By Innes Bowen
14 June 2014
The introduction of a madrassa curriculum at a secular state school in Birmingham and talk of Christian pupils at risk of ‘cultural isolation’ seem to have come as a revelation to non-Muslim Britain. They should not have. Islam in Britain is dominated by a very specific, and rather illiberal, version of the faith — one that, if anything, seems to be becoming more conservative over time.
As the Muslim population became more established, one might have assumed that a westernised form of Islam would have come to dominate Britain’s mosques. According to a database of British Islam, however, only two out of 1,700 mosques in Britain follow modernist interpretations of the Koran. It’s not the same elsewhere in the West. In a 2011 survey of Islam in the United States, 56 per cent of mosques described themselves as following an interpretation of Islam adapted to modern circumstances. This has not happened in Britain.
For the past seven years I have spent my spare time travelling around the UK, talking to Islamic leaders and grass-roots followers, trying to find out more about the structure of Islam in Britain. In the main, I have been treated with courtesy — and often with warmth.
As a liberal, however, it took some getting used to the environments into which I have been welcomed. At virtually every Islamic gathering I have attended, men and women have been seated separately. Even at social events in relatively middle-of-the-road mosques, a sheet will be hung across the hall, with women and children eating on one side and men on the other.
The management committees which run the mosques are usually men-only (or at least male-dominated). And these are the relatively liberal mosques, insofar as they allow women on the premises. Around a quarter of mosques in the UK do not. (What, I wonder, would our reaction be if a network of men-only churches were to spring up in Britain?) Most Muslim men will shake my hand — but, to avoid embarrassment, I have learnt not to be the first one to extend my arm.
So which Islamic schools of thought run Britain’s mosques today? The influence of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi movement is often cited. But the Wahhabis — or Salafis as they prefer to be called — control just 6 per cent of mosques.
The largest single group — the one which arguably gives Islam in Britain much of its character — is the Deobandi. It controls around 45 per cent of Britain’s mosques and nearly all the UK-based training of Islamic scholars. What most Deobandi scholars have in common is a conservative interpretation of Islamic law: television and music for the purposes of entertainment, for example, are frowned upon if not banned. Women are advised not to emerge from their homes any more than is necessary.
The advice section of the website of Mufti Muhammed ibn Adam al-Kawthari, one of the Deobandis’ leading British-born, UK-trained Islamic scholars, gives a flavour of this group’s approach to living as a Muslim in the West. One follower posts a question asking whether it is permissible to wear a tie to work if asked to do so by one’s employer. The scholar says it is permissible but warns that it is better to ‘avoid the dress of the unbelievers’, so the wearing of the tie should be confined to work. Women followers are advised that it is necessary to cover their faces in ‘normal’ situations and that it is generally impermissible for them to travel a distance of more than 48 miles unless accompanied by a male relative (even if the purpose is to attend a religious gathering).
There is a good reason why this interpretation of Islam sounds so similar to that of Afghanistan: the Taleban movement grew out of the Deobandi madrasas of Pakistan. Tony Blair justified to the Muslim world the post-9/11 attacks on Afghanistan on the basis that driving out the Taleban would be an act of liberation: ‘I don’t believe,’ he said, ‘that anybody seriously wants to live under that kind of regime.’ Did he realise that the rules enforced by law in Afghanistan were being adopted, voluntarily, in parts of Leicester, Dewsbury and Blackburn? Even the Prime Minister seemed not to know about Deobandi Britain.
The culture of the Deobandis has raised the orthodoxy bar for Britain’s other Muslim networks. The first generation of Sufi women who came from Pakistan tended to throw a shawl loosely over their heads when they left the house. Their pious daughters and granddaughters are more likely to show not a single hair in public. Among Britain’s main Islamic groups, only the Ismaili followers of the Aga Khan believe there is no obligation to wear the veil.
Many of the Islamic groups I have encountered see no contradiction between their religious identity and loyalty to Britain. At a Sufi circle I attended, followers included the Queen in their prayers. When asked whether it was permissible for a Muslim to join MI6, they answered without hesitation that their sheikh had told them it was. A leading member of a gated community of Bohras — a conservative Ismaili sect — told me proudly that one of their number had joined the RAF. The Bohras’ worldwide leader had advised them that to love one’s country is part of one’s faith.
But such willingness to integrate is less evident among the Deobandis. The movement was, after all, founded in colonial India to protect Muslim identity from British influence. Its early leaders were involved in a plot to support Britain’s First World War enemies to overthrow imperial rule. The history is reinforced by religious ideology: Mufti al-Kawthari echoes the views of other Deobandi scholars when he advises followers on his website that, while one should be polite to non-Muslims, one should not take them as close friends.
For all its ferocity, the debate about British Islam does not seem to have developed much over the years. Successive governments have sought to boot out foreign imams and deny visas to radical clerics as if they were dealing with a contagion. It is, perhaps, time to stop blaming foreigners. Illiberal Islam is thoroughly British these days.
Innes Bowen is the author of Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam, which is out this week.