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Hope and Fear in Response to Religious Diversity: Lessons from Brent, London

Published November 06, 2019 by Aliya Azam MBE

Aliya Azam reflects on the Festival of Ideas at Cambridge University where the Woolf Institute organised an event exclusively focused on the London Borough of Brent as an important case regarding the successes and the problems that have occurred in the past. We discussed our experiences in how local government deals with religious and ethnic diversity in an event called, "Hope and Fear in Response to Religious Diversity: Lessons from Brent, London, the UK's most diverse borough".

Panellists at the Festival of Ideas event

I spoke about my faith as a Shia Muslim and the way it impacts on my life and my experiences living in Brent; and about religious diversification, which is connected to some of today's most controversial political questions and evolving challenges such as racism, Islamophobia and extremism in the UK's most ethnically and religiously diverse areas.

In any society people need to be free to worship, to express and live out their faith without interference by others. Obviously, all of this must be done in a way that does not limit the freedom of others who do not share the same faith or who subscribe to no faith at all. So there has to be a substantial depth of tolerance for and acceptance of the 'other' – whether the 'other' is different in culture, language, race or religion. This requires having knowledge and understanding. The rise of populist leaders and movements all across the world suggests that this tolerance and acceptance is in short supply. The demand for such tolerance and acceptance is clearly articulated in all the sacred texts.

I work for The Al Khoei Foundation which organises a number of interfaith events, one of which is the Big Iftar which brings people of all faiths and none together in the month of Ramadan, which allows people to cross the threshold and sacred spaces of other faiths. There must be effective structures in place to communicate with leaderships and grass roots organisations. One such organisation is the Christian Muslim Forum which is the leading national forum for Christian-Muslim engagement. It organises, for example, Church-Mosque twinnings, provides guidelines for interfaith marriages and essentially enables and facilitates Christians and Muslims to come together.

It is important for the state to recognise the important dates in the faith calendar and send high profile messages. The state can invite representatives for public national events and recognise the role that women play in these communities and encourage the local authorities to encourage the youth to develop cultural linguistic heritage by simply allowing space for classes to happen.

Every terrorist attack by anyone who identifies themselves as a Muslim in carrying it out gives every other Muslim in the country more reason to be afraid of discrimination and verbal or physical assault. We discussed how the British state and local government can respond to such attacks in a way which minimises the harm they do to Britain's Muslim citizens. However, this is a massive problem, because both the media and the average citizen is inclined to generalisation. These generalisations are prevalent across different nations and we have all heard these. Although they are illogical and without foundation, they are hard to correct, and people are hard to convince.

One of the great tragedies for Islam is that its fundamental message of peace is easily lost by a single attack by one who self-identities as Muslim. We cannot say that a Muslim who carries out such an attack is not a Muslim: he or she certainly is. We have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that there are people who share our religious faith and who do terrible things: we also have to show the people with whom we work or with whom we have contact each day and who do not share our faith, that stereotypes and generalisations are illogical and have no rational or academic foundation, but this is going to be a long, hard battle.

The Religious Education Council of England and Wales strengthens the provision of Religious Education and this is what is much needed at all levels. Without good quality religious education delivered by a qualified RE teacher who provides accurate and balanced information about the array of different worldviews that make up modern Britain, young people are placed at risk. Not only are they at risk of ignorance that might lead to misunderstanding or even bigotry, but as they go through life they risk basing their knowledge, understanding and opinions on sources that perpetuate inaccurate and misleading stereotypes. With information and opinion so freely available on social media and other online sources, pupils and indeed adults need to be taught to differentiate between sources that are reliable and reputable and those that are more likely to lead to religious discrimination and hatred. I mentioned that, at Cambridge University, a student being trained to become an RE primary teacher used to receive just three hours of training for Religious Education in the whole year of doing a PGCE, which illustrates the seriousness of the situation.

In conclusion, the rest of Britain and Europe can learn from our experience in Brent by encouraging communities to interact as much as possible and build self-confidence in marginalised communities to have more faith in their role in society. We need a programme of education where British Muslims themselves disconnect these terrorist acts from their faiths; having a definition of Islamophobia would be a good start. We need to ensure the media self-regulates to avoid sensationalism and provocative language and ensure that the language, which cannot be used for one religion, is also not used for another.

This article was written by Aliya Azam MBE, Inter-faith Coordinator for the Al Khoei Foundation.

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