Why small gestures of friendship and solidarity with the Muslim community are so important in these difficult times.
by Dan Green
Last Sunday night, Darren Osborne from Cardiff drove a van into a group of Muslims on a pavement in London shortly after they had finished breaking their fast, killing one and injuring many more. Witnesses said that as he did so, he spoke of his intention to kill all Muslims.
Just the night before, a small group of us in Bristol, all of us non-Muslims, gathered on a pavement outside a mosque. We had come to join in the iftar meal as our Muslim neighbours broke their fast, wanting to learn what this time of year meant to them as Muslims, and to extend the hand of friendship in the light of recent events. (see previous blog post - Sharing Ramadan in Bristol)
The stark contrast between these two events last weekend highlighted the polarised views and attitudes towards the Muslim community in the UK at the moment. In response to the terror attacks in Manchester and London, we have seen both an increase in hate crime towards Muslims and large displays of solidarity from members of the public who recognise that the individuals committing these acts do not represent the whole community. I witnessed one such display of solidarity last Thursday in Easton, when hundreds of people joined in a ‘Grand Iftar’ event on St Mark’s Road (see photo above). People from the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Sikh communities took part, as well as local politicians and police officers, all keen to show that people of different cultures and faiths can and do live peacefully alongside one another.
At Bridges for Communities, one of our main priorities has always been to facilitate ways for people to meet their Muslim neighbours. This is because one of the reasons we started the charity was our concern about the rise in Islamaphobia, and a belief that the best way we could counter the prejudice and fear behind this rise was to give ordinary people the chance to meet and build friendships with Muslims. My own experience of living in the Middle East for 8 years had taught me that it was such friendships that challenged my stereotypes of Muslims, and challenged their perceptions of me too.
So what can you or I, as ordinary people, do to start building these friendships and to make sure we are part of the solution for the current tensions, not part of the problem? If I may, I’d like to offer a few thoughts:
First, and this may sound obvious but is worth stating, we must recognise that the Muslim community is not homogeneous. Just like any other group of people defined by a particular label, it contains a wide spectrum of beliefs, identities and practices. Therefore, I mustn’t make assumptions about what being ‘a Muslim’ means, or make statements that over-generalise, but I must allow each person to define what the label means to them (just as I would want the opportunity to do the same when they identify me as ‘a Christian’) and I must be cautious about using statements such as 'Muslims this' or 'Muslims that'.
Second, we must take the small, everyday opportunities that we have to get to know people and to show kindness towards them. This could be as simple as talking to a Muslim colleague at work, or wishing someone a Happy Eid. While it is not in my normal practices or beliefs to fast during Ramadan, the iftar meal we went to last Saturday simply represented a great opportunity to share a meal with neighbours, to reach out and show curiosity and concern for them. The hospitality and welcome that we experienced in return made it well worth the effort!
At a recent event we hosted in Bristol, our guest speaker was Ahmad Al Rashid, a Syrian refugee who has witnessed and experienced great suffering before coming to the UK to try to start a new life for himself. It was profound that when asked by a member of the audience what each of us could do to help, his first response was to ask everyone to simply smile when they saw someone who was new to the country. It is often the little things that can make a big difference.
Third, we must assume the best in people rather than questioning their sincerity. The debates over Islamic texts, or over who is a Muslim and who isn't, are important and relevant, but as outsiders they are difficult for us to engage in, especially if we don’t have a good grasp of the original language of those texts or the context in which they were written. The vast majority of Muslims I have met really do see Islam as a religion of peace and reject interpretations that condone or encourage violence. And it is unclear to me what the benefits could be of arguing that their interpretation must be incorrect, or of questioning their sincerity in holding those beliefs. Perhaps it would be better for those of us who are not Muslims to take a step back from this debate, and to focus on building stronger relationships with our Muslim neighbours. Doing so may actually have a more positive impact on the debate, as it may challenge those who hold more radical beliefs by undermining the false narrative that everyone in the West hates them.
Fourth, we must seek to continue being a society that offers sanctuary to refugees and asylum seekers fleeing conflict, many of whom are Muslims. Nicolas Henin, a French journalist held in captivity by ISIS for a long period, pointed out in an interview after his release that he thought the best antidote to the extreme narrative of ISIS was the welcome that many across Europe had shown to refugees. This kind of humanitarian action and compassion flies in the face of the narrative of hatred and fear that extremists propagate. Sadly, actions of those like Darren Osbourne last Saturday will only serve to add fuel to their fire.
In the current political and social climate, then, peacemaking starts with each one of us taking little steps to cross the barriers and boundaries that separate us from others. Let each of us, in the places where we live, choose a response of love and not fear, extending the hand of friendship towards our Muslim neighbours in whatever ways we can.