Remona Aly
Saturday 01 October 2005 emel

Table Talk with Richard Stone

“Shall we go halal?” Dr Richard Stone asks me accommodatingly and promptly leads us to the nearest Lebanese restaurant. He is carrying a beautiful frame from Iran, an imitation of the doorway to the Ka’ba. He tells me he has only ever received two awards and this is one of them. Dr Stone prefers to be known simply as Richard, not as the vice-chair of the Runnymede Trust which issued a Commission against Islamophobia in 1997, nor as the Chair of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, since he finds labels can be limiting at first time introductions. However, it is hard to dismiss what this persevering man has been working towards for years – namely religious and racial cohesion in the UK. He is committed to his ethos, as he stresses “I don’t like just to make recommendations. I want to make change”.

Richard decided to join the medical profession at the age of 26, and was a GP for 22 years working with the Bangladeshi community and the Afro-Caribbean community, work which, with the latter community led to his services being called upon in an advisory capacity on the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. Two years of experience on the case has evidently affected him deeply. “I was accused of wearing my heart on my sleeve, and I did get emotional about it all of course. It’s evil what those people did to that young man.” The ‘white middle class Jew’ as Richard describes himself breaks short for a moment, choked with emotion for the loss of the son of Mr and Mrs Lawrence. “I am honoured to be among the circle of friends of Mr and Mrs Lawrence, they are incredible people because they have taught thousands upon thousands of people in this country about institutional racism and the need to tackle it.”

Richard’s work on the Commission with the Runnymede Trust has earned him deep-seated respect as well as some criticism over the use of the term ‘Islamophobia’. For many the term has provided a label of recognition for an array of hostilities that have not been previously addressed, for others it suggests a regressive paranoia that can only give undue weight to an over-persecuted mentality. “Some people criticise me for using the term and in fact it was used before the Commission was issued but it wasn’t very well publicised. Until someone finds a better word, we are going to carry on using it. Islamophobia, like anti-Semitism, comes up in new forms – the follow up report entitled ‘Islamophobia: issues challenges and action’ calls it ‘a new word for an old fear’. The only way to address Islamophobia and any other form of discrimination is for people outside the communities to recognise their responsibility. Discrimination and prejudice that create anger can turn people from being sons of decent families into desperate men. It’s the duty of people outside the Muslim community to make contact with Muslims and tell them ‘you are not alone, we are with you’.”

These harmful ingredients of anger and frustration that can simmer up to extremism, recalls for Richard a saying of the Prophet (s) that he heard at an Islamic conference in London. “Shaykh Hamza Yusuf spoke about Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him, relating that Allah loves beauty, and the Shaykh said that if you look in the mirror when you are angry, you will realise how ugly you are. So in the face of anger we should not show anger back. We should find ways to show the beauty of peace.”

Issues pertaining the lack of integration for Muslim communities have been brought into criticism and Richard finds it insulting to those who are called upon to prove their loyalties to Britain. “Integration is a two way process. All these recommendations of ‘you’ having to integrate with ‘us’ are nonsense. My father was very proud of the fact he was the first Jewish member of Hendon Golf Club in the 60s. They used to say to my dad ‘You Jews don’t want to be part of our clubs because you set up your own all Jewish ones’. But why did they do that? Because they weren’t allowed in to any other clubs. This is a perfect example of what has been happening with Muslim communities. No matter how hard you try, you’re still blamed for not integrating enough”

“Muslim communities in Britain have been contributing to this country if not for the last 100 years, certainly for the last 40 years. If you go to any city in this country, you find the Muslim contribution to be phenomenal. Who are the driving forces in the Racial Equality Councils? Who are the driving forces in the NHS? British Muslims. They are contributing already, the only problem is no one is recognising it”.

Richard wanted to take a measure that gave the opportunity for two sets of similar people to recognise each other’s merits and shared experiences of difficult times. He gathered together a group of British Muslims and British Jews who would work towards maintaining positive contacts between their two communities and a core group of 60 people steadily grew over a period of three years to form Alif Aleph UK, borrowing the first letters of the Arabic and Hebrew alphabet to sit side by side in the spirit of mutual cooperation. “The first line in the manifesto is: ‘We live here, we belong here. We are not going away’. We launched the Alif Aleph UK report two days before the London bombings. The Report relates how much positive cohesion is taking place among people who are regularly meeting through different platforms. I wanted to do this because I see the danger of conflict between these two communities. When Jews and Muslims attack each other, it’s like white and black attacking one another. We are doing the dirty work for the BNP who are sitting at home and laughing at us for doing what the fascists do. The dangerous thing about Islamophobia and anti-Semitism is when it comes from amongst our own communities.”

Likewise, Richard warns of the danger of attributing a conflict between the ‘west’ and Islam from which a ‘clash of civilisations’ has been engendered. “There is no ‘clash of civilisations’, it has all been blown out of proportion. It’s appalling that narrow minded men have whipped up this notion which isn’t justified, it simply doesn’t exist. If we lump all the diversities of Muslims into one category, we are creating what Huntingdon was predicting in his report, which let us remember was only a thesis. We must beware of creating a divide, which is just what the imperialists did – divide and conquer.”

Edward Said’s influential work, ‘Orientalism’, is taking its effect on Richard who tells me that reading it has put so much of his experiences and thinking into perspective. “Reading Edward Said is making it all come together. I am beginning to realise the enormity of the Crusades – where Islamophobia really began, and how Europe and now America seek control of the world. Why did they go to war with Iraq? Perhaps a three lettered word beginning in O and ending in L? The orientalism that Said’s book discusses is very similar to racism. People under the Empire’s yoke are dehumanised and those ‘civilised’ persons who begin to appreciate the different cultures are accused of going ‘native’.

I mention the notion of reverse-colonialism and Richard is animated at the term which breeds a new more positive development of an old negatively charged institution. “Reverse-colonialism is exactly what we need to be looking at. Now for the first time, those people who were written about and subjected under the British Empire are now in Britain itself. ‘They’ are here. The ‘they’ are ‘us’. No more of not belonging here, everyone in this country should be treated like a PLU – People Like Us. We are all PLUs. That is what the government should be saying, not that Muslims are welcome in this country but that they are this country. You are us, we are you, that’s the crucial issue here, for only then would we have true equality.”

This article originally appeared in emel magazine in October 2005, Issue 13.