I had a very interesting time a couple of weeks ago when I took part in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham’s Literature Festival. One evening I was on a panel of three crime writers (Julia Crouch, Tania Byrne and myself) and on the second evening I had the pleasure of interviewing ex-MTV anchor woman, Kristiane Backer about her recent autobiography, ‘From MTV to Mecca’.
Ms Backer, who was a delightful and erudite interviewee converted to Islam at the height of her MTV fame in the mid-1990s. A German citizen by birth, she came to the faith via a relationship she once had with the Pakistani cricketer, Imran Khan. And although he subsequently left her for Jemima Goldsmith, Kristiane’s interest in and passion for Islam remained even though, eventually, her adherence to the faith, cost her her career. Even before the horrors of 9/11, Islamophobia, it would seem, was alive and well and doing its worst here in the West. MTV dropped her like a stone.
Kristiane’s audience was made up mainly, although not exclusively, of Asian Muslims. Some men wore beards, some didn’t, some women were partly covered, completely covered or dressed in entirely Western style. All, whatever their perspectives, were interested in what this high profile convert and campaigner for interfaith dialogue, had to say.
Luckily I know enough about Islam to ask informed questions which everyone appreciated. I asked her to talk us all through her conversion, talk about the difficulties she had faced as both a convert and as a Muslim woman in a Western country and I asked her about her Haj, her pilgrimage to Mecca.
What also arose from our conversation, as well as from the audience, was a fear that Kristiane and others shared of the secular world. I must admit that at this point I was a bit flummoxed as, from my point of view, ‘my’ people are very far from being frightening. With the possible exception of Richard Dawkins who, in my opinion is something of a secular fundamentalist, ‘we’ are generally quite accepting providing religious people don’t try to actively convert us. From ‘our’ point of view it is the religious people, with their jealous and fearful gods who seem to demand absolute obedience to rules I personally find impenetrable, that present the real threat to our society. Clearly, however, not everyone shared my point of view. Then I had a thought.
I turned to Kristiane, interfaith campaigner and Muslim convert and I said, ‘You know what we need is dialogue. It’s all very well different religious people talking to each other, but you all share a belief in belief. You need to talk to us who don’t share that perspective.’
She agreed, as did almost every member of that audience. With fear on both sides of the religious/secular equation we can’t afford NOT to talk to each other. We have to because fear breeds horrors like 9/11, like policemen in France arresting covered women, just for being covered, like Kristiane being pushed out of her job and like a perfectly nice group of Muslims being a little bit afraid of someone like me just because I represent a perspective that they find alarming. I hope they all remember that evening and have taken away some notion of secular not equalling enemy from it. I am not and will never be anyone’s enemy because he or she has a faith.
Religious and secular people, ‘Can we talk?’ I hope so.