I've been teaching the last couple of days at the Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project (BUCFP). Among a class of eight under my tutelage for desk-top publishing software, Adobe InDesign, are two young Muslims who worship at the Medina Mosque just down the road from St Mary Magdalen's Church.
The young men are very passionate about their faith and at various points in the course I've been introduced to their views concerning the plight of Palestinians, the new Sainsbury's shop that is to open where a Muslim shop called 'Taj' once was, why Halal meat is healthier and regular updates on the progress of Pakistan in their cricket match against New Zealand.
One of the chaps was fasting today. He does "extra fasts". I told them that tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and that we Catholics are meant to fast in marking the beginning of the penitential season of Lent leading up to the Easter Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil. I actually got it wrong and said the Triduum was Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. I must confess that I'm a bit petrified of Lent - poor addicts like me, attached to the things of this World, always are. My Catholic identity came out when I was looking at James ("Taliban Catholic") Preece's blog briefly, yesterday, I think.
What surprised and heartened me (though I know it shouldn't) was how glad they were to find someone "practising their Christian faith". They described the British culture as 'neo-atheist', a good term, but why bother when surely just 'atheist' would suffice? I was a little taken aback by one of their complaints about the treatment of Palestinians - not so much that the Palestinians don't get treated woefully by many in Israel, but in the wake of the murder of Pakistan Cabinet Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, I wanted to 're-address the balance' a little and suggest to them that religious tolerance 'works both ways'.
One of the Muslim men responded, "That was awful. You can't just kill someone when they disagree with you. They should have sat him down and explained the blasphemy law to him." I raised my eyebrows at this a little because I think that Mr Bhatti was fully aware of what the blasphemy law is and why it was and still is in existence. The draconian, brutal way in which it operates (i.e death or long-term imprisonment for the 'blasphemer') is what Mr Bhatti fought against and I am quite sure that whatever justifications were presented to him for the operation of this law, he would have condemned it as unjustifiable because, well, as the young man said, "you can't just kill someone who disagrees with you". I'm saying that now, though I didn't say that then. Still, we can all agree on the first part of the young Muslim's response.
He went on to show me the English Defense League's interview on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman shown up above. "He's an idiot," he said, referring to the leader, "the EDL think that we're all 7th century Muslims following the Koran in the way they did in the 7th century." In a way, you could say he was 're-addressing the balance' a little, though I don't think he was doing so on purpose.
Freedom of religion and worship is something secured in this country (unlike in quite a few strongly Muslim countries), yet the English Defense League are stridently anti-Islam. Personally, though I take issue with many of the claims of Islam, I would never get out onto the street to protest against its existence or against those who practice it in good faith and I would not stand outside a mosque chanting some awful anti-Islamic slogan put to the melody of football stadium terrace song. We reap what we sow.
I think what the young Muslims were trying to impress upon me, when one of them gave me three DVDs about Islam at the end of today's session, is that Islam is a peaceful religion, just that there are some fruitcakes who take things 'too far'. I'm happy to accept that. It reflects, after all, the only possible response of the Church to the abuse scandal, though few would claim that child abuse is religiously motivated. After all, I have seen Of Gods and Men, and it is obvious that in just that one community in Algeria religious tolerance is respected by whole communities. It is just a relatively small group of religious psychopaths who spoil it for everyone else, including the good name of Islamic community. Towards the end of the film, one of the monks is still defending the goodness present in the Islamic faith, while living in the shadow of death.
Both men seemed to think of the Islam embraced in Pakistan and other strongly Muslim nations as being somewhat backward or archaic. One pointed to his trainers and his jeans asking, "Do I look like a 7th century Muslim?" He said this believing that what these nations need is 'revolution' in order for Islam to improve in these regions of the World. That is fine, but I think that many Christian communities in these regions, as well as many observers in the West are very concerned about what will take place after the 'revolutions'.
Nonetheless, I can fully appreciate their concerns over the EDL, whose roots can perhaps be traced back to the price hike in tickets to Premier League football matches. The irony is that these football hooligans are like religious extremists - they use their religion as a vehicle for hatred and emnity, rather than for peace and brotherly love. Why can't they just be honest and say they don't give a fig about Islam really, they just want jobs. Rather endearingly, one of the Muslims calls me 'Lawrence of Arabia'. Tomorrow, I will give him my feedback on one the Islamic DVDs, 'Jesus: The Prophet of Allah'...Gulp! I'm tempted to call in sick. Say a prayer for us.
Update: The DVD doesn't work!