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Eat, Pray, Learn: The Many Roles of Mosques in Britain

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A guest post written by Abdul-Azim Ahmed, editor of On Religion magazine,  a current affairs publication with a focus on theology and religion. Abdul-Azim is a PhD candidate researching British mosques at Cardiff University’s Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK. 

I arrived just before sunset on a Monday evening at my local mosque, Dar ul-Isra. The mosque, a former church hall, is packed with people. On the bottom floor, volunteers in matching T-shirts frantically set out food to be eaten by worshippers for the iftaar. It’s the holy month of Ramadan, and Muslims are fasting from about 3am until 9.30pm, and many will come to the mosque to break their fasts and share a meal with others.

I stand in the foyer and remove my shoes. In the corner of the foyer is a large red bucket filled with tinned food. It’s a collection for the Huggard Homeless Centre nearby. As I make my way to the main hall, I’m greeted by the sound of dozens of Muslims reciting the Quran in the final minutes before sunset. I look around the large hall and find the group I came here to meet, a delegation from PeaceFeast, a charity that aims to build links between communities by sharing food. I sit with them until the call to prayer is given. I break my fast, and then join a congregation of about a hundred and fifty in performing one of the five daily prayers of Islam.

This isn’t an extraordinary day in the mosque. In many ways, it is business as usual. This snapshot of the daily life of a mosque is a million miles away from the images we are treated to in some corners of the media. Daily Mail articles about “mega mosques” and radical preachers are examples of the torrent of negative press British mosques receive. Perhaps unsurprisingly then they have become the targets for hate crime. Tell MAMA, the UK-based charitable organisation measuring anti-Muslim assaults, recorded over a dozen attacks on mosque in the past year, the most serious of which is the case of Pavlo Lapshyn, a Ukrainian PhD student who murdered an elderly Muslim pensioner and then detonated three bombs in mosques in the Midlands.

Yet away from the negativity, mosques are incredible places of hope. Some accuse them of being spaces of segregation, where Muslims isolate themselves from wider-society. This accusation is naïve at best. To the contrary, mosques play an important role in allowing Muslim communities, often disengaged from mainstream politics, to engage in civic life. From one-off surgeries with local councillors, to Friday sermons on the importance of voting, the mosque is often a gateway into a wider political world. By holding interfaith and community events, mosques also allow for meaningful relationships to be built between peoples of all faiths and non-religious people, in a way that otherwise would not be possible. Those who criticise large mosques in British cities as symbols that Muslims do not want to integrate fail to appreciate that by establishing a mosque in Britain, British Muslims have made a powerful statement that here is home.

Mosques are also places of charity. A survey by The Times found Muslims are one of Britain’s most charitable communities. Much of this charity takes place in mosques, with aid organisations such as Islamic Relief raising millions through collections and fundraisers at mosques across the country. Charity of course starts at home, and alongside international organisations such as Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid, local charitable projects can also be found. These include collections for the homeless and tinned food drives.

It is not uncommon to hear the refrain “a mosque is a community centre” amongst Muslims. This often highlights the vision that a mosque should be a part of the local neighbourhood, not apart from it. As such, it is possible to find many activities you would expect at a community centre being held at mosques. These include Scouts groups, fitness classes, GCSE and A-Level tuition, and CV-writing workshops. Naturally, these are of interest not only to Muslims but to non-Muslims alike, and I’ve seen mosques where their services and activities are utilised by a wider cross-section of society.

Not all mosques of course hold the projects I mentioned above. It is sometimes easy to forget that the word mosque might refer to everything from tiny terraced homes used for worship to purpose-built landmarks with built-in restaurants and gyms. Further, there is still much work to be done on providing greater access for women, in training and recruiting Muslim Imams and religious professionals who can lead a new generation of mosques, and facing up to the dangerous Islamophobia in Britain that often leads to attacks of mosques.

Yet when we consider how much mosques have developed in the past fifty years alone, one can be certain that mosques will play a central role in the future of Britain.

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The Limits of Neighbourliness: Being a Good Neighbour Needs a Political Outcome


A timely and insightful report produced by the Church Urban Fund and Theos was launched in the House of Commons last week. Entitled Good Neighbours – How Churches help Communities Flourish, the report aimed to be a ‘critical appreciation’ of what churches offer their local communities.

There are some great ideas in this report. There is the idea of church-based social engagement providing a ‘stable place’ for both individual and community wellbeing and flourishing. Then there is the concept of church-based community projects as ‘hubs’ and ‘platforms’. In localities where church groups are often the last institution providing any form of community-based welfare, there is a growing trend for their projects to become spaces of gathering and debate which attract other citizens who not only want to become involved in practical help (‘to do something about something’) but also debate what sort of local communities we want to create.

The Church Urban Fund/Theos report helpfully deepens and refreshes what other commentators and researchers have been reporting from the field. A key point of connection with the work of the William Temple Foundation was their finding which showed the importance of worship and shared theological ideas as the motivating and driving force of faith–based civic engagement. This finding resonates with our definition of “spiritual capital” which emerged from research into church-led urban regeneration in Manchester in the early 2000s. We proposed that as a contribution to social capital, churches and other faith groups provide both religious and spiritual capital. Religious capital is ‘the practical contribution to local and national life made by faith groups’. Spiritual capital meanwhile ‘energises religious capital by providing a theological identity and worshipping tradition, but also a value system, moral vision and a basis of faith’. Religious capital is the ‘what’:i.e. the concrete actions and resources that faith communities contribute. The ‘why’ is spiritual capital: i.e. the motivating basis of faith, belief and values that shapes these concrete actions.

Meanwhile Church Urban Fund/Theos’ reference to the local  church as a platform ‘for neighbourliness, relationship and social connection’ whereby others from outside feel able to join in practical action for the sake of the local common good resonates strongly with ideas being developed around ‘progressive localism’ and ‘postsecular rapprochement’.  Progressive localism describes the potential of new political networks comprising of any groups who are prepared to be ‘outward looking and so create positive affinities between places and social groups negotiating global processes’. Postsecular rapprochement meanwhile, describes new spaces of partnership and encounter which involve  ‘a coming together of citizens who might previously have been divided by differences in theological, political or moral principles – a willingness to work together to address crucial social issues in the city, and in doing so put aside other frameworks of difference involving faith and secularism’.

I would have liked to have read more in the Good Neighbours report on the deeper political questions raised by its research. There is a danger that as faith groups become more efficient and indispensable to local welfare and service provision that we lose sight of a more joined up critique of the role of the state and the market, and the growing inequality and power vacuums their policies and practices are creating.

I also think more could have been made of the political potential for local faith-based leadership created by these new spaces of progressive localism and good neighbourliness. I believe the time is right to consider the strategic leveraging of the new political power that is being generated by the authenticity, integrity and knowledge base of the sort of the projects that Good Neighbours identifies, and which are being viewed with increasing admiration by those outside the faith communities themselves.

How might we do this? Well, emerging from our research on religious and spiritual capital, the Foundation identified three dimensions of faith-based engagement at work in the public sphere: being there; mainstream and alternative. The ‘being there’ dimension refers to those mundane spaces of engagement and support that religious groups offer to their local community as a seamless part of their everyday sense of mission and purpose. They contribute in ways that are organic, based on habit and personal contact; and which are distinctly low tech and volunteer-led.

The ‘mainstream’ dimension described the type of engagement where religious groups formally accept that they will partake in state initiatives or partnership schemes; they will bid for government contracts, or apply for government training funds in order to fulfil government-led targets and initiatives as part of a strategy that forms bridges and connections beyond the confines of membership. They will often employ professional workers and managers.

The ‘alternative’ dimension seeks to tap into both volunteer and professionally based knowledge, but puts the views and experience of the stakeholder much more to the fore. It is flexible, responsive, and highly entrepreneurial as well as technically skilled. In terms of social capital theory, its desire to challenge some of the dominant forms of political economy that trap people in cycles of poverty and inequality, means that it exemplifies linking social capital – i.e., brings resources of knowledge and funding and education to those most powerless in society so that their capital assets can be enhanced to bring about deep and more permanent change

Since we first developed these ideas, we now know that austerity will continue as a government policy until 2019. This means that the ‘mainstream’ dimension will more or less disappear, thus making the ‘being there’ and ‘alternative’ dimensions more significant. I would contend that we need to develop much more of an explicit link between the political leverage associated with ‘being there’ and use that political leverage as part of a national debate on the importance of creating an alternative idea of politics and alternative social order. We need to give voice to a critique of neo-liberal capitalism and the idea there is no alternative to the social order currently on offer. But this can only happen if churches and other faith groups grasp the opportunities to capitalise on their new credibility and proactively take a lead in being political hubs around which others can coalesce.

There seems to be a growing consensus that the state simply exits to provide the barest of safety nets and to provide this with as much unpleasantness as possible. I disagree with this profoundly and would argue instead that, in one of the richest global economies, the role of the state is to be much more of an ‘enabling’ one. William Temple envisaged the state not as a safety net but as an active progenitor of intermediate and networked communities of interest and shared concern. Localism doesn’t just happen on its own – it needs nuanced, careful, and strategic investment and support from the state in a rhetoric that moves away from stigmatisation and ‘shirkers vs strivers’ and starts from a stance of recognising the intrinsic value and worth of every human being, made in the image of God. Thank you Theos and Church Urban Fund for highlighting case studies of ‘good neighbour welfare’ and the ‘being there’ that does this. But going about this work quietly, or in ways that assume the current status quo, will never change a punitive and unsustainable vision of society.

Chris Baker is Director of Research for William Temple Foundation

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The Welfare State, Like Christendom, Is Over


The title is taken from the bracing, and stark, prognosis offered by Steve Chalke MBE, founder of the charity Oasis UK, as he concluded a public lecture at the University of Chester on ‘The Progressive Power of Religion in the Public Sphere’. Steve’s words, those of a highly successful social entrepreneur (he repeatedly quipped that Oasis has a higher budget than many Local Authorities) offer a profound challenge. How can we salvage something of the spirit and ethos that created the welfare state and reinstate that ethos back into public life and the fabric of our localities? This clarion call, whilst offering many opportunities, also holds many dangers.

The twin policy drivers of localism and austerity are creating new spaces of hands-on engagement and partnership between local authorities and local communities, with faith-based organisations often taking a lead. As I outline in my book The Hybrid Church in the City – Third Space Thinking faith groups are also pioneers in innovative forms of social care and community empowerment, and often where they lead, secular agencies will follow.

The faith sector, as Steve Chalke showed, can also take advantage of the neo-liberalisation of the welfare state by pitching for procurement  contracts to run key public services in areas such as housing, health and education. Oasis now runs over forty primary and secondary schools and several housing and care schemes for at-risk young people and the homeless. A key welfare innovation that faith groups are offering is the concept of the ‘hub’ or co-ordinating centre for a series of other outreach activities aimed at increasing local resilience and social capacity. These hubs include children’s and youth work services, debt advice and credit unions and foodbanks.

As Steve himself remarked, this local engagement grows the church as well as the community. New members of Oasis churches are asked if they would like to volunteer on one of many community programmes. It is an invitation to get stuck in, to discover God (if you like) in direct, no-strings attached service for one’s fellow citizens. And it is the prioritisation of orthopraxis (doing the right thing) over orthodoxy (believing the right thing) that lies at the heart of so much faith-based engagement since the financial crash of 2008. This stripping back of the idea of ‘church’ to bare essentials of praxis and forms of civic engagement that creates a sense of hope also brings to life other significant ideas about how we construct a new expression of politics.

These new, emerging political spaces are based on shared concerns and a new openness to engage with others who are shaped by different worldviews – including other faiths, but also across the faith/no religion divide. As I have written elsewhere, ‘The reality is that increasing numbers of leaders and citizens are more open than ever to allowing space for progressive (i.e. outward–looking) religion to deploy its wisdom, experience and resources. Not only in leading debates, but also acting as political hubs for emergent networks and affinity groups committed to creating flourishing localities. It is a two-way, dialogical model of the public sphere where wisdom, resources, expertise and political leadership is shared – and not a one-size-fits all model where one version of the truth dominates and suppresses any others.’ What is not to like?

And yet there are grave dangers associated with this emerging post-welfare/localism economy and politics in which the faith sector finds itself increasingly centre stage. Firstly, there is the issue of the lack of resources in many faith communities. Then there is the ecclesial equivalent of postcode lotteries. Not all religious leadership is as dynamic and progressive as that exemplified by Steve Chalke and other ‘new evangelicals’, and not all faith groups can aspire to fill the huge gaps in social care that are now opening up. Especially when we factor in the knowledge that austerity budgeting is scheduled to last for the rest of the decade.

But there is a deeper danger than even these trends. The success of Oasis, and other faith-based organisations in providing ‘cradle to grave’ welfare in some of our local communities, normalises the idea that the state is no longer there to protect its citizens and provide the economic and social framework by which we have the basic rights and needs that allow us to flourish. The modern state has become the stumbling block to the people, not its friend and enabler. It is a world away from William Temple’s vision of the state which he saw in terms of a covenantal relationship with its citizens based on mutual moral interaction.

Based on Biblical notions of divine covenant, this relationship or bond between the state and its citizens was a prophylactic against a decline in the ethical ordering of economic and political life; a decline that would either lead to political forms of totalitarianism or to individualised forms of life. His moral ‘contract’ was designed to safeguard a communal form of life that creates the right conditions for human fulfilment. In return for the guaranteed basic needs laid out in his famous six middle axioms articulated in Christianity and the New Social Order (i.e. access to universal healthcare, education and housing irrespective of income or status), the citizen had the moral duty to improve their own material and non-material standards; to increase the human capital investment already provided by the state. But this self-improvement was not to be done in a selfish or solipsistic way. Rather all citizens (but especially Christian citizens) had the moral duty to undertake politically engaged and ‘responsible’ forms of citizenship so that the investment of that state in its own people was distributed evenly at the local associational level, in the form of membership of institutions designed to strengthen civil society such as resident groups, trades associations, trades unions, faith groups, adult learning groups, and parent teacher associations.

Now clearly Temple’s vision of the relationship between the state and the citizen, and its relevance to the present age, is up for debate, and one we will be precisely addressing at our forthcoming conference commemorating the 70th anniversary of his death.

But the real danger for the church, as one of these intermediate distributive bodies, is that in the absence of an increasingly unaccountable state we end up propping up a form of political economy that is decimating the life chances of so many of our citizens.  A recent University of Bristol report highlights the continuing social inequality in the UK and the its shocking impact on everyday life: 1.5 million children live in households that cannot afford to heat the home; more than half a million children live in families who cannot afford to feed them properly; 15% of all workers are still trapped in poverty by low wages.

It falls to us therefore, not simply to plug the gaps in welfare spending but to transfer our social and spiritual capital into real political power: to articulate a better alternative based on the rebuilding of national and regional infrastructures providing proper protection and a decent life for everyone; especially for those who are most vulnerable. Let’s not call it the welfare state – let’s call it the enabling state.

Chris Baker is Director of Research at William Temple Foundation.

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