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Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam

August 22, 2014 at 3:51 pm

  • Book Author(s): Innes Bowen
  • Publisher: C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • ISBN-13: 1849043019

British colonialist rule was in part, supported by perfecting the ideology of divide and rule. Their mastery of this ensured several centuries of colonial subjugation that propelled the British Empire, at the height of which Britain controlled nearly a quarter of the globe; the largest empire in human history. British bureaucrats secured their role as part of the political establishment through their gathering and use of intelligence. Their efforts justified the sordid business of colonialism by providing a false reprieve for the public conscience and numbing the masses to the reality of appropriation, pillage, torture and murder.

As decolonisation became unbearable and the economic viability colonialism became strained, Britain–like empires of the past and no doubt, future–began to retreat. However, the question is what level of influence did Britain continue to exert? It continued to extract indirect benefits wherever possible propping up pliant leaderships and supporting the new superpowers. However, the remnants of colonialism also resulted in great changes at home. The citizenship afforded to loyal subjects drew an array of mass migration back to the mother country, resulting in diverse consequences over the decades.

With the children of the empire now citizens of Britain, challenges to the notion of Britishness have become acute. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was the West Indian community that attracted the greatest public scrutiny. During the Salman Rushdie affair and particularly since September 11th, it has been and continues to be British Muslims under scrutiny.

Unlike the West Indians, Muslim communities are projected as not only a demographic, economic or cultural threat, but also an ideological menace. To a few, they represent a nemesis that seeks to consume liberal Britain and destroy it from within; a force so alien yet so proximate that all innocent citizens of this fair and green land need protection.

Against this backdrop, I read Innes Bowen’s book with interest–it is a reflective, readable and holistic assessment of British Muslim communities. Bowen’s book Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent is an overdue attempt to provide the public with a realistic and honest reflection of the diversity of British Muslims. At a time of intense scrutiny which often fails in accurate representation, due, in part, to the high level of anti-Islam and anti-Muslim sentiments which exist in public life, we need to thank Bowen for providing some comprehensive reality that should be accessible to all.

Bowen does justice to her objective, to provide an understanding of the complexities and nuances of Muslim communities within Britain. This will be of help to all political parties, civil servants and dare I say, journalists. It will also be a revelation to some staunch romanticist Muslims who envisage a monolithic Islamic narrative.

Eight chapters meticulously cover various Muslim groups from the dominant Deobandis to a small sect of Dawoodi Bhora reformists. However, where Bowen fails in this book is her portrayal of Muslim reaction or inaction to varied stimuli as being devoid of any external political, social and economic consideration. Hence, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) is analysed for its religious affiliations but there is no analysis on why Blair’s government opted to select the MCB as the representative of the Muslim community. Was this the colonialist approach of divide and rule, as the subsequent emergence of MINAB appeared to reflect?

The other failing of this otherwise well researched topic lies in the normalising of anti-Islam sentiments. Bowen casually introduces terms like Islamist, Political Islam, Qutb and Mawdudi without qualification. In an era of uproar from the chattering classes when they discover that Muslims kill animals before eating them (calling it ‘Halal’) means these terms carry their own negative connotations. It was not surprising, therefore, to see Bowen’s name next to one of the most racist caricatures on the cover of The Spectator since its inception. On the 14 June 2014 issue, a Muslim child is shown carrying a sword in one hand and a Quran in the other with the title ‘Taught to Hate’.

It is on this point of whether the attitudes towards British Muslims have been defined in part by ignorance that I diverge from Bowen’s views. She aptly portrays the reality of one Muslim’s misdemeanours often being reflected on all Muslim communities without distinction. In essence this is the pillar on which the war on terror and its subsequent anti-terror legislations have been justified. However, it is neither political ignorance nor lazy journalism that has resulted, over the decades, in the perception of British Muslims being an Islamic threat.

With British Muslims so closely scrutinised, what is mentioned is quiet often as important as what is not. Bowen fails to afford Muslims the right to disagree with the government or the established narrative as a mark of intellectual independence, and this is of concern. An undertone to the book appears to demand that Muslim communities bear allegiance to the establishment as a mark of loyalty. It almost appears that British Muslims are not afforded the right to dissent from government policies as this would be construed as a mark of disloyalty.

Bowen further insinuates a systematic structure within the Deobandi movement when dealing with wider society. She relates the story of a Suleman Nagdi (p.25-26) from Leicester to highlight this. Having known Suleman Nagdi for over twenty five years and lived in the city for 40, I can say, unequivocally, that her portrayal of his role is inaccurate. She claims he ‘wears a suit to meet outsiders’ whereas in reality, his usual attire in any social/formal is dictated by his own choices and sensibilities. His attire is Western and Eastern through choice, and Bowen uses this freedom to choose to judge his contribution to society with mistrust. This is highly prejudicial and reinforces the idea of Muslims as a suspect community.

Most organisations and individuals would prefer experienced spokespeople to convey messages on their behalf. Would Bowen take issue with any other community or organisation that appointed an articulate spokesman, or is this reserved for Muslim communities? Regardless, most mosques and institutes have their own committees which work for the advancement of their institutes. Nagdi—on account of his sterling voluntary work– would have been praised if he were a non-Muslim rather than being described as a front for the community.

Bowen states, ‘What Muslims feel in their hearts about Britain and its people…..will have a huge impact upon the future of the UK’s community relations as well as its national security.’ I would argue that it is in actual fact how the British people view Muslims and Islam that will have the greatest impact.

This should not take away from the central message from Bowen’s book–that Muslims like other communities are diverse, varied and complex and should be viewed as such. The book aptly provides an understanding of the sectarian geography of Muslims in Britain but can easily be turned into a tool to divide and undermine Muslims as the colonialist bureaucratic predecessors did.

Ismail Patel can be followed on twitter