He didn’t refer to the abstract values liberals love to promote such as ‘respect’ and ‘tolerance’ that are so vague as to be of limited value. Instead he clearly articulated historically rooted British values:
- the rule of law,
- freedom of speech,
- freedom of the press
- freedom of worship
He also insisted that these apply to all regardless of their race, sex, sexuality or faith i.e. in this county we have equality before the law and one law for all, not shari’a for some and British law for others.
This of course is not something new: these are historic British values because they have emerged over the centuries and become embedded in our institutions. In that sense they are deeply rooted. But too be honest, we have often lost sight of them.
One of the clearest examples of this in the last few decades has been the state promotion of a form of multiculturalism that failed to distinguish between the external layers of culture – what we eat, drink, wear, the type of music we listen to – and the deeper underlying values.
Within broad limits of decency and security, it shouldn’t matter two hoots to the government what you wear or what you eat or don’t eat. It should matter though if you want to see a ‘partial’ implementation of shari’a in the UK through shari’a courts.
The result has been that historic British values have too often been lost sight of and drowned out in a cacophony of contradictory noises.
In so far as they have been spoken of, it has too often been the abstract, generalised values promoted by liberals, such as ‘tolerance’ that are so vague that they are open to abuse, instead of specific values – such as equal treatment by all before the law and freedom of speech – that have been deeply rooted in our history.
Consequently young people, and Muslims in particular, have too often been put in the unenviable position of being told to subscribe to British values, without being clearly told what those values actually are.
But it wasn’t always so. The Left hates the idea of the British Empire – and in truth as with any institution there was both good and bad about it.
However, in the Nineteenth Century Britain believed it has a moral purpose in the world and that purpose was to spread the values of the English speaking peoples, those values the Prime Minister spoke about – democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and so forth.
And they did… and funnily enough, despite what the liberal-left claim, you will actually find groups of Indian and Pakistani academics who are very happy to say this today.
Even more significantly, the planting of the values of the English speaking world in the soil of the subcontinent actually led to the growth of a stream of Islam that was not only peaceful, but specifically embraced these values.
In 1857 the failure of what in Britain is generally called the ‘Indian Mutiny’, but in the subcontinent is known as ‘the first Indian war of independence’, led Indian Islamic leaders to abandon the idea of engaging in a military jihad against the British.
They concluded that God had punished them with foreign rule because of their unfaithfulness, and so consciously chose to adopt an entirely peaceful version of Islam that focused on inward spiritual devotion.
That is why several generations of British Muslims have grown up with the strong belief that Islam is a religion of peace.
Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, who in 1877 founded Anglo Oriental College which later became the University of Aligarh, actively developed this by articulating what was in effect an Anglophile Islam i.e. Islamic belief and practice that was based on accepting English values.
He aimed to create at Aligarh a college where the best in western thought could be taught alongside traditional Islamic learning, in an institution that resembled Cambridge University.
He was not a liberal, and still believed in the supernatural. However, he argued that a fundamental distinction had to be made between the details of what the Qur’an said (furu’) and the general principles underlying them (usul).
This allowed him to reject the seemingly literal interpretations of the Qur’an that had become fixed in medieval times – and argue that such things as polygamy and slavery should now be forbidden.
He also argued that so long as Muslims were guaranteed the right to freely worship and perform their religious duties, it would be wrong to fight against the British, even though they were a colonial power.
Similar arguments were also made by a Shi’a Muslim, Sayyid Amir Ali, in his 1891 book The Spirit of Islam, which attempted to interpret the Qur’an to make it compatible with values such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
Central to such Anglophile interpretations of Islam is the understanding that whilst events such as military jihad took place in early Islam, these do not have any enduring significance as a pattern to be emulated today.
By 1947 when India and Pakistan achieved independence there seems to have been a relatively widespread acceptance among educated Muslims in the subcontinent of the historic values of the English speaking peoples.
In fact, a disproportionately large number of Indian Muslims fought in the Second World War to defend those values, with Muslims making up 37 per cent of the Indian armed forces, whilst being only 24 per cent of the population.
It is this legacy of widespread acceptance of, and active promotion of historic British values that the government now needs to recover, engage with and promote.
The Prime Minister is absolutely right to make historic British values central to the fight against extremism. We must now clearly articulate them and also celebrate the achievements of Muslims who have actively promoted them and in some cases died for them.