Enlightenment through play

Last month I joined a delegation of MPs and peers to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank. The purpose of our visit was to see at first hand the situation of Palestinians and Israelis, and to meet leaders from both sides. But, as a Muslim who has been to Mecca and Medina, I found the chance to visit the third holiest site in Islam made this more than a fact-finding mission.

Entering the old heart of Jerusalem for the first time, through the Damascus Gate, one could almost forget the conflict that surrounds the City of David. The stalls selling figs and pomegranates could have been from any century over the past few millennia. The hustle and bustle and smell of freshly grilled shawarma could have been in any Middle Eastern bazaar or souk and the overenthusiastic salesmen from any city in the world.

But by the time I reached the Temple Mount, it became clear why this has been one of the world's most contested religious sites. It is only when you are there that you realise the proximity of the sites of deep sanctity to the Abrahamic faiths. Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock sit atop the Western Wall; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a stone's throw away.

Walking into al-Aqsa, I was confronted by two men from the Israeli security forces carrying guns, who asked me whether I was a Muslim. Simply saying "yes" was inadequate: I was asked to recite a verse from the Quran.

I duly obliged and passed the test, but this tarnished my experience. Mosques have never been places for "Muslims only". They should act not only as places of worship but also community hubs that members of all faiths and none can visit. Add to this the fact that representatives of a perceived occupying force (and of a different religion) are acting as a filter, and it is easy to understand why tempers can flare up.

I met young Palestinians and explained that mosques in Britain are open to all. But when every other aspect of their lives is segregated from their Israeli neighbours, perhaps it's not surprising that so is religious observance.

In my constituency of Tooting, south London, the local mosques perform a vital role in integrating our community. My daughters can bring their non-Muslim friends; schoolchildren visit to learn about Islam. By contrast, Israeli and Palestinian children don't play together or learn about each other's faith or culture. The only interaction they have, from a young age, is adversarial.

Separation anxiety

It was heartbreaking to meet a Palestinian boy, about my daughter's age, who lived in an area surrounded by the separation wall that cuts through Palestinian towns and cities, overlooked by Israeli settler houses. He told me about the regular incidents of abuse - verbal and physical - that his family suffered and he had nothing but hatred for those he called "the Zionists". I was shocked to hear someone so young use such a politically loaded word.

Whereas most of us have many layers of identity, people of all generations I met in Palestine are shaped by the conflict and defined solely by their faith and culture. I am British, a Londoner, of Muslim faith, a Liverpool FC supporter and Labour. All these things mean I integrate with various people in various contexts - from the football stands to the Commons chamber. If our religious and cultural heritage alone defined where and with whom we mixed, Britain would be a much darker place. Yet we expect two peoples who never mix to live side by side in peace. I fear that, until there is a movement towards integration, we will remain a long way from securing a peaceful, prosperous future for Israel and Palestine.

Sadiq Khan is the MP for Tooting, shadow lord chancellor and shadow secretary of state for justice

Sadiq Khan is MP for Tooting, shadow justice secretary and shadow minister for London.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama