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“Contextualising Islam in Britain” enters second phase

1 February 2011

The views of leading UK Muslims on some of the most contentious issues affecting Muslims in Britain are to be compiled and published online in the second phase of a groundbreaking project.

The initiative, called "Contextualising Islam in Britain", first ran in 2009 and will bring together about 30 Muslim scholars, academics and activists to address a range of topics.

These include, among others, Islamic faith schools, Islam and gender equality, the relationship between the individual and the community, and political participation.

It will be hosted by the University of Cambridge, working in association with the Universities of Westminster and Exeter. The group's findings will be released to the public in a full report which it is expected will be published online and made available for free download in June.

A series of roadshows, led by project members in their own communities around Britain and aimed at Muslims and non-Muslims alike, is also being planned.

The project is the second phase of an initiative originally conceived and funded by the last Government as part of the "Prevent" strategy, which is currently under review, to combat extremism. It will, however, be fully independent of both the Government and of the Universities involved.

As with the previous phase, the project's organisers hope to produce a set of critical perspectives on what it means to be a Muslim living in Britain today. In particular, it will aim to offer ideas and conclusions about aspects of British citizenship that do not appear, at least at first, to be in harmony with the teachings of their faith.

The final report will aim to highlight the shared values that bind different communities together, both as British citizens and as citizens of the world.

Project Leader Professor Yasir Suleiman, Director of the Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, said: "The original project in 2009 was a great success, particularly in bringing together Muslims from a wide range of backgrounds who were able, in spite of their differences, to work together and offer real insight into important questions."

"Once the report is finished, we will try to take the findings across the country as widely as we can. My hope is that each member of the project will feel empowered to speak on its behalf in presentations across the country that will be aimed at non-Muslims as well as members of the local Muslim community."

The first-phase report was praised last year by the House of Commons Department for Communities and Local Government Select Committee as "a model for the way forward" for policy-makers working in similar fields.

Although it set out to offer "exploratory perspectives" rather than a set of hard and fast guidelines, the document did reach a number of important conclusions. One passage stressed, for example, Islam's explicit opposition to all forms of terrorism. Another highlighted the real meaning of Shari'ah as a term for an ethical code based on principles of justice for all, as opposed to the popular, "skewed understanding… which conjures up images of floggings and beheadings."

"Like any research project the first round of symposia threw up a lot of new questions and a lot of suggestions about things we had overlooked and areas that need further discussion," Professor Suleiman added. "We hope to cover some of those in the second phase."

The format of the 2011 project is similar to last time. The University of Cambridge will host four symposia, to which a steering committee of academics and Muslim activists will invite representatives from as wide a range of Islamic communities around the UK as possible.

Although the final agenda for these gatherings will be dictated as much by the group as preconceived, the four themes will be: the individual and the community; family and education; gender - equality, identity and sexuality; and political participation and community.

Between 10 and 25 questions have been proposed under each of those headings for discussion, many tackling difficult and controversial subjects.

They include: "Is all the political attention around Muslim education entirely unjustified or are there grounds for taking some of this criticism on board?"; and: "How should British Muslims deal responsibly and compassionately with gay Muslims and gay Muslim groups, rather than rendering them invisible and ignoring their issues about discrimination and bad treatment within the community?"

The final report, presenting the full set of conclusions and the list of participants, is scheduled for release by the University of Cambridge's Centre of Islamic Studies in June and will be available at its website: http://www.cis.cam.ac.uk/. The previous report, published in October 2009, can be accessed for free at: http://www.cis.cam.ac.uk/Reports.htm


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