Contextualising Islam in Britain – Executive Summary

A series of five symposia organised by the Centre of Islamic Studies, supported by the Department of Communities and Local Government, in association with the Universities of Exeter and Westminster

This project created an opportunity for different parts of the British Muslim community to come together to discuss what it means to live as a Muslim in modern Britain. It brought together a group of Muslim scholars, academics and activists with a diverse spectrum of views from across Muslim communities in the UK. The resulting report considered issues of demographic and socio-economic context, citizenship and political engagement, Shariah and human rights, secularism and pluralism. The project was praised by a House of Commons Select Committee as a model for future self-managed and independent projects.

Contextualising Islam in Britain Phase I
January – May 2009
University of Cambridge

1: Muslim Theologies and Pluralisms

• How do Muslims understand their faith in a world of many religions?
• How should Muslims engage with the religious other?
• How should Muslims engage in interfaith dialogue and community relations?
• How do Muslims deal with conversion both to and f rom the faith? Is there a theology and law of apostasy and what does it entail in the Brit ish context?
• How should Muslims define and pursue the common good?
• Does the language of believer/unbeliever set up boundaries between the self and other that can be divisive both within Muslim communities and without?

2: Muslim Thought and the State

• What is the role of religion in the public sphere?
• Is there space for the articulation of political Islam in Britain?
• What does an Islamic state mean for British Muslims?
• Do Muslims need to live in a state in which the Shariʿah is respected as the Law of the land? What does that mean?
• What demands, rights and political claims should Muslims make on the state?
• How should Muslims make common cause with the Ummah on matters of global and international politics?
• Is Muslim participation in politics and governance, including the democratic process, the judiciary, the military, parliament and the executive, to be encouraged?

3: Muslims and Ethics

• What are the basic values that a Muslim should hold and how can they be understood in the British context?
• Are there discourses of basic and universal human rights articulated by Muslims and to what extent are they compatible with other conventions either in English Law, or the European Convention or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
• Should Muslims seek to re-orient their understanding and public articulation of ‘Islamic law’ towards a more ethical frame, given that Shariʿah in the British context is largely concerned with the moral conduct of individuals and communities?
• How should Muslims engage with debates on gender equality?
• What theological positions are there on sexuality and sexual orientation? Is there a public theology concerning such matters?
• What resources are there in Muslim theologies to combat violence in the name of religion?

4: Muslims and Participative Citizenship

• How should Muslims understand the notion of citizenship and of the ‘good citizen’? How does it differ from the notion of a ‘legal subject’?
• How can Muslims live and participate in secular, liberal democracies?
• Does religion pose an obstacle to full participative citizenship?
• What resources are there in Muslim theologies to encourage active, participative citizenship?
• How should one understand and articulate loyalty? Is patriotism or nationalism preferable? Does loyalty include a sense of honest criticism?
• Should Muslims participate in the armed forces? How should British Muslims handle the situation if Britain goes to war with a Muslim nation?

Quotes from Preventing Violent Extremism: Sixth Report of Session 2009-10
(House of Commons – Communities and Local Government Committee, London: Stationery Office,2010)

Section 3: Risk factors for radicalisation

Theological matters: who should be engaged; who should advise; who should intervene?

P. 42 – CLG-funded work undertaken by Cambridge University’s Centre of Islamic Studies in 2009 provides a model for the way forward (Contextualising Islam in Britain: Exploratory Perspective, University of Cambridge, 2009). This study was undertaken by 26 Muslim scholars, academics and activists representing a diverse spectrum of views from Muslim communities in the UK. Although the project was supported by funding from CLG, the final selection of participants and the identification of items for discussion were the sole responsibility of the University of Cambridge, the Project Steering Group and the participants themselves. Over a nine month period, the participants took part in discussions about what it means to live as a Muslim in modern Britain. The report covers a wide range of issues including secularism, democracy, Shariah law, human rights and citizenship. The resulting report presents the group’s conclusions and aims to act as the basis for a wider discussion with other Muslim leaders and communities around the UK. In time, it is hoped that the process will lead to the development of a virtual ‘House of Wisdom’ (ibid., p. 20), providing space for discussion among both Muslims and non-Muslims on how Islam should function in modern Britain and contribute to wider society. This is precisely the kind of exercise – self-managed and independent of Government – which will retain credibility in the Muslim community.

p. 43 – We recommend that the Government fund more initiatives along the lines of the recent study hosted by the University of Cambridge. Such self-managing and independent initiatives provide space for thorough debate – and possibly criticism – of Government policy and practice, making them credible to the widest possible audience.

News and Media Coverage

Praise for ‘model’ research initiative on British Muslims, 9 April 2010.
Islam’s besieged moderates are making themselves heard, The National, 16 October 2009.
Contextualising Islam in Britain report released, Cambridge University Research News, 6 October 2009.

The Centre of Islamic Studies shortlisted for The Muslim News Awards for Excellence 2013 for The Sankore University Award for Excellence in Education. The Muslim News said:

“The Alwaleed Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge has established itself for high-quality, community-relevant research and public education programme. The Centre’s ‘Contextualising Islam in Britain’ Project has explored what it means to live faithfully as a Muslim in contemporary Britain. The Centre also pioneered and led an education project for graduates of some of Britain’s Dar al-Ulums. The project took the graduates to Al-Azhar University in Cairo for twelve weeks and then to Cambridge University for three weeks”.

What does it mean to be a British Muslim? by Rosemary Pennington in Muslim Voices,28 April 2011.

Muslims and scholars have been working the last few years to understand just what it means to be British and Muslim. In a series of five symposia they met to tackle specific issues affecting the various Muslim communities today in the United Kingdom — issues of gender and sexuality and securality as well as others. The meetings were part of the “Contextualising Islam in Britian” project.  It was organized by Cambridge University.

Professor Yasir Suleiman, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Sa’id Professor of Modern Arabic Studies and fellow of King’s College, took the lead on the project. He says one of the first things he did, when he knew the project would actually happen, was to begin inviting people to take part. “We wanted the rainbow colors of Islam to come to this project,” he says. Suleiman spoke about the project during a recent visit to Indiana University.

Diverse Muslim Communities

Suleiman says including the “rainbow colros of Islam” in the project was important for several reasons — the group who examined Muslim experience in Britain needed to represent the broad spectrum of Muslim life in the UK, Suleiman says. And he says he felt it was necessary to invite people who weren’t necessarily going to see “eye to eye” on every subject. “As a linguist I am most concerned with gaps,” Suleiman says. “When faced with a gap we can have a good conversation.” And there were gaps among the participants, gaps that helped create engaging and important debate. He says those gaps began to disappear the more they worked together. But bringing those attendees together was a bit of a Herculean task.

Some Were Suspicious

“Contextualising Islam in Britain” is funded by the British government and is part of the Prevent program. Prevent is designed to combat Muslim extremism and radicalization. This, Suleiman says, made it suspect in the eyes of many. “You need to be careful,” he says of working on any project with government funding. In the case of this particular project that was especially so because of the linkage to Prevent. “We were seen to be a threat to the secularity of society,” Suleiman says of the way Muslims have been viewed in the UK. He adds, “Muslims resent being treated as a security threat.” With that framing as a threat — to both security and secularity — in mind, the “Contextualising Islam” group began working to understand Muslim experience in the UK. The group explored what Muslims could do to become more a part of British society as well as what the government could do to make Muslims feel more at home.

Searching For British Secularity

The group decided the government needed to create an “equidistant” relationship with all religions in the UK — a kind of “pragmatic” or “procedural secularism” that creates a neutral field for all religions to engage upon. “We should not do what the French do,” Suleiman says of secularism. Instead, British society needs to find a middle path that allows for religious difference and that does not exclude some religions while including others. Suleiman adds that Muslims, and members of other faiths, should have the freedom to politically organize around their religion and should feel free to be vocal in their disagreement with government policies. That disagreement, the group decided, should never lead to violence. Muslims who want to participate in violent acts against their government should renounce their citizenship and leave the UK. Suleiman says the group also looked at Muslims’ relationship to shari’a. The group hopes to encourage Muslims to focus more fully on the objectives of shari’a as opposed to the letter of the law. “Shari’a is meant to provide you with a guide to a moral path of living,” Suleiman says. The group hoped to encourage Muslims to examine more closely the universal values within the shari’a — the values that cut across religions, cultures and societies.

Work Continues

When the British government changed hands, and funding cuts were being made, there were worries over whether “Contextualising Islam” would continue. But Suleiman made his case and kept his funding. So, the project continues. When he first began recruiting people to take part only 12 people said yes. By the end of the first round of the project 24 people were on board. Suleiman says when he began putting together symposia participant lists this time around he had to turn people away. That’s not to say the opposition to the project has gone away. “Some call it a soft sale of Islam to Muslims in a way that is agreeable to the British government,” Suleiman says. Others, he says, still have issues with the project being government funded. “These people sold their soul to the Devil,” Suleiman says is sometimes how project participants are characterized. But “Contextualising Islam” is building more credibility as it becomes better known. Suleiman says they’ll be publishing several reports based upon this second round of the project:  Reports for government, for the Muslim community as well as reports to use as outreach tools. The Center for the Study of the Middle East, West European Studies, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, Department of Linguistics and the Center for the Study of Global Change are responsible for bringing Suleiman to campus.

 Read more about Contextualising Islam in Britain Phase I (Report) and Phase II (Report)