Last week we were in the vast cultural mixing bowl better known as the City of Birmingham. I lived there for about four years and I must say I rather like the place; there’s a zest and vigour about its people which belies the usual image of 1960s concrete riven by urban motorways.
It was a bit of a blokes’ outing. Isaac and I share an aversion to the shopping enjoyed by his sister, mother and grandmother so we took ourselves to the City Museum to view the ‘Staffordshire Hoard’, the wonderful collection of bejewelled gold artefacts found buried near Lichfield.
I’d thought we might look for evidence that it was looted from Northumbria some 1,000 years ago but he turned out more intent on claiming a toy car from the shop. However, there I discovered real treasure; ‘Last of the Dictionary Men’ – Stories from the South Shields Yemeni Sailors by Tina Gharavi, published last year.
I’ve always been intrigued by the visit of Muhammad Ali to South Shields in 1977. Certainly, he and his wife came to have their marriage blessed at the Al Azhar Mosque, then the only purpose-built mosque in Britain outside London. But why Great Britain? Why South Shields?
Apparently Ali considered the ceremony his ‘real wedding’ and was delighted with his reception in the town, commenting that ‘Nowhere outside of Africa have I received such a welcome.’
What a mark of distinction for the Yemeni community of South Shields and for the place where they have integrated over more than 100 years.
Even more extraordinary to reflect that in the midst of a region which has benefitted least from immigration in recent decades, the Roman fort of Arbeia, literally ‘place of the Arabs’ had soldiers from Mesopotamia, what is now Syria and Iraq, in what is now South Shields, almost 2,000 years ago.
Reading this brought to mind a funeral I recently conducted for a gentleman who eventually made his home and many friends in Northumberland but had begun life in the Bosnian Muslim community of Sarajevo.
As a civil celebrant I am acutely aware that everyone has a story to tell but this one about a skilled engineer and businessman who came to London as a young man and then, with the outbreak of civil war in the former Yugoslavia devoted himself to the support of refugees from all religions and communities, would have moved a stone.
I had been requested a reading from the Koran and so was once again grateful to the Imam and elders of the mosque in Lancaster who had presented me with an English translation some years ago. As Labour MP for Lancaster I admit that I sometimes took the small Muslim community for granted. They had come to the city in the 60s to work in local factories and most lived together in a few streets, developing shops and restaurants. While they kept largely to themselves they were respected for their industry, friendliness not to mention turning out regularly and avidly to vote Labour.
Ironically, it was the terrible events of 9/11 which brought us more together. I spent time at the mosque and with the community, welcomed their young women to Parliament, supported young people diversifying family business into IT, accompanied a brother and sister renowned for charitable work to Downing Street to meet Tony Blair. We all tried much harder and it was strongly impressed upon me that Islam is a religion of peace and humility.
It’s important to hold on to this when we hear so much of young British men and women being ‘radicalised’ and travelling to Iraq and Syria to wage hideous destruction on the people of those countries.
What a misuse of the English language is ‘radicalised.’ The radical tradition is a proud one exemplifying democracy, freedom, rationality, equality and tolerance.
The people who want to impose a caliphate on vast areas of the Middle East and presumably in time on the rest of us have actually been ‘feudalised’.
Their devotion to a brutal theocracy imposed by crucifixion, beheadings, slavery as well as sophisticated weapons and fluency with social media is a new version of an old tyranny. Threatening the world; threatening all of us.
If we decide that this is someone else’s problem – even worse if we retreat into blaming those who live harmlessly in our midst or those who peacefully want to come here – we have lost.
The best response to vicious assaults on humanity is actually to reinvigorate those real radical values and to better support democratic institutions based on international concepts of human rights.
Those suspected of involvement in genocide returning from abroad should be arrested, investigated and if necessary brought before the International Criminal Court. As members of a United Nations Security Council recently criticised for failing 200,000 people killed in Syria our Government is accountable to us for preventive action to save lives.
South Shields’ welcome for Muhammad Ali, founded upon respect for its Yemeni population, demonstrates how communities are enriched by diversity. Now there’s something really precious for the world.