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A Fresh Look At Muslims And Secularism In The UK – OpEd


By Tehmina Kazi

Recently, the debate over secularism in the UK has come increasingly to the fore, especially after the much-publicised case of a Christian woman, Nadia Eweida, who was asked to cover the cross she was wearing while at work for British Airways. London’s newly elected mayor, Boris Johnson, defended Eweida’s right to wear it, citing other examples of religious expression in public. However her story has led to a heated debate between those who feel it is their right to wear the symbols of their faith in public and those calling for a strict separation between religion and the public sphere.

For example, some Britons assume that Muslims in the UK seek a greater role for religion in the public sphere. Yet in the context of the current debate over secularism, it is worth emphasising that many Muslims actually see no contradiction between religious values and the framework of secular procedures and institutions in the UK.

Britain is often described as a society which adheres to “procedural secularism”. Theoretically, this means that it enables all voices, whether religious or not, to access the public sphere equally. In Contextualising Islam in Britain, a ground-breaking research project conducted by Cambridge University that asked a diverse group of Muslim participants to answer the question “what does it mean to live faithfully as a Muslim in Britain today?” an overwhelming majority of participants affirmed their support for this model. They observed that procedural secularism provides many benefits for British Muslims, including religious freedom.

As British Muslims we are able, for the most part, to practice our faith in an atmosphere of respect and security, with recourse to established anti-discrimination provisions if this is not the case. Many public sector workplaces now have multi-faith prayer rooms, and halal food options are available in school canteens.

Many people in the UK see the debate about religious expression as one between those that support the status quo of procedural secularism and “ideological secularists” who reject procedural secularism and say that religious voices should be excluded or rigorously controlled in public and private institutions. Many Muslims, as well as Christians, across the UK have expressed concern about a potential rise in ideological secularism and worry about their right to religious expression being circumscribed.

Proponents of ideological secularism often cite the negative role that religion can play when it comes to issues like women’s rights as grounds for their objection to allowing religion into the public sphere. When extremely conservative religious activists speak out against women’s rights and use supposedly religious arguments, this furthers such misconceptions.

However, such extreme acts have more to do with culture than religion. For example, forced marriage is a negative cultural practice. Although associated with Islam, it is actually totally at odds with Islamic history, which includes examples of the Prophet Muhammad ending marriages in which consent had not been sought.

Contrary to much of the mainstream media discourse on Muslims, research suggests that the overwhelming majority of British Muslims feel comfortable with a procedural secular state. The Contextualising Islam in Britain report correctly identifies that the only groups who put forward arguments to the contrary are fringe groups (both Muslim and non-Muslim) that have little interest in promoting a cohesive, pluralistic society.

Within a procedural secular state such as Britain, Muslims have rights and responsibilities that are in keeping with Islamic teachings. Far from advocating withdrawal from society, mainstream Islamic scholarship regards civic engagement as highly desirable for Muslim citizens. Understanding that being a religious Muslim in Britain today also means living a full life as a citizen – with all the rights and responsibilities that entails – is a crucial step towards becoming well-integrated citizens in today’s Britain.

Islamic history has something to say about the link between citizenship and religion as well. Imam Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi, an Andalusian scholar who lived in the 14th century, articulated this principle in his work on the Maqasid al Sharia (goals of the sharia, or Islamic principles). He drew parallels between citizens’ rights and responsibilities in a state – such as freedom of conscience and the obligation to speak out against tyranny – and the objectives of Islam.

More needs to be done to highlight this area of thought, and how it can be used as inspiration in the lives of British Muslims today.

Ultimately, it is not only theory that will help citizens from different backgrounds live together in a secular society. Government and voluntary organisations in the UK must come up with practical strategies and resources to promote an inclusive society and help the next generation of citizens, including young Muslims, understand their role in it.

Tehmina Kazi is the Director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy.

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