The Independant UK, 14th June 2000
A few months ago I had a rather unpleasant letter from a man of God, a parish priest from some small northern town. It responded to a column I had written about my visit to Venice, where, to my surprise and joy, I discovered that, far from despising each other, Muslim and Christian artists and scholars found creative inspiration from the two traditions, even during the bloody Crusades.
The Reverend was having none of that. Europe was Christian, he thundered, and it would always be so. Islam was "banished" before when the Ottoman Empire ended and would be again, this time more fully because the Serbs and other true Christians were going to complete the job. There was a further sting in this reptilian tail. When were people like me, he asked, going to tell the world how badly Muslims treat people of other faiths?
His views were frightening and contemptible, but on this last point he was right. British Muslims have been far too reluctant to condemn the persecution of people of other religions in some Islamic countries, and it is time we spoke up. We know that there is grotesque anti-Islamic prejudice all across Europe and that there is little redress available for victims. Religious discrimination is not (yet) covered by the UK Race Relations laws, and you have only to read the British Muslim newspapers to see how Islamophobia has an impact on real lives.
But history shows again and again that victims of racism can become so self-regarding that they feel no responsibilities to anyone outside their own group. As Maya Angelou wrote in her autobiography: "Oh, the holiness of always being the injured party. The historically oppressed can find not only sanctity but safety in the state of victimisation." Once you have acquired this status, you can do no wrong, or the wrong that you do can always be excused because you are, after all, one of the oppressed.
The good news is that many of us now reject these pernicious attitudes. Anyone seriously engaged in fighting against prejudice and injustice has a duty to expose human rights violations, wherever they are happening, and it is indisputable that today, far too many of these transgressions are taking place in so-called Islamic countries. And it is Muslim human rights activists, lawyers and journalists who at great cost to themselves are determinedly exposing these.
A new world-wide network of Pakistani Muslims, for example, has started to reveal the treatment of Christians in some areas in Pakistan. For a number of years now Christians living in certain localities have been (often falsely and maliciously) accused of "insulting" Islam and dozens of them are languishing in prison awaiting trial or appeals. A judge of the High Court in Lahore who granted bail to a Christian child accused of blasphemy was murdered soon after. Christian homes have been burnt down, and in one incident thousands of Muslims, including 500 policemen were involved. The situation has got so bad that two years ago, Bishop John Joseph from the Faisalabad diocese committed suicide in front of the court house.
This month another gross violation took place. On 3 May, seven young Christian girls all unmarried were returning home from the Lavera Sewing Factory near Lahore on a factory bus at midnight. The bus was stopped and they were taken out and gang raped by five Muslim men for nearly four hours. The manager of the factory tried to stop the parents from reporting the incident. The driver of the bus (a factory employee) said the girls were only molested. The parents of the girls have become social outcasts because their daughters can no longer work at the factory. The local press has barely covered this story and only after pressure agreed to publish an anguished statement from Lahore's Bishop, John Malik.
Last week, a conscientious local journalist, Khaled Ahmed, wrote an emotive account in a Pakistani paper of the way this event and other anti-Christian activities had been handled but his is only one small voice which will easily be extinguished unless more of us speak up. And as good Muslims we must. We have a good long way to go before we gain equality in this country. But we do have basic rights and freedoms which are not available to Christians living on our lands.
In Saudi Arabia, for example,Christians are not allowed to congregate for worship in their own homes and in Sudan, Muslims living in abject poverty have been encouraged by poitical leaders to blame the Christian minority for their hopeless lives. I have just read a graphic and beautifully written description of this in a book, In Joy and Sorrow, by Lillian Craig Harris, the American wife of an ex-British Ambassador to Sudan. Sudanese Christians, she says, are "severely traumatised" and this is leading to hate, in-fighting and bitterness.
Those of us who know both the pain of exclusion and also the security of living in a country which is beginning to accept diversity without feeling threatened by it (give or take a bigoted Yorkshire vicar) need to confront some serious obligations and uncomfortable truths which we have avoided so far. Our lives here as Muslims are manifestly better than the lives of many minorities living in our home countries. No Muslim I know, however disenchanted with Britain, however conservative, would readily move to Iran or Saudi Arabia and many fly back within a few months of moving back to Pakistan or Bangladesh. British Muslims have come to take certain rights and expectations for granted. We have also learnt to fight against iniquitous laws and to live with different communities. A large number of British Christians and Jews have supported Muslim struggles for equality. It seems to me that for all these reasons we British Muslims have an absolute moral duty to condemn any Muslim state which is not only failing to protect Christians but is actually inciting hatred against them. And to show we mean business, we should write personal letters to the Pakistani authorities in support of the seven young Christian women who were raped in the name of Allah.
How would we feel if some Onward Christian Soldiers had done this to young Muslim women coming home from a factory in Bradford?