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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 101 (Suppl.), August 2006



The presence in airports 

of Muslims coming from Islamic majority countries



Rev. Fr. Paschal Ryan 

Chaplain, London Heathrow Airport


1. Introduction

    This morning I would like to share with you something of the reality of the inter-faith encounter between Catholics and Muslims, as experienced at airports. Airports are not simply points of departure and arrival. With the increasingly global nature of air travel, airports are also the crossroads of contemporary civilisation. As in the days of travel by cart or carriage, where travellers changed from one carrier or conveyance to another, and in time that point of transfer acquired an identity of its own, so an airport develops its own identity. In time the airport itself has a life, a unique character. One of the results of the increase of air travel is that the airports of the world reflect not only their local community, but, and especially, the larger “hub” airports, the global community. Of course the life of an airport has special characteristics, but throughout this talk I hope it will be clear that what happens on airports is of interest and importance to us all. 

2.Developments in air travel and the presence of Muslims in airports

2.1 Passengers  

    Until the recent appearance of a cloud, in the shape of uncertainty of fuel supply, the sky was indeed very clear for air travel. The number of airlines and airports in the world was ever increasing, and, with falling ticket prices, air travel was becoming accessible to more and more people. The opening up of the skies by deregulation and the emergence of new airlines and new markets in Asia and Africa also added significantly to the numbers of air passengers. Recent years have seen a greater diversity among the airlines’ customers, with a growing presence of passengers from Muslim majority countries.

    Increasingly air travel is not a matter of a simple journey from a point of departure to a destination. As the economics of air travel has developed, so has the complexity of routing. With the staggering increase in the number of airports and airlines, not every airline could fly to every possible destination. So we have seen that some airports have developed a role as “hub” airports, with other airports becoming “feeder” airports, with a limited range of direct destination. Thus, for instance, a group of Spanish university students, going to do voluntary work in Africa during a summer vacation, find that the most economical route is Madrid-London-Johannesburg-Kampala. A German businessman, investigating possibilities of investing in the former USSR, might well travel Berlin-London-Tashkent (Uzbekistan).

    Let’s now consider the airlines themselves. The post Second World War oil boom and economic developments saw the emergence of a number of Muslim countries, both in Africa and Asia, on the world air travel market. Thus of the eighty-seven airlines that were flying in and out of Heathrow last year (the number has since grown), twenty-four were from Muslim majority countries. With the more recent emergence of the newer “tiger” economies of Asia, this number is set to increase. Of course, it is not only these airlines which fly to Muslim majority countries or carry Muslim passengers. Of the one hundred and twenty-five international destinations served by British Airways from Heathrow, twenty-two are in Muslim majority countries. With the creation of competing world wide alliances among the airlines, code-sharing and other developments, the picture is one of ever increasing competition and complexity. Some airlines have already folded, others will no doubt follow, but there is no doubt as to the vigorous nature of this market, particularly with the emergence of places such as Dubai and Kuala Lumpur both as destinations and as hubs.

    Believers of many faiths travel for religious reasons. The idea of pilgrimage, visiting a sacred place, is common to Jews, Christians, Hindus, Muslims and others. In Islam however, one particular journey is accorded a unique importance as one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and that is the Hajj. The believer is exhorted to travel to the shrines associated with the prophet Mohammed. With the spread of Islam this became an annual international migration. However, recent years and the opening of airports in Saudi Arabia have seen a fantastic growth in the numbers travelling by air. Each year two million people, fifty thousand of which come from Britain, make their way to Mecca. Such is the significance of this event that last year the British government spent £100,000 supporting a British official delegation to the Hajj.

2.2 Staff

    Up until now the focus has been on airlines and their passengers. However, believe it or not, I have often heard it  said that airports would be truly wonderful places if it weren’t for the passengers. An airport has a life of its own, a community of its own, to which in some ways the planes and passengers are somewhat peripheral. An airport the size of Heathrow has some sixty-five thousand to seventy thousand people working in it. This is not to mention the many thousands more whose livelihoods depend more indirectly on what happens there.

    Indeed, many Airport Chaplains define their work as being mainly centred on the pastoral care of staff members. However, the increasing presence of Muslims in airports as staff members is not just due to the aforementioned increase in the number of airlines operating to and from Muslim majority countries.

    The decades following the Second World War saw incredible shifts in population. The decline of former colonial powers, such as France and the United Kingdom, as world players, and the contraction of their political zones of influence were soon followed by years in which the flow of people was reversed as former colonies became sources of much needed labour. As previously mentioned, at the same time there was economic liberalisation and expansion of air travel, and so a demand was created for workers.

   Where do these workers come from? It depends on what you mean by “come from”. No one yet compiles statistics of the religious identity of the airport workforce, but recent statistics show that in seven of the thirty-two London boroughs more than thirty percent of the inhabitants were born outside Europe. Likewise, in seven boroughs, more than thirty-seven per cent of the inhabitants belong to ethnic minorities. Given the ethnic mix in the surrounding boroughs it is to be expected that among airport workers at Heathrow we find considerable numbers of people born in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. It might be surprising for some of you to learn, though not as surprising now as it might have been a few minutes ago, to learn that the largest regular weekly assembly for worship is “Juma”, Muslim Friday prayers.

2.3 Worship Facilities

    I use the expression “worship facilities”, as it is one which can embrace the variety of Chapels, Mosques, Synagogues, Prayer Rooms and so on that are to be found in airports. 

At this point it might be worth remembering that Muslims are only one of a number of faith groups with whom Christians come into contact. Where once airport chaplaincy was at the forefront of Christian ecumenical co-operation, with, for instance, an interdenominational chapel being built at Heathrow in 1968, now we are working in a multi-faith context. To give another concrete example, at Heathrow we have not only Christian chaplains, but also members of the Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and Hindu faiths. 

    A survey of airport worship facilities, undertaken in 2003 by Sister Alessandra Pander of this Pontifical Council, is helpful in identifying the variety and distribution of Chapels, Prayer Rooms and the suchlike. I am aware of three airports in Europe with designated Mosques, while there are many with Catholic chapels. However, if the USA is anything to go by, then the future provision is of worship facilities by most likely to be in the form of interdenominational, increasing multi-faith, Prayer Rooms. We see this already at Heathrow, where the company operating the airport, BAA, is only prepared to discuss the provision of worship facilities in terms of multi-religious usage. While most of my Christian colleagues and those of other faiths seem happy with this, there are disadvantages from a Catholic point of view. Such Prayer Rooms are not suitable for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, and there is no possibility of having a Crucifix, Stations of the Cross, statues or icons of Our Lady or of Saints. The celebration of Mass in such a space is also dependent on the co-operation of any worshippers of other faiths who might be present. I mention these difficulties as a way of underlining that we are dealing with a situation which could possibly give rise to conflicts.

    With this situation in mind I conducted a small survey among colleagues in various countries. I do not claim that this a totally exhaustive investigation, but at least it provides us with a “snapshot” of the current climate in inter-faith relations. Responses were generally positive about the way the different faiths share a common worship space. However some reported difficulties and these reflected complaints we have received at Heathrow. 

    While it must not be assumed that blame can be laid at the door of any one faith group, nor that any other faith group is without fault, it is a fact that Christian books and artifacts are damaged or removed from Prayer Rooms. On the other hand, I have had to deal with incidents of similar harm being done to the holy books of Muslims and those of other faiths. Whilst it is true that complaints are made by Christians who have felt intimidated or excluded by Muslims using Prayer Rooms, I have also had to assist Muslims who felt unable to enter a Prayer Room because of the presence of Christians. For many people, the idea of sharing a worship space with members of other faiths is something very new indeed. It is not surprising that there are misunderstandings on all sides.

   From time, to time difficulties arise from the Muslim requirement for facilities for washing before prayer, “wudu”. At the design stage of worship facilities the need has to be explained to architects and included in plans. The use of scarce (and valuable) space for “wudu” decreases the space available for everyone to use for prayer. Keeping such spaces clean and tidy can also pose problems. Another source of friction can be the Muslim demand for the segregation of worship facilities, so that men and women do not use the same area. It has usually been possible to assuage these demands by the provision of curtains or movable screens. On the other hand there are many non-Muslims who object to such segregation, which they perceive to be a retrograde step. Again it is a matter of trying to arrive at a “modus vivendi”, as with the vexed matter of whether or not shoes should be removed. On this point we insist that a prayer room is not a mosque. Muslims are free to remove their footwear as they wish, but non-Muslims are likewise free to remain shod. 

3. Meeting in the market place: encounters with Muslims in the airport environment.

    As Christians, many of us are nowadays used to dealing with a variety of denominational beliefs and practices. This variety is ever increasing as all Christian denominations are experiencing a birth of new expressions of faith alongside more traditional ones. Likewise, it should be remembered that the Muslim “Umma” (worldwide community) is not a monolithic block of believers with not a difference between them. Though sometimes Muslims are keen to point out the divisions between Christians, events in Iraq show how deep the differences can be in Islam. However the differences my colleagues and I notice in our encounters with Muslims are not so much denominational as attitudinal. It is not a question of age either, but of outlook. 

   Each of us is to some extent a product of our experiences, both within our family and in the context of education and employment. So, on the one hand I know a very fervent Muslim working at the airport, to all appearances at home in Western culture, shaven and wearing “western” clothes, who is utterly firm in his polite conviction that I, as a Christian, am in error, and that I need to come to see that and convert to Islam. On the other hand going around the airport, one New Year’s Eve, I remember meeting, in different parts of the airport, Muslim men who came up to me and shook my hand saying: “Father, meeting you has blessed my New Year.” Similarly, I regularly meet North African women, veiled, wearing typical robes of that region, who call me “mon père”, grasp me by the hand and expect me to be able to solve whatever little problem they have at that moment: finding their way, discovering which gate a flight is departing from and so on.

    A more analytical approach might identify, in many Muslims, an attitude which sees no meaning in dialogue, has no concept of reciprocity. This pattern of thought is seen most clearly in the Wahabi, the more puritan wing of Islam. It must be remembered that until the British Raj in late nineteenth century India, no significant numbers of Muslims had had to live under foreign rule. In Muslim history, they were either in a dominant position or struggling for dominance. Thus many Muslims do not have any idea of the reciprocity of respect, which is fundamental to dialogue.

    However, on coming into contact with European ways of thinking and governance, they were brought into contact with changes that had largely resulted from the evolution in society which had followed the Reformation and the Enlightenment. It is that encounter with the Enlightenment which is exactly what some Muslims see as being the key. Some commentators have spoken of a Muslim “Reformation”, usually people who see the sixteenth century developments in religion through rather rose-tinted liberal spectacles. If that “Reformation” is taking place in Islam, then it might be helpful to remember that the original, Christian, Reformation was also a period of violent upheavals, civil conflicts, war, attempts in theocratic government such as in Calvin’s Geneva and movements such as the Puritans in England and North America.

    It should also be born in mind that differing attitudes to Christianity are not age-dependent. I see this among the Muslims I meet at Heathrow. Among Muslims, as with any group, there are those of an older generation who are fixed in their thought and way of living, but there are also those who are open and adapt to changing circumstances and mores. On the other hand, the young can attracted by dogmatic preachers who offer them certainties in a confusing world, and who heed a call to reject the lifestyle which is easily judged as immoral. Meanwhile other young Muslims, while not abandoning their faith, feel quite at ease in working in the bright shops or embarking on a career in one of the many different professions and are to be found working at Heathrow: accountants, lawyers, architects, businesspeople of all sorts. 

    These young Muslims may or may not have been born in Muslim majority countries. However many of them, even if born in the United Kingdom, have grown up in a culture which still has much in common with that of Bangladesh or Pakistan. Indeed, many commentators have pinpointed this as the source of our current problems. Furthermore, and in contrast to the nineteenth century emigration from Europe to America or Australia one must bear in mind precisely the dimension of air travel. It is not rare for these young Muslims to spend significant periods of time in their parents’ home country. Many of them find, or are found, their marriage partner in that home country. Some of them may have come to Britain as students, but stay on to marry and settle. I believe these are important factors to consider, and by no means only relevant to Heathrow. I am sure a number of airports have similar demographic profiles. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that the economic bubble that is an international airport is a somewhat exceptional set of economic circumstances. I realise that for many young Muslims in Britain and other European countries, the possibilities I have outlined do not exist. Relatively recent episodes of rioting in cities and towns of a number of European countries indicate what can happen when a community does not have, or feels excluded from, possibilities of economic advancement.  

4. Conclusion

    Clearly an airport is a very special environment. Within an airport terminal, roles and responsibilities are defined and recognisable. Indeed, many of the staff wear uniforms to facilitate this recognition. There is a spirit of co-operation, for everyone there realises that it is only by working together that the business of the place can be done. Despite the large numbers of people and the scale of the enterprise, there is an overall atmosphere of calm, a feeling of being in a safe space. In this an airport has something in common with a hospital or a military base. The specific nature of an airport lies in the transitory nature of many interpersonal encounters, with millions of passengers passing through each year. Sometimes and for some people, it is precisely this anomalous situation which allows them to encounter the stranger, the different, the previously unknown. Thus, though I do not idealise the situation, I believe airports may show us how contacts between Christians and those of other faiths (especially Muslims, because of their great numbers) can be collaborative and fruitful.  

    Sometimes people, even those who work in airports, adopt quite a negative tone when they speak of the crowds, the size of the buildings, the pressure of work and they are surprised that I have this rather different perception. When I see men and women of different faiths, races and social classes working together so well, when I see passengers, who as shown by their dress or costume, come from racial and ethnic groups which in some corners of the globe are in armed conflict, standing side by side, waiting patiently in the same queue, using the same facilities, I have a vision of what the world could be. No, not the crush and the queue, but the sharing and collaborating. What is more, I have an even more vivid vision when I see men and women of various faiths, but especially Muslims and Catholics, peacefully sharing multi-faith prayer areas, at least most of the time.