Ever since the attacks of 9/11 I have been attending and arranging vigils and memorials for the victims of terrorism. So I’ve been doing this for just short of 20 years and I have recently been asking whether this is enough? With all the popular chatter about religion being the cause of the world’s ills, perhaps it is necessary to prove people wrong, that religion is a source of good and means to wholeness and peace. But is it a case of protesting too much? That in our insistence that we really are people of peace, there is an implication some sort of apology and need to explain our actions or the teachings of our faith? Furthermore, are we doing enough to challenge the language of mistrust and even hatred?
The attacks in New Zealand seemed to have amplified that unease in my mind. I was pleased and honoured today to join with others in standing in solidarity with Muslims at the Central Mosque in London, itself a beacon of inter faith understanding for more than 30 years. Yet often our solidarity seems passive and reactive. Our tears and solidarity seem to be all that we have to offer. So my question is – are we doing enough to be proactive in challenging the language of mistrust and hatred? And when I say “mistrust and hatred” I am also including those things that are said that negatively group together everyone of one religion and make generalizations that lead people to the conclusion that all of “them” are a “problem” and that we should be “wary” of them.
Even in the space of the past 12 months I have heard things said about Jews and Muslims that sometimes (often?) go unchallenged. They are not comments so bad that they would warrant them being reported to the police as a hate crime and they certainly do not suggest that those that say these things are likely to turn to violence, but there is a spectrum of thinking and a normalizing of pejorative talk that diminishes people’s humanity by the language of “othering” and causes mistrust and a wariness that leads to isolation and labeling of whole groups of people. Some would say that by challenging such language we are closing down free speech and “fair comment”. Yet there is a middle way – by engaging in conversation and dialogue (rather than resorting to embarrassed silences) we uncover complexity and suggest that we might begin to look at things in a much more nuanced way.
And maybe we should also be open to doing this within ourselves? Only by challenging ourselveswhen thoughts and uttered words begin to “other” people in terms of their religion, ethnicity or sexuality, are we being serious in how we proactively engage in confronting the hatred in our societies. There is nothing more insufferable than the self-satisfied ideologue, who believes that because they are “committed” to anti-racism, they themselves cannot be racist (a glance into the Labour Party sees that laid bare). Instead, we can all embrace a little humility and look deep within ourselves.
So rather than walking away from the post-attack vigil feeling that “I have done my bit” and feel that I have done something out of the ordinary, perhaps these occasions might lead us realise that we have somehow failed: failed to be suitably proactive in confronting the language of suspicion and hatred of those we see as “other” and also look deep within ourselves and some of the prejudices that spring up in unexpected ways and in surprising circumstances.