Last night I was with a group of volunteers who have been running a night shelter for homeless people over the last eight months. They come from 13 different churches and a local synagogue in central London. As well as Christians and Jews, a significant number of volunteers are also Muslims.
Now in it’s seventh year, this scheme has helped 100s of homeless people come off the streets. And it has all been achieved without one penny of government funding. The whole enterprise has been faith-driven.
Faith which brings peace
Last night we started our meeting by reflecting on the words emblazoned on the ceiling of the church in which we met: ‘Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth Peace’. In light of recent events, the relationship between seeking to bring glory to God alongside peace on earth was worth reflecting on.
Only hours earlier, in the same city, violent extremists had shouted ‘This is for Allah’ whilst seeking to maim and kill as many people as they could on London Bridge and in Borough Market. Religious belief was expressed through crude and barbaric violence.
It is important to acknowledge what was proclaimed by the attackers while they stabbed their victims because there is a consistent desire among many to disconnect these acts of violent extremism from Islam.
Instead, many politicians and commentators seek a political, economic and sociological rationale. As a teacher in my son’s school said to his class yesterday:
‘The most important thing to remember is that this has nothing to do with Islam.’
I understand the good intentions behind this perspective – to not create further division or tar a whole religion with the same brush. But increasingly these denials make little sense. Actually, they block a true understanding of the problem we face and increase the dangers of Islamophobia and division.
Behind these views is a patronising misunderstanding that religion is something simply personal and inward. It is an expression of the post-modernism which wants to consider all sincerely-held beliefs to be equally true and valid – however incompatible – as long as they don’t affect anyone else.
But Islam cannot be domesticated like this. Like Christianity, it is a religion which claims its theology as public truth. It will always seek to have social and political influence.
In our post-secular age, we are re-learning the raw power of religion. Just as it has the power to inspire people to go to great lengths to help others it also has the power to induce people to randomly kill.
Of course, religion never acts alone. All faith works within a social and political context. And at this time, radical Islamism is proving to be effective at attaching itself to people with social and political grievances. The combination of political extremism and the promise of a reward beyond the grave is incredibly potent. These men have clearly found, in a form of Islam, a cause powerful enough to motivate them to give up their lives.
We should be ambivalent about religion and not be too quick to defend it. The Bible contains many warnings about its dangers – prophets like Amos, Micah, Isaiah and John the Baptist all castigate the hypocrisy of religion which fuels injustice. And Jesus had virtually all his disputes with religious leaders.
And history tells us a deeply ambivalent story about what has been done in the name of God. Just as the US civil rights movement was fueled by the spirituality of black Christianity, it was a twisted form of theology which underpinned the racism of the southern US states. It makes no sense to say that groups like the Ku Klux Klan ‘had nothing to do with Christianity’ when so many of their members would be in white only Southern churches on Sundays listening to theology which supported their worldview.
Religion has provided resources for both oppressors and those fighting for peace and liberation. It is not ‘good’ in itself but should always be judged by its fruit – what it produces. As Jesus said ‘Wisdom is proved right by her deeds.’ (Matthew 11:9)
The theological battle
So we must accept that the fight against extreme Islamism is in part a theological one. As Sara Khan wrote in today’s London Evening Standard:
‘We fail to understand the battle taking place among Britain’s Muslims between those who advocate for a pluralistic humanistic interpretation of Islam against those who subscribe to a supremacist, intolerant and anti-Western Islam.’
This is the battle that we must understand better. Rather than denying any link to Islam we should be supporting, in prayer and action, those Muslims who are fighting this theological and practical conflict. They are on the front-line in this vital struggle against destructive extremism.
Related on R&R: We cannot pretend this violence has nothing to do with religion