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Cross cultural bridges

April 6, 2010

Reporting: London
by Chiranjibi Paudyal
American Reporter Correspondent
London, England

LONDON, April 3, 2010 — Islamic extremists have waged their propaganda war against the United States and its coalition partners by saying the coalition’s presence in Afghanistan and Iraq is an attack on Islam. By now, thousands of people have lost their lives and billions of dollars have been spent on these conflicts, but they don’t seem likely to end in the immediate future despite efforts from many quarters.

However, there does seem to be a shift in the balance of the propaganda war, as many Muslims have become strongly opposed to acts of violence and terrorism. Some governments in the Islamic world are coalition partners, and Pakistan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others Muslim nations have fully supported the West in the fight against the Islamic extremism. But it is public figures, and indeed the general public in the Islamic world, who have come up with the strongest words against Islamic estremists and the machinery of terror.

Announcing a “fatwa,” or statement of official religious policy, against al-Qaeda, suicide bombers and other terrorists, the venerated Islamic scholar Dr. Tahir ul-Qadri said in his 600-page decree that “Islam forbids the massacre of innocent citizens and suicide bombings.”

In addition, celebrated Bollywood star Shahrukha Khan, who was detained in American airports because someone of the same name appeared on a terrorist watch list, says in his new film “My Name is Khan” that there are only two types of people: good and bad, and not because of religion. “My name is Khan, but I am not a terrorist,” he said in defense of Muslims when they are being stereotyped as terrorists.

Egyptian journalist Hani Shukrallah says “George Bush is a good Muslim.” While speaking at a conference in Alexandria, Egypt held under the aegis of the International Center For Journalists with the support of UN Alliance of Civilizations and the Anna Lindh Foundation, which promotes mutual respect across cultures, he was responding to the purported “Islamic values” advocated by some Muslim extremists. If we see those as Islamic values, he said, then the former American president George Bush can be seen as Muslim by virtue of his values.

Those are just a few examples of Muslims who denounce violence. I meet people of Pakistani origin living in the United Kingdom as I pursue writing projects for the joint ICFJ-UN Alliance for Civilisation project, and find many Muslims who declare themselves completely opposing to the extremists’ radical views.

At a community mosque in Britain’s industrial city of Reading, a group of children of Pakistani origin recite “Bism-illaah-i-Arrahmaan-i-Rahim…,” from the Koran. They do so every day so that they better understand the teachings of Prophet Mohammad. “The essence of Islamic teaching is to be merciful,” says Ahmad Raza, head of the popular and well-attended Reading Islamic Centre. “That is what the teaching of Prophet Mohammed was, said the young, British-educated imam, or spiritual leader.

I asked some of the children reciting the Koran why they read the Koran. Most of them said that it was their religious duty to pray five times a day and recite the Islam’s holiest text with understanding.

According to the Islamic Website “Salaam,” there are a total of 1,689 mosques in the United Kingdom, and a majority of those mosques belong to the Pakistani community. Prayers, recitation of the Koran, religious meetings and social events are held at the mosques regularly to spread the message of Islam, which in Arabic actually means “peace.”

Imam Raza says that Muslims living in the United Kingdom are more religious and inclined to practice religion with more enthusiasm and understanding than in Pakistan. Furthermore, he says. there is a sense of fear and threat in Pakistan as Islamic extremists belonging to different factions bomb mosques in Pakistani cities and towns in recent days, especially after the government adopted tough measures to wipe out the menace of terrorism, while people are free to practice their religious beliefs in the United Kingdom.

“We are very free here. We can pray even during work,” one highly skilled migrant from Pakistan says. The prayers and recitation, he says, help promote cross-cultural understanding as we learn about the Prophet’s teachings “to be merciful and respect others’ beliefs,” he said.

Meanwhile, though. British newspapers here report that the Pakistani community is “isolated” and as a result is not fully integrated into the British way of life. They usually do not mingle with people of other religious faiths.

Imam Raza agrees. He says, “The older generation was completely isolated, at least from the British public, because of their lack of English language skills, but the new generation is more than British.”

Today, the majority of the Pakistani Muslim youths are completely westernized and tend to break their ties with the Arabic language and Islamic culture. The broader Pakistani community is integrated through mixed marriages, and a large number of Pakistanis are in politics, business and other fields. That has helped fostered more interaction and understanding of each others’ values.

On the Indian subcontinent, people like to mix with and visit each other but rarely do so without an appointment or invitation, said Sahila Sheikh, who came to Britain 20 years ago. But the situation here is completely different. “I have friends of different faiths and I have visited temples, gurudwara (Hindu places of worship) and churches. There is no problem for me to mix and interact with people of all faiths,” she said.

The Pakistani Muslim community is part of the interfaith group which “enables members of different faiths to learn about each other’s beliefs, practices and traditions to create greater friendship, harmony and understanding,” according to the ecumenical group Reading Interfaith. “We begin in our own community, working to eliminate prejudice and fear by promoting knowledge and appreciation of each other,” the group’s brochure says.

For more than 20 years the group has organized events in Reading to experience each other’s worship, witness each other’s ceremonies, enter into dialogue with one another and celebrate a common commitment to spiritual values.

“As part of a multi-cultural society, Reading Interfaith Group celebrates diversity and the opportunities to grow in faith tradition by communicating with each other,” the group says.

In Britain. the Pakistani community is the second largest ethnic minority community after Indians, and in the census of 2001 had a total population of 747,285, according to the Office of the National Statistics.

However, it is estimated that the 2001 number has surpassed 1 million in 2010. The Pakistani community comprises 1.3 percent of the total population; Indians are 16.1 percent of the total ethnic minority population. After Christianity, Islam is the second largest religious faith group in the United Kingdom. After Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom is the home of the second largest Pakistani Diaspora.

But the perception of people in the West about Muslims, and especially Pakistanis, after the 9/11 attacks in the United States and the “7/7” London train bombing is not positive. Some of the suicide bombers on the London Underground were of home-grown Pakistani origin. And there are still many people who think, the Pakistani community in Britain have been supporting the terrorists.

There is suspicion and fear in both sides. Not only Bollywood’s Khan but Britain’s Minister of International Development, Shahid Malik, was detained in American airports because of their Muslim names, even though both resolutely and publicy denounce terrorists and extremism. Just as there are threats to the West from Islamic extremists, there is fear of the West in the Muslim community.

Islam as a faith and religion, moderate Muslims say, condemns all sorts of terrorism and extremism as it is a “religion of peace.”

One Pakistani imigrant, Abdul Qayoom, a teacher in Reading, suggests that “we must not put a bad label on Islam because of pockets of black sheep in the community. A religion is just like a car and its followers are like drivers. Just because of a bad driver, you cannot blame the car as bad, nor in this case, the religion.” Religious, community and professional leaders completely oppose acts of violence and terrorism and generally say in one voice that “the acts of only a handful of extremists in the name of Islam cannot represent the whole Muslim community,” Qayoom says.

“I think there’s still a good general understanding in the UK that the actions of a few do not represent all Muslims,” British-Pakistani businessman Imran Ahmad was recently reported telling the local media.

That appears to be completely true. A migrant of Pakistani city of Peshawar, who works as a security officer said, “If all Pakistanis are terrorists, then Britain would be in ashes.” A handful of extremists should not hijack Islamic agenda and the whole community should not be treated as extremists, he said.

The UN Alliance for Cultures believes that the most important aspects of breaking down barriers and building trust, mutual understanding, opening horizons and promoting cross cultural understanding is through the appreciation of others’ views, beliefs, meeting, entertaining, negotiating and holding talks among different cultural and religious groups. As a result, in recent years – especially after 9/11 and the London bombing – the Pakistani community has taken the initiative to build trust and strengthen relations with different faith groups. The Pakistani Community Centre in Reading, for instance, has held events inviting guests from other faiths including local Members of Parliament, members of city council and others.

“It is great fun and a great occasions to be together with people of different walks of life and religions,” said Robert Wilson, a Member of Parliament who represents the city, as he attended the Christmas dinner program at the Pakistani Community Centre therePeople of different faiths and walks of life participated in celebration of the Christmas season.

“It has given a very positive message to the general public that we all are one, though we speak different languages and follow different religions, and have come from different countries,” said Hilary Edmond, a local community worker.

“Working, meeting, dealing, entertaining, negotiating and corresponding with people from different cultures can be a minefield,” states one multicultural training center’s client manual. “Such events build good relationships with communities, help understand each other better and build an environment of trust, especially at this time of mistrust against the Muslims in the West.” With the significant increase of Pakistani community in the United Kingdom over the last few years, the number of community centers and activities have also multiplied, hoping to help bridge the gap between Western and Muslim cultures.

In addition to the religious and community organizations, professional organisations in the Pakistani community work to promote better understanding with other cultures and faiths in the West. “Strengthening community, building relationships,” is the motto of the Pakistani Professionals Forum (PPF), which includes doctors, engineers, teachers and other professionals working in the United Kingdom.

“We aim to develop the mutual understanding of professional Pakistanis by enhancing friendly co-operation among them,” the chairman of PPF, Dr. M. Farrukh Hussain, said. “We aim to consolidate and strengthen our community.”

Dr. Hussain, a consultant psychiatrist, says “Most importantly, through trust-promoting images of Pakistanis worldwide, we aim to set an example of peaceful co-existence with other religions, races, communities including the people who don’t have belief in any religion. In short, humanising humanity,”

That message is echoed by Pakistan’s embassy in London, “The Pakistani Diaspora in the UK is a source of great strength to the bilateral relations and reinforces the two governments’ efforts towards solidifying relations,” embassy documents say. “Pakistan is a major ally in the fight against Islamic extremists therefore the cross cultural understanding among different communities is very important in the context of the United Kingdom.”

Those words are also consistent with the beliefs of of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. “We celebrate the diversity in our country, get strength from the cultures and the races that go to make up Britain today,” he said in a statement.

Is the message of peaceful and productive interaction between people of very different faiths getting across? A commentary by he Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Ali Gomaa, in the Arabic daily Al Ahram, indicates it is. “While religious people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, rightly reject the suppositions of secularism, it must be admitted that it has succeeded in establishing a pluralism that has allowed Muslims to spread across the world and enjoy essential freedoms sometimes not afforded them at home,” Egypt’s highest religious authority wrote. “All the ethnic and religious communities must realize this fact and accept and recognize the fundamental issues of Europe: democratic values, human rights and pluralism and reciprocate being more liberal allowing others to exercise their rights and freedom without fear and terror,” he said.

Pakistani community, religious and professional groups have effectively initiated the course of action for cross-cultural promotion to build trust, mutual understanding among diverse cultural communities and combat prejudice, intolerance, extremism, misunderstanding and hostility.

A few days ago, I asked people about their views on the Pakistani community in the United Kingdom just outside the train station at Kings Cross, in the center of London – a mixed ethnic community. Of 48 people questioned, only 20 agreed to be surveyed. Of those, eight identified themselves as being of British origin, three as European nationals, six as Asian nationals, and three declined to identifiy their citizenship..

Of the 20 respondents, seven people said that Pakistanis are a part of the United Kingdom community of nations, four said Pakistanis were religious proselytizers, three said they were supporters of terrorism (and suicide bombers in particular), and the remaining six respondents said Pakistanis are part of Britain’s cultural diversity, that Pakistan is an important ally of the West, and that Pakistani individuals were “goodwill ambassadors” and “honest people” who promote stronger ties between the two countries.

It appears, then, that someone, at least, is listening.

AR Correspondent Chiranjibi Paudyal has written extensively about cultures for this publication, serving in Nepal, Thailand, India and England.

Copyright 2010 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.


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