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 Jewishness of Jesus

The Road to Emmaus
The Road to Emmaus

This illustration might have been better used yesterday, when we read the first half of the Emmaus gospel, but I think it still has a point to make. In today’s section of the gospel Jesus explains to his disciples how everything in the Mosaic Law and the prophets pointed to himself. He identifies completely with the Jewish people and their experience. In exactly the same way, the medieval illustrator of the Emmaus story did not hesitate to show Jesus wearing a Judenhut or Jewish hat (Latin pilleus cornutus). Compare and contrast the situation today, where Jesus is too often portrayed as a blue-eyed, fair-haired, rather bloodless figure who would have been entirely out of place trudging the roads of Roman Palestine or fishing with Peter and Andrew on the Sea of Galilee. Despite the best efforts of Geza Vermes and others, we still seem to have difficulty with the Jewishness of Jesus and thereby impoverish our understanding. (I speak generally, as I know there are many who are sensitive to this aspect of Jesus.) Why is there a problem?

I think part of the answer lies in fear of the stranger. People who observe different cultural norms, who eat different foods, wear different clothes, speak a different language are always suspect. If, in addition, they hold radically different ideas about the meaning of the same texts — in this case, what Christians know as the Old Testament scriptures — the problems are compounded. When history is thrown into the mix, and centuries of anti-semitism and persecution are considered, it all looks very bleak indeed. However, there are bright spots, too. In the twelfth century, the Cistercians were very keen to understand the scriptures aright, and there are a number of instances of Cistercian monks sitting at the feet of local rabbis in order to learn Hebrew and study the Bible and other Jewish texts, just as, a little earlier, Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, had ordered a translation of the Koran to be made so that his monks might understand Islam better.

Understanding the other, welcoming the stranger, is still a challenge for us today. When David Cameron spoke of Britain as a Christian country, some took it as a slight on all who are not Christian. The debate continues to rage, but I think myself it is a largely phoney debate because the terms cannot be defined sufficiently precisely. From ‘cultural Christianity’ to missionary endeavour/proseletysing fervour (choose as appropriate) and the infinite varieties of church allegiance, the concept is susceptible of a thousand different interpretations. What matters, surely, is that those of us who regard Jesus Christ as our Lord and God should attempt, however imperfectly, to be as loving and generous as he. Love is the golden rule of Judaism as of Christianity and, as St Paul remarks, is the one thing that can never hurt our neighbour. Perhaps we might think about that today.

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