Yasir Suleiman: Faithful fight

August 26, 2005

In times of crisis in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, enlightened and, no doubt, well-meaning members of the three Abrahamic religions - Christians, Jews and Muslims (listed in alphabetical order to avoid offending any group) - fill the air with their inter-faith, inter-community bridge-building political talk.

Words are a form of action and an instrument of mobilisation, but the increasingly routine nature of inter-faith talk is gradually developing the flavour of an incantation, if it hasn't already become one, that people hear but don't register. I, for one, can't forget the scenes, in the wake of September 11, 2001, and July 7, when the leaders of the three monotheistic religions stood "shoulder to shoulder" in a show of unity in New York and London to tell the bigots on all sides - although the Muslims seemed to be the prime target - that extremism and violence don't and won't pay.

Judging by the counterthrust of Shan Khan's play Prayer Room , showing at the Edinburgh Festival, it is as if these scenes and the words associated with them have long vanished into thin air. Prayer Room has a combustible mix of religious bigotry, racy slang, youth culture and fast-moving action, but it does use humour effectively as an instrument of reception to counter this explosive mix.

Its events unfold in a prayer room on a university campus, where Christian, Jewish and Muslim students are forced to share the same space to pray and to study their scriptures. Instead of heeding the wise words of their community leaders, who in real life call for tolerance and mutual respect in inter-community relations, the students compete for dominance, with each group wanting to have the lion's share of what in most universities would be a dreary space. The result is conflict and, in the end, the shooting of the only sensible character, Bunce, who has mental health problems.

Although religion seems to offer each group a sense of community and a context for working through individual anxieties, traumas and the pain of converting identities, it is nevertheless used to justify bigotry, greed, hypocrisy, manipulation, strife and bloody conflict, as it does in real life. Thus Jews and Muslims fight with each other for a share of the prayer room, while Christians seek to occupy the moral high ground, claiming that they are above the fray of inter-faith strife. Confident that numbers speak louder than words, Christians and Muslims press their demographic advantage to squeeze the Jews out of the prayer room. But it is the Muslims who end up paying the price, losing one of the Fridays, their Sabbath, to the Jews.

But it would be wrong to think that all the stresses are located at the intersections of inter-community relations. Some exist intra-communally. Thus Christian condemns Christian, Muslim exploits and manipulates a would-be Muslim, and a Jewish student condemns her mother for marrying so soon after her father's death. If only the students had realised that anger, anxiety and bigotry exist as much inside their own communities as they do inter-communally, they might have charted a different course, as individuals or groups. The fact that they had no inkling that this might be possible should not be lost on the leaders of the three Abrahamic faiths.

Yasir Suleiman, fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, is director of the Edinburgh Institute for the Study of the Arab World and Islam at Edinburgh University.

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