By Fiyaz Mughal
February 17, 2011
The January speech in the U.K. by Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the co-chairperson of the British Conservative Party, in which she stated that “Islamophobia has passed the dinner table test,” has sparked numerous debates and discussions around many British dinner tables. Warsi was asserting, in other words, that being anti-Muslim is becoming acceptable in an otherwise tolerant and inclusive country which has had a long history of immigrants and integration.
The work we have been doing over the last six years at Faith Matters, an organization dedicated to creating community cohesion among faith communities in the United Kingdom, suggests that Warsi is right – about both anti-Muslim sentiment and the U.K.’s history of integration.
We have heard openly anti-Muslim sentiment in some communities. When we publish research materials on the Muslim community, we regularly receive correspondence from people who spout some of the worst stereotypes about Muslims.
Yet there are those within faith and non-faith communities who are trying to reach out and build bridges with Muslim communities. They understand that blame does not build sustainable and healthy societies. More worrying than stereotyping, though, has been the trend for some to undermine Muslims’ status in society by setting up blogs, websites and Facebook groups that spout anti-Muslim rhetoric. I have attended university and dinner parties where Muslims are seen as the “problem” community and where the topic for the evening’s discussion is Muslim extremism – which then turns into a discussion about all Muslims.
Bringing these issues to the forefront of discussion is useful, although sometimes raising issues and allowing them to “hang in the air” can be detrimental to cohesion. That is why it is essential that civil society organizations and others who support intercommunity relations pick up on Warsi’s comments and implement grassroots discussions and social programs that counter emerging prejudices and divisions.
It is also essential that the British government support such work through the Big Society agenda, which is designed to empower local communities to make more decisions on their own, and to allow private companies and charities to provide services traditionally provided by the state. More importantly, the government itself should continue to foster strong community relations and encourage healthy integration by acting as a facilitator and disseminator of good social ideas.
In her speech, Warsi also stated that Muslims were being bracketed in “moderate” and “extreme” camps, not being seen as individuals. This is particularly important since it affects Muslim communities and the self-perception of British Muslim youths. Today, for some, if a young Muslim drinks alcohol, goes to nightclubs and generally participates in “wild” activities associated with youth, he is considered a moderate, someone who “fits in” and who is “not threatening.”
But then picture a beard added to that youth’s face. Imagine that he is someone who does not go out to clubs, pubs and after-work activities. To some, this person is the picture of a borderline extremist. Such crude attitudes are not only wrong, they could turn out to be dangerous given the heightened levels of sensitivity around extremism and terrorism. Let us not confuse religious piety or social customs within Muslim communities with extremism. These are different things.
So how can we reduce the prejudiced chatter over dinner?
It is essential to promote the diversity of Muslim communities in order to counter the brittle and brutal images of Muslims that underpin prejudiced discussions. The diversity of Muslim communities, whether of thought, practice or background, means that such elements need to be promoted and disseminated in advertising campaigns, through the press and through social media. We must not underestimate the power of social media in creating grassroots ideas and perceptions.
Additionally, communities that maintain monocultural identities need to be provided with social incentives, like small community budgets – administered on a ward level by local authorities, in partnership with residents – to reach out to and engage with other communities.
This also means that British politicians need to emphasize that working with, and developing links with, diverse communities increases one’s ability to cope in an ever-more globalized world. We can all play our role in combating our inner prejudices, though there is some way to go before Muslims lose their current unenviable position of being the most talked about faith community today.
Fiyaz Mughal is the founder and director of Faith Matters (www.faith-matters.org), an organization that works to resolve conflict and create community cohesion through collaboration between faith communities in the United Kingdom and the Middle East.
Source: NewAgeIslam.com publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).