Sherry Ashworth shares her experience of recent visit to Brussels
There’s no doubt about it – religion has a bad press. I don’t even have to quote examples to prove this – just pick up any newspaper, read any website, and the accusations and stereotypes are all there. Religion causes war. It sanctions extremism. It’s only for the feeble-minded.
So when I tell you that I was part of a Multi-faith visit to Brussels organised by Afzal Khan MEP and his team, you’d expect tales of conflict, argument and narrow-minded thinking. All those different religions shoe-horned together, all with their different agendas …
Of course, the opposite was true, as anyone involved with inter-faith work will know. There were 26 of us headed to Brussels – Christians, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and Jews. We included the young and not-so-young, the single and married, mothers, fathers, grandparents. All of us were happy to be defined by our religious identities. All of us were also not-quite-so-happy at having to meet at Manchester Airport at 5.30 am for the flight to Brussels. But, hey, what is coffee for?
As each of us got through security, we introduced ourselves. What I noticed was that people immediately sought out what they had in common – Imams and Rabbis hooked up, teachers got together, the lawyers formed a little pack. As the visit progressed, I’m proud to say I joined the grandparent posse – an exclusive little club in which we could all boast about our wonderful grandkids.
The flight over, we were whisked straight to the European Parliament. Well, when I say whisked, you’ve got to understand that Charleroi airport was quite a distance from the centre of Brussels, and we went there as quickly as we could in our coach without breaking the speed limit. I mention this only because it was one of the many inbetween bits of our visit that made the whole trip so special. When you’re waiting for things to happen, the conversations begin.
We were all pretty awestruck by the parliament buildings, and our Smartphones were doing overtime capturing locations so familiar from TV. We were happy to be greeted by Afzal – our man in Brussels – and to get briefed about the contemporary EU. And the conversations continued. They carried on back in the hotel, over dinner and beyond dinner. Through our journeys into the city of Brussels the next day – during meals, in the coach, on foot. Unlike structured interfaith events, where an order and objective is imposed on participants, we just talked.
So what, did I, a Jew, learn? That Sikhs know how to tell a good story. Ask a Sikh a question, and you get a story and also food. Sikhs love food, and this is a stereotype you can fairly apply to them. It’s important to them to share it too. They light up with enthusiasm when you ask them about their religion. The Christians in the party also relished the opportunity to talk about their faith, as well as the charities they work for and with. So much quiet good is done by all Christian churches of all denominations. So yep – another stereotype. And those Muslims – as one said to me, we don’t drink, we don’t smoke, so, yes, we ARE very interested in food. As well as the charities they work for, the history of their religion, the hadiths that spiced our conversation, education, and also a genuine interest in others. I am a garrulous Jewish grandmother (think Jewish mother, then multiply by 10.) Can you imagine my delight when one young Muslim after another took a seat by me and said, we haven’t got to know each other yet! The Hindus were also brimming with enthusiasm for their traditions and learning and like the Jews, loved nothing more than giving an explanation. And yes, they do yoga – first thing in the morning! And the Jews – well, I hope we come across as having a sense of humour!
So here’s a test to see if you’ve been reading properly. Which faith is full of enthusiasm for their religion, enjoys food, loves talking, gives to charity, likes listening too and values family. Oh, wait. That would be all of them, then.
I fear that this might sound a little too feelgood and bland. The problem with interfaith work is that it can come across as just wishful thinking. And it’s true that each faith and all faiths encounter problems. All of us felt got at by increasing secularisation (a few of the Muslim men were stopped mid-prayers in Charleroi airport by a paranoid security guard.) Jews and Muslims were hyper-aware of the dangers of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Conflicts continue in the Indian sub-continent. All religions have their extremists who do untold damage. And on a personal level, we all had our own obsessions – making our businesses pay, finding a marriage partner, keeping in good health.
But the big truth about interfaith work – and the one that need to be shouted from the rooftops – is that far more unites us than divides us. And we only discover this universal truth when we meet real people from other faiths and don’t rely on media sources to do our thinking for us. Stereotyping is just lazy thinking. It atrophies your brain and should come with a government health warning. Afzal and his team gave us the opportunity to meet each other properly against the backdrop of the EU – a very fitting setting.
Oh, and one more thing all faiths have in common. We are idealists. We think it’s worth working towards a better future and more than that, we think it can be done. But we are also realists. We know that we have three considerable enemies that we have to fight openly and vigorously. These are hatred, fear and ignorance. Interfaith work combats all three.
The second day of our visit was Armistice Day. Early that morning two of our party – a young Catholic and a young Muslim – travelled together to Ypres so they could take part in the commemorations marking the end of World War One.
That’s why I believe a better future awaits us.