By Rabbi Natan Levy
Can you police an extreme point of view? Will a bobby at the door curb a wicked thought or a fundamental reading of scripture?
Such is the government’s policy on countering Islamic extremism.
Since June, teachers have been charged with an extraordinary role as big brother-esque thought-police. The Home Office has given strict guidelines to certain ‘high-risk’ schools: any action or statement by a pupil that could be judged as ‘extremist’ or threatening must be reported to the police.
The police, in turn, send an officer to visit that child at their home to discuss their verbal outburst.
One teacher in a London girl’s school told me how it works. “In a recent class discussion, one of our Muslim pupils said that she could ‘understand the motivation of the Charlie Hebdo killers,’ because of the blasphemous images of the prophet Muhammad.”
Here was a 15 year old girl, articulating her internal struggle between her faith tradition and modern morality, it was-in potential-that rare moment in which a student feels safe enough to transform the classroom into an ethics laboratory. “What did you do?” I asked the teacher. What could I do?” she replied, “I reported her to the police that afternoon.”
The teacher looked away for a moment, than in a whisper she concluded, “After the police visited her house, she never mentioned her faith again in my class.”
Can you imagine this 15-year-old just after that police call? Shamed in front of her parents, distrustful of the teacher, and angry; angry with her teacher, her school, the police, the powerful lawmakers. Do you think she will stop asking her questions now? I doubt it. Though I imagine she won’t ask her teachers anymore.
From now on, her answers may come from darker and far less predictable places and people.
And we, Jews, doesn’t it behove us to raise our voices in protest whilst another religious minority is targeted this aggressively and consistently. Have we forgotten each of the 36 times the Torah demands that we show kindness to the stranger? And yet, perhaps you harbour some lingering little fears, as I do.
Whilst the television warbles on about the latest ISIS horror, al-Shabaab massacre, or Hamas atrocity, I consider that perhaps, sadly enough, Islam in its present state really needs to be policed rather than molly-cuddled. Even a 15—year-old in affluent London is a only a few vicious sermons and jihadi internet chats away from a mad dash to Syria or worse, and the most decent thing we could do for her and her co-religionists is to put them on a watch-list, and stay wary.
However, just before we start a police registry for Muslim nine-year-olds by testing them on whether ‘they believe their religion is better than others’ (this really is happening now), I think Teresa May and you and I might try one small experiment. Let’s visit a mosque.
I’ve been doing exactly that this Ramadan, mainly in the company of my children. We have been welcomed into Shiite and Sunni prayer rooms, Ismaili and Ahmadiyha Halls, in large mega-mosques of thousands, and tiny ornately carpeted rooms in Edgware, and invariably what my children and I find there can best be described as an abiding sensitivity to strangers.
But don’t take my word for it. Visit a mosque this Ramadan. Try the Ahmadiyya Centre in Morden, the largest mosque in Western Europe, where they will welcome you with sweet tea and a full tour. Here, the community runs a soup kitchen for hundreds every breakfast and lunch, every day of the year. Muslim, non-Muslims it makes no difference, if you are hungry they will feed you, no questions asked.
What about a visit to the Ramadan Tent Project on the corner of Malet St and Montague Pl. at sunset? Just follow the wave of SOAS students, Muslim worshippers, and homeless souls. Join them at iftar on long blankets in the slanted evening light. During Ramadan the local soup kitchens in the area close their doors for dinner. For one month at least, no one goes hungry in Bloomsbury.
Perhaps you are still sceptical? Sure, you say, inside their own mosques, anyone can act magnanimously, but what are Muslims really doing in and for wider society? Then one final trip may be in order.
On Sunday, July 5th, at Harmondsworth Detention Centre for Migrants–which sits grotesquely close to the Sheraton Heathrow Hotel–Muslims and Jews are fasting together, on the coincidence of Ramadan and the 17th of Tammuz to demand justice for the stranger at our gates–these imprisoned refugees with no passports and no homes. Perhaps we should enact a new extremism policy in which every pupil with difficult questions joins the fasting on July 5th. Is there a better place to seek answers than amidst the joint work of justice making?