FOLLOWING this week’s appalling incident outside a mosque in Finsbury Park, London, Brendan Cox, husband of the murdered MP Jo Cox, said: “Anger is a very legitimate human response; we shouldn’t tell people not to be angry.”
He added: “I think we should be angry, but the question is how do we use that anger? We need to use it to challenge ourselves to do more to drive out the hatred. Very few of us in our lives will come across a would-be terrorist – the type of person who would commit the attacks we have seen in London and Birmingham and Manchester, but lots of us will come across hatred. It’s the hatred that breeds the violence and I think all of us can do much more in our day-to-day conversations to drive that out.”
I lived and worked in the Middle East in a country where Islam was the state religion and where all other religions were banned. I may not have agreed with all the aspects of Islam that influenced how I lived, but I had to at least respect them as a guest in that country. And that was really the basis of everything – respect.
I worked with a number of older Muslim men, one of whom had a particularly enquiring mind. We spent many hours talking about all sorts of things that were a curiosity to him and which he wanted to understand more about – including religion, a topic that was normally taboo.
He taught me a great deal about Islam and I taught him a lot about Christianity, but it was never an effort to convert. There was a mutual respect that was the basis of our conversations. Why can’t that be the situation in general in our society and why, therefore, is there so much bigotry and intolerance on all sides?
Understandably we are left speechless by the horrific actions of fundamentalists who kill in the name of God, but then our own history is peppered with such extremism.
Look at the crusades and how Christian armies killed in the name of God; and look at the Reformation when Christians killed one another in the name of God.
It has taken three or four hundred years but there does seem to now be a level of understanding between Catholics and Protestants that we are not still doing that. Ignorance was very much to blame and ignorance breeds bigotry and intolerance. At least we now take part in ecumenical services together even though the walls that once existed between us are still not fully demolished.
The appalling acts of terrorism that occur with sickening regularity are actually nothing to do with true Islam any more than the crusades or the Reformation were to do with true Christianity, it’s just a banner for extremists to rally round.
And for that reason, as a society we can’t allow such fundamentalism to poison and warp our attitude towards others. As Brendan Cox said, we are rightly angry at what we see going on in the name of religion – “theirs” against “ours”, or even “ours” against “theirs” as in the Finsbury Park attack. That sort of targeted hatred serves no purpose whatsoever, and achieves nothing whatsoever, as long as we don’t allow it to – if we do then the terrorists have won.
Again as Brendan Cox said, we need to channel our righteous anger – Muslim, Christian, or none-of-the-above – into a real and effective united effort at overcoming the lack of understanding and the intolerance that breeds bigotry and hatred, and it has to start with conversation. World religions can and do exist side-by-side and, as Jo Cox herself said in Parliament, there is more that unites than divides.
The question is where do we start?
Left to their own initiative and conviction, people themselves are far more tolerant than ‘the powers that be’ often are within their individual religions, and for me the perfect illustration is my experience in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport where there is a ‘Meditation Centre’ – a nondescript nondenominational prayer room – which, over the years, I have used on a number of occasions to catch up on my prayer time between flights.
The last time I was there I found myself sharing the room with a Muslim family and a young Jewish lady. There are not many places where you will find Muslim, Jew and Christian praying together – not saying the same prayers, but at least praying to the same God and that’s a start.
We may well have cause to be angry, but we have no reason to hate because that only causes more division and more hatred, a downward spiral that is destructive both to ourselves and to our society. We can do better than that and we really need to do so – now before things get even worse.
Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.