representing 58 languages and cultural groups. It acts as a voice for all the minorities in negotiations with the police and local government, and includes projects for dealing with racial harassment and for language interpretation.

'Our sincerity of purpose in working together brings fruitful results,' Sajid claims. 'But this never happens without reconciling ourselves, without forgiving and forgetting the past. So the starting point has to be to recognize that mistakes have been made and to learn from those mistakes. We hope this model could be taken up nationally.'

It needs to be. Muslims especially suffer from discrimination in employment, says Muhammad Arshad, Bradford's Racial Equality Officer for Employment. The city has 10 per cent unemployment overall, but among Muslims it is 35 per cent. Imam Sajid tells of a Rotherham company employing 1,500 people which put up a notice saying Muslims should not apply for a job. The Commission for Racial Equality took the company to court but lost.

Such Islamophobia is also a reflection of a xenophobia towards immigrants and anyone who appears to be different. Then they become scapegoats, especially at times of high unemployment and competition for jobs.

Muslims still campaign for a change in British law, to make such anti-Muslim discrimination and incitement to religious hatred an offence. No one can attack Sikhs because they are regarded as a racial group. But Muslims are not and therefore don't have the same legal protection. As Sher Azam puts it: 'If a person in the shivering cold has a blanket and other people are shivering without a blanket, it is an equality to provide another blanket.'

Zaki Badawi believes the West would be far less Islamophobic if it gave more recognition to the common historic roots between the monotheistic religions--'the people of the Book'--on which so much of Western culture is based. Jews, Muslims and Christians all trace their roots to the Biblical patriarch Abraham. But, says Imam Sajid, the West rarely acknowledges Islam's contribution to its culture, from astronomy and algebra to art and architecture, trade and commerce.

As the Millennium approaches, Badawi supports attempts to wipe the slate clean of sins committed in the name of religion. During the Crusades, Christian soldiers raped, pillaged and slaughtered 30,000 Muslims in the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. 'Any act of repentance is very helpful in assuaging the Muslim feeling of horror at the Crusades,' Badawi says. He welcomes the current pilgrimage of atonement, retracing the route of the Crusaders, supported by Youth With A Mission, and other Christian groups. Badawi has appealed to the Pope to make a formal apology for the role of the Catholic Church in the Crusades, as he did to the Jews for the Holocaust.

But Badawi is careful to 'absolve religion from the failure of human beings'. So-called religious wars were, in fact, economic and political, and used religion 'to give these ambitions some sort of dignity'. And in this 'the Muslims are failing too', he admits.

Today, he says, the need is for all faiths to come together in common cause over 'quality of life' issues. He singles out environmental concerns, human rights and freedom of conscience, and caring for the weak and sick. Muslims also have a strong work ethic and family life--'I am not saying that it is ideal'--at a time when family values are under threat in the West. And he sees Muslims' commitment to their religious observance as an example to other religions, especially as people hunger for spiritual values.

In a TV interview with broadcaster Melvin Bragg, he also emphasized that Islam, in common with all faiths, retains 'moral principles which are absolute' and which were also 'very much a tradition of European and Christian culture'.

There remain, of course, fundamental differences of belief between the faiths. But Badawi points out that Muslims venerate Christ and can also celebrate the 2,000 years since his birth at the Millennium.

For myself, I remember being moved, some years ago, by the story--as told in the feature movie The Message--about the followers of Mohammed who were persecuted by the Quraish tribe in Mecca. They fled to Abyssinia (Ethiopia), Mohammed's daughter among them, and were given refuge there by the Negus, the Coptic Christian King. Welcoming them, he said, 'The difference between you and me is no wider than the gap between these paving stones.'

Not all Christians, or indeed Western nations, have taken such a generous approach towards Muslims since then. Many Muslims still hope they will--despite the anti-Western rhetoric of some Islamic regimes.

As the Christian author of The Muslim Mind, Charis Waddy, puts it: 'Welcoming the stranger in our midst is one of the most urgent needs of the modern world.'

by Martin Eckart Fuchs
In the small south-west German town of Ettlingen, Christians and Muslims have been meeting regularly for some years to get to know and support each other. Many of the town's Muslim community are now second or third generation-their families came from Turkey as guest-workers in the 1950s.

In one of our meetings, a Muslim woman suggested that if we were to be real friends, we should learn more about each others' religions. We decided to look at three questions: What is particularly important to me in my faith? What can't I understand, or what makes me afraid, in your faith? What can we do together as Christians and Muslims in and for our town?

The Muslims showed impressive slides about the way they practise their religion. The Christians had difficulty finding a similar series of slides to explain their faith to non-Christians. The Muslims admitted how hurt they were when German colleagues made fun of their faith. We discovered common problems-for instance, in passing our faith on to the next generation.

We also succeeded in talking about very personal questions. For example, a Christian woman said that for her the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ was particularly important. She illustrated this with an example from her marriage. The Muslims reacted positively to this and said that sin, guilt and forgiveness also played an important part in their religion. They were impressed with the way she linked her faith to everyday questions. A conversation started which led to deep mutual understanding.

One of the Muslim women runs a little snack stall in the market hall. I used to visit her once a week for a snack and a chat. One day she said she was very worried about her daughter, who wanted to move in with a young German man. The mother told me that this was unacceptable to her religion and would damage her reputation in the town, where she was well known. She was becoming increasingly estranged from her daughter.

We pondered the situation together over the weeks. Centuries-old religious and cultural concepts were clashing with the West European individualistic ideal of freedom. I told her that in my experience God had a plan for our human lives, and that one could seek it in a time of quiet reflection.

In between our conversations I studied the Qur'an and tried to find suras which suited our problem. I also sought the advice of Muslim friends. Later she told in a meeting how her exchanges with me-a Christian pastor-had helped her to find a new relationship with her daughter. She had been able to help her daughter and her boyfriend find a way between their personal love and inclination and religious duty.

by Mike Smith

Founded in 1985, Bradford's Interfaith Education Centre (IEC) acts as a resource centre for religious education teachers. It also provides faith tutors from the various communities to advise teachers and lead single-faith worship.

The local education authority's RE syllabus was drawn up in 1983 in response to the education needs of all Bradford's faiths. The aim was not to proselytize but to 'bring pupils to an equality of respect for different beliefs through understanding and knowing about different religions,' says David Jackson, Bradford's RE Inspector of Schools.

But it took nine months of meetings before evangelical Christians and Muslims could agree on the syllabus. 'Once the group accepted that there were irreconcilable differences and that they could live with them, we began to move forward,' says Brenda Thomson, convenor of the conferences on the syllabus. 'We managed to get agreement on two points: that we all loved our children, and that the school system was selling them short on the spiritual dimension.'*

Today, the centre has an annual turnover of £250,000, though the city council has cut back the centre's budget by £50,000. This upset the minority faith communities. But the centre's co-ordinator, David Fitch, says, 'We have managed to balance our books by extending our services.'

The IEC is now providing training to the local police and hospital staff in understanding religious and cultural sensitivities--such as 'why modesty is so important to Muslim women', says Fitch. He adds that it is a mark of the centre's value that most schools have continued to call on its services, despite having to pay for them out of their own budgets.

Now the IEC is raising the £260,000 needed to renovate the derelict building next door, as a residential centre for studying 'examples of good practice' between Bradford's faith communities.
Michael Smith

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