Tea and biscuits are not always the setting for interfaith encounters. It was 9pm on Burns Night and not only Scots were off the street. The wind down the Mile End Road could have been used to train Arctic explorers. Stepney Green underground station in the east end of London looked a welcoming haven.
But this was the Hammersmith and City Line from Barking. It passed well away from the Olympic village and had not benefitted from any Olympic upgrade. In truth, Stepney Green station had not benefitted from anything much since the Blitz. On closer acquaintance it was mournfully emblematic of a Britain entering a triple dip recession.
It also posed intellectual challenges. The electronic train indicator did not work. Or rather about ten percent of it worked. So only a cryptic " 1. Not...." and "2. Ham...." showed up. I asked a railway worker what it might mean. No idea either. He was Bulgarian and shared my low expectations of railways. But another couple suggested that "Not" might mean "Not in Service" and I guessed Ham would definitely be Hammersmith. This was promising.
The "Not" train, lived up to its name in the sense of not coming at all. "Ham" did though, mercifully offering some warmth from the British Winter. It pulled in and stayed there. The doors remained open. I scrutinised two of my fellow passengers. One looked of Somali origin and his friend, with a round face and round spectacles, was a Dietrich Bonhoeffer look-alike. German? They seemed worried and were discussing quietly together. I also noticed two knapsacks, one on each side of the train, each without any detectable owner.
Then another passenger got in. He seemed to be of Asian origin. I keep a mental register of religious beards, part of the necessary skills for anyone in a Faith Foundation. This one was definitely Salafi. But that was not the only thing. The beard went with a vaguely Rasta woolly hat and some Friday evening going-out clothes.
It then occurred to me that a persistent bleeping noise was the train's alarm. A station official, Bangladeshi origin, appeared, shortly followed by the - Afro-Caribbean origin - driver of the train bearing keys. At the same time the original Bulgarian railway worker without a word walked onto the train, picked up the two knapsacks and walked away, without a word. It seemed very brave to me. But I did notice that one of the knapsacks had rolls of blue toilet paper in it.
By then we had formed a British multi-cultural bomb disposal unit. Bonding was taking place. The Salafi beard said he'd phoned the number on the side of the alarm to report a suspicious package, two in fact. The smiling Somali origin gentleman and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, under questioning from the station official, somewhat reluctantly confessed to having pulled the alarm. The driver turned it off once the confession had been made. The forensic discussion of the suspect packages by the newly formed bomb-squad concluded that that a women cleaner at Barking had forgotten her equipment. We debated the threat level of unattended rolls of toilet paper.
What else, the assumption ran, could anyone expect from Barking, second only to northern Mali? And it had to be a woman cleaner's fault. The one thing that men in different religions and cultures bond over, it's that. But that was only the negative coda to something a lot more heart-warming.
After a while the doors were closed and the train moved. I did suggest that Stepney Green on a freezing Friday night was an unlikely Al-Qaeda target. The Salafi beard agreed that I had a point. He got off at Whitechapel. Myself at Liverpool Street, warning my bomb squad colleagues that it was Burns Night, the whisky would be flowing, and to beware Scottish nationalism. I left with waves and grins from the two.
Everyone had played their part well. We had trust and confidence in each other because a good system - that was working - had encouraged it. All the railway staff inspired trust. They had brought out the best in everyone. No recriminations or suspicions. No ethnic divisions on show. Despite the Londoners'
unwritten rule of no fraternising on the Tube, we'd been briefly drawn closer together in common purpose.
Londoners are flooded with foreign news and local stories about terrorism, arrests and attacks, which portray Muslims engaged in religiously motivated violence. The English Defence League, the "Counter-Jihad" movement, the new face of the extreme Right, build on the anxieties that this generates to build anti-Muslim hatred on top of anti-immigrant sentiment. The narrative is harmful and it hurts. Our little bomb disposal squad in Stepney Green tells another story. Millions of Londoners, of all races and religions, know how to walk away unhurt.
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