EARLIER THIS YEAR, The Times carried a story under the headline:
“Muslim Apostates cast out and at risk from faith and family”.
One estimate says that 200,000 Muslims have left the practice of their
faith. A proportion of them are converts to Christianity. Among them are Nissar
Hussein and his wife Kubra, who are now living in Bradford. They claim that
they and their family have been the victims of violence and religious hatred
for three years, since their adoption of the Christian faith.
In the days after the Times’s story, the local Bradford daily, the
Telegraph & Argus, asked, “Are the public institutions of
multifaith Bradford doing enough to support the victims of such practices?” It
described the plight of the Hussein family as being “both outrageous and
Looking behind the headlines, we need to ask whether Christians and Muslims
are able to go beyond the formulaic pleasantries of interfaith relations, and
engage in a substantive dialogue about religious freedom and tolerance. The
story behind this case suggests one answer.
THE TRUST that has been built up over a quarter of a century meant it was
natural for the Bishop of Bradford to call a meeting for Christians and members
of the Bradford Council for Mosques (BCM) to discuss Mr Hussein’s situation.
The BCM has been working for 20 years to ensure that it can speak for as
many mosque communities as possible. Meetings with successive bishops, drawing
together an ecumenical spread of Christian interfaith workers, have become part
of a network of relationships that bridge religious and ethnic divides in
Before meeting the Bishop, various spokesmen for the BCM had shown courage
in unequivocally condemning the intimidation of the Hussein family. Ishtiaq
Ahmed, the BCM’s information officer, said: “As a minority in this country, we
ask for protection from abuse and persecution. We should be doing that for
others, too. We cannot have double standards.”
When the Muslim leaders met the Bishop, they remarked that they could not
unilaterally police disaffected young men outside the orbit of the mosques.
However, the president of the BCM had already given pledges to the Hussein
family that they would make available members of the community to keep an eye
on the church when they worshipped.
Further, he spoke of how Manningham, where the church and the mosque are
both located, has a drug problem. Young men also steal shoes and mobile phones
from Muslims at prayer, as well as trying to disrupt their worship at the
Two important developments emerged. The first was to arrange a meeting with
the police and the youth service, to see whether we could all develop
inter-agency strategies that might offer both practical support to the Hussein
family and engage disaffected young men (the latter being a problem for all
The second outcome, a suggestion that came from the BCM leaders, was that we
meet some respected Islamic scholars in the city. Their opinions would add
weight to the pronouncements of the BCM.
SO IT WAS that Anglican and Roman Catholic interfaith advisers sat with
members of the BCM and Muslim religious teachers, including Syeed Irfan Shah
Mashadi, a respected traditional scholar with a following in Pakistan and
Syeed Mashadi was at pains to outline to us the commonalities between
“People of the Book” and Muslims, cousins in the “Abrahamic community”. He
rehearsed episodes from the Prophet’s life that reflected his respect for
He made a plea that there be a regular pattern of such meetings. We agreed
that too often Islam and the West perpetuated mutual misconceptions.
Contentious subjects such as jihad are rarely traced into the spiritual heart
of Islam to elaborate their true meaning.
Much common ground emerged: Christians and Muslims alike have
responsibilities to educate their communities in the ethical norms of their
traditions. Sadly, what goes on at street level often bears little relationship
to either tradition. Syeed Mashadi, a dignified leader, had himself fallen foul
of anti-Islamic taunts in Britain. He emphasised that he did not confuse such
actions with authentic Christianity.
He stated that British Muslims who left Islam should be free from
persecution. Even in a Muslim-majority society, it is public authorities that
deal with “apostates”, not individuals taking the law into their own hands, he
said. Anyone breaking the law in Britain by attacking those who left Islam
could not look to Islam to justify such inexcusable behaviour.
Such clarifications of the situation facing an “apostate” were welcome. What
also emerged, however, was the need to explain how and why Christians have come
to value religious freedom. Too often, we can unwittingly give the impression
that such a position suggests an indifference to religious truth.
Two positive gains emerged from these meetings: first, a commitment by
mosque and church to working together locally with other agencies to engage
disaffected young men; second, a willingness to explore our different histories
and theologies, which translate into distinct attitudes to those who leave an
Dr Philip Lewis is interfaith adviser to the Bishop of Bradford. David
Jackson is interfaith co-ordinator for the RC diocese of Leeds.