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City of Brass

Apologies for the lack of posts this month – I am in Stockholm attending my annual conference. Since Stockholm isn’t Hawai’i, I am here alone, which means I am overly diligent about attendance to compensate for missing my wife and kids. And they charge you to use public toilets here, too.

Being immersed in academia as I am this week, I’m totally and blessedly clueless about what is going on out There. I intend to stay that way. But I did want to share a couple of things. First, the editor at New Humanist Magazine sent me an old link to an essay about young black muslims in Britain after the 2005 bombings. The essay is a fascinating probe into identity, race, and religion, and closes with some observations that are remarkable (and revealing of integrity) for someone who self-identifies as a secular humanist:

At the heart of the appeal of Islam, in Abdul-Rehman Malik’s view, is the fact that it offers a form of community which is beyond race. For those raised within the rigid racial hierarchies of post-colonial Britain, the attraction of a sense of solidarity which refuses to prejudge people based on skin colour is obvious. For D this appears a critical attraction: “Islam is open to anyone, doesn’t matter what colour you are, black, brown, white….”

Certainly there is a sense in all the young men I talk to of a global communal consciousness hardly typical of the average teenager. From comments on the vilifying of Muslims – “when that black boy [Anthony Walker] was killed in Liverpool no-one said it was a group of Christians who did it, or that it shows all white people are murderers” – to the link between the war in Iraq and terrorism – “I think the government are hypocrites, they are the ones stirring it up. They are waging a war for oil. How can they not expect retaliation? I’m not saying that one life is worth more than another but the London bombs have been on the front page for months and you have people dying in Iraq everyday” – they exhibit a healthy, realistic scepticism. Islam is providing them a frame within which to understand domestic racism. “Not everyone in the country is racist, maybe it’s a quarter, maybe half. Its not blatant, but its deep” – and politics together – “the government of this country is Christian, they see a lot of people turning to Islam so they are trying to make it look bad”.

The arguments can be callow, but feel grasped for rather than implanted, and in motion rather than dogmatic. They are engaged in the act of thinking themselves into and through a sense of national and global identity within which they can find dignity and common purpose, values sorely lacking in British youth of any stripe. “What I feel,” concludes D, the group’s most garrulous talker and persuasive rhetorician, “is that if they gave us a chance and stopped trying to beat us down then we would make something of ourselves and show that we can become something.”

It may be time to acknowledge that young people discovering a personal sense of responsibility, an appetite for knowledge and a global sense of commonality might be a good thing, even if they do discover these things within the context of religion. People like D and B, Idris and Karim, have the potential to form a new kind of engaged, moderate, pragmatic political and cultural leadership for British Muslims. If Britain is to deliver on its multicultural promise, their voice needs to be heard.

Indeed, I think part of the reason that the multicultural promise seems to have failed is precisely because the value of religion has been so – ahem, religiously crusaded against by the secular humanists, especially in mainland Europe. It’s refreshing to see a humanist acknowledge the universality of humanism, be it religious or secular.

The other thing I want to note is that I have been sent a review copy of a new book, Between Allah and Jesus: What Christians Can Learn from Muslims I will be reviewing this book with my Christian colleague at Beliefnet, Robert Gelinas. I read most of it on the flight over here and it’s a  very intriguing idea. I look forward to the discussion (not debate) with Robert about the book. I think the value of this kind of discussion (not debate) from the muslim perspective is that it promotes genuine knowledge about each other’s beliefs, without any compromise. It is good for us that we will always respectfully disagree – but we are better served by knowing what precisely we disagree with. As far as what Christians can learn from Muslims, which they can apply authentically towards their own practice of Christianity, of course I won’t be able to comment, but I am eager to see what Robert’s views are in that regard, and look forward to hearing his thoughts.

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