This week I’ve been lucky to have quite a bit of coverage afforded to me by Buzz magazine.

As part of a double page spread, Buzz covered the “Faith in the City” event that I facilitated in November at the Green Lane Masjid. You can download a free copy of Buzz to read the article by clicking here.

Alternatively, you can read the article below:

Faith in the City: Dr Chris Allen reflects on faith, community and the city

As part of the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science 2011, I organised the Faith in the City: communities, regeneration, interaction event here in Birmingham. Held in the city, at the local Green Lane mosque, the event sought to explore how faith inspires and influences people to live, work and act in today’s
urban space.

Attracting around 70 delegates across the day, representatives from most of the city’s different faith communities were joined by delegates from Birmingham City Council, West Midlands Police and West Midlands Fire Service, as well as academics and students fromlocal and national universities. Alongside presentationsfrom Birmingham-based organisations with a faith heritage – including Islamic Relief, St Peter’s Saltley Trust and Birmingham Citizens – researchers from the University spoke about how their research was helping to raise awareness of a number of critical issues relevant to modern faith communities. Of particular interest was Dr Ricky Joseph from the Centre for Household Assets and Savings Management (CHASM) who spoke about the disparity between different faith groups in terms of wealth and assets, something that delegates had not previously considered.

There were a number of highlights to the day. The first was the keynote speech delivered by Birmingham based graffiti artist Mohammed Ali, winner of an ITV South Bank Show Award in recognition of the best in British art, Mohammed spoke about his identity as a Muslim and how this did not detract from his British identity. Recalling how as a child, his parents used to run a take-away in Birmingham, he joked that the best evidence of him being British was that ‘fish and chips flowed in my blood!’

The event was also an opportunity to screen a short film I made about the regeneration of the Grade II listed Green Lane Mosque. Made in collaboration with the mosque’s Tassaddaq Hussain and produced by Lucy Vernall and Andy Tootell from the University’s Ideas Lab, the film explored how the Muslim community in Small Heath have, over the past decade, saved the former Victorian public baths and library from demolition, and restored and converted it to a mosque and community centre. Tassaddaq also provided a pictoral history of the building including images of how the building will look once the restoration is complete.

Given that we live in a country where Alastair Campbell once famously remarked ‘we don’t do God’, an event that looked at ‘faith’ might bemuse some. But, faith – whether one has it or not – is more important and topical today than it has been for decades. As the theology think-tank Theos recently noted, ‘religious identity is a feature of national and international affairs today in a way that was unexpected, indeed unimaginable, just twenty years ago’. Despite this, it is no less contentious or emotive today than it has ever been but what it does show is the timeliness and relevance of faith to Britain, and British people, in the 21st century.

It is easy to get bogged down in numbers – enough has been written about the potential misleading nature of the Census figures relating to religion – yet the Integrated Household Survey from earlier this year reaffirms how the majority of Britons continue to identify with a faith: three Britons identify themselves as Christian for every one that does not. Even amongst the young, 59% of 16–24 year-olds and 60% of under-16s identify themselves as being Christian.

Going beyond these, more new churches than Starbucks have opened across the UK since the turn of the century, more Britons believe in heaven today than they did in the 1970s, and the number of adult Christian baptisms is continuing to rise. Even though overall church attendance remains in decline, a third of churches are reporting growth.

Faith today also has negative connotations. Prejudice, discrimination and hatred based upon faith and religious markers has been on the rise for more than a decade, prompting the introduction of legislation under the Equality Act 2006 that afforded protection on the basis of religion or belief (and no religion or belief). Individuals who self-identify themselves with Islam perpetrated the 7/7 attacks; others with similar self-identities have been behind a series of failed or thwarted attacks. Resultantly, the phrase ‘Islamist-inspired’ terrorism has become commonplace in both the media and the political spaces.

Maybe as a response, far-right political organisations and movements increasingly draw on religious themes to support their ideologies. The British National Party ran an election campaign under the slogan What would Jesus do? while the English Defence League protests against the perceived ‘Islamification’ of Christian Britain.

Irrespective of whether you ‘do’ or ‘don’t do god’, faith cannot be overlooked or disregarded. Faith today inspires and influences and it can lead people to act in both positive and negative ways. Faith undeniably exists and this is what I was hoping to explore with the event and through my ongoing research.

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