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Last Updated: Friday, 7 July 2006, 13:28 GMT 14:28 UK
Britain, let's talk, say Muslims
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News community affairs reporter

Image copyright Mazzy Malik, see internet links
Union Flag, Islamic calligraphy style.
The organisers insist it is a coincidence, but the fact that IslamExpo fell on the first anniversary of the London bombings was the powerful symbol British Muslims needed to say very publicly what they stand for.

The 1.8m show at London's Alexandra Palace could have been just another event where Muslims talks to Muslims about being Muslim.

But instead the organisers found a simple formula of exhibitions, market stalls, and robust debate that very successfully managed to bring in a healthy proportion of white, non-Muslim people and, critically, create some dialogue.

And so, while the two-minute silence came and went, and Britain reflected on how we find, in simplest terms, a way to all get on, the many different people at IslamExpo just got on with it.

For Ihtisham Hibatullah, co-ordinator of the massive enterprise, this was what it was all about.

Taking his guests through the entrance hall of a Bedouin-style tent, and a very lavish interactive history of Islam, he said the show's mission was to give confidence to Britain's Muslim communities.

Black in the Union Jack

Stopping at a gallery of work by British Muslim artists, he said the images were a perfect way of understanding the reality of the modern world.

Intissar Khreeji
Intissar Khreeji: "Overcome the actions of bombers"
"Islam is not just part of the East anymore," said Mr Hibatullah. "It began there, but is now very much part of Europe, part of Britain.

"Look at these pictures. Here is one of the Union Jack in the style of Islamic calligraphy. I don't think the flag is the trade mark of the British National Party anymore, is it?

"We are trying to give people a sense off Islamic history, of identity but, crucially, we are trying to provide means through which British Muslims can show how they have contributed to our society."

Among the thousands trooping through the doors of Ally Pally were an estimated 4,000 school children from all over the UK.

History comes alive

In the marquee of Exhibition Islam, a touring organisation that takes historic artefacts into schools, children of all backgrounds crowded around Imtiaz Alam as he showed them a 16th century Koran.

History lesson
History lessons: 16th century Koran
"It has been fantastic to be here and see the non-Muslim kids taking an interest," said Imtiaz, who has received invitations from American and Australian organisations.

"I am really glad that so many people have taken the time to listen and learn.

"Every time we do our show, and we must have taken it to 250,000 people by now, we find a good reception. People want to learn and understand and appreciate what Islam means to Muslims."

And this was key for the diverse audience. While the tough lectures and deep thinking went on in some of the marquees, the biggest attraction for the children were workshops with a lighter touch.

Khayaal Theatre Group was among those holding music and dance shows for the kids, drawing on traditional Islamic stories from around the Muslim world.

Luqman Ali, founder of Khayall, has long campaigned among Muslim communities for them to use the arts to both understand themselves and forge links with wider society.

"It is through story-telling and the universal values that they contain we can improve inter-cultural understanding and start dealing with issues like alienation, isolation and segregation," said Luqman.

"It's through stories that people and civilisations better understand each other, rather than through dogma and doctrine."

Luqman said however that he had mixed feelings a year on from the bombings.

"The consequences were not uniform - in some parts of society it's been a catalyst for much more dialogue and for individuals to bridge the gap of understanding.

"In other ways it has increased anxieties - I have times when I am optimistic and times when I am very pessimistic."

New generation

Intissar Khreeji-Ghannouchi shared Luqman Ali's mixed feelings, saying the past few years had been an "emotional rollercoaster".

A recent Cambridge law graduate, Intissar is representative of a new emerging generation of confident Muslim women determined to take on prejudices stereotypes.

Students
Enjoying the show: Students Laura, Lucie and Katie
"I think there is a lot of optimism created by this event - it shows how we can all overcome the actions of individuals [the bombers] who want to break the Muslim community away from the rest of society.

"We need to find ways of having a genuine dialogue with each other and I feel IslamExpo is a very important step. Look at what you have here today - you have an opportunity to properly introduce people to Muslim culture. The public perception is very negative but if we are open, we can combat it."

Intissar said that she had personally found it frustrating to sometimes explain to non-Muslims why she wears a headscarf.

"Then I started reminding myself that while it is a normal part of me, I should put myself in their shoes - they are curious and may not understand. I would be naturally curious about another culture and what it means.

"I think since 9/11 we [the British] have had to think more deeply about identity.

"This has been an invigorating experience but also one of urgency because Muslims now recognise that it is not enough to be passive."

And the pro-active stance taken by people such as Intissar was one that went down well with the non-Muslim visitors who had come to learn and talk.

South London A-level students Laura Burtonshaw, Lucie Robathan and Katie Carpenter were among the significant number of non-Muslim visitors.

They said they had been enormously enthused by the experience which had helped them understand the relationships between Islam and Christianity.

"We really think it has been brilliant," said Katie. "It is really what we all need to see and hear. I just can't get over how friendly everyone has been."

Laura said the trio had been studying the roots of religion at school but the show had given them a real opportunity to really understand the daily lived-in culture of Islam.

"The most important thing is that we find a way to learn and understand each other," she said.


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