and Islam go head to head

SHAFAQNA – Young people enjoy healthy debate during Interfaith Week, writes Bess Twiston Davies

“I’m Nur. I’m 19. I’m an Arab, I’m a Muslim,” says a young man in a hoodie and grey sweats. “I’m a good person living in a bad area,” he pauses and looks up from his script. “Can someone listen while I speak?” Nur asks.

This is a rehearsal for Conflict of Silence, a radio play to be performed — and recorded — in Birmingham on November 17. The three stars, all unemployed, are different ages and of different ethnic backgrounds. What they share is religious faith: Derek, who reads his script straight, then in West Indian patois, is Christian. Nur and Hanna, a tall, leggy girl in a magenta hijab, are Muslim. And they could not be more different. “What I’ve learnt is the strong effect that different cultures have on Islam,” says Derek. Hanna is of Somali origin, Nur’s family are from Yemen. “We had a bit of a disagreement about women staying at home,” says Hanna lightly.

And that is the point. This is a project for InterFaith Week (which runs from tomorrow until next Satuday), and the aim is to air differences and have open debate. The audience will be invited to respond afterwards, ask questions, share thoughts. “The play is a question mark rather than a full stop,” says Steve, the Christian co-ordinating the play for Soul City Arts. The hope is to spark dialogue between polarised faith communities. He explains: “Our [faith] communities aren’t talking because we are afraid to challenge each other.” People remain polite, he adds, but, often in Muslim majority areas, community relations are perceived “as a question of them and us”.

This distrust is raw post “Operation Trojan Horse”, the name given to a discovery earlier this year that more than 20 Birmingham schools had been involved in an apparent plot to impose strict Muslim values on their pupils. There was talk of an Islamic takeover, of plans to impose Muslim school governors and get rid of non-Muslim headteachers.

The fallout for interfaith relations in Birmingham has been huge, not least for the pupils at the schools concerned. “Where were they left?” asks asks Mohammed Ali, aka Aerosol Arabic, a Muslim graffiti artist who, for more than a decade, has challenged interfaith barriers through music, theatre and art. Talking to the students of one affected school, Park View Academy, was “disturbing,” Ali reports. Some told of a school trip to an amusement park where “they were bullied by grown-ups — by the public. They had to cover up their school badges because of shame.” Clearly issues needed addressing, says Ali, “but the way it was done” in exam season “was not nice” for the pupils.

He helped students to create art to channel their frustration. He’s preparing seven digital paintings featuring words about faith and life in Birmingham. They hang on sprayed canvas frames and have been created by Ali, working with young Muslims and Christians. “The idea is for this to become a mobile pop-up exhibition that can be taken to the cathedral or the mosque,” Ali says. After all, in Birmingham, which is home to 180-odd nationalities, interfaith relations are hardly new. There is a sense that Operation Trojan Horse has lent new impetus to schemes such as Places of Welcome, a city-wide network, funded by Near Neighbours, a government programme promoting inter-faith friendships.

The Places of Welcome are open to anyone needing a chat and a cup of tea. Lozells Methodist Community Centre already offers a twice-weekly soup kitchen, English language classes, help using the internet, a job centre, and ladies’ group. Homemade soups reflect the volunteers’ diversity: green mango was a recent offering. A beaming 25-year-old from Uganda works on reception: “I am a Pentecostal Christian,” Fiona says. “Everywhere I find a church I want to be there.” Next door, a young Muslim is manning the art gallery: “I am from a strict Muslim background,” says Mohammed. “Coming here you see the church has the same values.”

The scheme was launched by the Anglican Bishop of Birmingham, the Right Rev David Urquhart, who, in response to Operation Trojan Horse, has invited representatives of the six major faiths in the city to join him for six monthly conversations “about what a lived religion looks like in a 21st-century city.” A theology professor from Birmingham University is moderating the meetings. “We hope to develop themes that will not only be analysed academically but become open for wider debate across the city,” says the bishop, who is keenly aware of the poverty and inequality underpinning interfaith tensions.

Indeed, he is the only faith leader in Birmingham to employ a full-time interfaith adviser, Dr Andrew Smith, founder of The Feast — a charity that pairs practising Christian teenagers with their Muslim peers. Typically they will meet outside school for a shared activity “but this isn’t about just kicking around a football” says Tim Fawssett, The Feast’s CEO. The idea is to kickstart conversations about faith. “Interfaith work today is gritty,” says Fawssett. It doesn’t shy away from awkward questions: “We want them to disagree peacefully. When a Christian says the only way to heaven is through Jesus and a Muslim alongside them says the same about heaven and Allah, it is awkward but rewarding.”

Such encounters clear up ignorance. Fawssett mentions Christian boys from a working-class parish with English Defence League supporters whose experience of meeting Muslim boys — “they weren’t scary” — led women from their church to start a women’s project with a local mosque. “Our Muslim workers like saying to young people ‘do you know any Christians?’ They often say ‘yes, we go to school with white people,’ and the workers say ‘but are they Christian?’, ” says Fawssett. Misconceptions often include that Lady Gaga is Christian and that Christians don’t pray or fast. Muslims, in contrast, suffer from being lumped together as extremists. Statistics from the 2011 Census show that the number of Muslims being born in Birmingham (97,099) now outstrips the number of Christians (93,828). On top of that are 54,343 babies registered of no religion.

How and where will they all mingle in later life? Many young Muslims, obeying a hadith or teaching about shunning places where alcohol is sold or consumed, avoid pubs. Will art centres, as Mohammed Ali proposes, become an alternative meeting space?

Easy answers may be lacking, but what is clear, amid such complexity, is that interfaith relations are a necessity. “Interfaith week is a bonus,” concludes Bishop Urquhart. “Here we see interfaith relations as a daily habit and part of civic life.”

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