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Keeping the Faith With Islam

10/12/2015 11:59 GMT | Updated 09/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Paris, Tunisia, Paris again, Egypt, San Bernardino, Leytonstone - with so many atrocities being committed in its name Islam is struggling for legitimacy. Usurped by misguided ideologues for their own twisted ends one of the world's great monotheistic religions is now seen by many as a touchstone for intolerance, discrimination and prejudice not to say hatred and mindless violence. But, as non Muslims, we dismiss Islam as a lost cause or public enemy at our peril for to do so would be to alienate precisely those who we must now embrace - the vast number of good Muslims who practice their religion with good heart.

"You aint no Muslim bruv!" uttered last Saturday in perfectly timed east London patois condemned the worst excesses of a rogue Islamist whilst proclaiming the best of Islamic values at a single stroke. Like a rallying cry to humanity "You aint no Muslim bruv!" went viral in a heartbeat and made all of us, non Muslim and Muslim alike, feel better about a dire situation and about each other. Not so Donald Trump on the other side of the pond. He has sparked an outcry of condemnation by calling for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States". That sort of mindless, knee jerk reaction is as dangerous in its own way as the militant Jihadists themselves because it will simply fan the already raging fires of fear, suspicion and bigotry that is consuming Islam and the world with it. This is something we have to be aware of in the UK as well if prejudice and fear is not to exacerbate an increasingly tense situation.

I lecture occasionally at the London Academy of Excellence in Stratford - a largely Muslim school in one of the most underprivileged boroughs of London. The school is one of the most successful in the country where the pupils, imbued with an ideology of application, determination and, above all, a love of learning are returning A level results better than most public schools. It is a wonderfully friendly, inspiring, uplifting and heartening place to visit. More recently, however, I became aware of a growing fear amongst some of the students that they are now abominated and despised by the wider British population who assume that all young Muslims are simply Jihadists in waiting. For that reason my last lecture to them was based on my own perception of Islam - one that has been focused and refocused over many years as a non Muslim anthropologist working in the Muslim world.

I shared with them the wonderfully rewarding and enlightening times I have spent amongst the tribes and clans of Sudan and Somalia, the nomadic groups in Chad and Mali and more recently the little known fishing communities of Mauritania. It was here, among these tough fisher-folk, that, more than anywhere else in the world, I discovered what it was to be a practicing Muslim. Not in terms of religious belief or doctrinal interpretation but in terms of attitudes to others - especially those of other faiths or beliefs. I told the students of the time I joined a crew of thirty men, all Muslim, on board a vast open topped wooden boat of ancient design. Following prayers to Allah to ask for good fishing and a safe return we sailed in to the dangerous waters of the east Atlantic. Eventually we spied the tell tale splashing of a shoal of fish feeding on the surface so the men cast a gigantic net before encircling the fish. It took five hours of back breaking work to pull in ten tons of tuna - a catch that would have translated to about $20 dollars per man - a good day's work. On the way back, however, we spotted another boat which had not enjoyed such good fortune. Its net had split resulting in the loss of their entire catch. Our captain immediately ordered that half our catch should be transferred to the other boat. This was not so much a rule of the sea but a rule of practical Islam - share and share alike. I was moved by the spontaneous munificence but not as much as when I realized that the other boat was not Mauritanian. It was Senegalese and that meant it was a Christian boat.

In times gone by this story might have come across as rather parochial but in the context of what is happening in the world right now it could not be more significant. I hope that in some small way it might have helped the students at the London Academy of Excellence to reclaim their faith from those who have seized and reinterpreted it to validate their own evil ends.

I know what our friend at Leytonstone tube station would have said to the Mauritanian fishing captain: "You're defo a Muslim bruv!"