Christians and Muslims in Britain: Working Together in Solidarity 20 October 2015

Catriona Robertson recently took over as Director of the Christian Muslim Forum. We speak to her about Christian-Muslim relations here and abroad, and plans for the future of the Forum.

christian muslim smallThe Christian-Muslim Forum began life in 2006. It’s origins lie within the Church of England, and the then Archbishop Carey’s view that it was necessary for Christians and Muslims ‘to find ways in which members of our two communities can meet regularly together in a more structured way than has been possible up to now’.

After many years, a report submitted to the Archbishop Rowan Williams led to the creation of the Forum which sought to explore the relationships between Muslims and Christians in Britain.

In 2015, the former director Julian Bond completed his role after nearly a decade, and Catriona Robertson began her role as Interim Director.

We speak to her about where she hopes to take the forum, and the challenges and opportunities Christians and Muslims face in Britain.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your background prior to joining the Christian Muslim Forum (CMF)?
Catriona RobertsonYes, of course. I’m interested in how people with different backgrounds and world views live well and equitably together without having to be the same. Bringing churches, Islamic centres, temples, gurdwaras and synagogues together has been part of my life for a while, making a positive impact on the wider community and redressing inequalities.

I’ve also co-founded the European Network on Religion and Belief, convened the London Boroughs Faiths Network, run a multifaith football club and worked on co-production with Wandsworth Community Empowerment Network.  A few years back, I travelled with my teenage son across North Africa and through the Middle East to Pakistan.  In 2012 a group of us came together to promote the Olympic Truce and this led to an innovative project, supported by the Foreign Office, linking civil society organisations in Pakistan with diaspora groups here.

The Scottish highlands is where I was born and brought up and I spent much of my twenties working in a health project in Kolkata, India.  I’ve also worked in the South Pacific, but am now based in London.

The place of women in public life interests me and I chaired the ‘Women and Faith’ session at the Southbank Centre’s Women of the World Festival last year.  The intersection of religion with ethnicity, class and gender is complex and I speak at events on religion, identity and human rights. My writing appears occasionally in books and online and, as you know, I also keep in touch with people and ideas via Twitter.

What does your new role as Director of the Christian-Muslim Forum entail? What do you hope to achieve?
This country is home to millions of Christians and Muslims and there are churches and Islamic centres in every urban area.  It makes sense for the two main religions to get to know each other, to recognise our common humanity and to work together for the common good.

CMF embraces a huge network of people from both faiths who are actively engaged in Christian Muslim relations. We have a 5,000 strong Facebook group and a team of scholars, religious leaders and specialists. Our links with academics, business people, artists, media professionals, local activists, parliamentarians and educationalists from both traditions create a dynamic set of relationships.  

The Forum’s Founding Patron is the Archbishop of Canterbury, and our trustees are senior women and men from the two faiths.  The mix of grassroots activity with academic, scholarly and institutional input and support gives us a solid base. Our guidelines (for example on Ethical Witness and on Inter Faith Marriage) are always in demand.

I work in a collaborative way, developing ideas with my Muslim and Christian colleagues.  Since taking up this post, I’ve hosted a Peace Iftar, attended Leeds Muslim Youth Forum’s Muslim Youth Speak launch, met colleagues from the Church Urban Fund’s government-funded Near Neighbours Programme and released doves of peace at an Eid celebration.

It’s not enough simply to assert that the overwhelming majority of Muslims and Christians want to live peacefully together; it’s necessary to demonstrate this in practice and to work out the “how” within a fast-changing context. In the UK, we’re actually pretty good at this, although it often stays below the radar and people don’t get to hear about it. A fire in an Islamic centre recently prompted the local church to offer its hall to their Muslim neighbours for prayer. Grassroots work is often the sharp end, but bringing leaders and people of influence together is also essential.

What is the future direction of the CMF? It’s going through a period of change as I understand, what is changing and what will stay the same?
It’s an exciting time for CMF. We are nearly 10 years old, with an extensive network up and down the country and an enviable record of initiatives and achievement. But a lot has changed over this time and we’re taking a close look at the current context and deciding where we should now focus: What’s going well? What could be working better? Where is it hurting? What are the intractable issues? What needs to happen? Who isn’t being heard? Where is the energy? Who are the key players? We’re developing a strategy to include a wide range of individual Christians and Muslims from many walks of life, but also something which will be valuable for our religious institutions, faith-based organisations and society as a whole.

On Religion readers are more than welcome to get in touch with ideas and suggestions – email me direct.  What won’t change is our bilateral character, although we will continue to work in partnership with a wide range of organisations.

There is an increasingly desperate situation in the Middle-East at the moment, particularly for Christians in Syria and Iraq. What does this say about Christian-Muslim relations internationally and locally? What might be done here in the UK to address it?
It’s desperate not just for Christians – it’s a humanitarian disaster for so many people across North Africa and the Middle East. My own view is that these conflicts are not about religion in a straight forward way, although religious identity is obviously a factor.  

Largely because of our imperial history, British society includes diaspora groups which have family and social links overseas. In a globalised world, we are connected as never before through trade, finance, travel and communications. We are fortunate in this country to be able to come together across religious and other boundaries in a way that would be impossible in the countries you mention.

How can we respond coherently to horrific events such as the murder of Lee Rigby, to the increasing numbers of people travelling to Syria and Iraq, to concerns about freedom of religion and belief or the rise in anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish hate crime if we don’t know each other, know each other’s histories, know each other’s concerns – if we don’t care about each other? Christians and Muslims will never agree on important tenets of belief, but we do care about how we live together.

Are there any particular challenges facing Christians and Muslims in the UK?
You only have to glance at the newspapers to realise that Muslims are under pressure. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to see British Islam reported in all its diversity, instead of being consistently problematized? As a Christian myself, I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Churches, and particularly the historic churches which have infrastructure and a significant voice in public life, have an opportunity to build bridges, improve understanding and be good neighbours at a time of need.

Reducing fear of “the other” is important and European history shows us what can happen when we fail. Hate crime against Muslims and Jews is on the rise, the far right and the popular right in Europe is growing. Discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief is alive and well. We need to work together to challenge discrimination, to open doors, to aid understanding and to forge alliances. Both traditions have an important part to play, alongside others, in shaping our society.

Any closing thoughts?
It’s great that On Religion is making its mark and thanks for inviting the Christian Muslim Forum onto your pages. The public conversation needs a wide range of contributors with lived experience as well as academic, philosophical and theological input.

Christian Muslim engagement is not all about difference; often it’s about working together in solidarity, humanising our relationships and celebrating the vast amount we have in common.

For more information about the Christian-Muslim Forum, you can contact Catriona by email at catriona@christianmuslimforum.org  or Twitter at @multifaith

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