Those wondering how to respond to English Defence League marches this weekend can look to the example of tea and non-confrontation we set at York mosque
When we first heard about the English Defence League protest that was to take place outside our local mosque in York last Sunday, my colleagues and I sat down and thought about how we should behave. We are non-violent people and the EDL say they are too, so any notion of aggressive confrontation was ruled out immediately. We came up with a different approach. Now I hear that 50 more EDL protests are being planned across the country this weekend and I thought it timely to consider why the York response worked.
Much of the reaction to the obscenity in Woolwich has been polarisation, with many feeling they have to decide which side they are on, and then not budge. The murder of Lee Rigby has unleashed a lot of anger, fear and frustration and generated great tension. People are focusing on their differences. We felt that another response was needed, one that might provide a calm space in which we could listen to, and hear, one another. We realised that we did not fully understand the EDL stance in York and, from what we could make out, that they did not fully understand us either.
It was up to us to provide an atmosphere that was representative of our culture. When I say “our culture”, I mean all of us, including the EDL and the members of the mosque. We all think of sitting down with a cup of tea as something quintessentially English, so we thought that offering a cup of good old-fashioned Yorkshire tea and hospitality would be a start. And I remembered a quote from George Bernard Shaw: “If the world’s problems were brought to the Prophet Muhammad, he would solve them over a cup of tea.” Tea was something unexpected and welcoming.
When we listened, we realised the EDL may have thought that we supported extremist behaviour and the Taliban. We pointed out that we condemned both in the strongest terms. Assumptions are dangerous, untested assumptions can be lethal. They were surprised, and they understood. The day ended in a game of football.
This weekend, we should try to put assumptions aside. Elements of the far-right are planning demonstrations across the country, including Birmingham, Luton and Leeds, in what has been described as a “day of hate”. But we should be careful about using such labels and consider instead sitting down with these groups to try to understand what has driven them to organise such events.
Many people have understandable preconceptions about the nature of these protesters. They may think them violent and racist, and sitting down with them may be an intimidating prospect. But I refer you to Voltaire: “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The home secretary, Theresa May, must adopt the same approach across the board. If we don’t listen openly, we will not explore avenues that might lead to a better conclusion, and we could drive views underground.
We expected about 20 people, at most, at the mosque last weekend, but Twitter and Facebook helped us attract between 150 and 200. The overwhelming majority were non-EDL members saying: “Wait a second. We’re white, we’re British and we don’t want the EDL to speak on our behalf.” That was very humbling and showed that common sense brings people together.
And so we showed it is possible to find a place where we can communicate. We all need to meet in a space that is above and beyond our differences and discover our similarities. We all love our children and care about their future. If we do not work together they are in possible jeopardy – there are very good reasons for us to work hard to find a way forward. We all need to learn from one another.
Tea, like many things we may think of as being English, has been adopted from other cultures, originating in China. Our language includes words from almost every tongue on the planet. Likewise our food, our music, our science, our medicine, our sports (including football) and so on. Even Saint George, whose flag the EDL use so proudly, is patron saint of many nations and may have his origin in Palestine.
We should remember the Muslims who served this country with great dignity and courage through two world wars, and those who are in our armed forces and police. And those who work hard for this country and contribute to its economy and wealth. It would be wise to think of where they stand on some of these issues.
The messages from Lee Rigby’s family that he would not want his death to be used as an excuse for reprisals, and that the culture and religion of his friends made no difference to him, sets an example for us all. This weekend, to all those who want to characterise Muslims as this, or all EDL members as that, I say: sit down with a cup of tea and don’t shout at each other. Listen. And hear.
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