God loves les pauvres. How else would you explain the abundant (not to say disproportionate, because I don’t have the statistics) number of churches in this poor corner of London where I live !
A neighbor once told me “we are over-churched”.
Most of them serve the African and Afro-Caribean communities. Some are old warehouses converted into prayer halls, others are an ad hoc affair in a disused railway arch.
One of them has a yellow brick wall in the shape of a half-circle, with small windows, that I have never seen open. It must have been an office block once upon a time. “Sureway” is what it calls itself. Located at a chaotic junction with many roads under cavernous railway bridges, I find that alluring.
Last year, the churches were joined by a mosque in what was once a grocery, then Afro-Caribean hair-dresser with nail-bar and WesternUnion moneytransfer service and mobile phone repair desk – you know the place. Now it’s a Muslim prayer room – no dome or minaret. Just a shop like any other, but painted green, supposedly the official colour of Islam. I don’t know why it calls itself “Progressive Community Centre”!
But since its arrival the number of women bearing the niqab in my neighbourhood appears to have increased dramatically. By that I don’t mean hundreds; but from none to a few stragglers every now and then. To me, that is dramatic.
Every Sunday, African women, who may be cleaning hospitals during the week, remerge in flamboyant colours and turbans to walk like peacocks on the litter-strewn streets on their way to the church service.
In the Brixton town square, ‘evangelicals’ from both faiths unite in their single-minded pursuit. Christians set up their stalls haranguing the passers-by, desperately trying to remind them of what awaits the fallen in the afterlife if they persist in their wayward ways.
Pious looking black Muslims with round friendly faces in short gowns ( the kind of dress we now associate with the jihadis of Al-Qaeda and ISIS) selling incense. And there is of course the Nation of Islam in their sharp suits and red bow-ties flogging their newspaper.
In short, it’s a sort of a religion supermarket. You are free to chose, which to me invokes what the Quran has oft reminded the believers, who nonetheless forget, that there is no coercion in religion. Take your pick.
The one that fascinates me most is the lone preacher, hailer in hand, energetically pacing the pavement up and down, completely oblivious of the hustle and bustle, with only one thought that animates his entire being — to get the shopping sheep back to the flock, so that they can once again enjoy the peace and quietude he so manifestly lacks on his furrowed brow.
Wherefrom do those people get that ‘passionate intensity’ !
All of that is good and well. We live in a free society. Who says religion is dead in the materialist, decadent West !
But I am often troubled by the sight of a five- or six-year-old girl covered from head to toe. Forcing a child to cover herself like that is a violation of her human rights. It’s a form of coercion not compatible with the rights of a child in a Western context, or even the Muslim faith.
The underlying message parents impart to the girl is that her body is “dangerous” “seductive”, even “evil”. Not only that, they set her apart from other children, fills her with notions of moral superiority, which are potentially dangerous and damaging. It’s only a step removed from demonization of the other, and the path is wide open to more disastrous things in the future if that inculcated alienation is allowed to fester.
True, parents make choices for their children all the time. Some are of physical nature (nourishment, health care etc) others are social (education, table manners, playing, drawing and religious beliefs). While most promote socialisation and integration, the niqab here in the West (and its milder version, the hijab) are quite the opposite , they encourage separation and subsequent alienaton. Then we have only ourselves to blame when one day we wake up to find the girl had fled to Syria to join global jihad.
Of course, not all niqab-wearing women are jihadis. But all jihadis don the black cloth. And that is not the only argument against that most hideous of all garments. The others are well-known.
Yes to religious freedom. But no to the abuse of that freedom, if it means sowing the seeds of alienation and hatred in the mind of a child.