The Left

A Different Discourse

This is a guest post by Fiyaz Mughal. It was given tonight at the Kinloss Learning Centre / Synagogue in North London

My friends. It’s wonderful to be here today and I am honoured to be invited. I bring a message of hope today, but first of all I want to impress upon you how important it is to keep hoping. So before I tell you how I have been seeking to promote a healthier discourse between Jews and Muslims, let me remind you what is at stake.

We’re all familiar with the historic faultlines in the relationship between Jews and Muslims, and it may take an effort for us to tear ourselves away from those quarrels and look at what’s happening around us – but we must do it. The fact is this: the Far Right is slowly gaining electoral ground in Britain, as it is across Europe. Intolerance and bigotry is creeping in under other names, like patriotism and a narrow concern with one’s own people to the exclusion of all else. The irony is that both Jews and Muslims are in a unique position to know how damaging such attitudes can be – we see the consequences played out in Gaza and the West Bank every day. Now in Britain we are facing a similar set of attitudes, except this time we’re all targets.

British Muslims, British Jews and tolerant British liberals of any faith and none must have a clear answer to this Far Right threat. We must be able to show up bigotry and intolerance for what they are – and we can’t do that if we are prey to them ourselves. We must be able to offer our young people a course of action they can take if they are concerned about bigotry and intolerance directed against them. Otherwise they may take courses of action offered to them by extremists. In short, our answer to prejudice and bigotry can only be clear if we are ourselves engaged in a peaceable, co-operative and productive discourse, one which works to secure not only peace and productivity between Jews and Muslims, but in our society as a whole.

So what are the obstacles to our progress? I believe they could be summed up in one word – fear. The politics of fear shapes the discourse between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East and over the last few years it has also threatened to shape our discourse here in Britain. We have seen the growth of negative stereotyping and a the birth of a climate of suspicion. If the measure of a civilised society is how it treats its minorities, we in Britain are at risk of going backwards. I don’t believe we should agonise and blame ourselves for this – the politics of fear is partly about the responses of individuals but it’s also about expediency for governments. The politics of fear is useful to politicians – it is not the domain of one side or one community. All sides in the Middle East and our own government in the UK has at some time, in some way, thrived on the politics of fear. Politicians and their PR men look to fear to gain the party advantage, and the press look for the negative angle to sell more papers. And so the truth – the hopeful truth – suffers.

That truth is that things can change. The best decisions are made free from fear. We must emancipate ourselves from fear in order to make good decisions. I believe there’s a paradox at the heart of the conflict between Jews and Muslims and that is that everything is couched as if the problems are fixed, eternal, as if people can never change their minds. And yet we know things do change. All of us know that Middle Eastern politics are not static – they are constantly changing and fast moving. Once you accept what you know in your heart, that people and even states can change, then you must accept that things can change for the better.

So how can we pursue hopeful change? I’m not going to talk to you about politicians today. I want to talk about what you and I and people like us can do and contribute to. The most obvious way is simple dialogue itself. For the last three years I have been the director of Interfaith, a not-for-profit initiative which seeks to build understanding between Jews and Muslims at home and abroad. In this role I have run programmes, workshops and visits designed to foster debate, promote community volunteering, reduce extremism and bring people back from the brink of violence, back into society. I have seen people change with my own eyes, even people whose views seemed trenchant and fixed.

A lot of what I do (ladies and gentlemen) is informed by events like Limmud’s annual winter conference. We Muslims, I have to say, have some way to go in replicating the success of Limmud’s activities. But we also have a lot to learn from the experiences of you as a community, a community which is integrated and which has become part of the fabric of this country, yet which still has strong cultural and religious values. Values that transcend time and which give a uniqueness to the community. Yet this model of community development and engagement has come at a cost and it has come at the cost of the persecution and pogroms committed against Jews here within the UK and throughout Russia, the Baltic States and who can forget, Europe itself. We all have to recognize that within and beyond faith communities.

But creating a new discourse between Jews and Muslims is about more than cultural events and ideological discussion, as valuable as those things are. It is also about the nuts and bolts of life in our shared communities. Persistent warfare and unrest has led to the total economic dislocation of the West Bank and a collapsing economic situation in Gaza. This benefits no-one and all our efforts, Jew and Muslim alike, can be directed towards projects designed to address this. Right now, civic regeneration programmes are underway in the Palestinian territories. Some of these are truly inspiring, both in the hope they offer to the citizens who live there and in the example they set of Judaico-Muslim cooperation. Just off the coast of the Palestinian territories, there are gas reserves which cannot be tapped by Palestinian expertise as it currently stands. However, a project is underway to upskill Palestinian engineers to make the most of this natural resource. This project is funded by a Jewish philanthropist. So even in the heart of the crucible, there is hope. Not only is it important to develop areas that have no economic future, it is also the best way to ensure that both countries, Israel and Palestine, see the future through shared mutual financial and logistical co-operation. It might sound prosaic, but I have never been so sure as I am now, that peace will not come through the barrel of a gun, but through strengthened economies and mutual trading co-operation. Workaday economic solutions to what we are accustomed to thinking of as intractable ideological problems.

We can support our relatives and co-religionists in the Middle East on projects like these, but we can also replicate them here. Judaism and Islam share a tremendous sense of civic pride, social justice and responsibility and these can be tapped into. Often our young people are crying out for opportunities for productive, fun and economically useful opportunities. The voluntary sector, which I work in, provides these to some extent. But I believe we could be tapping this resource more effectively. Our religions already provide the desire to do good, we just need outlets. Cooperation isn’t always easy. Some of you may know about the synagogue and mosque which stand side-by-side in Fieldgate Street, Whitechapel. Many Imams and Rabbis over the years have nurtured excellent relations between the two places of worship and have even sought to provide guided tours of both buildings to the public as part of the same experience. The only snag with this excellent plan has been the great difficulty in finding a regular day which isn’t either a holy day or a fast day or a feast day in either religious calendar and when both mosque and synagogue can be open. But the hope is all, this is the kind of project I would like to see in every community.

These are not just nice-sounding ideas. A culturally and economically robust community is good for everyone. It means more prosperity, less risk of extremism, an end to entrenched disadvantage. We British Jews and Muslims are in a unique position to provide this robustness to our communities. We both have a past as immigrant peoples. We both bring a new perspective and new ideas. If we can harness our sense of religious identity for positive ends and defy the politics of fear, I believe that we will not only achieve great things in our communities in this country, but we will set an inspiring example to our friends, families and peoples in troubled and divided societies around the world. They need our help in reminding them to keep hoping. The new discourse must be economic and prosaic as much as cultural and ideological – because if we give ourselves common goals, we give ourselves the hope of overcoming our differences.