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Sometimes I am asked by others on the left why religious people deserve special consideration. The nearest place of worship to my home is the Streatham Liberal Synagogue. I’ve only been in it once, for a bar mitzvah, and I’m not of Jewish faith or ancestry. But if I were to hear it was being attacked, my instinct would be to join efforts to defend it. I would not wait to find out who was attacking it. They might be neo-Nazis, Muslim extremists, Jewish extremists, Richard Dawkins on a drunken secularist rampage or developers bent on turning it into flats.
I would also want to protect a temple, a mosque or a church. In reality, in this area, none is likely to be attacked, although someone might put some misguided graffiti on the synagogue wall in response to Israeli atrocities.
As a moderate atheist, I am sensitive to the deep feelings of people of faith, the fact that religion can be part of identity, and the fact that people from a minority often feel a connection to the religion of their forebears, even when they no longer devoutly share it. When people say ‘Islam is not a race’, they are being wilfully obtuse. The Muslims in this area are Somalis, Arabs, Kurds and Bangladeshis. There are also Afro-Caribbean converts. All will have experienced, to varying degrees, the feeling of being alien, and many have experienced sectarian strife and oppression in other countries.
And of course, Jewish people frequently have family histories in which an attack on the synagogue meant it was time to leave, whether you attended it or not. Likewise, in modern Britain, attacks on mosques are not mere vandalism, and attacks on the word ‘Islam’ are not mere theological critiques. They are attacks on people.