By Akbar Ahmed
September 1, 2018
The story of every immigrant community is extraordinary; that of the British Muslims even more so. On the one hand they have produced some of the most prominent figures in British society — Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London; Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the first Muslim woman co-Chair of the Conservative Party; Zayn Malik, former One Direction singer named one of the 10 most handsome men in the world. On the other hand, British Muslims are now openly vilified as sexual predators “grooming” young English girls and as potential Trojan horses working to destroy Western societies. Whatever the success of the former, great gaps have opened up between the majority population and the Muslim community. Islamophobia has gained ground and attacks on Muslims and mosques are at their highest.
What do we make of this and what needs to be done to have a better understanding of the community?
To provide answers, we are fortunate to have at hand a recently published book by two veteran scholars of the subject, Dr Philip Lewis and Dr Sadek Hamid. The book is British Muslims: New Directions in Islamic Thought, Creativity and Activism (2018, Edinburgh University Press).
Early in July, I was honoured to be on a panel with them, along with Baroness Warsi, when I attended the Bradford Literary Festival. We spoke about the long history of Muslims in Europe drawing on our experiences and recently published books. I referenced both my experience living in Europe multiple times during the past decades and the fieldwork that I had conducted for Journey into Europe (2018, Brookings Institution Press). Baroness Warsi spoke with the insights she gained as a Muslim woman in the House of Lords and discussed the challenges that government policies have created for British Muslims as examined in her book, The Enemy Within: A Tale of Muslim Britain (2018, Penguin Books). Dr Lewis and Dr Hamid spoke of their new book, to which Warsi has contributed a short but sharp foreword.
“A recent study on the political participation among young British Muslims observed that they are far from homogenous as a group”
Much as I did in my study, Lewis and Hamid were careful not to assume that British Muslims are a homogenous group, noting: “A recent study on the political participation among young British Muslims observed that they are far from homogenous as a group. There are ‘crucial variations in their strengths of religious and national identities, their orientations towards British society and their modes of political engagement’” (p. ix).Through this framework, Lewis and Hamid analyse the ways that British Muslims are shaping Islamic discourse through scholarship and activism.
They describe their study as “a work of collaboration by two friends committed to understanding and making sense of Islam, especially as lived within the many different Muslim communities in Britain today. Both of us have written on Islam in Britain. One of us is an insider, the other an outsider”(p. vii).
Even as an “outsider”, with a Christian background, Lewis is intimately familiar with the British-Muslim community through his scholarly work and his decades of distinguished service in promotion of interfaith harmony. Ever since completing his PhD in the early 1990s based on Bradford’s Muslim community he has produced a number of books on Islam in Britain, most notably, Young, British, and Muslim(2007). Drawing on his scholarly expertise, he has spent decades as advisor to the Anglican bishops of Bradford and Leeds. Additionally, he was a Member of the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia for The Runnymede Trust, which was set up to examine “islamophobia”, a term the commission introduced to describe prejudice against Muslims and Islam in its 1997 publication Islamophobia: a challenge for us all.
Similarly, Hamid has spent more than three decades engaging with the British Muslim community; however, he has done so from the inside as an activist, youth and community development professional, and as an academic. He has held teaching positions most recently as a Senior Researcher at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies at Oxford University. His academic publications include Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic activism (2016), which I cited in Journey into Europe in my discussion of the social problems that young Muslims face in Britain as they are torn between their parents’ traditional values and those of Britain.
The central argument of British Muslims is the way that Muslims in Britain are engaging with Islam through English, the language of their new home. They suggest that the critical self-renewal of Islam through English contrasts with “the traditional pull of South Asian ‘schools of thought’ ‘ideologically and institutionally dominant’ in the UK where the medium of instruction remains Urdu” (p. xi).
The authors explain that the use of English as a new language through which to engage with Islam is not inherently unique and is a part of a larger historical trajectory of Islam being embraced by a diverse range of distinct cultures leading to its expression in different languages. The majority Muslim areas alone represent five major language groups: Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu and Bengali. They state, “It is our contention that English today could be as significant as Persian was in the past, as a vehicle for generating new thinking for emerging Muslim elites” (p.x)To demonstrate this, they provide examples of the way that Muslims in Britain are expressing their practice of Islam through art and activism.
They illustrate the way that Muslims have been engaging with Western popular culture and incorporating their own forms of expression with the notion of a “Muslim Cool.” They explain that, “The idea of a ‘Muslim Cool’ was first coined by Algerian French researcher Amel Boubekuer in a 2005 article entitled ‘Cool and Competitive Muslim Culture in the West’. She uses the concept to refer to a growing urban Muslim phenomenon — an ‘ethislamic’, an ethics inspired by the stylish fusion of faith and Western popular youth culture which shapes concepts, conversations, fashion and activism. This ‘new Islamic culture presents itself as cool and fashionable (i.e. modern), along with being competitive’ in relation to the West’s political, economic and cultural dominance” (p. 186). The impact of this evolving culture, they explain, goes beyond the Muslim community and through means such as music has touched minorities more broadly, “These themes that transcend the experiences of American minority communities found receptive audiences everywhere among marginalised groups interested in the socially transformative power of music and have clearly found a home in the UK” (p. 187).
These integrations of Muslim and British culture have influenced the way that Islam is practiced. The key example of this changing practice provided by Lewis and Hamidis through the introduction of Islamic chaplaincy which traditionally was defined as Christian pastoral care. Muslim chaplains now must adjust to a radically new institutional culture. In practice, the authors argue that “To function in such an environment requires ‘an ability to think and act in new ways’. In short, they are enacting, however provisionally, new legal thinking (Ijtihad)” (p. 72).
Considering the light the book throws on the burning issues in British society that directly impact Muslims such as those of Islamophobia, identity, immigration, extremism, terrorism, and integration, it is required reading for anyone-especially journalists, policy makers, and scholars wishing to understand modern British society.
Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity