The Atheist in the Room

On Wednesday I attended the World Muslim Leadership Forum’s annual conference. That’s probably the last place you’d expect to find an atheist and yet there I was, my little BHA pin badge proudly on display, to listen to a varied collection of Muslim speakers from around the world discussing issues facing the “Islamic world” today.
The conference couldn’t have been more timely. With riots across the Muslim world in response to an inflammatory YouTube video and the Arab Spring still unfolding, what these guys have to say matters.
The first speaker, and probably my favourite, was Anwar Choudhury, director of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the first Muslim to represent the UK as a diplomat. Choudhury spoke passionately of his identity as both a proud Muslim and proud UK citizen. He argued, quite rightly, that it takes more courage to be a moderate than an extremist; that to choose the extremes betrays a lack, not abundance, of faith. He himself was a victim of a terrorist attack when working as the UK ambassador to his country of birth, Bangladesh, when a grenade was thrown at him when leaving prayer at a mosque, leaving him in hospital and killing his bodyguard. However, he said, the abiding memory for him of the attack was not the grenade but the 100s of Bangladeshi civilians who surrounded his hospital that night to protect him from further attack.
We had talks from 9:30 to 5 covering a wide range of Muslim voices from the self declared “eco Jihadi” imploring her listeners to go veggie to Ugandan born Lord Sheikh of Cornhill, chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, giving business advice. The Muslim Council of Britain, representing over 500 Muslim groups, was represented by its director who chaired one of the panels. Something that stood out was the lack of calls for any explicitly “Islamic” style of government or political movement. Instead speakers focussed on the need for more Islamic voices within current systems- Islamic financial products competing along side conventional products and more Muslims taking their place in the public sphere.
For all the panic in Britain about the lack of Muslim integration in the UK, the suggestion that British Muslims are seeking special laws and exemptions, this event showed those who seek the exact opposite; Muslims seeking to practice their faith freely and work with others on building common ground. This was, after all, their reason for inviting someone from the BHA. Anwar Choundry finished his speech by highlighting his view that there is no war between Islam and “The Other”, instead the fight is between extremist and moderate. There is no doubt in my mind that the passionate “moderates” who spoke on Wednesday have a great deal of good to bring to the country, a necessary reminder that the tempting narrative of “crash of civilisations” gives too simplistic a world view, a message that now more than ever we need to hear. It is up to us to decide which narrative to believe- from personal experience working with Muslims, I believe much more in the narrative of the Muslim Leadership Forum than the divisive narrative of extremists. It needs to be heard.

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