Sermon for Matins

13 August 2006 at :00 am

A church like the Church of England, and perhaps particularly a church like this Abbey, should be places where from time to time we lift our eyes beyond the immediate concerns of Christian theology or the Christian Church and look at the wider needs of the communities and nation where we are set, and to ask what makes for their well-being. Earlier on this week there was a television programme which made me pause for a moment to think about those wider concerns, and, given also the events of last Thursday make me feel I must address it this morning.

The programme was a Channel Four Dispatches programme last Monday that was based on the most detailed survey of the opinions of British Muslims in this country taken for many years, and the resultant programme was entitled 'What Muslims really want.' On the face of it some of its findings were disturbing.

Assuming the survey was carried out in a scientifically acceptable way, and I am sure it was, it showed, for example, a widespread willingness among many British Muslims to accept conspiracy theories even in the face of other evidence. Just over a third (36%) for example answered 'yes' to the question 'Do you believe that Diana was killed to stop her marrying a Muslim?' and, even more alarmingly, almost a half (45%) answered 'yes' to the question 'Do you believe 9/11 was a conspiracy by America and Israel' even though as we all know Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility. Equally alarmingly just under a quarter (22%) either strongly agreed or tended to agree that the July bombings in this country last year were justified because of British support for the war on terror, although it should be noted that a much larger figure, about half of those questioned (49%) strongly disagreed with that statement. And in the face of remarks or cartoons considered to be hostile to Islam there was a marked lack of respect for the principle of freedom of speech that has, for many years now, been a significant feature of this country.

Now it would be easy on the basis on those responses to believe that this country was being faced with that most classic of dilemmas, how to maintain the traditional values of a liberal democracy in the face of those who want to undermine those values. And it would be foolish not to recognise that such a question is raised by at least parts of the survey and, of course, even more by the apparent terrorist threat exposed last Thursday.

But there are other things that the survey shows that may be equally if not more important. Perhaps the most significant is that Muslims in this country are divided on many of the questions facing them, just as, indeed, Christians probably are as well. To take a more domestic issue than one associated with violent acts the British Muslim respondents were almost equally divided on whether they would prefer their children to go to a Muslim School that followed the National Curriculum or go to a popular State school that has good results. And while just under a third (30%) would like to live under Sharia law, more that half would prefer to live under British law. And although the vast majority of those surveyed believed that religion was important, in terms of attendance at a mosque almost half (48%) do not attend at all.

So perhaps what is clear, although I am not sure the programme pointed this out very obviously, is that really there is no such thing as 'the Muslim Community'. There are, in fact, a number of different Muslim communities, just as there are different Christian ones.

Also, while for many Muslims being a Muslim is certainly very important, for about half of those surveyed being British was equally important, and being a Muslim was only part of their sense of identity. And perhaps most encouragingly for those of us who believe in the value of a multi-cultural society when asked 'to what extent do you agree with the idea that Muslims should keep themselves separated from non-Muslims' an overwhelming 81% strongly disagreed, and that went up to 94% if you add those who tended to disagree.

So it was a slightly confusing picture that emerged, with many Muslims holding opinions not very different from their non-Muslim neighbours, but with a significant minority, especially apparently among younger Muslims moving in what might be considered an alarmingly intolerant and politically radicalised direction.

So how should those of us concerned about the overall well-being of British society react, and, in particular, how should those of us who profess and call ourselves Christians respond?

Well, some things are obvious. I am sure everyone here would want to support the police and the intelligence agencies in identifying and dealing with the terrorist threat, and thank goodness they appear to have been successful in that last week. The feeling in this Abbey would have been very different if they had not been successful in that vigilance. And pf course our support for the police and our horror at what might have happened is fully shared by very many Muslims as well.

I also believe the Prime Minister is right in thinking that Muslim leaders have a particular responsibility in combating the movement to radicalisation that supports terrorists acts, and, of course, many of those leaders recognise that as well. But I also agree with one Muslim journalist, Kenan Malik, in thinking that we cannot put all the responsibility for that on those Muslim leaders. Muslims do not, after all, live only in enclosed communities, the majority as I indicated want to be and are full and contributing members of British society, and what the survey also showed is that there is no real agreement among many Muslims about who it is that actually speaks for them or to them; over half those questioned (57%) were unable to identify any community leader or organisation that did that, which is another reason why I do not believe we can talk simply about 'the Muslim Community.'

And if that is the case then there does, I believe, remain a huge responsibility on us, the rest of the British community to establish links with our Muslim neighbours. Not to try to convert them, not even, at least to start with, to engage in debate or argument with them about some of the issues the survey showed, but simply to follow that dominical command 'to love our neighbours as ourselves', and that includes our Muslim neighbours. Of course in one sense it is easier for those of us involved in the running of this Abbey, we have a number of opportunities to meet significant Moslem leaders in the context of some of the events that take place here, and thank goodness for that, but also all of us encounter our Muslim neighbours in other ways, for a start they maintain many of the convenience stores many of us use. And who knows, maybe if some English person has simply been friendly rather than stand-offish to a young Muslim some years ago, that young person may not have embarked on the road to finally letting off bombs last July. We often do not know the effect of the good we do, nor, indeed, the effect of the casual bad we do either.

One of the difficulties of our contemporary society is that we can easily think it is always someone else's problem to deal with a particular issue. Of course when it comes to dealing with actual terrorist threats that is obviously the case, but dealing with the causes that can foster that background against which terrorism can grow, the little slights, the destructive remark, the lack of comprehension of what it is like to be someone different from ourselves, and the unwillingness to engage with our neighbour when he or she has a different faith or a different world-outlook, that is something that all of us can do something about. And if that survey and the events of this last week can encourage us all to do that then maybe some good will have come out of evil. And that is a Christian hope.

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