Fear and Religion in London

Following the second series of terrorist attacks in London, the capital's Islamic community is in a state of alarm.

They are worried that all of the capital's estimated 750,000 Muslims will be seen as supporters of terrorism. This collision of politics and theology in such a secular country is leaving many ordinary people not just fearful, but equally alarmed.

It is odd in Britain to find religion dominating the news and political debate. It did happen following the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI, but, of course, that was different. For all the criticism the British media had leveled at Pope John Paul for his refusal to bend to fashionable ideas, they were forced to acknowledge him as a remarkable spiritual leader and a man of peace.

This time, leading newspaper columnists and all the major TV and radio stations have found themselves trying to unpack the main points of Islamic theology, while the government has held urgent meetings with leading Muslim clerics, who are seen as somehow being able to prevent young Muslims from packing explosives into rucksacks and getting on subway trains or buses.

For some Irish Catholics in Britain, however, the frenzy over the bombings has a familiar ring about it. For back in the 1970s and 1980s when the Irish Republican Army's bombing campaign was at its peak in London and other British cities and towns, to be an Irish Catholic was also to be a potential terrorist.

It is worth recalling the carnage the IRA caused in Britain back then. Attacks on pubs in Birmingham, Guildford and London in 1974 killed 28 people. In 1982, IRA bombs in Hyde Park and Regent's Park killed 11 people and wounded 50. An explosion at Harrod's department store in 1983 killed six people and injured another 50.

While the IRA never carried out suicide bombings (although they did undertake hunger strikes), and it was nationalism rather than theology that motivated it, the fact that they were Catholic ignited deep-seated fears of “Popery” among the British establishment. That some priests appeared to support their attempts to end the British occupation of Northern Ireland only fueled their suspicions that Irish Catholics were disloyal to the crown.

Although Catholic bishops in Ireland and England condemned the bombings, this wasn't enough to prevent attacks on Catholic social clubs in the West Midlands or the verbal abuse of Catholics in communities up and down the country.

Growing up in a small town in the Midlands, with a Catholic community of 50, I came to see that in the minds of many, to be an Irish Catholic was to be, at least, a sympathizer with the IRA.

Catholics, then, should be able to sympathize with law-abiding Muslims in the United Kingdom. In the week following the bombings in London, a three-day Catholic-Shi'a Conference was hosted by the Benedictines at Ampleforth Abbey in North Yorkshire. The conference had been organized by Ampleforth Abbey, Heythrop College (the Jesuit-run theology faculty at the University of London), and the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute in Qum, Iran.

The link between Heythrop, Ampleforth and the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute was established five years ago, and has resulted in several exchange visits. The first Catholic-Shi'a conference, under the TITLE: “A Catholic-Shi'a Engagement: Sharing Our Spiritual and Cultural Resources in the Face of Contemporary Challenges,” took place in 2003.

Those who see religion as divisive will be unimpressed by Catholics and Muslims sitting in a hall discussing theology. For them, the recent attacks in London only strengthen their argument that religion is at the root of many social problems. (Five days after the bombings, Northern Ireland saw some of its worst violence in recent years when Catholics attacked an Orange march in Belfast, leaving 40 police officers injured.)

For non-belivers, it makes little difference whether it is Muslims or Christians engaged in violence. Ultimately, they argue, it is religion that causes it. This is a view that you will hear increasingly expressed in Britain, especially among the young.

Spirituality is fine, but not religion. That religion is simply organized spirituality is lost on most people.

In the year that marks the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate (the Second Vatican Council's declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions), how to affirm Islam as a religion of Abraham and condemn those who kill in its name will be one of Pope Benedict's toughest challenges.

That Islam is not homogenous and has no pope-like figure as a focus of unity and authority makes his task all the more difficult. If he does visit Turkey in November, as some suggest he might, then we will see how he handles this challenge.

Following a meeting between Tony Blair and Muslim leaders at Downing Street this week, it was announced that a task force to tackle Muslim extremism is being set up to dissuade young Muslims from turning to extremism. Three days after this meeting, London was hit by terrorists for the second time in a fortnight.

At first sight, this task force might seem a perfectly sensible course of action. But examined more closely, it could be seen as posing a serious threat to the freedom of religion. If this can happen with Muslims over their interpretation of the Koran, we have to ask: Could it also happen to Catholics and other Christians who seek to express views contrary to those accepted by a secular democracy? Abortion and same sex “marriage” immediately come to mind. Pope Benedict has warned against the intolerance of so-called “tolerant societies.”

The attacks in London, which have killed more than 50 people and injured more than 700, affect not just the public perception of the Muslim community, but, up to a point, of Catholics and all religious communities as well.

A secular society will tolerate religion only so long as it is not seen as a threat to its social values and cohesiveness. If it is seen as being divisive, then society may feel forced to legislate against it in some way. This might seem unthinkable, but so have many things that have happened in history.

Greg Watts is a freelance writer in London and author of Laborer in the Vineyard: A Portrait of Pope Benedict XVI (Lion Hudson).