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Brexit and the Interfaith Community

Confronting a Burgeoning Xenophobia

Brexit and the Interfaith Community

by Marcus Braybrooke

Marcus Braybrooke, whose home is in Oxford but whose interfaith engagement is global, regularly writes for TIO. His favorite topics are interfaith history, the interfaith movement, and spirituality; last March TIO devoted an entire issue to Marcus’ work. For this month, though, he was moved to share in the following reflection about the troubling interfaith ramifications growing out of the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union in July.

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The United Kingdom in orange, the European Union in Blue – Graphic: Wikipedia

The United Kingdom in orange, the European Union in Blue – Graphic: Wikipedia

Four weeks ago, as I write at the end of July, I turned on my radio at 2:00 a.m. and heard the prediction that Brexit had won. It was hard to go back to sleep! For those who do not understand what Brexit means – and no one in Britain seems to – it was the vote in the June referendum for Britain to leave the European Union. July has been one of most dramatic of weeks in British politics: but there now is a new government and Prime Minister, Theresa May (both unelected), and a fragmented opposition.

Interfaith organisations have been preoccupied with the aftermath. Police have said the number of hate crimes recorded for the last two weeks in June spiked by 42 percent compared to this time last year. The biggest number of recorded incidents came on June 25 – the day after the result of the EU referendum – when there were 289 hate-crime related incidents. Many doctors and health workers, especially those born overseas, have suffered abuse.

Leaders of all faiths have condemned these acts. There have also been many expressions of solidarity. A Polish community center was subjected to an incident of Brexit-fuelled hate crime. Xenophobic graffiti was smeared on the West London building’s walls. Afterwards the head of the community expressed her gratitude for the “overwhelming” response she has received from the general public. Many interfaith groups have held events to affirm ‘togetherness,’ but sadly, such meetings do little to reassure those who fear racial or religious abuse, and the perpetrators do not attend interfaith gatherings.

Why It Happened

Brexit was partly an expression of frustration with European bureaucracy and alienation from the  governing elite in Britain. Some hoped that leaving the EU would boost the economy and restrict the number of immigrants coming into the country. Added to this, there is a prevailing sense of unease produced by terrorist acts in Egypt, Turkey, and several European cities. One tabloid newspaper’s headline was ‘Another Day: Another Act of Terror.’

When the media reports a “terrorist attack we know what they mean,” wrote the distinguished journalist Robert Fisk. After the Munich attack, the three men were believed to be Muslims and therefore ‘terrorists’ and suspected of being inspired by Isis. When it was clear that the killing had been perpetrated by a lone-gunman, newspapers talked about a ‘shooter,’ Fisk comments that “Shooter” is a code word, which means that this particular killer was not a Muslim.

Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-EU UKIP party. – Photo: Wikipedia

Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-EU UKIP party. – Photo: Wikipedia

All too easily, the call to restrict immigration turns into Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. During the referendum campaign there were thinly disguised hints linking ‘immigrant,’ to ‘Muslim’ to ‘terrorist’ – color was also brought into the mix. The “Breaking Point” poster released by Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-EU UKIP party, which shows a queue of mostly non-white migrants and refugees with the slogan “Breaking point: the EU has failed us all,” was denounced as “Nazi propaganda” by the American playwright Bonnie Greer.

The “Breaking Point” poster commissioned by Brexit-favoring UKIP party.

The “Breaking Point” poster commissioned by Brexit-favoring UKIP party.

To add to the confusion, ‘immigrant’ is used to describe several different groups of people:

1. Asylum seekers, many of whom risk their lives crossing the sea from Turkey or North Africa and then travel unchecked through the borderless Schengen zone of the EU, perhaps ending up at the squalid ‘jungle’ at Calais. From there they attempt, illegally and often risking their lives, to hide in a lorry so as to get through the Channel Tunnel into Britain.

2. Refugees who have been already granted asylum: for example, the 20,000 Syrians, whom Britain has agreed to accept.

3. Citizens of other member countries of the EU who reside in the UK.

4. EU citizens who have come on a temporary basis, either to work or study. In 2015, there were about 300,000, and this is the figure that Brexit supporters want to cut drastically.

5. People from outside the EU, who come either to work or study or join families. The figure for 2015 was just under 300,000.

In some areas, an influx of people settling in Britain may cause problems because of a lack of housing or schools – but these pre-existing problems have been caused by government cut-backs, and faith communities have taken a lead in challenging them and have offered practical help, for example by organizing food-banks.

The Danger

The harder task is to address a more insidious danger even than hate-crimes, namely a growing culture of suspicion. Already anyone out of work, even those with severe disabilities, has been made to feel they are ‘sponging’ on the state. The compassion that inspired the Welfare state is draining away.

Moreover, many older people, of whom the majority voted for Brexit, dream of an idyllic past, saying, ‘After all England is a Christian country’ – usually voiced by people who do not go to church. This in turn may be a thinly veiled way of objecting to how some Muslims dress. Others go further. David Hathaway, leader of one of Europe’s largest evangelistic organisations, rejoicing at the Brexit vote, writes, “Let us thank God that He is about to free us from the secularism of the French Revolution. Now we must return to our Judeo/Christian heritage, especially because one result of mass migration has been to bring in false gods and heathen culture from the very nations where we sent missionaries to convert them.”

God, we thank You, for Your gift of hope, our strength in times of trouble. Beyond the injustice of our time, its cruelty and its wars, we look forward to a world at peace when people deal kindly with each other, and no one is afraid. Every bad deed delays its coming, every good one brings it nearer. May our lives be Your witness, so that future generations bless us. May the day come, as the prophet taught, when “the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” Help us to pray for it, to work for it and be worthy of it.
- A Prayer from the Movement of Reform Judaism

The interfaith movement in Britain has grown rapidly in recent years. There are friendly relations between faith leaders, who often appear together at national occasions. The warning of Brexit is perhaps that too often we have been talking among ourselves – even then mostly at meetings and all too seldom in each other’s homes. We need to listen to the fears, which are now being openly expressed, that many people have in this uncertain and dangerous world.

Above all, as I said in a letter in The Daily Telegraph – a leading British newspaper – “It is vital that the horrific murder of Fr. Jacques Hamel does not – as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant intend – divide Christians and Muslims. It is more important than ever that Christians and Muslims together affirm their trust in the unfailing mercy of the one God.” I would add, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and others.

In our dangerous and divided world, and after Brexit, the interfaith movement is more important than ever, helping people to see, in George Fox’s words, “God in everyone.”

We need also to be realistic about the problems and fears people have, but also offer hope – as this prayer of the Movement of Reform Judaism does so well.