Sunday 5th February 2017 was the third national Visit My Mosque day in the UK.
Visit my Mosque involves ‘over 150 mosques across the UK holding open days and welcoming in their neighbours of all faiths and none.’
Until I read about this on Friday I had no idea there was a mosque just a few minutes walk down the road from where I live. This might seem odd, until you find that it’s a tiny little place, converted from what was once the back room of a pub. No domes, no minarets, no muezzin.
With a participating mosque practically on my doorstep, I had a vague intention to attend. But tbh, in simpler, calmer times I probably would have found a reason not to bother. I’d rather spend my Sunday afternoon going for a long walk, or reading a book, or maybe baking. But these are not calm or simple times, and there are very troubling things happening around the world.
I didn’t manage to go on any of the anti-Trump marches, but this was something I could do – something so simple and easy it would almost be shameful not to do.
But I had concerns. I pictured my partner and I turning up as the only visitors to an embarrassed and disinterested group of strangers who perhaps were merely ticking a box by taking part. Or maybe they’d be like Jehovah’s Witnesses, and we’d spend the next hour trying to politely extricate ourselves from an attempted conversion. Or perhaps they’d expect us to have come armed with lots of intelligent questions, and I honestly couldn’t think of any, and we’d go in, say ‘hi,’ turn round, and leave again – like when you go in a gift shop and instantly realise it’s all tat and you’re not interested – but the effusive shop-keeper really wants to talk to you….
As it happens, we turned up half an hour after the start of the open day, and could barely fit in the place. We deposited our shoes behind the front door, and crammed into a game of sardines. The guy at the front was talking about all the areas of overlap between the Bible and Qur’an – things I had no idea about, such as the fact that Muslims believe in Jesus and revere Mary.
We listened to him talk for a little time, about how he set up this mosque originally as somewhere for the local taxi drivers to worship between shifts. There were originally just 5 of them, but it has grown, and is now often full. He invited questions from the many visitors and answered them engagingly, with humour and enthusiasm.
Another guy arrived shortly after us, and introduced himself as a first generation Irish immigrant who arrived in the UK 50-odd years ago, and suffered a great deal of prejudice and racial or religious discrimination. He told the assembled group, ‘I am not religious. I’m an atheist now. But I wanted to come here today because I know what it is to be shunned and treated with distrust. I want to thank you for inviting us here today, and to show you that you’re not alone. We will stand with you.’
This was pretty much exactly what I would have liked to say (apart from the Irish immigrant bit). There was a spontaneous round of applause.
Then there were snacks, mingling, and the opportunity to ask questions, if you wished.
It was very far from the slightly awkward but worthy duty I had thought it might be, and I am so glad we went.
Those who know me know that I don’t have any great opinion of religion generally, and there are certainly aspects of Islam I find particularly problematic. But that’s not what today was about. If I had wanted, no doubt I could have asked some awkward questions, and I think they would have been answered honestly and with respect. But for once, I didn’t want to be the awkward person. I just wanted to accept the hand that was reached out to me, to meet people in my immediate community I normally wouldn’t meet, and experience things I normally wouldn’t experience. To build bridges, not walls.
See also Finding the Familiar.
Thank you so much to everyone who liked and shared this post, which seemed to strike a chord with a lot of you. I ended up featured in The Guardian in their coverage of Visit My Mosque day.