By Giles Fraser
6 July 2017
Back in May, at the Roundhouse Poetry Slam, the brilliant Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan took to the stage to denounce the importance of being one of those good Muslims, as opposed to one of the bad ones. I refuse to have to prove my humanity to you by cracking a smile, and saying how “I also cry at the end of Toy Story 3”, she said, her voice shaking with intensity and focus. I won’t try to tell you about “the complex inner worlds of Sumeahs and Aishas.” “No,” she insists, “this will not be a ‘Muslims are like us’ poem. I refuse to be respectable … Because if you need me to prove my humanity, I’m not the one that’s not human.”
I wholeheartedly applaud this refusal of respectability. I’m not asked to flaunt my moral or emotional credentials in order to be treated decently. I’m not asked to demonstrate that I am not a radical, or prove that I am an asset to society. Yet this is what immigrant communities, especially those that come with some “foreign” religion, are regularly pressed to do .
A report out this week, chaired by the MP and QC Dominic Grieve and titled The Missing Muslims, encourages adherents of Islam to greater participation in civil society and public life. It calls for more British-born imams and greater integration of Muslims into British cultural life.
It’s not a bad report, and its intentions are worthy. It recognises that there are problems with the Prevent agenda – which is an understatement – and it wonders out loud if an official definition of Islamophobia, along the lines of that used for antisemitism, should be explored. But, as with so many of the numerous reports about British Muslims, the focus is always on Islam as a problem to be solved and the need to distinguish between good Muslims and bad Muslims.
This good Muslim/bad Muslim distinction has history, of course. It was precisely this distinction that the British colonial authorities used to separate the secular, wine-drinking, western-integrated, moderate Muslims who were prepared to collaborate with British rule and the suspiciously religious, uppity, bearded Muslims who refused to bend the knee to colonial power. As the Oxford professor Tariq Ramadan has rightly pointed out, the good Muslim/bad Muslim distinction is entirely unhelpful, not least because it associates being good and moderate with some diminution of a Muslim’s religiosity. The distinction effectively says: if you are brown and pray more times a day than the local vicar then you should probably expect to have your phone tapped.
There is another problem with establishment bodies calling for Muslim participation within civil society. The British establishment has a longstanding and highly effective strategy when forced to deal with a “foreign” religion they don’t really understand – they seek to transform it into a mini version of the Church of England. This is how it works: first they encourage an organisational coherence, and crucially a hierarchy, and then they draw the newly established leadership into the establishment, with invitations to the Queen’s garden party and possibly a seat in the House of Lords. They did this with Jews in the 19th century. And they are trying to do it to Muslims in the 21st.
Jews called it the Minhag Anglia. The very idea of the chief rabbi, for instance – not a traditionally Jewish institution – was modelled on the office of archbishop of Canterbury, and its office holders took to behaving likewise. Take Hermann Adler, appointed in 1891. Adler styled himself “Very Reverend” and started wearing gaiters. He liked dining in London clubs and was made a CVO, Commander of the Royal Victorian Order. “He gave the Chief Rabbinate a high, unique dignity, ensuring that the Jews would be accorded official representation in national life,” wrote Rabbi Raymond Apple in a 1998 essay. Others saw it differently: he was the “willing captive of the gilded gentry”, wrote one columnist of the time.
This same strategy of drawing Muslims into the establishment has been at work for some time. But it’s a much harder sell because Islam is so much more theologically resistant to hierarchical thinking. It shuns the idea of popes or archbishops and insists that all human beings have equal access to God. This is what I most admire about British Islam. Its bolshy “Protestantism”. Its refusal to be bought off by official trinkets. Its refusal of respectability.