In Birmingham, where Islam is more practised than Christianity, the clash of civilisations can be witnessed in microcosm. It may be that, now, only Christian believers have the ability to build bridgesby Bruce Clark / May 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
In the heart of Britain’s second city, where there is no spiritual or cultural force that compares in importance with Islam, people have all but forgotten that time when George Bush and Tony Blair devoted themselves to maintaining good relations with the Muslim world. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago. For a few months in late 2001, the prime minister travelled with a pocket edition of the Koran. In Washington, the White House doors were thrown wide open to any imam or Islamic scholar who wanted feelgood meetings with George Bush. Bemused American Muslims received the heartiest of presidential congratulations on the completion of Ramadan; and Bush-minded advocates of “faith-based solutions” to crime and poverty became careful to add the word “mosques” whenever they lauded the efforts of churches and synagogues. Some Muslim leaders reacted to this courtship in a positive spirit. They readily agreed that the attacks of 11th September had been an outrage, not only on grounds of commonly-agreed morality, but for specific theological reasons. As an indirect consequence of this courtship, much of the Muslim world gave some benefit of the doubt to the US war effort in Afghanistan. It helped that the victorious Northern Alliance included some respected mujahedin, veterans of the anti-Soviet war; and that the defeated Taleban were unpopular in many Muslim quarters. But those moments seem a world away in Birmingham, where the practice of Islam exceeds that of Christianity and up to a quarter of the school population is of Muslim heritage. In central districts like Sparkbrook and Ladywood, where the culture, atmosphere and concerns of Pakistan and Bangladesh feel much closer than the adjacent English shires, reaction to the war in Iraq is not so much angry as stunned and traumatised. Whatever is going on here, it is not a mere spasm of wrath, of the sort that can be assuaged by soothing rhetoric or an artful switch of policy. It would be nearer the mark to speak of a collapse of trust, a sense of collective injury and an estrangement from Britain’s authorities. The political and social consequences could be felt for many years to come. At an adult education centre in the heart of Muslim Birmingham, where men-and more recently women-have been coaxed out of their homes to learn better English and computer skills, attendance has plunged since the outbreak of war. “Students are saying, what good will education do them when their people are being bombed… some are simply frightened, they think the British authorities are going to start attacking them before long,” says an organiser. There is less shyness, and more open, sparky indignation at Joseph Chamberlain sixth-form college, an establishment with a Muslim majority. In an hour’s classroom discussion, students are articulate and sometimes off-the-wall in their rebuttal of the Bush-Blair rhetoric about empowering Iraq’s people; such talk, they say, merely insults their intelligence and deepens their injury. “How would we feel if people started bombing Britain to get rid of Tony Blair? When you bomb innocent people, how is that not terrorism?” Especially forthright are the mainly female students who led half the college to join an anti-war march at the beginning of the conflict. The school’s primarily white teachers generally approved of the stance of their pupils, and some felt that common opposition to the war was creating new bonds between Muslims and non-Muslims. “The anti-war march was the first time I felt comfortable talking to a woman in the hijab,” one woman teacher recalls. One by one, the students reel off the arguments against the war, some reasonable, some wacky: the illegal nature of a campaign launched without UN sanction; the suspicion that the war against terror is being used to pursue any number of dark agendas, economic and geopolitical, which long predated 11th September; the hypocrisy of focusing on Iraq; and above all the question of Israel and Palestine. In the foreign policy establishment, the connecting threads between the West Bank and Baghdad may be seen as a matter for open-ended, almost academic debate: which way does the connection go, which problem should be tackled first? Among Birmingham’s angry young Muslims, the link is so screamingly obvious that it hardly needs spelling out: how can the US administration, which they hold co-responsible for the travails of the Palestinians, dare to call itself a liberator of the Iraqis? Events on the West Bank and Gaza strip have faded a little in the mainstream western media over the past year, but the opposite is true of the websites, broadcasts, magazines and sermons on which British Muslims rely. In conversation with Birmingham’s imams, teachers and businessmen, certain themes recur. There is an almost universal insistence that the war in Iraq is unlike any other episode in the history of British Islam. Not the Salman Rushdie affair; not the 1991 Iraq war, which had the UN’s blessing and the active support of many Arab countries; not the war against the Taleban. What emerges in every conversation is that certain sounds and images are burned into the collective consciousness much more deeply than any words: giant bombs falling, sirens wailing over an ancient Muslim city against the background of a muezzin’s call to prayer; and above all, one of the pictures disseminated over the internet and the airwaves by the Al-Jazeera news service in the opening days of the war. This showed a child with the top of its skull blown off, like a carefully-opened eggshell; it is the kind of image that abides in the soul after any commentary, written or spoken, has been erased. It would be na?ve to suppose that the effect of this unspeakable sight would be countered by the production of copper-bottomed proof that the child was not, in fact, killed by American or British bombs. Every day’s news seems to divide the Muslim community even further from consumers of the mainstream media. While British viewers rage over the display of dead coalition prisoners on Iraqi television, Muslims wonder why the display of Iraqi corpses is taken for granted. When US commanders defend the soldiers who shot dead a carload of women and children, this deepens the rage; but the anger does not necessarily recede when, many hours later, Jack Straw appears on television to describe the incident as a tragedy. The source of this rage is deeper than the intellect, and it will not be addressed by appeals to mathematics, such as count the number of Muslims we are killing now, and compare it with the number Saddam killed last year. There is now a deep reluctance to accept almost any news from a western source-and an openness to reports, including conspiracy theories, from almost any other quarter. Al-Jazeera and other Arabic or Iranian news services, ever more available through the internet or satellite television, have become the trusted sources. This reinforces the separateness of a community with a distinct information network and set of reactions to global events. In some ways, arguments (including rational ones) about Saddam’s criminal record only rub salt in the wound. What Muslims hear is an Anglo-Saxon voice saying: “Sometimes we will install and prop up cruel dictators, and sometimes we will use ruthless force to knock them down-but we, and only we, will judge when to do these things…” At least in Birmingham, where race relations have been artfully managed, there is remarkably little sign of inter-communal tensions in everyday life. “If anything I feel closer to my non-Muslim neighbours, because I know many of them are against the war too,” says one businessman. “It was different after 11th September, when we did feel some hostility.” “Afghanistan was a confused story, there had always been tribal warfare in that country,” says Shahid Yaqoob, a halal meat supplier in Sparkbrook. “But for us, Iraq is much simpler: Bush just wants the oil. That’s why America is now the most hated country on earth and unfortunately Britain is number two.” Born in Birmingham but trained in Islamic finance at Egypt’s al-Azhar University (not just the Oxford, but also the INSEAD of the Muslim world), Yaqoob is a pious figure among the local business community. He describes his life since 11th September as a mission to disseminate correct views of Islam in the world, and to inspire his own community to greater faithfulness. Much of Britain’s ?1 billion-a-year market in halal food products is served by unworthy suppliers, he laments. Hence his dream of creating a co-operative network for the supply of halal meat in which the consumers would be shareholders; and his new-found role as the British distributor of a drink called Mecca Cola, designed by a French-Tunisian to give European Muslims an alternative to America’s favourite soft drink. His verdict on the war on Iraq is that it will create “thousands of bin Ladens.” Yaqoob is more than averagely religious for a Sparkbrook Muslim, but his sentiments are broadly shared by others who are not quite so religious, or political. “The war in Iraq is a wake-up call for all of us,”says Ghayoor Khureishi, an entrepreneur in his 20s who runs a small printing business. “First we have to practise our religion better, only then will it be worthwhile to set up a Muslim political party. These events have made me think a lot of things for the first time-for example, I’d never realised how undemocratic most middle eastern countries are.” On the lips of a Muslim Brummie, of course, these words mean the very opposite of what they do to an American Republican. For the latter, promoting democracy in the middle east is assumed to imply the establishment of benign, western-oriented governments that would make peace with Israel and co-operate obligingly with US policy. In the new discourse of wounded Islam, the very opposite is envisaged: the replacement of corrupt leaders with ones who will oppose US policy in a consistent way and speak for the Muslim world’s collective interests. On the streets of Sparkbrook, it is hard to avoid the sense that the world is now hurtling into exactly the cultural war which that brief courtship between the Islamic world and British and US leaders was intended to avoid. So it is worth recalling the calculations that prompted Bush and Blair to embark on that unlikely project. During the first few weeks after 11th September, the stunned leaders of the western world began poring rather carefully over some of the long, intricate pronouncements which Osama bin Laden had made over the last several years. They realised, more clearly than before, what he was trying to do: to hasten the “clash of civilisations” which Harvard’s Samuel Huntingdon had predicted as the main axis of conflict in the post-cold war order. By dint of a very careful choice of images, causes and historical grievances, bin Laden was consciously trying to rally the entire Muslim world, not only against Israel but also the “Crusaders”-the historically Christian world. He spoke not only of the “Zionist occupation of Jerusalem” but of the fact that Christian unbelievers-US soldiers-were treading close to the holy places of Saudi Arabia; and he reminded Muslims of the glories of Islamic Spain, from which Muslims were ousted by Catholic Europe. Huntingdon did not see the Muslim world as the only adversary of the west; it was merely one of the half-dozen “civilisations” or geopolitical blocs which were liable, in his view, to come into conflict. But he did feel-and the theory has some plausibility-that Islam was the most salient and coherent alternative to western capitalism: the only value system under which people were likely to rally in very large numbers in opposition to the western world. The purpose of courting Islam, then, was to deny the outcome of which Huntingdon had warned, and which bin Laden was trying to bring about. It was to demonstrate that fighting one specific, and aberrant group of Muslims-namely, the Taleban-did not imply any broader conflict between the west and Islam. The courtship may have been conducted in a clumsy way, but it rested on an accurate calculation. If the start of the third millennium does see a broad confrontation between the one billion souls of the historically Christian world, and the one billion souls of the historically Muslim world (similar to the one which marked the start of the second millennium, but with modern weapons) then disaster looms for humanity. There was, and is, a more immediate consideration. For Blair and all other European leaders, the finding of an acceptable modus vivendi with Islam is perhaps the biggest existential challenge for the expanding EU, as it frets over its structure, identity and purpose. Co-existence with Islam has been at the heart of the two most dramatic recent political crises in Europe: the unexpected success of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, and the surge in support for Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands. As the EU expands eastwards, by far the sharpest dilemma is posed by the candidacy of Turkey, which already sees Franco-German stonewalling of its candidacy as the arrogance of a Christian club. And if Turkey does join, it will have profound implications. On present trends, it will take over from Germany as the most populous EU member by 2020 or so. Now that Europe’s would-be founding fathers are writing a constitution for the EU, they are struggling with some tough historical questions. The very concept of Europe as a distinct geopolitical space grew out of medieval Christendom, which defined itself in opposition to Islam; how can Europe’s heritage be described in a way that is both inclusive of Islam and recognisable to the 70-80 per cent of European citizens who would describe their heritage as Christian? But one does not have to enter the realms of Huntingdonian theory, or the debates about European history, to see that there are still many small, practical steps that could be taken to improve the incorporation of Muslims into the states of Europe. Only recently have the 4m French Muslims joined the Protestants and Jews in having a representative with a right to plead for their interests to the secular state. In Germany, where the political and educational culture is more overtly Christian than France’s, there is work to be done in extending to Muslim children the right to a religious education, something which Protestants and Catholics take for granted. So where does the assault on Baghdad leave these efforts? In places like Birmingham, it is common currency that war in Iraq is unravelling them. But there are countervailing forces. Well before the US and British governments went through their phase of Muslim-courting diplomacy, there was a searching dialogue between scholars and clerics from the two faiths which grew out of Jewish monotheism, but aspire to universality. That dialogue has become more difficult but it will not stop altogether. What is the basis for such a dialogue between the world’s two dominant monotheisms? In both traditions, there is plenty of teaching and historical precedent which can serve as an inspiration for tolerance, respect and even love between Christians and Muslims; and in both traditions there is plenty of material which appears, at least on the face of things, to inspire the very opposite. Only between those who take religion seriously can there be an effort to sort these matters out. To some Prospect readers that may seem rather a shocking statement. But I believe it to be true. It is also, however, important for the many westerners who have never embraced, or long since rejected Christianity, to perceive if they can the significance of this dialogue. In a sense, there can be no meeting-point between Islam and secularism, if secularism is understood as the relegation of religion to the margins of human life. For the Muslim, faith informs the whole of life, or it is nothing at all. That need not exclude the possibility of practical co-existence, as fellow citizens, between Muslims and non-Muslims, and the need for civilised and courteous debate on the terms of that co-existence. But such a debate cannot take place with secular westerners who assume that history is a linear march along which they have advanced further than Muslims have. Nor does it help when western commentators speak of Islam’s need for a reformation, a renaissance or an enlightenment. From the Muslim viewpoint, the Reformation was the answer to a western Christian problem: the descent of medieval Catholicism into idolatry, from which Islam, conceived as a response to idol-worship, is almost by definition immune. In order to speak meaningfully to Muslims, westerners (atheist, Christian or anything else) must also be willing to re-examine their own assumption that humanity’s evolution implies a progressive subordination of the spiritual to the rational. For Muslim believers, a delicate balance between investigation and revelation is at the core of their faith; they are urged to “seek signs both in your hearts, and on the horizon”-in other words, both through religious experience and the empirical study of the world, which are not ultimately in contradiction. In the seventh Christian century, when Islam burst out of Arabia, the whole of Semitic monotheism was wrestling with the same problems: how do we reconcile the transcendent power of God with the diversity of the created universe? How can we acknowledge and celebrate the divine source of all created things without falling into idolatry and thus dishonouring the Creator? How can humans be filled and inspired by the grace of God without appearing to usurp the role of God? Above all, can we conceive that God should have a Son, who was both fully God and fully Man, without in some way compromising the unity and transcendence of God? Christians and Muslims offer different answers to that question, that is their fundamental divergence, but both regard it as one of the most important questions a human being can ask. For Muslims, the Christian answer to this question is mistaken but not idolatrous; if it had been deemed idolatrous, the Prophet would not have blessed the presence of Christian monks on Mount Sinai, and Caliph Omar, the Muslim conqueror of Jerusalem, would not have held back from taking over Christianity’s holiest place. In the context of a profound Christian-Muslim conversation, these traditions are not merely attractive stories; they are moments of cosmic significance, to be wrestled with, prayed over and understood in silence. Theological questions are both remote from, and close to, the streets of Birmingham, whose main university, appropriately enough, houses one of the world’s most important centres for Christian-Muslim dialogue. If there are any rays of hope in the current situation, they lie in the fact that the breakdown of trust between Britain’s Muslims and their political masters has not yet implied any breakdown in communication between religious authorities. In Birmingham, where a Cambridge-educated Ugandan, John Sentamu, has recently taken over as Anglican bishop, inter-faith relations are good, and Christianity has responded gracefully to Islam’s takeover as the city’s most widely-practised religion. A doctrinally conservative priest with a heavily Muslim parish confided in me that he feels more comfortable in courteous, difference-respecting dialogue with the local imam than he does with liberal co-religionists who attach no importance to the fundamentals of doctrine. One Christian cleric who does attach importance to those fundamentals, and thus understands the level at which Christians and Muslims can talk to each other, is the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. At a time when Britain’s moral, spiritual and social consensus is being shaken to the core, that must be a good thing. In the long run, Tony Blair will be grateful that the turbulent priest whom he nominated to head England’s official Church was such a principled opponent of his war.