Religion has replaced race as the major determent of prejudice in the 21st century. This is the view of former British cabinet minister baroness Sayeeda Warsi, but she gained international attention last year when she resigned from office in protest to government policy on the Gaza conflict.
Sayeeda Warsi is of Pakistani descent and in a recent BBC interview she described a major shift in the way she is identified since she started participating in politics. Her political career began through student protests against racism and xenophobia in Britain where she was identified on the basis of the colour of her skin and her origin.
Today she is, like many immigrants in Western Europe, identified on the basis of her religion and this change is in her view the result of rising tensions along the lines of religion and acts of violence fuelled by religion, while at the same time there is less tolerance towards religious views.
The relations and cohabitation of the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are central to these tensions as are the increasingly vocal adversaries of religions in general. In Iceland this discussion of religion is analogous and you often find in the media voices that seek to attack or ridicule religion, including Islam.
The increase of Islamophobia in Iceland is worrying and in support of this one can point to groups on Facebook, that fear that Islamic influence in the West poses a threat to democracy and ‘our’ way of life and oppose the building of a Mosque in Reykjavík. Such sites are often dismissed but I fear that behind the 5.000 likes, there are many more who share the sentiment they express without wanting to publicly support their cause.
Behind Islamophobia lie in many cases the ideas that Islam is foreign to Christian tradition, that Islamic influence poses a threat to Western culture and that Muslims are more prone to violent acts and religious terrorism than adherents to other religions.
Muslims are peace-loving people, regardless of the propaganda on both sides of the debate. Terrorists in the five countries that have the highest rate of terrorism worldwide do granted commit their atrocities in the name of Islam, but 82% of all acts of terrorism are committed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria (report). The victims of terrorism in these countries are overwhelmingly Muslim and the terrorists that have attacked the Western powers have not hesitated to sacrifice the lives of their fellow Muslims. It is evident that the impetus for these acts of violence is not the difference in religion, but the chaos that reigns in these countries and is in some cases the result of Western influence. Muslims worldwide should not be made to suffer for or answer to these violent crimes, no more than we should be made to answer for violence committed by Christians.
Islam emerges in the 5th to 6th centuries C.E. with the revelations of the prophet Muhammad that are written in the Muslim sacred text. They are, according to Islam, revelations from God delivered through the angel Gabriel. In the same way that the New Testament is based on the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, so the Quran is based on the prophetic message of the Bible and Jesus is a central character in the Quran, although he is viewed differently than Christians generally do. Islam and Christianity are closely related religions and although there are significant differences, there is much more that unites these two traditions. There is little in the Sermon on the Mount and the Our Father that Muslims cannot wholeheartedly agree to and the five pillars of Islam: profession of faith; prayer; fasting; alms and pilgrimage, certainly have parallels in Christian tradition.
Jesus is an important figure in Islamic tradition and narratives and sayings attributed to him are preserved in Islamic texts from the Quran and to our time. Throughout Europe’s cultural history these sibling religions have engaged in dialogue and rivalry, which has been at times fruitful and at others strained. Islamic influence is therefore no novelty in Western culture and Muslims have provides us with riches in the form of arts, craftsmanship, and science. Highly important contributions to science, such as algebra, astronomy, chemistry and physics, as well as humanities as the renaissance was based on the rediscovery of ancient texts such as the writings of Aristotle, which Muslims preserved but had been lost to Medieval Europe. Islamic thought has also made an impact on theology, notably scholasticism and Thomas Aquinas.
These religions are so related that the church’s lectionaries often have direct parallels in Islamic tradition. Today’s reading is a narrative from Exodus that describes the Israelite peoples hunger as they wandered lost in the desert and how God feeds them with manna from the heavens on the condition that they take only what they need. “The Lord spoke to Moses and said, ‘I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was [bread] around the camp.” (Ex 16.11-18 NRSV)
This narrative is found in the second surah of the Quran where Moses exhorts his people, who repeatedly fell back on worshiping the calf and were murmuring in the desert. God, Allah, looks to his people with mercy and says: “Then We revived you after your death that perhaps you would be grateful. And We shaded you with clouds and sent down to you manna and quails, [saying], "Eat from the good things with which We have provided you.” (Surah 2.56-57 quran.com)
In Christianity Jesus is a symbol of this bread, which God has given us from heaven and the quails represent God loving Holy Spirit. This symbolism is the basis of the communal meal that lies at the heart of the Christian service. A pertinent question is who is invited to the table of fellowship and who is rejected? Jesus prayed and ate with those, whom his society sought to marginalize and hampered the faith of those who do not belong to his religion.
I this spirit our pastor for immigrants, Toshiki Toma who is based in Neskirkja, and NeDó, the church’s youth group, have joined forces with Muslims in Iceland to foster dialogue between religious and cultural traditions in our society. Félag Horizon is the organisation that this past November held an Ashura festival in Neskirkja, together with rev. Toshiki and NeDó, and celebrated cultural diversity according to Turkish tradition. The Ashura festival is in commemoration of Noah’s pudding, which tradition holds that mixed together ingredients that normally would not be mixed and the result was a unique combination. At the festival the young people from NeDó displayed works of art made according to the Turkish Ebru tradition, an ancient technique where one paints on water and then transfers the artwork to paper. The goal was to respect each other’s religious beliefs and to fight prejudice.
Horizon members have visited the NeDó group on more than one occasion and have gotten to know one another, learned about different cultures and beliefs, played together and prayed together. Together these groups are organizing a ‘Brennó’ tournament that will be held on Saturday the 28th of March, where Muslim and church youth will challenge different groups and professions to play with them. It is our hope that many will accept the challenge in the spirit of combating fear and prejudice and fostering friendship in a relaxed environment.
Sayeeda Warsi told the BBC that there is a lack of research in the Western countries as to why some young Muslims turn to violence, but she believes that part of the problem is the immigration policies of Western countries and the Islamophobia they face. Waarsi has opposed those in British politics who seek to suppress religious expression in public buildings, those who reject funding schools that allow religious practices and who deride people’s beliefs. A society that insists that its citizens hide their faith and renounce their traditions, cannot be deemed just in her view.
We in Iceland are not doomed to repeat the mistakes made by our neighbours and can contribute our efforts to combat prejudice and foster dialogue with those in our society who have beliefs or traditions that are different from the majority. This applies equally to all religions and those who demand repression of religion do not only threaten other religions, but also Christianity. In the same manner that we have taken strides towards respecting gender and sexual diversity in our society, must we also find tolerance towards diverse religious beliefs.
We are as a nation on a desert march trying to find the difficult path of creating a just society. The way to the Promised Land will not be found through fear and mockery, but by celebrating and enjoying the diversity that different religions bring to our society with their traditions and culture.
The path can be found through a freedom to express faith without restraint, to pray together unafraid and to play together joyfully, whoever we are and wherever we come from. May God grace us with this.