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Where Do British Muslims Stand on 'British Values'?

19/06/2014 16:12 BST | Updated 19/08/2014 10:59 BST

There has recently been a lot of talk about 'British values' from some senior British politicians and how British Muslims must embrace them. Whenever politicians and others speak of the need to instil 'British values' into British Muslims, there is often an assumption that Muslim traditions are incompatible with such values. Since British values are never clearly defined in a manner that makes them uniquely British, many Muslims often adopt an oppositional stance whenever references are made to 'British values'. They too assume that, when defined, such values will inevitably be at loggerheads with the fundamental teachings of their faith, especially when politicians attempt to bind British values to a single, monological perspective of British history.

Since a majority of British Muslims believe that they are as proud of their national identity as other British citizens, they feel that they too should have a stake and voice in defining British values rather than being viewed as undesirable outsiders who pose a threat to such values. A number of surveys and studies published in the last few years have revealed that British Muslims feel more patriotic than most British people or their Muslim counterparts living in other parts of Europe. However, the context and manner in which the debate on 'British values' is taking place are viewed by many young British Muslims as being rooted in the 'othering' of their communities as part of a social process of exclusion.

Muhammad Abduh (1849 -1905), one of the most influential Islamic philosophers and jurists of the modern era, once famously remarked upon his return to Egypt from a tour of Europe:

'I visited the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I returned to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.'

Throughout the past decades, these sentiments have been echoed by a majority of British Muslims who believe that modern Britain which is a product of internal revolutions and social protests, its institutions, laws, and its people best epitomise the values and teachings of their faith.

The issue of great concern for most Muslim communities is not that they see a conflict between 'Muslim values' and 'British values' but that their children are growing up in a society in which such an imaginary binary opposition is constantly propagated by both politicians and 'extremist' elements within their communities.

The recent reaction by senior politicians to the Trojan Horse controversy has brought us closer than before to understanding what politicians mean by 'British values'. Prime Minister David Cameron defined them as 'a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law.' According to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg they are 'democracy, gender equality and equality before the law' while Education Secretary Michael Gove included in his own list 'individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.' Many British Muslims will argue that these values are already enshrined in their scriptures and that they constitute what they have come to define and understand as 'Islamic values'.

'A belief in freedom'

There are a number of scriptures which British Muslims often cite as examples of Islamic teachings on human freedom. Key among them are:

'Let there be no compulsion in religion.' (Qur'an 2:256)

'Whosoever wills, let him (or her) believe, and whosoever wills, let him disbelieve.' (Qur'an 18:29)

'If it had been your Lord's will, all who are in the earth would have believed. Why then would you compel mankind to believe?' (Qur'an 10:99)

One of Islam's most eminent founding figures, Ali Ibn Abi Talib, a cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet of Islam (Muhammad), famously wrote that:

'No person should accept to live a life of a slave when God created every human being free.'

It was the early Muslim rationalist debates on 'human freedom' (from as early as the 8th century) which inaugurated what is now referred to as classical 'Islamic theology.' The famous Orientalist scholars Ignác Goldziher (1850 -1921), Arthur Tritton (1881 -1973) and William Montgomery Watt (1909-2006) later wrote that early Muslims' belief in human freedom and free will was derived from certain verses of the Qur'an itself.

'Tolerance of others'

Similarly, the concept of coexistence is not alien to Islam and Muslim values. The period often described by historians as 'the Golden age of Islam' was characterised by coexistence and collaboration between Muslims and people of different faiths and beliefs. In Iraq and under Muslim rule, between the 8th and 10th century, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others worked closely together in the development of what became known as the Graeco-Arabic translation movement which rendered most of the secular Greek texts on mathematics, philosophy, medicine, physics, etc, into Arabic. They then went on to write (in Arabic) what are still considered today to be the most important early commentaries on Greek philosophy. When the Arabic-Islamic philosophical texts were later translated into Latin in the Middle Ages, they 'led to the transformation of almost all philosophical disciplines in the medieval Latin world.'

'Personal and social responsibility'

In almost all Islamic theological traditions, social responsibilities are prioritised over duties and obligations to God, or religious rituals. The Qur'an states:

'Do not forget your responsibilities in the present world; and be good to others as God has been good to you.' (Qur'an 28:77)

According to Muslim tradition, Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, declared that:

'The best people, and the most beloved of God, are those who do things for the benefit of others' and 'The best Muslims are those from whose hands and tongues others feel safe.

For Muslims, social responsibilities are not limited to fellow human beings but extent to issues relating to the environment and animal welfare. For example, Muslims consider it haram (prohibited) to unnecessarily cut down trees even in a time of war, to waste water, or to take part in any form of hunting done as a sport (e.g. fox hunting!). Muhammad warned his followers saying:

'Whoever kills a sparrow or anything bigger than that without a just cause, God will hold him accountable on the Day of Judgment.'

He also prohibited them from using more water than necessary even when performing ablution for religious rituals. His disciples asked him,'O messenger of God! Can there be wastefulness while performing the ablution for a religious act?' To which he responded, 'Yes, even if you perform your ablution on the banks of a rushing river.'

'Respecting and upholding the rule of law'

Most Muslims living in non-Muslim countries consider it a religious duty enshrined in the Qur'an to respect and uphold the law of the land they are living in. Nationality and immigration laws are classified as covenants by a majority of Muslims. Thus, violating the law of the land would be tantamount to violating the Qur'anic command to strictly abide by any covenant one enters into:

'And fulfil every covenant. Verily, every covenant will be enquired into (by God).' (Qur'an 17:34)

In mosques as well as at home, Muslim children are taught that when they break laws, they are not only committing a crime against the state but also a grave sin against God, and that even if the authorities do not find out, God is all-knowing and all-seeing.

When politicians seek to define 'British values' by invoking a single narrative of history, they should be prepared to convince many British citizens whose memory of history is one shaped by the brutal and dehumanising systems of slavery, colonialism, racism, homophobia and patriarchy why their version of British history should be privileged over that of other British citizens. For example, Alan Turing would consider the values which defined the Britain in which he lived to be 'inhumane', as Gordon Brown described them.