More in common – my visit to my local mosque

Campaigning for the General Election has been suspended twice in recent days, and rightly so. Last Sunday, we paused in memory of Jo Cox, her lifelong work to show that we have more in common and her tragic death, whilst in recent days we ceased campaigning in the wake of Monday’s atrocious terrorist attack on Manchester by those who wish to use death and destruction to drive us apart.

Last Saturday I visited the North West Kent Muslim Association for their public open day, and now feels like a good time to write about that visit. Like many people, I learned something about Islam while at school, but had never been inside a mosque before, and to be honest, I would have struggled to tell people where my local mosque was.

Dartford’s mosque is on Crayford high street, in a converted church building. For the open day, they had set up an exhibition in their community room, focusing on the fundamentals of Islam, the relationship between Islam and Europe (including the many things that we have gained from Islamic cultures, such as coffee drinking) and on Islam and Science.

As both a Liberal and a Christian however, the most interesting parts of the day for me were the discussions with local Muslims. I was surprised to see the mosque had separate entrances for ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ (though we were all welcomed through the same gate this time). However, women at the mosque assured us that this was not a sign of inferiority or subjugation for either sex and that they felt that Islamic law and practice was there to guard their equality rather than undermine it.

I was reminded that my own denomination, the Quakers, still retains some older meeting houses with a separate room that was initially built to allow for the segregation of men and women in worship. This is despite the fact that Quakers always argued for the equality of men and women, and indeed had women in ministry as long ago as the 17th century.

Another topic that I discussed with several people there was the issue of ‘fundamental British values,’ defined by Ofsted as including “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.” As a moral philosopher, it has always seemed troubling to be to define these values as British, since they represent universal human values of liberty, equality, decency and tolerance, and I was pleased to hear that many Muslims see these as being ‘fundamentally Islamic values’ just as much as fundamentally British ones.

Indeed, it was not always Britain that led the world in extolling such values to others. For instance, since its earliest days, Islam has been opposed to all forms of discrimination on the grounds of identity. As one person put it, any kind of ism, be it racism, sexism or whatever, is a sin in Islam. Furthermore, for most of the middle ages, the Islamic Ottoman Empire was a paradigm of scientific enlightenment and religious tolerance compared to Christian Europe.

Of course, there will always be those who fight against our common yearning for freedom, equality and peace, either out of a lust for power or a belief that theirs, truly, is the only acceptable way of life. I find common cause with anyone working against such bigotry, be they liberal secularists, Muslims, Christians or just ordinary people trying to get on in life. I know how easy it is to get stuck on the things that appear to divide us, from separate entrances to different creeds. However, where we are heading matters a lot more than where we are starting from, and what really matters is that which unites us, the common cause to build a brighter future. Open, Tolerant and United.

* Simon Beard is Academic Programmes Manager at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk and a two time PPC for Dartford. He lives in Cambridgeshire.

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  • Lorenzo Cherin 28th May '17 - 3:34pm

    Simon, I wrote an article on a site for Ustinov Forum, which I am a member of and contributor ,this few days, called Manchester United, the spirit of what you say here is terrific.

    You Quakers are the best of religion , truly Christian in the essence of the teaching of Jesus, and a credit to our party , to the traditions of spiritual liberalism too much ignored, too little revealed.

  • It should have been better if we let the people in Iraq or Libya to determine their own path, like Lloyd George once said about the Bolshevik Revolution (before he U-turned later). This is also similar to what Gladstone believed regarding foreign policy before the jingoist British public forced him to go to war.

    On the other hand, I remember that the great Gladstone particularly despised the Ottoman Empire, and his anti-Turkish tirades (if not anti-Muslim, but many Muslims in the Empire viewed them as anti-Muslim) single-handedly prevented Disraeli from intervening in the Russo-Turkish war and led to the Liberal victory in 1880 GE.

  • This is all good, but it’s time now to think through the consequences. For example if we have so much in common then why do we still allow segregated education for muslims? (or rather for children of muslims, children not having any real freedom to choose their religion).

    How much we will actually have in common in the future depends on things like being willing to bring up our children together.

  • Simon Banks 5th Aug '17 - 11:00pm

    Gladstone’s “anti-Turkish tirades” were against brutal and bloody repression in Bulgaria. This was not uniquely Turkish – the Austrians and Russians hadn’t behaved much better in Hungary and Poland – but it was a good Liberal cause, to stand up for an oppressed people. Disraeli’s policy was based on realpolitik and limiting the growth of Russia’s power through slowing down the creation of independent states in the Balkans.

    The Ottoman Empire by then was in deep decline and well past its best. It is true, however, that in its core area (not in threatened outer provinces) it was quite tolerant in religion, but if you look for Muslim achievement in science and mathematics, look to the medieval Arabs (and to the word alcohol, oddly).

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