Need to tackle Islamism to protect democracy discussed at NSS event

Posted: Thu, 15th Sep 2022

Need to tackle Islamism to protect democracy discussed at NSS event

How to challenge Islamist extremism to protect the UK's democracy was discussed at an event co-hosted by the National Secular Society.

'Islam and Secular Democracy' brought together Muslim campaigners and scholars at the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham on Saturday to explore the challenges and tensions that may exist between Islam and secularism, and how they might be overcome.

The event, which was co-organised by the NSS and The Neem Tree, a UK-based forum of progressive Pakistanis, was attended by approximately 60 people.

The discussion began with feminist and human rights activist Yasmin Rehman, CEO of JUNO Women's Aid and a former NSS council member. She said she saw no conflict between being a Muslim and a secularist, feminist and human rights activist ­­– but did not recognise the Islam being practised across much of the UK.

She lameneted that secularism is often erroneously perceived as 'anti-religious', pointing out that faith communities have been integral to developing secular human rights frameworks, such as the Univeral Declaration of Human Rights.

She spoke of the need for greater awareness of the extremist messages being promulgated through Islamic broadcasters, Saudi-funded mosques and Islamic faith schools operating in Britain. She also cautioned against the adoption of the all-party parliamentary group on British Muslims' definition of 'Islamophobia', which she said risked silencing dissent and criticism of regressive Islamic practices.

Rehman said a secular state, the protection of secular spaces, and an end to faith schools were the best ways to tackle religious separatism and promote freedom of religion or belief for all.

Provost of the Oxford Institute for British Islam Dr Taj Hargey talked about his work to promote a Quran-centric Islam that is rooted in, and relevant to, the UK. He spoke of the need for Muslims to disregard teachings from conservative clerics and rediscover Islam for themselves.

Mohammed Amin MBE, the chair of the Islam & Liberty Network and co-chair of the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester, explained that many Muslims think Islam rejects secular democracy because there are verses in the Quran which can be read to support such rejection.

He argued that changing minds should start by reminding Muslims that they are individually responsible for their religious views. He said political and religious authorities were regularly separate in Islamic history, and early Islamic practices support the concepts underlying democracy.

Finally, Shaykh Arif Hussain talked about his work at the Al-Mahdi Institute, which is committed to providing an open platform for critical Muslim scholarship.

NSS chief executive: 'Religious fundamentalism presents a real challenge to the enlightenment values'

NSS chief executive Stephen Evans, who chaired the event, said: "It was heartening to see people from diverse backgrounds coming together to discuss and debate contentious issues with passion, openness and civility.

"It's important not to lose sight of the fact that most British Muslims are peaceable, law-abiding citizens who love this country. But it's clear that religious fundamentalism presents a real challenge to the enlightenment values that characterise modern Britain.

"The success of liberal democracy is dependent on the threats posed by Islamic extremism being acknowledged and addressed. This event was a great example of that."

The threats of religious extremism to secularism, free speech and women's rights will be discussed further at the NSS's 2022 Bradlaugh Lecture with Pragna Patel on October 1st, at Manchester Art Gallery. Book your ticket here.

Image: (From left to right): Dr Taj Hargey, Mohammed Amin, Stephen Evans and Yasmin Rehman.

Bradlaugh Lecture 2022: Book your FREE place

Facing many directions: Dissent and resistance in defence of women's rights and secularism, with Pragna Patel
Saturday 1st October 2022 from 2pm
Now online via Zoom and free for all participants