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Combatting intolerance and bigotry

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Barely a day goes by when I do not reflect on how fortunate I am to work in a diverse yet harmonious community, in which one’s race, religion or social background is completely irrelevant. However, we are all aware that this is not necessarily mirrored in the outside world, and the murder of innocent men, women and children attending Friday prayers in Christchurch, New Zealand last week shocked us all. At the Grammar School, whenever a tragedy occurs, whether locally or on the world stage, we understand that many boys will be deeply upset. We bring our boys up to believe in a set of immutable moral standards, to value truth and justice, and to live by the Golden Rule: to treat others as one would wish to be treated. In assembly, we attempt to help boys put a tragedy into context, and to reinforce that their ethical values are indeed the ones by which we should all lead our lives. Often it is the Chaplain who leads us in such reflections, but I was pleased last weekend to be emailed by Hamzah in Year 12, asking if he could speak to the whole school in Tuesday morning’s assembly. In place of my blog this week, I reproduce his eloquent and powerful address.

“I volunteered to speak today because I am a Muslim and I wanted to share with you what the massacre of 50 people at Al-Nur Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand means to me. Any Muslim in this room who has attended Friday prayers, salaat-al-jummah, will know exactly what the moments before that shooting would have felt like. To be a Muslim is to be one who submits to God. And when we pray, we submit. We are quiet, still and introspective. Like any other place of worship, mosques are an oasis of comfort in life’s hardship, stillness in its noise and peace in its chaos. During Friday prayers, everything falls away; it is a time and a place that is utterly detached from the world around it. Until, for the congregation in Christchurch, the world came in and shattered that peace.

The terrorist knew enough about Islam to know that this is the time when we are most vulnerable. Every Friday, like clockwork. It has been described as ‘slaughter by appointment’. And I cannot stop thinking that for those men, women and children, there was no place to hide. That in submission they were defenceless, and that one man was able to create such devastation.

When I first heard about the attack, I felt sick to my stomach – I confess, for selfish reasons. I felt scared: scared to be a Muslim, and utterly hopeless. But I was not surprised. And I echo many Muslims, including the Australian broadcaster Waleed Aly who said these words:

“I wasn’t shocked when six people were shot to death at a mosque in Quebec City, two years ago. I wasn’t shocked when a man drove a van into Finsbury Park mosque in London, about six months later. And I wasn’t shocked when eleven Jews were shot dead in a Pittsburgh synagogue late last year.”

I add to that, that I wasn’t shocked to learn that a Sixth Former in our town plotted an attack on our very own mosque on King Street, Loughborough.

These attacks tell us that Islamophobia is real and violent and destructive. And that it’s only been getting worse over the past few years. And I’m not surprised. I’m not surprised because, if I were not Muslim, and I had never met a Muslim, if I had only the information presented to me by the media, I would fear Muslims. I would fear Islam.

I would fear Islam, when there is someone in the White House who has said that ‘Islam hates us’; that Islam is ‘at war’ with the West. I would fear Islam when, in the Western media, the focus is only on the conflicts in the Middle East; when headlines describing crimes refer to ‘Muslim’ or ‘immigrant’ before anything else; when double standards present themselves time and time again; when terrorism is constantly used to vilify us. It seems almost inevitable that the build-up of hatred will lead to attacks like these.

But terrorism is not Islam. It has no religion.

It is not my Islam. It’s not the Islam of over a billion Muslims around the world. And for those of you who are not convinced, I invite you to do your research. You are welcome to ask me any question about Islam, and I will endeavour to answer it or refer you to someone who can.

I cannot stress enough that language matters. Words might seem harmless but they contribute to a very dangerous, global rhetoric that is anti-Islamic and against the values of every decent human being. I used the word ‘massacre’ to describe this attack because it was an indiscriminate and brutal slaughter. I used the word ‘terrorist’ to describe its perpetrator because I believe that they intended to scare Muslims, immigrants and minorities around the world.

And I utterly reject their attempts. To those of you in this room who might feel scared to practise Islam today, I invite you to join us in Mr Khan’s room at 1:20 this Friday for salaat-al-jummah. And that facility to practise your religion will continue to exist at Loughborough Grammar in the face of whatever adversity presents itself. We will continue to pray salaat-al-jummah every Friday Insha’Allah (God willing).

I hope that in the face of these events, we only strengthen our resolve to build a society in which we love one another for our differences. At Loughborough Grammar, we are incredibly diverse, and that is not something that we tolerate or simply abide by. It is something that we celebrate as a source of our strength as a community.

I invite each and every one of you to come together; to stand defiant in the face of terrorism no matter its cause: be it Islamist or white supremacist; to reject every effort to divide us, to demonise certain groups and to pit us against one another; and to realise that we are one community.

One with our neighbours. One with the minorities among us. One with New Zealand. One with the families there who now mourn. One with the victims of this atrocity.”


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