Like British Christians, British Muslims tend only to attract attention when they misbehave. The normal life of British Muslims is as unlikely to make headlines as the normal life of anyone else.
But when something as vile as the massacre by Hamas of civilians on 7th October takes place, and is followed by large pro-Palestinian demonstrations in this country, British Muslims become newsworthy.
The Times yesterday devoted a leading article to “the growing disquiet among British Muslims” who have “concluded” that Sir Keir Starmer “is indifferent to the suffering of Palestinian civilians”.
One may note, if one wishes, the judicious use of the word “among” in the phrase above, but such qualifications are almost at once forgotten as politicians and commentators rush to tell British Muslims what they must do – or indeed to express sympathy with British Muslims in order to win or retain their support.
No interest whatever is taken in the Muslims’ religious beliefs, any more than interest is taken in the religious beliefs of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
We find ourselves watching a political struggle in which religious labels are flung around with ignorant abandon, and the overwhelming urge is to win the argument, which most often reduces itself to the proposition: “If you are not with us, you are against us.”
Simplicity, the illusion of comprehensibility, is attained at the expense of truth. For the first point to note about British Muslims is that they are remarkably various in their origins and practices.
As the authors of Unsettled Belonging: A survey of Britain’s Muslim communities, published by Policy Exchange in 2016 and perhaps the most extensive research into the views of British Muslims ever carried out, observed at the start of their conclusion:
“If there is one overriding story in this survey of British Muslim attitudes it is the complexity and diversity of views.
“As stated at the outset, the extensive nature of our polling confirms that it is not possible to speak of a monolithic ‘community’; British Muslims live in a patchwork of communities, which agree, or disagree – to a greater, or lesser extent – on certain issues.
“This may seem like a trivial point, but so much of contemporary discourse seems to assume that it is possible to speak of British Muslims in singular terms.”
According to the 2021 census, 6.5 per cent of the population of England and Wales – 3,868,133 people – are Muslim, including 1,318,754 in London, 569,963 in the West Midlands, 563,105 in North West England and 442,533 in Yorkshire and the Humber.
Much the greatest number are of Pakistani origin: over 1.5 million in the 2021 census. In South Asia, Bangladesh, with 15 per cent of British Muslims and India, with eight per cent, come next.
Muslims have also come to Britain from Cyprus, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, the Maghreb, Nigeria, Somalia, Afghanistan and many other places.
To these may be added perhaps 100,000 converts to Islam who were already living in Britain.
But mere figures give nothing of the texture of Muslim life in Britain. For that it is better to turn to Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam, by Innes Bowen, published in 2014.
Some idea of the staggering richness of the subject may be gained from her eight chapter headings:
1. The Deobandis: The Market Leaders
2. The Tablighi Jamaat: Missionaries and a Mega Mosque
3. The Salafis: “Don’t call us Wahhabis!”
4. The Jamaat-e-Islami: British Islam’s Political Class
5. The Muslim Brotherhood: The Arab Islamist Exiles
6. The Barelwis: Sufis and Traditionalists
7. The Shia “Twelvers”: Najaf in Brent
8. The Ismailis: The Dawoodi Bohras and the Followers of the Aga Khan
“Oh we don’t mean the Aga Khan!” the reader may exclaim, grateful for having spotted a familiar name. “Well who do you mean?” one might respond.
Bowen describes, with fairness and clarity, the ethnic and sectarian divisions within British Islam. Sufism, the dominant form of Islam among British Muslims of Pakistani origin, is itself divided between two rival South Asian movements, the Barelwis and the more puritanical Deobandis.
When her book came out, Barelwi organisations controlled about 25 per cent of the 1,600 British mosques (a number which has since grown to just under 2,000), while Deobandi organisations controlled about 44 per cent, and dominated such districts as Savile Town in Dewsbury and Highfields in Leicester.
Bowen remarks that the Deobandis are often thought, wrongly, to be influenced by the Wahhabis, the puritanical form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia. She adds that the real Wahhabis of Britain prefer to be called Salafis, and points out that the most prominent radical preachers in Britain – Abu Qatada, Abu Hamza, Abdullah al Faisal and Sheikh Omar Bakri – call themselves Salafis.
She quotes a teacher in Dewsbury who says:
“As Muslims we’re not interested in an education that is simply about getting a job. We’re not on Earth for this reason. We live on Earth merely with a view to the next life.”
Here is a view with which many devout Christians would agree. Bowen gives a list of forbidden items at a Muslim girls’ boarding school which includes “make-up, short clothes, indecent nightwear, novels, kettles, mobile phones, hair straighteners and chewing gum”.
Most of these items would have been forbidden at a Christian girls’ boarding school a generation or two ago, and for all I know still are. It seems to me completely unfair to condemn Muslims for holding conservative opinions which until the 1960s were taken for granted in British society.
With Bowen as our guide, we learn how a mosque often has a link man whose task is to deal with the local authority, and join the local interfaith network, in order to enable the mosque’s congregation to lead segregated lives, as a community apart.
Here is fertile ground for suspicion. What is going on in these segregated communities?
In his book Among the Mosques: A Journey Across Muslim Britain, published in 2021 and reviewed here on ConHome, Ed Husain warns that a “caliphist subculture” thrives in towns like Blackburn, and that “blind reliance on scripture and clerics is overwhelmingly strong within British Islam”.
He knows these mosques: I don’t. The only time I have written about a visit to a British mosque, Minhaj-ul-Quran in East London, was in 2011, not long after the stabbing of Stephen Timms, MP for East Ham, by a young woman, Roshonara Choudry, who was angry he had voted for the Iraq War, and said she had been radicalised by listening online to the sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, a leader of al-Qaeda.
Timms was lucky to survive this attack. Al-Awlaki, an American citizen deeply implicated in terrorism, was killed in Yemen later in 2011 in a US drone strike ordered by President Barack Obama.
Choudry, convicted of attempted murder, has in the last year or two written from prison to apologise to Timms, who has himself said said that his relationship with his Muslim constituents was “strengthened” by the attack, for after it they rallied to the support of this already popular MP (majority in 2019 33,176).
As I reported in 2011,
“In 1994, Mr Timms was prompted to put his name forward to become the next Labour MP for East Ham (then Newham North East) by a prominent local Muslim who told him: ‘You believe in God. We believe in God. We think you should go for this job.’ It seems clear that the seriousness of Mr Timms’s faith [he is a devout Christian] encourages other believers to trust him, and makes it easier for him to respect them.”
The Labour Party has done much to integrate Muslims into British society. Of the 19 Muslim MPs elected in 2019, 15 are Labour and four Conservative.
When Boris Johnson held a question and answer session at the Minhaj-ul-Quran mosque, he said he looked forward to the day when being a Muslim was no more remarkable than being a redhead.
The audience was more impressed that his great-grandfather, Ali Kemal, was a Hafiz – a Muslim who knows the Koran by heart – than that Johnson was Mayor of London.
When people criticise the present Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, they do so because they are underwhelmed by his performance in office, not because he is a Muslim.
On 26th February 1920, the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, contended in the Commons that Muslim (or as he called it Mahomedan) opinion had to be taken into account as a factor in British foreign policy:
“It is too often forgotten that we are the greatest Mahomedan power in the world. One-fourth of the population of the British Empire is Mahomedan, There have been no more loyal adherents to the throne, there has been no more effective loyal support to the Empire in its hour of trial than came from the Mahomedans of India. We gave a solemn pledge [about the future of Constantinople], and they accepted it, and they are disturbed at the prospect of our not abiding by it.”
One may feel irritated by the high moral tone struck by Lloyd George, but the argument he was advancing, namely that when adopting a policy it is necessary to bear in mind how that policy will be received by a significant section of public opinion, is a powerful one.
Sir Keir Starmer is now making some at least rhetorical concessions in order to retain the support of some Labour MPs, councillors and voters who are Muslim. This would also be the case, probably to a greater extent, if the crisis of the moment had erupted in Kashmir.
In his foreword to the Policy Exchange report cited above, Khalid Mahmood, Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr since 2001, notes with satisfaction that British Muslims are loyal, patriotic and have on many topics (e.g. the NHS) the same views as their neighbours, but goes on to say that on the troubled question of extremism,
“It is obviously a cause for concern that so many within our communities should doubt the very existence of this phenomenon, even as we face a severe and on-going terrorist threat.
“Even more startling is the fact that so many British Muslims seem ready to entertain wild and outlandish conspiracy theories about the way the world works, believing that dark forces are at work to ‘do us down’ as Muslims.
“From the attacks of 9/11, down to the more recent conflict in Syria, too many people seem ready to believe that these events are being deliberately organised and manipulated – whether by the American Government, Jews, or some other force – with the express intention of damaging Muslims.”
But there are other voices to be heard, as long as we do not allow them to be drowned by the vulgar cries of Hamas supporters.
The ancient and sophisticated traditions of Islam are no more extinct than the ancient and sophisticated traditions of Christianity and of Judaism, with which they share so much.
The terrorists with their death cult and their abominable cruelty must not impel an ignorant fear that they are the true representatives of Islam, whether in Britain or anywhere else.
A number of senior Muslim clerics in Britain have denounced “Hamas’s killing and abduction of innocent people” on 7th October.
One of the signatories to that statement, Shaikh Abdal-Hakim Murad (born Tim Winter; older brother of Henry Winter, the football correspondent; Dean of Cambridge Muslim College), suggested in a subtle lecture delivered to a conference of British converts to Islam on 17th September 1997, entitled British and Muslim?:
“Islam, once we have become familiar with it, and settled into it comfortably, is the most suitable faith for the British. Its values are our values. Its moderate, undemonstrative style of piety, still waters running deep; its insistence on modesty and a certain reserve, and its insistence on common sense and on pragmatism, combine to furnish the most natural and easy religious option for our people.”
The present author would not go that far, but is less learned than Murad.