I sometimes wish I had more facility in expressing direct, succinct and acceptable feelings about events such as the recent attempted public decapitation of a young man on a suburban street, and his death from the injuries inflicted on him. Or perhaps I don’t wish. I get no comfort from the glib statements of politicians, statements that close down any discussion of how such things come about, and what might we do? So when I heard about this on the news my mind swirled, and is still a swirl of thoughts and feelings, many of them conflicting and confusing.
Words include “waste”, “despair”, “youth”, “hope”, “mercy”, “pain”, “blood”, “delusion” and these have associated images and emotional correlates. These all occur against a kind of deep groaning sense of “Here I/we go again……….”, which echoes with personal recollections of murderous thoughts I’ve had, and reckless acts of folly I’ve committed over a lifetime.
In the midst of all this, I found myself in Southend mosque on Friday, just after the beginning of Friday mid-day prayers. I had only formed the idea of visiting the mosque on the journey there in my car, and I wasn’t entirely sure why I was going. I have a tendency to impulsivity: it’s a double-edged thing, sometimes the impulse – examined after the event – seems to have sprung from an honourable motive, sometimes not. Even as I arrived I hadn’t worked it out, but the impulse was strong enough to carry me over the threshold and to the back of the hall where about 50 men and boys were already performing their act of common worship.
I sat with bare feet on a chair listening to the soaring voice of the imam, and the sound of moving bodies as the congregation moved in unison to stand, and to kneel. I kept my head bowed until the ceremony ended. A single coherent thought came to me: “What am I doing here?”.
The worship over, men began to leave the mosque. Some looked as if they had other urgent business to attend, maybe they were going back to work. Other tarried to chat in small groups, laughing and patting each others’ arms as men do. Now I watched with interest. Several men greeted me with nods and eye contact as they left. Two reached out warm hands to press mine, no words were exchanged. Those I heard talking were speaking a language I couldn’t recognise.
Eventually the room emptied, and the young imam came over to me. We introduced ourselves and I told him I had visited on an impulse and without prior arrangement. I heard myself saying that I had come as an act of human solidarity with the Muslim congregation at a time of sensitivity following the murder of the young man in Woolwich. He nodded but made no comment. Later he showed me round the mosque, a converted Methodist chapel. He said that security was an issue, and that he needed to to be sure that the doors were locked against hostile intruders.
We spoke about interfaith matters. I am chair of the local forum of faiths, and we’re developing a partnership arrangement with the local Borough on hate crime, which is increasing but remains stubbornly under-reported. Near-at-home experience indicates that people who experience acts of micro-aggression ( e.g. being ignored in shops by salespeople, being scowled at or sworn at or subject to hostile gestures on public transport) don’t regard that as crime or themselves as the victims of crime, although the cumulative effect is very damaging. The police are aware of this deficit, and are acting on the knowledge. The Government has published a hate-crime strategy to help mitigate it. We have adopted it and hope to take it forward with the support of local faith communities.
The media outcry and extended hyperbole about “Islamic fundamentalism” and “home-grown terrorists” is inflaming the hate-crime situation, although freedom of speech is essential. Local Muslims are fearful and some are restricting their public appearances. I’d value the ideas and opinions of fellow secular Buddhists on the matter, and perhaps some discussion of how the middle way philosophy can inform our action, if we decide to act.
I mentioned the question that came into consciousness during a period of attentive silence: “What am I doing here?” This question often comes to me in meditation. It challenges me to authenticity, and I find myself looking for justifications, but also I find myself setting justifications aside, so that a deeper questioning can proceed, turning over the tilth of mind so that – perhaps – something worthwhile will take root in consciousness and bear late fruit……