Religion, law and the constitution

Balancing beliefs in Britain

How would you describe your religious or ideological identity?

I am a Muslim.

What made you to become a Muslim or what made you choose to remain in this tradition if this a tradition in which you grew up?

I grew up a Muslim. I went to mosque from a very young age and I think I came to a point in life in which you look around, and I think all the signs in the world are there for me to believe in God. Everything I see around me… there has to be a creator. I think Islam for me points me in the right direction, to remain faithful, that there is definitely a God. I try to go to mosque at least every Friday, but of course at times work and stuff make it difficult. 

Would you say that Great Britain is an equal and tolerant society, particularly in relation to religion and belief?

Yes, I would say so. It is quite tolerant. In schools, when we studied Religious Studies we made a point of studying all religions. I think there was a good equality in which what we studied from a young age.

Myself, as I went to mosque, I was always curious about God and other religions, but some people aren’t. I went to a state school. In state schools, therefore, there was an equal play field when it comes to religion… In terms of tolerance, at the moment, I think as times go on, people are becoming less tolerant, mainly because all the media stuff at the moment… but on the whole, I think England, by comparison with other countries, I am quite happy here, in terms of people respecting others’ values. 

How easy is it for you to live in accordance with your Muslim faith in England? Are there any challenges, and if there are, are they social, legal or political in nature?

I would say it is probably more social. The cultural values are going out and drinking… I am not the strictest Muslim… I drink every now and then. That is where I feel my faith is tested the most, but on the whole… politically I think it is fine. We all get to vote. It is not that ‘you are a Muslim, you can’t vote… and things like that…’ On the whole, the balance is right. 

How does Islam regard human rights? Do you think Islam has influenced the way human rights are understood in the world nowadays?

Yes, I think with Islam, a lot is open to interpretation. You are going to have people interpreting in different ways, but the way I see it with some of the teaching I have read about the Prophet… they always try to stress that women are not equal to men in Islam… but to me it is the opposite. The way it is designed is that men look after the women, but the women have a lot of power. However, for some reason, in the media all this gets mixed up and the media stresses that women are oppressed. For me, I see a lot of power in the women, but maybe this is my biased opinion as a Muslim. Lots of people tend to think that a woman with a headscarf is oppressed. From outside it could look that way, but if people paid attention, maybe asked questions, rather than prejudge… they might be surprised by what they find. 

Would you say that HRs which apply to everyone are a good or bad thing for British society?

I think they are a good thing. 

Are there any ways in which Islam has a practical influence on human rights in contemporary Britain? Do you know if Muslims are actively campaigning on any issues?

Yes, there is stuff which is going on in the Middle East, people are actively campaigning… trying to make their voices heard. A lot is peaceful protest. It takes a few idiots to mess it up, and the media then focuses on them. I think over Christmas there was so much help on the homeless… Me as a Muslim person, and my friends are Muslims, we are at that point in which we are trying to show the world that we are here to help… this is what is happening with the campaigns to help the homeless. Genuinely showing that we are good people. 

Would you say that generally speaking human rights are respected by the government and other public bodies in Great Britain?

I have to say yes, because if anything against human rights happen, people pick on it, and people stand for it. Maybe in other countries people can get away with it, but here, with social media, Facebook… if something goes wrong, people just come together. That would be wrong, and then public authorities would have to sort it out. 

Do you think that public authorities intervene too much or not enough in the lives of individuals and groups, both in general, and particularly in relation to religion and belief?

It is a tricky one. It is sort of 50/50 for me. I think they jump on the negative. For example, there was a guy on the plane the other day… he said that he was not comfortable with another passenger being on the plane, and then the pilot came, and the person was kicked out of the plane. The authorities did it and I thought ‘why?’ … If the passenger had a problem with this other person, they should have taken the passenger off the plane and not the other way around. That is why it gets confusing to me at the moment, as you could just say anything. I can’t quite work it out… I don’t know whether or not it is a good thing for authorities to intervene… 

When do you think public authorities must necessarily interfere with people expressing religious or ideological convictions through either actions or life style choices?

I think any time they harm anybody else, when people become violent… the whole thing about freedom of speech. Anybody is entitled to have an opinion, but when your opinion is more disruptive than constructive, is when I think the authorities can step in. It is a tricky one, because you don’t wanna see a situation in which you can’t say anything, but if you say too much… it is hard to find the balance between somebody having a heated debate, then turning it into an argument, that then escalates… From the authorities’ point of view, I can easily see how they cannot really know how to handle some situations. It is a tough situation. Without seemingly you are favouring somebody or you are being too hard… it is a very tricky one and I feel sorry for them! 

As an actor, what are your views between the ongoing tension between freedom of speech and the protection of religious feelings? Should there be limits?

I think there should be a level of respect. I think that people know when they draw a certain cartoon, people know the message which they are trying to spread with certain material… In the editing, etc, the media have a vision, and they know what they want to say, and drama sells, and the more people talk about it… if you create something controversial, there will be more media coverage, and people will be intrigued. People will wonder ‘what is there in that film? I wanna see’… So, selfishly, as a film maker, I could say ‘let’s produce a reaction, let’s see what happens, let’s make more money’, but then the respect (for me) means that I don’t want to offend people. Humans are always going to poke. For me, I think, there is room to respect one another. When things are done tastefully, it is fine… I have seen things in which physically you don’t have to burn the Koran, you can do something with powerful images… It doesn’t have to be done aggressively, people could read between the lines themselves and you could leave people to use their imagination. I think there is much more power in that. However, I think want to show it, rather than letting you imagine…

There should be limits… but if you put limits… in my view there is a moral compass, but if you decide to break it in order to claim… it is a tough one… I know I am changing, but I don’t think there should be limits to artistic expressions…

Oh dear… it is a tricky one. My heart tells me that there should be limits… If you are going to attack, people will attack back. My head, however, as an actor and a film maker, tells me something different. I could respect someone’s imagination… It is a very thought-provoking question, Javier, with the whole freedom of speech in Paris, etc, I have to say that all the controversy with the cartoons, as a Muslim, it does not affect me, because I know that my faith is much bigger than a cartoon, but then you are going to get people who are maybe angry at the world, you give them an excuse, a reason to fight… Those things give negative powers to those extremists. 

Do you think that living in a parliamentary democratic society makes it harder or easier for you to live in accordance with your Muslim faith? Are there any other forms of government which you would consider preferable to a democracy?

No. I have only ever lived in a democratic society. So, I couldn’t picture it any other way. Living in a democratic society, we can learn from each other as well. I have learnt so much from my Jewish and Christian friends. Sometimes you don’t learn from the textbooks, and I think that only by living in a democratic society we grow as human beings together. 

Given that we live in a democratic society, does your Muslim faith mean that you feel that you have a personal responsibility to vote?

Only recently… Before I was quite ignorant about Politics, but over time, particularly in the last elections, I became more interested. I realised how powerful my voice was… I had to vote, because that was my voice. I have friends who talk and talk, and they don’t vote… they talk about David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn, and then I ask them… ‘what are you going to do? Are you going to vote?’ and no, they don’t… I think you have to vote. 

Do you think that it is problematic that members of the House of Lords are not elected directly by the citizens?

Yes, I think it is problematic. It seems to me like a little secret party. I think our representatives should be elected by us. The way it looks at the moment seems… if you go to Eton and my daddy plays golf in this place… you can get in there. That segregation, that is when the class systems comes into play. That worries me a bit. 

Do you think that public authorities try to respect the will of people through decisions made by Parliament?

In this country I have never had a problem with the law. Maybe British people are straight to the line. I have seen levels of corruption in other countries, which would never happen here. I think public authorities here uphold the law. 

What does Islam teach you about people with power? How should they be held accountable? By human beings or is it a matter for God? What does Islam have to teach wider society?

The main thing with Islam is, yes, we shall be judged by God, especially if you are put in a position of power, and then you have the opportunity to help the world, I think God will judge you for that. If you use it exclusively to gain for yourself, all these tax scandals, hiding money here, etc, I believe that God will judge you for that. For myself, that gives me peace… knowing that God sees everything. I also think that people should be judged by other human beings, when they get caught out. They should also be held accountable here. 

Do you think that Muslims are proportionately and appropriately represented in terms of members of Parliament, local authorities, the judiciary, etc?

Probably no, but I see more and more Muslim people like MPs, etc. Still not a big number, but I see more and more people, on Newsnight, etc… that inspires me, that gives me hope, because when I was a kid they were not there. You thought that you could never a politician, because there were not Muslims there, but now I feel that this may inspire my nephew, my niece, to become politicians… when they see Muslim politicians on TV. 

Do you think that the values and insights of Muslims can contribute to the wider British population?

Most definitely. It is part of Islam to be charitable, to acknowledge God and pray, to be very helpful… There is so much misinterpretation about Islam… how strict it is… but nobody see it is very helpful. That love to your neighbours, it is not just a Christian thing, it is also a Muslim thing. The peaceful aspect of Islam is beautiful. When people talk and communicate… there is nothing more satisfying to me than when people ask me about Islam and me telling them about my faith. It is not all gloomy. That is what people see… ‘you pray 5 times a day?’… It is your relationship with God and people misinterpret it.

It has come to a point where human beings have evolved so much, that the only way people are going to believe in God is if God comes down right here. That makes me a bit sad, because that is the ignorance in a way, but I can live with that, because there are so many signs in this world that show me that God exists. It is like anything… I see the human body… the way I see it, there must be a creator of this… 

Do you think in Great Britain there is enough distance between politicians and judges? Are our judges sufficiently independent, or are they too closely linked to politicians?

I would like to say that they are not, but there is something in me which tells me that they are too close. History seems to be repeating itself… the same families, even one side here, one side there, they know each other from schools, private education and so on. I don’t want to call them secret societies, but it feels like that. They sit around their own private tables and they work out how they are going to stay that way. Your great great great grandfather… even though I can’t see it, that is where my imagination goes, this is the power… the top 1% so to speak. 

How do Muslims in Britain help to challenge decisions which you perceive as problematic either for yourselves or for society as a whole?

There is a part of me, as there is so much going on for the Muslims… I think we don’t do enough, because we don’t want to rub it in. People keep talking about sharia law, but that is as far from the truth as possible. As soon as a Muslim wants to help, then people say ‘ah, sharia law’. Then I sit back. Let whatever happen… let them deal with it. We already get too many problems, we don’t need more. So, we just take a back seat. Whatever happens, happens. Otherwise, it would be regarded as provocative and that we are trying to convert the world. Where does all this stuff about Sharia Law come from??? 

Do you think that public authorities have a proper understanding of the needs of Muslim people?

I don’t think faith plays a role at all. Maybe in the NHS they are more likely to hire a Muslim doctor. I don’t know what. It feels like… there are more opportunities there, but in other aspects or areas, this does not happen…

In my dealings with my local council, or other public authorities, my faith is not relevant. When I was in hospital, they were great. My dietary requirements, halal food… yes, they were great. In that sense, I must say that I was very happy with the way things are. I have never been, even in Ramadan, etc… I think people in this country are learning more and more about other people’s ways of life. There are tv programmes, etc. 

Have you ever demonstrated, written to your MP, joined a petition?

I have never written to my MP, but when I see stuff which is not fair, if it is something close to my heart, I would stand up. I haven’t actually initiated the process, I have joined the process at a later stage…

Is it important for you always to act within the law of the land?

Yes, I think that is where the moral compass comes too. The law of the land is in tune, anyway, with the law of God. 

Are there any circumstances under which you could, hypothetically speaking, justify breaking the law of the land?

Well… if for instance, they decided to segregate, I think that would cause a problem. It is a mad example, but for instance Donald Trump saying that no Muslims in this country… Imagine if there were signs in the airport saying ‘Hindus to this side, Muslims to this other…’ I think when people try to divide people, I would have a problem… If someone told me ‘your best friend is Christian, but you cannot hang around with him anymore, because you are Muslim’. I would challenge that decision. 

Does your faith mean that you have to speak out on behalf of third parties, particularly the weak and the vulnerable?

Yes, I think it is part of my faith. Life is good for me in this country, but unfortunately life is not good for many others, and I wouldn’t feel right if I were just ignoring others outside Britain. It would not be right if I just said ‘well, I am ok in Britain, and I don’t mind what happens in Palestine or elsewhere’. That is where I feel I have to voice my opinion. It is hard to sit back and just watch, particularly with Facebook… you cannot miss things that are going on in the world. 

Do you think the RL applies equally to everyone in British society or are there some groups which experience either preferential or prejudicial treatment, in terms of the criminal justice system, schools, etc?

No, unfortunately not. Islamophobia exists. I feel there is a witch-hunt against Muslims in the media. It is easy to help people to form a negative opinion. It is easy to fuel that. It is easy to blame a group for all the problems in the world.

There is also racial abuse. It is sad to admit it, but it happens. I wouldn’t say it is widespread. I haven’t felt it widespread, maybe because in Manchester we are blessed that it is a cosmopolitan society. When I was recently racially abused, I asked people whether that was the voice for the rest of people… they said no, and they said that that person was a 1%. It was here, in Manchester, last Friday. For me, there are many different races, religions, etc, and that was only one person… not representative of wider society.

There is prejudicial treatment of Muslims, alongside the people who live in a council estate… In the other end, you find the celebrities. They can hire a good lawyer, a QC… If you have the money to pay for the right lawyer, etc, you are ok.

It is both a matter of religion and wealth. There is Islamophobia, but I guess that if you are a very wealthy Muslim, you can probably buy your way out of that Islamophobia…. 

Should the same rules which apply to private citizens apply equally to public authorities, including the police? What do you think about developments such as stop and search? Are they necessary developments or a threat to our civil liberties?

In this country, I feel that on the whole I can trust the police. I don’t have anything to hide. However, it doesn’t make me feel comfortable that Big Brother is watching me. They tell us that it is necessary, but I am not happy with that. The whole stop and search… I have been stopped because I was wearing a black top with my hoodie when it was raining… it happens quite a lot. There is a part of me that says ‘no, I am not happy with it’. That makes people have a problem with the police… they are wasting their time, people’s time… my problem with the stop and search stuff is that they make you feel a criminal. 

Are you aware of any legal rules which has an impact on your faith and that you would change if you could?

Not really… there is nothing there that prevents me from practising my faith. I am very content with the law. Of the top off my head, there has never been a problem… I have never felt when filling a form, for instance, that I could not say I was a Muslim. So, I cannot really think of an example. 

Is there anything else that you would like to tell me about human rights, belief and religion in contemporary Britain?

I think in contemporary Britain I see a lot of growth. People are curious, people want to see more. People are asking the right questions, rather than jumping on the wrong conclusions.  Human conscience is growing. That is a beautiful thing. That helps my faith in human beings. The more they try to put some people down, the more people think ‘something is not right here’… Why the agenda is so much about making some people look so bad… I need to do research on this. People are talking with each other, people are communicating… You only have certain people, such as the EDL, but a small set of people… You will always have some people who are not happy and they will spread that negativity.

People who resort to violence in Islam are a very small minority and they don’t represent Islamic values at all. The thing with Islam for me is peace and tolerance. If someone is ridiculing you, take the higher position… leave it. Don’t listen to him. If you don’t pay attention, you don’t give him the power. That is the hardest lesson. However, people love confrontation. However, as an actor, I know people love drama! People pay to watch it! It is happening around in real life. It is entertaining. People find there is amusement or entertainment when there is conflict. People get drawn into conflicts or fights. I think it is just crazy!

Naveed Choudhry (born 3rd June 1985) is a British actor best known for his appearences in the BBC drama Waterloo Road. He also portrayed Kamaran in Silent Witness, as well as the autistic character Imran Nazar in Doctors and the character Abdul in the 2009 sitcom Living with the Infidels. He has made a brief cameo in the hit Bollywood film Tezz.