Public Announcement from The British Board of Scholars & Imams (BBSI)
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in consultation with community organisations, health and medical experts, the BBSI has been providing ethico-religious guidance to the community. At the outset of the pandemic, the BBSI, along with the other faith organisations, was invited to be part of the government’s taskforce. We have been and are actively liaising with the MHCLG government task force as advisory members to ensure that the eventual guidance reflects the needs of the Muslim community. We have also been liaising closely with many Muslim groups up and down the country to develop this.
The closure of places of worship (including mosques) was inevitable during the first nationwide lockdown restrictions. The government since then has been working with faith communities to enable the guidance to reopen and open safely, providing clear operational guidance for ensuring that faith communities can continue to provide this essential service, whilst adhering to clear scientific and operational guidelines. These have been developed with faith organisations like the BBSI, as well as SAGE, to ensure that they are comprehensive but also – crucially – theologically non-prescriptive. We have also been working with medical experts and organisations to provide relevant guidance to the Muslim community – ensuring that both religious and spiritual needs are being met while safeguarding the community from any potential harm of covid-19.
In the 72 hours since the Prime Minister’s announcement of another lockdown, the BBSI has been advocating for places of worship to be allowed to continue to hold congregations and to fulfil their spiritual and religious commitments. This is on the basis that they have proven to be both safe and ever more essential in our current crisis. We have raised the following points and will continue to do so at the relevant level:
- Faith communities have gone above and beyond to make their worship and service covid-19 safe. It is our clear understanding that there is minimal evidence of any significant transmission in mosques that have been fully compliant with the co-produced guidance.
- The paramount importance of social and spiritual connectedness for holistic spiritual, psychological and social wellbeing must be factored in while devising the guidance. Since the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic, we have seen an increased number of the UK population (and worldwide) developing mental-health related difficulties. When the tier system was introduced, facilities like gyms were made an exception of for wellbeing reasons. It is our argument similar considerations should be factored in for places of worship.
- We have strongly advised that the guidance does not account for the variation of forms of worship in the community. This is reflected in the language of regulations, that implicitly assumes that worship is (or should be) performed in a certain way, and demonstrates a subconscious bias that has real-world effects on how our places of worship are utilised.
- We have also advised that it may have the undesired effect of disadvantaging certain faith communities over others, which is likely to subsequently lead to a sense of unfairness and being put upon. This is, of course, over and above the sense of diminishment of the importance of faith that many British faith groups felt was unfortunately on display in the announcement of the second lockdown. Furthermore, we have counselled that equalities legislation also needs to be borne in mind, to ensure that no one is being unduly disadvantaged.
- In addition, we have advised that given the centrality of the scientific recommendation in driving guidance and regulations, that the government guidance should work towards nuancing the language such that it amounts to a set of exclusion criteria on the basis of health and safety evidence, rather than implicit pronouncements about how faith communities do or should perform acts of worship. In this way, the regulations will be explicitly faith neutral, and yet at the same time can be quite prescriptive about actions or circumstances that increase risk unacceptably. We are actively working with MHCLG to nuance the wording of the guidance to ensure this.
The BBSI, along with other faith communities, are part of the government taskforce in an advisory capacity. Our responsibility is to advise the relevant stakeholders to consider the variations of the faith communities we have in the UK so that they can fulfil their social and spiritual activities. We wish to acknowledge the tireless work of MHCLG in both listening to faith groups and advocating for the centrality of faith in getting us all through this pandemic. In the end, though, it is up to the relevant decision-makers to make the final call.
We have – and will continue to do – what we can, while working with medical and scientific experts and other faith groups. On behalf of the Muslim community, we will also be writing directly to the Prime Minister. We want to reassure the Muslim community that we have been working proactively in the best interest of our community, while trying to provide contextual guidance so that we all are able to fulfil our religious, social and spiritual activities. We pray for your continued support in doing so.