I spoke this week at the launch of Islam Awareness Week in the House of Lords. As the week concludes let's keep the good work going and remind ourselves of why this work is so important.
Despite being a society made up of waves of immigration from the Romans onwards we still have a problem with immigrants. As 'island people' we have a strong, but precarious, identity. We feel under threat from a tiny Muslim population. Religio-ethnic-cultural heritage can produce bad karma, and its children. Thus we have the EDL and BNP. But England is not under attack, it doesn't need defending, though we should be defended from racist thugs on our streets. Yes we know Britain is a nation, though it is actually three nations and again, who will give a mandate to racism?
We need to chill, many of us are chilled, we're not fretting about immigrants. Thank God for the Islamic Society of Britain, Islam Awareness Week and 'The Things we have in Common' campaign, sharing the love last year and common experiences of growing up in the UK this year. Some say multiculturalism has gone too far, but it hasn't gone far enough, we aren't chilled about 'foreigners' and we should be. We're too quick to label those who are different as 'foreign' when they're just as English, or Welsh, as everybody else. We need to ban that terrible, misleading phrase 'British values', and, of course, we could do with some Christian and Islamic values. Baroness Warsi was right about the acceptability of Islamophobia.
I recently attended a large inter faith event. One speaker, from whom we might hope for better, with a long track record in inter faith, gave a speech containing a strong degree of pessimism about the Muslim community, though the audience was optimistic. It was refreshing to be with a group of people who were itching to get to know their Muslim neighbours. They had no room for fears about survival or identity, which only encourage us to withdraw, to look within instead of outwards. Christianity and Islam are both outward-looking faiths.
We often spend a lot of time worrying, we're not comfortable with those who are different, we can tie ourselves up in knots about whether to say 'join our faith' or 'join us in friendship', and end up doing neither. I wrote earlier this week about imam friends who are committed to creating places where those who are different can encounter each other. I sat with some of them in a masjid in Bradford on Monday that used to be a Methodist chapel. I felt at home sitting on the floor drinking green tea out of church crockery, though John Wesley might not have been happy.
We need to take some risks, even small ones. Islam Awareness Week is a gentle way of taking a small risk, stepping a little out of our comfort zone, meeting different people. Of course the opportunities are all around us, everyday. At the end of a recent event my friend the imam and I asked everyone what they would do next. One vicar said that instead of walking past the elderly Muslim man who often walks in front of the church he would stop and talk to him. That single encounter may have more impact than many other initiatives - a conversation leads to friendship, friendship leads to encounter between families and worshipping communities, to a whole series of neighbourhood interactions. More people begin to say, 'We're not so different after all', 'Our Christian/Muslim neighbour is alright', 'I didn't know Christians/Muslims thought that.'
It's a privilege as Director of the Christian Muslim Forum to be part of conversations taking place all round the country and to share the news of great things that Christians and Muslims are doing together.
In Blackburn - 'Muslim organisations and community members are working in partnership with Blackburn Foodbank to feed the 'hidden hungry'. Residents are being asked to donate 'non-perishable' food stuffs at a number of mosques and madressas on Friday December 14 to help struggling families across the borough. Blackburn with Darwen councillors and officers are also supporting the initiative as part of the Your Call campaign. As the work of the foodbank supports all sections of the community it is hoped this interfaith initiative will be encourage longstanding and regular collections.'
In Leicester - 'ISB Leicester branch is partnering with St James the Greater Church to host a weekly meal for homeless people in Highfields [inner city, Muslim majority], in an initiative that brings two local faith groups together to take action in their community. This project not only provides a free hot meal for those that need it, but will also act as a space for new friendships to form between the diverse groups present.'
In Bradford - women activists campaigned for peace and made a stand against racist groups -the Islamic Society of Britain was involved in the last two of these initiatives.
I learned, during the Week, of this ongoing initiative which is linked with Islam Awareness Week.
I'm also pleased to be able to announce that the new Archbishop, Justin Welby has agreed to take on the role of the Forum's Patron, which was first held by Archbishop Rowan. One of the things he said to us when we met with him was 'Christian-Muslim relations is a key global issue which it is vital to get right - and can have tragic consequences if we don't.' People around the world are watching us here in the UK, which is why I am always happy to speak at Muslim events and work with organisations like the Islamic Society of Britain.
Christians and Muslims in the UK will still be working with each other constructively in the UK, and in other countries, as we approach Easter, and beyond.