Monday, July 3

The Fabian Society: Being a British Muslim Click for more info

I've been attending various City Circle activities for a while now, but recently I've been finding them a bit lacking. Don't get me wrong: I value CC events a great deal but as time goes on it's been occurring to me that I may need other stimuli to complement them.

This is my first Fabian Society event. I've been meaning to attend something of theirs for a while now, but since this one was held in association with CC I felt it may be the easiest way to become involved. I was hoping that there'd be a higher level of debate than what CC have offered in the past as well as coverage of the more fresher and complex topics I'm after at this moment in time.

This evening Sadiq Khan MP was given the opportunity to talk about Being a British Muslim. Responding were Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari (the recently appointed Secretary-General of the MCB), Shahedah Vawda (a trustee of CC), John Denham MP (of the Home Affairs Select Committee) and Humera Khan (of Q-News and founder of the An-Nisa Society). Sunder Katwala (general secretary of The Fabian Society) was chairing.

Sadiq Khan's speech has been written up here, so I won't dwell on the content itself. I found the talk to be a bit lacking and not really saying anything new (if anything at all). The whole thing seemed too well rehearsed and forced for my liking, for example like when he made a cringeworthy reference to England losing on Saturday. He was pretty much a Government frontman and I may have even nodded off more than once while he was on. Not a good start then.

And at first, the respondents weren't much better. Dr Abdul Bari was a bit too meek and quiet and didn't really seem to further the discussion. Ms Vawda made things a bit different with talk of ijtihad and reformation, but she soon regressed to patting the Government on the back; she related to and congratulated Sadiq Khan a bit too much for my liking, but then I'm cynical like that.

Things finally got interesting with Mr Denham MP. He challenged the current line of thinking that identity divides have replaced the class divides of old by recognising that the former only seems to be a problem today during particular instances of the latter, concluding that class may still be an important consideration when talking about integration. He also, quite reasonably, said that before dealing with the definitions of a British Muslim we have to first define what being British itself means, and how there is a confusion about this. He finally claimed that, historically, politicians haven't created or developed identity, and that this was the natural effect of community instead (something that echoed what Tony Blair would be saying the next day).

For me, the highlight of the evening was Humera Khan. In her response she said that she didn't find Sadiq Khan's speech of any real substance, and questioned the existence of these shared values we were all supposed to have - a form of the classic assimilation vs integration argument here, I think. She humourously denied having an interest in the England football team to make this point - If Sadiq is British 'cos of his support, what does that make her? Her conclusion was that you don't have to be a nationalist to be British.

She also had a go at Denham, stating that the troubles some faced today were of a direct result of the Government's previous attempts at multiculturalism, and that to move things forward we would have to be a bit smarter about how we promote understanding - like explaining to some Muslims why the UK may be particularly sensitive about religion in general. She also accused those in power of manufacturing identity, and even dumbing down culture in order to make it more accessible. Related to this concept was the observation that even though we may now have non-white faces in the media, how many of them had to leave important pieces of themselves at the door before being permitted though.

Unlike with the CC, the Q&A session tonight was as interesting (if not more so) than the main talk itself, if only for the constant to and froing between the two Khans on the panel. Amongst the many competent and coherent comments made (by the panel and audience alike), we had:

  • That it's good to debate, but we should be weary of exceptionalising and problematising Muslims. They (or rather the issues surrounding them) are becoming a punchbag or scapegoat for the problems we really have. The debate should aim to be more generic than specific.
  • That, as everyone is ultimately loyal only to themselves, it shouldn't matter if some will choose not to support England in the football, or agree with the MCB, or to leave the curry business to join the civil service.
  • That this debate is not just for Muslims but for the majority of the majority (ie electorate) for whom issues of identity are of concern. It's not just one section of society that raises these arguments, and it's not only one that will be affected by any decisions made.
What I found interesting was how those on the panel who had come prepared for their main talk suddenly came alive when they had to perform on the spot during the Q&A. Sadiq Khan MP in particular had many more interesting things to say during this section; make of that what you will. In fact, he was much more like how I remembered him.

And that was pretty much it really. As an introduction to Fabian events I thought it was pretty painless and relatively interesting, and it was reassuring to find that that these kind of open and public debates aren't inherently lacking after all. Another alluring quality was the variation in topics offered and audience that may not be necessarily found in a forum like CC. It's definitely enough to get my attention, and so I think I might come to more of these things in future.

Write ups of tonight's event can be found here (BBC) and here (The Guardian).