Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Last July in Beeston

I now know that the so-called journalists' notebooks which you can buy in stationers' shops are aptly named. Almost every journalist seems to carry one, unless they're armed with a microphone. So it was easy to spot the journalists in Beeston last summer as they stood on street corners, scribbling away in their notebooks.
Before last July I had never met any journalists from the big national dailies. Now I've met journalists from international newspapers too – from America, Spain, France, Brazil and Japan, to name but a few.
Many journalists came to Beeston with preconceived ideas, and simply sought out someone who would confirm what they already believed. So one TV journalist strode down Lodge Lane, behind the Building Blocks and Hamara Centres, confidently declaring that Beeston was a 'tense and divided community'. The Times informed its readers that 'extreme views' are 'disseminated in mosques by ill-educated imams' – this despite the fact that the imam from the mosque in Stratford Street delivered an impassioned denunciation of violence at the end of the two minute silence on the Thursday after the 7th July attacks. But then the Times reporter didn't wait until the Thursday before jumping to conclusions. On Wednesday the paper lamented the divisions its reporter had supposedly found between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Beeston. Under the headline, 'Where partition walls are the only things they share,' the reporter said that 'in the course of three hours [in Beeston], I saw not a single mixed group' of young people.'
Well, three hours is not a long time, is it? I have spent more than nine years in Beeston and it's true that young people of different races don't mix very much on street corners. But they do play football together in the park, and sometimes cricket too. And they do sometimes walk together to school. And if 'young people' includes young mothers, they mix very well at the Building Blocks Centre where I work, and so do their children.
While print journalists were happy to draw remarkably quick conclusions from the flimsiest of evidence, TV journalists were often guilty of arriving with the script already written so that it could be delivered straight to camera. Beeston served merely as a vivid backdrop to their story, a kind of living wallpaper.
I have known the leaders of the Muslim community in Beeston for many years. They are honest and totally law-abiding people, some of whom have worked tirelessly to regenerate Beeston and improve community and inter-faith relations. When they say that they had no inkling whatever of the desperate plot being hatched in their midst, I believe them implicitly. But not so the leader writers of The Daily Telegraph, who insisted it was 'inconceivable' that nobody around the young men noticed what they were planning to do.
The Financial Times claimed that, while 'racial integration has worked in prosperous London, it has failed in the old textile towns of the north.' Whether or not that's true, and I don't know any old textile towns well enough to comment, it is hardly an explanation for terrorists coming from Leeds, one of the most prosperous places anywhere in the country.
In a democracy, we do need journalists and I for one was happy to welcome them, and to talk to them. If the media didn't come to places like Beeston to report breaking news, how would the rest of the nation – and the rest of the world – find out about it? So I don't subscribe to the view that journalists are worthless parasites who can safely be ignored by the rest of us; but nevertheless I was shocked by the lack of professionalism and the lack of healthy curiosity and interest in the truth shown by many members of the press.
Yet some of the journalism was very good, and I don't just mean the journalism which quoted me! Even 'The Sun' had the good sense to condemn 'imbecilic' reprisal attacks by the racist 'thugs' who damaged people's cars in Beeston and went out at night to daub racist graffiti. Despite the young man who told one of my acquaintances that she should be ashamed to sit next to an Asian man on the bus home from work, I think most of the racists came from outside the area, drawn to it by all of the publicity on TV and in the press – and especially by some of the claims that Beeston is a deeply divided place.
Going some way to redress the balance, 'The Guardian' contained a sensitive article about the two minute silence in Beeston to remember the victims of the bombings, and the way it began optimistically as people of all faiths and races gathered together outside the Hamara Centre. Despite coming to some totally unjustified conclusions in its leader columns, 'The Telegraph' was also one of the first papers to publish a condemnation of the London Bombings by a local imam.
One of the best articles about the events of that week was published in a French Catholic newspaper, La Croix. Perhaps because the writer, Brice Arlet, comes from another country, he was prepared to give his readers some uncomfortable questions to consider.
'How are we to explain the inexplicable?' he asked. Beeston Hill is a poor neighbourhood, but – with its hillside covered in little red brick houses all the same – it isn't penniless, unemployment is low and the family of one of the people involved in the bombing is actually quite wealthy.
'Everyone is shocked and no one can understand it,' Mohammed Aliaz told him, all the more so because the lives of the three young men were so ordinary. And, far from finding a divided community, Monsieur Arlet met people who told him that people mix well in Beeston, and women and people of faith play an important part in this. 'The different communities live side by side without any problem,' someone called Mary told him. And she should know because she has lived in Beeston for sixty-two years. The implication is that if terrorists can come from a place like this, they can come from anywhere!
There have been calls for the Muslim community to banish radical young men from their mosques and community schools. The trouble is, of course, that neither Islam nor Christianity can operate in this way. Jesus' story of 'The Weeds Among the Wheat' makes the point that all communities – including religious communities – are bound to include both good and bad people. If we try to keep our communities pure, by guarding them against people with the wrong kind of motives, or attitudes, or upbringing, how are we going to decide who to allow in and who to exclude? And isn't there a danger that we'll exclude essentially good people who are just going through a wobbly patch, or who are experimenting with ideas which we don't happen to like but who are basically harmless? And what should we do about people who have changed their opinions, and come round to our point of view? When would we decide that they have done enough to be readmitted to our churches or mosques? In any case, bad people are often good at pretending – so some of the weeds would still sneak into the field, however hard we tried to keep them out.
Political parties can exclude people. Perhaps countries can do it, too. But religions can't, because religions are about giving people access to God and helping them to cultivate the spiritual side of human nature. If we seek to deny people that opportunity, we are trying to play God and denying them their birthright. No truly religious person can do that, which is why churches go to so much trouble to try to include child abusers in Christian congregations, with suitable safeguards to make sure they cannot re-offend, and why both Christianity and Islam have prison chaplains to work alongside criminals and put them in touch with their spirituality.
To ask Islam to exclude people from prayer and worship is like asking Christians to root out the weeds from their field while the crop is still growing. It is contrary to our entire ethos. What believers must do, of course, is to try to make sure that members of their communities get sound teaching, good advice and a reliable moral compass so that they can make the kind of life decisions which will bring them closer to God and help them to love peace and justice and live compassionately.

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