On Wednesday, the 24 October, the Olive Tree Madrasah director, Yahya Barry was invited by the Presbytery of Edinburgh (all Church of Scotland churches in Edinburgh) to talk about interfaith relations and work in the city. The gathering was attended by around thirty community leaders, ministers and staff. Below is the speech given by our director as he shared his insights into this interesting and challenging area of work.
What is this thing (Islam) doing here?
We are a small community which 'has got on with it' - relatively well, perhaps sheltered by the presence of bigger factors such as anti-English sentiment (Anglophobia) and Sectarianism which has diverted some animosity away from it. And specifically in Edinburgh, a city which enjoys social, cultural and economic affluence hasn't precipitated the segregation of Muslims into certain areas - as we see in other cities - something, which has helped their integration and foster positive relations.
In such a climate, the Islam Festival, the Mosque Kitchen, the MELA have become established Edinburgh institutions facilitating cultural dialogue and communication - what I regard as essential ingredients in interfaith work. But I have the feeling that the audience will agree with me here when I say: (1) there is so much more potential to tap into, and (2) there remains substantial work for the Muslim community to do.
I hope I may be pardoned for daring to forward a theory, perhaps even a proposal. That is: I see that the rich heritage of faiths in this wonderful city risks being marginalised in the religious economic system of this country if they don't succeed in asserting their relevance to the everyday lives of the citizens. And although the interfaith dimension perhaps seeks to contribute to boosting the role of religion in the public sphere, it needs considerable creativity to successfully compete with the other alternatives. So what is the role of Islam, and why am I here?
I am here because I believe that Islam has a potentially huge role to play in the lives of people in this wonderful city of Edinburgh, and in this unique nation that is Scotland. And of course, I proceed upon the principle that we have agreed to differ. And it is this diversity of worldviews, cultures and traditions which can enrich us so much on the one hand, and yet, on the other, risk dividing us, especially when it is manipulated for certain political gains.
And it is at this juncture that I have to make a distinction between Islam and Muslims. While the religion has defined itself in terms of its creed, legislation, morals and values, how they are interpreted and the extent to which they are applied by its people enormously varies. As a theologian aware of the fact that scripture shapes religion but also being fully aware that in this age of modernity, individual autonomy contests authority, I have to embrace both views to deal with the status quo. And so I talk both about the role of Islam and Muslims.
In our context, locally and nationally, Islam has to resist being stigmatised. It needs to come out of the shell that has been cast for it and show it's worth as a religion that embraces humanity in all its exuberant diversity but also in its weakness and vulnerability in order to keep its propensity to oppress and transgress at check. It is therefore events like this which Muslims need to actively participate in to be on the active front of shaping their relations with their fellow citizens. Having reflected upon Islam, I have found it to be a religion whose origins and modus operandi for social reform has always been grassroots. I am therefore a keen advocate of grassroots initiatives and approaches starting with family, neighbour and locality. My Islam enables me to share the good I have with my neighbours albeit with the sensibility of tact, respecting the secular nature of the public space and therefore being careful about how I seek to express my religious identity within it.
And in line with this grassroots approach, education is absolutely key. And as far as Islam is concerned, the religion has been gifted with the unique opportunity of the curiosity of people on the one hand, and the negative sensationalist portrayals on the other - any publicity could be turned into good publicity right? However, Muslim institutions need to be up to the task. They need qualified personnel to identify these opportunities and engage with the public. This is an area of work that I am indeed very passionate about. In my first year as Imam serving this city, I engaged over 95 official engagements to this effect of which about 25 were of an interfaith nature.
To conclude, the status quo is indeed challenging. But challenges exist to not only make manifest the negative elements of human society, but to precipitate the very best of human resolve, determination and creativity. When I look at this great city of Edinburgh, I see that it is potentially uniquely poised to offer the world what could be a model for peace and a cohesive pluralist citizenship. And Islam and Muslims specifically have the ball in their court. The extent to which they engage can add and bring so much more to the table. I have recognised it and I am here to engage.