Christians and Muslims met in London on Wednesday 17 July 2013 and considered why a significant number of young black Britons are abandoning Christianity in favour of Islam; why some converts are being radicalised; and what Christian churches can do in response.
Speaker Richard Reddie, author of ‘Black Muslims in Britain’ (Lion 2009) explained that the journey from Christianity to Islam amongst British blacks date back to the 1960s, and continues to be an expression of black people’s search for identity and certitude, which converts say they do not find in Eurocentric Christianity; including black churches. As one told Reddie in his research, ‘Islam provided answers to questions I’ve always had; it’s helped me walk a straight path; it’s given my life purpose’. That converts tend to be more zealous is a further challenge to the churches, and the number of converts is growing. ‘Time is not on the Christian church’s side’, Reddie said.
Adverse social conditions such as racism, bad experiences in the Criminal Justice System and deprivation contribute to alienation from society and from churches associated with its value system. Rev Ade Omooba, Co-Chair of NCLF- A Black Christian Voice, together with colleague Fred Williams, said that the recent killing in Woolwich of Drummer Lee Rigby, is symptomatic of common occurrences in other parts of the world, like their own experience in Nigeria. Omooba and Williams told the meeting that these atrocities are a consequence of people being radicalised and losing respect for life. They spoke of church congregations, and community employment / enterprise projects in South London founded on the Christian Gospel which did not see young blacks as good or bad, Christian or Muslim but primarily as ‘human beings’. The place to start, Omooba said, was seeing ‘God in everyone’.
The seminar heard that a key recruiting ground for radicalisation is prisons where black men are overrepresented. Dr R David Muir, Co-Chair of NCLF – A Black Christian Voice, described what he called ‘the mass incarceration’ of black people in the UK, similar to the US, as the ‘New Jim Crow’. Muir described the incarceration as a ‘blasphemy against the image of God in black people’. Quoting ECHR ‘How Fair is Britain’ (2010), Muir said that, on average, five times more black people than white people are in prison. From his own research, in one prison 50% of the black prisoners were from church backgrounds, with 12% from families of Christian pastors. Muir asked the church – and black churches in particular – ‘what has been going wrong?’.
British black youths are however at risk of radicalisation in several other spaces, and Taalib Alexander, a former Roman Catholic and now a convert to Islam, spoke of groups that meet in homes, outside the main networks of the Mosque. Alexander, a teacher and director of Alhambra Educational Initiative in North London, highlighted family, social class, race and ethnicity as potential contributories, and spoke of how a particular experience, friendship or trauma can be a ‘trigger’ for radicalisation – which is then often fed by videos and online material. Alexander described a three-stage radicalisation process of dissatisfaction, renunciation and terrorism and highlighted the adverse effects of funding cuts to programmes such as STREET – Strategy To Reach Engage and Educate Teenagers. Taalib spoke of social / ideological factors which are reinterpreted as theological justification for terror attacks, but emphasised how this is only from a very small minority of the 1.8billion Muslims worldwide. Experience of countries like Saudi Arabia where terrorism has declined dramatically, should be studied.
Finally, seminar attendees focussed on appropriate responses by the churches. Jennifer Crook, Diversity and Inclusion Advisor for the Methodist Church, encouraged zero tolerance of the ‘blasphemy’ of racism in British society which alienates black British young people and renders them vulnerable to alienation and therefore radicalisation. Crook also encouraged churches to aspire to be more than places of shelter from socio-economic, and political storms and instead to become spaces that lead on the quest for a just society.
In reviewing the day, other positive and practical responses from the churches were highlighted. These included projects promoting mutual respect, courses about identity and aspiration, teaching programs for young people, affirming masculinity and enabling empowerment, countering propaganda, teaching tolerance and ‘God in everyone’, helping young people understand and embrace their cultural and spiritual identity, viewing conversion to Islam as a challenge not a disaster, raising awareness of atrocities around the world (including Christian to Muslim and Muslim to Muslim as well as Muslin to Christian), training Christian ministers and lay people to be better able to explain their faith, ensuring iconography affirms black identity (blond-haired blue-eyed Jesus in Black churches is unhelpful for black self-image), encouraging inter-faith dialogue at all levels, putting pressure on government and education authorities towards an inclusive and affirming curriculum, promoting / provide local initiatives that build community, and generally teach against revenge attacks while affirming the core value of respect.
‘Radicalisation is like a virus, its airborne, it mutates, it’s like a cancer and must be destroyed or it destroys you’ said one contributor.
This statement, the minutes of the seminar, PowerPoint presentations and other resources will be circulated widely throughout the churches, other organisations and networks.
Further multi-agency planning will take place in the coming months to take forward these and other anti-radicalisation ideas. It is expected that black churches and related agencies will take primary responsibility for this agenda.