WESTMINSTER ABBEY, Manchester Cathedral, and now Southwark Cathedral: a large church has been near enough to the past three terrorist attacks to be cordoned off by the police. Together with the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, the Church has had a physical presence at the attack sites, although, in contrast with Egypt and elsewhere, it has not been a direct target. More significantly, the Church has everywhere been involved in prayer and support for the victims. Thus Islam is not the only religion caught up in the latest attacks. And note must be taken of the many Muslims in the emergency services in Manchester and London who have worked sacrificially to save the lives of those affected in the attacks. An outside observer would find it difficult to reconcile the God who, supposedly, inspired the attackers to violence and the God who was invoked to heal their victims.
A shift in opinion was noticeable this week. Until now, the inflammatory outpourings of those who wish to lump all Muslims together with the terrorists have led more careful commentators to declare that terrorist acts have nothing to do with Islam. Now, taking care to point out similarities with various manifestations of Christianity, Archbishop Welby and others are urging Muslim leaders to put their own house in order. Interviewed on Today on Radio 4 on Monday, the Archbishop said: “. . . throughout history, in many ways, religious tradition, scriptures, have been twisted and misused by people, and sometimes the way in which religious leaders through history, of all the major faiths, have behaved permits and occasionally encourages that. And we have to say that, if something is happening within our own faith tradition, we must take responsibility for being very, very clear in countering it.” There is no suggestion that what the Archbishop called “significant” Muslim leaders are implicated in the attacks; but neither can it be questioned that they are the people best placed to recognise when community members go to the bad. It is encouraging that Muslim neighbours had previously reported at least one of the London Bridge attackers to the police, though sad that this did not lead to greater surveillance.
Religious leaders can do more, however. They can examine the different Islamic theological traditions to purify them of anything that might promote hatred and violence. Again, this is not to ask anything special of Muslims: Christians and Jews, in particular, know how hard it is to set the more violent passages in their scriptures in the right context. Archbishop Welby repeats the call for greater religious literacy, but the outside observer would be forgiven for considering such an aim to be inadequate. Misguided believers do not need a better grasp of religion but a better understanding of humanity. It is in loving people, in all their variety and complexity, that believers come nearest to knowing the mind of a merciful God.