By Julian Bond and Elizabeth Arif-Fear
How do we make things difficult for our mixed communities in our great city of London? Well, by stirring up international political and ideological tension! To certain segments of society, it seems that this is sadly the way forward BUT we won’t let them win.
It was Margaret Thatcher who famously said: “There’s no such thing as society”. Yet, in multifaith and multicultural Britain, thirty years later we know that society, and the communities which make it up its rich diversity, need building, nurturing and help in strengthening bonds amongst diverse groups of people. Community-building is something that we cannot do without, even if we may face uncertainties or tensions may be a little high.
The alternative – when taken to extremes – is simply neighbours turning on each other saying: “You’re not welcome here” or “Go back to where you came from”. Such division, tension and hatred for our neighbours can and does indeed have grave consequences – even leading to civil war and genocide. Sometimes people of faith are implicated in stirring up tensions but the fact is that they are also doing a lot in our city to build peace and good neighbourliness, especially when not everyone is encouraging us to be loving and caring to our neighbours.
We know where this led to in Europe. The Holocaust is the starkest example for the sheer scale of innocent people who were murdered, simply for being Jewish. Anti-Semitic messages and actions, sometimes rooted in religious (not merely political) ideology, willingly contributed to the death of six million Jews, as well as political opponents, people living with disabilities and members of the LGBT and Roma communities who were also killed in large numbers by Hitler’s regime, in addition to Muslims. Despite the ongoing Brexit debate, we are still European and nonetheless, we are global citizens. To ignore history and the harms of hatred is to do so at our peril. With this in mind, we turn to Golders Green – a safe haven for Jewish communities and Muslims alike. Both the Jewish and Muslim communities here are proud Londoners, as well as having historical and cultural ties further afield.
Golders Green is however a community that’s not immune to controversy. Into this particular community came the Centre for Islamic Enlightening, previously the El-Shaddai (God Almighty) Christian Centre and prior to that the Hippodrome Theatre. There were, firstly, some objections to the Hippodrome becoming a mosque – sadly there always are. Islam and British Muslims can often be seen by some as problematic, or worse as suspicious and hateful views have in fact influenced certain people’s perceptions of this community [Julian: I’ve in fact written on this topic before in Mosque-Busters].
The Hippodrome a lovely building in Golders Green to be turned into a Mega Mosque right in the heart of the Jewish Community, no outcry .
— Bee Wilson (@BeeWilson3) October 26, 2017
Those at the mosque did what one would expect and worked with the local community to explain how a mosque is a blessing to the community rather than a threat. This involved a lot of communication and relationship-building and it’s this work and approach to community relations that shows us the pure essence of faith in terms of building positive public and inter-communal relations, as our Prophets and Founders taught us long ago.
In the weeks approaching Holocaust Memorial Day, it was therefore a pleasant surprise to see that the centre in Golders Green would be hosting a Holocaust memorial exhibition specifically highlighting how the Muslim community in Albania saved many Jews during the Second World War when many non-Muslim European nations did not. It was a heart-warming and a positive symbol of community-building simply to think of such a great model of welcome and inclusion taking place in a mosque in the form of the Yad Vashem exhibition. Yad Vashem is inclusive in that it honours everyone – including non-Jews – who came to the aid of those fleeing the Nazis. This naturally includes Muslims.
It’s also worth pointing out that Yad Vashem is a non-political organisation which works solely to promote education around the Holocaust. Sadly, it was not to be. A campaign was later formed against this well-meaning and important event by a popular Muslim news website and its founder. It’s obviously hard to see how any good could come of this. Those who campaigned no doubt felt some satisfaction from their actions and the hurt and upset they caused. After the call to boycott the event led to the centre in fact cancelling the exhibition, the vocal campaign against the event and developing Jewish-Muslim relations achieved nothing other than to stir up negativity and suspicion within certain segments of both faith communities. Positive local community-building had sadly been publicly called into question with disappointing results.
What was the apparent reason for the boycott of the event? Well, the argument expressed against the exhibition was that as Yad Vashem was based in Israel, it was promoting Israel at the expense of the Palestinian community in the Holy Land. Yet, it was nothing of the sort. It was not a political exhibition or an event with a political agenda. The exhibition was deigned to simply (yet very importantly) highlight the largest genocide to-date and the unity between Albanian Muslims and Jews fleeing persecution. At a time of political tensions, this in fact was exactly what we needed!
Yad Vashem isn’t just a museum that remembers the holocaust, it’s an Israeli institution that actively promotes Israel and Zionism. So therefore this mosque in Golders Green should have nothing to do with it. No to any kind of normalisation with Israel or Israeli institutions. https://t.co/JLPZ5AqYhL
— Roshan M Salih (@RmSalih) December 29, 2018
The Holocaust is a tragic reality, a historical fact and a heart-breaking scar on our history. To remember this and pay tribute to its victims – and also those who literally put their lives on the line to save their Jewish brothers and sisters – is not a political tool. It is our duty as Christians, Muslims, Jews – whatever our faith may be – and as human beings to pay respect, to remember and to show why we must continue to learn the lesson of where hatred can lead. What’s more, if we want peace in the Middle East, this is surely not the right way to go about it. Politics, except local politics, does not belong in community development and inter faith settings – these are not politicised spaces (except in cases of conflict resolution and peace building). Politicising community faith-led efforts is inappropriate and incredibly unhelpful, yet this continues to happen by divisive, ill-informed and biased community members.
If we want to build good relations, good bonds and happy, healthy communities – as surely we must – then we need to spread positivity, to reach out and first of all be kind, courteous and open – not promote toxic, hate-fuelled, aggressive messages and behaviours. We are encouraged within each of our (religious and non-religious) belief systems to reach out and engage with others in a just, kind manner. In both the Muslim and Christian faiths for example, our holy scriptures and traditions both talk of being moderate in our speech and kind to our neighbours. In St. Paul’s letter to Titus (3:2), he is instructed to “be gentle, and show every courtesy to everyone“ whilst in the Muslim faith, Prophet Muhammad says: “Allah is gentle and He loves gentleness. He rewards for gentleness what is not granted for harshness and He does not reward anything else like it.”
Of course, God is the best of planners and thankfully the exhibition was held just a few days ago at Eton Road Mosque in Ilford, organised by the long-time and indefatigable interfaith activist Bashir Chaudhry. The event was very moving, poignant and a great step in the right direction.
An Ilford mosque hosted an exhibit on Muslim heroes of the Shoah, defying boycott calls.
“We’re an example of standing strong + not allowing certain sections of some communities to disrupt this event. Our message to extremists: it’s just the beginning”https://t.co/5UwoRJvkEt pic.twitter.com/3OcuzoPthZ
— Jewish News (@JewishNewsUK) January 21, 2019
However, this didn’t come without more negative backlash. Yet, once again the haters were shown that hate will not win, extremism will not win: love wins every time. We will remember the Holocaust, we will unite with our Jewish brothers and sisters and we will stand together to build a stronger more inclusive society in which people of all faiths and none are welcome. This is what our faiths teach us and that’s what we will continue to live by.