Thursday, June 19, 2008

Christians and Muslims witness to faith

I attended a conference today in a hotel down the Bay, organised by the Provincial Church and Society officer Robin Morrison, under the title 'Fear, Democracy and Religion'. It brought together a good mix of Muslim and Christian participants - fifty in all. We listened to Western Mail chief reporter Martin Shipton speak first on media perceptions (for which read stereotypes) of Christianity, and then in the afternoon, on Islam.

Round table conversations were warm, lively, interesting and insightful, revealing the extent to which both Muslims and Christian both experience the same sense of assault, recognising what is being alleged about them, but again, not recognising this as the whole of their experience of their faith or each others' faith. Inevitably the question frequently arose about whose interests were being served by the popular press in particular, in their often inflammatory and anxiety driven sensationalist reporting. The shared experience indicated that the truth lived out by people in their faith communities was significantly different from the perception. It was also recognised how much better both Christians and Muslims have to be at communicating with outsiders about their real values and experiences, and learning how to set the agenda instead of always reacting and being on the defensive.

I was particularly impressed by some of the young Muslims participating, born and bred in the UK and seemingly untroubled with questions of identity - comfortable in maintaining their faith and lifestyle - taking the same permission as their contemporaries in daring to be different, but choosing to do so by not following the herd, but rather rejoicing in being what their faith was helping them to be.

One man, about my age recounted how his daughter had grown up as the sole Muslim child in her mixed peer group at school, quite at ease living with the differences among them. There was no compulsion at home for her to wear the hijab, and eventually she went off to university not accustomed to wearing one. When she returned home, however, she was wearing one - her own choice, and without pressure from anyone. What had changed? Well, I can speculate, reflecting on my experience, growing up as a conventional church attender and going off to university back in the swinging sixties.

It was a world of questioning, and freedom to experiment, of getting to know worlds other than the one I'd been brought up in. Every day seemed to pose afresh the question 'Who are you?'. I certainly got teased for being Welsh in an English university, just as others were teased for being Greek or Scots or ex-public school. I also got teased for getting up and going to church on Sundays, whether or not I'd had a wild night out on Saturday, and was often challenged to defend the Christian position in a context where most people were fashionably atheist.

This was where I really discovered how much sound Christian teaching I had absorbed from sermons at the Parish Communion, how much it all made sense, and how much fun I had, not merely defending myself, but asserting the faith I held as a young scientist who had mercifully never entertained the literal fundamentalist beliefs that the 'cultured despisers' insisted I must believe in. Within a year, my lifetime's vocation to be an advocate of the Gospel of Christ, and a minister of religion into the bargain had emerged tentatively - much to my own surprise.

I don't imagine that the university world of challenge and debate has changed much in forty years. So if young people arrive with a sound and healthy grounding in their faith and find themselves challenged, and find their identity is questioned deeply, there is a very good prospect that they will rise to the occasion, and come home stronger and more confident and willing to stand out for being who they are. Thus, the donning of the hijab, rather than being the sign of 'radicalisation' or 'extremism' beloved of media neurotics, is an affirmation, an assertion of confidence in what a person has received from family and community. Some people from religious backgrounds, whatever their faith, don't grow up in a healthy loving environment, experience oppression and find their ideas of faith too brittle to sustain criticism. They may abandon faith completely, or succumb to the suggestions of the violent and become a danger to themselves and others, but this is exceptional, and not that hard to spot.

Thank God we are not handicapped like our gallic or turkish euro neighbours to want to enforce 'equality' by refusing people the right to show who they are in the signs of faith they wear. Yes, it may well be cultural, but this is about a culture of confidence in the gift of faith received and affirmed. But the freedom and tolerance we enjoy is precious, it needs protecting by recognising when it is in danger of being abused by sick and manipulative people, whether they are religiously or politically driven. Freedom means debate and challenge - challenge to anything that devalues humanity, that advocates violent short cuts to solve deeply difficult problems. Easier said than done, but always worth the effort.

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