The following is a speech delivered by Dr Shuja Shafi, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain on ‘British values’ to the 100 Group conference, organised by Brighton College and Kingsford Community School.
British Values are Islamic Values
Speech by Dr Shuja Shafi, Secretary General, Muslim Council of Britain
29 January 2015
I am honoured and humbled to speak in front of you today.
Teachers are the bed-rock of our society, and the quality of our education is something all of us care deeply about.
As a young parent, I cared deeply about the welfare and well-being of my children. I was also concerned too that they got the best start in life, and the best education possible.
This is the aspiration of parents up and down this country. It is the one shared deeply by Muslim parents who have got involved in their children’s education.
A good education has allowed me to take a path that has been both fulfilling and demanding: allowing me to practise medicine and help those most in need.
I came to this country to train as a doctor, and I gave back to this country by being part of our great National Health Service.
It is the story of many migrants who made this country their home: yes they benefitted from the opportunity and freedom that this country has to offer.
But they also endured hardships and struggle to overcome racism, xenophobia, injustice and discrimination.
That struggle, let me hasten to add, did not just come from migrants, it came from all British people who wanted to ensure our law and civil society uphold our common standards and ideals as a plural, diverse society.
These are the values which I would call British, and which I, along with other distinguished speakers, have been asked to speak about today.
The title of your conference is “British Values: What they are and how we can impart them to our pupils.” To me, the title illustrates the challenge we all have on this matter: we can’t quite firmly agree what they are.
On the day I became Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain last year, I was asked to respond to an article written made by the Prime Minister where he said that British values were “Belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law [are as vital and] as British as the Union Flag, football and fish and chips.”
That day I was asked what I thought about this. I struggled to understand why I was being asked this and why the interviewer would feel I would object to such qualities for our country.
In fact, I went further to say that I believe that these values were indeed Islamic values and we should champion them.
Indeed, a few months later the former Archbishop of Cantebury also said that Islam and Muslims are helping to boost traditional British values such as shared responsibility and duty to this country.
We are a vibrant, ‘argumentative democracy of individuals and communities engaging in open, honest and difficult public discussion.’
Fundamentally, we must ask: should ‘British values’ – such as they are – be reduced to a checklist? Who decides what are British values and by what metric do we hold people to account?
Closer to home, how serious are we about upholding British values when, in the 800th year of the Magna Carta, we are about to promulgate new laws that go against the spirit of that great British document?
Nevertheless, it is the Magna Carta and the rule of law that I point to when I talk to young people and encourage them that they do have a stake in this society.
Ladies and gentleman, the fundamental problem in my view is this: the relatively new discussion about British values is taking place under the shadow of the ‘war on terror’ and the subsequent role Muslims have to play in society.
We can have a sensible and rational discussion about British values all we want. But if it is done because — not inspite — of the Muslim presence in our country and relatively recent events, then we ignore centuries of history that we as a community of communities share.
I welcome a discussion on British values. Muslims are happy to sign up to common values of justice, fairness, equality and democracy.
But these must be understood as values that all of us need to strive to live up to and make a reality. These should not be a set of values already achieved by some notion of an already-existing British population, which those who are “not quite British enough” must be civilised to.
As individuals and communities, we are and have long been part of the fabric of this country, we have given much and have much to give, but as a community we face many challenges in overcoming marginalisation, prejudice, discrimination, demonization, disadvantage, ignorance and suspicion. It is these obstacles, not Islam, or Muslims, that stand in the way of our fuller participation in society.
We have muddied the waters when it comes to British values and have landed ourselves in a mess. It is one where schools must now endure snap inspections because they are not doing enough to enforce British values.
It is also one where precious resources of the state are deployed to employ ‘Prevent officers’ at nursery schools to detect, report and supposedly root out any signs of extremism or radicalisation.
Surely, we are in danger of singing to the terrorists tune by making our society turn in on itself, suspicious of others and constantly paranoid?
Yes, we must be firm in tackling extremism and terrorism, but this is not the way we to go about it.
I am told that these drastic measures need to be taken because Muslims are not doing enough to own the problem, and to stand apart from the terrorists.
Muslims have come out in droves to speak out against terrorism.
Over the past year alone, the Muslim Council of Britain has not only issued dozens of condemnations against those who claim to act in our name, we have mobilised mosque leaders, civil society leaders and families to speak out and redouble their efforts.
Muslims should not be asked to apologise for the actions of these murderers. But we nevertheless speak out — not apologise — because it is the right thing to do.
But no amount of marches, condemnations or community pressure will eradicate this terror. These people go beyond the mosque and the family to radicalise young people, and they are certainly not found in schools.
We do not claim to have a magic wand that will make this problem disappear. No one should. But what we can say is that we can help by giving young people a stake in society.
To educate the next generation of British citizens, leaders and thinkers, we must put our utmost commitment to ensure they are proud of their own identity, confident about their place in wider society and equipped to understand the challenges and opportunities of life in modern Britain.
That is why we spoke out against the so-called Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham. If there was wrong-doing, then of course, they needed to be confronted. But failures in governance and procedures do not equate to a ‘khalifate-takeover’.
In getting to the bottom of the Trojan Horse scandal, we missed an opportunity to rally wider society and indeed the Muslim community to define a common future, a vision for Britain in which people of different faiths and none races and class lives in harmony.
Instead, for too many Muslims, it was yet another episode where Muslims are once again made to question where they belong when they are as British as anyone else.
Parents, the local community and the teachers worked together to bring about dramatic change.
Children in these schools were achieving well, had promising futures and were learning to aspire, to aim high. The so-called Trojan Horse undermined that effort and destroyed their confidence.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am sure I have not helped you in understanding what British values are. Perhaps that is the beauty of our country and our culture. We are quietly proud (apart from football matches), under-stated and unassuming. We don’t know what it is until we see it.
British values are many things. One quality we can all agree is of good neighbourliness. This Sunday local mosques will be doing just that as they widen their doors for the great British public, welcoming them with tea, cakes and understanding. I hope you will join them.