Welcome. ‘Race’ issues are coming into the news so fast at present that this blog is a double-header, looking at the stories of both Azeem Rafiq and Emal al-Swealmeen. Both are also Northern stories, giving a corrective to the London-centric origins of this Blog.
Please comment, add enrichment to the two narratives, commend to others and hopefully subscribe.
The Story of Emal al-Swealmeen.
Masoud (not his real name) approached me after attending his first service in our church about five years ago, saying that he wanted to be baptised. Naturally, I was wary. I agreed to meet him during the week, and consulted with an Iranian friend and with Elam Ministries, who advised me to explore slowly. When we met he told me his history. He had had to leave Iran for reasons that weren’t quite clear, and had travelled to Britain via Malaysia and South Africa, and wanted indefinite leave to remain in this country, where he has been for several years. He had been depressed, addicted to drugs, and even tried suicide, and a few years earlier in Liverpool had met Iranian Christians, linked to the cathedral that is now spotlighted by the al-Swealmeen case. He had been impressed by their buoyant faith in difficult circumstances, and the very strong bonds of support and fellowship between them.
We met regularly and discussed matters of faith, his circumstances, and Liverpool F C. He was uneffusive and discussed questions of belief openly and I thought honestly. He came to church regularly, although not punctually. As regards the genuineness of his faith I gave him the benefit of the doubt, and after due preparation was baptised and confirmed, though I knew one or two people who were more sceptical. He has continued to come to church and feels increasingly at home, and in a church service has told his story of coming to faith in Christ.
When his immigration status was being discussed he showed me a draft letter from his solicitors which claimed asylum on the grounds of his faith. It was clearly a standard, formulaic ‘Moslem convert to Christianity’ letter, saying how he had been overwhelmed with a sense of love in attending a church, now had a strong faith that he just had to bear witness to, and that this would lead to him being persecuted if he went back to Iran. I asked him if all this was true. He said that encountering the love of God in Christianity and in church was true, but that he was shy and found it difficult to talk about faith in Christ. We amended the letter so that it was a true reflection of his case. He has now been granted indefinite leave to remain, is working doing deliveries, and hopes eventually to settle in Australia where his parents live. During the lockdown we have spoken every week or so on the phone. I believe he is a genuine follower of Jesus and that, especially if he can settle in Australia, he will be a faithful member of the Christian church, and a stable and valuable citizen.
What does that say about the al-Swealmeen case?
1. There is a danger that media coverage calls into question the genuineness of the quite large number of Moslems in Britain, especially Iranians, who have become Christians. I am encouraged how many clergy I talk to in London who have a handful of Iranian converts in their churches. This of course reflects the massive number, under-reported by the media, of people in Iran who have come to faith in Christ over the past two decades or so; numbering probably somewhere between a half to one million people.
2. It is often a difficult task for both the Home Office and for church leaders alike to know the genuineness of a person’s faith. Indeed the individual themselves may not be fully clear. Mature Christians were convinced of al-Swealmeen’s faith. He may very well have been genuine in faith as well as (we now know) unstable in mind, so that he could then possibly revert to Islam and carefully prepare for an act of extreme evil, destructive madness. Faith is not as clear cut as cerebrally minded people tend to believe. We all know people who have moved from a clear genuine belief to unbelief, or vice versa. In Masoud’s case it took a few years for me to be sure his faith was genuine. It is not surprising if church leaders have at times made wrong decisions.
3. Nonetheless church leaders do need to exercise caution. Iranian churches in Britain refuse to baptise people until their immigration status has been settled; fully aware of the damage to the church’s witness to the wider Iranian community, as well as the Home Office, of professions of faith being misused and devalued. Perhaps their needs to be wider inter-church consultation on the issue by the Evangelical Alliance or some other body.
4. The Home Office should not be chastened by the fear of mistakes. Of course, they need to scrutinise. Several years ago an Afghan came a few times to our church, I even took him to a congregation of Muslim converts. We lost track of him. A year or so later his solicitor wrote (unsuccessfully) asking me to validate his faith. But there is a danger of the Home Office using only cerebral and not experiential criteria; and of setting the bar too high, for example asking the applicant to recite the 10 Commandments with which a great many established British church members would struggle. There is danger of being more rigorous with say, Nigerian ‘homosexuals’ than with Muslim ‘converts’.
The Story of Azeem Rafiq.
Azeem Rafiq’s exposure of the racism he experienced whilst playing cricket for Yorkshire is, I believe a landmark in the story of race and racism in Britain. I have always been a little uneasy at the high profile given in Britain to the death of George Floyd. It smacks of displacement activity. It didn’t happen here; we can only respond to it with anger or shock, but can’t actually do anything. By contrast Azeem Rafiq’s treatment at Yorkshire Cricket Club is all too typical of racism in this country, and it has rightfully drawn a concerned national response. After all, what goes with roast beef?
It is worth unpacking how racism manifested itself in Azeem’s case.
For a fifteen year old Muslim to be pinned down and have alcohol forced down his throat by a couple of players at Barnsley cricket club is an expression of wilful hatred that makes sickening reading, the more so because it illustrates the bullying that minorities, especially perhaps Muslims, can experience once they travel outside their own communities. It is a little opportunistic for Lord Bhikhu Parekh to put all the blame on the Conservative Government’s downplaying of multiculturalism – it happened when a Labour Government had been in power for over a decade. It expressed a deep-seated and apparently ‘normal’ contempt for ethnic minorities.
Much more common was the constant use of racist epithets, rough-edged banter referring to running corner shops or washing elephants, and the constant othering and marginalising of South Asian cricketers. No one could justify physical bullying, but the casual joking that underlined that people were outsiders was frequently justified as innocent. Whilst protesting against personal violence is readily acceptable, objecting to demeaning banter presented as harmless joking is liable to create further exclusion of the victim by being characterised as over-sensitive and lacking a sense of humour. You are damned if you do protest, damned if you don’t. In a team occupation your career can be at stake. Little wonder that Azeem Rafiq felt suicidal: should he accept being humiliated, or lose his career?
The verbal humiliation of Azeem and other Pakistani background cricketers must have been so widespread that it could not have gone unnoticed by anyone closely involved with the club. Several high profile figures have been named and shamed as active guilty participants. But what of the rest? Azeem has described the Yorkshire cricketer and England captain Joe Root as ‘a good man’, but Root can hardly have been unaware of what was happening and whilst not participating nor does he seem to have rebuked it or reported it. Best to let it pass. It is at this point that the pond’s circles of racism spread out to reach most of us. Like my namesake I am reluctant to take on conflicts I can avoid. Azeem’s humiliation and emotional pain does not seem to have been eased by anyone having the courage and kindness of coming to his side or taking up his cause.
The wide spread of the tentacles of the abuse of Azeem and his Pakistani colleagues must have made the Yorkshire authorities wary of a vigorous response to his complaints that would damage so many reputations. Clearly the club decided to make the lowest profile response – to apologise, to express sympathy and support for Rafiq, but not to publicise their findings nor to penalise any of those who mistreated him. As we have seen in similar issues over sexual abuse of various sorts, a strong initial response – painful as it would have been – would have prevented a very much worse ultimate outcome, leading in this case to very severe damage to both the reputation and the income of Yorkshire Cricket Club. As far as we know, no senior official at Yorkshire (including people of South Asian background) was personally abusive or racist towards Azeem, but their collective failure to take up his case and punish those who insulted or discriminated against him was a denial of racial justice.
The response to the racism experienced by Azeem Rafiq from both individuals and the club itself has been univocal in its condemnation. There may well be pockets of dissidence that don’t share that standard judgement, nonetheless the outcome has been encouraging, not least Azeem’s heartfelt and painful televised account of his experiences to the House of Commons Select Committee. His story underlines the need for all institutions to directly confront rather than skirt round accusations of racism in their midst.
The subsequent discovery of past anti-Semitic tweets by Azeem, and the conciliatory response of Jewish authorities, adds flavour to the situation. It is not an encounter of the all-good with the all-bad. Azeem shared the casual prejudices of his Muslim friends, though – unlike his prejudiced team-mates – he did not directly humiliate or abuse Jews. But he has recognised that he has needed to learn and to change, as has (on a much larger scale) both Yorkshire cricket club and the nation in which it is so proudly set.
One final factor which confirms my opening comment that this is a landmark case is that at least two Cabinet Ministers, responsible for Health and Education, have shared their experience of receiving similar racist insults. Azeem’s courage in raising the case has taken us across a boundary where those who use overtly racist language are clearly on the defensive. That is by means the end of the battle but it is a clear advance.
It is really good to report in one week the appointment of both Rev Saju Muthulaly as Bishop of Loughborough, and Rev Canon Lusa Nsemga-Ngoy as Bishop of Willesden. They bring much needed gifts of church planting and theological creativity to the Church of England. But it also underlines that we are still appointing to senior positions those ethnic minority people who were nurtured in their faith overseas, not in this country. Perhaps more alarming than that fact is the fact that we may still not be recognising that this deficiency is happening. It underlines how very little impact we are still making on British-born black people, especially men with Caribbean roots. May God in his grace and power enable Saju and Lusa to effectively help address that need.
A Symposium addressing the life and legacy of Rev Dr Joel Edwards CBE by scholars from both the UK & USA will be held on-line on Saturday, December 11th from 5 to 7 pm. Registration Link