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Interview: Catriona Robertson, director, Christian Muslim Forum

25 September 2015

‘Many difficulties dissolve once people get to know one another’

My job involves anything from releasing doves of peace at a Muslim festival to appearing on radio shows, supporting young people’s initiatives, scrutinising government policy, liaising with bishops and Muslim scholars, visiting forum partners — and watching out for straws in the wind.


The Christian Muslim Forum (CMF) builds relationships between Christians and Muslims, in the flesh and online, individually and institutionally. We’re nearly ten years old, and have a 5000-strong Facebook group. We travel to Jerusalem and to Bosnia in mixed groups, we support church mosque twinning, and we have a women’s network. We tackle difficult issues, produce resources, and make public statements, but we also do simple things, like making bread together.


There’s a great diversity of expression within Christianity — and within Islam — and CMF supports a wide range of people who want to explore positive links, or who are struggling with any aspect of Christian-Muslim relations. We’ve produced “Ethical Guidelines for Witness”, which are always in high demand: Christians and Muslims must be free to share their faith, and this list of dos and don’ts has been compiled by people from both traditions.


We provide spaces for Christian and Muslim leaders, academics, and scholars to meet, as well as supporting local community initiatives. We have a huge network of people actively engaged in Christian-Muslim relations who are experts in their own patch; so we’re the national go-to organisation for information, advice, and support for bilateral work.


Given the current level of pressure on British Muslims, British Christians — and particularly the Church of England — have an opportunity to build bridges, improve understanding, and be good neighbours. How can we respond coherently to the killing of Lee Rigby, to the rise in anti-Muslim hate crime, to young people leaving the UK to fight in Syria and Iraq, to threats to religious freedom, if we don’t know our Muslim neighbours?


We won’t agree on important tenets of our respective religions, but we do care about how we live together.


The Archbishop of Canterbury is our founding patron. We’re funded by Christian and Muslim organisations and individuals, including several dioceses. The Forum’s a partner in the Government’s Near Neighbours Programme, operating through the Church Urban Fund and local parish churches.


I’ve been involved in grass-roots multifaith and peace-building activity since before 9/11, and convene the London Boroughs Faiths Network. After the London bombs, I was involved in the recovery of my fractured local community. Before then, I worked in the bustees [slums] of Kolkata for a French NGO, and worked in the South Pacific.


Asserting that the vast majority of both Muslims and Christians want to co-exist peacefully is one thing, but working out how this can be done and actually doing it is another, and this is what attracts me to the work. I want to see change.


God’s presence, in the form of hope and creativity, can be felt particularly among young Christians and Muslims taking the lead in peace-building.


I’m not a theologian. I read psychology, with some economics, fine art, and philosophy thrown in. But I meet remarkable people, and enjoy crunchy discussions on religion, values — why things are as they are, and how they could be better. I’ve been a churchwarden, lay chair of deanery synod, and elected to diocesan synod; so I know a bit about how the Church works.


I often ask people where they come from, the significance of their name, what matters to them. I approach religion sideways as well as head-on: Judaism through klezmer music, Islam through architecture and calligraphy, and both through good company and food. A Habib Koité song is my ringtone. My bookshelves have plenty on religion, but also the Jerusalem cookbook, Eastern Mediterranean travel guides, world histories, and a great many maps.


Many difficulties dissolve once people get to know one another. We begin to understand our neighbours or colleagues as real human beings with much the same concerns as us. It’s not always necessary to agree in order to have good relationships.


The intersection of religion with race, gender, and class makes things more complex but far more interesting. Religion is more than a set of beliefs. Being a Muslim or being a Christian is to identify yourself with a living community, a history, and a heritage. Bosnian Muslims weren’t massacred because of their piety; Christians in the Middle East suffer regardless of their prayer life; Nazis killed Jews whether they went to synagogue or not.


Hatred often comes from fear. European history is littered with what happens when fear grows, and hate-crime against Muslims and Jews is on the rise.


Below the radar, there is plenty of peace-building, anti-discrimination work, and friendship between Christians and Muslims — between scholars, clerics, community groups, and religious organisations. A recent fire in a London Islamic centre prompted the church next door to offer its hall for Muslim prayers and social occasions.


Medieval Iberia and Sicily are historical examples of imperfect but peaceful co-existence, and I often hear positive stories from places like Guyana and East Africa. Conflict is by no means inevitable, and, on the whole, the UK does very well. My favourite passage from the Qur’an (49.13) says that God intentionally made us different “so that you might get to know one another”. As Christians, we are called to love and care for our neighbour, not just our Christian neighbour.


My hope is that British Muslims will be fully accepted into society at every level. Christians are by far the biggest religious community in this country; so we’ve a great op-portunity to enable that.


I was born in the Highlands of Scotland. My father was the Church of Scotland minister of Dunkeld Cathedral. People from every level of society came in and out of the manse all day, every day. Later on, my parents moved to the Scots Kirk in Paris, and I headed off to India.


My husband and I were married in St Giles’s Cathedral in Edinburgh. We now live in London with our son, who’s an ancient historian. Our daughter, Phoebe, has left home, but still pops round.


From early childhood, I’ve felt at home in religious buildings and sacred spaces, where distractions fall away. I’ll often step into a church, temple, or mosque if I’m passing. Bedtime prayers are another early memory. My father was sure that God loves all of us, no matter what, and I picked up on that.


The Student Christian Movement was great for students in my day: fierce discussions on pacifism and social justice. In India and in the South Pacific, I sometimes worshipped with the Quakers, and I’ve been influenced by their recognition of “something of God” in each person.


Islam is a very practical religion. I like the way Muslims fill up the lines for prayer in a mosque, no gaps. Everyone stands shoulder to shoulder even if they’ve never met before. Imagine if we filled the pews that way?


My daughter and I have a plan to travel along the Silk Road. My involvement with the European Network on Religion and Belief takes me around the Continent. I’m also happy on long train journeys, meeting strangers, exploring ancient cities. Damascus to Tehran was one of the best, but even the night sleeper to Inverness is an adventure.


Pinned to the kitchen wall is something from Howard Thurman: “Do not ask what the world needs, ask what brings you alive and do that, because what the world needs is people who are alive.”


Laughter is my favourite sound, with the sound of a kettle coming to the boil. I attend far too many meetings, but if they break into laughter, things can’t be so bad.


I’m always ridiculously happy, considering we live together, to bump into my husband unexpectedly on the street.


I am very thankful, and express this in prayer. I also keep silence. Shared silence can be very powerful. I pray for insight, for courage, for a glimpse of what could be, and for the healing of the nations. At times of crisis I turn to the Psalms.


I’d choose to be locked in a church with Moses Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish scholar and physician, who worked with Muslim and Christian intellectuals in Córdoba, Fes, and Egypt. Those must have been exciting times.


Catriona Robertson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Catriona@christianmuslimforum.org; Twitter @multifaith.

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