Last month, horror came to the peaceful South Island of New Zealand. During Friday prayers, a white man, believed to be a far-right extremist, murdered 50 worshippers in an appalling act of terrorism, unlike anything the Antipodes had seen before. Shocking though the attack was, it did not seem entirely out of kilter with the state of the wider world.
We seem to live in an age in which we have become numbed by bloody terrorist attacks. Instead of blank-faced shock, our reaction now is a sour frown and the obvious questions: “Where?” “How many?” For western countries, although right-wing extremism is certainly on the rise, the instinct is to think of Islamic fundamentalism: 7 July 2005, Charlie Hebdo, Westminster Bridge. The casual observer seems to see a Manichaean struggle between East and West, unbridgeable, unrelenting and unresolvable.
But it does not need to be like this. Last year, we celebrated the centenary of the Armistice which ended the First World War, and in 2019 we mark 100 years since the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. When we think of this war, we think of cheerful but long-suffering Tommies, or glamorous Doughboys, pitted against cold and unyielding German automata. But this is very far from the whole truth.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, and especially during the Great War, thousands upon thousands of Muslim soldiers served alongside their British allies. They fought in the face of cruelty and inhumanity, making common cause with the nations of the West, and still have not had their part in this vital struggle fully recognised. That is why my brother and I established the Gul Mawaz Khan Memorial Foundation, named after our great-grandfather, intended to give recognition to those who served and support to their families and descendants.
History shows us, as the GMK Memorial Foundation recognises, that there is another way. It reminds us that Islam and the West can make common cause, and can fly the flag for civilisation together against the most terrible barbarism. Understanding and fellow-feeling are not hallmarks of the current age. Politics and society have become bitter, partisan struggles between radicalised extremes, and we see the price that we pay on the news and, with our own eyes, on the streets where we live. It is very easy to become dejected and fall into the trap of thinking that we are embarked on an inevitable downward spiral.
But faith is a powerful motor for change and understanding, perhaps the most powerful we possess. If we believe in ourselves, but try to exercise empathy for others, a more harmonious world can be created. We have done so in the past, and the human spirit is indomitable as it has always been. That is why we must bring together people of goodwill from all faiths and none, to remind them of our shared past and the common cause we have made, to honour those who made sacrifices for it, and the encourage a new era of peace, prosperity and co-existence.
Of course, some individuals show us the way. In the wake of the Christchurch massacre, the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, donned a headscarf and visited a Muslim community centre, to make it clear that the attack was not simply against Muslims, but against all New Zealanders. That small nation has truly come together in the aftermath of horror, quickly reviewing its gun laws and opening a book of condolence in Wellington, which Ms Ardern was the first to sign. So it can be done.
We must do more of this. Understanding. Faith. Co-operation. Together, we can make a more peaceful world.
Written by: Babar Raja – Founder, Gul Mawaz Khan Memorial Foundation