One of the major events in the news this year has been the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in Paris. In the U.S., this stirred up discussion on the already hot topic of terrorism. Of course, the impact has been even greater in Europe, with demonstrations & counter-demonstrations, arrests and other incidents. There have also been proclamations from prominent groups condemning the attacks. Public discourse about Muslims in Western European societies has been controversial for some time.
Thus, the timing is opportune of a MOOC from Cardiff University, offered for free via the Futurelearn platform, Muslims in Britain: Changes and Challenges. It starts on February 9 and is taught by Professor Sophie Gilliat-Ray (Director); Mark Bryant (Development Officer); Dr Mansur Ali (Lecturer in Islamic Studies) and Prof Ron Geaves (Honorary Visiting Professor), of the Islam-UK Centre at Cardiff University, whom I interviewed for this article. They are supported by a team of volunteers, mostly graduate students of the Centre, who will be involved as ‘moderators’ of online discussions, answering questions posed by learners.
The MOOC will cover some basic aspects of Islam, provide some perspectives on the experience of UK Muslims, and then offer an opportunity for people to engage in conversations via the discussion boards. It should be an informative, cross-cultural experience that thoughtful people from all over the world (not just the UK) can benefit from.
There are two basic things to know about Islam and Western Europe. First is that there has been a centuries-long history of cultural (and yes, sometimes military) interchange and influence. Just think about the Arabic numbering system we take for granted–can you imagine doing multiplication or division with Roman numerals? Second is that the Muslim experience in Europe varies dramatically by country. This is due to immigration patterns, legal status, and cultural history. Muslims in France are predominantly of North African origin, Muslims in Germany are typically of Turkish origin and in the UK, Muslims have originated primarily from South Asia. Thus, there are major differences–in France, for example, there are controversial laws banning headscarves, but this is not an issue in the UK.
The Diverse Muslim Experience in the UK
Muslims in the UK tend to be more disadvantaged in terms of housing, health, educational attainment, and employment.
In the UK, there are around 2.7 million Muslims (roughly 4% of the population), about half being foreign-born vs. UK-born (this ratio has been changing over time), with a median age of around 25. Thus, it is clear from the demographics alone that the make-up of Muslim communities have been undergoing many changes. Muslims are not evenly distributed geographically, and there are cities, neighborhoods, and even streets with high concentrations of Muslims. From a socio-economic standpoint, Muslims in the UK tend to be more disadvantaged in terms of housing, health, educational attainment, and employment. However, Professor Gilliat-Ray and Mr. Bryant remind us that Muslims in the UK should not be thought of as a homogenous group (though there was a commendably rapid response just 6 days after the Charlie Hebdo tragedy with 52 leading Muslims signing the “Guidelines for Mosques and the Muslim Community”, published by the Islamic Forum Europe). Among Muslim communities there is a good deal of linguistic, racial, ethnic, socio-economic, and religious diversity.
Professor Gilliat-Ray gives examples of some of these differences:
• Theological understanding of the person of the Prophet Muhammad
• The role of the Prophetic traditions (hadith)
• Which of the major legal and scholarly traditions to follow
• The role of imams and other religious leadership roles within Muslim communities in the West
Think about Muslim communities in the UK as plural rather than singular
Thus, Mr. Bryant urges us to “think about Muslim communities in the UK as plural rather than singular”, and in fact it will be interesting to see how these different communities interact with each other, over time. History suggests that no societies have come into significant contact with each other without changing, and that may apply between Muslim communities as well as outside of them.
What Everyday Muslims Experience
Although every reasonable person, whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist, or other would condemn the violence of the Charlie Hebdo incident, there was pressure on Muslims to somehow comment on this this explicitly, as if they needed to prove their reasonableness. Professor Gilliat-Ray explains:
It pushes Muslims into this public arena where they have to become spokespeople for Islam. They have had to defend their faith or apologize for what other people have done, in a way that I think people from the other faith communities would not be required to do. So I think with this particular incident there is a real sense of exhaustion by Muslim communities of constantly being asked to have a view on things and act as public apologists.
Ordinary citizens going about their everyday lives shouldn’t have to be spokespeople for the wider faith community, or apologize for the actions of the misguided few. Yet, this is the result when our understanding is rudimentary, and when we lump together large groups of people and create stereotypes. Of course, it is everyone’s right to choose how much they want to learn about other people and groups (there are estimated to be >4,000 religions in the world). But given that there are more than 1.5 billion Muslims, more than 20% of the world’s population, the lack of knowledge of Islam and Muslims in the Western world is quite remarkable, and something that should be remedied.
Ordinary citizens…shouldn’t have to be spokespeople for the wider faith community, or apologize for the actions of the misguided few.
Hopefully, institutions like the Islam-UK Centre at Cardiff University and this upcoming MOOC can help play that role. But also, everyday Muslims do play an important role in increasing understanding, but not by being spokespeople. Rather, it is by being themselves and sharing their own experiences with others. It is the human, individual element that we are missing, and this is what the MOOC uniquely brings. It is often the case that getting to know someone of another culture that sparks an interest in that culture, and motivates people to learn more. I’ve experienced this myself: several years ago I developed a friendship with a colleague who is originally from Ukraine. Ever since then, I’ve been following Ukraine in the news, including its present conflicts. But it all started with a personal connection.
Take Part in the Online Discussion
The purpose of the MOOC is to also give people a picture of the daily lives of Muslims in the UK. Though it will cover some basics of Islamic belief and practice, its purpose is to show some of the rich diversity that is present within Muslim communities, through the voices of those that are in them. Also, the discussion forums will be a terrific way for you to get engaged in dialog. Join the conversation and sign up for Muslims in Britain: Changes and Challenges, starting Feb. 9 on the Futurelearn platform.