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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, for initiating this debate and would like to express my concern about defining the national approach to Islam as a phobia, whereas objections to other faiths are referred to as anti-Catholicism or anti-Zoroastrianism, or whatever. What is it about Islam that is phobic? What is so tarantula-like and all-encroaching about my faith that it has to be defined as a phobia?
Islam is a religion of peace and equity. As a matter of fact, the text of the Koran states clearly that Islam accepts and respects all religions of the book that have preceded it. The root for the word “Islam” is taslim, meaning surrender and submission; submission to the will of God and the teaching of the faith. For many of us, Islam provides not only a pathway to heaven but a prescription for living our lives well in this world. There is a fundamental concern for balance, moderation and compassion that must be observed. We fast during Ramadan so that we can celebrate at sunset by sharing our meal, iftar, with those less fortunate than us who would appreciate a good evening meal. We are expected to pay one-fifth of our income as khums, a religious tax paid to the less wealthy. In addition, the Shias demand that we donate zakat: the value of a fourth of the goods and chattels bought during each year.
Fourteen centuries ago, Islam gave women rights that are yet to be gained by feminists in the West. Some 40 years ago when I got married and chose to keep my own name, the notion was so extraordinary that the registrar had to leave the ceremony to find out whether it was legally possible for me to keep my own identity. My audacious move made headline news in the local papers: “Reluctant bride refuses to take husband’s name”. I am pleased that at long last the matter of name has been resolved in the UK and feminists have made huge strides towards achieving separate property rights, but there is still a way to go.
Far from being a religion of fear, the celebration of science and the pursuit of knowledge have made Islam a pathbreaker. Muslim scholars such as al-Khwarizmi opened the way to understanding mathematics. Known as the father of algebra, al-Khwarizmi’s quadratic equations facilitated groundbreaking mathematical advances that, along with Arabic numerals, remain in use to this day in the west and across the world. I am married to a mathematician, so my source is sound.
Sadly, although many individuals and scholars are all too aware of working across countries, cultures and languages, there are unfortunate crevices. Islamophobia is emerging in a country that has an exuberant history of celebrating differences and enjoying different foods, customs and ideas across the centuries. In this country with its wonderfully varied population curry and fish and chips are served by the same takeaways and are washed down with China tea. The UK, which imports 0.8 billion kilos of tea a year, is one of the top three consumers of tea as a national comfort drink, but it is a land where not many tea bushes are in sight. The British empire introduced Britain to wonderful varieties of foods, faiths and factories and paved the way for an industrial revolution on the back of textiles in a land where a head of cotton had never been grown. This country has been part of, and a pioneer in, opening doors and benefiting from interactions with others.
It is therefore a matter of deep regret that we are experiencing a sad tendency by some people to create barriers and label some of us as “not one of us”. Rather than building bridges, we are seen in terms of stereotypical caricatures that demonise us and deny our identity. When I say that I am a Muslim, a surprising number of people look me in the eyes and say, “No you are not!” Stereotypes are stronger than the reality. I fear that instead of celebrating differences, there has been a labelling of us by our faith and the demonisation of Muslims and that we are being otherised. Many young people born and raised in this country find themselves labelled as the enemy within simply because their nominal faith is Islam. Many of them do not know much about it, and I have been trying to teach some of them.
Surely it is time that the Government stepped in, ceased to define us by our religion but referred to us in terms of our professions, marital status or whatever is used to refer to other people. Since we do not talk about Christian or Zoroastrian citizens, why talk about Muslim citizens as a single category when in reality we are as diverse as the continents that we come from? In the light of recent events, will the Minister say what measures the Government are taking to prevent further violence against Muslims perpetuated by demonising us in the name of religion? In future public and official statements and legislation, will the Government undertake not to refer to us as a single community defined by our creed any more than they would define us by our race or colour?