Last month, the Association of British Muslims and the Next Century Foundation hosted a joint meeting discussing issues of importance to both Pakistan and the UK. The aim was to consider ways of improving relations, both between the two nations, as well as between Pakistan’s diaspora in the UK and the rest of the British population. The meeting included senior politicians, journalists and activists from both nations. The discussion highlighted differences including a variety of views ranging from positivity about the future to prickly comments on racial stereotypes – all of which bear further consideration. The meeting served to emphasise the lack of consensus over UK-Pakistan issues, accentuating the need for continued dialogue to bridge these divided opinions. Nonetheless, this preliminary meeting offered useful conclusions and outcomes.
The Education Issue
This meeting highlighted the importance of both proper mainstream education and religious education to act as a catalyst for positive social change in both the UK and Pakistan. There was a consensus view that both nations’ education systems need to become more tolerant and inclusive in order to overcome differences. The importance of this was highlighted as participants emphasised the way education systems in both countries have failed to foster inclusivity and tolerance, particularly in regard to the intra Muslim issue of the Sunni – Shia divide. Improving school education systems in order to encourage inclusivity is a priority for both both Pakistan and the UK.
Religious education was also highlighted as being important, with views that current religious education is distorted and represents the true teachings neither Islam nor Christianity. Achieving better standards of education is seen as a key step in bringing positive change. Improved religious education is not only important within schooling. Adults also need to learn what it is to be tolerant. This is where continued meetings or similar events are important. It is also important that authorities in both the UK and Pakistan continue to engage religious leaders to promote better standards of religious education and tolerance.
There is also the need for education to tackle generalisations about the Pakistan diaspora in the UK. This meeting raised concerns about large sections of the British population believing in dangerous stereotypes. These stereotypes related to both extremism and a lack of integration in regard to Islam, as well as to grooming scandals across England and a perceived lack of adequate education for Muslim communities relative to other diaspora communities. Having such stereotypes circulate unchallenged creates tension between those of Pakistan heritage and British communities native to the UK. Having educational outreach initiatives that tackle such generalisations is therefore important as it prevents dangerous views becoming embedded in sections of the population. It also prevents dangerous narratives in certain media sources being seen as legitimate. Education about the realities of the Pakistan diaspora in the UK can debunk the credibility of harmful views. For example highlighting the fact that white males are responsible for the vast majority of the abuse of underage girls in Britain. Education is vital to counter views expressed by both individuals and media outlets that generalise and stereotype large communities, which in turn breeds antipathy between different communities. If these views are allowed to circulate unchallenged then it can create animosity and tension between the Pakistan diaspora and the native British population, and so challenging these views through education is a crucial next step.
Honest and Open dialogue
The discussion stressed the need for honest and open dialogue to enhance processes of integration and understanding. Participants discussed how dialogue with Muslims has helped them counter misconceptions they had about Islam which had fuelled anger and animosity towards Islamic communities. It is important to have real, honest and respectful dialogue between the native British and Pakistan diaspora communities as this can be an incredibly useful way to educate people.
The need for interaction and dialogue relates to cosmopolitanism, a subject which the Next Century Foundation hopes to host a meeting on in early 2021. Cosmopolitanism is a political ideology that is powerful when discussing how different cultures and communities can live together. In contrast to the British multicultural approach and Pakistan’s integrationist approach, Cosmopolitanism emphasises the idea that for different cultures to live harmoniously and equally within a shared society, consistent dialogue and interactions between those with differences are needed. This is a sentiment that was echoed from the participants of this meeting. Moving forwards there needs to be a focus on ways in which honest dialogue and interactions can be achieved between members of the Pakistan diaspora and native British communities.
The meeting similarly highlighted the need to achieve such interactions between Pakistan diaspora and native British parliamentarians, a lack of which has resulted in detachment. People recognised there is a direct lack of access to mainstream politics in both countries, where it is important that dialogue occurs. Moving forward, parliamentarians on both sides need to become more accessible to facilitate greater dialogue and discussion. This was seen as important because many Britons of Pakistan heritage are more politically connected with Pakistan than with Britain. Bringing together politicians in both countries can help achieve solidarity and address issues such as the rise in sectarian division within Islamic communities.
The complex issue of extremism was extensively discussed, particularly the issue of extremism being attributed to the Pakistan diaspora community and Islam more generally. It was recognised that extremism has given rise to global Islamaphobic narratives, but what emerged from the meeting was recognising that terrorism issues should focus on humanity not religion. The debate needs to shift understanding to an emphasis on the fact that human beings suffer whenever terrorist attacks occur, irrespective of race or religion. Both Islamic and Christian religious teachings are the antithesis of terrorism, focusing on peace and humanity. This again emphasises the need for proper religious education regarding the nature of Islam. A key outcome of this meeting was that after terrorist attacks the focus should be the humanitarian tragedy and not religious blame.
It was also recognised that terrorist attacks are committed by individuals who choose to act this way, and are not the actions of religious communities. This meeting proposed moving forwards that there should be a focus on the root causes of terrorism, deliberating on why individuals become radicalised. The discussion needs to move towards understanding the social and political factors that facilitate conversion to extremism, especially related to the upbringing of individuals. One such issue that was raised was that of identity, that terrorist attacks committed previously by British Muslims had been to do with issues of their personal identity within Islam and wider society. Moving forward the discussion therefore needs to understand how and why individuals slip into extremist views. It is vital to focus on the individual and humanitarian crimes committed by the terrorist rather than seeing everything as a religious crime. Reframing debates about extremism through these lenses is useful.
Focusing on similarities
Progress can best be achieved if there is an honest and open recognition of the divisions that currently exist between the UK and Pakistan. This involves addressing stereotypes that might be prickly and racially sensitive, rather than ignoring them. There was a sense of a growing detachment between the UK and Pakistan on honest discussions about issues mentioned earlier such as radicalisation, and that although there exist contentious opinions about these issues, these opinions do represent portions of the British community and should therefore not be ignored. There is a need for an honest appreciation of the existing differences and detachments between native British and Pakistan diaspora people. Only then can truthful dialogue towards reconciliation begin to be achieved. Such divisions are beginning to permeate all other areas of the wider British society, especially since the Brexit vote. As as a consequence inclusivity is an issue throughout Britain, and not unique to the Pakistan diaspora. What is needed to address this is a direct engagement on differences. Further work in facilitating dialogue and discussion is important and needs to overcome the widening differences and divisions in British society.
But the meeting demonstrated that people from all walks of life were willing to engage in a non-partisan approach in order to build bridges. There is also a lot of cultural engagement between the Pakistan diaspora in the UK and the native British population. Individuals in the meeting also mentioned the wide range of their experiences in Pakistan or with Pakistanis, spanning the spectrum between open hospitality and friendliness. What this points to is that a focus on positives and similarities between each other is uplifting and beneficial. Whilst it is vital that discussions continue about how differences can be overcome, simultaneously there needs to be a recognition of the similarities already shared between different cultures and groups. By emphasising the similarities we can begin to recognise each other’s basic humanity and help curb animosities based on cultural differences. As a way forward it is therefore vital that while discussions recognise and consider differences, they simultaneously do not lose sight of the common human traits that are shared between individuals of different communities.