Discussion of position of Muslims in Britain avoids all major issues

Developing Just Leadership

Laila Juma

Dhu al-Qa'dah 08, 1424 2004-01-01

Book Review

by Laila Juma (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 16, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1424)

British Muslims: Loyalty and Belonging edited by Mohammad Siddique Seddon, Dilwar Hussain and Nadeem Malik. Pub: The Islamic Foundation, Markfield, UK, and the Citizen Organization Foundation, London, UK, 2003. Pp: 116. Pbk: £4.95.

The American response to the attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001 brought intense attention and pressure to Muslims all over the world, as the Bush administration emphasised the association between Islam and the attacks in order to justify the "war against terror" against Islamic movements everywhere. It also forced Muslims in America and elsewhere to realise that they are part of a global community, and are identified by others as such, regardless of nationality, race and language differences. The result has been an increase in Islamic awareness among Muslims all over the world, as well as in awareness of Islam among non-Muslims. This increasing awareness of Islam has taken a myriad different forms, from interest in learning about Islam in Western countries, which has resulted in increased rates of conversion, to increased interest in political Islamic movements among Muslims.

This phenomenon since September 2001 was foreshadowed in Britain in the early 1990s, when the Rushdie controversy had a similar impact in both the Muslim community and wider British society. Then, as now, Muslims found themselves under attack simply for being Muslim, and discovered under pressure that their sense of identity is primarily Islamic. Then, as now, there was widespread debate about the ‘problem’ of a large Muslim community in Britain, and how it could co-exist with ‘mainstream’ British society. Among its most prominent results was the establishment of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain as a ‘minority political system’ to mobilise the community power of Muslims in pursuit of their own needs and interests. The Muslim Parliament was inevitably subjected to intense pressure from the British establishment, and unfortunately did not long survive the death of Dr Kalim Siddiqui, its founder and first leader, in 1996. (The current Muslim Parliament, run by a few members of the original Muslim Parliament, bears little relation to the original institution, being little more than a vehicle for self-appointed leaders to pursue their personal agendas.) Nonetheless, for its few short years under the leadership of Dr Siddiqui, the Muslim Parliament had a strong impact on Muslim community organization and the position of Muslims in Britain. Now that the British Muslim community is under renewed attack, one of the most commonly heard comments is that the community needs an institution like the original Muslim Parliament more now than ever before.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the book under review, published by the Islamic Foundation, Markfield, one of Britain’s most established Islamic organizations, is that there is little sign of any of this background anywhere in it; some might say ironically that this is a considerable achievement under the circumstances.

The book is a collection of presentations made to a seminar on the same subject, convened by the Islamic Foundation in partnership with the Citizen Organising Foundation (CAF), a primary training institute which educates people on how to participate in public life through civil society institutions, on May 8, 2002. One might, in fairness, argue that many of the worst problems that Muslims in Britain now face – particularly the attacks on their civil rights – were not apparent at that time. But more than six months had passed since September 2001, and the direction that events were taking was clear by then; indeed, had been predicted by some Muslim observers even before September 2001. That is not to say that the book is bad, just that most of it fails to address the most important issues facing British Muslims.

Having said that, there is one paper which actually is objectionable; unfortunately it is the first paper in the book (and apparently the first presentation of the seminar), and so sets the tone for the volume as a whole. This paper is called ‘Muslim Loyalty and Belonging: Some Reflections on the Psychosocial Background’, by Tim Winters, a convert who is a lecturer of Islamic Studies at Cambridge University. Winters is a well-known champion of "traditional" sufi Islam in Britain, and it is this approach that he promotes in this paper. That in itself is not a problem, although the approach is certainly debatable. What is objectionable is Winters’ dismissal of all Islamic activists in Britain as a tiny number of "zealots" whom he characterises in the most hackneyed and stereotypical terms. He makes absolutely no acknowledgement that there is a range of opinion and a variety of groups within the Islamic movement, of which supporters of September 11-style violence are a tiny minority. Winters blames all the problems that Muslims have in Britain on the actions of these "zealots", and argues that in fact Muslims can live peaceably in Britain without any friction with non-Muslims, if they follow his own vision of a pacifist, apolitical sufism and are happy to be loyal British citizens. This is literally to blame the victims of British Islamophobia for their own persecution.

Four of the other five papers presented are basically harmless but add little to our understanding of the issues. Imtiaz Ahmed Hussain provides parallels between the experiences of British Muslims and those of the Muslims who left Makkah for al-Habasha before the Hijrah. Neil Jameson of the COF offers some ideas for community organization in Britain; Mohammad Anwar, of the University of Warwick, offers useful, though basic, information and data on the socio-economic position of Muslims in Britain; Maleiha Malik, an academic at the London School of Economics, discusses the possibilities for Muslims if they engage in participatory politics in the mainstream British political system.

However, only S. Sayyid, of the University of Salford, offers anything particularly interesting, in his presentation on ‘Muslims in Britain: towards a political agenda’. He at least gets past the mundane to raise some genuine issues, addressing the implications of an ‘Islamicate’ political identity, and pointing out that Muslims in Britain risk becoming divorced from the rest of the Ummah. He also warns of the dangers of depending for political leadership on Muslims in mainstream political parties, pointing out that having more Muslims in mainstream institutions will not necessarily benefit Muslims generally, and calling for Muslims to develop a "minimum agenda" that they could demand Muslims in mainstream institutions to promote. All these are ideas which challenge the British establishment view and offer a direction for a genuinely alternative approach to the problems facing Muslims. Unfortunately Sayyid did not choose to develop them further in this paper.

The question of the position and direction of Muslims in Britain and other Western countries desperately needs discussion; unfortunately this volume, and the seminar from which it emerged, can only be regarded as a wasted opportunity.

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