Last week Caroline and I had the pleasure of attending a Peace Symposium hosted by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association at their prestigious Hanworth Park location.
In what felt like a throwback to our days as councillors we were honoured guests, attending alongside sundry elected members, the Leader of the Council, the Mayor and the borough’s two Members of Parliament, Seema Malhotra and Mary MacLeod.
The building is aesthetically substantial. Some would argue it is out of place in the residential, largely non-Muslim and almost exclusively non-Ahmadiyya Muslim community in which it is set. Planning permission was initially declined but was granted subsequently on appeal.
I can understand residents who instinctively react against the appearance of such an imposing entity in their midst. We humans take comfort from familiarity and often find ourselves feeling spooked by change, especially when it is sudden or on such a significant scale. People who resist such change are not all “racists” (although a proportion of them usually are) and it is unhelpful to dismiss them as such.
Nevertheless, the arrival of a devout community such as the Ahmadiyya seldom presents the difficulties that are anticipated. They are a moderate, peace-loving people whose desire is to be good neighbours and to enhance the spirit and ambience of the community in which they have settled, and certainly not to threaten it. They are, very much, a force for good.
I am reminded of a true story from some years back of a Hindu trust that was established on the very borders on a predominantly white neighbourhood which, rightly or wrongly, had a bit of a reputation for being – shall we say – a little unwelcoming of other cultures. There were objections, some of them quite strident, and when it was erected the Hindu users would have been forgiven for exercising some caution when attending their business at the building.
Then, one Sunday morning, something quite amazing happened. Young Hindu activists went out into the neighbourhood armed. Armed, that is, with litter pickers, bin sacks, brushes and anti-graffiti paint. The neighbourhood had been neglected by the council, and litter and debris was liberally strewn throughout the streets and green areas. Bemused white residents watched, bleary-eyed, from their bedroom windows as the young Hindus blitzed the place. By the time they had left it was spotless.
In one fell swoop a whole community’s fear and prejudice had been brushed aside, and the Hindus thereafter lived together in harmony with their initially reluctant neighbours.
I’m not suggesting, before anybody accuses me of such, that if minority communities wish to gain the acceptance of others they need to clean their streets. My essential point is that prejudice and suspicion can sometimes be better overcome by demonstration rather than by condemnation.