Next week marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Around the world, 1.6billion Muslims have been fasting from dawn until dusk for more than three weeks. It's really tough going - especially in the middle of summer when the days are long, its 90 degrees and you can't drink even a sip of water.
Fasting might seem an odd thing to many people - even if it has become something of a diet craze! But, for Muslims, it helps us concentrate our thoughts on the world around us. It help us feel for those who are suffering and contemplate our place in the world - free from the usual distractions. At this time of year, our thoughts are of faith, families and togetherness, and the values Islam teaches of charity, peace, justice and tolerance.
There has been a lot of unpleasant talk in recent months about how Islamic values don't go with being British. That being a Muslim is somehow incompatible with being British. I think that's totally wrong - and it's a dangerous assertion. Because many of the things Britain is famous for the world over - tolerance, charitable giving, patriotism, enterprise and sport- are all values shared wholeheartedly by British Muslims. I grew up on a council estate in Tooting in south London. My mum and dad made taught me to be proud of my country - the country that had given them a new home and fantastic opportunities for me and my siblings. They taught me to work hard and contribute to society. I got into football and cricket. I became active in my local community, standing as a local councillor and eventually becoming the local MP. These are the values held by the vast majority of British Muslims - and they are fundamentally British values.
British Muslims are an extremely enterprising community. They contribute over £31billion to the UK economy every year. Over 100,000 British Muslims are civil servants, doctors, lawyers and accountants. In London alone, small businesses run by Muslims employ over 70,000 people.
Many British Muslims are role models in sport, business and entertainment for our country. Take national hero and Olympic superstar Mo Farah. Or former England cricket star Nasser Hussain. Or the hugely successful businessman and Dragon's Den Star James Caan. And my daughters won't forgive me if I don't mention their hero, One Direction's Zayn Malik.
Muslims are also extremely charitable, giving more to good causes than any other religious group in the UK - on average £371 per person each year. British Muslims are also very patriotic. A recent poll found that 77% of Muslims declare themselves to be proud Britons, compared to only half of the British populations as a whole. British Muslims are also extremely tolerant of others. 26% say they are tolerant of other faiths - significantly higher than the British average.
Stereotyping of Muslim communities is not just wrong, it is extremely dangerous. There is simply no link between growing a beard, the food you eat or the clothes you wear and 'extremism'. Being a practising Muslim and being an extremist are worlds apart. We must not allow the contribution the overwhelming majority of hard-working, law-abiding Muslims make to Britain to be ignored by the terrible actions of a very small minority.
Treating all Muslims as extremists risks putting British Muslims off playing active roles in our society. I spend my life talking to children in assemblies and adults in community groups and on the doorstep. I always encourage them to take a more active role in their community- whether joining a local garden scheme, becoming a school governor or standing for election. I desperately hope recent scandals don't put British Muslims off doing so because they are worried they will be labelled as an extremist just because of their faith - but I fear it might.
Don't get me wrong. I'm by no means saying we should ignore extremism and extremists. Extremism needs to be aggressively rooting out, and everyone has a role to play in defeating it. But it will be easier, and we will be more successful if the majority of patriotic British Muslims are more active in communities, not less - challenging those promoting fear and division and supporting the majority.
During Ramadan, I've been remembering an event last year when the far right protested at a mosque in York. It had the potential to be a flashpoint moment, with a big gulf in values and traditions and the media stoking up tensions. But what happened instead shows how far we've come. Muslim elders put the kettle on and invited the English Defense League (EDL) in for a cup of tea and a custard cream. A very British tradition used by the local Muslim community to defuse a tense situation.
The majority of people view British Muslims as contributing well to our national way of life. Let us build on and strengthen that. While I'm fasting this weekend - when I'm hungry and thirsty - I will be thinking about what I can do to promote a more positive view of British Muslims - I think we should all do the same.
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