The Federation of Muslim Organisations has contributed to public debate and has been involved in a number of submissions to public enquiries and Commission reports on matters of public interest. The extracts of our submissions are provided below.
The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life
We recently made our submission to the The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life.
The FMO was invited to give representation to The Commission by The Rt Hon Baroness Butler-Sloss of Marsh Green GBE formerly President of the Family Division of the High Court (chair) and by other members of the Commission, to expand on the evidence that was initially provided in front of the committee in Leicester on the 12 March 2014.
The aims and objectives of the commission are to seek to develop a greater understanding of the role religion plays in British society. The Purpose of the The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life has been convened by the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, to:
a) consider the place and role of religion and belief in contemporary Britain, and the
significance of emerging trends and identities
b) examine how ideas of Britishness and national identity may be inclusive of a range of
religions and beliefs, and may in turn influence people’s self-understanding
c) explore how shared understandings of the common good may contribute to greater levels
of mutual trust and collective action, and to a more harmonious society
The full text of the FMO’s submission is provided below:
Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life
Suleman Nagdi MBE DL
I would like to proceed by thanking The Rt Hon Baroness Butler-Sloss of Marsh Green GBE, formerly President of the Family Division of the High Court (chair) and all other members of the Commission, for granting me the opportunity to expand on the evidence that I initially provided in front of the committee in Leicester on the 12 March 2014. I would confirm that I am happy for this to be referenced in any publication and that all the views expressed herewith are attributed to me. I welcome the aims and objectives of the committee in seeking to develop a greater understanding of the role religion plays in British society. I hope you will find the following submission informative and useful and we look forward to your findings.
The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life has been convened by the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, to:
a) consider the place and role of religion and belief in contemporary Britain, and the significance of emerging trends and identities
b) examine how ideas of Britishness and national identity may be inclusive of a range of religions and beliefs, and may in turn influence people’s self-understanding
c) explore how shared understandings of the common good may contribute to greater levels of mutual trust and collective action, and to a more harmonious society
Make recommendations for public life and policy
I present this submission in my capacity as a practitioner who has worked in community relations for the past 30 years. This has enabled me to develop a wide knowledge brief and provided me with key insights into issues being addressed by the Commission. In addition, I am the elected PR Officer of the Federation of Muslims Organisations (FMO) and have taken soundings from some friends and colleagues in relation to this enquiry. The FMO Is a democratically elected, non-sectarian representative umbrella body that has been established for 30 years and is comprised of almost 200 affiliates representing over 65,000 people from a diverse range of Muslim communities.
We work on a range of issues including education, youth, health, housing and inter-faith work amongst others. The Federation is run by an executive committee which is democratically elected bi-annually by the Federation’s affiliates and is bound to operate in accordance with the constitution of the Federation. Adopting a professional, diligent, pragmatic and diplomatic approach has enabled us to gain the trust of the local community in a unitary, collective effort and has also led us to developing outstanding relations with our various faith and non-faith based partners. Indeed, such has been our success that we have been used as a frame of reference by many other organisations who have sought our consultation on a range of issues.
Contribution of Minority Communities to Leicester
Leicester, with a population of 320,000 people, is the only city outside London which has no faith or ethnic group in the majority. The diverse population is comprised of communities from over 50 countries around the world. Some of the new arrivals in the 1960s and 1970s had an entrepreneurial mindset having established themselves as successful businesspeople in Africa. Upon their arrival into Leicester they made a significant contribution to the local economy most notably in the city’s burgeoning textile industry.
This economic success allowed communities of people with Indian sub-continent heritage to translate their success into social capital. As such, the contribution made by Leicester’s ethnic communities, many of whom are adherents of major faiths such as Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism, in Leicester’s social, economic and political spheres is great to the extent where these communities have become an integral part of the city’s rich multi-cultural life. The continued presence of a number of BME councillors in the City Council, the popularity of the city’s ‘Golden Mile’ as well as the FMO’s annual Radio Ramadhan broadcast to over a million people worldwide serve as just a few examples of the notable achievements of the community in Leicester.
Central to the process of harmony and understanding in the city has been how Leicester’s diverse faith groups have used the teachings of their respective religions to promote inter-faith and inter-community understanding and respect. Organisations such as the FMO, Leicester Council of Faiths, Faith Leader’s Forum, Leicestershire Inter-Faith Forum, St Philips’s Centre, Islamic Foundation, Markfield Institution of Higher Education and many dialogue groups involving Christians, Sikhs, Hindus and other faith and non-faith groups, work collaboratively on issues of inter-faith and community cohesion. This work is proactive through initiatives such as clergy versus Imams sports contests and also reactive to potential issues which may divide the community. The collective condemnation of events such as the 7/7 bombings, the visit of the EDL to Leicester as well as the horrific killing of Drummer Lee Rigby highlights a united effort in speaking out against that which is universally acknowledged as wrong and divisive. This has allowed Leicester to become a beacon where people can practice their faith in relative peace, with our work being acknowledged across the country and Europe. We have had the opportunity to share our ‘best practices’ with guests from the continent as well as being invited to the continent. Most notably, the FMO in partnership with the St Philip’s Centre were pleased to organise and engage in an inter-faith football tournament with our European friends firstly in Gothenburg in 2010 and then in Berlin in 2011.
Despite all the controversies the place of faith remains central in significant number of people in our country. It is therefore imperative to respect the rights of an individual to the freedom of religion which has been part of our great British liberal society. As an example of the pivotal part that faith plays in the lives of people is its importance in the remembrance and reconciling with victims of war. Through faith people learn to overcome grieve, forgive, reconcile and work towards ensuring the tragedies are not repeated in the future.
A] Protecting Faith Groups:
It is therefore not surprising to learn that countless studies have shown that people closely identify themselves with their faith. Hence it is therefore imperative to protect religious identity by enshrining it in legislation. We understand to achieve this will require a review and improvement of existing legislation of the Race Relations Act as well as the Equality and Diversity Act. While legislations empower faith groups, learning from laws to tackle anti-Semitism shows it is an effective way to curb racist hate crime. It is thus now important for the government to take steps to protect other faiths through legislation.
B] Inclusive Political Structure:
The great fabric of British political structure has been the appointment of CoE Bishops in the House of Lords, a rich tradition that has reflected the nation’s heritage and culture; long may this continue. However with a change in the demography of the nation we hope the committee will consider how to continue this rich tradition. It may be prudent by accommodating members of other prominent faith groups to be part of the structure and where this cannot be achieved, for legislators to be aware of such differences.
C] Protecting Faith Practices:
1) While the protection of citizens is broadly enshrined in the The Human Rights Act & the Equality Act there is still a further need in meeting the needs of faith communities. By way of example, the provision of prayer facilitates in the work place, permission for allowing time off to observe religious events and festivals.
2) All faith practices around death and bereavement manifest in certain rite and rituals. Some share common features such as the requirement of burials to occur quickly. Timing issues on burials is a common requirement within the two Abrahamic faiths of Judaism and Islam. Some Christian families that originate from South Asia culturally also have a requirement for swift burials and members of the Hindu faith require their deceased to be cremated within a seven-day period.
It is therefore of some importance that when service provisions are being considered in this area consideration are taken into account that helps faith members meet with their rites and practices.
However with ever growing population land resources for burial is becoming critical and faith members are required to an amicable way forward. One proposal being studied at present is the creation of a family grave (plots) where up to three burials are done in one grave.
Furthermore with increasing demand for land the present most common 99-year lease, before the grave is re-claimed by the local authority is likely to reduced, with some local authorities considering to bringing it down to 60 or even 40 years. This may be a point of contention for many faith communities.
Those from the Sikh and Hindu communities who choose cremation require, in certain cases, the cremation process and the scattering of the ashes to be undertaken in open spaces. Their requirements also deserve due consideration.
3) With advancement in medicine the need for human organs have outstripped donation and an opt out rather than opt in option being considered. While we understand the need for people to volunteer their organs for donation this should be achieved through education rather than coercion. We need uphold the freedom of choice.
4) Many faith groups consider a deceased body as sacred and the issue relating to how the body is treated after death is pertinent. Some faith groups see post-mortem as a violation of the deceased and this could be overcome by the use of virtual autopsy. The use of MRI and CT scans as an alternative to invasive autopsies is a way forward and many countries accept research in this area. We feel it is time a pilot scheme is established for hopefully national roll out.
5) Faith issues and practices also engage in matters relating to Health and related matters. These issues often occur in respect of health related matters, e.g. vaccination and practices in respect of circumcision.
Some vaccines contain agents and products that are not acceptable to some faith groups, such as porcine derivatives and products that would be totally unacceptable to the Jewish and Muslim community. Equally, bovine products would be unacceptable to the Hindu and Sikh communities. Those practicing vegetarians or Vegans would also find this objectionable. Science therefore has a challenge to meet, provide such vaccines that can be used without offence to those who have an adherence to a particular faith, I believe that this can be achieved by artificial synthesis and bio-chemical techniques.
In respect circumcision, I refer to male circumcision only. Male circumcision has been practiced for centuries and there are positive health reasons for this also. There has to be safe and hygienic facilities that need to be provided and there has to some regulation in this area to ensure the safety of the child and to make sure that practitioners are safe when undertaking such procedures.
6) In the last decade the demand for ‘Islamic’ or ‘shariah-compliant’ products has grown significantly as a growing number of the Muslim population have become more affluen. There are now mortgages, pensions, savings and investments that are sharia compliant.
The growth in ‘Islamic’ or ethical financial products has been further enhanced by the promotion of London as a centre for Islamic finance. The Prime Minister recently expressed that it would be a “mistake” to miss the opportunity to encourage more Islamic investment in the UK and that the City of London should rival Dubai as a centre for sharia-compliant finance, “When Islamic finance is growing 50 percent faster than traditional banking and when global Islamic investments are set to grow to £1.3 trillion by 2014, we want to make sure a big proportion of that new investment is made here in Britain,” Mr Cameron has suggested. It seems that the government is committed to encouraging the positioning of London as the centre for Islamic finance and is something that is being actively promoted at cabinet level by Senior Foreign Office Minister Baroness Sayeeda Warsi who recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Central Bank of Bahrain to boost co-operation through an education and skills programme and the establishment of a working group devoted to the development of Islamic finance-driven trade and investment between the two countries. More than 20 banks currently offer Islamic financial products and services in the UK, more than any other Western country, with the number expected to grow further.
The focus on London as the centre of Islamic finance is further promulgated by a number of significant shariah compliant investments and projects that have recently taken place. London’s newest landmark, The Shard has been financed by sharia-compliant investment from the Qatar Investment Authority who have secured a95% stake in the project. The athletes’ village for the 2012London Olympic Games were made possible by Islamic finance. Islamic investment is continuing to play a significant role in rebuilding the UK’s infrastructure, from the £400m Malaysian investment in Battersea power station, which will regenerate the Nine Elms area of London to the £1.5bn investment by Dubai in the London Gateway, the UK’s first deep-sea container port.
These examples show not only the growing influence of Islamic finance but reflect the role Muslims must play when it comes to smarter ethically balanced investments which not only meet their investment needs but also satisfy their spiritual requirements.
7) An issue facing many students is the funding of higher education. The current student loan system is interest based and conflicts with the religious principles of many Muslim students, as well as those who prefer an ethical alternative. Around 115,000 Muslim students currently attend UK universities but it is claimed that the existing interest based model has dissuaded many potential students from pursuing higher education as the system conflicts with their religious beliefs and principles.
The government has recognised the need for an alternative financial system to attract numbers of Muslim and ethically-conscious students and is in the process of exploring a new system of shariah compliant student loans.
David Willetts, the Universities Minister, said an alternative financial model was being created to satisfy Islamic law that forbids Muslims taking out loans that principally deal in interest. Mr Willetts said the Government wanted to make the “path to university easier for everyone.”
This is an important development which will ensure that there is an effective contribution from a section of society that may otherwise not have had access to higher education due to their religious and ethical principles.
Areas for Development
Despite Leicester’s BME communities having made many positive contributions, there are still several areas of development which we wish to highlight.
i) Though there has been an increase over the years in the numbers of BME serving in the Police, BME communities remain relatively underrepresented in the Police. This disparity is unfortunate and need to addressed urgently if there is be seen an increased efficacy in Policing.
ii) Continuous training and development of faith leaders is imperative to meet contemporary challenges internally within faith groups to adapt and apply skilfully the traditional concepts which form the religion into modern contexts and purposeful messages that can be applied to everyday life. Faith leaders must be equipped to engage with other faith groups, other representative organisations, and the media effectively. This must include engagement via and utilising recent manifestations of the media, technology and social networking. This would avoid non-representative and often inaccurate individuals dominating public debates on core issues associated to faith in general and specific faith groups.
iii) Senior roles from BME communities, within statutory authorities still remains a challenge.
iv) According to the findings of the 2011 census, Leicester has seen a significant increase in the number of new arrivals to the city from 2001 to 2011. The census shows that almost half of those living in Leicester now arrived in here between 2001-2011. Many of these individuals have arrived from war-torn countries such as Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. The question of service provision and meeting the needs of the city’s new arrivals is an important factor; more so at a time when we live in a climate of economic austerity where millions of pounds of cutbacks have already been made to many services. There remains still the huge need across statutory and non-statutory bodies to develop knowledge and understanding of new communities in order to meet their needs in areas such as dietary requirements and prayer facilities.
v) The challenge for organisations such as the FMO is heightened by the fact that the lack of funding is a major impediment to the amount of inter-faith and inter-community work that can be done. Funding for faith based organisations is being curtailed yet the voice of religious leaders is sought more frequently to quell unrest and promote peace. This is more evident at a time of crisis. It is unfortunate in a target driven economic structure means organisations such as the FMO; that deliver intangible outcomes such as community cohesion has seen their budgets slashed.
With the potential of breakdown of community cohesion the work of organisations such as the FMO are now needed more than ever. I have written on this in my submission to the Leveson Inquiry.
vi) What is also of great concern is the presence of an active movement within some sections of the Asian community who are lobbying the media to report certain news stories involving heinous crimes by specifying the faith of the perpetrator(s). Such a movement is a threat to the community cohesion efforts that we have worked over decades to build; seeking to divide communities by apportioning blame to an entire community for the actions of a miniscule minority. Rather than seeking to identify criminals by their faith we strongly believe it to be important to see all crime as wrong, regardless of the ethnic or faith background of the perpetrator(s) and instead our focus should be on how we as a community can work against all crimes that afflict our communities.
Despite the best intentions of the Leveson Inquiry, religion continues to be marginalised in the media with the continued lack of engagement between the media and faith leaders. This disconnect need to be bridged so that any existing misunderstandings are dissolved. A solution to this is for the creation and development of media training for faith leaders as well as inter-faith and inter-community projects. Education through publications like ‘Discovering Through Death’ produced by Leicester bereavement service charity MBCOL, is a one way forward.
A very disturbing development in recent years has been the number of groups which have become involved in lobbying the media and public bodies over the coverage of issues such as child sexual grooming. The most common being to avoid using the term ‘Asian’ and to reflect labelling based on religious affiliation. As a member of the Muslim community we have abhorred these heinous and despicable crimes and have made this clear in all our communications. Justice must be appropriately served and victims must be fully supported by law enforcement agencies. The role of the Church of England is of critical importance to the place of religion and belief in public life. My view is that the position of the established church within our unwritten constitution must remain. The Muslim community has benefited greatly from the various degrees of partnerships between Christians and Muslims at all levels of inter faith activity. Many of these have stood the test of time and are integral to the building of stronger communities and a stronger UK. In Leicester, Bishop Tim Stevens has played a pivotal role in mediating and working with the different faith communities on local, national and international matters of significance. His leadership has been much valued and appreciated by the Muslim community. The FMO has already submitted a paper to the commission overseeing House of Lords reform stating that we are strong supporters of the Anglican Bishops right to remain in the House of Lords. Our paper illustrated however, that the issue of appropriate Muslim representation now needs progressing more speedily. This delay has been to the detriment to the Muslim community because in the absence of credible and authoritative voices, the community has too often been inadequately represented. One should not fall into the trap of sourcing like for like representation. For example, Imams are not trained to the same degree as Bishops nor do many have the necessary inter faith experience or interface with public bodies which many Bishops have. Therefore simply allocating Muslim representation on the basis of theological training would be a mistake. A more thorough and thought through approach is needed. A Commission to explore the examination of candidates with the appropriate experience and ability to contribute not only to the faith agenda but wider policy making would be a good way forward. This was the case when Lord Indarjit Singh was appointed to the House of Lords as someone who has worked on faith issues but has no theological role.
For many individuals within an increasingly diverse Britain, the defining characteristic for many is their faith and beliefs. In all realms of public service and to ensure appropriate provision we need to understand the many layers and complexities associated to many groups are understood. For many within these defined groups individuals to carrying degrees would identify themselves by their beliefs, with their values deriving directly from their faith. It is this understanding of individuals, as groups and how we collaborate, engage and ensure appropriate provision holistically for all citizens that is vital for all senior managers and policy makers. Future inclusive holistic based policy will thus be underpinned by appropriate continuous refinement and reflection of shifting demographics and should be one where those responsible take full regard of the characteristics of the breadth of its service users and by default create mutual understanding, respect and tolerance.
We are at a unique juncture in England with the plethora of curriculum and assessment based on changes within the educational landscape to frame competences and skills that equip and develop young people in the realms of morals, ethics and diversity for example. Where young people develop their understanding of their values in relation to their peers and modern Britain and how their behaviour should be informed by these and how they contribute to society. A focus on literacy would also assist in further understanding of each other and how they value social, cultural and community diversity including faith and within local, national and global contexts.
Suleman Nagdi MBE DL – 23rd April 2014