13 August 2005

Our Muslim neighbours

By Rupert Read

Two years ago, I was in Syria, learning about the history of that troubled nation. I visited the town of Quneitra, entirely flattened in cold blood by the Israeli Army just before they returned it to the Syrians. I visited the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights area. And I was deeply fortunate to be invited to attend a friend's wedding in a huge Palestinian refugee camp.

Syria has had to absorb enormous numbers of refugees, since they were expelled / fled from Palestine in 1948 and '67. The 'temporary' camp I spent a day in has been there for a whole generation.

The spirit of those attending the wedding festivities was nevertheless tremendous. Many of the guests, and the children, were very poor - there is little work in the camps. But, so far as I could tell (virtually no-one spoke any English; I had to rely on my girlfriend to translate from their Arabic), many of them seemed happy…Especially the kids, when I agreed to take digital photos of them! It was a wonderful experience for me, to share this day with them, to dance with them.

Back in England, I felt more surer than ever that the world owes these Palestinian people justice: a home. And my understanding of them as people had been immeasurably enriched.

Two weeks ago, I was privileged to take part in a private meeting at the University of East Anglia - in the Islamic Centre (the mosque), there - between leaders of the Muslim group on campus and various representatives of the broader Norwich community - Councillors, peace and anti-racism campaigners, religious leaders. I was deeply impressed by the vivid desire for peace and mutual understanding that the Muslims that we met with showed. They reached out to us, as we did to them, in this difficult time of reflection on the truly appalling bombings in London -- and on our own government's actions in Iraq and across the Arab world, on the police in London shooting dead an innocent man, and, sadly, on senseless attacks on mosques (including in Norwich).

These devout Muslims, like virtually all practicing Muslims, have no sympathy whatsoever with violence or intolerance. And their views have been misunderstood. If they believe in the fundamentals of their religion, it is only in the following sense: they believe in worship and peace and brotherhood, and in reading and holding to the teachings of the Koran, which do not condone the taking of any innocent life. And they explained to us with great care that the very meaning of the word 'jihad' has been perverted: the word really means simply 'struggle'. So, when one tries to do good in the world, as (say) an aid worker, one is engaged in 'jihad', in the word's true sense! The most valuable aspect of the meeting was to actually get to know some of those folk. To meet and talk with Abdullah, who converted to Islam many years ago - and who has a great sense of wit. Or Mansour, who comes from Saudi Arabia - and who has five kids, and a lovely smile.

Yes, he has a beard; so do I, sometimes! When one looks more than superficially at these neighbours of our's, one sees people, not stereotypes.

If we can come to understand something of life in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria - a life in many ways extraordinarily different from our relatively easy, secure lives - then surely we can come to understand British Muslims. After all, you or I have far more in common with those people I met with recently than we do with those wonderful wedding guests I met in Syria two years ago. We share a common language, for starters - that helps!

If you get the chance to meet some of Norfolk's Muslims, then you too will discover what I have: that they passionately desire peace. That they are ordinary people with children and jobs and hopes and fears just like you. That they are longing for a happy and secure life. And if you walk pass a Muslim person on the streets of Yarmouth, or at UEA, or wherever, bear in mind that they are relying on you -- on all of us -- not to make the disastrous error of presuming that they have any sympathy whatsoever or any association whatsoever with the outrages recently perpetrated in London. No more than you have anything to do with the disgraceful attack on the Norwich City centre mosque that took place after that outrage, as a 'revenge attack'. As you are guiltless, then never forget: so are Norfolk's Muslims.