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‘We need to ask ourselves what it means to integrate’

Shazia Akhtar, 27, is a hospital pharmacist living in east London, and is a member of Hizb ut Tahrir, the Islamic Liberation party

Tuesday November 30, 2004

I wouldn’t refer to my identity as a British Muslim identity. It might sound like a semantic difference – but to me, it’s a Muslim community living in Britain. I would say that the community’s identity is Islamic, whilst they are also British citizens.

We need to ask ourselves what it means to integrate. There are often just two options presented to Muslims: there is total integration into society, or there is isolation, and that Muslims need to choose one of these. I don’t hold either of these views. I grew up feeling that the values I was adopting were overtly western, and that Islam was somehow being left behind.

I think there should be a third option, whereby we are interactive in society, whilst retaining the values of Islam. Muslims living here have certain social responsibilities. For example, working with Muslim colleagues, Islam requires me to speak to them about any concerns they have about Islam, or about any political issues that arise – for example, elections, or the war on terror – and I think it is important to initiate intellectual discourse, rather than just making these values redundant by willingly accepting western values.

As someone who wasn’t covering [my head] in my teens, but is now, I think that wherever you may be, you adhere to Islam. If I lived in France, where [the hijab has] been banned, without a doubt I would still cover. If the government wants to make provisions, that’s fine, but it doesn’t affect my Islamic obligations. In countries like Turkey or France, you see that many girls have opted not to go to school or college, rather than go uncovered – it’s an aspect of their identity that they’re not willing to leave behind.

I believe that where the Muslim communities living in Britain go from now over the next few years greatly impacts on the Muslim world. I think that the Muslim community is linked, regardless of location. How it practices Islam here, how it retains its identity, how we speak out about things like the peace process in the Middle East, the invasion of Iraq – it means that those in the Muslim world will not automatically accept the western culture and values being imposed on them.

With the demise of communism, the world seems to be geared in one direction, globalisation, which means leaning more and more towards capitalism. Is it the case that this is the only way to go? I am very optimistic that the Muslim community in Britain has a huge role in this global debate. We need to demonstrate that Islam can have political solutions, and I think this will only come about through intellectual debate.