I have taken a day to digest my weekend at ‘Living Islam’ in Lincolnshire. To the surprise of many who have seen me only on TV, I was there, natty haired and bleary eyed, camping with many hundreds of Muslim families in the sunny/rainy, breeze of Lincoln Showground.
‘Living Islam’ has for the Muslim community in the UK an iconic status, romantically tempered, with a dash of plain old nostalgia for days gone by.
What I personally hoped for was a break from being the ‘other.’ You know, some time away from standing out in the crowd (albeit a nice friendly crowd, where I live up North). I yearned for spirituality. Imagine hearing the athan at fajr. Being part of the flow of believers joining together at every prayer. A joyful and inspiring weekend, free from thoughts of government strategies, Prevent and the general low (to high) level background persecution sneaking into our daily lives via anti terror policies and Tory scaremongering.
The Islamic Society of Britain is a community based charity and not-for-profit company. Established 24 years ago. It is dedicated to exploring the evolving, unique flavour of ‘British Islam’. A troublesome phrase they avoid with good reason, but you get the drift. The ISB are all about being here now. Focused on the initiatives and the challenges of our culturally diverse community on this little island in the far North Atlantic Sea.
What troubles a Muslim in Oldham in their daily life is vastly different from the challenges facing brothers and sisters in Cairo, Tunis, Islamabad. How does our faith, Islam, deal with contemporary challenges such as high tech advertising of a haram lifestyle, or music in daily life?
The Islamic Society of Britain proudly tells visitors to their website that they have ‘played an important and positive part in how British Muslims think about their faith’. Whilst ‘Some of our innovative activities often broke new ground, emboldening and empowering many others to create projects of their own’.
As my family browsed the food stalls vainly seeking a salad, a high ranking volunteer with the festival and member of ISB came over to my family. After just a couple of hours, I said, it felt weird having ‘fun’ as Muslims en masse as our brothers and sisters in Gaza were being blown apart. Couldn’t there have been Palestinian flags flown atleast, in solidarity?
‘Palestine is the elephant in the room’ said the volunteer, admitting that part of uniting people is reflecting their interests and passions.
The flags may not have been visible but ISB host Ajmal Masroor, made a point of paying respects to the Gazan people in his opening address. On the last evening the gregarious Naem Raza, hosted a heart moving fund raising appeal for Human Appeal for Gazan’s displaced by the Israeli massacre.
The main point of the weekend appeared to me to be the somewhat counter-spiritual business of shopping for everyday scarves and jilbabs and eating, pricey, fried food.
The program did as in previous events, focus on a series of thought provoking talks on topics including Islam in Shakespearean England and several on the other elephant in the room ‘who we are and what defines us’ as British Muslims.
Sadly the speakers we know and love, those who get audiences leaping to our feet with passionate Takbirs were not present. Imam Siraj Wihaj and Shaykh Zaid Shakir had wanted to attend but could not due to diary commitments. Both who have appeared at the festival in the past. The lack of a big main stage presence was keenly felt by those I met.
The issue of music as both an element of the festival and indeed a central part of the weekends is troublesome for such a diverse community. Does being ‘modern’ automatically make banging base beats acceptable for great parts of Friday and Saturday night? Are those for whom music is a questionable element, to be sidelined from the main evening entertainments for their convictions? These are questions that the ISB and the festival must continue to review in order to remain truly diverse and relevant to the central community in the UK.
There are many imams whose strong stance on music will not allow them to attend such an event.
And that’s the thing with trying to please all of the people all of the time. You can end up hardly pleasing anyone at all, most of the time.
Ask Ed Milliand.
What has prompted me to write this, is the nagging feeling in my gut, that I was attending a giant governmental policy workshop entitled ‘How we want British Islam to look and feel in 20 years time.’
Then Friday came with no fajr athan. Grumbles from ladies in the portacabin showers who had missed the prayer altogether as a result.
We weren’t to know that the sites rules and regulations did not permit loud sounds at such an hour of the night. All that was felt was the lack.
What was most disturbing to me as a Muslim activist. As a writer whose friends and colleagues face constant low level harassment from the authorities for legal activities, was that, on site, the most visible presence (after children with bubble guns) were police and military.
Lincolnshire Police had a tent and were face painting kids. The scouts climbing wall was boycotted by my daughters who thought it was run by the RAF due to its being in the vicinity of their forces tent. The army too had a specially designated tent in which they sought to assure was ‘not for recruitment’ but merely for that lovely catch all thingy ‘awareness.’
Erm, we know quite enough about the British military and our governments arms trade, already, don’t we?
Just ask Baroness Warsi.
I met self effacing Imam Asim Hafiz, Islamic religious adviser to the Ministry of Defence. He charmingly tried to (somewhat weakly), convince my husband and I that there is no contradiction between being of the Muslim faith and choosing to ‘defend Britain’ from the marauding hordes waiting to take away our ‘freedoms’.
The number of Islamic recruits in the UK armed forces has risen by well over 40% since 2007.
Imam Hafiz, who was the first Muslim chaplain for the armed forces, also, according to this site (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/muslims-in-the-armed-forces–2), believes that British Muslims can be good soldiers for Britain at home and abroad. He said:
‘The increasing number of Muslims in the UK armed forces is a natural change because society is becoming more tolerant and young Muslim men and women feel more able to come forward and serve.
I’ve met many Muslims in the military who are very devout, because to Muslims a love of your country and serving your community is an important part of your faith”.
Warms your heart doesn’t it? What do you mean it doesn’t? Stop being so, old fashioned, Eastern orientated, 8th century, conservative and backward. Can’t we see that Muslims in Britain in the coming years will be serving in the army, listening to Hip Hop without guilt and gaining imaan through cool apps not old scholars man!
My daughters, came back from the Young Muslims drama group less than bouncy. The perfectly nice, English workshop leader Jeremy had boasted to the children that he worked on ‘anti terror’ programs which had my girls finely tuned antennae pricked up. After one exercise he clumsily explained that ‘it’s like a fight, better seen from the outside. If you go in too close you can make things worse. Like Syria.’
Our entirely funky group of teenagers and university students fled Friday nights ‘entertainment’ of flashing lights and pounding house music, some in tears. Their disappointment that this was a weak version of Glastonbury rather than a spiritual boost, was as palpable as their parents irritation that the main stage music took prevalence over prayer times. The incredible voice of brother Hassen Rasool, put on hold, as the athan was delayed to make way for the entertainment timetable.
To his credit, Khalid Anis, a senior festival organiser, went on stage on Saturday evening, addressing the fact that some of the previous nights entertainment had – perhaps, not been chosen thoughtfully enough. The willingness of the LI team to address such concerns is evidence that, as we all know, who we are, what we like, how far ‘forward'(?) we go in music and culture is an ongoing, fluid, sometimes painful, discussion.
So, here we are then. Modern British Muslims.
Last weekend at Living Islam, I felt that my Islam had pretty much stayed at home. The options of the pluaralistic, British version of our faith were evident. To some the laissez faire atmosphere presented a relaxation of other events strictures. To some, a confusing or disappointing rush towards non Islamic social mores. Either way, five thousand Muslims shopped together, ate junk food in the sun, prayed (or not), wore hijab (or not), forgot Gaza (or not), listened to funky music, gasped at low flying aircraft and thought about joining the British Military.
In the end rather unkindly perhaps, some Muslims I spoke to had nicknamed ‘Living Islam Festival’ ‘Leaving Islam’. I’d more kindly rename it ‘Being Muslim.’ For, the ISB perfectly captured this moment in our development as a community. Our youth are interested in ‘fun’ and being like the rest of the world. The stunning aspects of our Prophet’s (SAWS) character, direct us to gently change society for the better, and leave some aspects alone.
The question remains how much can we as British Muslims, focus on our faith, with its beautiful unchanging tenets – and still feel – and be seen to be – part of mainstream, contemporary society.