Interfaith dialogue requires us to embrace difference

Interfaith dialogue must embrace difference in order to be succesful, argues HA Hellyer

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, at the General Synod at Church House in London. Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images
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Earlier this month, a prayer service held by Muslims was conducted in a London church. This week, the local vicar apologised for the “great consternation” and for “any offence” caused. The event and its aftermath, however, goes far beyond the actual service itself, and shows how many people in the West view Muslims with suspicion.

The Anglican Church is today fortunate to have Justin Welby as its head as Archbishop of Canterbury. It was under his stewardship that a Muslim addressed the Church of England Synod late last year. Fuad Nahdi, a Kenyan-Briton, eloquently engaged in a discussion with Mr Welby on the suffering of religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, noting that Muslims had suffered greatly at the hands of ISIL.

It is ironic that a few months later, as part of the response to Muslims praying in the Church of England building in London, others from within the church would respond with such vigour.

Indeed, Fr Martin Hislop of St Luke’s in Kingston said: “At a time when Christian men, women and children are being slaughtered in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria and elsewhere ... it is a scandal and an offence that a clergyman of the Church of England should embrace an act of Islamic worship in a consecrated building.”

Fr Hislop is no doubt within his rights to reject the use of a Church of England building for any type of religious worship outside his own. Not all religious traditions will admit the validity of other faiths.

Nor will all traditions uphold the notion that tolerance necessarily means the holding of religious services within consecrated buildings of other religions.

Indeed, not all faiths have that notion of consecration at all. While Muslims might point to the Prophet Mohammed allowing Christians of Najran to carry out their religious rituals in his own mosque, not all have the same viewpoint – and it would be unlikely that Christians might do the same today. Indeed, while the United Arab Emirates encourages the construction of churches for its Christian residents, not all countries in the GCC do the same.

However, this episode in London goes far beyond notions of religious tolerance and interfaith cooperation.

Such relations do not require some kind of multi-faith unity. Indeed, some might argue that genuine interfaith relations requires the recognition that religions are unique and different.

In that light, had the Church rejected the suggestion that Muslims could use consecrated ground for their prayer service, one could not claim this was automatically intolerance.

The real concern, however, is how the objection following the service was expressed. Linking it to the episode with the deaths of Christians internationally by extremists, serves only one purpose. That is to somehow hold Muslim Britons responsible for the sins and crimes of their co-religionists thousands of kilometres away.

It’s a deeply concerning trend – one that goes far beyond this particular incident.

The rise of ISIL has allowed for all kinds of destructive conversations – and this discourse has a direct impact on the relations between different British communities. Also in relation to this incident, Gerald Bray of the Latimer Trust, an evangelical Christian think tank, described Islam as “explicitly anti-Christian” and claimed the Prophet Mohammed “concocted” Islam based on elements of Christianity. One would think that similar language regarding Judaism by Christian clerics, or Jewish clerics regarding Christianity, would be rare, if at all present in 21st century Britain.

It is true that the scourge of religious extremism is a threat and a danger to societies around the world – the most recent attack in Tunisia is likely yet another example of that. The response to it, nevertheless, ought never to be the falling into bigotry or sectarian tropes.

At some point the threat of ISIL will end, and society will continue – it’s important to ensure that when that happens, our communities remain part and parcel of an integrated whole. Otherwise, one wonders, won’t ISIL have succeeded in driving us apart?

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer