I’ve never been one for interfaith encounters that go no further than a cup of tea and a samosa.
I’ve dedicated my presidency to building bridges with Muslim communities as I think it’s vital we have the relationships allowing us to share sometimes difficult opinions, as well as making progress on issues of common concern.
So as I travel the country speaking to Muslim communities – so far including London, Bradford, Leicester, Leeds and Birmingham – I tend to go straight for the toughest topics: hate crime, extremism, religious freedom, the Middle East and anti-Semitism.
It is no surprise hate crime is on people’s minds. The recent heinous attack on mosque worshippers in Finsbury Park and a spate of ‘acid attacks’ have left many in the British Muslim community understandably fearful.
Last week, addressing a mosque in Birmingham, I pledged the support of the Jewish community in fighting anti-Muslim hatred and told the Muslim community we are counting on them to help us combat anti-Semitism, which is also at historically high levels. This week, we followed through on our commitment by speaking out against former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson, whose record of anti-Muslim provocation means he could never be a partner of a respectable or mainstream Jewish organisation.
We also know that, across the world, the majority of Islamist extremist victims have been Muslim, and of course the Muslim community is simultaneously a target for the far right. Likewise, the Jewish community is a prime target for both Islamist extremists and the far right, as we have seen recently in Belgium and France, where murderers specifically targeted Jews.
To address the threat of extremism, we all need to speak up clearly and frankly about our challenges. I would never suggest Muslims be held accountable for the actions of violent criminals (who I won’t dignify by calling them terrorists). However, the moderate majority of Muslims are our most powerful ally in the struggle against Islamist extremism. Many prominent Muslims have spoken out. There have been substantial Muslim-led organised rallies against murderous attacks on our streets and hundreds of imams have said they will refuse to perform funeral rites for Muslim extremists.
I praise this activism, which I know many Muslims have been leading courageously for a long time, and I would urge Muslims to speak even louder. I hope their leading scholars will develop and articulate a firm religious response that condemns extremist attacks and makes clear that those who carry them out will receive not reward but retribution in the world to come.
But prejudice against the other lurks in both our communities and there is far more to do. As I was leaving one recent meeting, one Muslim told me: “You say there are myths about the Jewish community. Maybe that’s true. But surely you can’t deny that Jews control the media?” “Which media?” I asked. “Look at Sky and Fox News – all owned by Murdoch. He’s Jewish, isn’t he?”
Of course, I was able to counter robustly, which shows the benefit of engagement with those who are open to changing their view.
British Muslims and Jews have different perspectives on the issues between Israel and her Arab neighbours. But we should not view each other through that prism. I cannot see any point in having arguments about it when neither of us carries influence with any of the parties.
Muslims and Jews have a large common agenda on issues of religious freedom that directly impact us, such as protecting shechita, halal, circumcision and our mainstream faith schools – all of which are under concerted attack from the aggressive secularism existing in British society. Where we already unite – for example on the need for out-of-hours coroner services and non-invasive post-mortems – we get vastly better results for both our communities.
We are weaker divided and stronger united. Increasing direct engagement, including on the difficult issues, is vital for us all.