Like it or not, and I don’t, Buckinghamshire has a problem with extremist religion. A young Wycombe man is currently on trial for allegedly plotting to blow up aircraft. One of the 7/7 bombers was from Aylesbury, as was one man implicated in the failed second attack on 21/07. There was another incident around then which came within a breath of a police officer drawing a gun on a train. One of the 2007 Glasgow Airport bombers originated in Princes Risborough. This year we have had Operation Kiosk in Wycombe, initiated by a speculative story in the News of the World.
In short, we have a problem in this county with violent extremism. This has been exacerbated by media hype and race/ faith hate criminals. The final victim of 7/7 was almost a completely innocent next door neighbour, but the hate criminals involved didn't know the flashpoint of diesel. There has been anger aimed at “Pakis” = anyone who looks foreign. Here are some quotes from hate mail received by the Police Service:
All Muslims are terroristsI remember meetng a supposedly educated, but astonishingly ignorant and bigoted gentleman when lecturing at, of all places, the University of Buckingham last year. We do indeed have a problem.
We are at war with Islam
Terrorists are Pakistanis men with long beards
The good story is that a lot of honest grass roots toil has been going on, some initiated by the Church. It’s brought together community leaders, Churches and Mosques, the Police Service, Local and national government. The Church has taken a leading role with others in bringing people together to understand their neighbours, helping to identify what this is actually all about. Good project work is now going on, to build capacity to contribute to society, to combat unwitting secularist ignorance in local government, to empower women, to bring together people with a passion for community cohesion. Far more than special projects this is about the values by which we conduct our everyday lives. With this activity has come truer knowing and understanding our neighbours. That’s been a huge benefit.
The highlight of the seminar for me was a challenging address by Syed Mohsin Abbas, a TV producer. He acknowledged that some elements in his own profession feed on extremism, and nourish it in others by their ignorance and stereotyping. This validates some of the crazy world views out there, and isolates the huge mainline community whilst glamorizing extremists. Mr Abbas also pulled no punches about the obvious effects that UK/US foreign policy have had on young Muslims.
He also acnowledged with devastating honesty the destructive and narrowing tendency of some conservative schools in Islam, often Saudi resourced. He talked about how fundamentalism appeals to insecure damaged people, gives them blinkers they can wear as an identity, and turns their religion from a spiritual resource into arogance, hatred and exclusivism. The key symptoms are injustice aimed at others, self-righteousness, discriminatory behaviour, anger and fear. Amidst a largely apathetic mainline Muslim community, some young people reach out for symbols of identity as a response to a deeply confused society. Me, me, me, egotism has left a spiritual vacuum and young people are vulnerable. The media ham it up further, and the emergence of our varied Muslim communities from postcolonial to fully particpating modes can be internally challenging.
Racism and complacency in broader society don’t help, but you can only be paranoid about the mainstream if you're not sure of yourself. That’s why vacuous secularism only validates fundamentalist rhetoric, heightens confusion and solves nothing. The only answer is for young people to find out who they are, and grow in a classic, tolerant religion of depth, mercy and hospitality. Some young students settle for a religion that is partial and maimed. It only goes as far as law and sharia, making these into isolated absolutes, and failing to seek or embrace higher spiritual concerns. Thus their religion becomes a curse to them and everyone else, and they become locked in a fundamentalist playground with no way out, a licence for violent extremism. We are only talking about a tiny number of people, but the media create the stars, the stereotypes; and thus disease spreads.
The Church of England is often riduled for being confused and subtle, listening more than denouncing. People take its gut rejection of absolutism and faith-hate for weakness, and perhaps it is weakness compared to absolutism and fundamentalism. People mock the C of E for being easy going and politically naïve. Thank God it is all these things. The alternatives are a bloody nightmare — licensed insanity. Some voices in the media delight in absolutism and certainty as the answer to religious authority, not a sickness of the soul. If we want to be part of the solution, not the problem, we may find we have attitudes to work on in ourselves.
The message of Jesus is love and grace, not law and order. It’s not what we say, but the way we say it that reveals our true spiritual state. There are currently no areas in Bucks you could call no-go — indeed the whole idea of no-go areas is evil, childish and defeatist — another media stereotype with which we collude at our peril. In fact the Church’s network is spread all over the county, on some level in every place. We have a great dispersed, variegated network from which to make a contribution. So what is our contribution going to be? We need to ask what our deepest values are, and how our behaviour and attitudes align with basic Christian values — not techie top-shelf stuff, but the sermon on the mount. And when we decide to get off our backsides and be intentional to build a cohesive and decent society, where is our graciousness, our capacity to look for God in others, the fruit of the Spirit in us?