W British Muslims can drown out the minority voices of Islamic extremists by helping to shape the meaning of Britishness, says Government Minister Bill Rammell.
The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, was in Bradford for the launch of a report into the attitudes of young British Muslims.
The report, Forgotten Voices: Developing More Effective Engagement with Muslim Youth and Communities, was put together after 74 young British Muslims were interviewed by members of their peer group.
It was commissioned by Forward Thinking, a charity which aims to address social isolation of Muslim communities in Britain.
Speaking at the launch conference at the Great Victoria Hotel, Mr Rammell said: “Extremists represent a tiny proportion of British Muslims. But they have again and again shown an ability to amplify their voice to an extent far beyond what is justified by their numbers.”
This is the latest in a series of speeches on the place of Muslims in British education and society that I’ve given over the past two years.
Here is the text of Mr Rammell’s speech in full: Thank you and good afternoon everyone. This is the latest in a series of speeches on the place of Muslims in British education and society that I’ve given over the past two years.
I’ve returned to Bradford and to this topic today for three reasons.
First, because I believe it’s important that there should be a free and frank dialogue between the Government and all parts of the community. That’s something that Forward Thinking’s report recommends, and I welcome it.
In fact, listening is something the Prime Minister is encouraging across Government. We believe in a new kind of politics which builds on the wisdom and experience of the British people. In my own department, we have created the first ever minister for students. Her responsibility is to listen to students, and to invite them to tell us what we need to hear.
We politicians make decisions that affect your lives – only by understanding what you are thinking, feeling and experiencing can we make good decisions. Your report plays an important part in informing us. So tonight I’ve come not just to speak, but also to listen. There’ll be plenty of time for questions and discussion at the end.
Second, I’m here to encourage more of you to take an active part in deciding how Britain is governed. The report shows that many young Muslims are socially aware and interested in politics. That’s very encouraging. One of the things that makes me proud – and I hope makes you proud too – to be British, is our fundamental belief in democracy.
At the heart of British citizenship is the idea of a society based on laws which are made in a way that reflects the rights of all citizens, regardless of class, race, religion or gender. Alongside that sits the right to participate in their making.
The idea that all citizens are equal before the law.
The right of all citizens to associate freely.
The right to free expression of opinion.
The right to live without fear of oppression.
And the idea that there is an appropriate balance to be drawn between individual rights and mutual obligations.
If you want to change something, get involved. Write to your MP, organise a demonstration, stand for your local council. That’s how to change things. As President Bartlett says in the TV show The West Wing, “Decisions are made by those who show up”.
Third, I’m an education Minister and I strongly believe that education has a vital role to play in promoting the values on which our liberal democracy is founded – free speech, tolerance of others, the rule of law.
Since most people pass through further or higher education at some point in their lives, it is absolutely critical that these institutions foster these shared values. If our students learn to respect both the right to disagree and the right of someone else to disagree with them, universities will have played an important role in embedding our core values in the rising generation, thus preserving them for the future.
Let me be clear – shared values are experienced, not taught. They are built. Over time. By people. Sharing ideas, understanding other views, and tolerating disagreement.
But the perspective I want to take tonight goes wider than education. That’s partly because that’s the scope of the Forward Thinking report – and let me say right up front that I think it’s a very valuable report – takes account of the views of young Muslims outside of as well as within the education system. But partly it’s also because this event is taking place here in Bradford.
The 2001 census showed that 60 per cent of the population of Bradford district described themselves as being Christian and 16 per cent said they were Muslims. This is accordingly one of the places where the position of Islam in British society is thrown into sharpest relief, and where the need to find answers to the question of what it means to be British and Muslim is most urgent.
The theme of my talk tonight springs from that fact. I’d like us to explore together how we can grow as a country together while growing together as a country.
Being British and being Muslim are fully compatible Everyone has multiple identities. I’m English, British, a member of the Labour Party, and a fan of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. I’ll put my cards on the table. It’s my firm conviction that being British and being a Muslim are fully compatible. Not partly compatible, but 100 per cent compatible. And that there is no essential conflict between the core values of Islam and those of British liberal democracy.
Jack Straw recently made a speech in which he argued that it is not possible for people to have a single, all-encompassing view of life and at the same time uphold the principles of liberal democracy.
That’s the case with some fringe Muslim groups. They hold democracy to be incompatible with their faith. Instead, they favour a single unelected caliph who essentially passes down rules set by God. Obviously, this brings such groups into direct confrontation with democratic states. Such groups also often argue that true Muslims cannot be both Muslims and British, in the sense of sharing the common values of a liberal democracy that I’ve described.
Extremists like this represent a tiny proportion of British Muslims. But they have again and again shown an ability to amplify their voice to an extent far beyond what is justified by their numbers.
I know that the vast majority of British – and indeed, of all – Muslims disagree with such extreme views and are upset to be implicated in them by association. But at the same time, they are sometimes reluctant to challenge them publicly, perhaps for fear of being accused of being apostates.
Nevertheless, it’s clearly pretty difficult for non-Muslims to challenge such extreme views because of they are justified on theological, though spurious, grounds. So the only people who can expose these sorts of extremists as being unrepresentative of mainstream Islamic opinion are their fellow-Muslims.
Although you might think it’s easy for me to say, in my view they have an obligation to do precisely that. And to say, we can be both Muslim and British, and proud of both.
The findings of the report support that analysis. It says, and I quote, “those who have lived in the UK for the greater part of their lives tended to regard themselves as both British and Muslim at the same time, in many cases displaying a strong sense of national loyalty and identification with Britain as their homeland”.
Of course, Muslims aren’t the only section of society with marginal though vocal groups in their midst. In exactly the same way, white British people who believe in a democratic and multicultural society have an obligation to oppose publicly the perverted parody of what it means to be British that is peddled by the fascists and neo-fascists of the British National Party and the so-called England First party.
In order to be fully British, a full member of our society, a Muslim of whatever shade of belief may have to – and indeed, should – integrate with non-Muslims. But integration is not the same thing as assimilation, and they must not feel bound by a choice to assimilate or remain totally isolated from the rest of society.
And above all they must not be made to feel – as I know some still do – that being British contradicts the fundamental tenets of their faith.
An immigrant from Pakistan or Bangladesh – or elsewhere – can still sometimes feel like a foreigner in Britain, even though they’ve made it their permanent home. As it happens, I think that’s perfectly natural. The same goes for many French people or Japanese people or Australians who have settled here. And it’s not unusual. Over 30 per cent of the population of London were born outside the UK and 45 per cent of the UK’s entire black and minority ethnic population live in the London area.
Anyone born or brought up here must feel that this is their country. They’re British. And their individual take on Britishness contributes positively to the whole. What Britishness is, is what all 60 million of us make it together. And as we change, it changes.
Lord Goldsmith recently published a review on this topic. Some of his ideas – for example, on the idea of school-leavers taking an oath of allegiance to the Queen – have caused some hilarity in the press. But I’ll tell you what, I welcome any idea that helps to start a debate on what we can do to draw ourselves together more closely as one nation. And I applaud anyone who has the courage to come forward publicly with it.
The most important thing is that he has asked the right question – how do we build a sense of Britishness, a sense of shared values, and sense of belonging to a society? He might have got the wrong answer, but asking the question is incredibly important.
I hope that everyone would be reassured by those words. But being reassured is not the same thing as being complacent. In an increasingly diverse society, we have to work at building Britishness and a sense of shared values. These values bind communities together and protect them from forces which would tear them apart.
That is why the Government, led by the Justice Secretary, will soon be launching a consultation on a statement of British values. Again, I’d encourage you to get involved.
The different Islamic communities have already added much to the richness of what being British means.
And there are plenty of good illustrations of the position example that British Muslim communities can set for non-Muslim citizens.
They tend, including here in Bradford, to be strong communities which offer lots of mutual support. We could do with more of that in this country.
They tend to have a culture of voluntary activity and charitable giving, too.
And every week lots of young Muslims across the country show that it’s possible for young people to go out and having a good time with out binge-drinking or being tempted by drugs.
The Forward Thinking report shows that young British Muslims are very well placed to contribute to the debate about Britishness. That they want to affirm the values that we share in common. It shows that they want to make a positive contribution to society as a whole and to be full partners in the enterprise of constructing tomorrow’s Britain.
But there are conflicts I’m not going to come to Bradford and pretend that there are no cultural and religious rubbing points in this country. Any sane person wants to live in a country where there’s nothing but peace, love and understanding, but no one in their right mind could possibly think that they do. The important thing is that this is an ideal to which we should all aspire, and towards which we should all be working.
What is it reasonable to expect in recognistion of one’s faith in a society in which one branch of Christianity remains our state religion; but which is largely secular in outlook?
I think that Government may not at times have been sufficiently clear in getting across the message that we do need a realistic debate here. We haven’t had the public debate about what counts as reasonable. This has allowed some people to form the impression that the right approach is to tease out all the demands that can be made by religious groups, perhaps especially Muslims, and then to adjust society to meet those demands.
That ignores the fact that it may be impossible or impractical always to cater for the demands of every group. It ignores the impact that one group’s exercise of its demands may have consequences for other cultural values. It also ignores the need for people from different groups to interact fruitfully together – for individuals to function as part of society as a whole, not only as part of one identity group.
In short, an approach to pluralism that focuses just on how each individual group’s demands can be met is inadequate. It misses out on the complexities of give and take in a diverse contemporary society. We need a pluralism that also takes account of the wider need of society for different groups to come together.
Let me give some examples here of issues that have arisen in the field of education. They include the timetabling of courses, particularly around Friday prayers; and the provision of prayer rooms for students. I think it is absolutely right that institutions look at what they can do to address issues of concern to their Muslim staff and students. But how far should they go?
On questions like this, common sense and pragmatism are essential. There are no hard-and-fast rules for institutions to follow. Nor can Government or society impose a template. A debate needs to take place on what is reasonable and what may be excessive, whether in terms of cost or its impact on other members of the community.
Above all, decision makers and participants in debate need to ground decisions in the context of a plural society where different groups need to thrive together.
I don’t pretend for a moment that being a British Muslim doesn’t give rise to tough choices for some people. And having multiple identities isn’t always easy. We all have conflicts sometimes. For example, sometimes I’m torn between taking my son to White Hart Lane and delivering leaflets for the Labour Party.
Having a separate Muslim identity doesn’t make you less British. I want to be very clear on one point. What I’m saying is not that everyone who’s British should think in the same way or believe in the same things. That’s not how democratic and pluralistic societies work.
And even if it were, I still wouldn’t believe in the same things as David Cameron. Difference of opinion and just plain difference, and the fact that we believe that it’s right to be tolerant towards both, is one of the main reasons why this country is such a vibrant and exciting place to live.
If this nation can’t be tolerant, who can? There aren’t many people living in Britain now who could trace their parentage back in unbroken line to the tribes who lived here before Julius Caesar and his legions stepped ashore.
So there’s nothing wrong with a person feeling that they have more than one cultural identity, that they’re British and something else. As I said earlier, I’m English, British, a Spurs fan, and a member of the Labour Party.
Of course, not all Englishmen feel the same way about England or about Britain. It follows that it would be entirely wrong of anyone to speak of Muslims as if they all hold a common set of views or beliefs. They don’t. As elsewhere in the Muslim world, there’s more than one strand of Islam among British Muslims. Moreover, religion aside, young Muslims’ opinions, hopes and aspirations are equally as diverse as any other group of young people.
As new generations of British Muslims grow up, the Islamic community in this country changes. It doesn’t become less Islamic, but it does become more British.
And I know – and the report again confirms this – that there is sometimes a difference of outlook between generations of Muslims just as there is between generations across the whole of society.
The Forward Thinking report confirms this. It says: “Most interviewees acknowledged the need for greater integration within some sections of the Muslim community, particularly the older generation, as well as in terms of the need to familiarise oneself with the British host culture and to master the English language. Some participants clearly criticised the isolationist attitudes of their parents’ generation, who usually lived parallel lives and often did not place enough emphasis on learning English”.
But that fact can raise particularly difficult questions for the Muslim community about the role of community groups and community leaders. There’s sometimes a real sense that they don’t speak for young people as much as they do for the older generation.
That can create serious difficulties for some young people. We know that some become cut off from their communities. Some turn away from their background and their faith and are left culturally adrift. Others, in trying to establish an Islamic identity of their own are left vulnerable to the perverted, but often seductive-sounding, preaching of the extremists.
How much better it is for all of us if young Muslims’ desire to get involved, their energy, can be directed towards building their own and the wider community. That’s a challenge for all of us. And a challenge you’ve taken steps to meet, by doing some research and feeding it back to Government.
I am concerned to read that some felt that those who purport to represent the muslim community do not reflect your views. I believe that you here in this room can change that. You are the rising generation of British Muslims and you will determine the future of Britishness. If the mouthpieces for Muslims don’t represent you, use the democratic process to elect someone who does. Or join a group which does. And if someone is preaching hate or violence, challenge their views and expose them for the faulty logic they are.
A sense I often get when talking to young Muslims, and I think this is borne out in the report too, is that they feel misunderstood by others and the media. You’re not the only ones – it’s an occupational hazard of being a politician too.
Two years ago, my department released guidance on preventing extremism on campus. We have recently reissued the guidance to reflect our better understanding of the situation, with an increased emphasis on the role of universities in developing and supporting the shared values we hold dear. Never, at any point, have I, or any other member of the Government, asked anyone to spy on their students.
I hope at least that you can agree that the Government is trying to build a relationship with the Muslim community. By listening to your views, trying to understand your hopes and aspirations and concerns.
Constructive relationships imply give and take. So as well as contributing your views to the debate as I’ve already encouraged you to do, I’d also make a plea that you try to understand where we’re coming from, and the society we’re trying to build.
Before closing, I’d like to make one further observation. Actually, the hopes and aspirations, thoughts and opinions that came through in the report are pretty similar to those you’d find if you’d asked a bunch of young British Christians – or young British atheists for that matter. So I’d remind you that more unites us than divides us in Britain. And whilst working through the issues arising from differences in culture, try to remember that.
I’d like to draw together some of the threads of what I’ve been talking about.
First, I very much welcome the Forward Thinking report and your engagement tackling some of the difficult issues Britain faces. In many ways it confirms the positive impressions that I’ve received going around the country and talking to young Muslims, and should give us all cause for optimism.
Second, any initiative that reaffirms and promotes the values that we share across communities and between religions can only be welcome. An excellent example of what I mean is the letter that 138 Muslim scholars wrote to the Pope and other Christian leaders last October.
Third, building upwards from those core values, British Muslims can and must play their part alongside other communities in the continual redefinition of what sort of country Britain is and what it means to be British.
Fourth, we must all seek to create the conditions that allow these things to happen. The education system is a powerful force in that process because it is uniquely well placed to promote the free, open and safe exchange of views that leads to greater tolerance and better mutual understanding.
And finally, as the Prime Minister has stressed, we must seek every opportunity to encourage debate across communities and faiths about what our shared values are and what it should mean to us all to be British.
And in that spirit, I’d now like to take the chance to listen to your views.
See Thursday’s Telegraph & Argus for a report and more pictures of Mr Rammell’s speech