To the nation’s cricket fans it was a long-awaited moment of overwhelming relief. England’s victory over India last week was the first time they had won in 11 Test matches.
The significance of the result, though, may extend far beyond a mere cricket pitch. The man who bowled the team to victory on the last day of the match, Moeen Ali, is a devout Muslim who sports the type of magnificent and lustrous beard not seen flowing over an England shirt since the days of W G Grace. He could well be the saviour of multiculturalism in Britain.
There should not be a problem with multiculturalism, but it has been allowed to suffer a rather bad press in recent years. It is now rarely mentioned in the right-wing media without the qualification that it has become a “failed” and “discredited” doctrine, one that was apparently imposed upon an unwilling British public with the effect of eroding indigenous values and customs in favour of foreign ones.
Its intentions, of course, are nothing of the sort. It is simply a recognition that immigrants and their descendants can observe their own traditions – whether religious or cultural – while still being model citizens of the UK. And it holds that the institutions of British public life should protect and promote a plurality of cultures in an environment of liberal tolerance.
Somewhere along the line, however, the impression has arisen that this doctrine has overstepped its boundaries. That it is now undermining, and even threatening to destroy, whatever overarching sense of Britishness there remains to bind us. Nowhere is this more resonant than in the debate about the integration of Britain’s Muslim community. Regular headlines about radicalised youths, terrorist plots and “Trojan horse” schemes to Islamify state schools have given succour to those who believe a generation of politicians damaged the very fabric of this country through their desire not to offend or insult even those minority elements who detest Britain.
So step forward Moeen Ali. Wearing a beard that he describes as a “label” of his faith, England’s latest cricketing hero could barely look any more Muslim. He even managed to take to the field against India last week wearing “Save Gaza” and “Free Palestine” wristbands.
More importantly, he has scored important runs and taken crucial wickets while displaying a huge and evident pride in wearing the Three Lions of England. He has shown it is possible to be both a devoutly practising Muslim and a loyal participating citizen of Britain. There is no contradiction at all between the two.
And that is the whole point of multiculturalism. Moeen Ali is not only its living embodiment but also – through his conspicuously Islamic appearance and thoughtful demeanour – its ultimate PR man.
His message is not only one for opponents of multiculturalism in “mainstream” British society but also sceptics in his own community. Those who doubt the importance of the latter need only look at the rhetoric of the figures exposed by the apparent “problems” in Muslim Britain – the views of the radicals waging jihad or the extremists trying to take over state schools in Birmingham or women proudly declaring they are “liberated” by wearing the face veil.
Their overriding message is that Britain is debased and impure, and no fit home for a Muslim. They believe that Britain itself must be changed – along sharia lines – before they can live decent Islamic lives in this country.
Of course these people only represent a fringe element in what is a very broad and diverse religious community. But their message is constantly aired and heard, and it is one that can influence impressionable young Muslims while antagonising those of other cultures.
Moeen Ali shows a different path. His rise to prominence could not be more timely, and his example is one that needs to be publicised and promoted as widely as possible.
There is often a significant obstacle in such cases in the personality of the sportsman or woman concerned, as many are reluctant to espouse any cause other than their own athletic prowess. A glance at Moeen Ali’s recent interviews, however, reveal that he is cut from a rather different cloth. In fact, he positively embraces this calling.
“Islam does not have the best reputation at times but if I can help change maybe 1 per cent of negative perception, that would make me very happy,” he declared earlier this year.
He added: “It gives me inspiration to feel that I am representing a large community and I do see myself as a role model. People ask me if I see it as a mission and I do.” While more sensitive souls may have felt offended, he did not raise any objection when his county, Worcestershire, branded him ‘the beard that’s feared’ as a marketing slogan.
Those who work in Westminster would do well to emulate his purpose and resolve. Dispiriting though it may have been, it was perhaps no surprise when David Cameron claimed in 2011 that the “doctrine of state multiculturalism” has “encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream”. Even more worrying has been the apparent willingness of Labour frontbenchers to disown aspects of their party’s proud record in promoting racial tolerance and harmony.
In reality, all serious politicians of whatever persuasion know that multiculturalism is the only game in town for a country of Britain’s history and ethnic composition. There is no credibility in alternative ideologies that would seek to suppress viable and inoffensive traditions that originate from other shores. No one wants to go back to the dark days of previous decades when far too many people were made to feel embarrassed and also terrified to belong to an ethnic minority group.
But even the most blinkered supporters of multiculturalism would admit that mistakes have been made in the past – that intolerant practices and ideas have been accepted in the name of tolerance. It may also have been forgotten that in certain cases – such as forced marriage or female genital mutilation – it is the duty of the state to protect the rights and conscience of the individual over the traditions of a foreign community.
The focus should be on how to make multiculturalism work better, not on how quickly to abandon it. It is a message that can be spread with a little help from a quiet but driven chap from Birmingham.