SINCE the terrorist atrocity in Westminster (News, 24 March), and a recently published report on the backgrounds of convicted Islamist-inspired terrorists, it seems that my city, Birmingham, is building itself a reputation as “Terror Central”. It has even been described as a “jihadi hotbed”.
As a parish priest who ministers in inner-city Birmingham, I know that the reality on the ground is far different from the simplistic shorthand that reduces communities to a “type”. Sadly, many in the media are concerned only with the shorthand version.
This was brought home to me a few days before the events in Westminster, when I met a tabloid-newspaper journalist who wanted to find out what it was like for churches in Muslim-majority parts of the city. He probed away at the decline of Anglican churches in our inner cities, how it must be frightening, how we must feel insecure.
Instead, I told him about the hospitality of our Muslim neighbours, and how they refer to the church as “our church” when we gather together for neighbourhood meetings. I told him about the friendships that exist across faiths, the Muslim neighbours who do the shopping for the Christian elderly, the community and mosque leaders caught between their horror at each terrorist atrocity and the tangible Islamophobia that correspondingly ratchets up.
Needless to say, the complexities of our part of the city did not appear in any subsequent newspaper article.
TO ASSIGN shorthand stories to a place or community colludes with the idea that their destiny is inevitable: that the people themselves are incapable of doing anything to change their lot. These myths are as dangerous as the myths of extremists, because they lead to separations and divisions in society.
The trouble is that, in an increasingly polarised society, these myths gather potency. Terrorist extremism as a “Birmingham problem” discharges wider society from any responsibility to question, say, Home Counties privilege. Like that other myth of the “deserving and undeserving poor”, the shorthand merely serves to give the privileged a “Get Out of Jail Free” card from any attention to structural injustice.
Other myths abound, such as “immigrant” and “white outer estate”, where their very utterance conjures up a picture that names, judges, and assigns a position that deepens our respective separations.
It is surely in our job description as churches to be offering a counter-story. These stories should not duck the messy realities of failings within our communities: I am all too aware of the existence of the small minority of Muslims who wish to impose oppressive practices, and those who would seek violent means to do so. The alternative to a myth that uses shorthands for whole communities is not denial, but hope. No person or community or place inevitably fails.
It is a joy to minister in a city with such diversity, where my children are growing up delighting in cross-cultural encounters, and where talk of faith and prayer is normative. It is humbling to be shown hospitality by Muslim neighbours, and to be stretched by the theological challenges that Islam throws at the Christian faith — challenges that require an ever deepening recourse to scripture and the Church’s community of tradition. Somehow, this embrace of difference has made me a better Christian.
THE creaking and spluttering parish system provides one way in which this alternative story can be told. The day-to-day encounters of Christians and Muslims — what the Roman Catholic Church calls the “dialogue of life” — are replayed in Birmingham, Bradford, Blackburn, and across our nation.
If you were to come to our parish church on a Thursday, you would witness about 35 women spending several hours together, doing Zumba, making crafts, eating lunch, and telling stories of faith across Christian and Muslim and other faith boundaries.
The Near Neighbours programme has been a notable government-funded scheme. It generates small-scale projects that draw people of faith into actions for the common good, and friendships that can withstand the acknowledgement of difference. For our Ladies Day event in Sparkbrook, and the participants in Near Neighbours programmes, Christians and Muslims can no longer be ciphers, but are people with names, families, and stories of their own.
Whenever the latest terrorist event hits the news — and these events hit with a depressing regularity that tends to harden collective judgements — one can sense the dismay and anxiety of Muslim neighbours. As part of an alternative story, I would think of the Muslim staff in our church school, who model an openness and generosity in their faith which would make terrorism inconceivable; or the imam whom I know and who regularly reminds his congregation of the path of peace, and the good friends that he has in the church.
When I hear Birmingham being described as “Terror Central”, I feel a little of the experience of many Muslims who do not recognise the story that is being told.
The shorthand myths will just not do, if we are to be present to the breadth of our communities as Christians disposed to hope, and to the possibility of being surprised by grace at every turn.
The Revd Dr Richard J. Sudworth is Priest-in-Charge of Christ Church, Sparkbrook, in the diocese of Birmingham, and Tutor in Anglican Theology at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham. He is the author of Encountering Islam: Christian-Muslim relations in the public square, published by SCM Press last month.