Muslim Britain: Communities under Pressure

Muslim Britain: Communities under Pressure


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781842774496
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 06/04/2005
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.43(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

Tahir Abbas is Lecturer in Sociology, University of Birmingham.

Nadia Hashmi is at the Department of Social and Political Science, European University Institute, Florence.

Read an Excerpt

Muslim Britain

Communities Under Pressure

By Tahir Abbas

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2005 Dr Tahir Abbas
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-074-6


British South Asian Muslims: before and after September 11



At 08:46 and 09:03 the morning of Tuesday, 11 September 2001, as staff of varying ethnicities, religions and cultures, working in various investment and finance firms, switched on their computers to begin the day's work, two planes, brimming full of high-octane fuel and frightened passengers, were flown directly into the Twin Towers in New York. At 09:45 a third plane crashed into the Pentagon.

Over 3,000 people died in the burning, crumbling aftermath of the impact on the World Trade Centre. The shocking scenes reverberated around the world in seconds, and as more news came in of the attack on the Pentagon, for some it signalled the end of the world. For a very tiny minority, it was perceived as a victory against an oppressive US regime. Muslims all over the globe, some not always confident of their positions in society, especially in recent periods, condemned the attacks as inhumane un-Islamic acts of extreme violence.

Amid high levels of anger and frustration, the Bush administration, which had gained power in January 2001 in a tainted election, launched its 'War on Terror' — first against Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and then against Saddam Hussain and his infamous but altogether missing 'weapons of mass distraction' (Rampton and Stauber 2003). This 'war' could be read as one against terrorist organisations, and ever since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 nearly all these new terrorists have been Islamic by name (although certainly not by deed). There are a billion Muslims on this earth and every one of them would have been affected by both September 11 and the subsequent attempts to fight this new 'evil' discovered within their own religion. The target was, and still remains, that of 'radical political Islam' — but the problem for Muslims is how far they see this as an attack on everyday Islam, which tends to be marginalised or politicised in both the East and the West. For many, what has followed after September 11 is an acceleration of an already developed process. Without doubt, for many Muslims, both in the East and the West, the 'War on Terror' is perceived as a war on Islam.

It is because of the wider impact of this event that this book has come about. It is about the impact of that attack on the US on the lives of British South Asian Muslims, who make up about a million of Britain's 1.6 million Muslims (ONS 2004). These South Asian Muslims are predominantly Pakistani and Bangladeshi, but also include a small percentage of Indians (see Ceri Peach in Chapter 2 on more recent calculations). The repercussions of September 11 have had far-reaching consequences for South Asian Muslims in Britain. In the US the Patriot Act was legislated in a matter of weeks. In Britain the International Terrorism Act resulted in the outlawing of certain Muslim organisations, detailed scrutiny of the financial dealings of those that remain and increased powers to the security forces and the police.

The everyday norms and values of British South Asian Muslims have been questioned in more ways than were necessary, perhaps never more insensitively than in the remarks of Home Secretary David Blunkett MP. He accused impoverished, marginalised, disempowered and racialised British South Asian Muslims in the northern towns, where severe disturbances took place between young Muslims and the police (instigated by far-right groups who helped to orchestrate the events), of indulging in 'self-styled' segregation, of not speaking English within the home and of not marrying partners from this country. He also conflated the practice of female genital mutilation with the cultures of these South Asian Muslim groups, and all this within a few short months of September 11. It is a poignant example of how Muslims — rather than the hostile and racist structures of post-war British society and the institutions that form the very fabric of it — are considered perpetrators of their own misfortunes. These sentiments are writ large in a number of right-of-centre speeches by parliamentarians, while tabloid newspaper editors and the burgeoning right-of-centre presence in British politics and the media all seek to target Muslims as the new 'enemy other' and 'enemy within'.

This chapter introduces the case of British South Asian Muslims and their experiences of post-September 11 multicultural citizenship. It charts the historical relations between Britain (the West) and Islam (the East) and discusses the impact of September 11 on British ethnic relations and public policy thinking. How September 11 changed a benign multiculturalism to a malevolent one is explored, and the state of British multiculturalism in the wake of September 11 is discussed to draw out the implications for British Muslims.

In the beginning ...

It is important to ask how it all started — how Islam and the West came into contact with each other and how the tensions and ambiguities that exist today originated.

For Muslims throughout the world, the life of Prophet Mohammed, who died in 632, symbolises the origins of Islam. For thirty years after the death of the prophet, the Caliphs spread Islam to the four corners of the world. The speed of this advance was breathtaking. By the death of the fourth Caliph, Hazrat Ali, in 661, half the known world was under Islamic rule (Robinson 1996), a fact that helps to explain the tension among the ruling élite. After Ali, Mauwiyah (governor of Syria for the previous twenty years) took the Caliphate. He was the originator of the Umayyed dynasty, and was succeeded by his son, Yazid. Secessionists gathered around Ali's son, Hussain, and rebelled against Yazid. Hussain, his entire family and a small group of loyal followers were tragically slaughtered by Yazid's army in 680. The Umayyed dynasty established Muslim power through conquest and industry.

It was five centuries of the Abbasids, succeeding the Umayyeds from 750 onwards, that provided the Golden Age of Islam. Muslims mass-produced books after learning the art of paper making from the Chinese. This fuelled the generation of knowledge and the dissemination of ideas. Muslims translated all they could find into Arabic — this included what were considered lost Greek texts — the works of Aristotle are known to the Western world because of Muslim endeavour. As a result of these translations, Islamic, and through it much of Greek thought became known to the West, and Western schools of learning began to flourish. The oldest university in the world, still functioning today after eleven hundred years, is the Islamic University of Fez, Morocco, known as the Qarawiyyin (although Alizhar University in Cairo, slightly younger, is a much more robust survivor). The Islamic educational system was emulated in Europe, and to this day a university 'chair' reflects the lineage of the Arabic kursi (literally seat) upon which a teacher would sit to teach his students in the madrassa (school of higher learning). Advances in astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, zoology, psychology, botany and veterinary science, to name but a few, were originated by the Muslims. Five hundred years before Galileo discovered the rotation of the earth around its axis, Al-Baruni measured the circumference of the globe. In 1121, Al-Khazini published his Book of the Balance of Wisdom. He identified a universal force directed to the centre of the earth. Newton's apple (allegedly) fell on his head 566 years later. Muslims developed hospitals too; there were 60 in Baghdad at one time. These were remarkably advanced and, again, laid the foundations for modern-day practice. They contained pharmacies, libraries, lecture theatres for medical students, separate wards for men and women and out-patient facilities. Muslims excelled in surgery, medicine, optics and the human blood system. They travelled extensively; indeed, to every part of the known world. They developed charts and maps, even a postal system. Town planning and natural and wildlife reserves were formalised. What remains of the architecture of the time speaks for itself (Sardar and Malik 1999).

As European civilisation grew and reached the high Middle Ages, there was hardly a field of learning or form of art, whether it was literature or architecture, where there was not some influence of Islam. Islamic learning became in this way part and parcel of Western civilisation. With the advent of the Renaissance, the West not only turned against its own medieval past but also sought to forget the long relation it had had with the Islamic world, one which was based on intellectual respect despite religious opposition. A defining event for the changing relation between Islam and the Western world was the series of Crusades declared by the Pope and supported by various European kings. The purpose, although political, was outwardly to recapture the 'holy land' and especially Jerusalem for Christianity. Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade on 27 November 1095. Although at the beginning there was some success and local European rule was set up in parts of Syria and Palestine, Muslims finally gained the upper hand and in 1187 Saladin, the celebrated Muslim leader, recaptured Jerusalem and defeated the Crusaders. The eighth and last of the great Crusades was in 1270, headed by St. Louis IX, King of France, son of Louis VIII and Blanche of Castile. There were no further attempts to recapture the holy lands after 1291. English participation in the Crusades was minimal and Richard I was the only King of England to participate personally (Edward I participated when he was heir to the throne).

At the same time, within the Islamic world there were divisions, fed by feuds and the corrupt and luxurious lifestyles of rulers. This was compounded by the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258. Coupled with the loss of Spain to Ferdinand and Isabella, this period marked the end of the ascendancy of the Islamic world. On 2 January 1492, Broadbil, Moorish Prince of Granada, knelt before Ferdinand, ending eight hundred years of Muslim rule in Spain. These events fuelled a gradual decline. At the end of the fifteenth century, the Ulama (religious scholars) reduced the concept of Ilm from 'all knowledge' to 'religious knowledge', reduced Ilma from meaning the 'consensus of the community' to that of the Ulama itself. The interpretation of the Qur'an was frozen in history. It lost its dynamism; this transformed society from an open to a closed one. The printing presses were closed, depriving Islam and Muslims of the oxygen on which they once thrived.

The British, the colonials and Islam

The era marking the expansion of both Islam and Islamic culture reached a zenith with the conquest of much of India in 1526 by Babur, one of the Timurid princes. He established the powerful Moghul Empire, which produced such legendary rulers as Akbar (1556–1605), Jahangir (1605–1627), Shah Jahan (1627–1653) and Aurangzeb (1658–1707). After 1707, the Moghul Empire gradually lost its substance to its various vassals — princes, maharajahs, sultans and other dependants — whilst the British colonial presence took over. Despite the gradual rise of British power in India, the Moghul Empire lasted over three hundred years until 1857, when it was officially abolished. The British blinded and exiled Bahadur Shah II. His three sons were publicly executed, thus ensuring that a thousand years of Muslim rule came to an end.

India was the 'Jewel in the Crown' for the British. The Raj managed to hold on to power with very little effort, but the British standpoint is to regard the events of 1857 as a mutiny. This view is correct in so far as there was a mutiny by sections of the military, yet fails to account for the sections of the civilian population who also engaged in civil unrest. Most British writers and observers of the events were and are agreed in calling it a mutiny because of the failings of the army, in terms of discipline and command. Although not accepted by all South Asian historians, traditional Indian nationalist views of the events of 1857 depart from the British scenario of a series of isolated and uncoordinated mutinies. Instead, nationalists see a war of independence, the first act by Indians to gain self-rule. For half a century after 1857, writing on the uprising was basically confined to British observers and scholars. Racist ideologies were very much in place at this time, with differences in preconceptions concerning Hindus and Muslims becoming reified — the latter were thought not to be open to Western education, for example. Indian nationalist tradition defines the post-1857 period as leading to a return to Indian rule.

At the height of European colonial expansion in the nineteenth century, most of the Islamic world was under colonial rule, with the exception of a few regions such as the heart of the Ottoman Empire, Persia, Afghanistan, Yemen and certain parts of Arabia. But even these areas were under foreign influence or, in the case of the Ottomans, under constant threat. After the First World War and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, a number of Arab states such as Iraq became independent. Others, like Jordan for example, were created as new entities and yet others like Palestine, Syria and Lebanon were either mandated or turned into French colonies. As for Arabia, it was at this time that Saudi Arabia was finally consolidated, too. In other parts of the Islamic world, Egypt, which had been ruled by the descendants of Muhammad Ali since the nineteenth century, became more independent as a result of the fall of the Ottomans. Turkey was turned into a secular republic by Ataturk and the Pahlavi dynasty began a new chapter in Persia, which now reverted to its traditional Eastern name as Iran. Most of the rest of the Islamic world, however, remained under colonial rule.

Decolonisation and British South Asian Muslims in the postwar period

At the end of the Second World War, Britain was no longer able to hold onto its colonies. As a parting gesture, the Raj gave Pakistan the independence it wanted in 1947. The region was in turmoil, with the displacement of ten million people and as many as a million dead. There was now a Pakistan in two segments (East and West) with India in between. It was widely held that Kashmir should have been part of the newly formed Pakistan, and that the alliance between Lord Mountbatten and Kashmir-born Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had tilted the decision India's way (Ali 1989; Choudhury 1968). The two countries have gone to war three times over this issue, although in the current period real attempts at a solution seem to be emerging, despite election-driven gesturing and politicking. International pressures will probably determine the outcome.

In Britain, meanwhile, manpower was needed to work in certain industrial sectors that were in decline partly because employment conditions were no longer attractive to the existing workforce. In response, people from the former New Commonwealth nations, having fought alongside British troops, now elected to make a life in Britain (Anwar 1979; Khan 1979). The economic recession of the late 1950s, however, eliminated the demand for labour — whether domestic or immigrant. By then local communities and national institutions had already developed overt hostilities towards ethnic minorities. It was increasingly the case that South Asian Muslims were concentrated in the inner areas of older industrial towns and cities, living close to those working-class white indigenous inhabitants who were unable or unwilling to make their way out of the locality through 'white flight'.

The somewhat limited acceptance of immigrants by the white indigenous working class was based on the belief that ethnic minority and Muslim workers would eventually return to their regions of origin when their employment terminated. Rarely was it imagined or, for that matter, wished that ethnic minorities would remain, forming communities and putting down roots over time. The pattern was one in which immigrant labour in Britain, as in a number of other advanced Western European economies, originated in once-colonised lands and filled lower-echelon gaps in the society. South Asian Muslim immigrants were placed at bottom of the labour market, disdained by the host society, and systematically ethnicised and racialised in the sphere of capitalist accumulation. These workers were recruited into those industrial sectors most in decline and accordingly their positions in society were located below the white working class. The latter was able to attain social mobility, progressing from lumpenproletariat to proletariat and from petty bourgeoisie to bourgeoisie (Castles and Kosack 1973).


Excerpted from Muslim Britain by Tahir Abbas. Copyright © 2005 Dr Tahir Abbas. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Notes on Contributors

Foreword - Professor Tariq Modood

1. British South Asian Muslims: State and Multicultural Society - Tahir Abbas
2. Muslims in the UK - Ceri Peach
3. Muslims in Britain: Issues, Policy and Practice - Muhammad Anwar

1. From Race to Religion: the New Face of Discrimination - Chris Allen
2.Negotiating British Citizenship and Muslim Identity - Ron Geaves
3. In the shadow of September 11: Multiculturalism and Identity Politics - Stephen Lyon
4. Lobbying and Marching: British Muslims and the State - Jonathan Birt

1. Reading between the Lines - Muslims and the Media - Tahira Sameera Ahmed
2. Educating Muslim girls: do mothers have faith in the state sector? - Audrey Osler and Zahida Hussain
3. Attitudes to Jihad, Martyrdom and Terrorism among British Muslims - Humayun Ansari
4.'(Re)turn to Religion' and Radical Islam - Parveen Akhtar

1. All Quiet on the Eastern Front? Bangladeshi Reactions in Tower Hamlets - Halima Begum and John Eade
2.Tower Hamlets - Insulation in Isolation - Nilufar Ahmed
3. Flying the flag for England? Citizenship, religion and cultural identity among British Pakistani Muslims - Yasmin Hussain and Paul Bagguley
4. Pakistanis in Northern Ireland in the aftermath of September 11 - Gabriel Marccini

Afterword - John Rex

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