Our God: Pinning Faith on United Future; Relations between Christianity and Islam Were Put under the Spotlight in the Aftermath of September 11. in the Second of Our Three-Part Series on Faith in the City, Religious Affairs Reporter Helen Bruce Looks at the Love and Loathing That Bind the Two Primary Religions in Birmingham

Article excerpt

Byline: Helen Bruce

The events of September 11 had a profound effect on the world and not just those directly affected by the terrorist attacks.

It brought the uneasy relationship Christianity and Islam have experienced for centuries to the forefront of world affairs once again. The nature of the terrorist attacks ensured that the suspicion and antipathy that have existed for so many years were thrust to the surface.

Fundamentalists clashed on both sides, and feuds broke out in cities across the globe.

In Birmingham, Muslims faced abuse and physical attack from so-called Christians hell-bent on revenge for a horrific incident that took place on the far side of the Atlantic.

Yet, within 24 hours, church leaders in the city joined forces in an unprecedented public display of unity and peace. It was this that helped to show what a dysfunctional relationship the two religions continued to endure.

Islam and Christianity have a long shared history - 1,400 years, to be exact.

Theologically, they have much in common. A belief in one God would be the obvious link, but one that deserves stating before the differences are picked over.

Both believe the world is God's creation, and therefore something more than just a conglomeration of atoms. It is a place of meaning, where actions matter and have repercussions.

Ethically, both would also place high importance on a sense of community, on the importance of the family and of education.

So far so good. The perfect building blocks for a united community. So why the strife?

One answer is that the path of history is far from smooth, littered as it is with baggage from the crusades, colonialism and missionary work which is liable to trip up any Christian and Muslim who meet.

Also, on the Christian side, there is an awareness that Islam began later than Christianity, and therefore later than what Christians accept as God's last word in the world through Jesus Christ. It is difficult for them to find a place for Islam. Jesus said: 'I am the truth and the life, nobody comes to God except through me.'

Islam has more of a problem, in that the Koran has very specific teaching about who Jesus is and what Christianity is.

It says Jesus was not divine, but that he was sent as a human messenger of God - a prophet, like Mohammed. The Koran also says that Jesus did not die on the cross, which is in direct opposition to Christianity.

Although the majority of Christians and Muslims meeting in Birmingham would never discuss it, in the background this awareness of the differences could lead to friction and problems.

Another sticking point is the unequal relations between Christians and Muslims in Britain.

The majority of Muslims came to this country and to Birmingham from Pakistan and India, from very specific areas. They were recruited, often in whole villages, by agents for firms for manufacturing in the 1950s. They were used in heavy industry - ironworks in the West Midlands, cotton mills in Lancashire and woollen mills in Yorkshire. Most were semi-literate, so for them Islam was more a cultural than a spiritual path.

Now, three to four generations later, people are no longer immigrants, but the integration that it was thought would take place has not occurred.

Rev Dr David Thomas, a specialist Islamist and Anglican priest based at the University of Birmingham, explains: 'A lot of people do not feel confident and at home in British society, which has led to the phenomenon of ghettoisation like Handsworth and Sparkhill. 'It is all to do with solidarity, and not knowing how to make the system work.

If someone's language is not up to scratch, for example, it can be a disorientating place to live.'

Dr Thomas is a governor of Alum Rock Church of England School. …