In times of increasing polarization and inequality the search for common bonds to build that sense of solidarity and communion can be fleeting and sometimes completely abandoned. The fragmentation of society into atomised groups facilitates an environment of distrust, suspicion and resentment.
The academic Matthew Goodwin intelligently articulated this in his book National Populism: The revolt against liberal democracy where he lays out how some can find it hard to conceptualise any possibility of coming together again. We only have to look at Brexit and the divide between chiefly blue-collar communities and the more liberal professional class.
At the heart of this divide is the sense of social, cultural and economic anxiety and insecurity gripping different groups regarding globalisation and terrorism. It has generated a culture of mistrust with both the elitist institutions for opening British borders to immigrants and unaccountable market forces, and with groups coming from Muslim-majority countries, regarding them as unable to integrate or fundamentally incompatible with British values.
Bridging this gap that now exists between different groups is not easy and it remains to be seen whether there is enough political will to foster both cultural cohesion and a mutual yearning for it between different groups. But the role of faith communities in filling this space will be important. When we talk about the politics of community and belonging, we often ignore the sense of attachment people have to a place which they share with others, and the sense of obligation, duty, reciprocity and care for it that it brings with them. People are connected to their communities but in ones made up of different identities, need something which can create that sense of cultural solidarity and common bond. Attachment to our local communities go beyond class, race, gender and other identities. It is a basic human impulse, to be somewhere and belong somewhere as part of something bigger than ourselves.
Take the story of a local EDL group that once planned a protest few years ago only to be completely disarmed by the local mosque residents offering tea and biscuits when they arrived. It diffused the tension, completely stunned the EDL protesters and resulted in amicable discussions and some of the EDL emerging with better views. In times of growing religious tensions, stories of mosques and synagogues working together to combat racist or provide for food banks illustrates both the value of community in religion but also value of religion in our communities. A most heart-warming news was after Press TV pressured a mosque in Golders Green to stop an exhibition on Muslims who saved Jews during the Holocaust, it was picked up by another mosque. Stories of Muslims and Jews standing together is precisely what extremists on all sides fear: the Islamists wish to divide and lure Muslims into feeling besieged, isolated and surrounded whereas the far-right wish to depict Muslims as the threat to western values. Yet when local stories emerge of mosques participating in helping food banks or synagogues and churches collaborating with Muslims, it provides the perfect riposte to those who believe that some form of communal attachment to each other is impossible.
Churches were central to community organising once, and it’s arguable that the decline in churchgoers has contributed to the erosion of a sense of community. Today they stand as critics of inequality, corporate greed and poverty, and remain a quiet staple of community life in many areas, working with other faith groups to try and revitalise that sense of unity. The Blue Labour founder Maurice Glasman often expressed the importance of churches in reviving grassroots communitarian socialist politics and hailed the importance of interfaith collaborations on making people put aside their differences and focus on the common bonds they shared with each other.
This is more important than ever today. We live in times of asphyxiating tribalism in which labels do more to alienate and isolate than bring together. Extremists would like it that way. A polarised society that does not care for each other does not care about what happens to each other either. But the countless stories of interfaith initiatives involved in rebuilding that sense of community life and belonging demonstrate there is another way forward to push back against the populists and extremists. Some political action at the top directly protecting liberal values will always be necessary but at the bottom, on the ground, it is trying to nurture that sense of the communal life which is vital. And mosques, churches, synagogues and others have an important role to play in that.