Whenever we visit the in-laws in the British midlands, my husband’s extended family gathers in a local Indian restaurant for a curry. On one such evening a couple of years ago, the service was, uncharacteristically, rubbish. We were beginning to get annoyed that our family reunion was not being catered to with – what? the respect? reverence? professionalism? that it deserved.
The sun sets late in England in the summer. A little after nine, the kitchen staff emerged blinking from their backroom furnace bearing a tray of small snacks. The wait staff met them with tall glasses of water, and they quickly, almost furtively (except that they could not altogether suppress their ravenous joy), broke their fast together.
After that, the service picked up. The whole atmosphere improved, along with our own attitudes. After all, it has to be really hard running a restaurant in the West during Ramadan.
On our way out, the manager stood at the door, as usual, to shake each hand and smile us away. A daughter said, “Our mum fasts, too.” I demurred; “Not hardcore, like you. I drink water at least, sometimes even tea. And I only fast one day at a time.” Still, he smiled more broadly, and we wished one another a blessed fast; all was forgiven.
The ordinariness of living together across cultural and religious traditions can lead to the occasional rubbing up of rough edges; slow service and forgetfulness of another’s fast. Such slight injuries might just be covered with a handshake and a smile.
I have been trying to fathom the ends of so-called ISIS, or Daesh, in the West. The terrorism of my youth came with clear objectives and ransom demands. This terrorism, though, seems something else. It is indiscriminate in wielding death. It is not being visited upon us on behalf of the ambitions of Muslims – the Midlands restauranteur or the Mayor of London or anyone in between. It is, I believe, intended precisely to divide them from their non-Muslim neighours, customers, constituents, as much as us from them. It is designed to turn rough edges into severing blades, and misunderstandings into willful incomprehension. It is bent on civil war, and it is not interested in supporting a winner, only the downfall of us all.
The Bangladeshi-born owner of a British restaurant caught up in the recent terror incident at Borough Market in London shared a similar concern with the Guardian newspaper.
‘“I hope this won’t break the resolve of people to stay united. There will be people who, whether they articulate it or not, will feel resentful towards people whose religion has been used to justify these terrible attacks. It’s understandable,” he told the Guardian.’
He understands that he might be resented, hated even for a terror that targets him, too. The humility, empathy, and will to mercy that well up beneath his words is a sermon many Christians could use to hear.
“The government should rely less upon religious leaders and really try to bring integrated Muslims on board, people who live their lives in a contented manner who say there is scope to prosper in the west. We should actively engage Muslim professionals instead of professional Muslims,” he went on to say.
Some politicians have called for greater segregation, isolation, even banning the free movement of people like this Iqbal Wahhab, or the manager of the local curry house, the Mayor of London, or the paediatric neurologist with whom I shared a podium at this January’s Martin Luther King, Jr commemoration. But it is the very ordinariness of our togetherness, the everyday interactions as ordinary people, with a shared hunger, thirst, handshake and a smile that will save us from our division and destruction.
We cannot fight terror with tyranny, ideology with ideology; but in all humility and with God’s grace, the imago Dei within, we can follow our own humanity into an ordinary kind of peace.