Making friends at Bath Mosque

IMG_7184This post feels a little self-indulgent and I am not that comfortable with posting it. I don’t share it to say, ‘hey look what I did!’ but to say, ‘look how easy it is to make friends, go do it too.’

I preached a sermon on Sunday with the title Joy In Spite of Conflict. This title had been planned for months but took on a different edge in the shadow of the horrors of terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris. My initial plan was to talk about how to overcome conflict in our personal lives. We would look at the teachings of Jesus, ‘love your enemies’ and the teachings of the apostles, ‘make every effort to live at peace with everybody.’

I found myself ending the talk with the phrase, ‘reconciliation is at the heart of our faith. If we follow Jesus we are following someone who taught reconciliation. We are to be agents of reconciliation on earth. The story of the Bible is of humanity as the aggressor and God consistently healing the relationship. We are to make peace and seek relationships with all people.’ It felt like God was working with us to soften our hearts for our enemies.

Since becoming a minister and preaching more regularly I have made a commitment to live out what I preach. This seems obvious but it is very easy for someone like me to say the right thing and leave the things I teach as words in my mouth and thoughts in my head. Life is busy and following up on my own teaching would be easy to miss.

I woke up and as many people do at some point in the morning I looked at Facebook and Twitter. What I discovered both lifted me and saddened me. There were hundreds of articles shared about Paris and Beirut, people choosing to mark their support in various ways from French flag profile pictures to candles on black backgrounds. There has been a real feeling of unity amongst westerners in response to the most recent in a long line of attacks. However, in amongst them there was something more insidious, and to my great sadness the majority of it was from Christians and a good number from Christian leaders.

In amongst the support for victims were statuses and articles blaming all muslims for this. One Christian leader’s Facebook status read something like this, ‘It is time for us to wipe Islam from the face of the planet.’ Other articles called for all refugees to be deported from Europe indiscriminately in apparent ignorance of the fact that they were fleeing the perpetrators of the Paris attacks and that muslims are killed a thousand times more often than non-muslims by Islamic State. There was a dark theme on my wall and it blamed 1.6 Billion people for the actions of a few million at best. All muslims were to blame.

I couldn’t get away from my own words about reconciliation. I also found myself trying to stand in the shoes of peace loving muslims, many of whom have lost loved ones to the violence of IS. I couldn’t help imagining what it feels like to live in a world where you are blamed for things that upset you as much as it does anyone else; things that you have not just nothing to do with but that anger, sicken and terrify you. What does it feel like to see the name of your faith constantly interchanged with the word terrorist as if it means the same thing. A faith that drives you to acts of charity and peace that others are twisting to clear their violent consciences?

The best I could muster in way of understanding that feeling was that throughout my childhood in Northern Ireland ‘Protestant’ paramilitaries committed atrocities constantly yet in no way can I identify murder, torture and bombing with the traditional protestant Christianity I was raised in. A faith that taught, peace, love and grace. Imagine if every Northern Irish protestant was held to blame for these things. It hasn’t and wouldn’t happen.

With that in mind I decided to visit the local Mosque here in Bath. I had never been to a Mosque before and had no idea where to find the Bath one. Thank you Google (you don’t pay enough tax but you are useful.) So I popped along, at the worst possible time and met the Imam. He was about to start evening prayer so he asked me to return today at lunchtime.

My friend Marc and I went along for 20 minutes this afternoon and sat in a room whilst prayers finished. We spent a few minutes with Imam Fu’ad Abdo with the aim of becoming his friend. I don’t know how to make things like this happen. Deciding to become someone’s friend is a foreign concept to me. Usually, it happens naturally. The initial things you say feel awkward.

This is what I said, ‘Fu’ad, we are sad to see that innocent, peace loving people are being blamed for the actions of violent people who hide behind a twisted version of religion to justify their actions. I know that the vast majority of people who identify as muslims are horrified and scared of the terrorist actions of IS and I just want you to know that we don’t fear you and we love you. We are here to tell you that we love you and we are glad you’re here. You’re part of this community.’ I won’t lie, it felt awkward and strange to tell a stranger that we loved him but it also felt like the right thing to say. Fu’ad thanked me and my embarrassment settled a little.

I feel as a Christian and as a church leader I have a responsibility to share what Fu’ad said to me.

‘I tell our people all the time that they are a part of this country and engage with life here. I tell them all the time that we must oppose these terrorists. They cannot commit these acts and claim to be muslims. We want to be part of this country, we want to be part of this community. We are not against this country. What is happening with IS is not Islam, they are killing thousands of innocent muslims.’

We talked more, Fu’ad is as angry as you and I are about Paris and Beirut and elsewhere. Fu’ad is teaching peace and reconciliation to those at his mosque. He did however tell us that, as I expected, muslim people are afraid that they will be blamed for the actions of someone who professes their faith in words but in no way act in ways they can identify as Islamic.

We then talked about our families and how long we’d lived in Bath. We are meeting for lunch next week. We are committed to becoming friends. Fu’ad and I agree that one aim of terror is to perpetuate division between non-muslims and muslims. The greater the divide the easier for them to radicalise someone. If we allow ourselves to isolate the muslim community we are playing right into the hands of extremists. It is easier for them to convince an isolated community that we are their enemy than a community that knows it is loved and welcome and part of who we are. We cannot let that happen, we cannot let IS have an inch. Fu’ad and I agree, a good way to fight back is to bring our communities closer together.

So please, stop sharing nonsense about how this is the responsibility of all Muslims. If that is true the KKK is the responsibility of all US Christians, the IRA of all catholics, the LRA of all African Christians, the UDA of all Irish protestants and the EDL of all Englishmen. If you are willing to separate yourself from people who claim to be the same as you then afford the same to our muslim neighbours, anything else is hypocrisy.

And, please cross over the awkward moments of choosing friendship. Next time you are in a business run by a muslim neighbour talk to them about what is happening in our world. Listen to them become as disgusted by violence as you are. Become their friend. Visit your local Islamic centre. Visit your local Imam.

If we are ever going to defeat this it is by coming together, it is by building bridges and making friendships. It turns out that in spite of media reporting and social media venom our nation’s Mosques are much like our churches and are filled with men and women who are just like us. They are peace loving, hard working and trying their best to live good lives in the world. They love their families and their sports teams. Some like tea, some prefer coffee. Some vote Labour some vote Conservative. Some even vote Liberal Democrat. They send birthday cards and eat cake. They have favourite bands and books. They have hopes and dreams, fears and failures. Go and get to know them. It is important.

Here is a photo of Fu’ad and I in which I look bald and prove that I’ve never been able to smile naturally. I am jealous of his robes.


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