Impact of ISB in Britain Today

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Reflections on working with the Islamic Society of Britain

It’s great to be invited to speak at this event by Sughra. I had hoped to make a hat-trick of speeches at Islam Awareness Week launches this year but we had our own event on the same day and I missed out. Even better to be here though and pick up a few challenges in exploring this theme.

I wrote an article earlier this week for the William Temple Foundation, with the rather long title of Christians & Muslims, Past & Present, Perceptions & Principles, I was trying to cover a lot of ground, and here too. I was challenged earlier this week by someone on Twitter, I don’t know his name but he has a problem with Muslims, he wanted to persuade me that Muslims worship a different God. I made many responses to him, virtually all of which he ignored. But it did make me think that there is need for something accessible on ‘One God – Why Christians and Muslims are talking about the Same God’. You might think that I’ve lost the plot now and wandered off to talk about something else, but … apart from trying to cover as much ground as possible, which is one of my failings, both in print and on foot, I think we’re on to something.

If we’re going to meet as believers then we’re going to talk about God, unless we become very sectarian and competitive, hopefully we’re not going to open that conversation by saying, ‘My God is bigger than yours’. In the interests of full disclosure, I’m going to say one word at this point – Trinity. We can all breathe easily now, I’ve opened up an ethical dialogue. We don’t believe exactly the same, but I am convinced that we believe in and talk about the same God, I’m pretty sure you think so too, but I’m happy to take questions later, if there are any theologians in the room. And this One God is a God of love, this is where I am going with this, God wants us to be loving with each other and show that love to the world.

Yes, it’s hard but it is the divine and prophetic imperative. This commandment we have – ‘no one is a believer until she loves for her sister what she loves for herself’, ‘love God and love your neighbour’ (isn’t it strange how Muhammad and Jesus said the same thing?) – makes even more sense when we step outside our tradition. How much more love do we show if we love the one who is ‘other’? And just to be clear, that’s a technical description, for those of us who do so many things together, neither of us is really Other. The fact that we speak the same language is evidence of this, and this was the thinking that began to boil over in my head when I read Dilwar’s article ‘The Hidden Heart of Islam’, especially this line ‘God is love, and Islam is the serenity that comes from that love.’ I know that some of you are familiar with the Bible and that you may recognise those opening words, which appear in the first letter of John, in the Bible’s second shortest verse (just set myself up for another question).

Dilwar chose his theme of love as that was the slogan for IAW 2012, and my first fully-fledged collaboration with ISB. How important is that? Surely what people in Britain need to know is that Islam is a religion of love, rather than something dangerous, that Islam is not a process of ‘creeping Islamicisation’ which is undermining Britain. Having a national Muslim organisation, especially one with Britain in its name, that is committed to sharing God’s love with everybody, is a serious mission. Of course when we held the launch we weren’t very serious, making jokes about Tina Turner and global Islamic love letters, but what a great lead from ISB. This is what I said at the time, I think Nigel (Varndell, another speaker on the panel) was there:

I think it’s great that this year’s Islam Awareness Week is on the theme of ‘love’ and I know that if people were more aware of Islam that there would be more love. Ignorance, and human interest in bad news, breeds fear and prejudice, with knowledge comes recognition, even love. I think of my own sons, most of their lives have coincided with my own journey of exploration as I have met and formed friendships, as well as worked with Muslims. If you were to ask them they would say something like ‘Muslims are cool’, they are aware of 9/11 and other non-Islamic atrocities, but these do not define Islam for them, I wish this was true of other Christian friends and relatives. For my sons, Muslims are people of friendship, hospitality, and good food.

So the serious question is, ‘What are Muslims known for?’ Let’s hope it is for exactly the kind of work that ISB does – the homelessness project Eat 'n' Meet, Dine@Mine, Living Islam Festival and other initiatives.

Last year’s IAW theme was particularly good too – ‘The Things we have in Common’. This is where ISB can and does make a significant contribution, and where its mission dovetails with ours – the normalisation of Islam and, by the way, Muslims are British. This is what I said last year:

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’.

ISB sets a good example to all of us by being so committed to inter faith, not least in being so welcoming of non-Muslim speakers at its events, another of the ingredients of Islam. I’m sure that you will continue to do this. I keep hoping that a Muslim will write something on the deep and intertwined relationship between British Muslims and Christianity. I think most of us know that a significant percentage of British Muslims attended Church schools, and it’s an interesting fact that one of the senior members of ISB was in a Christian choir. Perhaps this is a good opportunity to ask how many of you were educated in a Christian school?

Maybe one of you will take up that writing challenge some day.

Or next year’s IAW could be on the theme of Christians and Muslims Together (not forgetting people of other faiths). It’s a title we’ve used often enough and we would be honoured if you stole it from us!

Finally, I’m giving this book ‘Christians, Muslims and Jesus’ by Mona Siddiqui to Hifsa Haroon-Iqbal as a token of friendship and my own commitment to inter faith encounter, and reading. Please pass it on to someone else when you’ve read it. For the rest of you there’s a review on our website, here.

Thank you

Julian Bond
Director, Christian Muslim Forum
7 June 2014

#ISBAMM

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