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Experiencing Islam, British Style

Exceptions apart, the British welfare state certainly helped draw most Muslims into the rich multicultural fabric of urban life. The role of religious fanaticism is consistently overestimated and misconstrued.

Experiencing Islam,British Style

Exceptions apart, the British welfare state certainly helped draw most Muslims into the rich multicultural fabric of urban life. The role of religious fanaticism is consistently overestimated and



ecently, and all too typical of many (white) British citizens we know, an Oxford-educated and fervent “old Labour”-leaning solicitor opined over dinner that Islam as a whole is a rigid conformist religion and a threat not only to the west but in the eastern lands in which it is practised. He pronounced this blackcap-on-the-head verdict with perfectly aggravating assurance. Is Islam peculiarly monolithic and dogmatic? Are Muslims less inclined than other creeds and ethnicities to integrate into modern societies? In western eyes, even in the upmarket media, a sinister image of rigid Muslim minorities festering within liberal European cultures is worrisomely widespread.

One is reminded of Frantz Fanon’s 1960s critique of a Western image of third world peoples as an “undifferentiated mass”: mysterious, less than human and, therefore, easy objects of fear and loathing. So one self-made video made an extremist youth look like a universal Islam spokesman. This apprehensiveness takes oddly comic forms on occasion. Another acquaintance, a highly educated northern Irish Catholic and veteran of Republican politics through the worst of that dire conflict, is sure that after September 11, 2001 a dark figure named Islam is implacably bent on a jihad against the west, that is, against both he and his exceedingly strange bed fellow Ian Paisley. That’s progress of a sort, we suppose, but it is also pure nonsense regarding Muslims in Europe.

As the Ottoman empire’s grip in central Europe ebbed in the early 20th century, it marooned large pockets of Muslims in the Balkans. These Muslims consisted of some ethnic Turks but, far more so, converts and the offspring of intermarriage. When the Ottomans finally collapsed after the first world war only token numbers of Muslims settled in Germany, France and Britain. After the second world war, however, large Muslim migrations streamed from south Asia to Britain, from north Africa to France, and from Turkey to Germany. A wry saying has it that: “where the Turkish soldier failed” – turned back at the gates of Vienna in 1683 – “the Turkish worker succeeded”.

Muslim Cultural Inroads

Muslims made brisk cultural inroads in modern Europe, and not only in big cities. Minarets are nestled even in small picturesque German towns. Kebab shops are everywhere. One finds German-born Turks taking Bundestag seats. In spite of a lively and positive presence, many “guest workers” were denied citizenship. As unemployment rose after reunification, the prime candidates for scapegoat were Turks. East Germany, “innocent” of interracial contact for a generation, was especially hostile toward swarthy outsiders. Apart from lags in human rights reforms, this robust prejudice is a key unspoken (in polite company) reason for German opposition to Turkish entry to the European Union.

North African emigrants were culturally closer to French colonisers, who had an erratically pragmatic tradition of integrating local elites and so African Muslims faced fewer barriers to participation in French life. They even produced the best French footballer. With the Fourth Republic in 1946 some colonial representatives also sat in the French national assembly (though by no means in line with their numbers). Indeed, an African member became president of the French upper house in the early 1960s.

The constitution would have allowed him to become president had De Gaulle been assassinated. The thriller Day of the Jackal takes on a piquantly ironic perspective when you realise whom the fictional assassin would have installed in office in reality at the time had he succeeded.

Although the French waged brutal colonial wars in Algeria and in Vietnam, they were not really hated in the aftermath. Quite likely it is that the elites, and just as many people of lower status (like a young Ho Chi Minh) were deeply influenced by French writers who, knowingly or not, inspired independence movements. These “rebels” usually differentiated between avaricious colonial authorities and the “grandeur” of French culture. They admired French language, literature and philosophers. They saw that class and ethnic differences mattered as much as nationality when sizing up people.

When one of us meets Arabic-speaking north Africans there is always an outpour of recognisable words quite common in the Urdu language in India and Pakistan, which also were ruled once upon a time by Turks. Urdu was fashioned out of the mingling of Turkish soldiers with the local populations. In Algeria Arabic and local tongues likewise mixed. Turkey itself underwent an Arabic influence because of Muslim religion. Indeed, for the Muslims of Germany (from Turkey), the Muslims of France (from north Africa), the Muslims of Britain (from south Asia), their one common cultural trait is the European languages that they speak today. If some ardent Jihadis arise among them it is not because of any inherent cultural antagonism or innate religious trait but rather down to political problems they encounter in the countries they now inhabit.

A majority of Muslims in Europe hail from rural areas. In Britain most Pakistani Muslim residents came from the western fringes of Kashmir in the 1950s. When Pakistan built the Mangla Dam and Mirpur town was flooded, a good many displaced residents came to England, attracted by available jobs. South Asian communities that once supplied plentiful British military recruits also uprooted entirely to England to work in factories. The Muslims of Bradford and Birmingham arise from that era. All these newcomers – as immigrants must be of necessity – were docile, keeping to themselves in their own areas surrounded by comforting cultural trappings. They were utterly law-abiding and did not wish to stand out in any way.

Although clerics and national leaders spoke of someday attaining ‘ummah’ (a

Economic and Political Weekly February 4, 2006 united sphere of Muslim countries), it was not these patently wishful thinkers who put aspiration into practice. Rather, it was instead the hard-eyed graduates of training camps of the Soviet Afghan war, who interpreted Islam in such a disastrous way. These fierce fighters were abandoned by western agencies in 1989, but some elements continued to be pampered by Pakistan governments backing both the Taliban (to exert influence inside Afghanistan) and stirring what it viewed as useful mischief in Kashmir. Since September 11, 2001 the Pakistan government, concerned about the internal threat (as well as US pressure), cracked down on the militants, but it still faces a serious long-term problem. A cynical finger-pointing game goes on between Musharaf and impatient westerners, but so long as the political situation in the Muslim world – Palestine, the Iraq occupation, the Afghanistan aftermath, threats to Iran and Syria – is not settled no one will succeed in stamping out militancy.

Religious Fanaticism:Exaggerated and Misconstrued

The good news is that most Muslims in Britain hail from the Barelvi sect of Indian Muslims, with their “Sober Sufism”, a tradition encouraging the arts, meditation and tolerance. Most south Asian Muslims will visit Sufi shrines in Ajmer, Delhi, Lahore and many others scattered across the subcontinent. Yet the Muslim council here is drawn from an elite who do not reflect the Muslim majority. Secretarygeneral Iqbal Sacranie is from southern Africa and, moreover, endorsed burning Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in the 1980s. Another council luminary, Egyptian doctor Badawi, runs what amounts to a theology school for aspiring imams. It is important to realise that the term “imam” is not equivalent to a priest, minister or rabbi, but denotes a man of religious (and only religious) learning who leads the prayers. Anyone, without qualifications, can lead prayers and thus, at that sterling moment, be the imam.

So one should not make of imams more than they are. In the villages of Pakistan imams usually lived off alms. In the Punjab, the word ‘kammi’, meaning menial labour, was rudely extended to imams too. By more illustrious contrast, the prophet Mohammed led the prayers, the caliphs led the prayers, and in India during Gandhi’s time the Islamic scholar Abul Kalam Azad led the prayers, and, in that strict capacity, he too was an imam. Here was the stature of some imams then; now British Muslims are mostly saddled with half-educated blokes.Yet you would think from the overwrought news coverage that each imam is an exact counterpart of pope Benedict XVI. The immigrants of the 1950s put up with this mixed bag of men because of sheer familiarity and sharing the language. But a significant distance grew between the more adventurous and assimilated second generation and these less than formidable pedants.

A new “brand” of radical imams who endorse jihadis arose out of myopic western Machiavellianism guiding the Soviet-Afghan war. Western agencies insistently favoured the most fanatical elements in the Afghan resistance, with scant thought as to consequences. Today the militants’ appeal abroad is fuelled by combustible strife in Palestine, Afghanistan after September 11, 2001 and in Iraq. The role of religious fanaticism is consistently overestimated and misconstrued. Because some imams were anti-Semitic, they quickly become confused in the public mind with the character of the Palestinians’ struggle. But Palestinians never ever talked in jihadic terms, operating instead via secular organisations like the PLO. That is, they all did until Hamas came along, which was encouraged by Israelis in order to split the PLO.

India, which possesses a huge Muslim population, does not produce jihadis even though Indian Muslims are deeply religious. To be “more religious” does not by itself make one an incipient jihadi. One day in Karachi, for example, a curious English visitor (also Jewish) attended mosque prayers with one of us. After 10 minutes, he whispered: what was that agitated imam ranting about? “He is abusing Jews and Christians”, we frankly replied. A little later the apprehensive guest asked what everyone was doing now: The imam was loudly leading the customary daily prayer for the welfare of all “the children of Abraham”. “Now”, we replied, just as truthfully, “he is praying for you”.

Apart from Pakistanis, the other major group in Britain is Bangladeshi, mostly from Chitagong and Sylhet. Their forefathers manned the merchant navy, mainly in the kitchens and other menial work, and took to jumping ship in the 1950s. By the 1960s they became a leading Muslim community here (and dominate the curry restaurants). They now churn out more left wing votes than other Muslim groups, and are major backers of George Galloway’s Respect Party. Why do they lean left? Partly because of East End “proletarian” politics that they picked up while living there. In jihadi sects today you won’t find a Bangladeshi name, though they are devout Muslims.

Most Jihadis originate from countries tapped for recruits in the Soviet-Afghan war: Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and overwrought members of the Saudi Arabian elite. Deoband Wahabbis in India, for example, despite strict Islamic interpretations, were immune to the Saudi Wahabbi brand of Islam because of their staunch anti-imperial tradition of fighting the British in India. The culture in India was not anti-Soviet either so they could neither be enticed nor goaded into war – while some Pakistani Wahabbis were.

The north-west of Pakistan became the collection centre for militant émigrés, who trained in the guerrilla camps. For the first time ordinary young people, who would not have otherwise met, got together under fanatical auspices. These camps are where what Tony Blair calls the “ideology of evil” was nurtured. Left to fend for themselves after Soviet withdrawal, the holy warriors looked to the West as the next satanic target. Osama bin Laden, with deep pockets, insinuated himself into their leadership. Some veterans trickled back to their own countries where they did what they were so scrupulously trained to do: create mayhem. People fret about British Muslims going to Palestine allegedly on jihad but not about British Jews who enlist in the Israeli military. The British welfare state certainly helped draw the vast majority of Muslims into the rich multicultural fabric of urban British life. Nonetheless, there will always be exceptions or”drop-outs” who are deeply disturbed about west Asia issues.

What reasonably is to be done? Authorities must deal seriously with the Muslim Association of Britain, independent Muslim intellectuals and especially MPs from Muslim constituencies who condemn what happened in July, condemn tendencies toward promoting violent repercussions inside the UK, but who oppose British foreign policy, as do most other British citizens. They all would help produce a peaceful atmosphere of mutual trust. The other leaders may get votes for Tony Blair but will not dampen the enthusiasms of the militant Muslims enraged by the west Asia conflict. In any society, as well, you will still have some sociopathic extremists, such as Le Pen, the National Front, or the Aryan nations. Perfect success, which governments dubiously offer in exchange for our pesky civil liberties, is never in the cards. You cannot control all these off-the-wall organisations and their wacko leaders all the time. Witness Yank evangelist Pat Robertson and his gory gospel of holy assassinations.



Economic and Political Weekly February 4, 2006

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