Recent census data from England and Wales has caused a flurry of media concern. For the first time the percentage of folk who live there, who self-describe as Christians, has dropped below 50%.
That the media in itself is interested in this fact is worthy of note; normally they couldn’t give two hoots about the decline of Christianity.
Perhaps their angst is due to the other significant figure regarding religion in the census. Islam is on the increase. It has risen from just 4.9% in 2011 to 6.5% in 2021.
The media is suspicious of Islam.
Several factors are at play. England has fallen victim to several deadly incidents of Islamist terrorism. All that is well documented.
Muslim representatives have not always been as quick to condemn such atrocities as they might have been. In cities like London and Bradford, certain mosques have given shelter to extremist preachers. Many ordinary people feel the authorities have been slow to act against these hate preachers who have stirred up conflict and groomed young men into the arena of extremism.
Furthermore, in more recent times, scandals have been uncovered in towns like Rochdale, where for many years groups of Asian men have been grooming very young vulnerable white girls for sex.
The shock of these findings has been greatly heightened by the fact that the authorities had evidence of what was going on, but didn’t act for fear of being branded racist or Islamophobic.
It’s believed that in Rotherham alone thousands of girls were routinely abused.
And then there is uncontrolled immigration which results in some people feeling that their culture is being ‘swamped.’ Because of all of this, community relations between English Muslims and their white neighbours are sometimes tense.
But what of Scotland?
Journalists may make the lazy mistake of assuming that things are the same in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen as they are in London, Leicester and Bradford. But Scotland is a distinct country from England or Wales.
We have a different history and a different experience. Two things are similar, however. Christianity is in steep decline and Islam, albeit from a tiny base, is increasing.
The biggest reason for the Scottish experience of Islam being so different to the English is simple: There aren’t nearly so many Muslims here.
The most recent Scottish Census data dates back to 2011. At that time the Muslim population was 1.4% of the Scottish population, a mere 76,737 people. That had risen in ten years from being 0.9% of the population, just 42,557 individuals.
Also different from England is that there are only two areas that have a significant concentration of Muslims. Glasgow has both these areas, one on the south side and one in the West End. Because of these low densities relationships between Muslims and white people are largely good.
Unlike England, there is no feeling of being swamped. Neither has there been any of the many incidents in England where criminal gangs of Pakistani Muslims have groomed and raped white girls. Furthermore, Scotland has not suffered the problem of radical hate preachers in the Mosques.
All these different factors mean that Scottish Muslims are much better integrated into society than is often the case in England.
Indeed, a recent survey noted that when Muslims were asked what their primary identity was 71% answered ‘Scottish’ or ‘British’. I am certain the numbers down south who said that would be much lower.
As a Christian, I enjoy good relations and friendships with a number of Muslims. I find them much easier to talk about God with than white Scottish people!
I see these folk as people who, in God’s sovereign will, he has brought here for a purpose. And that purpose is to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with them!
I am a fairly regular traveller to the Middle East. I visit Jordan and Gaza where I am involved in encouraging the church and supporting their humanitarian outreach to refugees from Iraq and Syria, and to the desperately poor Muslims in the camps in Gaza. It has been my honour and privilege to preach the Gospel in both Jordan and Gaza. But you have to be careful. It is not without risks!
But here in Scotland, and I believe all over the UK, we can share Christ openly with Muslims.
God has brought the mission field to us!
My Sunday congregation is very small, but I am thrilled to say it includes four former Muslims, three who fled Iran and one who sought asylum from Pakistan.
Recently I visited a Muslim friend in hospital. Another Muslim friend of his was visiting too. On the way out he asked if he could speak in confidence to me. Of course, I agreed. He said that in the mosque he was never allowed to question the preacher or the teaching. He said that he had many questions about God! He asked if he and I could get together over coffee so he could ask me all his questions. To a Minister of the Gospel, this was like manna falling from heaven!
My plea to the Church is this.
Without sweeping aside the difficulties, and without giving up on a reasonable immigration policy, let’s look at the Muslims amongst us as a wonderful opportunity to show these people the true God, to genuinely befriend them and love them with kindness and grace.
Let’s stop being fearful of them. In faith let’s win them for Christ and his glory!