It was the seventh of July, 2005, and as we talked about something else inconsequential whispered news reached us of bombings in London. James (let's call him James) quickly checked news websites and read the initial sketchy reports of what would later turn out to be four suicide attacks by Islamist terrorists in London.
He stood up, his face a little whiter, his arms braced on the desk for support and said:
"I'm just glad it wasn't you lot for a change."
Wikipedia has helpfully compiled a list of terrorist incidents in London. I abhor them all, and neither mean to belittle the suffering of those who lost lives and limbs on 7/7, or diminish the risk that London still faces. But I would like to draw your attention to the fact that, sadly, they're mainly perpetrated by the Irish. The Fenians started back in 1867. The IRA chose the outset of World War II as an appropriate time to start bombing London. I count 35 incidents between 1973 and 1997 at the hands of Irish terrorists, a timespan that covers most of my formative years. Some felt - and perhaps still feel - that all Irish are terrorists.
This is why I always find it odd to meet Irish people who consider all Muslims suspicious. The parallels should be striking. Watch a TV episode that features a bombing from the 1980's and you'll see a husky terrorist with a hint of red in his hair, a love of Guinness and an Irish accent that exists only in Hollywood. Watch one now and you'll see he's been smoothly replaced by a swarthy equivalent who speaks of infidels. They are us from a few decades ago.
And if you're also an atheist then you have another point of common ground with our Muslim cousins. Studies in the US indicate that we're the two most distrusted faith groups; members from both groups being roughly as likely to encounter shock and disappointment when their positions on Theism are made clear, as likely to be discriminated against, and as likely to be ostracised.
I've tried raising this point, occasionally, but was hampered in the same way most white western folk are - I knew next to nothing about Islam. So last year, during Ramadan, I decided to read a translation of the Qur'an.
You're likely aware that Ramadan is a holy month in which fasting is obligatory. You may be aware that food and water are proscribed during the hours of daylight. Ramadan's position on the calendar varies; at Ireland's latitude this means winter fasts can be quite easy but summer fasts can result in only a few hours' window in which to eat and drink. Most Catholics in Ireland also do a fast, of sorts, for Lent. The ritual has softened over the years, where once only one meal a day was allowed it now seems more common for those who observe to avoid chocolate or perhaps alcohol for the period.
I wonder if this perhaps engendered a certain amount of competition. Everything I'd heard about Ramadan before reading the Qur'an emphasised its harshness - in a sense, how tough the ritual was and how much more devoted Muslims were for adhering to it rather than something like Lent. Perhaps it's because I mainly spoke to men about Islam. Perhaps it's just human nature to want to stress the effort one has invested.
But then I read what the Qur'an had to say on the subject. Following a short description of what is proscribed I found a long list of exceptions. Children are exempt. As are the elderly. Those pregnant or nursing can postpone. Those on long journeys need not participate. Any illness can qualify for forgiveness, and those of diminished capacity are also free of this burden. If one really cannot fast (as was the case for most Muslim Olympic athletes) feeding the a poor person for each day missed is considered sufficient, and even then, only if you can afford it.
What had seemed when approached from a poverty of knowledge as a harsh and unforgiving religion began to strike me as one that had strong ideas about what was right, but didn't seek to impose unbearable burdens. While I'm not a Muslim I do think more highly of the faith since reading the Qur'an. It informs the faith of about 1.6 billion of my fellow humans and I'm glad the mistakes I now make about their beliefs are less egregious than those made in the past. While, naturally, we still have areas of disagreement it is impossible to move on the internet without finding an article critical of Islam so I see no great need to add my voice to the cacophony, and prefer to tread the relatively virgin soil of an atheist highlighting something positive from what I've read.