We're not just talking about Islam: International conference in Cambridge

02 Jul 2012

We're not just talking about Islam
Sharon Memis, Director of the British Council in the United States

Read full article here (The Huffington Post)
Read more about Acknowledging a Shared Past to Build a Shared Future: Rethinking Muslim/Non-Muslim Relations

For the last decade, discussions of Islam in the UK, the US, and much of continental Europe have revolved around a narrative of opposition: the Muslim World versus the West, sharia law versus democracy, Islamic civilisation versus Judeo-Christian. What nearly always goes unacknowledged are the shared histories, shared identities, and shared struggles of Muslims in those countries with their non-Muslim neighbours.

These commonalities are hardly visible in the media, despite the fact that they are a part of everyday life. But academic research tells a different story, one that shows that when the public discussion turns to Muslims, we're not just talking about Islam, but rather a variety of social, historical, and political issues faced by a much more inclusive population. So what are the stories that we're missing?

A recently published series of e-books gathers essays from a diverse group of academics, civil society leaders, and even some journalists in the UK, US, and across Europe that illuminate some of these stories, based on discussions that took place at a conference organised by the British Council's Our Shared Future project and the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge earlier this year.

To begin with, the essays in the Building a Shared Future series point out our shared history with Muslims. British scholar Dr Caroline Finkel notes in Citizenship and Identity, "When Britain was merely an inhospitable archipelago clinging to the edge of a continent - and America was still being 'discovered' - the chattering classes looked to the [Ottoman] sultan's domains for inspiration as to how power might be exercised in society." She continues, "We need to accept that people as well as goods have always flowed between east and west and that our history is not 'ours' alone." Dr Finkel debunks the idea of a separate 'Islamic' history relegated to a chapter in school text books (if that) by pointing out the long influence of Islamic civilisations on Britain.

There's a second false distinction that persists in contemporary Britain - and in the rest of Europe and the US - that Muslims are always immigrants. In Religion, Politics and the Public Sphere, the Cordoba Foundation's Florence Laufer argues otherwise: 'While a part of the Muslim population in the West has indeed an immigrant background, let us remember that Islam is rooted in the old continent's history and that many if not most European Muslims are full-fledged citizens of their countries.'

It's important to recognise the diverse backgrounds that constitute our national cultures in contemporary society. As Mark Hammond of the Equality and Human Rights Commission writes, "It is indisputable that Britain has benefited for centuries from its own Muslim heritage. There is much more to be gained from the sharing of culture and art, humour and humility."

With so much in common, why do many continue to view their Muslim countrymen differently? M.H. Vorthoren sees one source of this misinformation in the media, writing, "Problems with mostly social and economic causes that are caused and/or experienced by people who also happen to be Muslim are soon pictured as 'Islamic' problems." But that's not always the case.

Around the world, many of today's social and political struggles are shared. In Islam, Knowledge, and Innovation, my British Council colleague Martin Rose writes from Morocco of the similarities across continents: "Young people feel that they are suffering the consequences of their elders' sins and that the political systems of their own countries are unresponsive and incapable of delivering the radical change that many (and not just the young) see as necessary."

Globalisation and modern technology have given us great opportunities to connect with people beyond our own national borders. Regardless of the impressions given by mainstream media, seeking out personal experiences with people of diverse cultures can only help to increase our understanding of them. Ms. Vorthoren emphasised this when she wrote, "In my experience, the best way to build relations and touch people's hearts is to have actual face-to-face encounters, whether it is in the neighbourhood, at school, at the workplace, in the mosque or in the church or synagogue." Creating such opportunities for people to build trust among their neighbours, near and far, is at the heart of what the British Council does, and it may well be the key to bridging the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims, too.