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In this blog, Nick Spencer introduces our new report: ‘Al Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre, Grenfell, and mosques in Britain today’. 16/09/2019
Anyone from a religious community in Britain today will be familiar with the sense that what they see of their community in the media doesn’t always and entirely match their personal experience. And for no religious community is this more of an issue than for British Muslims.
The misunderstandings start early. When asked what proportion of the country is Muslim, people in the UK guess 15 per cent. The answer is about 5 per cent. When asked, in 2016, what proportion of the country’s population would be Muslim in four years’ time, people said 22 per cent (the official prediction was about 6 per cent).
This is more than mere misperception. Rather, the latter error in particular, is a measure of perceived Islamification – how fast people believe British society is becoming Muslim. Indeed, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to read it as a measure of cultural anxiety, a cultural anxiety that is compounded by the type, as well as the number, of media stories about Muslims.
In 2012, Chris Allen, from the University of Birmingham, published a study entitled Muslims and the Media, which offered “a review of the evidence relating to the representation of Muslims and Islam in the British media”. The findings were sobering. The role and impact of media reporting of Islam in the UK was, he concluded “contentious and debatable”. It was also highly influential: nearly three–quarters (74 per cent) of the British public claimed that they know ‘nothing or next to nothing about Islam’, whilst nearly two–thirds (64 per cent) said that what they do know is ‘acquired through the media’.
Quoting earlier research, Allen reported that the vast majority (91 per cent) of that news coverage was negative, and an astonishing 84 per cent was judged either as ‘likely to cause damage or danger’ or as ‘operating in a time of intense difficulty or danger’. Allen reported that such media coverage was “likely to provoke and increase feelings of insecurity, suspicion and anxiety amongst non–Muslims”, “likely to provoke feelings of insecurity, vulnerability and alienation amongst Muslims”, and “likely to be a major barrier preventing the success of the Government’s community cohesion policies and programmes”.
There is nothing new under the sun. “If it bleeds, it leads.” We would be naïve – indeed wrong – to expect newspapers to avoid running stories about terrorism, grooming, or Islamophobia if and when such things go on. That is their job.
All this is true, but the danger is that in the quite proper reporting of scandals, a true and accurate view of the life and practices of a religious community is lost altogether. The Islamic presence in Britain is reduced to a grim litany of stories about sharia law, security concerns and creeping Islamification. What actually goes on, in the ordinary day–in day–out community life on the ground, disappears altogether.
In 2017–18, Theos conducted a research project, After Grenfell, into the remarkable work that the local faith groups did in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy. This was a heartening story, in the shadow of terrible pain and loss, showing how many and different faith groups had ‘stepped up to the plate’ in a moment of crisis and drawn on their community presence, their resources, and, above all, their faith to deliver practical and pastoral help when and where it was most needed.
One of those faith groups was the Al Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre and, in subsequent conversations with the CEO there, Abdurahman Sayed, we agreed to do a more detailed study looking specifically at Al Manaar’s response to Grenfell, in the light of wider questions pertaining to the Muslim presence in contemporary public life. The resulting report is published today. It draws on some of the existing work done in After Grenfell, and indeed speaks to some of the same interviewees, but is focused on the question of the Muslim response to the disaster.
The report records how Al Manaar responded to the immediate tragedy – literally opening its doors, providing food, drink and shelter – and to longer term problems, through working with survivors, relatives and the wider community in a number of initiatives, including the Hubb community kitchen, a counselling service, holiday camps, and smaller support groups.
No less important, however, it explores how and why Al Manaar was able to respond in this way on account of its open doors policy; its actively having sought positive relationships with other faith groups and the wider community; its specified post of CEO that enabled a named individual to respond and coordinate as necessary; and finally, its active approach to media visibility.
Grenfell was (everyone hopes) a uniquely awful tragedy and, in any case, no two such events or communities are identical. But it is hoped that the response of Al Manaar to Grenfell will offer lessons to other mosques, other faith groups and other communities in the future.
You can read the full report here.
Image credit: Zute Lightfoot, via Al Manaar.
Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.
Posted 16 September 2019
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