Main prayer room at Baitul Futuh mosque, London. stevekeiretsu/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Britain is in a period of historic change. In the wake of three horrifying terrorist attacks over three months, tensions between communities are at an all time high.
Yet the attacks have heightened a lingering sense of uncertainty over our national identity that has been brewing for years.
The Brexit vote split the nation. We have a proposal for a second Scottish independence referendum that could split the country in two. And the Prime Minister herself called an election because she says she can't be confident of Parliament backing her version of Brexit.
In the context of the maelstrom of events leading up to the election, it is understandable that we worry more and more about communities becoming fragmented, and feeling left behind.
Some observers argue that religion is part of the problem. People living in Britain adhere to different faiths, so the country is in effect being divided up along faith lines. It is not surprising that the country is being fragmented.
It seems to me that this is to misunderstand what is going on. The community I represent in East London, where I have lived for forty years, is as diverse as you will find anywhere on the planet. We have a very high level of religious affiliation. According to the census, we have the lowest proportion in the country of people with no religious affiliation. So, if it were true that religious diversity is causing fragmentation, ours would be a very fragmented community.
But it isn’t. Instead, we have an extraordinarily cohesive, pluralistic community, made of multiple faith and ethnic groups with more mixing, less segregation, and a fantastic sense of belonging to the wider community.
Without the ‘melting pot’ of religious and cultural diversity to bring people out of their homes into varied community institutions, far more people would feel excluded and left behind.
And this is precisely what the extremists want: both those who have attacked Britain over the last three months, and those who would use these attacks to demonise Muslim communities as a whole.
A high degree of religious affiliation actually builds not fragmentation – but cohesion. Because people who feel they belong to a particular place of worship – as long as that place is seen as part of the wider community, and it is to some extent the responsibility of people in my position to make sure that it is – have a sense, as a result, of belonging to the wider community.
Which is why those who become attracted to violent extremism usually lack religious observance, and often first encounter religion not through their mosque or upbringing but when encountering an IS recruiter or a pro-IS website.
Fragmentation does not come about because people belong to lots of different things. It happens because people don’t belong to anything at all. That is our problem. Churches and mosques, temples and synagogues – these are all giving people the chance to belong, on a scale in modern Britain that nothing else comes anywhere near. And we should welcome the contribution they are making to drawing people out of their homes and bringing them together.
Fragmentation does not come about because people belong to lots of different things. It happens because people don’t belong to anything at all.
In a Britain that feels so troubled, let’s not forget that cultural diversity and a strong faith identity enriches, rather than diminishes, national identity.
The arts have a crucial part to play. Media and cultural portrayals shape powerfully how we feel and think about others. They influence what we see, the stories that define who we are and the people and groups we can relate to.
They can be abused. Cultural characterisations that vilify minorities have, at their most extreme, been staggeringly successful in dehumanising them: the depiction of Jews in Nazi Germany, or Bosnian Muslims in Serb state political propaganda, or Tutsis in Rwanda before the 1994 genocide. Similar propaganda tactics are used by Islamist extremists to recruit people into attacking their own neighbours.
Which is why we should use the diversity of our arts and culture to bring us together. By seeing through the arts the range of peoples’ experience in communities – be it vulnerability, pain or joy – we recognise humans with whom we have much in common. Telling the stories of Britain’s diverse communities helps us connect, and establish common ground that bridges social divides.
Art and culture engender empathy and mutual understanding in ways that political debate and polemical discourse simply cannot. That unique unifying reach must be leveraged now more than ever as Britain navigates its way through a period of unprecedented uncertainty, and recovers from a gruelling sequence of terrorist assaults.
And Britain’s minorities must be able to contribute fully to the country’s cultural mosaic. British culture has never been stagnant or monocultural. It has constantly evolved, reflecting the richness and diversity of British society at every stage of its history. Marginalising minorities within popular culture would effectively marginalise them within society itself.
I applaud initiatives like the Said Foundation’s Amal project, launched recently to support and celebrate Muslim cultures and arts in Britain: music, drama, painting, literature. It is helping to form an identity which Muslim young people can relate to. It is also providing opportunities for encounters between Muslim and other communities, helping to engender closer ties, and showcasing the diversity of Britain’s Muslims.
"We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” Jo Cox's tragic murder etched these words on the public consciousness.
I hope Amal will play an important part in forming a culture which is authentically Muslim and also authentically British, demonstrating that the two are not in conflict, and that this culture will be accessible to and appreciated by people in Britain who are not Muslims too. We must never lose sight of the strength in diversity that Britain has always gained so much from.
My late colleague, Jo Cox MP, memorably pointed out in her maiden speech “that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” Her tragic murder etched these words on the public consciousness, and ring true whenever our country is attacked by extremists. And the arts have an important part to play in helping us all to realise it.