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Lord Williams: Muslims uphold values

15 August 2014

By Pat Ashworth


British fare: crowds at the Living Islam Festival near Lincoln, this month

British fare: crowds at the Living Islam Festival near Lincoln, this month

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 month.

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 them."

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 complaint"?

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 doorstep.'"

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.

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