By Fiyaz MUGHAL, founder and director of Faith Matters.
Someone asked me recently about the impact of Woolwich on race and faith relations in the UK. I said the reaction post Woolwich would have been far more significant and worse if faith communities had not come together and made statements around peace and with a real and fervent desire to reduce tensions at such a difficult time.
I also realised the answer lay in something as simple and unique as interfaith and grass-roots community engagement work. For the Jewish and other faith communities, Mitzvah Day has taken a bold lead in being a conduit to building this local, hands-on work.
Many in the audience looked puzzled, as though they simply could not believe interfaith work would have such a strong social impact; that it could turn communities from violence and give them the space to come together, grieve and reflect. Could the ‘tea and samosas’ brigade actually make a difference so that violence post Woolwich was restricted to the low level agitation of Tommy Robinson and his motley crew of EDL sympathisers, who attempted to run rampage in the area to stoke up community tensions? Even then, Robinson and sympathisers could not extract vengeful reactions from communities in Woolwich.
After nearly four decades of interfaith work in the UK, many still believe the power of interfaith work is minimal and that those who choose interfaith work, choose a path of developing friendships without addressing differences.
Within this narrative, some even suggest interfaith work is the domain of liberal elitists who seek to source some level of excitement by engaging with diverse communities of faith.
Many also believe interfaith work is the domain of senior citizens who enjoy a retirement pension and who can afford to see it as an extension of their social life. Yet the reality is significantly different if you view interfaith work and social action through the prism of 36 hours after the brutal murder of drummer Lee Rigby.
What is clear is that on the evening of 22 May and throughout 23 May, Woolwich interfaith groups came together and voiced messages of a community standing together against intolerance.
The swift action of Woolwich faith leaders with their message of the community standing together against hate, intolerance and extremism, set a chord for the nation to follow and follow the nation did, at a time when anger was starting to foment into hate incidents against Muslims.
By being seen to reinforce a common set of values and by symbolically standing together, interfaith social action had reduced the space for groups to try to manipulate the situation to promote hate and intolerance against Muslims.
Some police officers with whom we work made clear that were it not for this action, the repercussions and the local and national backlash could have been significantly worse. In their opinion, innocent law-abiding Muslim citizens could have been the target of incidents and attacks and if true, they bring home the impact of how interfaith work potentially saves lives, especially when the nation was in shock and anger was real.
The impacts of national interfaith work were also cited by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg held an interfaith event in Westminster soon after Woolwich, where he addressed faith groups, acknowledging interfaith work was essential in
ensuring tensions were reduced and that some semblance of normality was achieved as soon as possible in Woolwich and in the whole country.
Woolwich is, therefore, a practical example of how interfaith work can reduce community tensions, erode a narrative of “them and us” and provide a feeling of spiritual and moral comfort for many people. It can save lives and people from attacks. So next time someone mentions ‘the tea and samosa brigade’, just remember this. Less of the ‘tea and samosas,’ and more of the ‘red bull’ when mentioning interfaith work.
Without interfaith work and social action, who knows what the impacts on our nation would have been, severe as they were.