Birmingham PostThis month’s chunk of Birmingham Post-lite due to be published Thursday 6th March 2008. Enjoy…

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.

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2 thoughts on “Birmingham Post: British and Muslim? Maybe the twain shall meet…

  1. (Reproduced from a letter received by the Birmingham Post)

    Dear Sir, I really enjoyed reading Chris Allen’s article on Thursday (British and Muslim? Maybe the twain shall meet).
    The idea that we have to be told what our cultural icons are by a Government which seems hell-bent on robbing us of our national identity would be laughable if it wasn’t so disturbing.
    It’s encouraging to know that Muslims, especially the 20,000 new converts, believe that it’s possible to be British while worshipping in a different faith.
    I’m sure that many of these would agree that there are more important things in life than big red buses and a sing-song in a good old pub.
    With our public transport system in tatters after years of under-investment and small pubs closing at the rate of four a day, these tenets of Britannia will soon be as real as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
    What I’d like to know is why we suddenly have to define ourselves at all? We are many things to many people.
    As Britain’s churches become emptier, it seems obvious that religion is of little interest to most of us.
    Yet it seems that religious belief is the thing that scares us most.
    Any study of the Muslim faith reveals that it is a caring religion, not some rabble-rousing call to arms. There is more violence in the Bible than in the Koran.
    I’m not saying that there aren’t dangerous people who mean us harm, but I’m pretty sure that their grudges are more political than religious. It’s easy to hide behind Holy words and that’s the danger with fundamentalism.
    Chris Allen doesn’t ask whether Christians and Muslims can live together. The answer to that question is an obvious “yes.”
    I believe that we live in a time when our accelerated culture is changing so rapidly that society hasn’t yet caught up.
    We have not assimilated the lessons of terrorist outrages in America, London and Bali. We are waking up to the fact that this is a global problem and not just the actions of misguided fanatics spoon-fed propaganda in mosques.
    To be talking about icons of Britishness in such a time seems a retrograde step to me. It’s an unwillingness to see the world as it really is.
    Military intervention in Iraq and Afganistan has had the opposite effect of its intentions. Rather than spreading democracy, it has increased the anger of nations who were already distrustful of Western super powers.
    I’m actually surprised that the Ministry of Culture should try to tell us what our culture is.
    I’m as fond of a nice cup of tea as the next man, but Winston Churchill really means nothing to me.
    If you really want to know what’s iconic in the 21st century, I’d suggest the iPod, statues of Nelson Mandela, Birmingham’s Bullring and the balti.
    There’s nothing there to make us feel remotely patriotic and that’s my point.
    Britain lost its Greatness a long time before September 11, 2001 and nobody seems to know how to get it back.
    Hanging onto a bygone era of Sunday roasts and FA Cup finals won’t do it. Maybe it’s time to hear what other cultures have to say.

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