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NON-FICTION: ASSALAAM ALAIKUM BRITAIN

November 12, 2017
Muslims offer Friday prayers in East London | Reuters
Muslims offer Friday prayers in East London | Reuters

“There seemed to be a mosque on every other corner; brown faces predominated in every direction. I was, I knew, in the heart of a Muslim community 250,000-strong: one of the greatest urban concentrations of them in Europe. From Sparkbrook and Sparkhill in the south, through Small Heath and Saltey up to Alum Rock and Washwood Heath in the north, the cause of integration appeared to have surrendered altogether. This mushrooming community has no lodestone, but if it did, it would probably be placed in the middle of Small Heath Park, where in the summer of 2016 some 90,000 people came together to celebrate the end of Ramzan [sic], the largest such gathering in Europe.”

This is how Edinburgh-based journalist James Fergusson describes Birmingham in his book Al-Britannia, My Country: Travels in Muslim Britain. He spent 2016 immersed in the lives of British Muslims and even fasted during Ramazan. This book, he says, was written for fear of the enemy within: the Islamist terrorists.

In the above passage Fergusson highlights two severe problems Muslim have created in their adopted home of the United Kingdom. The first is the concentrated population, especially in the north-west of England. Though he avoids giving reasons for these concentrations, Fergusson accepts factors such as locals leaving areas where Muslims settle as they apparently do not like the “smell of curry”, without mentioning the fact that in 2015, curry was the most popular dish in the country. The second is anxiety about the manner of Muslim prayers; they see Muslims praying in organised formation five times a day, circumambulating the Kaaba every year, and fear that someday Muslims will wake up from their slumber to stand against Western dominance.

A British journalist spends a year studying Muslims in the United Kingdom

Fergusson writes: “Muslims have doubled since 2001 to over three million, accounting for five percent of the population. In cities [such as] Leicester and Blackburn, the proportion is 25 percent. In 2015 the most popular name for newborn boys in Britain was Mohammad or its variant. One in 12 British schoolchildren is a Muslim.”

According to an assessment by the British government, creating ethnic concentrations causes radicalisation and produces terrorists. By 2016, an estimated 850 Britons left the country to join the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Islamist terrorist attacks even now are highly likely and the threat level has been kept at high for almost three years. Despite this, the authorities do not give details of terrorist plots; they just give figures. Nor do they give an idea of severity, whether it is a plot similar to 9/11, a knife attack, or preparations to detonate a bomb.

In 2014, the Department of Education published a guide of ‘fundamental British values’ for students’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. These values included democracy, rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance, and claimed that anyone vocally opposing them was susceptible to radicalisation. But what does vocal opposition mean? Does it mean criticism? Dissent? No politician has ever produced satisfactory answers to these questions. Moreover, these fundamental British values are nothing new and not fundamentally British; they are very much akin to Islamic teaching and universal human values.

In 2015, the Counter-terrorism and Security Act was passed by which half a million public sector employees were obligated to report anyone undermining the above values as that implied the possibility of them becoming radicalised. In the first year, according to Fergusson, 7,500 people were referred. A 10-year-old boy was reported because he wrote that he lived in a “terrorist house” instead of a terraced house. An eight-year-old was investigated for wearing a t-shirt stating he wanted to be like “Abu Bakr al Siddique” which was mistaken for Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. A teenager was referred for wearing a ‘Free Palestine’ badge. Boycotting Marks & Spencer was considered an undermining of British values. Additionally, the prime minister recently ruled that Muslim women must either learn the English language or face deportation.

In 2014, an anonymous letter was sent to the Birmingham City council — which maintains state schools in the area — providing “evidence” that an Islamist “Trojan horse” plot was in place to convert schools into madressahs. The governors of the schools were Muslims and their idea was to foster a Muslim identity in the pupils. Four major investigations were carried out in 21 schools. Teachers were replaced, governors were forced out, some banned from any employment. However, no evidence of extremism or radicalisation was found in the investigations. Now not one of the trustees of the principal school is Muslim — and this is in the heart of the city’s Muslim area. Fergusson spoke to Tahir Alam, the alleged mastermind of the plot, who stated that “the Trojan horse was a hoax and intentional” and the government was using bureaucracy to “squash our culture.” Fergusson also spoke to parents who were astounded by the weight of government intervention and concluded that this would obviously lead to marginalisation, alienation and the creation of Muslim apartheid.

How do Muslim communities across the country feel about such severe actions? According to Fergusson, they are boiling with resentment at being collectively blamed for a tiny number of violent extremists. Muslims are experiencing paranoia, anger and confusion and feel assaulted from multiple directions: the media, extreme right-wing parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the English Defence League and, most worryingly, from the government itself.

Muslim communities have their own problems, blighted by drug-related crime and sex-grooming gangs such as were exposed in Rotherham in 2014. Bradford has a rising “rude boy” culture and organised cage fighting — all of which is deemed to produce frustration, anger and lead a way to radicalisation. More than 12,500 Muslims are in jail. Fergusson writes that at 15 percent of prison population, this is three times the proportion of Muslims in the country. Community elders are losing control of the younger generation. Eighty percent of youngsters in Bradford can’t understand a word of Urdu. The town of Dewsbury, the centre of the Tableeghi Jamaat of Britain, has come under siege by far-right parties such as Britain First, which a Muslim community leader calls “the vanguard of medieval crusade.” A far-right demonstration against a Muslim peace centre in Leicester went on every night for seven months. This is in addition to problems created by the community itself, such as biradari politics and the huge postal fraud carried out in the Midlands some years ago.

According to a recent news item in The Guardian, increasing Islamophobia is holding Muslims back in the workplace. Only one in five Muslim adults is in full-time employment. Educated Muslims are shortlisted, but never get the job. Fifty percent of Muslim households are considered to be in poverty as compared to 18 percent of the overall population.

In East London and West Midlands, Muslims initiated Sharia courts to resolve family-based disputes of marriage, divorce and inheritance, and right-wing politicians decried that “a parallel court system is being initiated.” UKIP leader Nigel Farage claimed the number of Sharia courts to be 80. When the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, supported the formation of Sharia courts, he was attacked and derided for his gently inclusive ambition. Then there is opposition to the niqab; Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary in ex-prime minister Tony Blair’s cabinet, asked “niqabis” to remove their veils when meeting him. Fergusson spoke to various ‘niqabis’ and found no one reason for wearing them; some wore them intermittently, others would not wear the niqab in places such as police stations and courts. Strict observance was very limited.

According to the book, the greatest resentment in most British Muslims is aroused by British foreign policy: invading Middle Eastern countries in collusion with the United States. These emotions were felt long before Al Qaeda or ISIS appeared on the scene, and were compounded by the arming of Saudi Arabia in hostilities towards Yemen. Meanwhile, local Muslim problems boil down to discrimination, lack of employment and the resultant poverty, and the placing of blame on the majority for the actions of a few individuals, particularly in communities of Pakistani origin.

Is the British government doing anything about it? After the 7/7 attack in London, the Blair government poured money into youth organisations, but the spending was ill-organised. In some cases, funding went to organisations and projects that espoused the same extremist views that the programme was designed to eradicate, showing that the government chose the completely wrong organisations.

But everything is not doom and gloom; Muslim organisations are doing excellent work in various parts of the country, such as the Curry Kitchens that feed the homeless. Relations appear particularly healthy in Scotland because — according to Fergusson — of the close ties leaders have maintained with Muslim communities.

As for the other parts of the UK, Muslim community leaders draw a parallel between the dissolution of Catholic monasteries in 16th century Britain and the modern treatment of Muslims. Others reference 15th century Spain where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella forced Muslims to convert or emigrate and banned the veil on grounds of it being a barrier to integration.

Fergusson in his book presents both sides of the story and adopts a supporting attitude towards Muslim views, praising the Zakat system and warning the British government of its discriminatory policies and practices. Al-Britannia, My Country, is a recommended read for anyone interested in the present condition and further development of Muslims, especially the Pakistani community, in Britain.

The reviewer is a fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, UK, and editor of the books Khan-i-Khana Nama, Bairam Khan and Waqa-i-Babur

Al-Britannia, My Country: Travels in
Muslim Britain
By James Fergusson
Bantam Press, UK
ISBN: 978-0593077375
386pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 12th, 2017