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franciscan - September 1997

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1997

Let Demonising of British Muslims end

by Philip Lewis

No one has a view from nowhere. My own experience of Christian-Muslim relations has been shaped by three contexts. First, I spent six years in the Christian Study Centre in Pakistan, where I sought to make sense of Islam in its distinctive South Asian dress. Historically, Islam in India was rooted in the hearts and minds of non-Arabic speakers by dynasties of sufi ‘saints’, who generated Islam’s devotional hymns in the vernacular languages. These religious songs with their criticism of bookish scholars - ulama - who know nothing of love, have consoled and delighted Muslims for over half a millennium. Such sufi fraternities were not politically quietist but often provided the backbone of opposition to non-Muslim invasion.

Alongside this tradition, the trauma of colonial conquest generated a range of Muslim responses: an apolitical revivalism, rejecting western intellectual and cultural influences; Islamic modernism, seeking to remain faithful to Islam yet open to an honest engagement with the west; ‘Islamism’, a religio-political movement presenting Islam as a total ideology providing the basic framework of meaning and direction for political, social and cultural life.

The second context is Bradford where, for over a decade, I have worked as an Interfaith Adviser to the Bishop. Here, I have begun to see emerging a British expression of Islam, both locally and nationally. Let me illustrate this with three recent encounters. First, an LSE graduate, Mr Sohail Nakhooda, has just returned from Rome where he spent two years with the Dominicans studying Catholic theology. Although from a Gujarati background, Sohail was brought up in Mozambique, spoke Portuguese and found Italian easy to learn. He is now studying for an MA in Protestant theology at a British university. He works for the Islamic Foundation in Leicester in their Interfaith Unit, which produces the excellent Encounters, Journal of Inter-Cultural Perspectives. Here, then, a Muslim institute is laying the foundation for a serious theological meeting with Christians. Secondly, Dr Hussain, a former research scholar at Nottingham University, has earned a PhD in medical biochemistry from Birmingham University and then spent a year in a traditional Islamic seminary in Pakistan, from where his family originated, and finally gained a BA in Islamic Studies from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the oldest and most prestigious seat of Islamic learning in the world. Dr Hussain draws on this wide range of experience as a Director of a Mosque and editor of a Muslim magazine in English, The Invitation, self-consciously seeking to engage with British Muslim youth. He has also had a formative role in developing an Islamic seminary in Britain. Finally, Mr Mahmud Al-Rashid, a young barrister from a Bangladeshi background, is responsible for creating an Association of Muslim Lawyers and its newsletter. The aim of this is to network and encourage British Muslims in the legal profession and from within to become an advocate of the special needs of Muslims. Such a constructive engagement with the institutions of British society is now becoming increasingly common. This reflects the coming of age of a new generation of British-educated Muslim professionals.

The third context is Leeds University department of theology and religious studies, where I lecture part-time. Here, I have taught and interacted with Muslim students from Indonesia, Turkey and Iran, and British Muslims – most of the latter from South Asian backgrounds. Muslims, one soon discovers, are not religious in general but Muslim in specific ways, shaped by particular histories and cultures. They share broad Islamic commonalities of belief and practice, meet on pilgrimage, but for the rest have generated different styles of leadership and patterns of interpretation and application of sacred texts. Of course, some movements transcend national boundaries and with developments in communications technology, transport and information – globalisation – Muslims at different parts of the world are more aware of the sufferings of co-religionists in Bosnia, Chechnya, Israel and Kashmir. However, any notion of monolithic Islam is soon challenged by such an experience! What has also become apparent to me is that, worldwide, all religions are very much back on the political agenda. All are challenging the notion that ‘consensual norms and ultimate values can be located in a secular or non-religious source.’

So far, I have not mentioned the dreaded ‘f’ word – fundamentalism. The reason is that a word coined within American Protestant history to encapsulate a concern with right doctrines, particularly that of inerrancy of scripture, often in association with an apolitical stance, is not readily transferable to religions such as Islam and Orthodox Judaism, which are more concerned with right practice. However, this is not to argue that contemporary Islam in Britain is without its fringe of radical militants. One such maverick figure, the Syrian Omar Karki Mohammed, was recently profiled on Channel 4 – the ‘Tottenham Ayatollah’. Such figures are attractive to some students from traditional Muslim backgrounds, who cannot connect with Muslim religious leaders in the Mosques, most of whom continue to be imported from South Asia with little English and even less understanding of British society.

The leadership, dynamics and rhetoric of radical Muslim groups has been vividly and sympathetically drawn in a recent novel – The Black Album – by Hanif Kureishi. In the figure of the student leaders, Riaz, Kureishi communicates and captures their appeal. Riaz’s Sunday talks in the Mosque, ‘were well attended by a growing audience of young people, mostly local . . . Asians. Not being an aged obscurantist, Riaz was becoming the most popular speaker . . . he entitled his talks, Rave from the Grave?, Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve, Islam: A Blast from the Past or a Force for the Future? and Democracy is a Hypocrisy.’

It would be wrong to exaggerate the numbers involved or the significance of such groups. However, the danger of such movements is twofold: its inflammatory literature reinforces stereotypes about Muslims already part of the ‘common-sense’ world of many in British society and the media – see the Runnymede Trust’s recent consultation document, Islamophobia, its features and dangers – and also threatens to undercut support for Muslim student groups concerned to enable a real engagement with wider society.
What is particularly worrying is that British Muslims, and more particularly those of Pakistani background, have assumed the space that the Irish Catholics once inhabited in British demonology. There is little difference between Paddy-baiting and Paki-bashing: the Irish were blamed by the indigenous working class for depreciating wages; they spoke a different language, were socialised into a separate world and assumed to defer to the priest; Catholicism was considered a synonym for superstition, moral corruption, intolerance and potential treason, with the assumption that the papacy rather than the crown was the active centre of loyalty and affection. Between the wars, they moved into labour politics but were mistrusted on three accounts: they pressed for denominational schooling rather than secular education; they were opposed to birth control’ and they viewed the communists in the Spanish Civil War with hostility for alleged atrocities against Catholic clergy. For the Protestant and liberal imagination, they were the significant ‘other’ in contrast to whom identity was defined. It is clear that Muslims rather than Irish Catholics are now the awkward minority for liberal and Christian alike.

What is crucial is that Churches commit themselves to maintaining a Christian presence in areas of high Muslim settlement. The priority is to develop relationships, maintain contacts and identify areas where we can work together with integrity. This is an exacting ministry requiring a long-term engagement. It requires considerable wisdom and patience. Muslims are constantly under the media spotlight and are the most researched minority in Britain. At times, they long simply to be left alone and given the space to develop their own patterns of accommodation with wider society, away from the glare of media attention. Nonetheless, Christian concern and presence is welcomed. An enquiry into the Bradford riots in a Muslim area two years ago and a dissenting report by the Muslim Commissioner have recently been published. Both commended the role of the Churches. Let me conclude with some comments by the Commissioner:

“[The Christian Churches] have been committed and active in promoting good inter-communal relationships and in speaking out on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged. The Anglican Churches have shown particular vigour in this field and have maintained a considerable presence in the area, at a significant cost, with valuable effect. They deserve recognition from the wider community . . .” §

Dr Philip Lewis’s authoritative book Islamic Britain was published in 1994 by Tauris.


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