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Diversity of faith is our birthright – a modern British perspective

Published February 16, 2022 by Akram Nazir

Interfaith, Education, Woolf Institute

Religion means different things to everyone. To some, it is everything – their moral code, their legislative authority, their emotional support mechanism. To others, it is simply an arbitrary label – nothing more than a protected characteristic, resigned to be memorialised in law until the next Equality Act receives Royal Assent. These views are by no means a sign of classic British exceptionalism; it is fully recognised that these perspectives cut even deeper in other communities. However, to succinctly discuss an intersection of modern identities, this essay will focus on the British struggle with religion.

While it is acknowledged that religion is a dwindling phenomenon in the United Kingdom, its role in British institutions cannot be understated. Parliament seats the Lords Spiritual, granting 26 Church of England bishops the ability to directly intervene in the activities of the upper house. The intrinsic identity of the British state, the Crown, is embodied by the Queen, the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The symbols of our enduring religiosity reside deep within the heart of the establishment. In a democracy that demands representation, does this dictate an accurate image of the Britain that we are?

I would argue that it does not but it can. We can respect our past, our traditions, the tale of our evolution into a modern United Kingdom, while cradling the diversity of faith and thought in our nation. Our values, hopes and dreams make it incumbent upon us that we do.Firstly, it is important to recognise the right to be who we are.

Living in a society that is often described as identity-obsessed, it is important to review the intricacies of this obsession. I contend that the importance of understanding one’s identity is nothing new; it is a very human turmoil, that starts with childhood and ends with our final breaths, possibly without satisfactory resolution. It is this turmoil that has the power to start religions, found nations and lead revolutions. Regardless of the timelessness of identity, its significance to Britain in the 21st century is clear. I present myself as an example to explore this.

Nationality: The Frenemy of Religion

A Muslim, born and brought up in England by Indian parents, I am a melting pot of ideologies, beliefs and cultures, with a sprinkling of the occasional cognitive dissonance. To those harbouring hate, my race, nationality and religion are a forbidden paradox. Regardless of their distaste, my identities are mine in their entireties; they are my right, not just a privilege afforded by law, but an expression of my lived experiences.

This right protects all of my identities – such as those of being a student, a foodie, a man, a Doctor Who fan – but it is most relevant to the labels of mine that are most aggravating to others. With nationality being such a distinct and significant identity, it would be wrong to feign that this identity crisis belongs solely to me.

Such crises are a rite of passage for young British Muslims. We have some scholars, sitting thousands of miles away, criticising our yearning to belong to our home with uncompassionate rulings that are barely recognisable as Islamic. On the other hand, we have some of our own countrymen look at us with such contempt that we question whether our faith allows us to identify as British. Some of us agonise over whether we truly belong – we may not be allowed to have a drink down the pub or have bacon with full English breakfasts, but we speak like you, work alongside you and are your neighbours. Has humanity died so deep in the abyss of prejudice that we cannot be recognised to be apart from the apparently homogenous group of terrorists that we are? Are we such offensive traitors that our own siblings in Islam cannot fathom our British freedom leaving our piety unscathed?

The government seems to support such rhetoric. In November 2021, the Home Secretary took steps to introduce powers for a person’s British citizenship to be stripped without notice. These powers are subject to the prevailing requirements of international legislation, such as not making someone stateless. This enhanced already controversial laws allowing for people to be stripped of their citizenship if they are deemed to be harmful to the nation’s security.

Such laws further emphasise the idea that identity is something that can be ripped out of one’s hands; regardless of belonging, as long as we have links to our ancestors, we are them. The xenophobic propagation of ‘integration’ as a solution to the politicisation of religion and terrorism seeks to foster an us-them narrative, marked by the obsessive questioning of our right to our national identity.

On the contrary, nationality can also be so intertwined with religion that a person’s beliefs can be deeply embedded in their politics. Northern Ireland is a pertinent example. The faiths of the communities of the six counties have historically aligned individuals to either Irish nationalism or British unionism. Without over-simplifying a complex subject, this conflict of identities is not embedded within religious dogma but is rather driven by political beliefs and events. However, sectarian allegiances occurred generally along religious lines, a stark reminder of how faith impacts the right to self-determine.

Faith and race: The mistaken twins

Race and religion have an equally uncomfortable relationship. Racial identity wields enough power over a person to rival the importance of their faith. Arguably, this is due to the historic structuring of our society against certain demographics, which has made us more sensitive to race. For ethnic minorities, race may sit at the forefront of their identity, being something that cannot be easily hidden.

Despite the complexity of individuals, bigots often display little logic to their disgusting vitriol – anti-Semitism is an example of this. Hatred and discrimination of Jewish people simply for their perceived faith is an example of racism that targets believers of a faith as well as those perceived to be of the same race as some of them. Race and faith are constructed to be so tightly knit that bigots believe they have the power to assume and grant identity. They abuse this ‘power’ to simplify a complex identity that transcends race and colour. Such abuse is dangerous, as it further normalises putting individuals into boxes.

This idea stands true also for those who leave the faith they were brought up with. For individuals whose local communities are practising, the act of apostasy may be deserving of ex-communication from those who love them most. This is not a universal experience, however is not uncommon, present in British society across many different faith groups. For the people who have lost their faith, they may feel welcomed by the equality of secularism. Yet, even having renounced an aspect of their identity, their name, past and race often mean they cannot truly ‘leave’. Especially for converts to a religion, perceptions of who is meant to follow a faith can dictate one’s acceptance into their chosen community.

These violations of the irrevocable right to self-determination rid us of the only way wherein we can fully understand the intersection of identities that we own. This stands in defiance of the very liberty that is a cornerstone of this society.

Conclusion: Dieu et mon droit (God and my right)

Gender, relationships, nationality, hobbies, faith, age, politics, race – these all form part of our identities, contradicting and battling each other for primacy, leading us to value certain ones over others. I strongly believe that regardless of how we come to terms with our identities, they are ours unconditionally. Any attempt to withhold this right is problematic in modern-day Britain.

Our relationship with faith exists in many forms, and it is the variation of how faith interacts with our society to which we are becoming accustomed. Faith is an important indicator of identity for some – it is a demographic that has existed long before the concept of nationality or race. Whether we have faith or not, it is still a part of us.

This diversity of faith is being celebrated, and we are becoming a more inclusive society. This concept is relatively simple, however is so clearly ignored. Diversity of identity makes every single person whole, which in turn makes society whole; this stands true for all communities because it is the human experience.

Unfortunately, we are still yet to see this heterogeneity in our establishment. I argued that we must adapt in this regard while not losing our roots – I must concede that I do not know how. How can we seat in the House of Lords an atheist Lord Spiritual, when humanism demands secularism; or a Grand Mufti, when there is not one; or Hindu priests, when the religion has no fixed philosophy? We must see change – it is a question of fulfilling the birthright we have to our identities. When we cannot even accept into our democracy the beliefs, or lack of, that may define us, we need to come together to do better.



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