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 a Quaker, a Philosophy student and a Lib Dem from Sevenoaks