A place for Muslims in a ‘Christian country’?

Daniel Nilsson DeHanas, Therese O’Toole, Nasar Meer, Tariq Modood and Stephen H. Jones

This article is featured in Public Spirit’s special theme on Faith and the coalition: a new confidence to ‘do God’?

Sleeves rolled up
This article is based on a chapter from FaithAction’s book ‘Faith With Its Sleeves Rolled Up’

Get a pdf of this article here

The Conservative-led government has been bold in giving Christian heritage a central place in its rhetoric and in initiatives such as Near Neighbours.  Yet the Church of England is no longer ‘the Tory Party at prayer’ and has seen decades of declining attendance.  In multi-faith contemporary Britain, is the government charting a course that shuts out burgeoning populations such as British Muslims?

From its inception, the coalition government has sought to differentiate itself from New Labour in its approach to faith. Prime Minister David Cameron’s most notable speech on faith was at the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. In that speech he offered an explicit and confident statement on the role of religion within British public and political life, arguing that although ‘People often say politicians shouldn’t “do God,”’ in fact, politicians should recognise ‘both what our faith communities bring to our country … and also how incredibly important faith is to many people in Britain.’[1] By invoking and overturning Alistair Campbell’s phrase ‘we don’t do God’, the Prime Minister was attempting to put clear blue water between the coalition and New Labour’s position on the role of religion in public life. Indeed, this ‘doing God’ message has been consistently conveyed by coalition ministers.[2]

FC DND 1Yet New Labour actually did do God throughout its thirteen years in power. It engaged with faith more extensively and self-consciously than any previous modern British government. Notable New Labour achievements include adding a religion question to the census, extending public support for faith schools beyond the Christian and Jewish precedent, and investing tens of millions of pounds in faith-based capacity building funds. The coalition’s interest in faith, then, should not be understood as a signal of a new era so much as a continuation of this trend.

That being said, David Cameron can justly argue that the content of his government’s approach to faith differs from New Labour. The critical shift has been from a multi-faith paradigm to a Christian heritage focus. In the same King James Bible speech, Cameron locates Christianity at the centre of British public life: ‘We are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so.’[3] Public statements by Baroness Sayeeda Warsi have invoked the need to emphasise and protect Christian heritage in the face of encroaching secularism. In a speech to the Vatican, Warsi argued that ‘Europe needs to be more confident in its Christianity’.[4] Relatedly, when a high court ruled that Christian prayers in the Bideford Town Council were unlawful, communities minister Eric Pickles intervened by expediting the ‘general power of competence’ for councils in the Localism Act 2011, and argued that this applies to a competence to continue to hold council prayers. Pickles saw this as necessary because ‘for too long, the public sector has been used to marginalise and attack faith in public life, undermining the very foundations of the British nation.’[5] In a major speech in early 2013 he argued that ‘in recent years long-standing British liberties of freedom of religion have been undermined by the intolerance of aggressive secularism.’[6]

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Minister for Faith and Communities: ‘Europe needs to be more confident in its Christianity’.

The coalition’s bold words on faith connect with lobby groups such as Christian Concern and senior figures such as Lord George Carey and Lord Michael Nazir-Ali, who describe Britain’s faith heritage as waning and argue that Christians are facing ‘persecution’ in British public life.[7] Unfortunately for the government, the same constituencies who support its bold words on Christianity overlap considerably with those who feel alienated by its bill to introduce same-sex marriage.

In terms of policy, the coalition has to a large degree brought engagement with faith groups under the banner of the Big Society. In this respect, the coalition’s emphasis on Christian heritage has been accompanied by a renewal of inter-faith work. Speaking at the AGM of the Inter Faith Network, the then Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) minister Andrew Stunell explained that ‘Inter-faith activity is more important than ever in our work towards the Big Society, so I want to push for more inter-faith dialogue and action rather than individual faith groups delivering social projects.’[8] Near Neighbours, a new programme funded by the DCLG, brings together the inter-faith and Christian heritage aspects of the coalition’s engagement with religion in a very interesting way, and is worthy of exploring in some detail.

FC DND 2Near Neighbours

Near Neighbours is a coalition initiative providing £5 million funding to promote interactions across faith and non-faith groups. The programme was launched in autumn 2011 in four urban centres across England: Birmingham, Bradford, Leicester, and part of East London.[9] About £3 million of the funds are designated for a set of larger bodies including the Christian Muslim Forum, the Council of Christians and Jews, the Hindu Christian Forum, and the Feast, all of which do extensive work across faiths.[10] The Near Neighbours Fund portion, at £2 million, is devoted to small pots of money of between £250 and £5,000 given to local groups for projects that bring people of different backgrounds together through a simple application process. In many ways this Big Society initiative seems designed to give greater autonomy to faith groups and let local communities generate their own solutions. What is novel is that the programme is being administered by the Church Urban Fund, which allocates the funding, and applicants require the counter-signature of the vicar from the parish in which the proposed project will take place.

There has been unease among some, including Church of England clergy, about the Church being placed in this role. To others, the reach and richness of the Church of England’s infrastructure, as well as its history of inter-faith work, are valuable resources to make this programme work.

We have spoken with many Muslim civil society actors about their views of Near Neighbours, as part of our broader study of the place of Muslims in British governance.[11] One Muslim critic of the programme is Abdul-Rehman Malik, a public intellectual and journalist based in Tower Hamlets. Malik is deeply concerned about the Near Neighbours structure: ‘Do you think Muslims know which parish they’re part of?’ he asked, incredulously, ‘To me, it’s undemocratic’.[12] Ataullah Siddiqui of the Markfield Institute in Leicester noted that ‘this government’s funding policy has just the opposite of what the previous government’s was [because] they want to channel money through the Church of England’. He added, ‘now, I’m not sure if it is a good thing or a bad thing,’ but it raises several questions because ‘until recently the Church was, as far as the money from government is concerned, one of the many faith communities. Now it has seized the moment – they are the one now with the control and the power. So how do you relate to that? And what will the impact be?’[13]

Women at protestSome other Muslim governance and civil society actors speak of Near Neighbours and the Church’s role in it in much more positive terms. Maqsood Ahmed, who was involved in the DCLG development of the programme, believes that Near Neighbours provides a structure by which to support the development of other faith groups, including Muslims: ‘[The] Church of England is well established, they have a wonderful infrastructure. Why don’t we use them as a kind of ground to get others involved?’[14] Ibrahim Mogra, an imam based in Leicester who is nationally prominent, likewise spoke of the Church’s infrastructure as a major strength. He said it is a refreshing change from counter-terrorism funding because it can ‘achieve the results that the Prevent agenda wanted to achieve, but it’s more palatable’. Mogra placed his advocacy for the programme in the context of broader issues of faith in British public life: ‘I would want to make sure that the Church remains strong in this country because in that lies our safety. We can turn to them and they can take us under their safety net, if you like. If the Church of England falls, God help us, what’s going to happen to the Muslims and Hindus and everybody else?’[15]

Mogra’s views are consonant with those of many of the leaders of Britain’s diverse religious traditions, who see religious establishment as a bulwark against strict secularism and as a facilitator of their inclusion.[16] Along these lines, in a recent article Cambridge Islamic scholar Abdal Hakim Murad has called for an ‘alliance sacree’ between religious believers, arguing that:

If Europe defines itself constitutionally, as I believe it should, as either an essentially Christian entity, or as one which is at least founded in belief in God, then the fact of Muslim support for core principles of Christian ethics will give Islam a vital and appreciated place.[17]

FC DND 3Near Neighbours, then, brings to the fore important questions about the establishment of the Church of England and its implications for religious minorities. The highly positive view of Muslim governance actors such as Ibrahim Mogra should be weighed against the critical questions of others on the programme’s neutrality. Yet all or nearly all of the named individuals in this section have in common a substantial track record of relationships and work with the Church of England. The British Muslim critics of Near Neighbours tend to be critical friends.


The coalition government’s vision of a Big Society powered by localism can be observed across the country, in places such as Birmingham, Leicester, and Tower Hamlets where members of faith-based organisations contribute alongside others to diverse civil society action. In many cases, however, the work being done in these localities will not be sustainable or able to reach its potential without greater levels of financial investment from government.

Near Neighbours and similar programmes can continue to be a key part of such an investment, particularly if funding becomes more substantial and the programme is held publicly accountable. In times when the proportion of the population identifying as Christian has fallen from 72 percent in 2001 to 59 percent in 2011, Near Neighbours does seem to be a success in terms of demonstrating the Church of England’s vitality, creativity and perhaps unique position for brokering solutions to common problems. Yet, following this model, the government should be willing to experiment with other initiatives to achieve its Big Society. To create a hypothetical example: If a network of Muslims (or Buddhists, or Quakers) across the UK were to establish environmental social action centres in four local areas, seeking funding to promote sustainable living and environmental campaigning across barriers – would such a programme, if well managed, merit support?

The answer to this question relies on the willingness of government to prioritise investment in catalysing the Big Society. Perhaps more fundamentally, the answer relies on coalition ministers more clearly articulating what a ‘Christian country’ is understood to mean and how it can accommodate the various strands of religious life in Britain. Professor Paul Weller has described the religious landscape in Britain today as ‘three dimensional’, by which he means simultaneously Christian, secular, and religiously plural.[18] In holding this balance together, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the first Muslim to serve in a British Cabinet, can be a real asset to the coalition and it would be unfortunate for government to be hesitant in deploying this ‘secret weapon’.[19] Indeed, Muslims are not outliers but allies with other faith actors in supporting a religious presence in governance and public life. If the Christian heritage of Britain can be successfully pluralised to incorporate minority faiths in a meaningful way, the government will find many willing allies for continued establishment and for the contribution of faith to public life.

Daniel Nilsson DeHanas is Research Fellow at the University of Kent. Until 2012 he was Research Associate on the Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance project. His sociology research has focused on post-migration religion and politics.

Therese O’Toole is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Bristol and is Principal Investigator on the Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance project. Her academic work has focused on ethnic minority political engagement and participatory governance focused on ethnic minority political engagement and participatory governance.

Nasar Meer is Reader in Social Sciences and Co-Director of the Centre for Civil Society and Citizenship at Northumbria University. His work focuses on the relationships between minority identities and citizenship regimes in Britain and the EU.

Tariq Modood is Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy at the University of Bristol, founding Director of the university’s Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship and founding editor of the journal Ethnicities.

Stephen H. Jones is Research Assistant in the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol and one of the editors of Public Spirit. He is a sociologist of religion specialising in Muslims and Islam in Britain.

[1] David Cameron. ‘Prime Minister’s King James Bible Speech.’ 16/12/2011.

[2] The message that the coalition ‘does God’ has been conveyed by minister Baroness Warsi in multiple statements and has been reiterated by communities minister Eric Pickles: ‘Alastair Campbell declared ‘we don’t do God.’ By contrast, I think this government does.’ Eric Pickles. ‘A Christian Ethos Strengthens Our Nation.’ The Telegraph. 12/9/2012.

[3] David Cameron. ‘Prime Minister’s King James Bible Speech.’ 16/12/2011.

[4] Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. ‘Militant Secularism Speech.’ 13/2/2012.

[5] BBC News. ‘Councils Win Prayer ‘Rights’ as Localism Act Powers Fast Tracked, Ministers Say.’ 18/2/2012. Available online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-17082136.

[6] Eric Pickles (2013) ‘Uniting our communities: integration in 2013’, speech delivered to Policy Exchange and British Future event, 15/1/2013, available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/uniting-our-communities-integration-in-2013.

[7] See Michael Nazir-Ali (2012) Triple Jeopardy for the West: Aggressive Secularism, Radical Islamism and Multiculturalism. London: Bloomsbury Continuum.

[8] Andrew Stunell is a Liberal Democrat MP. During David Cameron’s reshuffle, he stepped down from his ministerial role at the Department of Communities and Local Government.

[9] For more information on Near Neighbours and the specific areas in which it is operating, see the programme website: http://www.cuf.org.uk/near-neighbours.

[10] Interview with Guy Wilkinson, 9/2/2012.

[11] Our research study Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance is based at the University of Bristol and was funded by the AHRC/ESRC Religion & Society Programme from July 2010 to January 2013. This article builds on two of our published pieces that analyse Near Neighbours and British government approaches to faith and public policy in greater detail. See our final report, Taking Part: Muslim Participation in British Government, Policymaking and Governance (available online at http://bit.ly/takingpart) and see DeHanas, Daniel Nilsson, Therese O’Toole and Nasar Meer, 2013, ‘Faith and Muslims in Public Policy’ in Daniel Singleton (ed.) Faith with Its Sleeves Rolled Up, London: FaithAction.

[12] Interview with Abdul-Rehman Malik, 30/11/2011.

[13] Interview with Ataullah Siddiqui, 23/11/2011.

[14] Interview with Maqsood Ahmed, 3/4/2012.

[15] Interview with Ibrahim Mogra, 16/1/2012.

[16] Tariq Modood, ed. (1997) Church, State and religious minorities. Vol. 845 (London: Policy Studies Institute)

[17] Abdal Hakim Murad, 2013, Can Liberalism Tolerate Islam? Available at:


[18] Paul Weller (2005) Time for a Change: Reconfiguring Religion, State and Society. London: T&T Clark.

[19] Mehdi Hasan. ‘Not a Dull Grey Man in a Suit.’ The New Statesman. 3 April 2012.  While Sadiq Khan MP became the first Muslim to attend cabinet, as a minister for transport, he was not a member of the cabinet. Sayeeda Warsi served as Co-Chair of the Conservative Party from May 2010-September 2012 and member of David Cameron’s cabinet.

One Response to “A place for Muslims in a ‘Christian country’?”

  1. Allan Hayes

    The following quotations from two leading Muslims in the above article alarmed me:
    “If the Church of England falls, God help us, what’s going to happen to the Muslims and Hindus and everybody else?”
    “If Europe defines itself constitutionally, as I believe it should, as either an essentially Christian entity, or as one which is at least founded in belief in God, then the fact of Muslim support for core principles of Christian ethics will give Islam a vital and appreciated place”
    And even more alarming was the view that an ‘alliance sacree’ between religious believers would be a good thing – just think.
    Policies based on such views could provoke the very effects feared.
    Both the local reality in Leicester and the whole history of the evolution of secular and religious views of society in this county indicate that such views are mistaken – our secular model is aimed at living well together, at guaranteeing freedoms. Please read the history of the struggle for these in the nineteenth century and earliea – we have done well. Let us cooperate in making it work.


Leave a Reply