The Challenge Of Interfaith Dialogue

19/99 is a date which will live in infamy. Homicidal crusaders swept into Jerusalem — on July 19, 1099 — shedding so much Muslim blood that it swilled around their horses’ kneecaps. 9/11 is a date which will live in infamy too. Payback time.

A simplistic statement? Sure. Offensive? Quite possibly. One of those black-and-white illustrations to show that medieval Christians and modern Islamic terrorists have both behaved abominably in the name of religion, with the separation of time arguably the only moral distance between them.

The comparison came to mind because last week I was invited to join a think-tank run by the polling organisation YouGov. One of the questions they want me to think about is “the extent Islam is to blame for the terrorist attacks on London in 2005″. But the answer requires more than one of the five tick-boxes available.

And it begs a further question: is Britain’s present political, social and cultural climate sufficiently robust to hold such a debate with any honesty? Taking offence has become such a national obsession that those of us in the media who try to tackle race/religion/sexuality or whatever feel we have to include an apology when we do it. That’s if we’re brave enough to do it at all. Rowan Atkinson, already concerned that the inclusion of measures to outlaw the incitement of hatred against homosexuals in the new Criminal Justice Bill will criminalise humourists, is now worried it might be extended to transsexuals and the disabled.

“I am sure that they could make a very good case, as indeed could all those who can claim that they cannot help being the way they are,” he says. “Men, for example. Or women. Or people with big ears.” In a letter to The Times last week the auricularly-challenged comedian complains at “the casual ease with which some people move from finding something offensive to wishing to declare it criminal… they’d like a law to stop people being rude about you.”

Last week Ofcom rejected 200 complaints from Big Brother viewers over the use of the word “poof” in the Channel 4 reality boreathon. The watchdog ruled that within the gay community the term can be regarded as “playful, affectionate or self-deprecating” and therefore not derogatory.

But before hanging out the bunting at this rare show of common sense, the fact remains that 200 ‘outraged of Outrage’ took the time and trouble to register their whinges in the first place.

The new law may have implications for all those quiet Christians who believe that homosexuality is a sin, not because they are homophobic, but because their understanding of Scripture tells them so. I do not agree with them — and my reasons why are for another time — but I will defend their right to their view.

Which brings me back to Islam. When Pope Benedict quoted a medieval German potentate as saying evil comes from Islam all hell broke lose, with one Muslim leader observing: “Anyone who suggests Islam is intolerant provokes violence.” Eh? It was a similar rumpus when some not-very-funny cartoons of Muhammad were published. They — and the Pope — would have been largely ignored without the kerfuffle. And no mainstream religion should be so fragile it cannot take insults because that questions the firmness of its foundations. Christians who back blasphemy laws, please note. The fear of causing offence led to a Muslim Metropolitan police officer being excused guard duty at the Israeli Embassy during the war in Lebanon last October because he had relatives there.

The copper’s bosses may well have been at fault for not checking whether his religion posed any problems while assessing his suitability for the armed Diplomatic Protection Group, given he would be running around London with a loaded machine-gun.

But their greater mistake was in not telling him that if he could not do his job on conscientious grounds he must take personal responsibility for that. And quit. Conscience carries consequences, no matter to which religion you belong. So, my answer to the original YouGov question? No, the teachings of Muhammad can no more be blamed for 7/7 than those of Jesus can for the crusades. But Islam must recognise that while most Muslims are not suicide bombers most suicide bombers are Muslims, Sri Lankan Tamils aside. And the 7/7 attackers were not foreign fanatics from countries of which we know little, but British born and bred. It was Islam which motivated them.

So the open letter from 138 Islamic scholars last month to the Pope, Rowan Williams and other Christian leaders calling on Muslims and Christians to work together for peace is a step in the right direction. Now comes the tricky bit; a get-together for forthright dialogue in which no offence is taken. Because until that happens, Islamophobia will remain the one form of acceptable racism left.

Nigel Nelson is Political Editor and leader writer of The People