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Building community over tea

31 May 2013

One response to renewed religious tensions was to offer hospitality, argues James Black


Community cohesion: the tea party at York Mosque on Sunday

Community cohesion: the tea party at York Mosque on Sunday

AFTER the brutal murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich last week, there have been a number of rallies across the country organised by the English Defence League (EDL) - and counter- demonstrations by others. But the reaction in York was different. In response to Twitter rumours of an EDL march, a counter-extremism tea party was organised at the York Mosque and Islamic Centre, explicitly stating: "York Mosque welcomes anyone who condemns extremist violence."

Those who turned up for tea came from a wide variety of backgrounds. There was a strong student presence: the Student Union President from the University of York, Kallum Taylor, said: "Our university is international and diverse, and it is important to uphold that, in the University and across the city."

Various university faith-groups sent representatives, including the Islamic, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Quaker Societies. The University's Anglican Chaplain, the Revd Rowan Clare Williams, and the Priest-in-Charge of St Lawrence's, which is across the street from the mosque, the Revd Tim Jones, also attended.

Among the members of the public there were Muslims, Christians, atheists, agnostics, young and old, men and women. Some came to show their support, others just to find out more. Almost all lived within a short distance of the mosque.

THE crucial part of this event is the word "rumour". The EDL did not issue a statement calling for a march; there was no official organisation of the demonstration, and only four protesters actually turned up. But, in response, about 100 people came for tea and biscuits at the mosque.

Many of these people had, on paper, little in common, and little reason to ever meet each other - yet they all felt compelled to show support to another part of the community that felt under threat.

The traditional image of community as a small village parish, where everyone knows everyone, and the vicar shares endless cups of tea with his parishioners, has, of course, been long gone, if it ever existed. But that does not mean that there are not still communities in our towns and cities. It speaks volumes that, when this often-invisible community is threatened, so many people come out of the woodwork to defend it.

What is equally important is how the defence of the community is achieved - and what exactly is being defended. It is tempting to ask who was being the more English: those drinking tea, or those waving a St George's flag? There is, however, something deeper at work on both sides.

As soon as the four EDL demonstrators arrived, the imam, Sheikh Abid Salik, went over to offer them tea. There was some discussion, but in the end, the offer of tea won. They entered the mosque site, and had a chat over a cuppa. The "us v. them" mentality was broken as soon as interaction was made.

It is easy for each side to demonise the other: saying either that Islam is a violent religion that breeds extremism; or that the EDL are mindless skinheads who want to cause trouble. Both assertions are wrong.

In response to anger and unrest, the imam offered tea and biscuits, and a chance to talk. Equally, when the threshold had been crossed, and conversation started flowing, the EDL supporters made it clear that they were deeply concerned about what they perceived to be a threat to the community - new people coming from a different culture, which gave little chance for them to voice their concerns without being shouted down as racist.

If the only time someone hears the term "Muslim" is on the news, in conjunction with the words "terrorist attack", is it any wonder that they are scared for their community? Often, they have little chance or reason to meet a Muslim face to face; so the idea of there being a parallel "other" community is easily propagated. It is easier to be vehemently against someone you have never met, and (as is shown in The Great Gatsby) fantasy is often more vivid and powerful than reality.

The problem of shouting down also fuels this. If people feel threatened by an incoming "other", and they speak of their concerns, only to be shouted at and marginalised, it can come as no surprise that they feel more disillusioned and alienated, and quickly it becomes a vicious circle. "Before they arrived, I was proud to be English, but now that makes me a racist," they say.

I BELIEVE that there are three important messages to take away from this event. First, community is not dead. There is a strong community, in York at least, and in many other places, which people are very willing to defend.

This community transcends generational, cultural, and religious boundaries. The EDL, rather than all being mindless thugs, are concerned about a perceived threat to this community from outside. Others are concerned about the dangers of the prejudice that the EDL appears to embody. In both cases, community is something to be defended to the last.

Second, contrary to the images that media often portrays, the forces of cohesion are stronger than those of disunity. In York at any rate, the number of those showing solidarity far outweighed those challenging it. This speaks volumes about what the Great British public really thinks.

Third, and possibly most significantly, the solution to the challenges posed by multiculturalism is not to shout at a problem until it goes away. It is not to march, or demonstrate. It is to sit down, have a cup of tea, get to know one another, and have an honest chat about our concerns. In the end, the communities built on friendship and openness will always be the strongest.

James Black chairs the University of York Anglican Society. He is a second-year undergraduate, studying history.

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