There's more to Easter than eggs, you know. Photo: Getty
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Street retreats, weird Passion plays and blessing Banderas on Loose Women

An Easter Notebook.

It’s great having advertising gurus in your congregation. Most churches run some kind of programme for the six weeks of Lent – reading or prayer groups, for instance, or a lecture series. Lent, which mirrors the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, is a season of fasting, prayer and study.

In that spirit, we organised trips to places that we might not otherwise have seen, to jolt us out of the “groupthink” that often afflicts churches. To this end, members of the congregation went to the public gallery of the Old Bailey, to a Hindu temple and to a television studio for a recording of a popular daytime show; and we encouraged people to take the time to look around them and see familiar environments differently. This was where the ad guys came in. To describe all of this – which is, in essence, hanging around and observing stuff – one of our congregation came up with the name “Loitering Within Lent”.

And it wasn’t any old TV studio we were in. My colleague took a group to see the ITV magazine programme Loose Women. She got hauled out of the audience by the warm-up guy, who declared that the show had never had a vicar in the crowd before. She gently refused, when pressed during one of the ad breaks, to “bless the desk” behind which the celebrity presenters were seated. By her own admission, she would probably rather have blessed Antonio Banderas, who came on shortly afterwards . . .

 

Confidence women

From Loose Women to Leading Women, a national development programme for female clergy that was founded about five years ago. We thought there was room for an intensive, 18-month course to help clergywomen develop their confidence, theological understanding and spiritual depth, alongside their financial literacy and strategic acumen. After seeing three cohorts through the programme, I attended my last residential scheme this Lent and was again struck by the variety of these women: their humour, their sense of camaraderie and, perhaps surprisingly, their reticence about their abilities and what they have to offer.

 

Veil threats

From there to a panel of Muslim and Christian women discussing gender equality. One woman spoke of her young daughter’s distress after her best friend at school (who is white) told her that she couldn’t be friends with her any more because her mother had told her that she might be a jihadi bride. Another story came from a woman whose veil was pulled by a “suited-and-booted white man” on the Tube, who called her “a f***ing jihadi bride”. These women, like our Leading Women, were articulate, angry and self-deprecating. They were critical of both the media, which seemed obsessed with Isis, and a Muslim leadership that wasn’t saying what they wanted it to say. I left the meeting energised and moved.

 

Street spirit

Lent rolls on and central London parish life is as mottled and mercurial as ever. One Saturday morning, we hosted a kind of urban retreat called “Street Wisdom” (streetwisdom.org). The facilitators encouraged us to walk the streets of Soho, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly and St James’s. We were urged to walk as slowly as we dared, to take a question to the streets and see what kind of answers we came up with.

The adventures and conversations that people had in their three hours alone were quite amazing. One had had a gun pointed at her; another became obsessed with a torn piece of plastic; others had had profound thoughts about the direction of their lives, just because they had stopped and changed the pace at which they normally lived.

The fire and the rose

Holy Week moves inevitably nearer and the word on the Church’s lips is “Passion”, in its original sense of suffering. A different kind of Passion is coming to our church – not the St John Passion or St Matthew Passion, familiar from the pen of J S Bach, but a new play, The Devil’s Passion, by Justin Butcher. Reminiscent of C S Lewis’s inspirational Screwtape Letters (in which an older devil writes letters to his young apprentice), this play shows Satan in hell, barricading the doors against the harrowing that he knows will come if the events of the week unfold as they must. He resists, rails and is appalled at the inexorable goodness that is advancing towards him.

The contemporary composer Gabriel Jackson also brought his Passion to us, scored not just for the usual strings and choir but also for alto sax, harp and a bewildering array of percussion. The soundscape (which Jackson confesses is “weird”) as the horrifying events of the torture and execution of Jesus were recounted reminded us of the apocalyptic flavour of the story. Unusually, Jackson used words from T S Eliot as well as scripture. The futuristic piece ended with Eliot’s astonishing observation that “the fire and the rose are one”.

And so, this Easter, I find my life full of passion stories; from Muslim women abused in public to the daily encounters we have here with men (mostly men) who are destitute, addicted and in their own circle of hell. We will be in the mix of it all, amid the turbulence and suffering of city-centre life, at dawn on Easter Day at Piccadilly Circus, lighting the fire, singing alleluia and renewing our hope that things don’t have to be as they are. And in the same fire, we will resolutely look for the outline of the rose: as beautiful a description of real life, not to mention Holy Week, as I have ever heard.

Rev Lucy Winkett is the rector of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London W1, where “The Devil’s Passion” will be performed on 31 March and 1 April (7pm). For tickets, visit: thedevilspassionstjames.bpt.me

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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Who will take responsibility for the rise in far-right terrorism?

Muslims are asked to condemn Islamist terrorism – should the mainstream right do the same when the attackers are white?

Following the attack on a Finsbury Park mosque, both Theresa May and Amber Rudd have issued statements and delivered speeches adopting hard lines against Islamophobia and right-wing extremism. May has gone so far as stating that Islamophobia itself is a form of extremism.

These pronouncements have drawn positive responses from prominent members of the Muslim community such as Miqdaad Versi of the Muslim Council of Britain. But it is important to question whether or not this change in rhetoric signifies a genuine change in government policy.

On the face of it, there are reasons for tentative optimism. The seriousness with which politicians took the Finsbury Park attack is a significant change. On this, the government is ahead of the media. While other terrorism attacks have been condemned as unjustifiable violence, some newspapers framed the Finsbury Park attack as a "revenge".

In fact, radicalisation is not a one-off event, but takes place in a web of institutional, social and ideological conditions. Furthermore this ignores a much longer story about the drip, drip, drip of Islamophobic or anti-Muslim discourse which permeates British society. 

The government has played a part in legitimising this anti-Muslim sentiment. Let’s not forget that Prevent has, since its inception, disproportionately targeted Muslims. The impression of an "us and them" mentality is only underlined by its secrecy. Moreover, the Prevent agenda has conflated a variety of other social policy concerns relating to gender equality, sexual violence, and unemployment as "extremism" issues. For example, Amber Rudd herself suggested that Islamophobia would decline if grooming stopped, which can not only be seen as victim-blaming, but further contributes to stereotyping Muslims as the enemy within.

So are promises to get serious about Islamophobia more empty words from the Prime Minister?

Think about timing. Far-right extremism has been deadly. Mohammad Saleem was brutally murdered in 2013 in Birmingham by a far right extremist. Mushin Ahmed was killed in 2015 (and was notably called a "groomer" by his attacker as his head was stamped on).

Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right extremist this time last year. This is not even mentioning individuals such as Ryan McGee, who made a nail bomb and was intent on murdering immigrants.

Just twelve days ago, the Prime Minister claimed that Britain was too tolerant of extremism, and she was right. Just not in the way she meant it.

Britain has indeed been too tolerant of extremism of the far right kind. This is a rising problem, not just in the UK, but also in Europe.

According to the defence and security think-tank RUSI, far right extremists make up 33 per cent of the threat, with Islamic extremism slightly more at 38 per cent. Furthermore, one in four referrals to Channel, the UK deradicalisation programme, are from the far right.

We cannot forget the government itself peddles the tropes of far right hate. Think of David Cameron referring to migrants as "swarms", May’s hostile environment policy, complete with "go home vans" driving around in multicultural areas, and the uncritical embrace of Donald Trump’s presidency by the Prime Minister. 

The Muslim community has been told many times to fight terrorism from within, but will there be a similar response to far right extremism? The ongoing rhetorical attacks on multiculturalism, and the longstanding association of Islamist radicalisation with a lack of integration, rather than religiously inspired political violence, make it difficult to see how real change will happen.

This would require deep soul-searching, followed by serious changes in public debates about policies relating to both immigration and extremism. Until that happens, May’s words on Islamophobia will be nothing more than political PR.

But this PR also has a more sinister element. Although no specific new counter-terrorism legislation was announced in the Queen’s Speech, there was a promise that the government would review existing counter-terrorism laws, with a spokesman stressing that new legislation would be brought forward if needed.

May continues to lobby for increased executive powers to fight terrorism, which she has done since her time as home secretary. The policy on right-wing extremism is likely to follow that of Islamic extremism: it will focus only on ideology and it will ignore the wider context of structural racism and white privilege.

Ask yourselves, will white men ever be stopped and searched to the same extent as brown men? Will white women be seen as easy targets for violent attacks as Muslim women disproportionately are? Will far right extremists fear for their citizenship status?

And does the solution to extremism, in any form, truly lie in further oppressive legislation and more government power? We also need to be aware that powers extended to address extremism are likely to continue to have a disproportionate effect on minorities.

As long as there is no change in government policy, the status quo will continue to reinforce the same divisive narrative which is the bread and butter of every extremist group. After the Queen’s Speech, we continue to see no evidence of any serious attempt to reform policy and seriously address far right extremism. May’s empty words after the Finsbury Park attack represent nothing more than an opportunistic political move from a weakened Prime Minister who is desperate for approval – and for power.

Dr Maria Norris is a political scientist researching terrorism and national security. She is a Fellow at the  London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.

Dr Naaz Rashid is a Research Fellow at the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex and is author of Veiled Threats: Representing the Muslim Woman in Public Policy Discourse (Policy Press 2016) about the UK government's engagement with Muslim women as part of its Prevent agenda. She can be followed on Twitter @naazrashid.

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