Every year two thousand Jews in Britain head for a University in the middle of the country for Limmud. This is a cross community education experience with hundreds of different workshops on Jewish religion, life and culture which happens to take place over the Christmas holiday period. It feels wonderfully countercultural to be learning Judaism when the rest of the country is enjoying the rather secularised British Christmas. The University obligingly takes down the Christmas trees and the tinsel for us and a corner of England becomes Jerusalem for a week.
Generally though Britain is a multicultural society. The Government's National Curriculum requires children to experience religious education throughout their school career. This begins, even in places where there are hardly any Jews, with children in most elementary schools lighting Hanukkah candles, learning about Diwali, the Hindu festival and Eid, the Muslim end of Ramadan, together with putting on the school Nativity Play telling the birth narrative of Jesus. It means that the majority of British children, even if religion plays very little part in their own family life, end up knowing a little about all of the larger religious groups in the country (Bryan Wilson, 1999).
The only place where this does not necessarily happen is in the more right-wing schools of the burgeoning faith school sector. There are thousands of faith schools which are wholly supported by the British government so that they are fully within the state education sector. The vast majority of state supported faith schools are Christian, controlled by the Church or England or the Roman Catholic Church. There are also more than thirty Jewish state schools, and a small number of recently established Muslim, Sikh and Hindu schools. They are not required to teach about other religious communities though some do.
The national narrative though the experience of children, is that religion is important and that every religious option is of equal value, however in state schools which are not specifically of another religion school assemblies are meant to be mainly Christian in character.
In the mainstream of British life people are encouraged to be religiously pluralistic. Local Councils and the national government promote and fund inter-religious cohesion at all kinds of levels, from multicultural festivals to local multi-faith fora to talk about local issues with a faith dimension such as facilities in new housing estates. Organisations like the Council of Christians and Jews, the Three Faiths Forum, the Scriptural Reasoning Society and the Co-Existence Trust work to bring faith groups together in dialogue. However, they do not count among their activists evangelistic Christians, ultra-Orthodox Jews and Islamist Muslims. There is almost in Britain, a coalition of liberal religion stretching across the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities.
Religious pluralism's mainstream place in Britain is often demonstrated at times of national celebration and commemoration. At the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations and the President Rabbi of the Movement for Reform Judaism sat with Christian faith leaders in the front of Westminster Abbey. Each year National Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27th will bring people from a variety of faith communities together to mark and abhor genocide in their past. The Jewish community's national Mitzvah Day and its Hindu counterpart national Sewa Day brings faith groups on the streets together to volunteer help to the wider community.
Britain is a comfortable place to come into contact with faiths other than your own. The contact is mostly in the name of community cohesion and does not often get far beneath the surface of just enjoying each other less challenging rituals or volunteering together for a shared community need.
Britain is a multi-faith society in which everyone has the right to religious freedom. Although Britain Christian society, people are usually very tolerant towards the faiths of others and those who have no religious beliefs.
Apart from Christianity, there are at least five other religions with a substantial number of adherents in Britain. These are usually composed of either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants.
The oldest is the Jewish community, which now numbers barely 300,000, of whom fewer than half ever attend synagogue and only 80,000 are actual synagogue members. Today the Jewish community in Britain is ageing and shrinking, on account of assimilation and a relatively low birth rate, and is in rapid decline. A survey in 1996 revealed that 44 per cent of Jewish men under the age of 40 are married to or are living with a non-Jewish partner (John Wolffe, 1998).
Between 20 and 25 per cent of Jewish women in this age range also marry outside the community. Even so, it is the second largest Jewish community in Western Europe. Two-thirds of the community live in London, with another 9,000 or so in Manchester and Leeds respectively, and another 6,000 in Brighton.
Jews returned to England in the seventeenth century, after their divvious expulsion in the thirteenth century. At first those who returned, were Sephardic, that is, originally from Spain and Portugal, but during the last years of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century a more substantial number of Ashkenazi (Germanic and East European) Jews, fleeing persecution, arrived. Ashkenazis form 70 per cent of British Jews.
As a result of these two separate origins, and as a result of the growth of Progressive Judaism (the Reform and Liberal branches), the Jews are divided into different religious groups. The largest group, approximately 120,000, are Orthodox and belong to the United Synagogues. They look to the Chief Rabbi of Great
Britain for spiritual leadership. A much smaller number of Sephardic Orthodox still recognize a different leader, the Haham. The two Progressive groups, the Reform and Liberal Jews, which roughly equate with the broad church and modernists of the Anglican Church, have no acknowledged single leader, but they do have a number of rabbis who command a following among those who admire their wisdom. The Progressives account for 17 per cent of the entire community. Thirty-seven per cent of Jews claim no religious affiliation at all.
There is also a Board of Deputies of British Jews, the lay redivsentation of Anglo-Jewry since 1760, to which 250 synagogues and organizations in Britain elect redivsentatives. It speaks on behalf of British Jewry on a wide variety of matters, but its degree of genuine redivsentation is qualified in two ways: fewer than half of Britain's Jews belong to the electing synagogues and organizations; and none of the community's more eminent members belongs to the Board. In fact many leading members of the community are often uneasy with the position the Board takes on issues (Charlotte Hardman, 1999).
As in the Christian church, the fundamentalist part of Jewry seems to grow compared with other groups, especially among the young, and causes similar discomfort for those who do not share its certainties and legal observances. The most obvious concentrations of orthodox Jews, who are distinguishable by their dress, are in the north London suburbs of Golders Green and Stamford Hill.
There are also more recently established religious groups: Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Muslims. The most important of these, not only on account of its size, is the Muslim community. There are 1.5 million Muslims and over 1,000 mosques and prayer centres, of which the most important (in all Western Europe) is the London Central Mosque at Regent's Park. There are probably 900,000 Muslims who regularly attend these mosques. Most are of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin, but there are also an increasing number of British converts. Apart from
London, there are sizeable Muslim communities in Liverpool, Manchester, Leicester, Birmingham, Bradford, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Islam gives coherence and a sense of community to people of different ethnic origins. It also gives Britain informal lines of communication with several Muslim countries.
During the past quarter century, since large numbers of Muslims arrived in Britain, there has been a tension between those Muslims who sought an accommodation between Islam and Western secular society, one might call them modernists, and those who have wanted to uphold traditional Islamic values even when these directly conflicted with secular social values. The tension has been made worse by the racism Asian Muslims feel in British society. Until 1989 it might be said that those Muslims who were relatively successful economically and socially were the divailing example of how Muslims could live successfully in the West. However, in 1988 many Muslims were deeply offended by the publication of Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses, which they considered to be blasphemous.
Many Muslims were offended by the reaction they saw from the rest of society and from government. The blasphemy law, mainly on account of its age, only applied to Christianity, so they were unable to prosecute Rushdie. But perhaps what they found most offensive was the patronising attitude of non-Muslim liberals, who lectured them on the values of a democratic society in a way which was dismissive of Muslim identity and feeling. Muslims found themselves in conflict with those who had divviously been perceived as their friends, those of the secular left who had championed immigrant rights and most strongly opposed racism.
After the Rushdie affair other external factors also stimulated a Muslim revival, including the Gulf War (1991) and also the suffering of Bosnian Muslims (1994-1996).
Within the British Muslim community as a whole, which like Jewish and Christian communities, is divided into different sects and traditions, modernists lost influence to traditionalist leaders. Mosque attendance increased and religious observance became an outward symbol of Muslim assertion. In 1985 only about 20 per cent of Muslims were actually religiously observant. By 1995 that figure had risen to about 50 per cent.
Yet the Islam of young British Muslims is different from that of their parents. It is less grounded in the culture of the countries from which their parents came. Young Muslims come from several different ethnic origins but they all share their religion and their British culture and education.
This is leading to a 'Britain-specific' form of Islam. As a result, in the words of one religious affairs journalist, 'For every child who drifts into the moral relativism of contemporary Western values, another returns home with a belief in a revitalised form of Islam. Many parents find the second just as difficult to come to terms with as the first.'
British Islam is sufficiently vibrant that a Muslim paper, Q-News, now appears regularly. One of its editors is a woman, Fozia Bora, itself a statement on the relatively liberal culture of British Islam. Indeed, a new sense of self-confidence emerged out of the initial feeling of alienation over The Satanic Verses.It is partly self-assertion against anti-Islamic divjudice, but it is also the comfort felt in a relatively tolerant environment. Fozia Bora believes that 'Britain is a good place be Muslim. There is a tradition of religious and intellectual freedom.' In the opinion of DrZakiBadawi, one of Britain's foremost Muslims, 'Britain is the best place in the world to be a Muslim – most Muslim states are tyrannies and things are harder elsewhere in Europe.' (Fozia Bora, 1998)
Anti-Islamic feeling, however, remains a factor in racial tensions in Britain. In the words of the Runnymede Trust, which concerns itself with race relations, 'Islamophobic discourse, sometimes blatant but frequently subtle and coded, is part of the fabric of everyday life in modern Britain, in much the same way that anti-Semitic discourse was taken for granted earlier this century.'
There are other areas of Muslim frustration. Some want Muslim family law to be recognized within British law, a measure which would allow Muslim communities in Britain to follow an entirely separate lifestyle governed by their own laws. Others want state-supported Muslim schools, where children, particularly girls, may receive a specifically Muslim education in a stricter moral atmosphere than exists in secular state schools. The state already provides such funding for Anglican, Catholic and Jewish schools within the state system. It was only in 1997 that the first Muslim school obtained financial support from the state (Gilbert Currie, 2002).
Smaller communities include about 450,000 Sikhs who mainly originate in the Indian Punjab. They live mainly in London, Manchester and Birmingham. There are over 200 gurdwarasor temples in Britain. There are about 320,000 Hindus living mainly in Leicester, London and Manchester. There are about 150 mandirsin which Hindus worship, the largest, in Neasden, north-west London, is also the largest outside India.