Are British Values Compatible With Islam?
This article aims to examine the notion of Islam being incompatible with British values. It firstly sets out to outline the issues in defining “Britishness’ and the government’s policy in teaching ‘fundamental British values’ in schools. Furthermore, this paper analyses how Islam can be argued to be compatible with the principles of British values, through studies like Abou El Fadl (2002), Esposite and Mogahed (2007) and Panjwani (2016), which highlights how there is an overlapping consensus between ethically based interpretations of Islam and the core principles of British values suggested by the Department for Education.
This paper was written by Nahid Roshanali, Virtue Ethics Foundation.
According to a recent survey, nearly half of UK adults believe Islam to be incompatible with British values. The survey conducted by a ComRes poll, with over 2000 participants, found that 48% disagreed with the statement of ‘Islam is compatible with British values’ and over a quarter of participants- 23% to be precise- strongly disagreed with the statement.
The survey was commissioned by the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, with the aim to demonstrate just how misunderstood Islam is in the UK. What is important to note is that the survey failed to outline what constituted as ‘British values’ nor did it ask the participants what they believed ‘British values’ were.
The first question to me arises is what do we consider to be ‘British values’?
In June of 2015, the iREA- as part of their debate on ‘Islam and British values’- asked Londoners to describe, or define, what they considered as ‘British values’ in four words. It’s fair to say that the general British public was unable to provide a consistent definition of what is perceived as ‘British values’. Ward (2004), argues that ‘Britishness’ is a constantly evolving and a complex theoretical concept. In his book, he examines how the definition and the redefinition of national identities have changed within the UK since the 1870s. He states that being British is an intricate issue that can no longer be looked at as inherent, fixed or permanent. This is because, the notion of ‘Britishness’ has been seen as under ‘threat’ since the end of the Second World War, and has been disputed by the end of the Empire, Commonwealth immigration, ‘Americanisation,’ European integration and the re-emergence of Celtic nationalism (Ward, 2004; pg2). Thus, nations and national identities are constantly being contested, renegotiated and debated (Ward, 2004).
Why is this important?
Because in 2014, the government launched a policy that requires schools to actively promote, what they consider, as ‘Fundamental British Values’ (FBVs). The Department for Education (DfE) issued that schools “should promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs” (DfE, 2014; pg5). Tomlinson (2015) explains, that this is expected to be done through the Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Aspects of the curriculum (SMSC), and teachers are firmly told that under the Teachers Standards they must not undermine the FBVs.
The obvious remark can me made is are these values just British? Or can it be applied to many nations for example Canadian? American? Or even Indian, considering the Indian constitution supports democracy, rule of law as well as liberty and tolerance (Tomlinson, 2015). Many consider FBVs to be a response to the fears of extreme ideologies, terrorism and Muslim Shariah law, which is highlighted directly from the 2011 Prevent Strategy; but also as a response to the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair in Birmingham schools, in which some school governors were reported for bringing Islamic agendas to the school’s curriculum (Tomlinson, 2015; Lander, 2016; Struthers, 2017). Hoque (2015) states that, because of the political requirement to promote FBVs, the effects of the ‘Trojan Horse’ enquiry were fundamental in the construction of a policy, in which British and Islamic values could be considered ‘Incompatible.’ Thus, arguing, the narrative of Muslims as ‘un-British’ is problematic and overly simplified (Hoque, 2015).
So how can we see Islam as compatible with FBVs?
One of the ways we can understand the compatibility between FBVs and Islam is through the study conducted by Panjwani (2016). In his study, Towards An Overlapping Consensus: Muslim Teachers’ View On Fundamental British Values, it was found that none of his participants perceived any conflict with FBVs within themselves or believed them to be with Islam. In fact, some participants described the FBVs to be aligned with Islamic values and considered themselves to be proud of a country that upholds these values strongly. Panjwani (2016) suggests using the example of ‘overlapping consensus’ to understand the teachers’ responses between Muslim and liberal values.
The concept of ‘overlapping consensus,’ was developed by Rawls (1993); as part of his writings on a formation of political justice that would achieve support from various religious, political and moral doctrines. Panjwani (2016) describes it to raise consensus amongst different people with different perspectives on the notion of justice that would underwrite, as well as certify, the sustenance of political and social institutions.
What evidence do we have of Islam being Compatible with FBVS?
If we look at democracy as an example, Engineer (2003) illustrates eloquently how Islam is fitting with FBVs:
“The first question is whether Islam is incompatible with democracy. It is certainly not. In fact even if one goes by religious text the Qur’an lays emphasis on what it calls ‘shura (consultation) (3:159, 42:38). Even the messenger of Allah is required to consult his people in worldly matters and Muslims are required to consult each other in their secular affairs.
Now it is true such consultation and modern-day representative democracy may not be exactly similar. However, the spirit of modern democracy and the Qur’anic injunction to consult people is same in spirit. New institutions keep on developing and human beings, depending on their worldly experiences keep on changing and refining these institutions. The Qur’anic text not only gives the concept of ‘shura (democratic consultation) but does not support remotely any concept of dictatorship or authoritarianism.”
Moreover, if we look at individual liberty or tolerance of different faiths, then Abou El Fadl (2002) argues that Qur’anic discourses “can readily support an ethic of diversity and tolerance. The Qur’an not only expects but even accepts the reality of difference and diversity within human society.” (2002: pg15). He uses a list of Qur’anic verses to support his argument, such as:
“To each of you, God has prescribed a Law and a Way. If God would have willed, He would have made you a single people. But God’s purpose is to test you in what He has given each of you, so strive in the pursuit of virtue, and know that you will all return to God [in the Hereafter], and He will resolve all the matters in which you disagree.” (5:49).
“O humankind, God has created you from male and female and made you into diverse nations and tribes so that you may come to know each other. Verily, the most honoured of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous.” (49:13).
According to Abou El Fadl (2002), such passages are a clear acceptance of the reality and significance of diverse religious convictions and laws.
Thus, from these examples, we can understand how an ethically based interpretation of Islam is why a majority of Muslims today are comfortable and in support of modern values, practises and institutions.
Additionally, research done by Esposite and Mogahed (2007), to which they conducted a major survey of the Muslim population in several countries, found that when participants were asked “about their hopes and dreams, many respondents first cite economic issues: better economic conditions, employment opportunities, and improved living standards for a better future. These are followed by the needs to improve law and order, eliminate civil tensions and wars, promote democratic ideals in their political systems, as well as enhancing their countries’ international status and independence to ern respect from others and stop outside interference. At the same time, domestic priorities include access to better educational systems to eradicate illiteracy and ignorance and to achieve gender equality, social justice and religious freedom.” (Esposite and Mogahed, 2007; pg26).
Hence, we can understand that through the process of reinterpretation of sacred texts and traditions, we can see an emergence of ‘overlapping consensus’ between modern values and certain understanding of Islam (Panjwani, 2016). Thus, this falsifies the claim that Islam is incompatible with FBVs, and in reality, Muslims are more likely to embrace such values because the spirit of such values is fundamentally embedded in the core principles of Islam.
Therefore to conclude, I argue that similar to Ward (2004), what is construed as ‘British’ is constantly changing. However, the FBVs outlined by the government, to reassert ‘Britishness’ not only lacks proper definition, but it also sets Islam and Islamic values as oppositional to being ‘British.’ Yet through the studies of likes of Abou El Fadl (2002), Esposite and Mogahed (2007) and Panjwani (2016); we can understand the values set by the DfE are very much so aligned with the ethically-based interpretations of Islam. And in reality, one can argue, that the majority of the Muslim population in the west, are proud to have and practise, the same values highlighted by the DfE.
“Allah does not forbid you in regard to those who have not made war against you on account of (your) religion, and have not driven you forth from your homes, that you show them kindness and deal with them justly; surely Allah loves the doers of justice.” (Qu’ran; 60:8)
• Abou El Fadl. K. M. (2002), The Place Of Tolerance In Islam, Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
• Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Survey (2019), https://www.comresglobal.com/polls/ahmadiyya-muslim-community-survey-july-2019/
• Department For Education (2014), Promoting Fundamental British Values As Part Of SMSC In Schools Departmental Advice For Maintained Schools, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/380595/SMSC_Guidance_Maintained_Schools.pdf
• Engineer. A. (2003), Is Islam Compatible With Democracy And Modernity?,https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/islam-compatible-democracy-and-modernity
• Esposite. J. and Mogahed. D. (2007), Who Speaks For Islam? What A Billion Muslims Really Think, New York: Gallup Press.
• Hoque. A. (2015), British- Islamic Identity: Third-Generation Bangladeshis From East London, Institute of Education Press, University Of London.
• iREA (2015), What are British Values?,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UptHOWrcd9A&t=201s
• Lander. V. (2016), ‘Introduction To Fundamental British Values’, Journal Of Education For Teaching, 42(3), pg274-279.
• Panjwani. F. (2016), ‘Towards An Overlapping Consensus: Muslim Teachers’ Views On Fundamental British Values’, Journal of Education For Teaching, 42(3), pg329-340.
• Rawls. J. (1993), Political Liberalism, New York: Columbia University Press.
• Struthers. A. (2017), ‘Teaching British Values In Our Schools: But Why Not Human Rights Values?’, Social & Legal Studies, 26(1), pg89-110.
• Tomlinson. S. (2015), ‘Fundamental British Values’, The Runnymede School Report Race, Education And Inequality In Contemporary Britain, Alexander. C., Arday. J. and Weekes-Bernard. D.(Eds), http://www.runnymedetrust.org/uploads/The%20School%20Report.pdf#page=12
• Ward. P. (2004), Britishness Since 1870, Routledge, London.