Tuesday, 31 January 2017
The human touch
These are dark days for peaceful, law-abiding Muslims simply seeking to worship in freedom and live decent lives without fear of violence against them.
There was the setting on fire of a Mosque in Texas, followed over the weekend by the shocking tragedy in Quebec City where six Muslims were shot dead in an Islamic Cultural Centre. The terrorist attack, for which a white supremacist is being held, left 19 more people injured, five of them still in hospital and two of those fighting for their lives.
All this against a backdrop of Islamaphobia that has been exacerbated by Donald Trump’s Executive Order currently banning travel into the United States for people from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
Four years ago, stirred by some things I saw going on in Great Britain, I sat down to write a novel that would have human relationships at its heart but in the genre of literary thriller. I was intrigued by the idea of five people from all walks of life thrown together by circumstance. I also wanted the story to embrace observation about modern Britain, its media, diversity, religious and cultural issues.
As a starting point, the book imagined what I suspected and feared might become a reality. I am, after all, a journalist at heart who thinks topically. That starting point involved a young man walking into a Mosque and murdering five Muslims for reasons that would become more apparent as the story unfolded.
First, I needed to know what I was writing about and so enrolled on a free course at the Regent’s Park Mosque in Central London as an introduction to Islam.
It took place on a Sunday, for six hours, with lunch thrown in. The diversity of the audience of around 80 people was remarkable. Some 20 nationalities were represented, quite a few people having flown in from abroad for the day. Some were new Muslims, others like me simply curious. It was an equal mix, more or less, of men and women.
I, we, could not have been welcomed more openly or hospitably. The day was enlightening and while I am not naïve enough to overlook the differences between religions that have offered simplistic fodder for extremism on all sides, I was surprised to discover just how much in common Islam, Judaism and Christianity have in shared beliefs and ideals.
There was, on this day, no attempt to convert me or to badger me into attending other events. I was given a free book that explained more about the religion. Afterwards, I asked an organiser what he saw as the purpose of the day.
Education, primarily, he replied. He and the Mosque simply wanted people to understand the religion properly, rather than the myths that were often propagated and the picture of Islam that was distorted by ISIS.
And, he conceded, because there was radicalisation of impressionable young Muslims going on, he wanted them to attend to hear about the compassionate values of Islam, completely at odds with some interpretations of the Qur'an.
The results of that day have informed parts of my novel, though it is not about religion. It is about humanity. As well as a Mosque, it takes in Regent's Park, newspaper offices and police headquarters as locations. People are from varied racial and social backgrounds.
I have been heartened to see plenty of humanity in the aftermath of Texas and Quebec. More than $1 million was raised quickly to rebuild the Texas Mosque. The Canadian government was quick to condemn the Quebec atrocity and to stand shoulder to should with its Muslim community.
On top, millions have been on the streets in America and around the world to protest the ill-conceived, rushed-through travel ban.
I want to believe there is hope, even in dark times. And I want to believe that my humble novel, as well as a cracking read, offers it too.