This week, the University of Birmingham’s Theology Department hosted a conference on the future of British Islam. Two things were especially interesting about this. First, the conference recognised that a distinctly ‘British’ Islam existed. At a time when some believe that being ‘British’ and ‘Muslim’ are incompatible, this was an important and welcome development.
Second, it focused on the views and experiences of ‘new’ (i.e. convert) Muslims, estimated to be around 20,000 in number.
For my paper, I explored some of the issues around what it means to be British. This is not the first time that I have sought to address this question. A few years ago when a pre-Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that he would like to establish a public holiday to celebrate Britishness, I was teaching in the Sociology department at the University of Birmingham. I took the opportunity to ask a group of first year students what we would all do on ‘Britishness Day’. Their response was that we would go shopping and queue in an orderly fashion during the day, binge drink and fight in the evening. Others suggested that the giving of ASBOs could replace the traditional giving of greeting cards.
To help us better define who and what we are, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport have established a website entitled ‘Culture Online’. A wonderful example of New Labour at its best, the site tells us what our ‘culture’ is. When it comes to developments like these, I’m never sure if these are really ‘in-jokes’ or just tragic examples of how we are increasingly spoon-fed by the nanny state. Want to know who you are? Let the Government tell you…oh dear.
A site within Culture Online is entitled “Icons”. Unsurprisingly, the site tells us what the ‘icons’ of our culture are. Each icon has to meet the following criteria: that it is symbolic; recognisable in a crowd; and is fascinating and surprising. Meeting this criteria are icons such as the FA Cup, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, the black taxi, the Angel of the North, the good old-fashioned pub, the red London (Routemaster) bus, Stonehenge, and the ‘V-sign’ preferred by angry young men as opposed to Winston Churchill. And of course, don’t forget the cup of tea although how this is recognisable in a crowd, or fascinating and surprising baffles me.
Having read the site, I felt empty. If a cup of tea and an old-fashioned pub are the best we can come up with, then it is no doubt that we are confused and struggling to identify who we are in the 21st century. Maybe my first year students had a much greater insight than I originally gave them credit for.
It seems to me, that you only begin to lose a sense of your own self-identity when you’re repeatedly asked to define who you are. As a co-presenter and good friend of mine Laura Zara MacDonald observed, having undertaken research into the lives and experiences of convert Muslim women, a British convert’s identity was vitally important. As one interviewee put it, “…of course I’m still British, you don’t lose your identity…”.
The overriding message (of hope?) to come out of the conference was that being both British and Muslim was entirely compatible. Not everyone will agree – indeed some Muslims and non-Muslims alike will vehemently disagree – but if nothing more, at least there isn’t a website (yet?) that tells you how to be British AND Muslim.