Stumbling around East London looking for the Amnesty International building in the drizzly weather, concerned that my phone was about to die on me, I pause for a moment to reflect upon why I should attend this conference. Aren't there countless conferences on Muslims in the West? How would this be any different? With these two questions in mind I come across the Amnesty building and with a sigh of relief, I enter the building and find the conference. Examining the day's schedule I can see discussions that rarely happen at other conferences on British Islam, niches perhaps, but no discussions on the Muslim British experiences that can ever be truly reflective without them.
The opening speeches begin and everyone in the room eagerly awaits the keynote speech by religions writer, Karen Armstrong, who comes on with brimming enthusiasm despite the number of times she has given speeches like this. The idea of penitence came up and she gave the example of Pope Francis's visit to Jerusalem as a kind of penitence that the world needs. The Pope visited Yad Vashem (Israel's Holocaust Museum) and he bowed his head in the Hall of Remembrance, prayed, and listened carefully, he then visited the Walling Wall and bowed his head again, he was then taken to the Separation Barrier that cuts through Palestinian towns and villages, he bowed his head again.
I caught up with her at the end of her speech, I asked her about what the future of religion, politics and the world would be like in twenty to thirty years' time. She told me, "The big question is whether we will even be here? It's impossible to tell the future, because we are stuck in our preconceptions of the here and now. Things are always changing and the world I was born into, the changes that have occurred until now, were unimaginable back then. One of the better developments has been our improved knowledge of other faiths. All these religions need to share their wisdoms and pull together; we all share the same challenges. I do have a sense of dread about the future, I grew up in the Cold War and we seem to be returning to that kind of rhetoric. I'm not sure we are dealing with it particularly well."
I asked her what the responsibilities of religious scholars are today, "I spend my days reading these scholars and the sad thing is their scholarly works are meant to be unreadable. A PhD. is not meant to be an accessible work, you see, I've taught myself all this. I studied English literature and I never expected to do this kind of work. Some Religious scholars look down their noses at me because I don't have a PhD, but there are so many wonderful things in these works and all I'm trying to do is make their ideas more accessible. More scholars need to come out to the public and speak, we need their wisdom."
Looking around the conference I could find plenty of examples of people looking for that wisdom. While there did seem to be a diverse range of people at the conference, it was impossible to gage whether the attendees represented the full spectrum of Islam in Britain. The conference has been attacked by some sections of the Muslim community, as well as, hostility from Islamophobic people online. Despite this everyone who attended seemed generally engaged by the discussions and there were plenty of participatory workshops where they made their thoughts known. Tucked away in a backroom, we had a discussion on the Bible, Qu'ran and being a refugee. The object of the exercise was to figure out what message each person could take away about who could be a refugee and how they should be treated. The Qu'ranic examples inspires those in the room to think, was Moses a refugee? This stimulated everyone to re-think and evaluate how they understood these age-old stories. Other discussions were equally stimulating with discussions on topics as diverse as blasphemy, Muslim identity, disabilities and mental health, Black Muslim identity and a range of other topics.
The conference also explored issues in contemporary Britain from the perspective of other faiths too. Revd Dr Tom Wilson, Director of the St Philip's Centre in Leicester and interfaith worker, who came to give a talk on faith, belief and belonging in Britain, told me, "There are similarities in challenges faced by different faith groups. I would say there are three types of people in Britain today. There are a lot of people for whom religion isn't relevant; it doesn't mean anything to them. There are other people for whom religion is the background noise to their lives which they fit around their busy modern lives, and there are people for whom religion is the core of their identity. The third group are in a minority and they need to work out how to communicate their ideas and beliefs to others. The Church is in this position, we often use language that is inaccessible to most people, and this can cause issues. Beyond on that I think a major challenge is how we can all come together, understand each other's perspective, find common ground and disagree with each other well."
Dialogue within the faith and between faiths is part of the mission of the New Horizons in British Islam who were behind this conference. Naved Siddiqi, a trustee at NHBI, "New Horizons in British Islam is about creating a space where issues could be explored in an unconstrained way by large organisations. Many of us have years of experience working for various organisations and outlets, we brought all of these experiences together to form the group. We want to take the open and diverse nature of Islamic heritage and connect it to modern day challenges. The idea behind the conference was to have a place where the market place of ideas would allow individuals to own their own ideas. This is not a traditional conference, in that we are not putting forward ideas we want people to hear, but allowed different people and groups to apply for space to have discussions about issues they wanted to talk about. We are facilitating them to do this. We had to turn away people who wanted to share their ideas here because we had run out of podium space. We also had to turn away some attendees because we ran out of seats for them. That show's how successful we have been. People attending have told me that they find it's very open but still very intelligent and engaging."
Open dialogue is certainly how it felt and while I cannot speak for everyone who attended, I left the conference feeling more enthusiastic about the interactions and exchanges that took place. I think this is what marks it out from other conferences, how I left the conference feeling. While I still have my reservations about the way certain issues and topics are framed and discussed, I think the willingness to listen to other ideas is key to the importance of any conference.