Festivals/Seasons & Holy Days

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Christians and Muslims live side by side in so many different settings around the world, and around Britain, and in each the opportunities they share and the challenges they face will be different. The story I tell here is of a few days in the life of a community in South East London which found itself suddenly exposed to the unrelenting glare of national and world media after a brutal murder.

The patterns of Christian-Muslim encounter which sustained us through those days were rooted in a long and deep history of friendly engagement; for me, that reinforces the point that behind every interaction there lies an unspoken history, good or bad, of memories, expectations and preconceptions. The story also shows how the engagement of Christians and Muslims nowadays always takes place in the presence of third, or fourth, fifth or sixth parties: people living in the secular society of contemporary Britain; people in other parts of the world where relations may be fiercely contested; people charged with a concern for the peace and security of our cities; people in the media who may have their own particular agendas. It is with these last that I begin.

‘Are you from the BNP?’ That was the disconcerting question I was asked by a journalist on the evening of Wednesday, 22 May 2013, as I arrived at the mosque in Woolwich. Earlier that day, Drummer Lee Rigby had been cruelly and publicly murdered on the South Circular Road a few hundred yards away in the town. I had gone first to see our local parish priest, then to speak with him to the reporters and cameras massed at the police barrier outside the vicarage, then to make contact with my friend Tariq Abbasi at the mosque. News had spread that the BNP was planning to protest outside the mosque that evening, hence the reporter’s question to me. I explained to him that I was the Bishop of Woolwich and not a BNP member. ‘Are you from the English Defence League?’ he asked hopefully, pointing to the pectoral cross round my neck. I assured him that I was not.’ What are you doing here, then?’ he demanded. ‘I have come to see my friend Tariq, to see if he is all right’, I said, and we then had a useful conversation about the patterns of community response which were already beginning to emerge following this appalling incident.

It is not surprising that the first, and always dominant, reaction was one of great sadness and profound shock; sadness at the death of a young man, shock at the brutality of his killing. Woolwich is a town where military and civilian life is intertwined, and people across the town felt the pain of Lee Rigby’s murder in a very immediate way. This was as true of Muslims as of everybody else; indeed, the Muslim community’s relations with the troops stationed in Woolwich are particularly close, with youngsters from the mosque regularly practising football on the barracks’ sports grounds. Muslims in Woolwich were entirely caught up in the grief which afflicted all in the town. Over the next few weeks, in full sight of the world’s press, people from Woolwich and beyond laid masses of flowers and other mementoes around the site of the murder and at the gates of the barracks, and offered prayers, condolences and tributes in memory of Lee Rigby and in sympathy with his family and colleagues. Many of these events were carefully arranged to include visible representation of people from all different parts of the community.

One of the most memorable that I attended was a vigil in the parish church of St Mary Magdalene, with participation from Christians and Muslims, people of all faiths and none, children and adults, soldiers and civilians, in word, music, silence, and the lighting of candles.

Of course, events like this were taking part across the UK during this period; what particularly marked the way Woolwich responded was its deliberately local character. There was resistance to attempts to use this particular incident to make wider points about the state of British society, or the world, or inter faith relations. This was most obvious in the disdain with which most people viewed the efforts of first the British National Party and then the English Defence League to generate anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant reactions to the incident. Linked to this, there has been some annoyance at the abbreviated use of ‘Woolwich’ to indicate this particular incident, and its supposed repercussions. ‘What comes next after Woolwich?’ people ask me sometimes; and my reply is: ‘It depends in which direction you’re travelling. Going east, it’s Plumstead, going west it’s Charlton’. Woolwich is not the name of an event which caught the attention of the media; it is the name of a vibrant, diverse and proud town in South East London, and all its citizens – Christians, Muslims and others – want their community to be known for what it is rather than as a shorthand for wider problems. The first rule of Christian-Muslim engagement, for me, is to attend carefully to the particular.

In Woolwich, the reaction that Lee Rigby’s murderers had presumably hoped for did not materialise. People did not, on the whole, start blaming each other, viewing each other with suspicion, or attacking each other physically or verbally. There certainly was a spike in anti-Muslim incidents following 22 May, but this was not particularly the case in Woolwich itself, though there was real anxiety about what might happen. The impression I had was that people took more time to look out for one another, and new friendships were formed across communities as people met one another in shared events, meetings and ceremonies. There are many factors that might help explain this paradoxically positive response to such a potentially divisive incident. One is the notable speed and unambiguous clarity with which the murder was condemned by local Muslim leaders, who clearly were as upset by what had happened as everybody else in Woolwich. Another point to bear in mind is the very restrained, indeed in one sense quite low-key, attitude adopted by the local authority and police, and largely endorsed by church, faith and community leaders; this helped to stop rhetoric around the situation heightening on every side, and so inhibited the development of what has been called ‘cumulative extremism’.

In my opinion, though, the single most important factor was the length and depth of friendly relations in Woolwich between people of different faiths and backgrounds. This goes back a very long way: when the first Muslims arrived in the town after the war, they held their prayers initially in the hall of the local Roman Catholic church. Since that time, many new groups of people have moved into Woolwich, which now hosts a huge diversity of Christian churches, together with (in Woolwich itself and neighbouring Plumstead) a strong presence of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh people. This part of London is by no means without problems; levels of deprivation are high in many neighbourhoods, and there is a continuing problem of violence and insecurity, particularly for young people. However, these challenges have not been allowed to set one part of the community against another. Both at the level of organisational networks like the Greenwich Faith Leaders Forum, and at the level of individual friendships, Woolwich was and is held together by a matrix of relationships so close-woven and deep that it blunts any knife which people may take to try to tear it apart.

Bishop Michael Ipgrave is Bishop of Woolwich in the Southwark Diocese, and bishop-elect of Lichfield. He was awarded the OBE in 2011 for services to interfaith relations in London and has written extensively on interfaith issues and questions of religion and human rights.