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
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
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.