Review of Innes Bowen's Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam.
With the Trojan Horse controversy in Birmingham’s schools and press concern about Muslims travelling to fight with Sunni Muslim militias in Syria and northern Iraq, suggestions of “extremism” amongst British Muslims have become a staple public discussion. Innes Bowen’s well researched book on the organisations and ideologies of British Islam puts this into a clear context.
The dominant strands of Islam in Britain are conservative, politically quiet and, to a degree, isolationist. It is only a small minority of Muslim organisations that are politically assertive, and few of these are militant jihadists.
The first thing to understand for anyone whose experience of religion is of Christian denominations is how unlike these church organisations Islam is. Christian churches tend to have a clear hierarchy, centrally-owned property and religious dogma emanating from the centre. Islam, particularly the Sunni Islam that is the most common form in Britain, lacks such a formal hierarchy. Rather, at its centre is the ulema, the community of scholars, divided into schools and factions who compete in their interpretation of religious texts. Most mosques are locally run free-standing trusts which chose which current to adhere to.
Over 80% of mosques in Britain adhere to one of two schools of Sunni Islam. The Deobandis are dominant, especially in their facilities to train Islamic scholars in the UK. This is a conservative form of Islam which may frown on television and music being used for entertainment, and attitudes towards women are typified by preference for long black gowns and sometimes face veils. Although this shows their links with Saudi Salafism (Wahhabism), the Deobandis are distinct from it.
The Deobandi current in Islam grew up in India after 1919, and opposed the creation of a Muslim state in Pakistan, arguing for an Indian state with Muslims having their own legal and social structure within it. Deobandis organised in Pakistan after 1947 where their conservatism has informed the Taliban and some Kashmiri jihadist groups. British Deobandis however are closer to the more politically-detached movement in the Gujarat, India. In Britain most Deobandi leaders tend to eschew politics and have no representation on the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) or on the government backed Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (MINAB).
Bowen notes that it is not unusual for members of these communities to engage in local politics through the Labour Party, but suggests that rather than being a sign of integration this is to “protect the ability of Muslims to live as a religious minority, fully practising and expressing their faith.” The Deobandis have twenty-three UK-based seminaries but the scholars educated are no less conservative than their Indian educated predecessors and tend to advocate a “100% Deobandi lifestyle”. Areas where Deobandi are concentrated are not hotbeds of radicalism, but are under the deadening hand of conservative orthodoxy.
The Deobandi missionary movement, Tablighi Jamaat (TJ), has come under scrutiny since some of the 7/7 bombers passed through its ranks. Bowen argues persuasively that TJ is apolitical and socially conservative, however, its refusal to address wider political questions makes it a fertile recruiting ground for radicals. TJ’s role is, nonetheless, pernicious. Their mission is not conversion but the pursuit of Muslims who they perceive as not sufficiently devout. They reinforce the existing conservatism of the community and police its “boundaries of purity”.
The other major group in the UK is the Barelwis, a branch of Sunni Sufi Islam, which has the allegiance of nearly 40% of British mosques. Their infrastructure is much less developed than that of the Deobandis, with few seminaries and a reliance on foreign born imams. Classes for the young are often limited to rote learning of the Quran. It is a traditional, conservative Islam like the Deobandis but lacking its religiosity. Although it was Barelwis who first burnt copies of The Satanic Verses in 1988, it was not the Barelwi leadership that took the campaign forward. Indeed, in recent years they have asserted themselves as the anti-jihadist “good guys” who do not believe in the creation of Islamic states.
Bowen argues that it is exactly this conservatism and lack of political engagement that creates the potential for radicalisation among young Muslims who drift away, with some being attracted to other branches of Sunni Islam, often Islamist groups, that are willing to engage in political questions.
While these groups may support Islamic states abroad, in Britain this is expressed as creating an assertive Islamic political identity that promotes anti-secular policies in relation to Muslim people in Britain. These radicals are not found in the main established British groups, but in other more marginal Sunni groups, particularly Salafists. Although mainstream Salafist views are spread widely, particularly through British Muslims attending the Saudi University of Medina, its more radical forms were particularly boosted through many of the 1980s Afghanistan mujahideens’ adherence to Salifism.
Notable Islamists in Britain have been Salafists, for example Omar Bakri who established the British branch of Hizb ut Tahir and later the more explicitly jihadist Mahajiroun. At its most extreme, Salifism can shade into al-Qaeda jihadism. For example, the radical preacher Abu Qatada is a Salafist.
DIFFERENT DEGREES OF ISLAMISM
Another radical network is the British associates of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi Islamists, Jamaat-e-Islami, who run the East London Mosque in Whitechapel and the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), although this group has the allegiance of only around 2% of Britain’s mosques.
Jamaat supporters were prominent in the formation of the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs which was formed at the time of the protests against The Satanic Verses which attempted to win the leadership of Muslims in Britain, out of which the Muslim Council of Britain was launched in 1997. Appearing to be an umbrella group, it was in reality dominated by Jamaat supporters, and for some years after 2001 was feted by the government as representative of Muslims in Britain as a whole.
Bowen argues that there are different degrees of Islamism in this network, but the most radical is that of the IFE and its youth wing. Particularly in Tower Hamlets, these ideas have attracted young Muslims from a Bangladeshi background who are less concerned about the history of the 1971 war where Jamaat supporters opposed independence and were guilty of sectarian killing. Rather, they are drawn to its radical rhetoric on Palestine and the “War on Terror”.The IFE backed Lutfur Rahman who was elected as an independent to be mayor of Tower Hamlets after being barred as the Labour candidate.
The Muslim Brotherhood is less of a force in the UK. The Brotherhood is active across the Sunni Middle East and North Africa where it seeks to establish Islamic states, although they are not militant jihadists. Their focus on Arabian states restricts their appeal amongst British Muslims. Nonetheless, the Brotherhood has won support through the Federation of Student Islamic Societies which they formed in 1962 (in alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami groups with which they have long standing international links and ideological affinity), these becoming prominent in the 1980s.
In 1997 some Brotherhood members who wanted to focus on winning the political leadership of the Muslim community in Britain set up the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), again allying with Jamaat supporters in the Muslim Council of Britain. MAB went on to become part of the SWP-dominated Stop the War Coalition, and although MAB were in the orbit of Respect they never joined. They were also close to Ken Livingstone when he was Mayor of London.
There were however tensions with MAB between those who sought to be political insiders and those who wanted to be more radical outsiders. The insiders came to dominate, and the Metropolitan Police’s Muslim Contact Unit came to view MAB so favourably that in 2005 it helped them take over control of the Finsbury Park Mosque from supporters of the radical cleric Abu Hamza.
Those who sought a more oppositional stance split from MAB in 2006, forming the British Muslim Imitative (BMI), although this has largely become a flag waver for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Brotherhood’s Palestinian affiliates, Hamas. Bowen suggests that neither MAB nor the BMI has had much success with extending their base much beyond Arab students and ex-student radicals, and it is Jamaat who through the MCB had more success in claiming this role of political leadership.
Although Bowen does attempt to lighten the tone of the book by ending with a discussion of the Shi’ite Twelvers and Islami sects, which she sees as more compatible with secular political engagement, the overall picture of the book is pessimistic. Institutionally, Islam remains a conservative and isolationist ideology in the UK. And the main reaction against this, with some attraction for younger Muslims, is a more strident Islamist ideology represented by Salafist groups and Jamaat-e-Islami.
Bowen’s book does not focus on the impact that these ideas have on people from a Muslim background and their beliefs and practices. The book is in line with the “parallel lives” view developed by the Home Office’s Community Cohesion Unit after the 2001 riots in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley which suggested that although in some areas Muslims live side by side with others, their lives were largely separate. This is an idea that has been criticised by many on the left as blaming the victims, but it is likely to be contain a strong element of truth. For example, 2011 census data shows people of a Pakistani or Bangladeshi background being far less likely to marry or cohabit outside of their group than others (9% and 7% respectively, compared with 43% of people from a Caribbean background and 31% of people of Chinese origin).
Paradoxically, the report for Birmingham Council on the Muslims in their school system by Ian Kershaw casts some potentially more positive light on the situation. Though the scene described is very much conservative and inward looking Kershaw also suggests that the community leaders seeking the transformation of schools are more conservative and isolationist than the people they purport to represent who are, on the whole, more liberal and open-minded.
It is not the job of socialists to promote the self-appointed leaders of Muslim communities or apologise for their conservative views in the name of diversity and multiculturalism. Rather, it is their role to support the secularising and liberalising currents in British Islam and in Muslim communities. As Bowen shows, such secularists and liberals have a serious struggle with which to contend.