I wrote this piece in early 2014, based on new year thoughts. It was published on the Christian Muslim Forum website. A matter of trust. I don't think I ever posted it on my old blog, which was in a state of disrepair. (Reminder to self. It still is!)
In the light of the continuing questions in Prevent, the UK government's counter extremism and terror legislation, I think it's worth posting again and here. It's trust we need in our complex super diverse community. And if government legislation creates distrust in the very area we need the greatest trust, it is not fit for purpose. Read on.
Like many I’m sure I spent New Year’s Eve reflecting on the year past, the year ahead, and the family, friends and colleagues that I am privileged to share my life with. Family were around me, but my Facebook post to those I couldn’t be with was this:
“Not sure what 2014 holds, and if I'm honest I'm inclined not to be positive about it, but I know one thing - I will continue to find great joy in standing with many of you in the task to see more love and less hatred, more friendship and less enmity, more peace and less conflict.”
This was not just empty New Year’s sentiments. I really meant it! As a church based interfaith worker in Luton, with a focus on community peace-building and reconciliation, and working mainly in Muslim – Christian relations, life has been busy these past few years, but in the midst of the challenges I have made some wonderful friends in all of our communities here, as well as around the nation as we have stood together against hatred. Messages of mutual appreciation quickly came back, and I went to sleep “feeling the love” as they say!
Waking on New Year’s Day I looked over more replies, but my attention was grabbed by a post on the Christian Muslim Forum’s Facebook page, “Muslim informants lauded for helping keep England safe from terrorists.” While there was nothing essentially new in the article it somehow upset the sense of wellbeing that I had been feeling at the beginning of a new year. More importantly I actually felt a little anger, that it once again exposed an issue that has been a matter of great concern among us, especially Muslim friends and colleagues. It underlined my sense of concern expressed in my post of the night before, and got me thinking. A few remarks on the post led to an invitation to write further, hence this piece. It is certainly not a subject I have all the answers on, but one that concerns me greatly, so I hope this will get a conversation going.
I want to set some thoughts on informing in a more positive context. Let me return to my thoughts on New Year’s Eve. The challenges we have faced in Luton since the emergence of the English Defence League (EDL) have meant we have worked very closely together, in the town and beyond, moving beyond courteous relations or the warm feelings felt on visiting a mosque, sharing a meal or spending time with Muslim or Christian friends, important as those things are. Seasons of intense engagement preceded the EDL as well; as a town and nation we have navigated our way past 9-11 and 7-7 as well as a dozen lesser events, by working together, and each time more closely. While attempts to divide the community were real, the effect of working closely together to build peace has drawn us much closer. As a result we have been able to deal with the challenge of terror attacks and EDL demonstrations and more, but we have also been able to begin to work on challenging extremism across the community. It’s only a start, there is a lot more to do, many more people need to get involved, but I would suggest we are a stronger community for it. At the heart of that is something that is essential for a society to work well. Trust.
Trust is an invaluable commodity in a community. It emerges as people develop a shared history and work together for the common good. It is strengthened as they challenge and fight injustice together, oppose hatred (especially of one another), challenge evil, and look out for one another. It is enriched as they come to understand how each other thinks, as they share experiences of pain and joy, as they become vulnerable to one another. Gradually people’s lives become mutually dependent, intertwined, and they cannot imagine life without one another. Mutual respect, care for ones neighbour, and above all trust are the glue that hold a well-functioning community together.
Shared faith obviously strengthens common purpose, relationships and trust, but I suggest that people of different faiths can discover shared values and come to appreciate how each other’s faith makes them better citizens. CMF’s director Julian Bond has reminded us of that this week in his Premier Christian Radio Thought for the Day broadcasts: A New Language: Part 4 - Sharing the Love where he points to the way Muslim scholars have highlighted the importance of love of neighbour in their faith. That “love letter” as Julian calls it, and Christian responses to it, have been very important in our growth together in these past few years. Since Islam is used by some to justify separation, extremism and terror it is so important to have our eyes refocused to the values and ideas we share.
If trust is the glue in society, what happens when we are encouraged to inform on one another? It might be argued that informing on people is the opposite, that it denies trust. Recognising some truth in that, I think we have to see informing as a necessary thing where a greater evil is planned that is the absolute denial of trust. People living in a healthy society that aspires to real integration of its various faith and ethnic communities will have a sense of responsibility for its safety that naturally leads to them passing on appropriately information of possible dangers. That should ideally be true of anyone in that society, whoever is threatened and wherever the danger is coming from. My Muslim friend or neighbour should be protected even if it’s my cousin threatening him. And it obviously goes the other way. I suggest that is a key mark of common citizenship.
However, by contrast people living in a society that is not really integrated will find it much harder to inform on those from their own community. Loyalty to the immediate community is greater than to the whole; trust is held within that immediate community.
Consider the wider impact. Encouraging informing raises levels of suspicion within a community. To outsiders looking on it exaggerate fears and suspicion towards them, and has the potential to tar everyone with the same brush. All these can destroy trust. And that in itself will slow down integration further.
That seems to me to pretty much sum up the impact of the early years of the PREVENT strategy, the government’s approach to preventing violent extremism in the Muslim community that emerged after the terrible events of “7-7”, the July 2005 London bombings. The evils of that day were widely condemned in the Muslim community as not representing them or Islam, and there was unity in calling for work to challenge extremism. Yet the policy that emerged caused deep resentment, and I suggest eroded trust.
I don’t think it’s for me to describe the responses of many in the Muslim community to PREVENT, the sense that they were being spied on, and the fear generated. As a Christian I need to hear that and to understand how it felt. Perhaps we can understand this by looking at a recent issue in relation to the intelligence world. 2013 saw the US and UK among many other nations rocked by the revelations of Edward Snowden of the activity by the United States’ NSA along with UK’s GCHQ in widely monitoring internet traffic. How did we feel about people spying on us? I heard many remarks that spoke of a sense of violation, of insecurity, of the loss of trust. Why do they need to look at me, I’m not a terrorist. If I want to know how my Muslim brothers and sisters feel at the idea of people spying on them I need to look and contemplate how I feel when I’m being spied on.
While I know the need for vigilance in all directions, I also deeply understand the concern at the creation of a culture of fear in a community by continually emphasising the responsibility of people to inform when they are concerned. However just as it is the very small minority of a community we have to look out for, we need to ensure that it’s a small portion of our efforts that focus on efforts to encourage informing. The majority effort should be towards increasing trust in every direction. That’s where Christian Muslim Forum comes in. Its invaluable work in building bridges is resulting in increased trust between our communities.
In summary, my concern when I read the article on people informing contrasted with the trust I was communicating and experiencing the night before. I suggest there is a lesson for us there. We all want to live knowing that those around us honour us, trust us, care for us, will go out of their way to speak up for us. Calling people to inform on their community may be an unfortunate necessity, but let’s make sure it is set in the context of a growing trust between us.
Let’s have a good and fruitful 2014, and do all we can to build increased trust between us!
And I'd say the same in 2017!