Weaving a common thread in an era of multiculturalism

There has never been such a precarious time for community relations, nor have they ever been under so much threat. Tension within the Muslim community is at its highest ever. But community relations cannot be built without trust and mutual respect. The London bombings of 7 July 2005 have brought into sharp focus the gaping hole in community relations. The bombings have demonstrated vividly that we as a society have collectively failed to build effective community relations. We have failed to develop and articulate a set of values that define us as British.

Our diversity is our biggest strength but many have been in denial, hiding behind the facade of multiculturalism and diversity. A shared vision and shared identity for us all is missing. While diversity demonstrates the range of colours, customs and cultures, faiths and traditions, what is needed is a common thread that binds us together as a nation.

There never seems to have been a debate about what it means for us to be British. I cannot remember being party to a discussion at any stage in my relatively short life where we debated common values, or a shared vision that motivates us, a shared dream that inspires us.

It is most unfortunate that it has taken 58 innocent lives and four bombs to wake us up to this terrible failure. I know we all have categorically condemned this heinous act as barbaric, criminal and terrorist, but I am afraid that condemnation is not enough. What we need to do now is to unpack years of neglect of the range of communities that make up our diverse and vibrant country. We all need to ask ourselves the most important question: what went wrong?

Nowadays, when we talk about community relations we automatically refer to Muslim and non-Muslim community relations. These communities are portrayed as being at loggerheads with one another. They have been pushed into becoming opposites. While we may feel uncomfortable with this, it is a reality for many people.

Systematic failure

There has been a systematic failure on the part of Muslim leaders and scholars who have not articulated a vision of Islam for a European context. They have failed to adequately answer many questions that both Muslims and non-Muslims have raised. This has predictably resulted in many intellectuals and scholars from the non-Muslim community challenging Muslim scholars and leaders with deep and probing questions. These have to be faced and answered in a scholarly and frank manner.

Many believe that the mosques and madrasas (schools) are partly to blame for training young people to become extremists. There are well over a thousand mosques in the UK today and the vast majority of them do not provide anything more than ritual prayer five times a day and evening classes to teach young children the Koran. The problem is not that they are teaching young people to become extreme, the problem is that their teaching is not making a substantial impact to the lives of young Muslims. Most of these Imams do not even speak English - for them to influence young people is near enough impossible. Mosques and madrasas are the source of our strength; they are the central part of a Muslim community and should be utilised for teaching young children universal values, their social responsibilities and inspire them to lead productive lives. Muslims should open up their mosques and provide social and community programmes for all. They should be open to Muslims and non-Muslims.

There are some who say that the Muslim youth is heavily politicised and feel aggrieved by what they see in the world today, especially in some Muslim countries. It is suggested that they feel an injustice done to any one Muslim is an injustice done to all. I am often reminded by many of my friends and colleagues that the core problem must be the concept of being part of the 'Ummah'. They believe this sense of belonging radicalises people, making them forget their immediate surroundings, while mobilising them with far-flung emotive causes. In Islam, belonging to the Ummah is similar to citizenship, except that the concept assumes that its citizens are not bound by national borders, national identity or a flag. A person becomes the citizen of this Ummah by their commitment to two concurrent relationships.

One is the affinity in faith that binds one to all people in all parts of the world, and the other is one's social commitment to serve fairness and justice. In this concept of citizenship, Islam does not discriminate between people of other faiths or those with no faith. In fact it makes it incumbent on its followers that they enter into a social contract for the common good; that they treat people of other faiths and those with no faith as they would like to be treated themselves.

The message of Islam is not an exclusive one for Muslims but a universal one for all. The Koran calls for mercy to be granted to the universe not just to Muslims. Anyone can be its citizen.

Many believe the problem lies with the 'fatwa' system. A fatwa is an official statement or order from an Islamic religious leader. I believe that there are many inadequately qualified scholars and their quality needs to be questioned by Muslims. Islamic scholarship and their juristic profession are refined disciplines that have a long historic and evolving tradition. They have developed into a precise science.

When issuing a fatwa, a scholar must be loyal to the text and relevant to the context, and must be able to use the primary sources: the Koran (holy scripture) and the Sunnah (the prophetic traditions), and the secondary source that is based on reason and rationale, consensus (ijma) and analogy (qiyas), benefit (maslaha) and harm (mafsada), and necessity (darura). Most importantly, the fatwa must be able to facilitate and not inhibit Muslims' daily lives. These are some of the yardsticks by which one can judge a fatwa.

Since Islamic scholars are not God, they are bound by human reasoning and if they issue a fatwa that contradicts the essence of Islamic law - which is to uphold justice and ensure life, property, intellect, honour and family are not violated - their fatwa is not legitimate. I know the lack of central religious leadership is a problem but with time and support the Muslim society will have in place institutions that would work as checks and balances.

Koran is the benchmark

Some believe the Koran is key to the problem as it holds sufficient texts that incite Muslims to violence and aggression against non-Muslims. I am afraid this is again an unfair attempt to discredit the sacred by using it to justify the acts of a small number of wicked people. One should not judge the Koran by the actions of the Muslims, but use it as a benchmark for judging the actions of the Muslims.

The often-quoted verse from chapter 5:32 "if any one slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole people…" seems for those who do not know how to interpret the Koran as providing a loophole as it allows the taking of life for murder and mischief. In fact the science of interpreting the Koran is an age-old and well-established discipline. One cannot just pluck out a verse in isolation and apply it. When interpreting a verse one must know the 'Asbab an-Nuzul' - the knowledge of particular events and circumstances in history that are related to the revelation of particular passages from the Koran - in other words the reason behind the revelation. One should also be aware of corresponding verses that either explain a command or in some circumstances abrogate previous practices. The verse in the next chapter 6:152 "take not life, which Allah hath made sacred, except by way of justice and law…" explains that life is sacred and cannot be taken by anyone, except through judicial process.

The events of 7 July did not result in mass inter-community violence; in fact the vast majority of British people showed tremendous restraint and understanding towards the Muslim community. After all, evidence so far suggests those involved in carrying out the terrorist attack were all Muslims. Yet Muslims en masse were not under attack. Individuals have suffered reprisals, mosques have been attacked and suspicious stares have increased, but this is in no way proportionate to the attack. We all agree that one attack on anyone is far too many, but we need to put things in perspective and understand that people - non-Muslims - have demonstrated the highest level of maturity and tolerance.

Integration is not a one-way street, while the demand on Muslims to integrate is intense, there should be an equal demand on other communities to facilitate this by accepting and not just tolerating. Tolerating implies a power relationship, but accepting gives more emphasis to equality. We need a level playing field where the confidence of all communities can develop and they can feel secure in their identity and as equal citizens.

We need to change our Eurocentric view of the world. Europe has a rich history but its history is not isolated from the rest of the world. Its history must reflect the new realities of multiculturalism.

We should not ignore the international injustices and the grievances that Muslims hold towards the UK government's foreign policy. We cannot brush aside the depth of anger felt by Muslims about the government's invasion of Iraq. What happened on 7 July has definite links to these grievances and although no one of sane mind would even attempt to use them to justify the bombings, our government's denial of the link is the biggest threat to community relations.

Ajmal Masroor is director of Communities in Action, which provides specialist advice and consultancy on community cohesion and cultural relations

Explore our related content