10 Sep 2010

UK religious leaders condemn Koran burning

As the furore over the threatened Koran burning by a US pastor continues, Samira Ahmed visits a mosque in Surrey where local religious leaders and councillors “made a stand for reason and tolerance”.

Whether Pastor Terry Jones burns Korans or not on 11 September, the uncontrollable momentum of anger and fear generated by his threat has been undeniable.

The impact has perhaps been heightened as the presence of Islamic radicals on the airwaves has decreased significantly since 7/7 with a legal crackdown and more responsible guest booking. But watching the news events unfold over the past week prompted one group of Britain’s Ahmadiyya Muslims to do more.

After 9/11, and after 7/7, the Ahmadiyya community based in Morden in Surrey invited the news media to film a cross-community condemnation of intolerance and hatred.

They are themselves persecuted in some Muslim countries, notably Pakistan, where recent terrorist attacks targeted worshippers in Ahmadiyya mosques in Lahore.

Now again as the Florida pastor’s on-off Koran burning threat continued, international broadcasters and news publications were invited to one of the largest mosques in Europe, in south west London to see local religious leaders and Merton councillors make a stand for reason and tolerance; a media stunt of their own, perhaps, in the face of a media stunt by a man with a few dozen followers that has seen the intervention of NATO’s commander in Afghanistan, General Petraeus, and the US President himself.

Jewish, Catholic, C of E, Bahaai and other Christian denominations all took part in an event for the cameras, as well as an American Embassy official.

They made statements condemning Terry Jones’ threats to burn the Koran. Some quoted the Bible, others referred to Nazi book burnings. The Reverend Andrew Wakefield – well known as a contributor to “Thought for the Day” – acknowledged that in the face of the Florida panic, perhaps faith leaders needed to make more effort to convey through the news media the extent of interfaith community cohesion.

At least 8,000 people attended Friday service today, spread over several floors, ahead of the important festival of Eid tomorrow. And they all listened to a sermon discussing how to fight hatred with prayer.

Events in the US have a special relevance here. Outside agitators, including the BNP, fought planning permission for this mosque for years before it was built. And the Ahmadis are also behind Manhattan’s Islamic centre near Ground Zero.

Talking so some of the worshippers I was struck by the range of thoughtful reactions. One woman expressing her concern for the extra stress on soldiers serving in Afghanistan; a young man astutely commenting on the dilemma of freedom of expression in a stunt that he felt was clearly intended to provoke further hatred.

The gesture of fighting unreason with reason is a very British one. For these Muslims, events in Florida and Manhattan resonate very much in Morden. As the President of the UK Ahmadiyya Association said, are we seeing the end of a sorry chapter – if the book burning is off – or the start of a new world order?

And for broadcasters there is a dilemma about how and when we decide to report the chain of events that can be set in motion by one man announcing a provocative plan of action.