SETTING up "British" values against other kinds of values,
Muslim or Christian, would not do, the former Archbishop of
Canterbury Lord Williams told a large audience at the Living Islam
Festival, held at the Lincolnshire Showground earlier this
The language of values was not about what British people "quite
liked", he suggested - sport, fish and chips, foreign holidays -
but what they thought worth while: "What deserves honour in our
human life together; what primarily expresses what we feel warm
about; what has a claim on us; something that would point us
towards sacrificial or difficult actions.
"Let's not have a weak or wavering account of that; let's not
make it a matter of cultural preferences, but take it as seriously
as we can in terms of what British people see is a claim on
The festival was organised by the Islamic Society of Britain,
which seeks to encourage Muslims to think about their faith in a
British context. It had been dubbed the "Halal Glastonbury"; but,
in truth, it was the "Halal Greenbelt", with a strong emphasis on
social justice and equality.
The seminar venues were named after British bees - honey is
considered in the Qur'an to be healing for mankind. The studio set,
in the British Muslim-TV tent, was a tongue-in-cheek living-room
with a fringed standard lamp and a grandfather clock. You could
hear floating on the air exhortations to Mr Punch in his stripy
booth to be a gentleman and not hit the baby. The aerobatics team
Aerostars wheeled and dived above the site. The festival was an Eid
celebration after a gruelling Ramadan.
The Bazaar could have been the Greenbelt market but for the
attar fragrances and halal pick 'n' mix. There were fish and chips,
Aberdeen Angus burgers, and a full English breakfast in the food
tent. Young men and women from all three armed forces were there to
exemplify the British Muslim contribution to defence. A speaker
from the National Army Museum brought a reminder of the million and
a half Muslim soldiers from pre-partition India and other countries
that fought for Britain in the First World War.
The event attracted about 60 high-profile speakers, scholars,
theologians, and community activists. Keynote speakers included
Salma Yaqoob, a former Birmingham councillor and a member of the
Respect party; the activist Julie Siddiqi; and the American-Muslim
imam Suhaib Webb, who preached at the outdoor Jummah
Khutbah (Friday prayer).
Questions were asked: were Muslims allowed to be happy? Who
protected the borders of Islamic faith? Were Muslim scholars
failing as moral leaders? Had Muslims lost the art of debating
without taking things personally?
On civil liberties, must Muslims sacrifice some of their
freedoms to safeguard security? What about gender segregation,
Islamic finance, combating extremism? Could Muslims use their
spiritual and ethical resources to save the planet from dystopia?
What should British Islam look like, culturally? Was it "scones and
tea at 4 p.m., queuing up politely, and writing strong letters of
Lord Williams had two slots on the Friday: a seminar chaired by
the founding chairman of the organisation New Horizons in Britain,
Dilwar Hussain; and a conversation with the President of the
Islamic Society of Great Britain, Sughra Ahmed.
What were called "British values" were not just peculiar to
Britain, he mused, "as though God had given the British people a
unique level of wisdom", but "a particular set of human and social
values. . . A sense that a well-functioning society is one in which
people are participants and citizens and not just subjects. . . A
sense that it's really important that we respect and try to
understand diversity and conscience.
"One of the hardest things the Muslim community faces in this
country is the intense focus of a lot of the media on what makes
Muslims different, 'un-British'. . . There is a whole generation of
Muslims for whom British identity is normality . . . movers and
shakers and participators in society . . . active, unobtrusive
participation in the democratic process in various sort of
community association. That remains the inevitable slow burner by
which things change."
There was a disconnect, he said, between the Muslims whom people
knew, and "the something called Islam which is 'out there'; the
'great global shadow. . . The inhuman personal threat on your
And probably 80 per cent of the stand-off between religion and
secular views came from incompetence and ignorance, "muddle and
misunderstanding", he concluded, rather than hostility.