In recent times, on the back of the Birmingham 'Trojan Horse' issue, our politicians have landed heavily on the issue of British values. Prime Minister David Cameron wrote in the tabloid Daily Mail: "The values I'm talking about - a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law - are the things we should try to live by every day."
The discussion is indeed a positive move. But I think there will be hardly anyone, including those who are constantly being sniped at (Muslims), who would disagree with British values that are universal.
In this I think Muslims have rather an edge over others: they are consistently shown as "peaceful and law abiding citizens", meaning they overwhelmingly subscribe to British values. Who would not agree on tolerance, respect, equality, non-violence, live-and-let-live, agreeing to disagree? They are universal, inclusive and non-negotiable. Muslims who follow the spirit of their religion recognise British values that are not dissimilar to the 'Charter of Madinah' prepared by their Prophet for a pluralist society in Madinah as early as in 622 CE.
However, values and identity are not the same. We all have multiple identities and choices. Watching football or eating fish and chips are part of multiple choices that form our identities. Within the same group of people some may prefer cricket or tennis, others may choose to eat pizza or chicken tikka masala. These diverse choices in modern Britain will not make someone less 'British'.
With waves of immigrants coming to this island throughout history - for a better economic future, education, or as refugees running away from tyrannical regimes - Britain has truly and proudly forged a reputation as a pluralist country and society. The contribution of refugees and immigrants has made Great Britain greater - in scientific research, creative enterprise and culture. People's religious practices, food habits and many other features have enriched us. London is the proud home of 270 nationalities and 300 different languages.
London 2012 and the Olympic spectacle (I was proud to have been part of the organising team behind it, LOCOG) showed the best of Britain: communities lined up together, presenting warmth, positivity and harmony.
These achievements should not be sidelined for political expediency or security fears. Politicians have to be careful whether pointing fingers to a relatively new community panders to a far-right agenda of demonising it for the criminality of a few. They need to exhibit maturity, not chase soundbites and headline writers.
Islamophobia has undoubtedly risen in British society (despite the denials of some journalists on the neocon fringe). Unfortunately, Muslims are not yet afforded the same level of protection from such hatred in the way that other communities, such as the black and Jewish communities, are afforded. To put it bluntly, there is far too little shock (or shame) at increasing levels of anti-Muslim prejudice across social and regular media and in public and political discourse.
Britain is widely regarded as a more tolerant place than many EU countries. The hijab is not banned here as in France, nor the minaret as in Switzerland. But in the absence of meaningful regulation or agreement, British tabloids and the right-wing media are having an open season with poisonous and sensational rhetoric about Muslims (a quarter of young people 'do not trust Muslims'). As a socially disadvantaged community, with the absence of a single religious hierarchy, its ability to challenge media assault has so far been weak.
This is an embarrassment for a former empire nation that has, in its long history, dealt with its Muslim subjects in a relatively civilised manner. Yet Muslims as a part and parcel of the British heartland are now getting an increasingly raw deal. Many Muslims believe they are seen as 'conditional Britons' in the land of their choice or birth.
It should come as no surprise that, in fact, Muslims see themselves as full Britons, loyal to the country and contributing to its economy, education, charity, sports, health service and other sectors. The glory of London 2012 would not have been possible without Britain's diverse peoples - as Torch bearers, Games Makers and games winners - and Muslims were at the heart of that, with fellow citizens from other communities. A year before, in the 2011 England riots, Muslim youth even protected shopping malls and public places from looters and vandals.
We have our fair share of nutters and criminals (like any other community) who talk stupidly, say foolish things and can act horribly. But they are unequivocally condemned by the overwhelming number of us. This needs to be understood, particularly when Muslims are continually asked 'why are you not doing more to root out these extremists' - we are, but is our voice heard? Finding a grand design behind the activities of few hotheads as proof of a 'Muslim take over', or designs on a 'Caliphate' by ragtag hotheads or criminals, is foolish. We do not have any truck with these people, as they disown not only mainstream society but also their co-religionists.
I am sure in the so-called 'Trojan Horse' schools in Birmingham or elsewhere, there are probably no more than a few dozen (among thousands) of British schools where loose talk and mistakes were made in administration, recruitment and governance by over-enthusiastic Muslim individuals. But using a sledgehammer of politics and terrorism to crack an educational nut has created real frustration among activist Muslim teachers, governors and parents. Perhaps some of our politicians should read the #CreepingSharia jokes before they proceed further ...
Muslims have a high proportion of youth, a population which is brimming with energy, dynamism and dedication to make Britain better. They are Britain's assets and its ambassadors abroad, not a liability. They get along well with their neighbours and wider society. They value law and order. It would be a tragedy if active sections of this community take the easiest option of withdrawing themselves from public life and turn inward and insular as a result of all this political discourse. That may even be the aim of extremists from both ends of our society.
Our political class should worry on this possibility and work with the community to lower the anti-Muslim temperature, and defend the civic involvement of any Briton who wishes to improve the life and wellbeing of others - including from the Muslim community.
(Dr) Muhammad Abdul Bari is an author and commentator on social and political issues. He was the former Secretary General of Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10).
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.Suggest a correction