BBC Radio 4:Professor Mona Siddiqui - 01/12/2017


When my children were about to start primary school, an acquaintance of ours asked, `aren’t you sending your children to an Islamic school?’ I replied no because the thought had never entered my head and wondered afterwards why? I was actually quite opposed to it. I realised that for me the values of a good education didn’t conflict with the values of an enlightened faith.

But in this brief conversation, I understood that many people saw the issue of identity as layered where loyalty to religious faith was prime. I suspect most of us don’t spend all our time thinking about our identity. We just get on with our lives, but the word has become so politicised over the years that it is increasingly shaping the cultural climate of what it means to belong. In recent days Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s engagement not only triggered a huge amount of comment on the changing face of the British monarchy but also on what it means to be British. Underneath the debates on mixed marriages and race, lingers an often unspoken feeling for some which is ` Can you really be British if you’re not white? ’ In the simple and mostly genial question ` where are you really from’ those of us who are not white are often compelled to explain our parents migration history, in other words how we ended up here, a potted history of who we are, where all the nuances and complexities of what it means to belong, are lost.

And every now and again, the public temperature is raised. Donald Trump’s recent re-tweets of far right videos have been condemned by many for inciting hatred towards Muslims. Against the background of Islamist terrorism, we’ve become used to a different level of public debate on issues of race, religion and ethnicity. But even as I read the comments on the president and his supporters, the issue for me is that we will once again be dragged into polarising and damaging conversations about Islamist extremism and far right extremism when in reality, the majority of us don’t see ourselves or our values in any of these groups.

I often think that the quranic verses, `we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may get to know one another’ encourages us to reflect on human diversity, that for all our own spaces and comfort zones, we need difference to feel unsettled. Because feeling unsettled helps us to grow, to think about our values and who we are as people. And despite all the social and legal engineering to bring people together, often what really makes for a kinder society are the simple but transformative relationships of love and friendship.

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