For festive cheer, look to Bradford
I wanted this column to be full of seasonal cheer, I really did. I wanted to sing of the joys of multicultural inter-faith dialogue, despite my scepticism.
The interwoven history and common Middle Eastern origins of the three great monotheistic religions, the inevitable religious miscegenation which occurs when people of faith meet and worship together: these struck me as good themes for a piece to mark the winter festival.
But then I saw the news. Two former soldiers had been convicted of firebombing a mosque in Grimsby in retaliation for the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby. Their six-year sentences came just days after the trial of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, who had hacked the regimental drummer to death in Woolwich this May.
And now we hear that armed guards were posted outside churches across Pakistan as Christmas approached and the Arab Spring has turned into a murderous anti-Christian winter.
Extremism does not respect the centuries-old tradition of co-existence. This year even Maaloula, one of the last places where the residents speak the biblical Aramaic of Jesus, has been swallowed up by the Syrian civil war.
All this is difficult to fathom for those of us who have no faith. But understand it we must. For too long the police and intelligence services wrote off hellfire preachers such as Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri Muhammed as clowns. But it is the vicious brand of Islam they promoted which inspired the murderers of Lee Rigby and the 7/7 bombers that went before them. In the Middle East and south Asia, we will continue to be wrong-footed if we fail to understand the religious roots of these conflicts.
The only message of hope I could find in this supposed season of good cheer came in a story about Bradford Reform Synagogue, which was faced with closure a year ago. According to a report in the Guardian, an appeal by neighbouring mosques helped raise money to save the building.
Earlier this month, Muslim leaders attended a Chanucah service at the synagogue and Jews were invited to a Ramadan feast. In the city of David Ward and George Galloway, such communal co-operation is a real victory.