As the former home town of HG Wells (he wrote War of the Worlds there), George Bernard Shaw, Peter Gabriel and the Spice Girls, Woking occupies a special place in British cultural history. The town also has a special place in the history of British Islam, as the site of Britain’s oldest mosque. The building, which opened in 1889, is no bigger than a detached house and has a green, onion-shaped dome and matching minarets. Today it is hidden among a warren of houses and streets, but back then it must have been quite a sight, surrounded by fields and visible from the newly built railway.
A short drive from Woking mosque lies the 400-acre Brookwood cemetery. Among its 230,000 graves lie the remains of Marmaduke Pickthall and Abdullah Yusuf Ali, each of whom wrote a bestselling translation of the Koran in the 1930s. Yusuf Ali’s work is the closest Muslims have to an authorised translation in English. His biographer is Jamil Sherif, a British Pakistani, whose Searching for Solace tells us that Yusuf Ali was an ardent reformer who believed that Islam must learn from the west, move with the times, and develop a distinctive British form in the same way that it has a Bosnian, Chinese or Pakistani one.
I thought about Yusuf Ali and Pickthall in early July as the news sunk in that the four London suicide bombers were British Muslims. How disappointed the two men would have been not only by the suicide bombers themselves but by the state of the British Muslim world from which the bombers emerged.
British Muslims have rarely been out of the news since 9/11, and the subsequent discovery of a stream of British-born young Muslim men ready to kill abroad in the name of Islam. But the London bombs have focused attention on British Muslims with an intensity not seen since 1989, when many of us took to the streets to protest against Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Sixteen years ago, most ordinary Muslims were angry and defensive. The overwhelming reflex was to call for more censorship, disregarding British traditions of free speech. When Rushdie was sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini, several imams at the London Central mosque tried to intervene on his behalf, but were denounced as traitors. I can vividly recall reporting from a meeting at the mosque that Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) tried to take over in protest at the imams’ decision to talk to Rushdie. There seemed an unbridgeable gap between the hurt felt by Britain’s small but rapidly growing Muslim community and the incomprehension of wider society.
In the years after the Rushdie affair, British Muslims seemed to slip into further isolation, with community leaders arguing that if government was deaf to their concerns, Muslims should take charge of their own affairs. Among other experiments, this led to the launch of a separate Muslim “parliament” in 1992. The parliament was the brainchild of Kalim Siddiqi, a former Guardian sub-editor and the man who alerted Ayatollah Khomeini to Rushdie. The parliament was intended to be the centrepiece of a network of institutions, including a treasury, a halal food authority and a network of faith schools. The parliament’s two-day inaugural session in January 1992 (in Kensington town hall) was an international media event, rich in theatre and carefully choreographed by Siddiqi, who gave himself the title of leader of the house. But the parliament did not survive Siddiqi’s death from a heart attack in 1996.
As in 1989, we British Muslims are again facing up to violence and rancour in our midst. Yet what a difference a decade and a half can make. The suicide bombs have come at a time when there is a government in power committed to opening doors for Muslims. Long-standing Muslim demands, such as state funding for some Muslim schools and, more controversially, legislation making incitement to religious hatred a criminal offence, have been granted. Central government has sought out and promoted bright young Muslims into the policymaking machine. And who would have thought, 15 years ago, that Muslims would have the representation we now have in parliament and that Muslims would be judges and QCs; stars of business, the media and sport. This is, of course, partly the effect of time—a new generation, or at least a part of it, has grown up with the skills and education to succeed and a feeling that success and acceptance is their right.
Meanwhile, a new generation of community leaders has taken the reins too. Many were shaped by the Rushdie affair, but some, acknowledging the limits of protest politics, are now ready to ask some painful questions about what it is in the British Islamic experience that leads some young men into terrorism.
According to the last census, there are now 1.6m British Muslims (2.7 per cent of the population)—the overwhelming majority of whom are Sunni. Britain has about a thousand mosques, 120 Muslim private schools and hundreds of community centres. Prayer rooms for Muslims at work—once exotic—are now common, especially in the public sector and big private sector companies.
More than two thirds of British Muslims are from south Asia. Around half come from the poorest and mostly rural parts of two countries: Pakistan and Bangladesh. Their original homes are places which still lack the infrastructure of modern life, like electricity, running water, adequate healthcare; places where half the girls do not go to school.
Most Pakistani economic migrants of the 1960s took unskilled jobs in London or in the textile industry in the north of England. The more entrepreneurial set up small businesses. Pakistanis with professional qualifications mainly went to the US, but a few did come to Britain, and my father was among them. Aged 22 he arrived from Karachi in 1963 to train as an actuary. He found digs in Earl’s Court where a group of his Karachi contemporaries were already based. Little did he imagine that London would still be his home four decades later.
Today, London is home to nearly 40 per cent of Britain’s Muslims—around 600,000. The highest density is in Tower Hamlets beside the City of London, home to 70,000 Muslims, mostly of Bangladeshi origin. Pakistanis dominate among Birmingham’s 140,000 Muslims and among the 75,000 who live in Bradford. Blackburn, Burnley, Dewsbury, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester, Oldham and Luton are also home to large numbers of Muslims.
Pakistan, Bangladesh, north Africa, Turkey and African countries such as Nigeria continue to provide a steady source of migrants, but today’s newer Muslim migrants are as likely to have come from countries experiencing conflict: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia, Iraq, Kosovo and Somalia.
Muslims are among the least successful minority groups. Compared with the population as a whole, Muslims are three times more likely to be unemployed (15 per cent against 5 per cent), more likely to lack formal qualifications (43 per cent against 36 per cent) and more likely to live in deprived areas (15 per cent of Muslims live in the ten most deprived districts against 4.4 per cent of the population as a whole). The television images in recent weeks of Pakistanis in Leeds living in streets of back-to-back terraced houses, women dressed in the loose-fitting shalwar kameez and men in unskilled jobs is a familiar one from all over Britain. In more than 60 per cent of Muslim households, the main earner is on a low income. Indeed, in large part because of their social and educational starting point, the picture is even worse for Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims, who are outperformed by most other Muslims, and form one of the least integrated migrant groups in Britain.
The performance of Muslim children in schools is below average but improving, with girls outperforming boys. Private Muslim schools do well in performance league tables. Criminality, however, is on the rise: 8 per cent of the prison population is Muslim, around three times the proportion of the population.
By contrast, there is also a growing middle class in business, law, accountancy and so on. Associations of Muslim doctors and lawyers have been set up, and a glossy lifestyle magazine, Emel, was recently launched to cater for them.
So much for the big picture. What is life like in Muslim households? I cannot speak for all nationalities, but south Asian households (particularly Bangladeshi and Pakistani) are ones in which the practice of religion remains a serious aspect of identity and daily life. Pakistan means “land of the pure,” and in common with Israel and Saudi Arabia, it is a state whose primary identity is religious, and which was created in part because its citizens wanted to live alongside co-religionists.
South Asian Muslim households can also be far more authoritarian than other Muslims, let alone the more laissez-faire British majority. Many parents still want to strictly control their children’s careers, or push them to marry a cousin abroad. In 2004, 1 per cent of British Pakistani weddings were to people from another ethnicity. (One fifth of Afro-Caribbeans marry “out,” as do 17 per cent of Chinese Britons.)
The annual family holiday to Pakistan or Bangladesh is often an opportunity to introduce eligible young men and women to prospective families for marriage. Thirty years ago, young people would count themselves lucky if they were asked for an opinion. Today, a degree of choice does exist, but one that seems to many young Muslims to contrast unfavourably with the much greater freedom enjoyed by other Britons. Some are breaking away from the tradition, especially young women.
It is easy to understand why parent-child relations in many British Muslim families are under strain. And the cultural and generational barriers are sometimes widened by a communication gap. Half of British Muslims are under 24 and half were born in Britain. In many of these families, children often speak English as a first language and cannot express themselves in Bengali or Urdu, the language that their parents are most comfortable in.
Often, children who are being pressured to follow the parental line look to Islam to provide them with a theology of liberation. Most parents have little detailed knowledge of Islamic history or theology beyond the minimum necessary for ritual observance such as prayers, fasting and festivals. In the 20 years that I have watched British Muslims, I have seen more and more children discover that the Koran is a useful antidote to overbearing parents. Being able to quote the Koran on Islam and marriage, children can defy parental objections without cutting off ties.
Another familiar story of conflicted youth concerns the young people, usually young men, who find themselves torn between the material pleasures of British life—drink, drugs and sex—and their more puritanical Muslim heritage. This conflict can be exacerbated by trips to Pakistan or Bangladesh, which can then make them see the wider British society as shallow and materialistic, reinforcing an “enclave mentality.” In some cases, young, confused Muslims will reach for a fundamentalist reading of the faith of their own accord. In other cases they may be influenced by one of the many Muslim evangelical groups that have emerged in the past two decades.
Throughout muslim history, the practice of Islam has been strongly influenced by Sufism—here meaning a kind of folk religion version of Islam. Most British Pakistani Sunni Muslims, for example, belong to the Barelwi tradition, a colourful branch of Sufism that emerged in the north Indian cities of Bareilly and Budaun in the 19th century. My own family has its religious roots there.
Barelwis believe in saints (both alive and dead) and in their ability to perform miracles. Barelwi Sufism has a strong musical tradition and is full of old customs and festivals. The Sufi calendar is filled with events celebrating the Prophet’s life and death, and commemorations of Sufi saints. Some Barelwi Sufis were also large landowners when India was under colonial rule, and in the minds of some Muslims they were seen as colluding with the British.
One Indian anti-Sufi movement, sometimes known as Muslim revivalism, emerged in the late 1860s with the setting up of an Islamic seminary at Deoband, 100 miles north of Delhi—hence the term Deobandis. Revivalists have a stronger emphasis on bringing Muslims back to the earliest possible practice of Islam, believing that this is the closest to what the Prophet would have wanted. They argue that the Prophet would have disapproved of music, or celebration, or attempted contact with the dead. That aside, both Sufis and revivalists are mostly “literalists”—they believe that the Koran is the unmediated word of God and true in every respect, that (along with the Hadith) it contains everything a Muslim needs to know about how to conduct human affairs, and that there is no need to read the book in its historical context.
By far the biggest revivalist presence in Britain is the Tablighi Jamat (the Party of Preachers), an evangelical movement close to the Deoband seminary. The Tablighis today have tens of millions of members worldwide and a European headquarters in Dewsbury. They are politically moderate but in common with the Barelwis, played a leading role in the Rushdie affair to defend the honour of the Prophet.
Many of Britain’s more mainstream groups, such as the Muslim Council of Britain and its more influential affiliates like the Islamic Society of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain, have roots in Islamic revivalism—though some are moving away from a literalist reading of the Koran, a process which may be hastened after the London bombs.
A revivalist and literalist reading of theology is also found among Britain’s extremist groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir (Liberation party), its more radical offshoot al-Muhajiroun (the Emigrants), and the Saudi-inspired Salafis/Wahhabis (the Ancestors). These groups emerged in the late 1980s, at a time when I was editing a student newspaper called Muslim Student News. They have never been attractive to the majority of Muslim students, but their simple certainties always attract some. None of them support violence in Britain but they often back it abroad.
Looking at extremism more generally, it is now believed that up to 3,000 British-born or British-based Muslims have passed through jihadist training camps abroad. A recently leaked government dossier puts the number of British Muslims who positively support terrorism at around 15,000, (although anti-terrorism sources believe the number of British Muslims with both the will and the capability to carry out terrorist acts is 40 at most). The extent of looser sympathy for the goals of some of the extremists can be gauged from a Guardian poll in March 2004 which found that 13 per cent of British Muslims believed that al Qaeda attacks on the US were justified.
Like the far-left groups of the 1960s and 1970s that they often resemble, Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), the Salafis and mainstream Muslims fought for control of campus Muslim societies throughout the 1990s. HT is now proscribed by the NUS, though this has not hindered its ability to recruit students through its website and its many front organisations. The organisation, which is banned in many other countries, attracted 10,000 people to its last big conference in 2003, but it probably only has around 3,000 members. HT discourages integration into Britain and wants the restoration of the Islamic caliphate across as much of the world as possible. (The breakaway group from HT, al-Muhajiroun, run by Syrian exile Omar Bakri, more openly supports al Qaeda and violent struggle, at least outside Britain. It was disbanded last year.)
Groups such as HT do not restrict their recruitment to universities. Extremists can also find disaffected youth through mosques, secondary schools and, increasingly, in prison. For those of us who steered clear, it is not always easy to understand what attracts those who do join extreme groups. Is it the comfort of being told that the Koran has clear answers to all of life’s problems? Is it liberation from parental control? Is it the thrill of being part of a heroic political movement that promises a new world order? Probably a combination of all these and more.
One of the organisations most despised by extreme groups is the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), which seeks to transcend the different religious groups and present, as far as possible, a single Muslim voice—at least at a political level. The MCB’s influence on government has increased dramatically in the past few years. Iqbal Sacranie, its elected secretary-general, is its public face, but the MCB—which has more than 400 affiliated community organisations under its umbrella—is run by hundreds of well-organised volunteers, who work in expert committees responsible for almost every facet of British Muslim life, from the media to mental health.
The organisation is in fact one of the legacies of the anti-Rushdie movement. Many of its founders were involved in an alliance of like-minded organisations that co-ordinated a campaign to have The Satanic Verses banned and for the government to enact legislation that makes incitement to religious hatred a criminal offence. It has been a long campaign, but the MCB’s protracted lobbying for a new law on religious hatred has now made it to parliament. The bill may turn out to be a pyrrhic victory, based as it is on an instinct to censor that much of liberal Britain rejects. I also worry that the constant refrain of Islamophobia—an attempt to emulate the “weapon” of antisemitism wielded by Jewish groups—may prove rather too effective and end up trapping many Muslims in a victim mentality, which in turn may make them more susceptible to extremism.
Labour’s rush to enact legislation on religious hatred was doubtless an attempt to repair its relationship with British Muslims, which came under strain after 9/11, and in particular after the deployment of British troops in Iraq. At least until 7/7, too many Muslims glibly described British involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq as a simple war against Muslims. Meanwhile, community groups complained repeatedly that Muslims were being stopped, searched and arrested out of all proportion to the number who received convictions. “Islam is peace” was our mantra; so British Muslims could not be terrorists. I myself believed that the warnings about home-grown terrorists from the police, government and media would amount to nothing.
But the signs were there if we chose to see them. I remember being unsurprised by that Guardian poll finding 13 per cent support among British Muslims for attacks on America. Out of all the world’s people, Muslims are possibly the most ill at ease with US power. In my travels through Muslim Britain in the early 1990s, it was all too easy to find someone ready to give me a quote celebrating Khomeini’s fatwa. And over the past decade, as a science writer in the middle east and Africa, I am always coming across people from all walks of life who will tell me that they think Osama bin Laden did well to sock it to the US.
But how, in Britain, do we stop that commonplace hostility to western power flowing into extremism? And how does it relate to the broader problem of “parallel lives”? The phrase is from Ted Cantle’s report on the riots of 2001, which argued that some Muslims, especially Pakistanis, had become less integrated in the past 20 years. (However, all three Pakistani bombers had some experience of higher education, usually associated with successful integration.)
The French model is anathema to many British Muslims, especially because of the hijab ban, but a greater role for the state may be part of the answer. In Britain, more attention should certainly focus on mosques, which have developed with minimum oversight. Many mosques are a mess, governed by well-meaning but ineffective local elders. Punch-ups are all too common between different factions and the charity commission has a growing file of problem cases.
There is a case for a new statutory mosque regulatory authority, or some other kind of oversight body organised with close Muslim involvement, whose job will be both to protect the public and to help mosques perform a better service. Such an authority could also provide guidance on the question of imams and what is taught to children in after-school classes (see below). The issue of imams is often wrongly reduced to whether we should stop importing them from abroad. Some of Britain’s most impressive imams (such as Zaki Badawi) were not born in Britain. What is more important is training, good English and knowledge of modern society.
A second area in urgent need of attention is Islamic religious education—not private Muslim schools, which, on the whole, do a good job and which are already inspected by Ofsted. Attention instead needs to be drawn to the mosque-based schools known as madrassas where many British Muslim youngsters spend two hours most evenings after school learning to recite the Koran. Often, the madrassa will be the only place where a child will learn about Islam in a formal way, but there are no checks or agreed standards on what should be taught. Discussing how the Koran is taught to children in mosques will need to be handled with care; it is a deeply controversial subject. But for me this is quite clearly one of the root causes of Muslim extremism. The Koran is taught across the Muslim world (including in Britain) as a set of eternal truths with little reference to its historical context. Anyone who can quote from it is looked up to with reverence in what is still a strongly oral culture. This means that when Osama bin Laden dispatches his victims with Koranic verses, many Muslims struggle to condemn him. This is also ultimately why groups such as the MCB have until recently been reluctant to come out in public and condemn nonviolent extremists such as HT.
But unless the Koran is read in context, neither Bin Laden nor the BNP is wrong when claiming that Islam glorifies violence. What is a child expected to think when he or she reads a verse that says Muslims should defeat the infidels, and at the same time is told that the Koran is the literal truth spoken to the Prophet, as relevant today as it was 1,300 years ago?
The MCB is now well placed to push the case for a broader understanding of the Koran among Muslim youth. It has the credibility in the community, and its members know what needs to be done. The MCB has so far resisted getting involved in theological scrapes because it knows this has the potential to fracture the consensus on which the organisation operates. But the London bombs mean this position is no longer tenable.
In 1991, I was part of the team that set up the British Muslim magazine Q News. One of my responsibilities was to edit a Q&A-style agony uncle section, in which a Muslim religious scholar would answer readers’ questions on which aspects of modern life were permissible under Islam for practising Muslims. Once a fortnight, I would telephone the late Sheikh Syed Mutwalli Darsh, a former imam at Regent’s Park mosque in London, and we would go through a list of questions sent in by Q News readers. Darsh’s replies were always short and mostly instant. In common with the majority of his contemporaries, Darsh was unwilling to exercise his own reasoning or judgement when replying to a question. Instead, he would apply the principle of precedent. This meant finding an answer from accounts of the Prophet’s life. Where this was not available, he would look through his library of legal rulings, some of which went as far back as the 7th or 8th century.
The difficulty with this was that most of the questions were from people struggling to practise Islam in 20th-century Europe. Often, there was no precedent to the questions they were asking. An 8th-century ruling is not much good if you are a 12 year old from Oldham who wants to know if it is a sin to play computer games during Ramadan. One reader asked whether Muslims were allowed to drink Coca-Cola if rumours were true that the drink contained traces of alcohol. Darsh said no, even though I argued that alcohol, once processed into a fizzy beverage, is chemically quite different to the stuff found on the inside of a beer can.
Challenging Darsh’s questions often got me into trouble, which is why I didn’t do it very often. He saw our relationship as that of pupil (me) and teacher (him). By questioning his replies, I was violating a basic principle of traditional Muslim learning, which is that you never question the wisdom of a more learned person. This is a style of learning that has left a deep legacy across the Muslim world and can be found in all kinds of academies, from schools to centres of advanced learning and research.
Fifteen years on from my encounters with Darsh, Q&A sessions with Muslim clerics have switched to television where they are popular on Muslim channels across the world. The king of the Islamic Q&A is the Egyptian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, whose visit to Britain in July 2004 sparked a row over his views on suicide bombers. Al-Qaradawi’s book of do’s and don’ts, The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam, is a huge bestseller and he has a regular “live fatwa” slot on the website Islamonline.net, as well as on Al-Jazeera.
But change is coming. And some of it is being pioneered in Britain. Channel 4 has aired two seasons of its late-night Shari’ah TV, in which a group of experts answer questions from an audience of younger Muslims. Unlike conventional Q&A sessions on Muslim shows, C4 encourages those asking the questions to debate with the experts rather than take their answers at face value—something that clearly troubles the experts.
Revising aspects of Shari’a law to keep up with modern times is one thing—reconsidering the meaning of the Koran/Hadith and the role of authority in Islam is quite another. But here too there is hope. There are three people above all—Swiss-Egyptian philosopher Tariq Ramadan, British Pakistani writer and critic Ziauddin Sardar, and the Iranian philosopher of science Abdolkarim Soroush—who are leading the new thinking among British Muslims.
Of the three, Ramadan has the most influence on British Muslims. This is partly because he is the closest thing Muslim revivalists have to royalty—he is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. And this gives him enormous cachet, because he is not seen as an outsider trying to impose alien values on Muslims: he is an insider who is convinced that Islam has to change from within.
Soroush comes from within Shi’ism, which historically has been more receptive to reform than many Sunni schools of thought. This is partly why Britain’s Shias—up to a quarter of Britain’s Muslims—are less troubled by theological dilemmas: they have a tradition in which their clerics have tried to engage (not always successfully) with the modern world.
Sardar has more influence outside Britain than he does at home. He is widely read in countries where Muslims live alongside people of other faiths such as southeast Asia and Africa as well as Turkey and Europe. By contrast, he has had less influence in Pakistan and Arabic-speaking countries.
As a starting point, all three believe that many aspects of Shari’a law no longer make sense, particularly those that fail to protect human rights and the rights of children and minorities. And all three argue, in different ways, that the Koran must be read in its historical context. This means that not every word from the book will be relevant for today’s Muslims. This may not sound like much to a western liberal—indeed, Ramadan, Sardar and Soroush remain pious believers—but for most Muslims this is an extraordinarily radical position to take, and goes against the literalist consensus. Few of their ideas could have been articulated within a Muslim country—indeed, it is no surprise that all three live and work in western countries (Soroush had to flee Iran).
Until very recently, I was not sure whether Ramadan, Sardar and Soroush could influence mainstream Muslim Britain, which views all knowledge as bound up within the pages of the Koran. But something now seems to be moving. Eight days after the London bombs, I was asked to address a public meeting of Muslims organised by City Circle, a group of City-based Muslim professionals. On the panel next to me was Abu Muntasir, one of the founders of British Salafism, whom I first came across when he was a Muslim student leader at Kingston Polytechnic in 1984. Abu Muntasir, his voice shaking, read out a long list of ancient rulings about how Islam equalled peace and justice, and how the bombings were an aberration of the faith’s true teachings. I did not think that was good enough. Turning to Abu Muntasir, I said that he was part of the problem, and that al Qaeda could just as easily find ten quotes from ancient Muslim texts to make the case for war. Then came the shock: addressing the audience, Abu Muntasir said he agreed and that he believed that for the past 20 years he had been going up a blind alley. As the meeting drew to a close, Abu Muntasir broke down and wept at the memory of those who had died.
Abu Muntasir is not the only radical who is rethinking. Shortly after 9/11, Ghayasuddin Siddqui, a founder of the Muslim parliament and a loyal deputy to Kalim Siddiqi for 30 years, did something similar: he completely rejected the ideology of his mentor, and is now one of the strongest voices opposing the incitement to religious hatred bill.
Reformers must be braced for concerted opposition from an alliance that will include the Barelwis, Deobandis, some of the Wahabbis with their Saudi funds and the extreme sects like HT. They will argue, as they have always done, that this is yet another doomed experiment to modify Islam to satisfy the west. They will say that the Koran was revealed to humankind as the final testament superseding the books of Christianity and Judaism. And they will contend that any compromise with the absolute truth of the Koran will lead to the slippery slope to unbelief that so many Christians have taken.
History is certainly on the side of the opponents of reform. Reformers have hitherto failed to reach Islam’s masses, whether in the 2nd century of Islam or in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They have, at best, remained a minority, elite voice. But there is one critical difference between then and now. In all previous attempts at reform within Islam, western nations had no reason to become involved. This has changed. European nations in particular are now home to millions of Muslims, and western states are now engaged in a wider political reform process across Arab and Muslim countries. The presence of people like Sardar, Soroush and Ramadan in western countries means that they can command a global audience. Ramadan, in particular, has learned how to harness the power of modern communications to reach millions.
The arrival of British Muslim suicide bombers would have dismayed the generation of Yusuf Ali and Pickthall. But perhaps they would also have been heartened by the first signs that, in the shadow of those bombs, British and European Islam may finally be starting to spread its wings.
SUNNI REVIVALISTS IN BRITAIN
Hizb ut-Tahrir (Liberation party)
Founded by Taqiuddin Nabhani, Palestinian reformer, in 1953. Headquarted in Palestine but with influence throughout the world, HT calls for the reconstitution of a global Islamic state, or caliphate: one big family of Muslim nations with no borders, one currency, single foreign and defence policies, operating under Shari’a.
The organisation is banned in the majority of Muslim states, but has been operating legally in Britain for some years. British membership is unclear, but 10,000 people attended HT’s last major conference in September 2003. HT clearly rejects violence for political aims, but believes it is forbidden for Muslims to seek citizenship of any nation state. It advises British Muslims not to join the armed forces or parliament.
The British leadership tries to recruit young Muslims of all ages and backgrounds in mosques, schools and university campuses. It is banned from the premises of many (if not most) UK mosques, but often prosletyses outside, particularly on busy days such as Friday prayers. It is also banned by the NUS, which it initially tried to circumvent by setting up a number of front groups such as the 1924 Society, the Muslim Media Forum and the Muslim Cultural Society.
Al-Muhajiroun (The Emigrants)
Founded in Britain by Syrian exile Omar Bakri following a split within HT in 1996. Membership estimated around 1,000 until Bakri disbanded the group last year. Bakri is understood to still be active in private meetings and on the internet.
The group’s philosophy and methods are the same as HT but Bakri fell out with his former colleagues because he felt that the time had come to become more public and more aggressive in confronting non-Muslims as well as errant Muslims. Unlike HT, al-Muhajiroun members and sympathisers openly support al Qaeda, and Bakri has repeatedly warned that terror would one day come to the streets of Britain if foreign forces did not leave Muslim lands. On 11 September 2002, Bakri organised a conference called: “9/11—a towering day in history.” The following year’s event was to be called “The Magnificent 19” before it was cancelled and replaced with a press conference.
Mainstream British Muslim groups such as the MCB did not understand why al-Muhajiroun continued to be tolerated. They suspected that the police and security services may have found it more useful to allow Bakri and his followers to preach openly—which makes monitoring of potential terror suspects easier. The British suicide bombers who travelled to Israel were former students of al-Muhajiroun.
Salafis (The Ancestors)
Inspired by Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, preacher from Arabia who helped create Saudi Arabia and died in 1792.
Salafis call on their followers to return to Islam as practiced during the time of the Prophet, his immediate companions, and the generation that followed—further innovation in Islamic thought is strongly discouraged. Salafism is the official strand of Islam in Saudi Arabia, which did much to support Salafi causes in Britain during the 1980s and 1990s—though the government now regrets this. Bin Laden also sees himself as Salafi, as do those who carry out attacks on western targets in Saudi Arabia. This has led to a split within the worldwide Salafi community, with one strand arguing that Islam can never permit violence for political ends. British Salafis take this view and are beginning to talk of the need for deeper reforms within Islam. They are led by Abu Muntasir (see above), whose organisation is called Jamiat Ihyaa Minhaaj Al-Sunnah (Movement for the Revival of the Prophet’s Way). All Salafis have a strong hatred of HT and al-Mujahiroun, and have set up a website www.htexposed.com.
Ehsan Masood’s reading list
The Infidel Within: Muslims in Britain since 1800, Humayun Ansari, Hurst (2004). Authoritative history of the past two centuries of Muslim Britain, written and researched by the director of the Centre for Ethnic Minority Studies, Royal Holloway, University of London.
Muslim Britain: Communities Under Pressure,Tahir Abbas (ed), Zed Books (2005). Multi-authored volume that dissects the cumulative impact of the Salman Rushdie affair and 9/11 on British Muslims.
Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband 1860—1900, Barbara Daly Metcalf, Oxford University Press (2002). This is an indispensable guide to the origins of the many sects and traditions that are followed by today’s British Muslims of south Asian origin. Written by one of the world’s leading authorities on the history of Islam in India.
Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, Tariq Ramadan, Oxford University Press (2004). Philosopher-activist Tariq Ramadan’s ideas on how to reform Islam from within. See also www.tariqramadan.com.
Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a sceptical Muslim, Ziauddin Sardar, Granta (2005). Introduction to the life and ideas of British-Pakistani writer and reformist Ziauddin Sardar. See also Islam, Postmodernism and Other Futures: A Ziauddin Sardar Reader, Sohail Inayatullah and Gail Boxwell (Pluto Press), 2004.
Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of AbdolKarim Soroush, Ahmad Sadri and Mahmoud Sadri, Oxford University Press (2000). Introduction to the ideas of AbdolKarim Soroush, philosopher of science and Muslim reformer from Iran. See also www.drsoroush.com.
Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism, Omid Safi (editor), Oneworld Publications (2003). Manifesto of the Progressive Muslim Union, an influential Islamic reformist group that has emerged in the US since 9/11. See also www.muslimwakeup.com.
Opposition to modernisation
Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the 20th Century, Mark Sedgwick, Oxford University Press (2005). This is a history of traditionalism in 20th-century Islam and other faiths. Sedgwick, a professor of history at the American University in Cairo, unpacks some of the arguments that are likely to be deployed by those who oppose the idea of reform in Islam. See also www.traditionalists.org.
Is Rationalism Possible in the Muslim World?, Muhammad Umer Chapra, American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, Volume 16, Number 4 (1999). This essay explores the history of why rationalism has so far failed to take hold in Muslim societies.