In this one day conference, keynote speakers and participants shared their views under the general themes of identity and community.
First key speaker of the conference was Dr Shaykh Shomali, the director of the Islamic Centre of England, who talked about the interrelation between identity and community by explaining that these two are inseparable; as the identity of a person is in fact a social phenomenon. He stressed that in order to become a good Muslim, one has no better way other than belonging to a community. He continued with expressing his reflections of the challenges of identity and community amongst Muslims. He said that the human is the only creature with moral obligations and thus has to follow ethics as well as having a plan for self-development and the care of self.
With referring to the Quran Dr Shomali said that one cannot change the outside world unless one changes the self from within. He said that according to the Quran some people forget themselves. It is as if one loses a friend or a family member. However losing one’s self is more serious and more painful. He said the only remedy for the forgetting of the self, of becoming distant from the self, is to keep the spiritual connection with God. A disconnected soul in his view is similar to an airplane, which has lost its communication with the control centre. It will be doomed to crash. He concluded that walking with fellow travellers, i.e. the community, provides us with direction.
The next speaker, Dr Rebecca Masterton began her remarks about the identity challenges of new Muslims in the West. She said that in our post-colonial era, the West has established modernity based on secular values. It has been normal for a non-Western person to get educated and become accepted in the West. But the opposite situation in which a Westerner, a European person would convert to Islam sounds extremely distant from the norm. This has caused in her view, lots of trouble for the Western new Muslims. They face identity crisis and many of them are rejected by their families or their communities; as their action is seen as some kind of treason. This also invokes lots of negative stereotypes against Muslims such as terrorism or fundamentalism, etc.
She believed that new Muslims especially in Europe face some kind of identity problem. That is because in practice, they cannot find the pure Islam that they had wished for. Instead they find themselves immersed in the Arab, or Asian or Iranian cultures etc. She also warned young Muslims not to follow any kind of religious cults. These narrow-minded cults in her view, are usually built around a charismatic central figure. These charismatic leaders believe that they posses some sort of mysterious connection with the truth. This makes them to ask for an absolute submission from their followers and never allow any critical approach. She warned new Muslims to avoid these cults and always listen to their inner Imam, i.e. their aql (reason).
She said that new Muslims sometimes find themselves rejected or left in cold by the Muslim community and become despaired and disappointed. They however in her view, have to acknowledge that Muslim migrant communities usually have their own baggage of cultural and economical difficulties. Some of these communities are in her view, traumatised communities who have migrated to Europe fleeing poverty, war or political distress. She then concluded that not all of new Muslims are from the same culture. They have come from so many different background and their reasons from becoming Muslim are different from each other. So one has to recognize that there is no homogenous and unique identity as ‘new Muslim’. Therefore, in her view, we must not push each other into fixed identities; instead, we must accept the multitude of diverse and ever changing identities.
The third keynote speaker, Shaykh Isa Jahangir also talked about the challenges facing communities with some reflection on the Quran and hadith. He first explained the difference between community and society. He said according to the Quran, the nearest Quranic concept to the concept of community is called Ummah. Ummah in Islamic terminology refers to the community of believers, wherever they live. He called ‘individualism’ as the main challenge for the concept of community. Individualism alongside humanism, gives preference to the human individual and his/her personal interests. He said according to the Quran, diversity is accepted and valued. However, the Quran believes that humans however divers they might be, are shared in their creation and belonging to God. Thus, the connection to God must be seen as the point of unity.
The conference then was continued with five workshops: ‘Education’, supervised by Shaykh Mohammad Zakaria; ‘Marriage and Family’ by Abbas and Shaheen Merali; ‘Media’ by Amir de Martino, ‘Social and Political Activism’ by Raza kazim; and finally ‘Social Welfare’ by Ruhi Rizvi and Rashid Rose. Representatives of each workshop later participated in a panel and gave a summarised conclusion of their discussions.
The final remark and closing speech was given by Dr Shomali, outlining ‘the way forward’. He wished that the participants leave the conference with some practical solutions. He stressed that building a community is amongst the most difficult tasks and obligations in Islam. He said that Muslims have to focus more on their communal identity and the idea of ‘we’ instead of ‘me’. Islam he said, gives a great preference to community and thus communal rituals are cherished in Islam. He said that Muslims should be analogous to the organisms of a body. They feel each other’s pain and rush to help one another is difficulties and pressure. He hoped that in the era of destruction of family and community values, Muslims become the voice of unity.
The conference came to conclusion with a Q & A panel in which speakers and workshop moderators took part.
The conference was held with the aim of bringing together members of Shia communities in the UK and to reflect and discuss the issues of identity, community and the issue of unity with the broader Muslim community in the UK.