“WHAT does an English Islam look like?” was discussed at a garden party in Surrey on Tuesday, where schoolchildren singing traditional Muslim songs set to English choral music illustrated the potential for confluence.
The event was organised by British Future, a think tank that explores identity, integration, and migration. It was held in the Woking Peace Garden, where Muslim soldiers who died in the First World War are buried. The first purpose-built mosque in the UK was constructed in Woking in 1889.
“The presence of Islam in Surrey from the 19th century is one way to understand that contemporary debates have a longer history,” the director of British Future, Sunder Katwala, said on Wednesday. “It’s an unknown history that perhaps disrupts some of our assumptions today about identity, integration, and faith.”
The language of an English Islam was unfamiliar to most people, he suggested. While there was a strong sense of identity in the other countries of the UK, there had been a lack of conversation about English identity.
“Some people are worried about doing it, on the grounds that it might be exclusive, but that is going to aggravate, quite reasonably, those with a mainstream English identity that they want recognised,” he said. Another “gap” in the conversation was the lack of a “strong enough account of the majority faith”.
“The idea that you can take for granted knowledge of the majority faith, and its culture and traditions, and just need to teach about the other bits does not hold at all,” he said. “We need a sense of equity and fairness and balance that reflects the society people are going to grow up in. What are the core values, but also cultural inheritances that we want people to feel a sense of ownership over?”
The garden party was followed by a debate on what a modern place of worship should look like, chaired by Baroness Warsi and featuring the Dean of the Cambridge Muslim College, Dr Timothy Winter, who wrote the songs sung at the garden party. It was important that such examples of confluence between two cultures were “organic” rather than enforced, Mr Katwala said.
Baroness Warsi had previously suggested that growing up in a majority Christian country “actually made me feel stronger in my own faith”, and suggested that Europe should be “stronger and more confident in its Christianity”. Last year, she spoke of a desire to see the “quintessential English mosque”, suggesting that this might not require minarets.
Mr Katwala said that greater “social confidence” would result in people creating places of worship “that reflect an Islam that is British, that is probably localised and regional, and that doesn’t somehow feel under the shadow of ‘the only authentic way to send an Islamic message would be to have something that looks as though it would be as at home in Pakistan as in Bangladesh.’”