London's 'Ramadan Lights' are a way of celebrating religious diversity

The Church of England, for one, respects the existence of the country’s other faiths, which is how it should be

Lights celebrating Ramadan in the West End of London, on March 23. EPA
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Ramadan, for Muslims in majority-Muslim societies, is a time when families spend more time strengthening their bonds over the breaking of the fast; a time when communities draw together in charitable endeavours, when gatherings bring people together in prayers and when religion is responsible for unity rather than division. But Muslim minorities also have significant public representation for their communities. Humza Yousaf, who publicly identifies as a practising Muslim and is fasting for Ramadan, on Monday won the race to become leader of the Scottish National Party – and the first Muslim leader of a major western political party. In minority Muslim contexts, there are unique elements to Ramadan that bring about wider peace, but also mark specific challenges.

In the UK this year, the city of London sees "Ramadan Lights"; project that brings Ramadan celebrations to the heart of the nation’s capital, with festivities and decorations that recognise Muslim British communities. The UK is a multi-faith country, with a special and protected role for the Anglican church. The king is at once the head of state, sitting at the top of our country’s political authoritative structures, and also the supreme head of the Church of England. The bishops sit in the House of Lords, and play a role in legislative moves that decide the country's legal and political reality.

But the Church of England has made the conscious decision to respect the existence of the country’s other faiths, and this is mirrored in other churches. The Church of Scotland; the Church in Wales; the Church of Scotland; the Church of Ireland; these are all sister churches in the Anglican communion, and to varying degrees they all recognise the contributions of other faiths in the UK. It is why, for example, that on the occasion of Ramadan, the Archbishop of Canterbury sent greetings to Muslim Britons, and why he mentions the likes of the "Ramadan Tent" enterprise, that brings together Britons of all faiths – and even those who don't follow a faith – to partake in the spirit of Ramadan.

But it also asks questions of the wider society. For years, Muslim Britons have been used to the prime minister, for example, sending greetings on Ramadan. This year, Rishi Sunak issued no greeting of his own, although he retweeted one. Other lower-level governmental officials, however, did send out greetings. Far more disturbing is the negative reaction of some on the conservative right-wing of the British political spectrum, on channels such as "GB News", to the Mayor of London’s decision to have the "Ramadan Lights", and the archbishop’s greetings. It seems that some of the country’s influencers view the expression of such openness as evidence that the UK is "losing its way", and an opportunity to issue alarmist declarations.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan during an open Iftar, organised by the Ramadan Tent Project, to bring together people from all communities to share an Iftar at Trafalgar Square, in London, on April 29, 2022. PA Wire

We see those kinds of tensions in other places as well. This year, US President Joe Biden will host the annual "White House Iftar Dinner", where his government will celebrate the contributions of Muslim Americans in their country, which has been the tradition of the White House for almost three decades. Former US Presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush did so, as did Barack Obama during his presidency. But there was also a blip; in 2017, Donald Trump broke that tradition by not holding an iftar at the White House. He opted to return to the tradition in 2018 and 2019, although on both occasions the dinner was criticised for being generally limited to Muslim members of government, and foreign diplomats, rather than focusing on members of the wider Muslim-American community. At a time when policies like the "Muslim Ban" were being pushed by Mr Trump’s administration, it was unsurprising that tensions ran high.

But trends are interesting to watch. Memes over what Muslims as minorities have to answer about Ramadan, including the famous, “Yes, even water!”, abound on social media – but in a humorous fashion, as Muslims in minority situations comfortably explain one of their most sacred religious pillars to others outside of the faith.

As mentioned, Mr Yousaf has become the leader of the Scottish National Party, which now ensures he will become First Minister of Scotland. In Singapore, there is a Muslim president in a majority non-Muslim society. London has a mayor who is proudly Muslim, and does not shy away from identifying as such. South African Muslims are deeply embedded in the mainstream in numerous ways. And King Charles is appreciative of the role of Islam and the lessons it can teach the wider UK. At the same time, different communities in Europe and elsewhere in the West are concerned about the mainstreaming of Islamophobic tropes, which continue to widen and deepen.

In this time of respect for different types of diversity, it is interesting to see how minority religions fare. Ramadan offers a chance to see some countries do that job well, and also, how some could do a lot better.

Published: March 28, 2023, 4:00 AM