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Introspection grips British Muslims

July 20, 2005

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LONDON: The room is packed, the discussions go on way beyond the allotted time: this was a meeting of young professional Muslims in London at the weekend. The anguish and self-criticism were unstoppable as they struggled to find answers to how their faith could have nurtured such a perversion as suicide bombers in London.

The object of their scrutiny — the chairman singled this out as a mark of accepting their responsibility — was not British foreign policy, but their faith. What do the Quranic verses about jihad really mean? How can extremists misinterpret them? And the imam, Abu Muntasir, patiently tried to answer — it’s been a failure of our scholars, a failure of our teachers. The harshness of the self-criticism was painful to hear: this was a community flagellating itself.

The themes at the core of their discussions were about the failed transmission of Islamic values in Britain and the collapse of Islamic authority – long traditions of respected scholarship and religious leadership were all cast aside on 7/7 by these four young men – why? Over the coming months, every detail of these young men’s lives will be picked over by anti-terrorist experts to map the experiences and influences that shaped their extremism.

It’s early days, but already some of the factors that need to be plotted on to this map are emerging.

First, the families of the three Leeds-based bombers were originally, in all likelihood, from Mirpur, Azad Kashmir. Mirpuris form 70 per cent of the British Muslim population, and the figure is even higher in northern towns. Just as the dominant role of Saudis in 9/11 led to a spotlight on the religion and politics of Saudi Arabia, so attention will focus on Mirpur.

This rural, impoverished district provided cheap, unskilled labour for Britain in the 60s and 70s. Most immigrants were from subsistence-farming communities and had had little or no schooling. They made a huge cultural and geographical leap to settle in the UK – the dislocation is hard to imagine.

One of the things they brought with them was the perception of a long history of dispossession and marginalization. Partition brought terrible bloodshed and the division of Kashmir between Pakistan and India. (This was the issue cited until very recently as the most pressing political priority in the UK by the majority of British Muslims.) Within Pakistan, Mirpur is to the more dominant Punjabis what the Irish have historically been to the British, explained one Mirpuri.

In the 80s the remittances began to flow in, fuelling an extraordinary boom in Mirpur, bringing computers, televisions, the Internet, satellite dishes, microwaves and fridges. One of the strongest Mirpuri traditions is that you marry your first cousin, so there is a constant exchange with the UK to renew the Mirpuri influence for the next generation. Mirpur has been an example – and there are others the world over — of the painful disruption in deeply traditional communities of a sudden influx of wealth and interface with modernity.

The narrative of dispossession gained new force in the 80s amid the collapse of the industries in which the first generation had come to work. Men who had worked long hours in the textiles and steel industry — and had been, arguably, more integrated into white workforces than their taxi-driver and curry-house sons — found themselves redundant. The more recent oppression and humiliation of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan would have resonated powerfully with these collective memories of Yorkshire Muslims, passed from grandfather and father to son.

A second critical issue that needs to be plotted on to this map is that the vast majority of Mirpuris adhere to a tradition of Sufi Islam called Barelvi. One of the Indian Islamic revival movements of the late 19th century, Barelvi life revolves around holy elders known as pirs; their graves become shrines and places of pilgrimage.

The problem, which has been well known within many Muslim circles, is that Barelvism has particularly struggled to translate itself effectively into British urban life. There are very few English-speaking Barelvi imams. They have steered clear of national organizations such as the Muslim Council of Britain, and even set up their own umbrella group recently. They are treated with disdain by the Wahhabi and Muslim Brotherhood-influenced groups who are more vocal in the British Muslim community. The writ of the MCB’s Iqbal Sacranie, a Malawi-born Indian Muslim, doesn’t reach into such introverted communities. One wry comment at the weekend was: if Sacranie is visiting the Leeds Barelvis now that’s great, but it’s probably the first time.

What has been obvious to thoughtful second-generation Barelvis themselves is that they are losing the young. The mosques are tightly controlled by the old patriarchal elders, who hire their Urdu-speaking imams from the home village. The kids come to prayers, don’t understand much of what they see or hear and drift off to find an Islam that can answer their questions.

A profound disconnection has opened up between the communal experience of political and economic dispossession and the pious, otherworldly Barelvi traditions. As one Yorkshireman from a Barelvi background, Azhar Hussain, said: “When I was 17 and got to university and began to take religion more seriously I went to hear all the Islamic groups to see which one made the most sense. The Barelvis are not on university campuses; they can’t answer those questions.”

In the early 90s Arabs told Navid Akhtar, a broadcast journalist from a Barelvi background, that they had spotted a constituency in these disaffected young Muslims. “They called them ‘orphans of Islam’,” Akhtar says.

To compound the crisis of identity for male teenagers, Muslim girls are thriving with their new-found opportunities in the UK as they pull steadily ahead of their male counterparts at GCSE level and in the numbers going on to higher education.

Some in the Muslim community have been struggling with these problems for years, trying to challenge recalcitrant mosque committees, trying to set up youth projects; they have been well aware of the threat of extremism. “We’ve been too afraid,” a Muslim living in a northern town told me. They convince themselves that this is Islamic. I find it frustrating that our community hasn’t tackled this. We have to talk to them about these issues — let them get their anger out.”

For this man, who does voluntary community work, what lies ahead is an impossible tightrope of near-illegality if he is to take on the challenge of extremism in his community.—Dawn/The Guardian News Service.