Irrefutable evidence of the discrimination and Islamophobia facing Muslims in Britain

Ensuring Socio-economic Justice

Laila Juma

Dhu al-Qa'dah 20, 1425 2005-01-01

Book Review

by Laila Juma (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 11, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1425)

Dual Citizenship: British, Islamic or Both? Obligation, Recognition, Respect and Belonging by Saied R. Ameli and Arzu Merali. Pub: The Islamic Human Rights Commission, London, November 2004. Pp: 84. £7.00.

Social Discrimination: Across the Muslim Divide by Saied R. Ameli, Manzur Elahi and Arzu Merali. Pub: The Islamic Human Rights Commission, London, December 2004. Pp: 78. £7.00.

By Laila Juma

The Muslim community in Britain may be regarded as being archtypal of Muslim minority communities in Western countries. Numbering something between 1.5 and 2 million, British Muslims include people from all over the Muslim world, as well as many local converts, and can be found at most levels and in every sector of British society. Until the Rushdie affair in 1989-90, when British Muslims led the global protests against Salman Rushdie’s blasphemous book, many Muslims identified themselves primarily as Asians or Indians or Arabs, and there was little awareness in mainstream society or institutions that Muslims in Britain had their own identity and concerns that transcended their cultural, national or linguistic backgrounds. The politicization of the community in the Rushdie affair changed that, and led to the foundation of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain by the late Dr Kalim Siddiqui, who had emerged as the Muslims’ main spokesman during the Rushdie affair.

Contrary to the portayals of the Muslim Parliament in much of the British media, and in many academic studies of British Muslims, it was not a ‘separatist’ project based on the premise that Muslims should have nothing to do with mainstream society and institutions. Rather, it was based on the assumption that British Muslims needed to organize themselves in order to be able to operate more effectively as a key part of British society, and to be able to deal with the mainstream institutions, particularly the government, from a position of strength.

Unfortunately, the Muslim Parliament was one of the main victims of the collapse of Dr Kalim Siddiqui’s institutions after his death in 1996. Although much of the work of the Muslim Institute has been continued by the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT), under Zafar Bangash, the Muslim Parliament has all but disappeared. Certainly it does not exist in anything like the form intended by Dr Kalim Siddiqui; as long ago as 1998, Iqbal Siddiqui, a former Member of the Muslim Parliament (and now editor of Crescent International) suggested that the Muslim Parliament had itself become like just another of the minor British Muslim organizations that it had actually been established to replace. (For more information on the Muslim Parliament, see

Although the Muslim Parliament no longer exists, however, at least something of its spirit still survives in the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC). This is another body that, like the ICIT, was established in the aftermath of the splintering of Dr Kalim’s legacy. During the Muslim Parliament’s short life, it began important work in a number of areas, including education and social welfare. However, its Human Rights Committee, chaired by Massoud Shadjareh, and particularly active in assisting the Muslims of Bosnia who were subjected to genocidal attack in the early 1990s, was perhaps its most dynamic and effective sector. The IHRC was established by Shadjareh and other members active with the Muslim Parliament Human Rights Committee, including Arzu Merali, to continue the work that they had previously been doing within the Muslim Parliament.

Such has been the decline of the Muslim Parliament that some IHRC members might not thank this reviewer for associating them with a discredited institution; but reading these two reports, and attending their launch at the House of Lords on December 16, it was impossible not to see them as being absolutely in the tradition of the Muslim Parliament as it originally was, and should have remained, rather than as it has unfortunately become.

A key part of the ethos of the Muslim Parliament, reflecting Dr Kalim Siddiqui’s own attitude, was that British Muslims should not approach the British government and other institutions cap-in-hand, asking for favours and special treatment. Dr Siddiqui described this as being part of a colonial mentality, in accordance with which British Muslim leaders tended to act as though they agreed that they are second-class citizens and have no right to expect more. Dr Siddiqui insisted that British Muslims were in fact full and equal citizens of the UK, and were entitled to have their opinions listened to and heard, and their needs and requirements provided, just as were all other British citizens. He thus addressed the British government not in servile tones, but assertively and confidently, highlighting the situation of Muslims in Britain, their legitimate rights, concerns and needs, and demanding that the government hear them and heed them.

It is precisely such confidence that characterises the first two reports of the IHRC’s series on ‘British Muslims’ Expectations of the Government’, published late last year. (Six more reports are to be published in the series.) The series aims to chart the key areas of concern for Muslim in Britain, and explain what they expect, as British citizens, from the British government. The first report, Dual Citizenship: British, Islamic or Both? – Obligation, Recognition, Respect and Belonging, focuses on British Muslims’ understandings of their dual identities as British citizens and Muslims, and how they relate the two. The second, Social Discrimination: Across the Muslim Divide, looks at the nature and extent of the general discrimination experienced by British Muslims in different aspects of their everyday lives.

Both reports are based on the results of impressive surveys of opinions and attitudes among British Muslims, the results of which have been analysed and interpreted by professional social scientists. Dr Saied R. Ameli, co-author of both reports, is Director of the Institute for North American and European Studies at the University of Tehran, while Arzu Merali, head of research for the IHRC, and Manzur Elahi, who worked on the second report, both hold postgraduate degrees from the London School of Economics. The result is that the reports are of far higher quality than most published by Muslim organizations; both have been welcomed by other academics as substantial contributions to understanding community relations in Britain.

The survey underpinning Dual Citizenship asked questions about British Muslim perceptions of their place in British society, their attitude to the British state and government, and their anxieties about their position, before offering a series of recommendations for future government policy. Although it is impossible to summarise the complex findings of the survey fairly, a number of points are worth highlighting. The survey confirmed that the vast majority of British Muslims see no contradiction between their being Muslim and their being citizens of Britain. However, the majority also felt that there was “none” or “no serious” respect for Islam or Muslims from either the government or majority society. Although Muslims appreciate the religious freedom they enjoy in Britain, they feel under continuous pressure to defend Islam, particularly from negative media coverage. Many also reported feeling “at best tolerated and at worst rejected by majority society and government.” There was also concern about the lack of legal protection from discrimination (a theme taken up in the second report) and reactionary and Islamophobic policies. The report concludes with recommendations on how both Muslims and, in particular, thBritish e government can address the concerns raised by Muslims.

The second report, on social discrimination and Islamophobia, looks at Muslim experiences of discrimination in Britain, particularly after 9/11. The findings of the survey are truly shocking. It shows that the experience of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim discrimination has more than doubled since 1999, when the IHRC carried out a similar survey. In 1999, 35 percent of Muslim respondents said they had suffered discrimination because they are Muslims. In 2000, this figure was 45 percent. In this latest report, 80 percent of Muslims report having suffered some form of discrimination because of their faith.

The survey also showed that those who are more practising – perhaps wearing hijab or beards, or praying five times a day – are subject to more discrimination that those who are less practising; 90 percent of Muslims who describe themselves as “highly practising” experienced discrimination. However, even 74 percent of “secular Muslims” and 75 percent of “cultural Muslims” reported discrimination. Interestingly, white British Muslims reported more discrimination than Muslims of other ethnic backgrounds, apparently because they were perceived as being traitors rather than just aliens. In the earlier surveys, Muslim women had tended to report higher levels of discrimination than Muslim men; in the latest report, this gap has closed, with almost the same proportion of men reporting discrimination (78 percent) as women (80 percent).

The survey also highlights different kinds of discrimination that Muslims suffer, from personal harassment to institutional Islamophobia. Although the statistical analysis throws up a number of interesting findings, and perhaps some surprising ones, the most stunning part of the report is in the personal accounts of discrimination and Islamophobia that Muslims report in their responses to the survey. These include physical attacks on women wearing hijab, verbal harassment of schoolchildren, discrimination in education and the workplace, and persecution by the police, social services, immigration officers and other public officials and civil servants. Many of the cases quoted are familiar to those who follow British Muslim affairs; but, put together with the authors’ analytical interpretation of the findings of their survey, they appear not as isolated incidents, but as evidence of a pattern of persecution that cannot be ignored.

Whether the British government will respond to the findings, and the IHRC’s recommendations, remains to be seen; it would be a lot more likely if the reports had the backing of a large and popular Muslim community organization such as the original Muslim Parliament. Nevertheless, these reports are a substantial step towards persuading the British government that it cannot ignore the plight of British Muslims.

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