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‘British Muslim Values’ report aims to inform policy, education, public dialogue

A new report from the University of East Anglia (UEA) compares and contrasts British and British Muslim ‘values’, in an effort to find common ground and opportunities for engagement.

The British [Muslim] Values: Conflict or Convergence report, released today, compiles findings from interviews, focus groups and documentary films featuring Muslim and non-Muslim British citizens living in the east of England. The project was conducted by UEA researchers who focus on international politics, faith, media, Islam and the Middle East.

Dr Eylem Atakav, a senior lecturer in film and television studies in UEA’s School of Art, Media and American Studies, was co-author of the report. She researches and teaches on women, Islam and media.

Dr Atakav said: “The project aimed to explore a number of issues – including the importance of geographical or demographic factors such as gender, age, ethnic origin, or sect – in these understandings of British values.

“We also wanted to hear how British Muslims would recast political and public discussion around the place and role of Islam and Muslims within the UK.”

Prof Lee Marsden, a professor of faith and global politics and the head of UEA’s School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies, said the British [Muslim] Values project is the first of its kind.

Prof Marsden said: “’British values’ has become an increasingly prominent concept, appearing in areas from education to counter-extremism policy and citizenship initiatives.

“Despite this prominence, very little academic research has been conducted on how people in Britain understand the term ‘British values’, or how they see the relationship between ‘British values’ and Islam.”

According to the report:

  • Many people in the UK find the term ‘British values’ elusive or problematic
  • Two dominant understandings of ‘British values’ emerge: political or cultural
  • People are cautious about defining ‘Muslim values’, seeing these as variable or focusing on personal conduct, such as modesty or deference
  • Understandings of Islam are dominated by notions of piety and conservatism, with common reference to issues such as sharia law, Muslim dress and women’s rights
  • Considerable concern around the stereotyping of Muslims as terrorists, extremists or oppressed
  • Many people stated British and Muslim values were either similar or complementary, often because of a shared religious base

Many of the contributors expressed frustration with media and political representations of Islam and Muslims – particularly the tendency to equate Islam with or blame Muslims for terrorism. One interviewee said: “Non-violence is very important to Islam. That seems to have got lost in the media’s perception where they seem to conflate terrorism and extremism with a religion.” 

Other contributors said the term ‘values’ was inherently problematic, “politically driven”, retrograde or divisive. One said: “It smacks of colonialism, that we [British] are extra special and different.”

The report also makes recommendations for policymakers, journalists and others whose work touches on issues of values, Britishness and faith. These recommendations include:

  • The inclusive qualities or values of tolerance, rule of law, equality of opportunity, freedom, integrity, self-deprecation and reserve should be emphasised without regard to religious faith or practice, or its absence
  • Recognising that such values will be understood differently, that that is not only acceptable but also healthy in a liberal democratic political environment
  • The use of terms such as ‘British values’ within security policies – such as the Prevent strategy – risks generating public scepticism or disengagement
  • The temptation to homogenise ‘British Muslims’ and negatively stereotype diverse communities should be resisted as counterproductive to social wellbeing and cohesion
  • Discussion groups and citizen-created media have potential to generate public discussion around life in Britain today, and empathy toward the lives, experiences and challenges faced by others

The project findings will be compiled into journal papers and policy briefings.

The report was also co-authored by Prof Lee Jarvis, professor of international politics in UEA’s School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies. It was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), under the Research Councils UK Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security Research.

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