The “Inspired by Muhammad” campaign was launched a few weeks ago to highlight British Muslims who are contributing to UK society. The campaign, sponsored by the UK-based Exploring Islam Foundation – which publishes creative resources and materials on Islam, aims to break down misconceptions by showing Muslims as campaigners for social justice, gender equality and the environment.
The movement consists of posters and a website (www.inspiredbymuhammad.com) that feature positive images and stories which provide alternatives to the corrosive narratives about Islam and Muslims spewed out on an almost daily basis by certain national newspapers in the United Kingdom.
As I sit in the ancient Jewish quarter of Seville, the poignancy of this campaign hits me, especially having just visited the Alcázar, a royal palace in Spain that was formerly a fort built by the Moors in 1360. The Alcázar, along with other sites of this great city that were often used by different religious groups during different periods, gives substance and meaning to the term “co-existence” between the three Abrahamic faiths.
As a Londoner who has lived most of his life in a diverse city, I was taken aback by the results of the recent UK-based research organisation’s poll of over 2,000 people. YouGov found that one-third of respondents perceive Islam as a religion of violence. Less than one in five believe that Islam has a positive impact on the country, while 68 per cent of respondents believe that it is a repressive religion. Sadly, the person most commonly associated with Islam after the Prophet Muhammad is Osama Bin Laden.
Such results highlight the gulf of misconceptions and stereotypes growing between Muslims and non-Muslims.
This gulf did not start post-9/11 but after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared that Salman Rushdie’s 1988 book The Satanic Verses was “blasphemous”, after the 1986 political and military confrontation between the United States and Libya’s leader Muammar Qaddafi, the First Gulf War in 1990 and many other crises, all of which have shown Muslims in the worst possible light.
Yet, if we are honest, most of these international incidents had little, if anything, to do with the vast majority of Muslims – or Islam.
The figures from the YouGov poll are disconcerting because they show that a concerted effort is needed to ensure that there is a balanced perception of Islam and Muslims in the United Kingdom. In addition to the “Inspired by Muhammad” campaign, which shows human faces and perspectives of Muslims supporting much needed social work in the country, programmes that deconstruct the perceived attachment between Islam and violence also need to be developed.
The “Inspired by Muhammad” campaign is particularly interesting since it attempts to place Muslims into the context of local communities and humanise their stories.
For example, the campaign portrays Muslims who campaign for the environment, uphold English law and create positive social change through social work. Though these images feature Muslims engaged in what appears to be normal activities, they have an impact when so many media portrayals of Muslims show them as as inherently violent.
The very core of Islam stands contrary to violence, which is only sanctioned in specific circumstances to stop murder or genocide, or to defend oneself. So associating violence with Islam is not only inaccurate, it assumes that the Osama Bin Ladens of this world are exemplars of Muslims and Islam when, in truth, their cynical manipulation of the religion is clearly contrary to what Islam and its scholars say.
In addition to the portrayal of hundreds of thousands of Muslim doctors, dentists, hospital porters, social workers, engineers, military personnel, project managers, investment bankers, nurses, pharmacists, civil servants and other socially significant actors highlighted by such campaigns, there is also a need to share the stories of those Muslims engaged in the protection of the United Kingdom.
Here lies the answer to countering the prejudices and ignorance that feed social division and misunderstanding. If those interviewed by the YouGov poll fear Islam or Muslims, then show them that we are actively working to protect the safety of all people in the United Kingdom, a country dear to all of us who live here.
* Fiyaz Mughal is the Founder and Director of Faith Matters (www.faith-matters.org), an organisation that works to resolve conflict and create community cohesion through collaboration between faith communities in the United Kingdom and the Middle East. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).