The new Commission for Countering Extremism has been set up to fight opposition to fundamental British values including respect and tolerance for those with different beliefs.
As the founder of a charity that works to build a more peaceful and cohesive society, I have been bringing people together across religious divides since 1990. So why am I concerned about the creation of an organisation that is intended to play a key role in tackling those whose views threaten to tear society apart?
My parents taught me that Islam is a simple religion. Muslims believe in five things: that there is only one God and that Muhammad was the last prophet; praying five times a day; fasting for one month of the year; giving part of our wealth to the needy; and, if financially and physically able, going on pilgrimage once in a lifetime.
In addition, and this is critical, my parents told me about other principles that are central to our way of life. These are trustworthiness, truthfulness, standing up for justice and equality between men and women, complying with the law of the land, respecting other people’s beliefs, loving children, honouring and looking after elderly parents and neighbours, and being loyal to any country you call home.
Society is important to us, and our relationship with non-Muslims, in a country where we are a minority, is first and foremost that of humanity. It is wrong to use religion to justify acts of extremism and terrorism. Those who do so are criminals and should be treated as such. Muslims who use their faith as an excuse for violence have no idea what Islam means.
Since 2014 the government has required schools to teach ‘fundamental British values’. According to Ofsted, these are democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs including atheists and agnostics. Sound familiar?
So it’s painful when people doubt the integrity of those of us who follow Islam and live in the UK. They often ask us: ‘Do you see yourself as British or as a Muslim?’ What a silly question to ask! One part of it refers to nationality and the other to faith. I will still be a Muslim wherever I settle in the world, even though my citizenship might change if I left Britain to move to another country. The people who ask these irrelevant questions probably have ancestors who arrived here two or three hundred years ago. DNA analysis has shown that 10,000-year-old Cheddar Man, the first modern Briton, had black skin. If you keep going back in time, we are all foreigners!
And we can all feel like strangers in our own country when we live in communities blighted by unemployment, low incomes, educational underachievement and poor health outcomes. Poverty affects one in four children living in the UK today – rising to almost one in two in constituencies like Bradford East and Bradford West. Extremism, whether Islamist or far right, feeds on disaffection and alienation – with much of the country still reeling from the impact of austerity and public sector spending cuts, more and more people are feeling that they do not have a stake in society.
That’s why I question whether the creation of the new commission will be money well spent. Surely the best way to build a peaceful society and encourage respect and tolerance for people with different beliefs would be to invest in opening opportunities for all and helping everyone to share in the country’s prosperity – regardless of faith or ethnicity.
Dr Mohammed Ali OBE is the founder and chief executive of QED Foundation, a Bradford-based national charity set up in 1990 that supports the social and economic advancement of disadvantaged ethnic minority communities