"In the good old days we could leave our front door open without fear". How often do we hear that sentiment from the elderly in our community? The "good old days" is now only mentioned in the past tense. It is a "bygone era".
The days when neighbours knew each other on a first name basis, when people looked out for each other, socialised together and shared common interests and concerns, seem long gone. The pace of life in 21st century Britain and indeed elsewhere in the world has become too fast and furious, beating to the drum of globalisation. Traditional communities are crumbling and relations with our neighbours are all-too-often reduced to a curt nod.
Even in my own community of the East End of London, many of us are living side-by-side but rarely mix. Do we really know much about each others' lives, our shared hopes - or even why it is important to have a joint stake in the well-being of our local communities? We may pass each other on the staircase or courtyard yet we do not talk to one another: not really. Neighbours who live in the same block of flats often find themselves in an awkward situation when suddenly stuck in a lift together, standing in silence, suddenly discovering patterns on the floor or fiddling with a mobile phone to avoid a conversation.
The close communal ties that were once emblematic of the East End or the docklands of Liverpool allowed immigrants to come in and integrate them into local life. Some of the first Muslims came as seafarers to these same communities and integrated without problem, whilst still maintaing their cultural and religious heritage. Communities were strong enough to accept these new arrivals. Today social and economic strains are leading to an aggressive 'individualism', eating away at our traditional society and the shared values that underpin it. It is to the detriment of us all. Some have said it has led to an explosion in anti-social behaviour, and is driving support for extremist groups, dividing us even further.
Much has been written about this decline of traditional society. The Labour Party even has a wing dedicated to the revival and recognition of the white, British working class - so-called 'Blue Labour' - that has recognised that concerns about housing, economic uncertainty and sometimes ill-conceived initiatives have contributed towards these strains.
Today, third- and even fourth-generation British Muslims should inherently identify with what I call a strong 'neighbourly' culture. Sadly, in practice, this has not always been the case. In many areas Muslims have kept to themselves. Of course, there are some practical reasons for that: ranging from language barriers to racism and a lack of confidence or interest in engaging with non-Muslim neighbours. Rather than practically living out the teachings of Islam, which call on us to be exemplary good neighbours, these Muslims have unfortunately added to the sense of 'fracture' within their local areas. They should in fact be doing the opposite: meeting and engaging with those around them. As a national community, British Muslims are here to stay and we must do our part in helping make the streets around us better places to live.
The emphasis placed on Muslims towards their neighbours is emphatic: "Worship Allah, and associate no partners with Him; and do good to parents, relatives, orphans, those in need, neighbours who are near, neighbours who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer you meet," states the Qur'an.
The Prophet Muhammad himself said: "The best of companions to Allah is the one who is best to his companions, and the best of neighbours to Allah is the one who is the best of them to his neighbour."
That is why we at the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE) have launched the My Neighbours Project fortnight, with activities ranging from soup kitchens, interfaith walks, neighbourhood 'clean ups' and many other initiatives up and down the country. We want our members, and other British Muslims, to help Muslims and non-Muslims alike in regenerating and reinvigorating their communities and recapturing that sense of a shared community and identity we all of us like to remember.
We call upon our brothers and sisters in the Muslim community to join us over 18 July to 1 August in meeting their neighbours, in helping Muslim and non-Muslim alike, so that we can underline a message of harmony between all faiths and peoples.
My Neighbours Project www.myneighboursproject.org