Why we have to stop talking ABOUT Muslims and start talking TO Muslims
It's one of the very worst experiences. You walk into the room and everyone goes quiet, looking shifty. They don't have to explain what was going on – you know intuitively. They were talking about you.
I often wonder if that experience must be what it's like to be a Muslim in the US or the UK today. Vast swathes of our news, current affairs and debate programmes, acres of column inches in print and online and hours of talk radio are devoted to talking about Islam and about Muslims.
The real problem with the people talking about you behind your back isn't that they're necessarily saying terrible things. The problem is that they haven't given you the dignity of being present and speaking for yourself. You haven't been listened to, understood or given the chance to be a rounded person, capable of saying surprising things and deviating from the stereotype.
There's a good reason we talk so much about Islam and Muslims. From being a very small demographic in the US and UK, Muslims now represent a significant minority. There are 3.3 million Muslims in the US, with the expectation that figure will rise to 8.1 million people by 2050 (2.1 per cent of the total population). In the UK there are currently 2.8 million Muslims, and projections suggest that one in ten of all Europeans will be Muslim by 2050.
In addition to these demographic factors, we can't ignore the huge profile given to a brand of Islam by the prevalence of wars in the Middle East, terrorist attacks in the West and the very public discussion over the role of Islam in violence. Until September 11th 2001, it was possible to live in large parts of the US or the UK and have very little awareness of radical Islam. Since the attacks on New York and Washington (and subsequent terrorist outrages in Madrid, London, Paris, Brussels) and the rise in profile of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Queda and IS in the Middle East, rarely a day goes by without debate.
The questions asked seem to come up time and again, without conclusion. Can Muslims be fully integrated into a secular liberal democracy? Is Islam inherently hostile to pluralism? Does Islam need a reformation?
While there may be merit in these questions, we're at risk of putting the cart before the horse. So often, we have the conversation without Muslims actually being in the room. Right wing media figures leap to condemn Muslims and tar the wider group with the brush of violent extremism. "Islam is the spectre at the woolly liberals' feast" claims Melanie Phillips "because unlike other minorities, many Muslims expected their host culture to adapt to meet their requirements." Commentators often seem to do this without having really met any Muslims, while there are sometimes racist overtones to the commentary. The liberal left on the other hand seems all too willing to suggest there's no problem to be dealt with. When Hillary Clinton tweeted after the Paris attacks, "Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism" it was a laudible sentiment, but given that IS claimed responsibility, not accurate. Again, one wonders how much experience there is of actual Muslim communities.
The right shouts offensive nonsense about all Muslims being terrorists or terrorist sympathisers. But the left struggles to get beyond parroting platitudes about Islam being a religion of peace. This is not a debate, it's a silly side show.
The voices of Muslims themselves rarely make it into mainstream debate and discussion. In theologian Oliver O'Donovan's excellent phrase, this is a conversation waiting to begin.
It would be easy to lay all the blame at the door of the media. Yet, I'm part of the problem here. I think of myself as an engaged political activist. I'm desperate to see the common good promoted, rather than the sectional interest of any particular group. But to see that achieved, I should be engaging with people who are different to me far more than I do. I have Muslim friends, but they are a tiny minority of my friendship group, despite living in the most heavily Muslim area of London.
I've visited a number of mosques, in fact I've taken a group of Christians and Jews to visit our local masjid and I've worked alongside Muslims on various local campaigns. I've engaged with Muslim evangelists on the street. Yet I've never really had a conversation that goes deeper. What are the hopes and dreams of modern British Muslims? What do they really think is the answer to the perception of their faith as inherently violent. What do they think about my faith? Where does the contradictory and troubling history of Christian engagement with Islam leave us today? The Crusades are a long time in the past. But have we really ever dealt with them? Can we discuss the siege of Vienna and British colonial rule in India and the politico-religious issues in the contemporary Holy Land without resorting to the stereotypes fed to us by the media? I hope so.
Can we begin to share our faith and accept that Muslims will want to evangelise us, as we want to share the love of Jesus with them? That's what religious freedom looks like.
Jesus, as ever, is our example. In His day, the Samaritans were the religious minority, with an antagonistic history. But Jesus didn't only speak about them (and speak positively, in the parable of the Good Samaritan). He interacted with Samaritans, such as the woman at the well.
I need to follow Jesus' example and do better to get beyond my comfort zone. So do the rest of us. For the sake of the Muslim community, and indeed the whole world.
Follow Andy Walton on Twitter @waltonandy