For tolerance and freedom of expression in Cambridge

The English Defence League hopes to have over 400 supporters marching through the streets of Cambridge this weekend to protest against the proposed new Mill Road mosque. Unite Against Fascism (UAF) and the Cambridge Trade Union Council (TUC) are organising a counter protest. We should rejoice in the freedom of both sides to air their views, while refusing to engage in their debate.

As a Christian and avid traveller of the Middle East, in the reaction of EDL and the rhetoric around the EDL march I see chilling reminders of the decline of religious tolerance in the Arab world.

While few people mourn the collapse of corrupt regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, I for one fear that the price we pay for “freedom of expression” through mass action may not be borne unequally by all parts of society. In the hysteria of mass action, religious freedom and the ability to express personal conscience are often the first victims.

The plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt was fragile enough before the events of this spring: The systematic persecution of the Christian community in Iraq could well be a warning of the future of the Coptic church in Egypt. I watch events in Syria with similar concern, although thankfully there is little evidence as yet of the Orthodox community suffering in the same way: It is too large and too much a part of national life for too many people.

EDL would point to Islam as the common denominator in events in The Middle East. They would be wrong. While Islam is as vulnerable to manipulation as any religion (and you don’t have to go far to witness how Christianity sectarianism can destroy whole communities), the vast majority of Muslims are as appalled by violence against a community or individuals, simply because of what they believe, as anybody. The problem isn’t Islam; it is tribalism, ignorance and the suspension of reason that often accompanies mass action.

I welcome the proposed development of the Mill Road mosque. While I may choose a different way to express my faith, I celebrate the right of Muslims of all sects in Cambridge to come together and worship. Even while the UK remains a nation united by beliefs and institutions that are for the most part Christian in origin, Muslims today can teach us a lot about the ways that faith, work and family can be woven together into a single fabric in ways that many of us have forgotten.

Every mosque that is built in the UK is a tribute to that most important of our defining national characteristics: Tolerance. As a project that has been driven by a Muslim community in Cambridge that is almost as diverse itself as the rest of Cambridge, it is a platform for debate and consensus within the Muslim community and with other faith and secular groups.

I distance myself totally from the aims of EDL and of their march in Cambridge this weekend. I think they are ill-informed, confused and poisonous. I refuse to engage in their debate and for that reason I will stay away from the counter demonstrations and marches as well. They simply lend credibility and weight to the EDL message.

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About Stephen Oliver

I am a management consultant/non-executive director and charity trustee based in Switzerland.
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