His appeal was dubbed “divisive” political posturing to woo Muslim voters.
Forget faux iftar parties. If the London Mayor Boris Johnson had his way, non-Muslim Londoners would be discovering the real joys of Ramadan by observing fast — at least for a day — and, what’s more, breaking it at a local mosque with their Muslim neighbours and friends. This, he believes, would help them understand Islam better besides promoting community relations.
Sounding more like his multiculturalist Labour predecessor Ken Livingstone than an insular Tory, Mr. Johnson said on a visit to the East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre last week: “I urge people, particularly during Ramadan, to find out more about Islam... even fast for a day with your Muslim neighbour and break your fast at a local mosque. I would be very surprised if you didn’t find that you share more in common [with Muslims] than you thought.”
But if Mr. Johnson thought he would be cheered for his remarks, he must have been disappointed. First to spoil the party was The Times which carried the report of his speech with a picture of his holding a glass of beer. And the caption read: “Johnson: abstinence can aid understanding.” The mayor must have winced being shown guzzling beer while preaching the virtues of fasting when the truth (as pictures in other newspapers confirmed) was that he was really stone sober when he made those remarks.
Even without that picture, however, his fast-a-day appeal was met mostly with bemusement leaving only his hosts to applaud him. Critics said that while Iftar parties and Eid celebrations by non-Muslims served to highlight London’s cultural and religious diversity it made no sense to ask them to fast.
“Even as a vote-catching gambit, it’s laying it on a bit too thick,” one man said.
The National Secular Society dismissed Mr. Johnson’s appeal as “silly” and “divisive” political posturing to woo Muslim voters in a traditionally Labour stronghold.
“This message obviously seeks to flatter Muslim voters, but that does not make it any less of a silly overstatement. We can all get on together — Christians, Hindus, Muslims and atheists. But the moment religion becomes a political tool, it takes on sinister overtones,” Terry Sanderson, president of the Society said.
Critics found the venue of Mr. Johnson’s speech significant: it had been the scene of a walk-out by a government minister, Jim Fitzpatrick, recently protesting against gender segregation at a Muslim constituent’s wedding. So, were his remarks aimed at exploiting Muslim anger with the Labour Party?
The right-wing English Democrats party accused Mr. Johnson of trying to destroy Britain’s “indigenous culture” by seeking to promote Islam.
“Of course, as an open and tolerant society, if people want to practise other religions, then good luck to them. But the state should not be funding them because otherwise we will lose our culture,” party leader Steve Uncles said.
Mr. Johnson’s intervention sparked excited chatter on the net with most netizens opposing his idea. One blogger pointed out that instead of urging people to “pretend” to fast” a better way to promote understanding of Islam was to ask people to read the Quran.
Larrey Johnson, who described himself as a student of comparative religion, wrote: “I just saw that the Mayor of London has recommended that non-Muslims take the opportunity of the month of Ramadan to fast, along with their Muslim neighbours, in order to promote ‘understanding between cultures.’ Here’s a better idea… Instead of fasting … go out and buy or borrow or even look up the Koran on the Internet. Read the book. Discover for yourself….Find out what Muslims really believe.”
Meanwhile, it is not clear whether Mr. Johnson was speaking off his own bat or simply echoing the official guidelines of Home Office Islamic Network on how non-Muslims should conduct themselves during Ramadan in order to “gain some knowledge and insight into the Muslim faith.”
The Network advises them to consider having a “a go at fasting for a day… [to] increase understanding and empathy for colleagues who are fasting.” And if they find this too challenging they should be “sensitive” when eating lunch near a Muslim colleague who is fasting.
Public sector organisations across the country have introduced similar guidelines ahead of a new proposed Equality Bill which would extend the notion of equality to include religious beliefs. Under the Bill, public sector bodies will be expected to monitor their employees’ beliefs to help promote religious equality at work, in the same way that they monitor race, gender and disabilities.
“At the moment we don’t monitor by religion. It is going to be requirement in 2011, and that then gets more difficult if we don’t prepare well in advance now,” the head of one public sector organisation said.
According to Rachel Krys, campaign director of Employers’ Forum on Belief, which seeks to promote religious equality at work, what is important is to show sensitivity towards people of another faith.
“Something as simple as not having biscuits at a team meeting would demonstrate sensitivity to what your Muslim colleagues are doing,” she said.
Some employers allow fasting Muslim staff “flexi-time” during Ramadan.
Not surprisingly, right-wing groups — including sections of the media — have attacked what they see as “appeasement” of Muslims.