One Voice: Steven Longden
One Voice: Steven Longden
...my faith does not require me to shun the best of the other cultural influences that are important to my life.
Like many people my identity is diverse, being a reflection of the main influences in my life: my family; neighbourhood; home region; religious affiliations; education; and my communities of interest. These influences have had a clear effect on how I express myself, view the world and interact with it. Unsurprisingly, my world outlook is greatly influenced by my faith. Islamic culture plays a significant part in my life now and is expressed in many forms with Arabic being central. I recite and read this inspirational, poetic language every day of my life, during my daily prayers, in the lessons I give to my children, or when I socialise with friends and family. It is also often a means of accurately expressing my deepest thoughts and feelings. And yet, my faith does not require me to shun the best of the other cultural influences that are important to my life. So, as an ex-Christian I can rejoice in the friendships I made in my early years at my family church. Indeed, I return year after year to take part in one service or another: a wedding; the Christening of my God Daughter; or presenting the eulogy at my grandmother’s funeral. At this church, my large Muslim family is always welcome, valued as Muslims, recognised as people with faith in God. Over the years I have learnt that converts are often effective at bridging the gap between friends and communities of different faiths. Many of us have developed bi and even multi cultural insights and empathy that help to bring understanding and trust between the people around us. At home I am surrounded and influenced by a number of different national and cultural identities. Though my wife was born and raised in Manchester my mother and father-in-law were born in East Africa, where they were raised speaking three languages: Swahili; Urdu and English. Their parents came from the villages of pre-partition India in an effort to improve their lives in British ruled Kenya. It is their cultural influences: Indian; African; Arab and English that infuse great colour and interest into our lives. It is their beauty and multiple identies that give my young sons their handsome features, multi-lingual skills (English, Arabic and Punjabi) and the confidence to express both their Anglo-Asian and Islamic heritage. As a born and bread Mancunian, I have been greatly influenced by the city’s proud non-conformist history and culture. Manchester was at the heart of the UK’s industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th Centuries. From the sweat, toil and tears of this powerhouse rose some of the most influential social movements the world has ever seen. It was in Greater Manchester that the Co-operative Movement was established and rolled out its successful model of social enterprise and fair trade that has been copied and adapted the world over. It was the early 19th Century hell holes of the city’s cotton factories that gave birth to the Chartist Movement, the pre-cursor to the Trade Union movement and the fight for workers’ rights. These movements led Mancunians to support international liberation movements around the world, like the anti-slavery movement led by Abraham Lincoln in the American Civil War and the World Zionist movement. As a Mancunian, I have a strong, personal sense of this heritage, hard won by earlier generations to value non-conformity, creativity, solidarity and human rights. Becoming a Muslim has not been easy - I didn't expect it to be. The Quran emphasis, "the long uphill struggle (jihad) of the self". There were times when I have felt utterly rejected and at my wits end as a Muslim, particularly after 9/11 - but mostly, over the last 19 years, I have been at peace, fascinated and aware that as a British Muslim I'm probably one of the most privileged people in the world today. Today I can honestly say that I am relaxed about my multiple identities: Muslim, English, British and Mancunian (and God knows what else!?) and know that in the 21st Century such 'complexity' isn't anything special. We're human - we're complex! Furthermore, I've been lucky (or blessed depending on your perspective). In 1998 my father discovered that my great, great, great grandfather convered to Islam 92 years before me, in 1898 to be precise, at the age of 70. From them on he was known as Robert Reschid Longden. Raised in the Christian Israelite sect he rose to be Mayor of Stalybridge in 1875. In the 1850's he became interested in the affairs of the Ottoman Empire, an interest that, no doubt, led him on the path to Islam. In 1901 he became the right hand man of the religious head of the Muslims in the UK, Shaykh Abdullah Quilliam and got involved in some of the first inter faith dialogue even to take place in Manchester. This surprise discovery put my conversion into perspective and has has become a source of pride and comfort for my family (both the Muslims and the non Muslims) and wider society. Indeed, it won't be a surprise to you that my first son is named after him. Note: I have other photos if you need them.
About the Project
"The Muslim world" is a phrase that lumps together a complex and diverse group of people and cultures, but one that rarely humanizes the personal and cultural expressions of Muslim identity. On Being’s First Person initiative is an attempt to better understand adherents of the faith by asking each individual to share his or her perspective of what it means to be a Muslim living in the 21st century.