The Secret Islamicization of Britain?

This blog has not become a vehicle for conspiracy theories or religious hatred, but the title of today’s post picks up on something that is becoming a common media theme: the Islamicization of Britain by stealth. First we had stories about schools in the Birmingham area being targeted by Islamic fundamentalists in so-called Trojan Horse attempts to secure control; now we learn that many British supermarkets and fast-food chains are selling halal meat without labelling it as such. There is a feeling that this is not quite above board and many (including some Muslims) have expressed dismay that it will stoke existing fears and lead to further misunderstandings. The supermarkets and fast-food chains may have misjudged the public mood in their pursuit of profit, but have they unwittingly highlighted something that should concern us all and which has implications far beyond questions of how schools are run or meat is prepared?

You may remember that last year Channel 4 broadcast the Muslim call to prayer during Ramadam. At the time, many welcomed it as indicative of the religious pluralism that is now a mark of British society. Others were more neutral, wondering whether it was a sign of ‘special treatment’ hard to justify to other religious groups; a few were very hostile indeed. Today many would argue that while one can choose whether or not to listen to a broadcast, there is much less choice about where to send one’s child to school, and none at all about what one eats if the packaging/menu does not give the relevant information. So, it is not only the perceived underhandedness of this latest ‘scandal’ that is the problem, it is the lack of control and the fear it engenders. That feeds into all kinds of other fears — of State surveillance, E.U. bureaucracy, even the break-up of the Union. But it has an extra piquancy because, like it or not, many people in this country see Islam as an alien and often negative force. The activities of the Boku Haram in Nigeria, for example, are cited as just another instance of the cruelty and injustice many associate with contemporary Islam. Even as one objects that not many Muslims would identify with its aims, one must also acknowledge the reality of the sense of hurt and grievance people feel.

It is for Muslims to prove to the rest of the world that the behaviour of groups like Boku Haram is at odds with the teachings of Islam, but I think Christians also have a duty to ensure that there are no knee-jerk reactions of hatred and fear. The historically-minded may like to think back to the anti-Jewish movements of the earlier twentieth century and the importance of Christian defence of Jews. It wasn’t always what, with hindsight, one thinks it should or could have been, but without those instances of sometimes heroic courage and determination to see truth and justice prevail, things could have been much worse. We have a duty to protect our neighbours and see that they are not made victims of prejudice and fear. But we need to do more than that. I’d argue that it is not the secret Islamicization of Britain we need to worry about so much as the sometimes very public disintegration of social cohesion and concern that is becoming characteristic of Britain today. The banking and political scandals of recent years did not arise out of a vacuum. They proceeded from a selfish and immoral preoccupation with ‘what’s good for me’. They too were underhand. Maybe a forkful of halal meat could prompt us to do some serious thinking about bigger and more weighty matters — such as society itself and the ways in which responsibility and accountability are managed? I hope so.

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The Council of Nicea

When the first Council of Nicea met in 325, there were delegates from every part of the Roman Empire except Britain. I smiled over this recently when a cleric of my acquaintance waxed wrathful over what he saw as a slight from Rome. Although some may believe that God is an Englishman, his deputies do not always concur. Our windy, rainy island off the coast of continental Europe is, ecclesiastically speaking, rather unimportant — at least, as seen from one of the ancient patriarchates. Perhaps the rot began at Nicea, with our absence from the council chamber.

We tend to forget how much we owe to Nicea: the formulation of the first part of the Nicene creed which, with its clear proclamation of both the divinity and the humanity of Jesus, effectively dimissed the Arian heresy; the separation of the calculation of the date of Easter from the Jewish calendar (the matter under discussion at our own Synod of Whitby); and the promulgation of what we would call canon law (most of its provisions now subsumed into other legislation, although we still acknowledge that bishops and priests should receive Holy Communion before deacons, while the ban on kneeling for prayer on Sundays and during Eastertide survives mainly in the posture assumed for the litany and anthem to Our Lady). Interpretation of the sixth canon, concerning the authority of Alexandria, Antioch and Rome, is still hotly disputed in some quarters, so one cannot say that Nicea resolved all the questions it addressed.

We have a number of accounts of the council which make modern ecclesiastical rows look almost gentlemanly by comparison. Arius, for example, was slapped in the face by Nicholas of Myra (who was later canonized). Clearly, had there been delegates from Britain it might have been more decorous. We cannot rewrite history, but we can learn its lessons. Let’s hope that the various discussions under way in various Churches will be conducted with more kindness and more understanding of others’ points of view.

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