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08 November 2010
Opinion article by Ambassador Martin Hatfull about Islam in the UK and religious tolerance. The article is published by the Republika daily on 8 November 2010, page 4.
(KATAKAMI / BRITISH EMBASSY IN INDONESIA) — Recently I was invited to speak to the students of the University of Indonesia, and by, video conference, to a number of other universities around Indonesia. The topic was “Islam in the UK”. This is topical issue as the newspapers here are preoccupied with religious diversity issues at home. In thinking about how to manage diversity issues, there is a lot we can learn from each other. Some Indonesian perceptions of the UK are coloured by a misconception of our approach to different communities within the UK and about our wider approach to foreign policy. So I was keen to talk about and share some of our experiences in the UK and our approach to integration.
Today there are about 2 million Muslims living in the UK; about 3% of our overall population. They come from a variety of different ethnic and religious backgrounds—Asian, Middle Eastern, African and newer British converts, all with their different cultural and religious traditions. It’s impossible to speak of one British Islamic community. The first Muslims arrived in Britain in the 17th century, but significant immigration from largely Muslim countries began in the 1950s. That means that today over half of the Britain’s Muslims were born in the UK. For many of these 3rd generation Muslims, English is their first language. Nowadays Muslims of whatever denomination, of whatever background are thoroughly integrated into British society at all levels: professional, commercial, educational, in the private and the public sector. Your doctor may be a Muslim; the bus driver may be a Muslim. So might your lawyer, your child’s teacher, your local shopkeeper, the owner of the supermarket. One in ten businesses is owned by British Asians, who are mostly Muslims.
We have several thousand Muslim millionaires and more Muslim Parliamentarians than any other Parliament in Europe. We also now have a female Muslim in the Cabinet—Baroness Warsi—who was profiled in the Indonesian media recently. I have a growing number of Muslim colleagues, including here in Jakarta. And there are many Muslim NGOs who provide substantial assistance e.g. Islamic Relief in Aceh, and both Muslim and non-Muslim NGOs working together to help with the floods in Pakistan. Muslims in Britain are an integral part of society, where religion is seen as a private matter and individuals are accepted for who they are.
I remember the astonishment of one Indonesian visitor to the UK, who was stopped in Oxford St and asked for directions. In recounting this to me afterwards, she gestured to her jilbab: “Do I look British?” The answer is: “you don’t look un-British”.
A key element in this approach to integration is the law. Like any other religion, the religious identity of Muslims in the UK is protected by law. The UK’s constitution includes freedom of thought, expression, religion, worship—these freedoms are guaranteed by law for members of every community. There are over 600 mosques and over 100 Islamic schools in the UK, all protected by law. Most UK Muslims feel a strong sense of being both British and Muslim: opinion pools in 2009 suggest that over 90% of Bangladeshi and Pakistani respondents felt that they belonged strongly to the UK.
Of course no society is perfect. People do not always get along with their neighbours; many of us in every society are resistant to change. And crime committed by a few misguided individuals can change the way a community is regarded.
But as a Government we focus on the guiding principle of integration, and this forms an important part of the Government’s agenda. Theresa May, our Home Secretary, recently said “We believe in people throughout our country, from all communities, coming together, working together, supporting and trusting each other”.
Part of our work towards integration, she went on, is challenging extremists “who oppose this and want to drive us apart”. We work hard to overcome these challenges, encourage integration and punish persecution or harassment of religious minorities. We don’t always get it right, but we do so enough to give minorities the confidence to know that they are protected under the law.
Finally the UK has been immensely enriched through the work of our Muslim community. Muslims have given to British society in a large variety of fields: professional, artistic, in the public service, and in commerce. And the community continues to help us evolve—a practical example is Islamic Banking which is now a thriving market sector with major banks in the UK (e.g. HSBC). Individuals are valued for who they are, and Muslims are playing a large part in making Britain what visitors find when they travel there: a vibrant, modern, secular democracy.