No, Muslims don't fit into wider British society. And neither do Christians

Muslim men attend Friday prayer at the Baitul Futuh Mosque in Morden, South London.Reuters

Trevor Phillips, the former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, is never shy of expressing unpopular views. His latest is to claim that Muslim communities are "unlike others in Britain" and "will not integrate in the same way".

He told the Policy Exchange think tank, "it was disrespectful to suppose that Muslim communities would change" and that "Continuously pretending that a group is somehow eventually going to become like the rest of us is perhaps the deepest form of disrespect."

Muslims, he said, "see the world differently from the rest of us" and part of the integration process is for "the rest of us to grasp that people aren't going to change their views simply because we are constantly telling them that basically they should be like us".

He has been roundly abused on social media, accused of being divisive, simplistic and generally wrong. The Independent quotes Fiyaz Mughal, head of the Tell Mama charity which campaigns against Muslim hate crimes, as saying that Phillips' claims "assume Muslims have views that are inherently different to other communities".

He added: "There are Muslims fully integrated into our society that have a 'world view' that is no different to others and the only difference is that they pray five times a day."

So religious people are just like everyone else. That's nice, but I don't buy it.

To be clear, I think Phillips is wrong if he's implying that all Muslims are the same. They aren't; there are naturally degrees of religiosity and wide variations in the cultures of different Muslim communities. But in general, I really, really hope he's right, and that Muslims don't fit into British society at all well.

Because people of faith need to be able to stand to one side and critique the society they're part of. When we become too integrated, we lose what makes us unique. We lose the ability to be prophetic; we lose our edginess.

There are things about our British society I really like – even, at the risk of sounding patriotic in a most un-British way, that I'm quite proud of. I like the fact that we don't take ourselves seriously. I like the fact that we try, generally speaking, to do the right thing. I like the fact that we can say pretty much what we want. I like the Queen.

But if I felt the only difference between me anyone else was that I pray and go to church, I'd really worry. Because British society is not the Kingdom of God. We like (some of us) to trumpet British Values. Fair enough, but the impartial observer would take these to include cynicism, sexual licence, child neglect and Kate Hopkins. As well as all the loveliness, there's a lot wrong with us – and we need to stand out and reject that.

So yes, Phillips was right to say that Muslims – by which I think he meant faithful Muslims who take their religion seriously – aren't going to conform. They will live by different rules, according to a different rhythm. They'll reject what much of our society accepts.

His point, though, was that to demand that they conform in order to be accepted as thoroughly British is patronising cultural imperialism. Rather than arguing that Muslims should change and become somehow less Muslim, we need to expand the definition of being British to encompass them too. 

And that's the sort of society Christians should want: one that doesn't enforce a secularist conformity on its members, but allows them the freedom to be themselves, as far as they possibly can be. Yes, there'll be points at which society cannot budge and where religious rights have to give way to wider concerns. We should be immoveable on freedom of speech and the liberty of the individual. Rights sometimes compete; sometimes religion will win, sometimes not. But imposing a monochromatic system of values and beliefs on British citizens is fundamentally un-British. Muslims should be allowed to be real Muslims, even at the cost of some inconvenience to the majority non-Muslim population.

And Christians should be allowed to be real Christians. This is where the challenge really comes. Because most Christians are part of the majority culture. We don't stand out because of our dress, or our habit of praying five times a day, (most of us struggle enough with once). Our values are comfortably Enlightenment, and generally not much different from most other people's.

All the more reason, then, to make the differences count; to be salt and light in the world, a city set on a hill. All the more reason not to integrate too well.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods