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Islam in the UK

In just one year, Cardiff’s <strong>Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK</strong> has made quite an impact.

Dr Sophie Gilliat-Ray receiving award from Museji Ahmed Takolia

Dr Sophie Gilliat-Ray receives the Sankore University award for Excellence in Education from the chairman of Metropolitan Home Ownership, Museji Ahmed Takolia (Picture courtesy of Konta Productions/Muslim News)

At the Muslim News Awards in March 2006, director Sophie Gilliat-Ray received the Sankore University award for excellence in education for her work in establishing the Centre. The Centre was also praised in the Sunday Times’ most recent University Guide as "a pioneering research centre that focuses on Islam and Muslims at a sensitive time."

More importantly, the Centre has forged strong links in the local community. Cardiff has one of Britain’s longest-established Muslim populations, with the UK’s first mosque built here in 1860. The city is hosting several arts events and exhibitions as part of the 2006-07 Festival of Muslim Cultures in the UK.

Singing of nasheed, Islamic devotional song by Cardiff schoolchildren at the launch of the Centre

Singing of nasheed, Islamic devotional song by Cardiff schoolchildren at the launch of the Centre

The first year’s achievements mean the Centre is well on course with its key objectives. Dr Gilliat-Ray said: "What we want to do is promote better understanding of Islam and Muslims in Britain through teaching, research and community innovation and engagement."

However, there are challenges. A recent Daily Telegraph headline claimed half Britain’s population believe Islam to be a threat to the West — an indication of the  misunderstanding, myth and distortion still surrounding the religion in the UK.

For Dr Gilliat-Ray, the media must take much of the responsibility for these misconceptions.

She said: "It’s very difficult for the Muslim community when it is subject to uninformed debate and discussion. There’s a lot of speculation about radicalisation but there isn’t the literature to support that — it’s all conjecture.

"Most people don’t have Muslim friends or neighbours. Most of their information comes from the media. There is a major job to be done to address stereotyping."

To date, there has been very little research into Islam in Britain and the Centre is looking to generate more high-quality work in this area. Dr Gilliat-Ray, who is herself currently studying the training of the religious leadership and the way they pass on the faith, said: "There is a gap in the academic field. We have a lot of excellent places for the study of Islam itself in terms of textual theology, but nowhere focussing on Islam in Britain from a socio-historic perspective. We want to understand British Muslims today."

According to Dr Mohammad Seddon (left), the Centre’s Development Officer, existing discussion of Muslims in Britain has been skewed by international events. The community has been depicted as a problem, and there has been very little celebration of its achievements.

One of the biggest misconceptions is the very idea of a uniform British Muslim community. There are several, all at different stages of development and information about them is sketchy. Dr Gilliat-Ray said: "We already know a certain amount from the census about the history of these communities, but there is no vast body of research out there."

It is a point echoed by Saleem Kidwai OBE, Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Wales (right), and a member of the Centre’s advisory group. The group meets three or four times a year and provides Muslim leaders in South Wales with a means of guiding the centre’s work.

According to Mr Kidwai, there are at least five distinct Muslim communities in Cardiff alone — Pakistani, Somali, Bangladeshi, Yemeni and Middle Eastern. There are a dozen mosques, each with their own congregation.

Mr Kidwai said: "The generation I come from can be labelled Pakistani/British. My children have no connection with Pakistan — they are Welsh or British. The differences which exist now will disappear for the coming generation as they will not carry the same cultural baggage." He believes the Centre will play an important role in identifying and explaining the distinctively British Islam which will emerge from this process.

Another advisory council member, Akmal Hanuk, programme director for the Ethnic Business Support Programme in Wales agrees that the Centre has many vital questions to answer.

He said: "One of our main objectives is research into the conditions of Muslims in Britain. We want to audit their status in education, in professional attainment, housing, the various social sectors. We want to see what level Muslims are at and open up the debate as to what can be done. No such research is being done in the UK. Now we can start in Wales and move on nationally, and even internationally."

Research is just one pillar of the Centre’s programme. Dr Seddon’s work involves a number of outreach projects both to benefit the Muslim communities and to improve wider understanding of Islam.

The Centre is working with Cardiff County Council on a programme to engage Muslim women in community access learning. It is talking to the police authority on an awareness programme for officers about Muslim culture, in the hope that other public sector bodies, particularly in health and education, will follow. Businesses facing new laws on inclusivity, equal opportunities and religious discrimination are also being offered cultural awareness training.

Again, Dr Gilliat-Ray stresses the importance of the advisory group in setting the strategy for these programmes. She said: "We are working with the community and responding to the needs of the community."

For Mr Kidwai, the outreach work tallies with the current aims of the Muslim Council.

He said: "We have two immediate priorities in the present circumstances. One is to make people aware of Islam — not the media Islam, the real Islam. The other is bridge-building between the faith communities and the non-faith communities."

He points out there is still a lot of work to be done, particularly with the first priority. Myths still abound, particularly around the role of women in Islam. Forced marriages, for example, are not part of the faith but have arisen in some parts of the world which also have Muslim majorities.

Mr Hanuk also believes that Islam needs to be better understood, to be seen as a universal religion rather than thought of in terms of an East/West divide. The Muslim world’s contribution to learning at a time when Christendom was mired in the Dark Ages is often not appreciated. And he feels that even atheists should know something of the Quran before deciding to reject belief.

He added: "This is why we wanted Cardiff to be a beacon of Islam — to have the kind of academic excellence to put forward what it is all about and to cut through this maze of ignorance."

After only a few months, the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK has built strong links with Muslim community. Both the Centre and its advisers see this as essential to its success in promoting better understanding of the religion in Britain. Mr Kidwai said: "We felt from the start it was very important there should be community input into it. It is a unique centre — that is why we feel so strongly about it."

One of the biggest misconceptions is the very idea of a uniform British Muslim community. There are several, all at different stages of development and information about them is sketchy. Dr Gilliat-Ray said: "We already know a certain amount from the census about the history of these communities, but there is no vast body of research out there."