By Sarah Joseph
David Cameron has been vigorously laying out his stall for Big Society. Sarah Joseph suggests Muslims will hear the call, but Cameron will have to sort out his Munich rhetoric first.
The Big Society is Mr Cameron’s “mission to politics.” He believes we “need a social recovery to mend our broken society.”
Putting aside for one minute all the criticism that has been thrown at Big Society (and there is plenty of it), it is worth examining Cameron’s Big Idea for Britain.
Big Ideas are all very well, but if they are to be the solution to our ‘broken society’ we need more than ideas, we need Big Ideals – the “L” being a vital component to shift perspectives. But what Ls do we need? I would suggest we need at least four: love, labour, longevity and leadership.
It is on this last L of leadership that I feel Mr Cameron, especially with regards to the Muslim community, needs some direction.
Faith groups are an obvious place for Cameron to sell his ideas of Big Society as, by and large, faith groups already have a commitment to community work, volunteering, and social good. Muslim groups have for years worked in the grassroots providing services that the state does not. This faith inspired social action is grounded within a tradition that does not delineate between the sacred and the profane, but rather sees religious obligations to society as part and parcel of faith. Which is why Cameron’s Munich Security Conference speech was such a letdown for Muslims who have been working for what Cameron would call his Big Society, and what Muslims would just call a religious obligation towards others. At Munich, Cameron wanted to distance religion from politics, and indeed conflated a political understanding of Islam with terrorism. But Big Society requires people to be inspired by an idealism, and to fully engage in things which were once the remit of the government.
At Munich, Cameron showed he did not understand the interplay between faith and politics, but he is not alone in this. A man was trying to convince me of the benefits of a peace march he was organising. “It’s completely non-political, like a Gandhi march.” I felt compelled to clarify for him that Gandhi was actually very political. Leading his followers to non-violent passive resistance was not a Sunday picnic; rather he led them to a certain beating at the hands of British troops. I then referenced Jesus’ upturning of the money lenders’ tables in the Temple, and the fact that the leaders of the time desired to have Jesus killed because he was causing ripples in their power base; a theme repeated across almost all the prophetic stories.
Gandhi himself said, “those who think religion has nothing to do with politics understand neither religion nor politics,” and yet today, over six decades since his assassination, we are proud to hold him up as an apolitical saint-like figure, neutered (like Christ) from anything to do with the world, highlighting only the word “passive” from his non-violent passive resistance movement.
The terms ‘political Islam’ and ‘Islamism’ are bandied about by politicians and policy wonks with images of sinister terrorists lurking around to blow us all up. We need to be more careful with words. We are assured that this has nothing to do with ‘the religion of Islam’, which is ‘a peaceful religion’ with lots of adherents. Nor is it to do with people of Muslim backgrounds engaged in politics, which is alright apparently, and we can become MPs. Rather, the problem lies when you are inspired by your scripture to bring about political change. This apparently is dangerous stuff, and such people are scary revolutionary types ready to tear down the very fabric of our systems. If you want to spearhead any change, you first have to declare that this has nothing to do with your faith, that you have no links to anyone who is inspired by their faith, and that really you only want a few tweaks here and there, but nothing to upset ‘the system’.
Even as a Christian, I was inspired by the ability of faith to bring about fundamental change. Campaigning for nuclear disarmament is political, so why should it matter if you are motivated by the Bible which says, “Thou shalt not kill”, and I could not see how it was Christian to build weapons of mass and indiscriminate destruction. Calling for an end to Apartheid and for sanctions against South Africa is political, but should it matter if your inspiration is the Bible which says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” and I could not see how it was Christian to oppress people. Indeed, the anti-Apartheid movement was very much about change in their lifetime, and whilst the religion of the Boers was part of the oppression, to another group religion was part of the liberation. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “The well-to-do and powerful complain that we are mixing religion with politics. I have never heard the poor complain that ‘Tutu, you are being too political’.”
I can see no reason why people cannot call upon the scriptures which inspire them in order to inspire change in the world. The prophets spoke for the weak, the oppressed, and the marginalised. They fought for justice, which necessitated speaking truth to the powerful. All of this is very political stuff.
Religious followers have been responsible for wars, death, destruction, and acts of great tyranny and hatred, but to quote Tutu again, “Religion is like a knife, because though a knife can be used to stab a man in the stomach, a knife can also be used to cut bread and feed the hungry.”
We need leadership today that speaks to people’s hearts, mind, and spirit. We need leadership that unites, and not foment division. We need leadership that does not prey on people’s fears, but gives confidence to their aspirations, for as the Bible says, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4.18). It would be useful if our political leadership could remember that, especially leaders that need all the help they can to get their Big Society up and running.