“Salaam Aleikum, campers.” Everyone joked that the man running the information centre at the Living Islam festival certainly liked using his tannoy system. My interview with British Muslim TV, complete with a backdrop across Lincolnshire Showground, was interrupted by several announcements urging participants to explore anything from the bustling and eclectic bazaar to “how not to be ashamed of your body during sex”.
The Islamic Society of Britain organises the event, which is essentially the Muslim version of Limmud. It aims to carve a path for an Islam as British as the rapidly transitioning weather that tested participants’ camping skills to their limits.
The ultimate question of the weekend was “what should British Islam look like?”
We were, according to the organisers, the only non-Muslims to stay for the whole event. We benefited hugely from being part of it, and not just as guests. We were able to see at first-hand differences and similarities between our communities.
It also highlighted the challenges we both face. In the open spirit of Living Islam, it may be time for us to ask ourselves some difficult questions if we want to thaw our relationship with our Muslim cousins.
What would we like the Muslim community in Britain to be like? Do we see Muslims as partners, a minority with many similarities to ourselves? Do the numbers – 10 for every one Jew – leave us to be perpetually intimidated?
Is the elephant in the room – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – an insurmountable barrier to building profound relationships, or to improving our views of one another?
The 3,000 delegates at Living Islam are tackling equally challenging issues among themselves.
I spoke on a panel discussing reform of Islam. It was an honest and brave conversation to have, and I was surprised it happened at all. The room was heaving. I realised we would be discussing familiar struggles.
The chair of the panel, the wonderful Naved Siddiqi, went straight for one of the key issues we would be discussing. He told the story of a religious family member, a young adult, who recently came out as gay. How do we reconcile these facts of life with our faith and its teachings, asked the Muslim members of the panel? How do we ensure we are not just picking and choosing what suits us?
There is another huge challenge that modern Muslims face, which I now appreciate.
I contributed to another panel – “are our institutions failing us?”
We focused on the view that Muslim institutions and individuals don’t stand up effectively for their causes. I posed the question “why?”
Two responses came back. The first is a humbleness, an instinct that standing out from the crowd is arrogant, something to be frowned upon.
The second, that later became clear at a talk featuring former chair of the Conservative Party, Sayeeda Warsi, was fear of “entryism”, whereby Muslims are accused of holding sinister motives when they promote their own causes.
It’s a tough climate, one that made this particular event even more remarkable.
Inevitably, I was reminded of the task we have in both communities to talk about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. At Living Islam, I saw many T-shirts supporting a “free Palestine”.
We were shown video charity appeals, calling for donations to help children “rebuild their lives”. This is the other side of conflict in the Middle East that we rarely see from our standpoint in the Jewish community.
Living Islam gave me a precious insight into the struggles taking place within parts of the Muslim communities in this country.
One of those tensions – Britishness and Islam – gave us some surreal moments, not least the Royal Marines band’s spectacular festival-closing drum march.
This struggle also provided touching moments, with tributes made to the late MP Jo Cox, murdered outside her constituency surgery last month, who was awarded a lifetime achievement award for her contribution to interfaith understanding.
A mural was produced during the days of the festival, inscribed with Jo’s mantra, that “we have far more in common than that which divides us”.
Being part of Living Islam demonstrated that in no other context is this message more accurate and more urgent than in relations between Jewish and Muslim communities in Britain.