Leader: Dr Nazir-Ali’s view of Britain

09 January 2008

THE Bishop of Rochester is uniquely placed in the House of Bishops to speak about the experience of Christians as a beleaguered minority in a hostile society, though not by virtue of his see in southern England. His continuing interest in Pakistan has shown him how Christians there are becoming increasingly anxious about the growth of intolerant strains of Islam. As a global observer, he is inclined to take the “clash of cultures” view of the relationship between Islam and the West, and the treatment of Christians in the Indian subcontinent and parts of the Middle East contributes to this view.

There are several surprising aspects about his attempt, in a newspaper article, to place the British situation in this context. It is perhaps unfair to criticise him for what he did not say: Dr Nazir-Ali tends to need a larger canvas to develop his views. None the less, there were three elements missing from his article which might have tempered the glee with which his comments about no-go areas were seized on in some quarters. The first was any reference to moderate Islam. Muslim adherence ranges from secularism to extremism, with a large clump of moderates in the middle. What they lack is a rhetoric with which to express their religious views, especially while the influx of imams from overseas continues.

Second, in his concentration on religion, Dr Nazir-Ali plays down other, more important factors that contribute to segegration. Traditionally, the clustering of immigrants has been based on ethnicity rather than religion. It is possible that the desire to be near a place of worship, mosque, temple, or synagogue has had a growing influence, but language remains the deciding factor in inhibiting the spread of first-generation immigrants. If non-Muslims feel uncomfortable in certain areas (the Bishop does not specify who shares this feeling), it is far more to do with language and appearance than with religious beliefs.

This leads on to the third omission. Dr Nazir-Ali does not feel the need to temper his praise of “the nation’s laws, values, customs, and culture”. The successful assimilation of newcomers depends on the readiness of the host nation to accept individuals from alien cultures. It is, moreover, a gospel imperative. He cites black-majority churches and Eastern European Roman Catholics as the salvation of certain cities; yet they, too, have struggled against British prejudice. It is this that most prevents immigrant communities’ absorbing British laws, values, customs, and culture. And it is this that, in most instances, feeds a fear of certain neighbourhoods when the balance of the population leans too heavily in one direction.

A final surprise in the Bishop’s article is the depressed view of British Christianity he puts forward. Evangelicalism generally encourages an optimistic, confident outlook. If Dr Nazir-Ali looked more closely at many of the church-mosque initiatives begun after 9/11, he might regain his cheerfulness. Instead of attempting to emulate John the Baptist, he might see that Britain was not yet a wilderness.

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