22 April 2020

Well, it’s complicated

By the Revd Dr Barbara Glasson

This article first appeared in the Methodist Recorder on 20 March

I once travelled all the way down to London and back on the wrong train ticket. This mistake didn’t come to light until I was doing my expenses claim some weeks later when perplexingly I had tickets for London and for Birmingham with the same date. How could this be? A cross reference with my diary revealed that the London ticket had been bought via the internet for the wrong month!

When I remembered that journey I recalled that none of the barriers had allowed me to pass without the assistance of a station attendant. And in each case they had apologised for the machine and swiped me through. An advantage of looking like a harmless middle-aged lady - I know for sure that if my young adult sons had made a similar error they would not have made the journey unchallenged.

in an article in the Guardian (Jan 12 2020) two black female MP’s told of how they were repeatedly mistaken for each other, for support staff and for cleaners.  The thrust of the article is that to those with privilege  all black people look the same. In one instant the embarrassed white MP blurted, ‘Oh there are more of you!’. Both these anecdotes indicate how we instantly make assumptions about people’s status, social class and honesty. We all do it, all the time.

This is also absolutely true  for the communities of Bradford of South Asian heritage. ‘They’ are ‘Muslims’ except they might not be. They might be Sikh, Hindu or Christian, they might be from India, Sri Lanka or Pakistan. And even if they are Muslims, they might be devout or not, they might be Sunni or Shia, liberal or conservative, born outside the UK or Yorkshire through and through. ’They’ are all sorts of human beings but ‘we’ don’t always bother to acknowledge that.

At Touchstone, when asked about interfaith relations in Bradford we often answer a question, ‘Well, it’s complicated’ and in doing so we are not making an apology but simply telling a truth. This complication is not a problem, in fact it’s a gift because it acknowledges that none of us are experts about another person’s life and faith.

Yes, we can talk about trends, pressures and issues for the communities around us, but we can also indicate pleasures, contradictions and nuance.  To say something is complicated is to resist the stereotypes and foregone conclusions that lead to prejudice and discriminations. To say something is complicated is not a woolly liberal response but a response of wisdom and strength.

Many of the women that are part of our Touchstone community express an exhaustion with the political agenda that seeks for them to be ‘empowered’. Being visibly Muslim they are for ever on defensive mode from well-meaning people who want them to be something different, something more.

They are also exhausted by having to continually give account of their beliefs for curious and sometimes hostile people around them. Consistently Musllim women are asked about the wearing of the Hijab and arranged marriage, as if this was all of their faith.

How often outside groups ask us to ‘bring a Muslim’ with us as if we are bringing ‘exhibit A’ for scrutiny. How grateful women are when they can say positive things about their ordinary lives, how they can talk freely and openly about their challenges, achievements and struggles and most particularly, when they can say how faith helps and sustains them.

I have found working in interfaith relationships to be a great joy. We laugh a lot, we make mistakes, we learn from each other, but most of all we talk about faith openly and freely in ways I rarely experience in church. The story of faith and race relationships in Britain is complicated, thank God!



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