Can ‘apostate’-abuse be stopped?

02 November 2006

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 shaming”.

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 Bradford.

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 mosque.

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 communities).

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 Britain.

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 Christians.

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 inherited faith.

Dr Philip Lewis is interfaith adviser to the Bishop of Bradford. David Jackson is interfaith co-ordinator for the RC diocese of Leeds.

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