The majority of today’s Muslim families arrived in the UK during the 1950s and the 1960’s from the former British Colonies in India, including Pakistan and Bangladesh. National statistics show that there are currently 1.6 million Muslims residing in the UK. British Muslims have the youngest age profile of all faith communities in Britain, and are an estimated 46% of the overall population of Muslims living in the UK. This group largely constitutes the second and third generation of Muslim migrants, and subsequently have been affected with issues related to identity politics and the challenge of balancing faith and culture in a globalised world.
Due to successive generations of British Muslims finding ways of applying and integrating their cultural and religious beliefs in new contexts, Muslims have come under considerable strain and pressure whilst making these adjustments. Since the 1990s Muslims in Britain have become more visible as a minority group. A series of events have bought Muslims into the media spotlight including the Rushdie affair, 9/11 and for British Muslims particularly the 7/7 attacks in London. These events have led to debates surrounding the integration of Muslims in mainstream British society, with accusations of segregation. The negative discourses created in the representation of Muslims by parts of the mainstream British media, has exacerbated this identity crisis for some young British Muslims. As a result, it has been widely suggested by academics that the majority of young British Muslims feel disassociated with their cultural background and confused about their religious identity which is portrayed as in conflict with British cultural attitudes.
Through the negative portrayal of Islam it has been questioned whether Muslims have a place in modern British Society. However, through examining and understanding the relationship between faith and culture one can establish that it is indeed possible. The challenge of balancing faith and culture mainly resides in the notion of identity. It must be made clear that ones religious identity is not a person’s only identity. There is no such thing as a singular identity as we reside within a community enabling multiple identities. Globalisation has impacted on the ways in which identity is played out. How young British Muslims maintain and resolve the conflicts within their multiple identities will affect their position in relation to integrating into mainstream British society, and the ability to identify and separate multiple identities will enable young British Muslims to differentiate between faith and culture.
Faith and Culture; The Challenge for British Muslims was a seminar delivered by Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra from the British Islamic organization 1st Ethical, and aimed to tackle some of the issues surrounding young second and third generation British Muslims face. The event was held in partnership with the Islamic Society at the University of Sunderland.
The Response to the Challenge
1st Ethical is a British-based charity, established in 2003. The mission of the organization is to empower British Muslims to benefit society through faith-based campaigns. The work 1st Ethical carries out aims to assist social and religious cohesion by encouraging Muslims in Britain to actively engage in mainstream social, political and academic arenas. That Islam in Britain will be more integrated and at less risk of opposition and criticism, if Muslims are prepared to integrate is the ethos upon which the work of 1st Ethical is based.
Delivered by goodwill ambassador and representative of 1st Ethical Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, the seminar aimed to encourage Muslims to practice their faith in ways that will benefit the wider society. This was considered as the tool that would enable Muslims to balance their faith with British culture. Throughout the conference Shaykh Ibrahim tackled the difficult question ‘Can Muslims be faithful to the traditional values of their faith yet conform with the social values of the country they live in?’
Throughout the seminar it was emphasized that contributing to mainstream society will assist social and religious cohesion. Shaykh Ibrahim addressed not only the challenges but the opportunities British Muslims face in order to positively contribute to British society through education, politics, charitable work and social interaction. He stressed that this would provide a platform for Muslims to positively influence their non-Muslim peers.
Speaking to IslamOnline, Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra reflected on the event highlighting the relevant aspects that emerged: “The aim and objective of the seminar is to help Muslims understand that Islam is a way of life which is fully compatible with British Society. Much of the teachings of Islam are things non-Muslims would whole heartedly embrace if not under the umbrella of Islam. The goal of this seminar is to help young people be confident in their multiple identities demonstrating they do not have to choose one strand over another.”
Although he actively encouraged British Muslims to adopt mainstream British culture, Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra also addressed the limitations and implications this carries. He mainly focused on the mixing of genders which may incite unlawful relationships, and the consumption of alcohol which is forbidden in Islam. Commenting on the possibilities and limits of balancing faith and culture Shaykh Ibrahim said; “We must learn how to navigate the terrain of faith and culture by integrating into British society, not transgressing. We only go as far as Islam allows us to go. Britain is such an accommodating place one can confidently stand their ground. We want to remain true to our values of Islam.”
One of the main issues explored during the seminar was the rejection of cultural practices antithetical to Islam. The danger of confusing culture with religion is a concern for British Muslims since the Muslim community in the UK (mainly comprising migrant communities), often view cultural practices as religiously sanctioned practices. Shaykh Ibrahim stressed we must not confuse cultural attitudes with Islamic values as this can often be misleading and lead to negative impacts. Speaking on this danger he said “We must never try to pass off an evil cultural practice as Islamic such as honor killings or forced marriages. This kind of labeling attracts negative publicity.”
Through comparisons between Islam and British values Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra persistently emphasised, we must search for common grounds in order to resolve the conflict between faith and culture. To enable Muslims in Britain to actively engage in mainstream society and fully integrate, it is clearly necessary from outcomes of discussions emerging from the seminar that we need to instill confidence in the notion of Muslim identity. The seminar proved necessary and vital to providing young Muslims in Britain with self assurance and belief in their multiple identities.
Speaking exclusively to IslamOnlne, Razia Iqbal, a student at the University of Sunderland said, “I feel much more confident about my Muslim identity and feel I can develop a balance with being British. I now understand that they do not have to be such polar opposites. I will carry this experience into the future and hopefully inspire others to fully integrate in British society both personally and professionally.”
In order to have a positive and useful equilibrium between Islamic faith and cultural practices we must be able to make clear distinctions and differentiations. As Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra pointed out “it is important to remain true to our own cultures and traditions and at the same time take all the good that other cultures can offer us. We should take the opportunity to share our cultures with others, always remembering and understanding that faith and culture are two distinct things which should not overlap.”
To practice Islam in a non-Muslim country does present challenges. However, if Muslims are able to understand that faith and culture are not the same and be secure in maintaining religious values, perceptions of Islam in mainstream society can be challenged. Although the debates surrounding balancing faith and culture in a modern world are not yet fully resolved, through the seminar delivered by Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, we are able to look inwards, towards challenging our own identities, which may create a balance between faith and culture in the future.
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