“BRING me your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
For many decades, when immigrants to the US arrived by ship, that inscription on the Statue of Liberty welcomed them to their new home. And as soon as the newcomers docked in New York the process of assimilation began. Partly to make it easier for potential employers, Kohnavalsky became Cohen and Smillikov turned into Smiley. Europeans became Americans.
That’s not to say that all aspects of the immigrants’ old cultures were forgotten. There were lingering attachments to familiar foods and traditional festival days. But even if many of America’s different communities sustained parts of their old identities they also made a conscious effort to integrate into their new country. As anyone who has attended an American sporting event knows, US patriotism is unabashed and unrestrained.
Many among British Deobandis are opposed to integration.
The UK handles these matters differently. When mass immigration started in the 1970s the British state helped the incomers preserve their cultural traditions. The policy of multiculturalism may have reflected post-imperial guilt, but whatever its source, the objective in part was to encourage tolerance and to combat racial prejudice.
There were always some dissenters. But multiculturalism remained firmly in place until 2004 when the then chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Philips, said he thought that the policy was failing. Far from helping people live together, he argued, multiculturalism was encouraging communities to live separately.
Today the emphasis is on integration. The prime minister has even suggested that immigrants who fail to learn English could be deported, although where to is unclear. The shift has caused difficulties. Take, as just one example, the UK branch of Tableeghi Jamaat. For many years the missionary outfit has had its headquarters in Dewsbury in the Midlands. But it wanted to build a new headquarters — and Europe’s biggest mosque — on some land in East London.
Building restrictions in the UK are so tight that it can take years to get permission even to add a small room to a private home. Big projects such as the so-called mega mosque are even more wound up in bureaucratic red tape. Succeeding in getting permission involves a process of winning over local officials and elected politicians. It was a process Tableeghi Jamaat found difficult.
Some of the organisation’s leaders — particularly those based in London — realised that, to succeed, they needed to be less insular. Public relations companies were hired and big name architects taken on. An effort was made to hold genuine conversations with the councillors and officials who have the power to approve or deny planning permission. But the Tableeghis did too little, too late. Last year a final decision on the construction of the mosque came down against it although rumour has it that the local council is already reaching out to the Tableeghis with a view to allowing a smaller mosque to be built.
Other strands of the British Deobandi community are not just reluctant to engage with the UK’s institutions and processes, they are actively opposed to doing so. For example, the most senior Deobandi cleric in the UK, Yusuf Motala, has never once appeared on British TV.
Some Islamists argue that this failure to engage with British public life is a reaction to racism. Forced onto the defensive, the argument goes, the Tableeghis and other Deobandi clerics retreat into institutions in which they feel safe. If the rest of the UK wants greater integration, they argue, then it’s up the government and British society more generally to take the lead.
But others maintain that the Deobandis are at least partly responsible for their own seclusion. Wherever they are, Deobandi leaders tend to be suspicious or even dangerously intolerant of other groups. Their isolation, in other words, is driven by their determination to defend their purist and literalist doctrine. That’s why Deobandism was established in the 1860s and remains its purpose today.
While the Deobandis may be the group most determined to resist integration, they are by no means alone. The recent hanging of Mumtaz Qadri led to some Barelvi clerics in the UK declaring him a martyr. Such attitudes create a difficulty. The British authorities are keen to engage with Muslim leaders — and the Barelvis might seem an obvious choice. But engagement is going to be politically impossible with clerics who support the murderer of a senior Pakistani state official.
For many young British Muslims, it is as if they are living in two worlds: one in which they are modern Brits and one in which they are devout members of their religious community. The difficulty in reconciling those two very different aspects of their lives is what drives some young men and women to seek the moral clarity and certainty that comes with extreme political Islamism and, in a few cases, a decision to volunteer for violent jihad.
The writer is a British journalist and author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm.
Published in Dawn, March 10th, 2016