That must be the cab,” I thought as the sound of a car horn replayed in my ears. I picked up my  coat, rucksack, oversized book bag, and shuffled towards the door. Sure enough, waiting in the middle of the road was a private hire car.

Sarah?” he checked to confirm I wasn’t a random cabbie hopper.

Yes,” I confirmed, acknowledging the legitimacy of his presence outside my house.

With the formalities over, I clambered in.

Some cabbies are quiet. They peer through their rear-view mirror to see if you are engaged in reading or music before venturing into full blown conversation. Others, the bubbly types, relish the prospect of a new person to talk to and can’t wait to get started. Before the car got to the end of the road, I discovered my driver fell into the latter camp.

“Are you going to work?” 

“No.”

“Are you meeting friends?”

“Kind of.”

“Where are you going?”

I suspected from his thick accent that the answer would either intrigue or disturb him: “I’m going to a Christian Muslim Dialogue.

It was now I who was studying the rear-view mirror for his reaction. With a furrowed brow, my drivers voice lowered to hushed tones.

Are you a Christian?

I replied in the affirmative.

Let me give you some advice” he said. “Be careful. Don’t be too firm. It’s when people hold on to their beliefs too tightly that problems are caused.” He carried on for several minutes, citing the history of terrible violence between religious groups.

When there appeared to be a suitable break in his monologue, I pepped up. “Surely, the issue is what you believe, as opposed to having beliefs in general. For example,” I offered, “Jesus gives us two commandments: Love God, Love People! If everyone did that we would have a lot less problems!

A measured but passionate discussion ensued, ranging from how to determine orthodox Christian and Muslim beliefs, the difference between the two, the reliability of the Bible and the Quran, and the different Muslim positions on violence.

Ali, as I now knew him, admitted that whilst he could recite the Quran in Arabic, he didn’t know what it meant. Thus, he was sharing his opinions, experience, what he had heard… but not the text. Kind of like enjoying the cadence of an Italian opera without understanding a word of Italian! But it wasn’t until we were almost at the end of our journey that the source of his trepidation became clear.

My people have suffered” he sighed. “I’m a Muslim but other Muslims have killed many of us in my country.

Are you Alevi?” I asked.

Ah! You know about us.

Alevis are a minority Muslim sect, predominantly in Turkey, who practise a more relaxed version of Islam than Sunnis and Shias. As a result, they have received persecution from some more “orthodox” Muslims. Evidently, this was more than a consideration for my driver. It was his experience. Hence, his delicate approach towards what should be a respectful yet robust debate, was undergirded by feelings of fear. And his feelings are justified.

Ali would have lived through the sectarian violence in Turkey during the 1980s and 1990s, which saw the murder of hundreds of Alevis. He probably would not be surprised at the discovery of leaflets in a south London mosque, calling for the ‘killing of Ahmadis‘; another ‘wrong kind’ of Muslim. He may also have not blinked an eye at the recent Mosque bombing in Egypt, claiming the lives of over 300 Sufis; a further ‘wrong kind’. Consequently, Ali’s aversion to confrontation mirrors something we all know if we dare to admit it. Whilst we can find numerous examples of upstanding citizens in the Muslim community, there always remains that darker side of Islam. That violent side of Islam.

In October the Islamic group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the worst bombing in Somalia’s history, a 99.8% Muslim country. Over 500 killed and hundreds more injured. The truth is some Muslims groups have been attacking the ‘wrong kind’ of Muslim groups ever since Muhammad left this earth.

What about the punishment for apostasy?” Ali suddenly blurted out. “People say things, but I don’t know if it’s true.

His voice had changed. He was no longer taking pot shots at Christianity, but seemed to be hoping I would relieve his angst. But I couldn’t. Ali probably already knew that the penalty for leaving Islam is death under the Sharia. My confirmation came as no surprise.

The infamous Yusuf al-Qaradawi commented on its historic importance:

“If they had gotten rid of the apostasy punishment, Islam wouldn’t exist today; Islam would have ended since the death of the Prophet, peace be upon him…”[1]

What makes this quotation all the more chilling is that Muhammad, who my Muslim friends want me to believe is like Jesus, is recorded as saying “I have been made victorious with terror”.[2] Ali had good reason to be fearful.

Slowly rolling to a halt, Ali precariously perched the cab half on the curb and half over a solid yellow line. We had arrived, but he had more questions. Good questions. No longer in hushed tones but direct and probing.

Ali”, I said “I’m happy to discuss all this with you. I just need to leave now.” Being one of the speakers for the event, I was mindful of the time. “Let’s stay in touch,” I offered, but the offer was not taken up.

Looking back, I wish I’d stayed a bit longer. Although I am able to have frank discussions on Islam, there are many, like Ali, who are too scared, trying at all times to appease. Robust debate on religion was never the issue—we’d just had 40 minutes of it! No, it was the constant threat of violence that kept Ali placid and afraid to leave the faith.

A wise man once said, “Open your mouths for the mute.”[3] Instead, it seems many have joined the silence.

We are free not to do the same.


[1] Gatestone Institute (February 5, 2013)
[2] Sahih Bukhari Vol. 4, Book 52, Hadith 220
[3] Proverbs 31:8