Britain is often described as a society which adheres to “procedural secularism”. Theoretically, this means that it enables all voices, whether religious or not, to access the public sphere equally. In Contextualising Islam in Britain, a ground-breaking research project conducted by Cambridge University that asked a diverse group of Muslim participants to answer the question “what does it mean to live faithfully as a Muslim in Britain today?” an overwhelming majority of participants affirmed their support for this model. They observed that procedural secularism provides many benefits for British Muslims, including religious freedom. As British Muslims we are able, for the most part, to practice our faith in an atmosphere of respect and security, with recourse to established anti-discrimination provisions if this is not the case. Many public sector workplaces now have multi-faith prayer rooms, and halal food options are available in school canteens. In terms of the debate on religious symbols, a balance must be found between conflicting rights in society, based on the harm principle. A prime example is the case of Aishah Azmi, the teaching assistant in Yorkshire who refused to remove her niqab (face veil) because she was required to work with male colleagues. Upon taking her case to an employment tribunal, Azmi lost, because it was determined that the harm caused to her pupils (who couldn’t understand her properly) trumped the harm she faced by being asked to remove her niqab. These determinations must continue to take place on a case by case basis. Many people in the UK see the debate about religious expression as one between those that support the status quo of procedural secularism and “ideological secularists” who reject procedural secularism and say that religious voices should be excluded or rigorously controlled in public and private institutions. Many Muslims, as well as Christians, across the UK have expressed concern about a potential rise in ideological secularism and worry about their right to religious expression being circumscribed.
Proponents of ideological secularism often cite the negative role that religion can play when it comes to issues like women’s rights as grounds for their objection to allowing religion into the public sphere. When extremely conservative religious activists speak out against women’s rights and use supposedly religious arguments, this furthers such misconceptions. However, such extreme acts have more to do with culture than religion. For example, forced marriage is a negative cultural practice. Although associated with Islam, it is actually totally at odds with Islamic history, which includes examples of the Prophet Muhammad ending marriages in which consent had not been sought. However, when religious texts are specifically invoked to justify actively violating the established human rights of others, or seeking to deprive them of their newly-won rights e.g. the campaign against gay marriage, then it is the role of Muslim groups like mine to openly challenge this rhetoric. In 2010, I wrote an article for the Guardian on discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace. Not just any workplaces, but religious institutions. The upshot was that people who were looking for operational roles in such institutions – or currently employed in them – should not be adversely treated due to their sexual orientation, regardless of their employers’ personal convictions. Firstly, because it is the right thing to do, and secondly, because all our decisions in this arena should be guided by RECIPROCITY (Muslims have benefited strongly from equalities legislation). Contrary to much of the mainstream media discourse on Muslims, research suggests that the overwhelming majority of British Muslims feel comfortable with a procedural secular state. The Contextualising Islam in Britain report correctly identifies that the only groups who put forward arguments to the contrary are fringe groups (both Muslim and non-Muslim) that have little interest in promoting a cohesive, pluralistic society. Within a procedural secular state such as Britain, Muslims have rights and responsibilities that are in keeping with Islamic teachings. Far from advocating withdrawal from society, mainstream Islamic scholarship regards civic engagement as highly desirable for Muslim citizens. Understanding that being a religious Muslim in Britain today also means living a full life as a citizen – with all the rights and responsibilities that entails – is a crucial step towards becoming well-integrated citizens in today’s Britain. Islamic history has something to say about the link between citizenship and religion as well. Imam Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi, an Andalusian scholar who lived in the 14th century, articulated this principle in his work on the Maqasid al Sharia (goals of the sharia, or Islamic principles). He drew parallels between citizens’ rights and responsibilities in a state – such as freedom of conscience and the obligation to speak out against tyranny – and the objectives of Islam.
More needs to be done to highlight this area of thought, and how it can be used as inspiration in the lives of British Muslims today. When Manwar Ali, Chief Executive of the religious charity JIMAS, spoke at BMSD’s event on secular democracy in September 2012, he highlighted three key synergies between secularism and religious freedom. Firstly, pluralism, as signified in the Qu’ran by the verse, “To each of you, God has prescribed a law and a way. Secondly, neighbourliness. Witness the Hadith of a man who asked the Prophet (pbuh) how he would know he had done well. The reply? “When your neighbours say you have done well.” Thirdly, Manwar explained that it was precisely SECULAR management of religious spaces which had helped him to educate others on his beliefs, without imposing on them.
Speaking of imposition, this also feeds into questions on the future of extremist movements in the West, post-Arab spring. I want to share with you a pertinent, recent example of the kind of intimidation carried out by some of these movements. Back in March, Queen Mary University re-hosted an event which should never have been cancelled. Anne-Marie Waters, of the One Law for All campaign, had originally been due to speak on ‘Sharia and Human Rights’ on 16th January.
As the event was about to start, a man entered the lecture theatre, raced up to the front and started filming the audience. After threatening audience members with some predictable “I know where you live” diatribes, he added that if the speakers said anything negative about the Prophet Mohammed, he would “track them down.” Rushing back out of the building with the same intensity he had entered, this youth ended up being flanked by a large group of his peers outside.
Police were called and the event was cancelled, much to the chagrin of everyone involved.
It is commendable of the university to re-schedule this talk, but a more profound question lingers: what is the best long-term strategy when it comes to addressing such aggression and intimidation? As director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy (an organisation which tackles both Islamophobia and other forms of extremism), I know how crucial it is to challenge ALL sectarian attitudes in public, regardless of where they may emanate.
A fringe within a fringe will bray that it is “Islamophobic” to criticise such statements. Such crude accusations should be exposed for what they are: erroneous, and an insult to those of us who are doing crucial work in politically complex environments. Further, they do no favours to genuine victims of Islamophobia.
Firstly, it will improve the level of discourse on issues such as intra-faith relations in the UK.
Secondly, it will help Muslims fulfil our Islamic obligations vis-a-vis social justice.
Thirdly, it will send out a strong message to non-Muslims, that we are good at setting out what kind of behaviour is acceptable (and, by extension, what is not).
Of course, many Muslims are deterred from taking this sort of action because they fear threats and intimidation. However, despite the example at Queen Mary in January, the situation is gradually improving.
A coalition of religious and non-religious groups – including mine – organised a protest against the extremist Muslims Against Crusades’ poppy-burners on Remembrance Day 2011. While the group were banned the night before the protest, our planned counter-protest sent out a clear message: that people from a diverse range of backgrounds will not put up with such antics. My top tip for protesting against groups like these is to deploy humour and satire. In one video on the BMSD website, an “angry young Muslim” begins ominously: “I have a message for those who insult Islam,” before adding: “Let’s agree to disagree.”
This video was used to promote BMSD’s counter-protest against MAC (then known as Islam4UK) in October 2009. It received 10,000 hits on YouTube in four days, and shows what can be achieved with a small budget, yet copious amounts of passion and determination.
Ultimately, it is not only theory that will help citizens from different backgrounds live together in a secular society. Government and voluntary organisations in the UK must come up with practical strategies and resources to promote an inclusive society and help the next generation of citizens, including young Muslims, understand their role in it.