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Division is not a ‘British value’

by
22 May 2015

Talk of extremism in the terrorism Bill risks exacerbating tension, says Richard Sudworth

PAUL KING/ALAMY

Warm beer, too? Theresa May unveils a new village sign, showing a cricket match and St Nicholas's, Hurst, in her constituency, last month

Warm beer, too? Theresa May unveils a new village sign, showing a cricket match and St Nicholas's, Hurst, in her constituency, last month

WHEN Theresa May was defending her proposed counter-terrorism Bill on Radio 4's Today programme on Wednesday of last week, she invoked the spectre of groups seeking a "them-and-us" mentality that would divide the nation. The solution, she argues, is for a law that gives greater powers to the State in outlawing assembly and free speech for those regarded as "extremist".

There's the rub: who is extremist? A Muslim friend, a scholar who has been at the forefront of Christian-Muslim dialogue, teasingly describes his faith like this: "I'm extremist in my love of Allah!"

The Church of England sits in an uncomfortably ambivalent place with regard to so-called "British values" and what are loosely described as "democratic values" by Mrs May. Our Established status inclines us to an inheritance that is essentially conservative, but we would be betraying our founder (and I am not thinking of Henry VIII here) if our default position could never be described as radical.

 

WE NEED to ask what is Christian about "British values". A sober assessment of the cause of gender equality, for example - a contemporary British value, perhaps - might wake us up to the realisation that Christians have often been lagging behind the rest of society. Sometimes, non-Christians teach us truths that bring us back to who we are meant to be, because we live in a world graced with God's presence.

The glorious problem that we have is the very diversity of influences shaping life as it is today. So many of our communities are circumscribed by values from "elsewhere". For Christians, our ultimate horizon is the Kingdom of God, not a mythical vision of warm beer, cricket, and evensong.

Admitting anything else drives us towards the sort of privatised religion that is good for no one. We live in porous, messy societies, so that across Britain people will be influenced by texts and sources that have their origin from Arabia to Hollywood, Google to Oxford. The pragmatic plurality of British society surely behoves us to a hospitable view of Establishment that can speak with and for the freedoms of other faiths.

This is not to dismiss concerns about specific practices or laws that may inhibit freedoms. Nor is it necessary to be so apologetic that the Church's positive impact on freedoms in the UK is overlooked. As Larry Siedentop eloquently argues in Inventing the Individual: The origins of Western liberalism (Penguin, 2015), there are many elements of our liberal freedoms that can be traced directly to a Christian heritage: a heritage that we ought to be able to acknowledge and celebrate.

Yet presenting a pristine vision of so-called British values as a counterpoint to extremism risks a wilful ignorance of our diverse heritage. There have been layers of influence on British culture, from the pagan Romans onwards, that underscore the reality of a mixed cultural landscape. Ignoring this complexity and pitting British values against a vague, indefinable notion of extremism is liable to put any number of faith communities into the category of "them", besides sharpening the sense of dislocation of so many already beleaguered British Muslims.

 

THIS Bill is being presented at a time when the new Government is threatening to repeal the UK's implementation of the European Human Rights Act. These two trajectories are at risk of giving unprecedented powers to the Government, which may be used to curtail genuine religious freedoms.

The paradox that Mrs May failed to notice is that in shoring up national unity in the name of a fight against extremism the Government is in danger of exacerbating divisions in society.

She referred to the "Trojan Horse" controversy here in Birmingham as exactly the sort of thing targeted by the Bill. While the Government may have forgotten that the issue was primarily about religious conservatism and bad governance, and not extremism, many of my Muslim neighbours in Birmingham have not forgotten the scaremongering that they were subjected to.

Our criminal laws already give the police powers to tackle those who are intent on conspiracy to violence. Unpalatable or irrational views are held by people of all faiths and none, but education and social and economic integration are the tools to address these issues, not the criminal law.

Am I at risk of surveillance from MI5 by suggesting that these measures expose two classic drawbacks to the democratic system as we know it: the inability to see beyond the term of an election, and the tendency of politicians to over- estimate their power to bring transformation?

 

EXTREMISM will be with us for a while yet, and requires of all communities the ability to listen patiently and seek the flourishing of everyone. There is action that we can take. I think of the charity The Feast, which started in Birmingham, and is now represented in Luton, Bradford, and London.

It seeks to gather Christian and Muslim young people together in a shared exploration of their faiths. The activities are not big events that make the headlines, but are opportunities for trust to be built up, and difference to be celebrated rather than avoided. Friendship rather than fear will be the best inhibition to extremism.

Looking at the political map of Britain after the General Election, it seems that our nation is already looking like "them and us". Here in Birmingham, issues such as employment and child poverty, benefits sanctions and foodbanks, have coloured the city "red", and suggest a divide to which the Government would be wise to pay more attention.

 

The Revd Dr Richard J. Sudworth is a lecturer in Anglican Theology at the Queen's Foundation, Birmingham, and Priest-in-Charge of Christ Church, Sparkbrook, a Muslim-majority area. He is the author of Distinctly Welcoming: Christian presence in a multifaith society (Scripture Union, 2007).

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