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Pride and Prejudice – part 1 of British Islam

1995 December 5

Fundamentalism. Jihad. Fatwa. The terms the West associates with Islam do nothing to aid understanding of the 1.2 million Muslims living in Britain. In the first of two reports, Andrew Brown and Paul Vallely examine who they are and what they believe.

The problems started when the women arrived. Until then, the Muslim immigrants in this country had had scarcely any conflicts with the host society because they had scarcely any contact with it. They believed themselves to be merely migrants, who would return home when their work was done. They did not need schooling, or even mosques, since a Muslim needs no special place to pray.

Much has changed in the two decades since the first immigrants arrived. Today, the rest of the community regards the emerging social and political force of Islam with an unspecified unease. Riots in Bradford, gang activity in the East End of London, reports of fundamentalist sects at work on university campuses, the prospect of separatist schools, a vendetta murder behind King’s Cross station – where police logbooks show that racially motivated incidents happen almost daily – have recently fuelled the potent mixture of apprehension and mistrust that makes up attitudes to Islam.

Fundamentalist violence abroad – terrorism in the Middle East, Algeria and the marching Black Muslims of the Nation of Islam in Washington – has only made things worse. As have theories among some intellectuals, such as the American political theorist Samuel Huntington, who predicts, in the search for a new enemy after the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War, that the great conflict of the 21st century will be between Islam and the West.

It is a heady mixture of fact, half-truth and myth. It has led some to the fear that Britain’s 1.2 million Muslims (no one is sure of the exact figure) may be a dangerous fifth column in our midst – a Trojan horse in the heart of the nation with a deadly cargo of fundamentalism.

But what is the truth? The dramatic increase in the Muslim population has occurred only in the past 30 years when large numbers of migrant workers were enticed here by the promise of manual jobs, jobs that in years of industrial growth the indigenous population spurned. From Pakistan, India and Bangladesh they came in a steady flow to the industrial cities of the Midlands and Strathclyde and the textile towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire.

In that period many suffered a total lapse of religious observance, maintaining their cultural identity only through the tradition of halal meat. It was a lapse that they could justify, arguing that they were here only for a short time.

“The first generation looked back to their own country,” says Zaki Badawi, the principal of the Muslim College in London. “At first they thought they would return when they had made their fortunes. Even when it became clear from their behaviour that they had settled, they maintained the dream of return. They lived in isolation, like the Jews or Huguenots or Irish had done before them, limiting contact with the wider community to the minimum possible.” For many, language remained a barrier to communication with the wider community.

So complete was this isolation from the surrounding culture that a candidate for the Pakistan People’s Party stood in the local council elections in Bradford in 1970. The centre of gravity for the politics of British Islam at that stage was Pakistan rather than Britain and most men continued to send large sums of money “home”. It was a policy that the next generation has subsequently criticised, saying the money should have been invested in the UK to create jobs for the next generation. Even when the factories to which they had come began to close in the late Seventies and early Eighties, this isolation in Britain and attachment to the homeland persisted.

The Muslim immigrants to Britain in the Seventies met almost the same problems and prejudices as the Catholic Irish had met in the last century, says Duncan Macpherson, of St Mary’s University College. Like the Muslims now, the Irish then were seen as dirty, superstitious, and disloyal. They spoke in an alien tongue and owed allegiance to a foreign religion that seemed to aim at a global theocracy. Even when later generations moved into Labour politics, they were cut off from the mainstream by their demand for denominational schooling; their attitude to women and family life, and their loyalties in foreign affairs. Both Catholics then and Muslims now form “awkward minorities”, which want neither complete integration nor complete separation.

But once immigrants from the Indian sub-continent started to bring in wives and to raise families, Islam moved into the public sphere. Schools became one of the first areas of conflict: Muslim parents demanded halal meat at first and, later, special clothing for girls in PE classes and modifications of the sex education syllabus; some had objections to the teaching of evolution. Many were not happy with mixed-sex schools.

Even the demand for halal meat was controversial at first, partly because it was not understood. “At one time the education committee said to us: ‘We already serve curry. Why do you want more?’ ” says Dr Bashir Ahmed, a Manchester GP and the chairman of the city’s council for mosques. “But of course what matters is how it’s prepared. You can have Yorkshire pudding and roast beef so long as the ingredients are halal.”

Matters came to a head in Bradford in 1983. Bradford does not have the largest Muslim population of any British city, but it does have an unusually homogenous one. About 70 per cent of Bradford Muslims come from the poor Azad Kashmir region of Pakistan. They support an unusually developed and self-conscious political network. Though Muslims outside the city resent the concentration of media attention on Bradford, it has been the city where the clashes between South Asian Muslim culture and secular Britain have been sharpest and most illuminating.

In response to the unease in the Muslim community, Bradford council, in the early Eighties, started feeling its way towards a multi-cultural policy. The resulting conflicts coalesced around the figure of a headmaster: Ray Honeyford, at the Drummond middle school in the heart of the Muslim Manningham area. Honeyford wrote a series of articles for the Times Educational Supplement and, more controversially, the right-wing Salisbury Review, attacking the council’s multi-racial policy and the Pakistani Muslim culture it was designed to accommodate. He objected to the withdrawal of children from school for long holidays at home, to the end of the bussing policy that had distributed Muslim children around the city’s schools, and to the provision of halal meat. “How do we reconcile that sort of indifference to animal care with one of the school’s values, love of dumb creatures and respect for their welfare?” he asked, a question that would have had a better ring had it not been echoed by the local National Front, which had its own agenda.

Honeyford saw the school’s job as the transmission of English culture, which would assume priority over the values with which the children arrived. A committee of local parents was formed to try and have him sacked. There were boycotts and demonstrations outside the school. The council dithered, and finally decided to be rid of him, saying that he had lost the confidence of parents. In 1986, he took early retirement.

But the problems that his case exposed did not so easily vanish. For the Muslims, there was a sense that they were being ignored and patronised, their legitimate demands trivialised. For the surrounding secular society the case raised issues of free speech and the power of interest group politics. Fear of Islam and distrust of peasant chauvinism imported to Britain coalesced into a larger unease. Even Roy Jenkins, the epitome of liberal tolerance, said in 1989: “In retrospect, we might have been more cautious about allowing the creation in the Fifties of such substantial Muslim communities here.”

Liberals, who might have been more sympathetic to an oppressed minority, believed Islam was irredeemably sexist. Certainly, South Asian culture was. One Bradford school organised English classes for the mothers of pupils but had to disguise them as cookery classes as the husbands would have stopped their wives attending had they known. While the women learned, their daughters cooked, so that their mothers would have some evidence to take home.

The isolation of Islam in Britain has tended to preserve crude patriarchal attitudes that were being undermined elsewhere in the Islamic world. Kafait Khan, the organiser of a Muslim charity in Manchester, says: “We people who came from Pakistan preserve the attitudes we came with 30 or 40 years ago. Pakistan has gone forward. In the big cities in Pakistan, you now see more women working than men.” One of the goals of her charity – which, significantly, works outside the ambit of the local male-dominated mosques – is to create a more enlightened attitude to the position of women in Britain.

The next crisis also came to a head in Bradford, with the public burning of The Satanic Verses in 1989 and the subsequent fatwa – with its death sentence on Salman Rushdie – pronounced by a foreign Muslim leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini. The Rushdie affair marked the emergence of an entirely new and assertive group: British-born Muslims. They were aggressively Muslim in ways that shocked secular Britain. But they were also British in ways that shocked their parents, not least in their displays of public aggression.

“Muslims found the book offensive,” says Dr Pnina Werbner, a social anthropologist who has made a study of Muslim women, “but they also found it offensive that no one in the West could understand why they were offended. So they launched major protests – but the state did nothing.

“It was a moment of truth, and it had two consequences. The Muslims were forced into the realisation that they were British citizens having come to the conclusion that they had to follow British law. They recalled the Islamic ruling – when in a foreign country you follow the law of the land – and that absolved them from dealing with Rushdie. But the affair also confirmed their feeling of alienation in this country: people don’t respect them, there is growing Islamophobia, there is racism – all of which is true, but which is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Dr Bashir Ahmed in Manchester agrees: “We are still living with it. The fatwa is still hanging over the whole Muslim community in Britain. But I think people have chosen to misunderstand or to ignore its relevance to the Muslim community in Britain. The jurisdiction of a particular fatwa is very important. It is a legal opinion. It can only be implemented within the jurisdiction of that code. The fatwa is irrelevant to the Muslim living in Britain.”

Even Abdul Hadi, of the more puritanical Ahl-e-Hadith sect in Birmingham, says: “Rushdie was exploited by Muslim politicians, who made more fuss than the community really felt. Of course, blasphemy is very important in every religion, and everyone thought that what happened was wrong. But the Ayatollah’s fatwa was without wisdom. It was not done in a true Islamic manner. It was political, not religious. And it played a big role in creating divisions between Muslims in Britain and the white population.”

One of the difficulties the fatwa raised was the lack of an Islamic intelligentsia who could dispute the fatwa on Islamic grounds. The original immigrants were largely uneducated working men, points out Dr Jorgen Nielsen of the Institute for Christian-Muslim Relations. “One of the things that has happened with the immigration is that you have very few Islamicly trained people among the leadership here,” he says. “In classical Islamic religious thought there is room for this kind symbolism, metaphor and parable, and it still exists in the learned tradition in the Middle East. But the only place you will find it now is in Iran. Everywhere else, it has been driven out by Westernised vocational education and crude Koranic studies. In a sense, the Muslim community here is caught up in the same kind of polarised interpretations of Islam.”

So does this mean that British Islam is susceptible to takeover by fundamentalists? Jorgen Nielsen counsels caution. “Fundamentalism is originally a Christian term for a 19th-century US Protestantism tendency to read the Bible literally,” he says. “It makes no sense to talk of Muslim fundamentalism. If you don’t believe that the Koran is the inspired word of God, you’re not a Muslim.”

Abdul Hadi agrees that the term is virtually meaningless when applied to Islam: “In Islam you have to be a fundamentalist, because you have to believe in basic things. But that does not mean that all Muslims are violent.” Violent extremists are violent despite their Islam, not because of it, he says, just as the IRA were not violent because they are Catholics, but because they were extremist nationalists.

Fundamentalism per se is less likely to be a cause of tension than more traditional social and economic grievances. “You see that if you look around Britain,” says Abdul Hadi. “In Birmingham, the Muslim community is more mixed – from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Arab countries, especially Yemenis. This has forced Muslims into communication with the wider community. In Bradford, most of the Muslims come from one rural part of Pakistan which was a very backward area when they came.”

The skills of the Muslim population remain lower in Bradford, says Bashir Ahmed of the Manchester Council of Mosques, a city where the Asian populations come from the better-off areas of Pakistan, mainly the Punjabi. As in Glasgow, Newcastle and Leeds they displaced Jews in the clothing trade. “Here the parent generations are in business and the professions whereas in places like Bradford they lack that sort of stable background.”

Yet despite the evidence that accommodation and even assimilation are both possible and desired, there are more profound discordances that might contain the seeds of future conflict. “The Islamic cultural paradigm seems unable to cope with the modernism of the secular West,” says the writer George Joffe, who last month won the annual award by the Calamus Foundation, which sets out to promote understanding and tolerance between the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – that share many of the same ethical assumptions. The problem is this: most people in the West reject conclusions that are not based on experience or reasoning; it is perhaps the essential component of the Enlightenment tradition in which they have been schooled. By contrast, Islam (like fundamentalist Christianity) relies on revealed truth – revealed through holy scripts and by holy men. This makes it very difficult to find a common language in which the secular West and Islamists can debate their differences.

“There is parable and symbolic understanding in the Christian world,” says Akram Khan-Cheema, chairman of the board of governors of Feversham School in Bradford, which is tipped to become the first Muslim school to receive state funding. “There is no such thing in the Koran. Muslims believe it to be literally true.”

So are the pluralist, rationalist West and the puritan world of Islam destined for continual and potentially explosive misunderstandings? Not necessarily. Some 80 per cent of Muslims in Britain are from the Indian sub-continent, where Islam – with its mystical emphasis upon the importance of Sufis, saints and shrines – was very different from the unalloyed literalism of the puritan sects of the Middle East. As a result, British Islam is factionalised, it is not a homogenous thing.

History also tells us that Islam is capable of quite large accommodations with different philosophies and religions. In the 11th and 12th centuries – when Muslim philosophy was the most sophisticated in the contemporary world – sages such as Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd upheld the essential principles of Islam, but, according to George Joffe, they also said that one could be aware of God through the power of the intellect.

Leading Muslims, such as Zaki Badawi at the Muslim College in London, are keenly aware of the need for their religion to adapt to its environment. “The Shariah is a law for a Muslim majority. Where Muslims are in a minority they must develop a minority theology. That’s what we’re working on here.” Will a New British Islam emerge from it? And, if so, will it bode well or ill for relations between this growing community and the rest of society?

Tomorrow: Part II – The making of British Islam “The Best place on earth to be a Muslim”

Islam: a glossary

Islam Submission to the will of God. Islam has five “pillars” or principles

Koran Book believed by Muslims to be the word of God, dictated by the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Mohammed

Shariah Code of law, ethics and etiquette guiding Muslims’ individual and corporate lives

Hadith Sayings of the Prophet, codified after his death; used to flesh out and illuminate the Koran

Shahada Declaration of faith in God (Allah) and Mohammed as his Messenger

Salat The five daily prayers

Zakat Alms-giving

Saum Fasting

Haj annual pilgrimage to Mecca, which every Muslim should make at least once in their lifetime. Two million go every year and afterwards earn the title Haji

Ramadan 28 days of abstaining from food and drink from dawn till sunset. It moves around the year according to a lunar calendar. Many Muslims require British doctors to change their prescriptions so that medicine is only taken after dark.

Eid Festival at the end of Ramadan; the main holiday of the Muslim year

Fatwa A formal opinion given by recognised experts in Islamic law

Halal Anything permitted by Islamic law. Meat must be drained of blood

Haram Anything forbidden under Islamic law, including lending money at interest

Chador Traditional garment covering a woman from head to foot

Hijab A veil or head-covering worn by women in public

Purdah A veil; used figuratively to describe the seclusion of women in South Asian Islam

Hijra The Prophet’s emigration to Medina; by extension, any departure from an environment hostile to Muslims

Jihad War against non-Muslims; in Sufi tradition the struggle for self- mastery.

Ulema The traditional religious scholars or holy men

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