A new study reveals the complexity of Islam in Britainby David Goodhart / July 17, 2014 / Leave a comment
Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam by Innes Bowen (Hurst, £16.99)
I was recently at a seminar on how to increase the number of young Muslims entering high status jobs in the City of London and elsewhere. One of the participants, a Muslim woman, said there were several aspects of British office culture—such as the drink in the pub after work—that were, in her words, “alien to many Muslims.” Everyone, including me, nodded in agreement.
It was only later that I realised what we had all, Muslim and non-Muslim, happily colluded in the idea that many Muslims regard mainstream British life as “alien.” And, unfortunately, there is at least some truth to this. A few years ago the Danish academic Jytte Klausen surveyed the Muslim elites in several European countries. She found that 70 per cent of the British elite—far higher than in other countries—were what she called “neo-orthodox,” meaning they regard liberalism as anti-Islamic and think it is possible for Muslims to live separately but as loyal citizens in the west.
Muslims often complain that they are singled out for hostile attention, yet Britain’s Muslim minority does pose particular challenges that other minority groups—people of Hindu, Sikh Indian or black African background, for example—do not. The recent Trojan horse affair in Birmingham schools—about indoctrinating children into bigoted views—could, in theory, have involved the conservative wing of one of Britain’s other religious minorities. But, as so often, it involved Muslims.
The Birmingham issue is not the fault of this or that Whitehall department or secretary of state for education or, indeed, of the Muslims involved. It is the result of many decades of laissez-faire multiculturalism that said to newcomers, often from very traditional cultures, that so long as you accept the democratic rules you do not need to adapt to a modern liberal society—meaning a society characterised by individual rights, equal treatment of citizens and the ability to challenge tradition and authority. That deal was readily embraced by most Muslim leaders, a large number of whom have remained immersed in the sectarian and separatist Islamic politics of their countries of origin.
This world has remained far too opaque, even to British policy experts, which is what inspired the BBC journalist Innes Bowen to write this sober and meticulous survey of Muslim thought and practice in Britain. “The motivation for writing this book was the belief that the content of the ideologies that are popular in Muslim Britain matters,” she explains in the introduction. “The task… felt all the more urgent when I realised that the politicians, interfaith groups, police and journalists who interact with these Islamic groups often know shockingly little about them.” Bowen is not sounding an alarm, along the lines of Melanie Phillips’s Londonistan, although her own dismay at some of the things she is describing is clear enough.
No one is a Muslim in the abstract; everyone comes from a particular national and religious tradition. In Britain, Bowen explains, almost two-thirds of Muslims (or their parents, or grandparents) come from rural, traditional parts of south Asia—from Pakistan, India or Bangladesh. The two dominant Islamic schools are consequently the Deobandis (who control about 44 per cent of Britain’s 1,700 mosques) and the Barelvis (who control about 25 per cent).
Both were formed in 19th century India. The Deobandis are the somewhat more austere school formed to protect Muslim identity both from British influence and from the folkish, Sufi traditions associated with the Barelvis. Both schools have their more fundamentalist wings, particularly the Tablighi Jamaat missionary movement of the Deobandi school.
If those are the two biggest players in British Islam they have often been outstripped in influence by the more politically astute Islamists—those who combine a fundamentalist reading of Islam with modern political forms and want, in theory at least, to establish an Islamic state ruled by sharia law. They come, says Bowen, in three main varieties: the Salafis, who want to return to a pure form of Islam as practiced by the Prophet himself; the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, and the main opposition movement in recent years in parts of the Middle East; and Jamaat-e-Islami, which has been the main Islamist movement in Pakistan and Bangladesh for many years and runs, among other things, the large and influential East London Mosque.
Bowen is aware that things are not always as they seem. Movements that may be properly regarded as extremist in their home settings can evolve into something more benign in Britain, and even the “moderate” Barelvis have produced their share of extremists. But what all these different groups have in common is a belief in the literal truth of the Quran and its superiority to man-made law, the belief that apostasy should be punishable by death, the assumption that religious identity trumps any political or national identity, and the understanding that men and women operate in fundamentally different spheres. These views are sometimes held more in theory than practice, but the point is that these are not only the views of extremists but of many mainstream British Muslims, too.
It was the Salman Rushdie affair in 1989 that first revealed the existence of a large group of people in British society with such intense religious belief that they felt physical distress at the thought of blasphemy against the Prophet. An increasingly secular Britain found it hard to understand these strange passions: 12 years later, at the time of Ted Cantle’s report into the 2001 mill town riots, the description Muslim was still rarely used, even by Muslims, with Asian and Asian community being preferred by all groups.
Then came 9/11, followed by 7/7, and suddenly the political and media class was scrambling to understand this disaffected religious minority. Why were the normal forces of integration not working on Muslim Britain in the same way they had amongst other Asian minorities? Why was a new liberal British variant of Islam not emerging?
Optimists said it was just going to take a bit longer because an unstable global Islamic politics had insinuated its way into the generational conflict within Muslim families. Younger Muslims, born in Britain, absorbed many of the everyday liberal norms of British society yet also often adopted, or at least paid lip service to, a more fundamentalist version of Islam than their parents. This was usually conveyed outside the Deobandi or Barelvi mosques by Islamists of various kinds who preached in English and had an appealing global radicalism—the Prophet Muhammad meets the Socialist Workers Party. In university Islamic societies or in the backstreets of places like Oldham and Luton, cities where racial conflicts thrived and the job market provided little hope, this proved attractive to many confused young people.
But the British authorities must also bear some of the blame for the introversion of the Muslim minority. Britain did not work with an underlying integrationist assumption, more common in the US and France: we respect your religion and traditions but we expect you to accept the broad norms of this liberal society in return. The authorities, in their ignorance, were also prepared to do business with any self-proclaimed leader.
And, as Bowen describes, much of that leadership was deeply sectarian and poorly educated in the ways of its adopted country. There was no Muslim equivalent of the Jewish grandees who smoothed the way for poor British Jews in the late 19th and early 20th century. Bowen lays bare the naivety of doing business with the “moderate” Muslim Council of Britain in the aftermath of 7/7—not just because it represented only part of Muslim Britain (the majority of mosques either boycotted it or did not bother to join) but also because its leadership was dominated by Jamaat-e-Islami Islamists. Similarly the Muslim Association of Britain, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, played a central role in establishing the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board in 2006.
Both organisations were, and are, opposed to violent extremism in Britain, and it was arguably better speaking to them than to no one at all—the symbolism of Muslim leaders going through the doors of Number 10 was needed after the horror of 7/7. But by being so unselective in who it does business with, successive governments have slowed the emergence of a more integrationist strand of British Islam that is able to marry Islam and western liberalism in a way that, as Bowen points out, the Ismaili minority does. The one significant organisation that has attempted to encourage the growth of liberal Islam in recent years, the Quilliam Foundation think tank, has found itself under relentless attack from the mainstream of British Islam.
Where do we stand today? British Muslims remain probably the most segregated and conservative in Europe; that in any case was the judgement of Farah Pandith, the US State Department’s senior advisor for Muslim engagement, as revealed by the Wikileaks cables after her visit to Leicester in 2007. According to Bowen, only two out of 1700 British mosques follow modernist interpretations of Islam. In the US, 56 per cent of mosques described themselves as following an interpretation of Islam adapted to modern circumstances.
Is British Islamophobia partly to blame? It is true that opinion polls find that non-Muslims in Britain are more wary of Muslims than any other minority group. But apart from a smallish lunatic fringe, that wariness is not because of any particular aversion to Islam, it is because Muslims make greater demands for cultural accommodation and live more separately than other big minorities. If you visit heavily Muslim areas in Bradford or Birmingham you quickly realise how connected these communities are to their countries of origin—they are true diasporas.
Also, most south Asian and Somali Muslims came here poor and, especially in the case of the Kashmiri Pakistanis, often ended up in the most declining parts of the midlands and the north. It is only in the past few years that educational outcomes for some of these groups have improved but that will not translate into professional success if it is assumed that an Islamophobic Britain will always block most opportunities for Muslims.
Tufyal Choudhury has written eloquently about how the Muslim demand for separate space indicates “a commitment to Britain and a wish by the younger generation to make themselves more at home in Britain.” But this sidesteps the crucial question of accommodating Muslims on whose terms? On purely Muslim terms, or adapting to the dominant norms of British life?
Separateness and suspicion can be reinforced by the growth of Islamic television, radio stations and websites, something that Bowen does not stress sufficiently. The book also misses a comparative dimension: Bowen does not consider what distinguishes pious Muslims from religiously conservative Hindus or Sikhs, nor does she have space to compare British Islam with other Muslim minorities in the developed world
British Muslims, by taking multiculturalism seriously, have revealed its limits: unless we want Britain to become a loose collection of separate communities living by different and sometimes antagonistic values, the right to be different has to be balanced by the duty to integrate. If the Muslim community was small and discreet like, say, the Hasidic Jews of north London, this would not be such an issue. But Muslims account for about 5 per cent of the total population and in another generation it will be double that.
Many individual Muslims are quietly combining their religion with the British mainstream but for the community as a whole, change is likely to be slow and will not be helped by continuing instability in the wider Muslim world. It will be helped by economic success, role models and the emergence of a more confident Muslim middle class who share interests and experiences with mainstream Britain, while retaining somewhat more pious values.
But it is also up to the political class, and wider British society, to support those Muslims who are trying to combine their religion and modern liberal life. To return to the seminar room I mentioned at the start, we should not meekly accept that much of British work culture is alien to Muslims. And thanks in part to the work of people like Innes Bowen, we no longer have any excuse for ignorance.