A few months ago I got lost in the backstreets of Leeds looking for a certain church. I came upon a man locking up his shop and I asked him where the All Hallows Church was.
He answered, "I'm going that way. I'll show you". We walked along - it was quite a distance - chatting. A man not far off fifty, he told me he was from Pakistan.
He asked me what was happening at the church, and I told him there was to be a debate for and against religion. Interested, he asked me questions about the debate, finally: "And you, what side are you on?"
I said: "Oh, I'm on the devil's side", putting it like that both for devilment and to test his reaction.
I thought I detected a sudden catching of breath. In any case he was silent for a bit longer than previous pauses in the conversation. Then he shrugged and, smiling, said: "There's a lot of questions I've always wanted to ask about religion".
He went into the sort of questions any thinking person asks about the belief that there is a good all-powerful God who looks out for humankind. Why is there starvation? Why do the innocent suffer? Why do the iniquitous so often rule and decide what happens?
He turned off before we came to my destination, giving me further directions. I couldn't find the church at first, and wondered if he had misdirected me. No, it wasn't malice on his part but my infinite capacity to go astray. Eventually, I found the church.
It was a friendly discussion of a sort I have had many times before, but never before with a Muslim. I found it bracing and encouraging, and I think it has some bearing on one of the vexed questions on the left right now.
The participation of sizeable numbers of Muslims in the anti-war movement has raised the question of how the left, itself, like most of British society, secular, should relate to people being politicised who are religious. Who are, for the most part, members of communities in Britain which are to a serious extent regulated by religion.
The pseudo-left - the habitual "SWamPies" of the SWP, followed by a number of smaller groups - has chosen to accommodate to the Islamic Establishment within these communities. As regular readers of Solidarity will know, they hold hands politically even with such outright Islamic reactionaries as the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and its British front, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). It has been our - AWL's - experience that Muslims on anti-war demonstrations are as a rule a lot easier to talk to than are white, non-Muslim card-carrying leftists.
The point is that there must be an awful lot of Muslim people like my friend in Leeds - people far removed from the stereotype that would see the Muslims of Britain as one undifferentiated mass of religious zealots which the left cannot hope to reach in its own name, or on its own secularist terms.
If I had not talked to him frankly - that is, treated him as an equal and not as somebody who had to be soft-soaped and manipulated - he would surely never have dreamed of telling me what he really thought about the assumptions of the religion he professes.
He reminded me of my father, who grew up in a small Irish town, Ennis, where Catholic fundamentalism ruled unquestioned. Yes, he would say, he was a Catholic. But he never went to Mass - and not to go to Mass on even one Sunday was, unless confession to a priest removed your guilt, to incur eternal damnation in the fires of hell. In theory, he believed that; in practice it meant nothing to him.
Chased out of the house to go to Mass on a Sunday, he would send me in to the chapel and stand on the corner, talking to whomever was there, until I came out - swearing me to secrecy!
When I was old enough to "know" him he was already middle-aged and had spent much of the Second World War and post-war years working in England. I don't know that he ever was religious. In any case the contrast between life in England and life in the west of Ireland, where the "town labourers" like himself were a small minority in a world of owner-occupied shops and farms, and where the church ruled every aspect of life, must, in his late 30s, have taught him a different perspective on the things which he had been brought up not to question. Most British Muslims will have experienced similar disturbing transitions.
When I went much further than he had, and decided that God was a fairy story and the priests exploiters and charlatans, my father angrily rebuked me in the name of a Catholicism of which no more than the debris remained in his mind. But in certain moods he too would list the "questions I've always wanted to ask about religion".
Maybe the Muslim I talked to in Leeds will rebuke his children in the same spirit...
We on the left have a responsibility to treat him and his children with the respect due to thinking, reasoning people, and in honest dialogue, to help them arrive at a rational, humanistic world outlook.
Patronising manipulation is an unmerited insult to them and a disgrace to those "Marxists" who employ it instead of seeking honest dialogue with them.