February 26, 2011

Are Muslims free to follow Islam in Canary Wharf?

“If a person doesn’t know how to drive properly and crashes his car, it’s not the car’s fault. If people are practising religion in the incorrect way, that’s not the fault of the religion.”

So says Viqas Sheikh, a global treasury senior business analyst who has been working at Citi for five-and-a-half years. For him there is familiar ring to the words spoken by David Cameron in Munich recently.

“It’s simply a regurgitation of what Tony Blair and others have said – it’s nothing new,” he says. “The dangerous thing is the debate that he made about multiculturalism and the relationship he’s drawing to extremist ideology. It is a show of confusion on behalf of the government. They blame it on multiculturalism, but the deep-rooted problem is something else.”

Viqas, 29, was born in the UK and lived in Pakistan between the ages of 10 and 18, before returning here to complete university. He considers himself a British Muslim.

“I don’t think the two [British and Muslim] are incompatible. Then there’s the terms moderate or extremist – I’m neither, I’m a Muslim.”

Author, journalist and former Docklands columnist Kia Abdullah also falls outside this simple binary split of Islam.

“I’m what I call a liberal Muslim,” says Kia. “I don’t wear a headscarf or pray five times a day but at the same time I dress relatively modestly, I don’t drink alcohol or eat haram (forbidden) food and I’m quite conservative when it comes to things like promiscuity.”

She shares Viqas’ sense of concern about the Prime Minister’s sentiments.

“It made me feel deeply uncomfortable,” she adds. “He made some valid points about integration, but criticising multiculturalism as a root cause of forced marriage and radicalisation was ignorant and fatuous.

“Britain is known for respecting private freedoms – freedom to wear what you want, say what you want, live where you want, be who you want. Hindering these freedoms to create a nation of ‘vanilla flavoured’ people is not going to solve our problems. We need better integration, yes, but vilifying multiculturalism will not achieve it.”

Viqas, who did not want to be photographed, says there are no such tensions in his Canary Wharf workplace.

“A lot of companies have a facility for prayer [multi-faith rooms] or provision for halal food. And when you have that facility to be able to fulfil the obligations to be a Muslim – beyond that there shouldn’t be any other hardship in one’s day-to-day life. We make sure there is communication between the faiths and there isn’t that gap, which can give rise to animosity.”

While Viqas’ workplace may be harmonious, he’s aware that things don’t always run so cohesively.

“We don’t have it at Citi, but I do mix with a wide range of people throughout the City who feel that, on the basis of their faith, they have been discriminated against. It may well be that are considered high maintenance or their belief system is considered contrary.”

In the workplace Kia says she has not faced discrimination head-on either.

“I think ‘discrimination’ is too strong a word,” she says. “It’s far more subtle than that. When I worked in a management consultancy, I made most of my contacts by networking at after-work drinks at the local watering hole.

“If I didn’t feel comfortable in this type of environment – and many of my Muslim friends don’t – then my career would certainly have been hindered. I would not suggest that these meetings take place elsewhere, because they are part of British work culture, but I think that companies need to recognise that people from certain demographics are at a disadvantage.”

Viqas does not attend after-work drinks because of his beliefs, but he doesn’t consider this puts him at a disadvantage compared with colleagues.

“I don’t go to bars, and my colleagues respect that – you don’t have to take that extra step,” he says. “There are a number of Muslims in the UK who don’t think the way they live their lives is contrary to anything in the British value system. You won’t necessarily go to the pub on the weekend, but is that absolutely essential to being British?”

Kia believes the majority or Brits are tolerant of these differences and questions Baroness Warsi’s assertion that prejudice against Muslims has passed the ‘dinner-table test’.

“I’m not sure I agree with Baroness Warsi,” she says. “I think there are two main groups that carry prejudice against Muslims: those that identify with the EDL and BNP, and those at the other end of the spectrum who are very privileged and super-educated but who may not have any daily contact with Muslims and hence view them as a frightening entity of ‘other’. I don’t think these groups constitute the majority in this country – or at least I hope they don’t.”

Viqas asserts that problems can stem from a tendency for people to want to “formulate a genre of Muslim”.

“There’s a standard I have to follow in Islam; and I’m not going to change that for the convenience of other people. I don’t want to have impressed on me what I have to believe in – and that’s what David Cameron also did in the speech. It’s patronising.”

The Docklands

Thanks to NewsHound for the heads-up

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