Hisham A Hellyer. The Muslim World. Volume 97, Issue 2. April 2007.
Around the European Union, the implication by large sections of society is that there is something intrinsically different about Islam that makes it difficult to integrate Muslims into European societies. Some of these sections of society are non-Muslim, and are reluctant to allow such integration to take place; others are Muslim, as represented by the quote above.
These sentiments raise a number of issues relating to plural identities and their compatibility with modern day Europe and Islam, with such issues finding variable expressions in member-states. The British example represents an illustrative case study, having a long history of interaction with Muslims and being the home of a large Muslim population.
Muslims in the UK: a Chronicle
Historical reviews of the Muslim following in the UK have various starting points. Until recently, British society understood the phenomenon as having begun in the context of the UK’s colonial history; Muslims from across the British Empire, and later the British Commonwealth, traveled to the UK and thus began Muslim British history.
In the last few decades, however, this narrative has lost much of its former credibility, challenged by British historians. While it is correct to note that the largest and most noticeable presence of Muslims rose in the UK in the aftermath of the break-up of the British Empire, the history of the relationship goes back much further:
The Anglo-Muslim community has produced many stormy petrels over the centuries. Religious dissidents, adventurers, romancers, scholar-pilgrims—all have enriched the diverse and colourful story that is British Islam: Peter Lyall, the Scotsman who became an admiral in the Ottoman navy; Abdullah Quilliam, the Liverpool solicitor who founded a mosque and orphanage in which Christian waifs were raised as Muslims; Benjamin Bishop, His Majesty’s consul in Cairo who turned Muslim and mysteriously disappeared; Lord Headley, the peer; Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the explorer and pilgrim to Mecca; Mubarak Churchward, the stage painter and friend of Lily Langtiy; the anonymous Scotsman who became governor of Medina; and many more.
Hence it can be said that there is significant evidence to suggest five phases of Muslim history in the UK or among Britons:
- Early Muslim general history until the end of the 15th century
- 16th century to the end of the 18th century
- 19th century-First World War
- Early 20th century
- Mid 20th century-present
Each of these phases contributes something unique to the historical context of the Muslim presence in the United Kingdom.
Pre-modern Muslim-British Contact
The first part of this historical phase has been written on sparsely but there are some interesting facts that should be considered. Rosser-Owen suggests that ever since Egypt and Palestine came under Muslim control in the 7th century, Celts of western Britain came into contact with the Muslims through trade. It is also reported that Selbach mac Fherchair Fota, High King of Dal Riada in the early 700s (a territory encompassing parts of northern Ireland and western Scotland) was a Muslim, as were a number of his subjects. Muhammad bin Musa al-Khawarizimi in his Surat al-Ardh mentions a number of British areas in 817 and an Arabic inscription can be found on the Ballycottin cross in the same century; in the early 900s, it is documented that ‘Abd al-Rahman bin Harun al-Maghribi reached Britain. These reports suggest that Muslims had reached and interacted with Britons on their native soil, and abroad through trade, from very early on—possibly from the beginning of the 8th century. If the reports of the High King of DaI Riada were accurate, it would have represented the earliest settlement of Muslims in the UK in history, but judging by the now infamous coin minted by King Offa of Mercia, it is clear that there were links as early as 775.
It is likely that trade links would have continued between the Muslims residing in Andalusia (Muslim Spain and Portugal) and other parts of western Europe. Later records indicate the presence of Arab Muslims in London from the twelfth or thirteenth century, presumably for trade. Other features of the Middle Ages intimate that there was considerable contact between Muslims of the East and Britons in the West, such as the Guilds, and other features of foreign trade.
Contact between the King of England, John the 1st (13th century), and the wider Muslim world became close enough for him to propose marriage to the daughter of the Sharif of Morocco. He was willing to embrace Islam in order to be a suitable husband; according to one account, the Sharif refused stating that “Islam forbids taking undue advantage of helpless people, and had King John really wanted to embrace the Faith, he need not have to send any kind of statement to the Emir for converting himself.” At this time, “(it) is further inferred that there were many Spanish Muslims wandering around Britain” and that intermarriages between Muslims and non-Muslim Britons carried on even during the time of the Crusades. Perhaps in relation to this, Rosser-Owen claims that the present House of Windsor (the monarchical family of the United Kingdom), through ancient intermarriage with Portuguese royalty, is descended from the last prophet of Islam.
British relations under Queen Elizabeth in the late sixteenth century with the Muslims were fairly warm. Following from the steps begun by her father, the Queen arranged a defence treaty with the Ottomans in 1587, and later the UK formed political links with Muslim territories as far as India and Persia. Relations between Queen Elizabeth and Morocco were also often quite close, with Queen Elizabeth requesting military and diplomatic assistance from the Sharif Ahmad al-Mansur on more than one occasion. The Sharif of Morocco even proposed to the Queen in 1603 that they join forces and attack the Spanish colonies in the West Indies for the purpose of possessing these territories for their two realms. The plan came to naught but represents a close connection in the Elizabethan period and a significant Muslim territory against another common enemy, in this case, Spain.
Within England, there were Muslims during these same periods who were neither permanent residents nor subjects of the crown, existing as a distinct group amid the British population. security for Muslim traders was guaranteed under Elizabeth, another step in forming amicable relations with the Turks and Arabs that induced the Pope to view Elizabeth as “confederate with the Turk.” Elizabeth ensured that her captains assisted any Muslim slaves that were found aboard captured Spanish vessels, to the point that British fleet commanders saw fit, in relation to freed Muslim slaves resulting from the attack on Cadiz in 1596, to “apparel them, and to furnish them with money, and all other necessaries, and to bestow on them a barke, and a Pilot, to see them freely and safely conveied into Barbary.”
In this context, it is not altogether surprising that a historian may note that Britons were more likely during this period to meet a Muslim Ottoman or Arab than any other non-Christian people of the world, including Jews, Native Americans or other Muslims. Matar’s work shows how the Islamic intellectual legacy of the Arabs at the time in particular had found its way to England and impacted Renaissance England. In the following century, Oxford and Cambridge established chairs of Arabic, an English translation of the Qur’an by Alexander Ross was published, and a document referred to “a sect of Mahometans discovered here in London,” who may have been Muslim settlers.
During the reign of Charles I treaties were formed between the UK and Morocco and the Ottomans, resulting in similar trade arrangements. Muslims continued to be permitted to “exercise their religion … in the Kingdome of the King of great Britaine.” Traders, prisoners and ambassadors—all three of these categories of Muslims and more were to be found in the British Isles during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Intermarriage and conversions also took place during this period, to the point that they might be described as somewhat scandalous. With the reign of James, however, relations began to worsen. In his treaty with the Spanish in 1604, James agreed to a common resistance against the Ottomans, and began to openly oppose the Muslim East. A period of warm relations between the British and the Muslims had ended, but not without lasting influences and effects.
As in all Europe, Arabic texts in a variety of sciences were “central to higher education in England in the 17th century”; in the words of one mathematics professor at Cambridge, Isaac Barrow, “the mastery of Arabic was necessary for the advancement of learning.” The canon of medicine written by Ibn Sina has been documented as a standard text for medical students well into the 1600s. Even Morris dancing, an ancient English pastime, is suggested to have its roots in the interaction between the UK and Muslim Spain (prior to the Reconquista).
A number of authors have examined the history of Muslim-British relations prior to the nineteenth century and have uncovered some interesting facts that have hitherto been reported with little frequency in the literature. Ali relates that because of his role in the Magna Carta rebellion, a Roman Catholic English priest, Master de London, was excommunicated and banished from England. He then went to Mongolia, became the Tartar Khan’s chief diplomat and then returned to Europe, converting large numbers of Europeans to Islam.
Murad has written on the Britons who forsook Christianity for Islam in the seventeenth century, including Captain John Ward of Kent, and those who were martyred by the Inquisition in Spain as well as those who were persecuted in Britain by the Church. Sherif mentions John Welson in the sixteenth century who was a “son of a yeoman of our Queen’s Guard … His name was John Nelson.” During this period of Muslim-British interaction, there was certainly an intricate engagement. The Turks and the Moors belonged to a civilization of great power and influence; intrigued, the Britons were not, nor were they, as yet, in an aggressive posture.
Nineteenth Century, Turn of the Twentieth Century: Muslim Sailors in Cardiff and Liverpool
In this period, the British colonized many predominantly Muslim territories and, as such, some Muslim communities began to gravitate to the center of the Empire. Records note that as in earlier centuries, there were a number of converts to Islam from within the British population: known personalities in this time (1800s) include Murad Rais (formerly Peter Lyle, the Admiral of the Tripolitanian Corsair Fleet during Nelson’s Battle of the Nile in the 19th century), John Lewis Burkhardt (a British Orientalist of Swiss origin) and Muhammad Ali Green, who settled in Labuan in the Malaysian peninsula. Others include the first recorded British pilgrim to Makkah, Churchward, Mubin Shepherd, (a British Muslim in Malaysia) and General Wheeler (a British Muslim soldier in 1857). The exploits of Hajj Abdullah Fadhil az-Zubayr, born as William Williamson in 1872 in Bristol, are still remembered among his descendants in Iraq and the Gulf.
However, the majority of Muslim communities among Britons in this age were migrants and visitors from the Malaysian peninsula, Bengal, southern Arabia and Somalia. The best documented of the community that remained in the UK were those who made their homes in Cardiff and Liverpool. The Cardiff community was mostly made up of Yemenis who intermarried with the locals in the late 1800s, whereas the Liverpool community was more indigenously led, particularly by a solicitor of Manx origin, William Quilliam. Of particular note to the present age, Quilliam represented a Muslim of English origin who had become Muslim in Morocco, was educated to become an ‘alim at Qarawiyyin, and set up the “English Islamic Association.” The Caliph Sultan Abdul Hamid the 2nd, with the endorsement of the Shah of Persia and the approval of Queen Victoria, appointed him as Shaykh ul-Islam of the British Isles.
In South Shields in Tyneside, a Muslim community grew in numbers as well, through local converts as well as a large Yemeni population, which continues to exist today as one of the oldest established Muslim communities in the UK. Other notable converts from this period include Lord Stanley of Alderley, Lord Headley (who donated the land that the oldest mosque in the UK was built upon), Lady Khalida Hamilton-Buchanan and Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, who translated the meaning of the Qur’an. At this time, the Muslim community in the UK was still small, though in evidence; indigenous Britons were entering Islam, and one Briton was sufficiently of note to lead not only his own community, but also to attract the approval of some of the highest figures in the Muslim community worldwide.
The Twentieth Century: the Beginning and End of Empire
During the first half of the twentieth century, the UK controlled much of the Muslim world, particularly in South Asia. As many other colonial powers, the UK then had to deal with the presence of migrants from these colonies, even after they were made independent (as they remained part of the British Commonwealth). As a result, large numbers of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis came to the UK, some of whom petitioned the government to build a mosque. Thus, during a war cabinet meeting in 1940, Churchill allocated funds to build the most prestigious mosque in the UK, Regents Park Central Mosque, which opened in 1944 with King George VI present.
The 1960s and 70s saw a huge growth in the number of British Muslims, particularly immigrants from British colonies and Commonwealth countries. In 1963, there were only 13 mosques registered in the UK; this number became 49 in 1970, 99 in 1975, 203 in 1980, and 338 in 1985. Today, this number has more than likely doubled, including both registered and unregistered mosques.43 British Muslim organizations also increased: in 1970, the Union of Muslim Organisations was formed, in 1973 the Islamic Foundation was established in Leicester (now in Markfield), a religious school of higher learning was formed in 1974 in Bury, and more were to follow. Political participation was to follow: in 1970, Bashir Maan was elected as the first Muslim councillor in the UK in Glasgow.
Thus it is evident that British Muslim history did not begin in the latter half of the twentieth century, nor were relations between Islam and Britain prior to then insignificant or ineffably unpleasant: at some points, the UK’s relationship with Muslim countries took precedence over relations with other Christian European states. Alliances were formed, trade was pursued and Muslims certainly walked across the British Isles much earlier than Pakistani immigrants in Bradford did: perhaps more than 1,000 years before.
Today it is estimated that there are about 1.8 million Muslims in the UK based mostly in metropolitan areas such as London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. About half were born in the UK and come from all over the world. Those from the Indian Sub-continent account for the largest group, with significant numbers from Cyprus, Turkey and Yemen. There is also a growing convert community (estimated at 10,000) and their descendants, some of who have become well known in the broader Muslim population.
The UK exists as a nexus point for the greater Muslim community in Europe but also, in a number of ways, the Muslim world. The UK’s colonization of many parts of the Muslim world, and the resulting migration, have meant that England now has one of the most ethnically diverse Muslim populations in the world. The UK is host to Muslim press initiatives that have considerable impact externally, English being the language of communication internationally.
That the UK happens to exist as one of the few non-constitutional monarchies with a head of state that serves as the head of an established Church adds to an already intriguing state of affairs. This situation has been challenged in a number of ways in recent times by various sectors of British society, particularly after the Prince of Wales suggested that as the next monarch he would be “Defender of Faith” rather than the “Defender of the (Anglican) Faith.” The Muslim community finds itself in the center of this debate, being demographically the largest religious minority in a country that is officially a Christian state. This situation has been contested in a variety of ways, and at present, there appear to be three main currents of thought:
- Secular constitutional reform
- An embryonic multi-faithism
- Liberal Anglicanism
The Muslim community has only recently taken strong positions on the question of “establishment,” although its presence (as the largest non-Christian religious community) has encouraged debate in the mainstream on this topic.
The specific characteristics of this community are complicated, but such complication serves the purposes of this study and is discussed in more detail below. If the UK, as an EU Member state has been able to integrate a community as heterogeneous as the British Muslim community (to the point that it can just as easily be called “British Muslim communities”) in legal, political and social terms, there are likely lessons to be learned by other states in the EU.
Muslims in the UK: an Integral Part of British Society?
Reflecting on the strength of feeling in the Muslim community after the Rushdie affair, Paul Weller noted that ‘by insisting that they do not want to be dealt with as an ‘ethnic minority group’ or in terms of ‘race relations’ considerations, and in demanding recognition primarily as a faith community, Muslims are posing fundamental questions to British society. In a cultural milieu where ethnicity, nationality, class and fashion have been seen as the major determining factors of individual and corporate identity, for a group to define itself primarily in terms of religious identity represents a major break with the prevailing social ethos.
Weller’s observation and Gilliat-Ray’s commentary provide some useful insights. The UK has traditionally welcomed immigrants, but just as elsewhere, their integration was through specific prisms. A community that insists on a primarily spiritually derived identity creates methodological issues that require some adaptation before; in this regard, the UK is not exceptional.
Through the current lens of “race-relations,” a number of demands of the Muslim community have been partially accommodated; Vertovec notes in particular the following:
- Permission to establish facilities for ritual slaughtering of animals for consumption
- The setting aside of areas of local cemeteries for Muslim use
- The provision of halal (ritually permissible) food in public institutions such as schools, hospitals, and prisons
- The designation of prayer facilities in the work place
- Time off for Muslims to enjoy their religious festivals
- The broadcasting of the adhan (call to prayer) within certain limits
This was, by and large, the result of work laid down by the first generations of Muslim immigrants in the 1950s and 60s. They and the second generation became subsequently more conversant with British life, and focused their political life on British society and British institutions, rather than their countries of origin, which has translated into a thriving media. The Muslim media in the UK has produced magazines such as Q-News, which has been published in the UK since the 1980s and remains the most read European Muslim publication, primarily targeting young professionals, as well as Muslim News, probably the oldest Muslim media in Europe still running, focusing more on the older sections of the community. Lately, a new magazine entitled Emel has seen its first issues, with other newsletters and magazines from specific organizations and mosques contributing to a large and vibrant Muslim British media.
The community’s labors have also resulted in significant political efforts: there are around 150 Muslim councillors, a number of mayors throughout the UK, one Muslim MP being elected in 1997, two Muslim MPs in 2003 and five life peers of Muslim background being appointed to the House of Lords after 1997. It should be noted that there have been Muslim Lords many years before the current peers, but that in the last years of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth, those peers were predominantly of Anglo-Saxon origin (such as Lord Headley, or Lord Stanley). The five current peers, reflecting the demographics of the Muslim community, are mostly originally from the Indian Sub-continent (Lord Ahmed is Kashmiri, Baroness Uddin is Bangladeshi, Lord Bhatia is Tanzanian, Lord Patel is of Indian origin and Baroness Falkner is Pakistani). These numbers do not yet reflect the Muslim population as a whole, which would mean at least 20 MPs in the House of Commons, nor is there Muslim representation in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Greater London Assembly.
Despite these relatively progressive moves, in socio-economic terms, the Muslim community remains disadvantaged. While it is difficult to generalize about such a diverse community as Muslims in the UK, observers have noted that ethnic/national communities that are predominantly of the Muslim faith are “one of the most deprived groups in Britain.” The following points listed by the Muslim Council of Britain show this poignantly, noting that Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities are more than 90% Muslim:
- A large proportion (37%) of the population of London’s poorest borough, Tower Hamlets, is Bangladeshi (almost 99% Muslim).
- Pakistanis (almost 99% Muslim) and Bangladeshis are the poorest groups in the country.
- Pakistani and Bangladeshi men earn £150 per week less than white men, while the difference is significantly less for other ethnic minorities.
- Pakistani Muslims are three times more likely to be jobless than Hindus are, and Indian Muslims are twice as likely.
- In employment, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis are two and half times more likely to be unemployed than Caucasians, and nearly three times more likely to be in low pay.
- Over two-thirds of Bangladeshi and Pakistani households are living below the poverty line.
This serves to show the disparity between the mainstream (Anglo-Saxon Christian) and some of the Muslim communities; whether this can be attributed to their Islamic identity (as Lindley suggests) or other factors remains inconclusive, but the disproportion remains.
Beyond economic considerations and into social issues, the education question is one of the most tense in the UK. While the Muslim community was small, and predominantly composed of immigrants from other countries, education for the younger generation was not a particularly pressing concern; however, as it became clear that the “myth of return” for many of the immigrant populations was, for the most part, a myth, the subject of “Islamic education” subsequently became an issue for both the Muslims and the mainstream.
There have been several viewpoints vis-à-vis “Islamic education” in the UK, similar to all debates relating to the education of religious minorities in a predominantly Protestant Christian society. One may be denned as “the acceptance of a minority group by a majority population, in which the group takes over the values and norms of the dominant culture,” or the “assimilationist viewpoint.” Were this viewpoint to be standard in the education field, there would be only state schools with a basic curriculum throughout; this, however, is not quite the situation at present. Muslim advocates, and other more “integrationist” voices, argue that while there should be basic standards through all educational institutions, these standards can be met while still allowing for variation according to the backgrounds of the students. As such, the UK has had a number of Jewish, Methodist and Roman Catholic schools for many years, funded by the state. Furthermore, the proponents of Muslim “faith”—schools state four reasons for their position:
- The provision of appropriate religious and moral education;
- The maintenance of cultural traditions of the minority faith group;
- Improving the educational achievement of minority faith pupils; and
- The provision of single-sex education for secondary school age girls.
In theory, the state funds “faith”—schools that meet appropriate Ministry of Education criteria; in practice, this excluded Muslim schools until 1997. One commentator in 1996 noted:
How can it be right for voluntary aided status to be granted to Jewish schools, in some cases before they had even opened their doors, whilst operational Muslim schools, fulfilling all the educational criteria for voluntary aid, find the official goal posts being moved continuously?
Proponents for such schools argue that the existing system allows for “faith”—schools, and as such, Muslim schools should not be discriminated against. In addition, they note that quite apart from “equal opportunities” considerations, Muslim “faith” schools contribute something to their students that state schools would not. In response to such arguments, the Labour government approved funding for two Muslim schools in 1997 and other schools continue efforts to be funded. At present, the state-funded sector of “faith” schools in England and Wales number 4716 Church of England, 2110 Roman Catholic, 27 Methodist, 32 Jewish, 4 Muslim, 2 Sikh, 1 Greek Orthodox and 1 Seventh Day Adventist.
Some have called for the end to all state-funded “faith schools” on the basis that they reinforce divisive communal identities instead of aiding the integration of the students into mainstream society; other reasons include the concern that such schools have poor standards in terms of educational provision, and that there is a lack of provision of equal opportunities for girls in Muslim schools. In such proposals exists the idea of “secular state schools,” with a multicultural and multi-faith standpoint on the part of the educational system; such schools would see the aim of “religious education” as “promoting understanding and using the tools of scholarship” in order to enter into an emphatic experience of the faith of individuals or groups. Whether the UK could make such ‘neutral’ schools a reality is uncertain, but the recent appointment (April 2004) of a Muslim imam to the prestigious Eton school may provide some interesting dynamics to study in the future.
In the realm of Muslim higher education, the UK has been quite active, more so than elsewhere in Europe. The University of Birmingham has signed formal agreements concerning student and professor exchanges with Al-Azhar University and the University of Kuwait. Specifically, dedicated to Muslim higher education are the Muslim College in London and the Hijaz College in Nuneaton, who both offer courses and degrees accredited by the University of London. Students at these institutions pursue classical Islamic sciences such as the study of the revelation, law and ethics, alongside subjects covered in other “secular” institutions.
Another phenomenon that is growing in scope is the traveling abroad of young British Muslims to places where classical Islamic educational methods still exist: in particular, Egypt, Syria (until the end of 2003, when foreign students found their options severely limited) and Yemen.
I would add that members of many of Britain’s other faith communities have become more articulate about their wish to participate in public life on their own terms—as religious minorities—and to have their interests adequately represented:
As in other member states of the European Union, the Muslim community in the UK has been seeking for some time the creation of a representative body; their interests as a community could not be successfully represented in front of the state without one, said the Home secretary in 1994. As yet, there remains nothing comparable to the (elected) Board of Deputies of British Jews in the Muslim community; a number of organizations have, however, attempted to fill the role of ‘representative’ of the Muslim community to the mainstream, albeit in different ways with dissimilar priorities.
As far as representing the Muslim community to the rest of British society, particularly the UK government, two organizations, the Union of Muslim Organisations (UMO) and the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) are perhaps the most influential. Headed by Dr. Aziz Pasha, who has remained the personality behind it ever since it was established in the 1970s, the UMO is one of the largest and best-established Muslim umbrella-groups in the UK. In the 1970s, the UMO held a number of meetings “which culminated in a formal resolution to seek official recognition of a separate system of Muslim family law, which would automatically be applicable to the British Muslims”; the proposal was submitted to various government ministers, and reiterated publicly in 1989 and 1996.
However, while the UMO still commands a good deal of respect among British Muslims as well as within policy-making circles, its influence is slowly beginning to wane in comparison to the MCB, which was established in 1996, primarily as an effort to become a representative body with which the State could contact the Muslim population in the UK. In this regard, it has met with some limited success, in that the UK government does use it as a reference point, particularly after the events of the 11th September 2001, when the state was in desperate need of a Muslim representative body. Nonetheless, the MCB’s effectiveness among Muslims is damaged by this very strength—that the government (and the media) recognizes it as a body to be dealt with, which in turn inspires a reputation (rightly or wrongly) for it being “pro-government” among the Muslim community. Tending to focus on lobbying the Home Office on Muslim issues, as well as hosting public events that are attended by high-profile politicians (including the prime minister), the MCB is particularly noted for advocating that Muslims should be “constructively and fully involved with local and national affairs” and that such involvement may manifest itself through lobbying or formal representation, despite tensions that might arise with respect to the position taken by the UK government on a variety of domestic and international issues.
Less active on the national scene, but still significant are organizations such as the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB) (an MCB affiliate) and the UK Islamic Mission (UKI.M.). Set up in 1990 more as a social education enterprise for Muslim Britons, the ISB assumed more of a public role after September 11 2001 and a number of their members and spokespeople began to be contacted by mainstream media as authentic voices of the Muslim community. It takes a distinctly British Islamic identity to be a goal, “free from Eastern cultural biases of migrant generations,” a development that may be seen in conjunction with the emphasis on “integralisation” of European Muslims by Ramadan and others.
Other less widely spread organizations exist, such as the UKI.M., set up in 1962 to “convey the true spirit of Islam to the Western world” with a remit to ensure that the Muslim identity continues through education, and to propound Muslim participation to create a better society. For all these organizations, the concept of a British Muslim identity is taken for granted as a goal for Muslims in the UK, without detriment to Islam; such a stance should not be underestimated, for together, these organizations represent the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the UK. Their collective desire appears to be integration, on some level, within British society, while remaining authentically Muslim; there remain, however, a number of obstacles, socially and legally, to this becoming a comprehensive reality, the foremost being “Islamophobia.”
The Roots of Islamophobia and some Manifestations
Islamophobia, a term institutionalized by the Runnymede Trust in 1996, which commissioned a body to study the spread of anti-Muslim sentiment in the UK, has an old history in which it has been known by various names in the UK, as Islam has often represented a challenge to the British mainstream. In the period of the English Renaissance, before Muslims were within the reach of imperialist Britain, in a prelude to today’s Islamophobia, they were often depicted as “intimidating and immoral brutes” in the literal and theological realms:
The ‘Turk’ was cruel, and tyrannical, deviant, and deceiving; the ‘Moor’ was sexually overdriven and emotionally uncontrollable, vengeful, and religiously superstitious. The Muslim was all that an Englishman and a Christian was not; he was the Other with whom there could be only holy war.
This sort of prejudice was quite different than that of the Britons toward other nationalities and groups. Matar notes that the British took their representations of the Native Americans, and reinterpreted them to apply to the Muslims. In this way, prejudice was based not on actual events but as part of a conscious and deliberate process of creating a “demonized other.” For centuries, however, the contact was very different; in America, the Britons, victorious, vanquished the Native Americans and conquered swathes of territories. During the Age of Discovery, Britons not only failed to expand by taking Muslim lands, but were forced to flee in shame from their only colony in Tangiers; this merely reinforced the orientalism of the age.
Both the success and failure of colonialism resulted in two different forms of bigoted discourse: whereas the orientalist notion of the Native American was able to become more favorable (the “Noble Savage”) once the Native American was dominated and overcome, no such notion of the Muslim was possible. The Muslim was a threat, because of his/her ability and as such needed to be brought down if only in literary and journalistic manners. For centuries, tools employed in such endeavors included misinterpretation, confusion and deliberate fabrications.
In modern times, Islamophobia’s most significant manifestations began to be seen in the 1980s, with two major “affairs”: the Honeyford Affair, and the Rushdie Affair. The Honeyford affair related to the comments made by Ray Honeyford, headteacher of a Bradford (where there are a large number of Muslims) school, in a right-wing journal regarding the accommodation of minorities in British state schools. Honeyford was eventually persuaded to take early retirement, but his stances stirred great debate in the mainstream regarding the place of minorities, strategies of assimilation, integration and cultural pluralism. These debates continued and were magnified by the “Rushdie Affair,” which involved Muslim opposition to the publishing of a book that contained negative images of Islam. The affair eventually led to a book burning on January 14, 1989 and a religious opinion a month later issued by Ayatollah Khomeini that the author of the book should be put to death. Media coverage of these events “created or bolstered an image of a Muslim population that was homogenous in its anti-modernity values and dangerous in its passions, posing a challenge both to nationalist ideologies of ‘Britishness’ and to liberal notions about freedom and human rights.”
In the 1990s and the early twentieth century, this characterization of British Muslims changed to one that saw Muslims in the UK as a type of “fifth column,” intensifying particularly during the Gulf War of 1991, the bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998, the attacks on the United States on the 11th September 2001 and the bombings in London on the 7th July 2005.
… Britain’s Muslims should make a commitment or two to us. Such as they understand that being British imposes obligations of loyalty that some seem only too ready to abandon with talk of their religion being far more important than their nationality.
British Muslims in the media “were portrayed generally as somehow linked to a world-wide anti-Western, Islamic fundamentalist movement” that made their loyalty to the UK and to British values (whatever these might be or would entail) questionable: “Muslim dissent to these events (the Satanic Verses affair and the Gulf War of 1991) has been interpreted as disloyalty and a misplaced sense of belonging rather than a democratic right to express opposition.”
Interestingly enough, the Gulf War of 2003, which most of the Muslim community in the UK (and elsewhere) opposed, brought Muslim participation in society to one of its most significant points. It was long established that foreign policy issues such as Palestine united the Muslim community, but it took the Iraqi crisis of 2003 to organize like-minded Britons on the grassroots level to effect change in the greater society.
The aforementioned Runnymede Trust established the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia in this context, and in 1997 published a report entitled “Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All.” The report contained sixty recommendations that concentrate on numerous policy domains, and was distributed to policy makers and social workers, among other sectors in British society. Its key recommendation was the introduction of new legislation that recognized violence and discrimination based on religion, which has yet to become a reality.
Following 11th September 2001, these concerns became more imperative for the Muslim community. Ansari relates that Muslims were “punched, spat at, hit with umbrellas at bus stops, publicly doused with alcohol and pelted with fruits and vegetables. Dog excrement and fireworks were pushed through their letterboxes, and bricks were thrown through their windows.” Muslim women’s headscarves were torn off while an increased number of death threats and attacks on businesses and mosques were reported.
In 2003, one of the members of the aforementioned Runnymede Commission on Islamophobia, Trevor Phillips, was appointed the head of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), set up after the passage of the 1976 Race Relations Act and funded by the UK government. The CRE has been primarily concerned with racial discrimination in its history but Phillips brought the issue of Muslims (a non-racial community) to the center of its work. In the weeks following his appointment, he identified two main priorities, both of which were directly related to the integration of Muslims into British society. Firstly, to confront far-right parties such as the British National Party (particularly in its attacks on British Muslims) and secondly, to confront Muslim extremists who were trying to inhibit integration with British society on the grounds that “being Muslim is incompatible with being British.” With regard to the latter, the activist group “Liberation Party” (Hizbut Tahrir) planned a conference entitled “Muslim or British.” In response to the former, the BMP party leader Nick Griffin declared in an interview that Britain “does not have an Asian problem, but a Muslim one.”
The aftermath of the 7th July attacks in 2005 has not settled, but as yet, the general situation does not appear to have changed much of the positive or the negative aspects of the environment in which the Muslim community finds itself.
Solutions or Restructuring? The Church-State Debate
It would thus appear that there is somewhat of a consensus that there are issues that inhibit the integration of Muslims into British society; whether this is due to obstacles placed in front of the Muslim community or the nature of Islam itself is currently debated with some vigor. The exact meaning of the word “Islamophobia” is also being examined, as it is a term that has been most used within the context of media representations and may not be easily transplanted to other arenas.
Unsurprisingly, similar debates are ensuing across the EU. The integration of Muslim communities into the fabric of European societies is difficult for a number of reasons. One is Islamophobia itself, the under-current of opposition to the integration of Muslim communities for reasons of fear and prejudice. Another is the difficulty of incorporating non-Christian religious communities into societies that traditionally have a close connection between the Church and State. In some countries secular constitutional reform has resulted in the religion of Islam being placed on a par with the religion of Christianity in public life. In the UK, it has ensured that the state is not administered in the name of a Queen. One academic writes:
For minority traditions to be fully included in terms of constitutional self-understanding, there is a need for shifts to take place in both in the symbolisation and operationalisation of the State. At the symbolic level, the association of the Crown with Established Anglican Christianity (or, in Scotland, Presbyterian Christianity) inevitably renders other traditions second class, and this inevitably remains the case no matter how openly or tolerantly that structural position is used.
However, this movement to change the UK into a republic has somewhat limited appeal in the Muslim community; the concept that disestablishment would create equality between Islam and Christianity in the public sphere is suspect, considering that the Church-State link is loose and the Church exerts limited influence on the state. Were this situation altered, it would be unlikely to result in greater Islamic influence over the state.
More often, the Muslim community has weighed in favor encouraging the continuation of a link between the State and the Church. Two British Muslims, Tariq Modood and David Rosser-Owen (who echoes the arguments of the Jewish Chief Rabbi of the UK, Dr Jonathan Sacks), have offered the reasons for their community in this regard:
- All religions face similar challenges in the context of massive secularisation.
- Diversity requires that there be an over-arching public culture.
- If this public culture has any religious component, it will be that of the Church of England (due to historical reasons rather than intended preference).
- Disestablishment would not replace establishment with anything ‘demonstrably better’ from the perspective of the minority religious communities.
As such, Muslims generally support the status quo in terms of framework (that the state-religion link take the form of a state-church link), since it makes their case for more accommodation of their religious needs easier to argue, but urge changes in the way this status quo plays itself out:
For us (Muslims) there must be a church-state link, or rather a religionstate link, in order to keep touch with Reality … This need not militate against the interest of the other faith communities, providing the dominant religion acts as an advocate for them, and does not abuse and exploit its dominant position.
Muslims would, in short, like to see the Church, from its unique ‘coin of vantage’ provided by establishment, act as the advocate for all belief systems and to speak out against any attacks on any of the religions represented in the United Kingdom.
Rosser-Owen further suggests that the Church demonstrate its support for certain initiatives, as a national spiritual institution, including the extension of the blasphemy law to include offenses against Islam (discussed below), and legislation outlawing religious discrimination in the UK. Other proposals include for the provision of more representatives of Islam in the House of Lords and so forth, which is somewhat problematic considering Islam does not admit a clerical structure.
The overriding concern among the Muslim community does not seem to be the existence of a Church-State link, but whether that Church-State link is used only to the benefit of Anglican Christians or for society as a whole. Legislation is viewed as having more of a direct effect over how the Muslim community will develop, and naturally, across the EU, this is another major impediment to the integration of Muslims in European societies.
Legal Status of Muslims in the UK; the Past and the Present
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has three state legal systems: England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In terms of supra state legal systems, British judges are bound to take “limited account of international law obligations,” including obligations arising from the signing of European conventions, and more directly, European Community law.
This means that British law may recognize supra-national laws and make note of them in their rulings, but the courts are primarily concerned with the legal acts passed by their own legislature and the case law that has been derived by their own courts: international treaties become a part of domestic British law only through an act of the legislature. For example, although the European Convention on Human Rights was signed by the UK many years ago, its content only became directly relevant when it was incorporated into British law by the enactment of the Human Rights Act 1998. It is similar with European Union obligations, although not precisely so.
Thus, it is important to make a distinction between the rights accorded to British citizens under their own domestic legal statutes and cases and the rights accorded to them under extra-state sources of law. The former will be the main source of jurisprudence for judges, while the latter, even when such treaties place an obligation on the signatory state to incorporate their content in domestic law, are rarely, on their own, directly effective.
If one were to be writing about the antiquated law of blasphemy in the early 1980s, one could, as Bradney notes, be guilty of trying to add bulk to a thesis unnecessarily; for 27 years before and 30 years after Lord Denning’s now infamous statement “the offence of blasphemy is a dead letter,” there was no successful prosecution of blasphemy in Britain. The nuances and dissatisfaction with the law of blasphemy came to a new height, however, with Muslim demands to have the law extended to Islam with the publication of The Satanic Verses in the 1980s: as yet, the government and the courts have rejected such a plea and it remains the case that the prohibition on blasphemy refers only to Christianity, and even then only with a great deal of provocation involved.
Such a high level of proof has led some to call for its abolishment altogether, although the MCB opposed this, claiming that it would result in negative equalization; an alternative suggested by Sebastian Poulter was to expand the current law on incitement in the Public Order Act of 1986 to include incitement to racial hatred and outraging religious sensibilities.
In its response to the House of Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences, the MCB recommended that the House of Lords take note of Lord Scarman’s statement in R v Lemmon (1979), which should be noted here:
I do not subscribe to the view that the common law offence of blasphemous libel serves no useful purpose in the modern law. On the contrary, I think that there is a case for legislation extending it to protect the religious beliefs of non-Christians. The offence belongs to a group of criminal offences designed to safeguard the internal tranquility of the Kingdom. In an increasingly plural society such as that of modern Britain it is necessary not only to respect the differing religious beliefs, feelings and practices of all but also to protect them from scurrility, vilification, ridicule and contempt … my criticism of the common law offence of blasphemy is not that it exists but it is not sufficiently comprehensive. It is shackled by the chains of history.
Demands for fiqh Incorporation into State Law
As discussed above, some quarters of the Muslim community such as the UMO have demanded that the British legal system officially recognize the binding nature of fiqh on the British Muslim. Although the British state was and remains reluctant, Muslims have continued to place a good deal of emphasis on a legal system other than the British one:
For Muslims, this phenomenon confirms that Muslims place Islamic law higher than state law and view perceived Muslim norms as crucially binding by Muslim conscience. Put differently, in the minds of Muslims, ‘universal’ rules of Islam are superior to the local lex loci.
The courts have wrestled with this for decades in an indirect manner: some Muslim-dominated countries have fiqh as their family or personal law, and through discussions and deliberations on conflicts of laws, British courts have arrived at some peculiar conclusions. None of these cases has resulted in the court actually recognizing fiqh as binding upon British citizens; where the British courts have noted fiqh, it has only been recognized as another state’s legal system and thus treated according to the normal regulations pertaining to “conflict of laws.”
The British legal regime, similar to many modern “Western” legal systems, is underpinned by the principle of the desirability of a uniform legal system, allowing for adjustments on the basis of region, not identity or religion (Scottish laws, for example differ slightly in some areas) and certain exemptions (see below). While other jurisprudential codes allow for a pluralistic system within the same legal jurisdiction, British law generally aims for a homogeneous system.
However, this is not a rule that is applied without exception on religious groups; Jews and Quakers, as Bradney points out, are specifically privileged. Nor is it the case for other groups, particularly ethnic groups; this is hardly the case; while the national legal code stipulates that motorcyclists must wear helmets, Sikhs may be exempted since their religious tradition demands they wear turbans. Similarly, Muslims already receive certain limited exemptions, such as swearing oaths on the Qur’an as opposed to the Bible and the permission to slaughter in accordance with fiqh.
The question of multiple interpretations of fiqh has also been raised as an objection; while there is relative unanimity on issues of doctrine in Islam, legal issues have been a subject of much debate and discourse for well over a thousand years, and in theory, any opinion is valid under God if a qualified jurist formulates it using a correct methodology. Any British judge that might accept fiqh in principle as a source of law in British courts would necessarily have to wade through many different opinions, a task that few, if any, British judges would be equipped to do.
In the absence of this, pious Muslims who are committed to following fiqh have attempted to create voluntary “Shari’ah courts.” Such courts then serve Muslims who wish to abide by an orthodox interpretation of their religious jurisprudence; in so doing, they satisfy the religious/spiritual obligations that they incur as being voluntary members of the ummah without breaking British law: “Thus it may appear today, from the outside, that Muslims in Britain are following English law, but in effect they are following a path which they consider appropriate.”
At present, the Shari’ah courts are not so recognized by the British legal system; they are not banned from operation, but they are ignored and considered non-entities by the legal system. Urging for a radical change, a number of Muslim groups have argued for their incorporation within the doctrine of “conflict of laws,” where the national legal systems of other countries recognized by the United Kingdom are recognized by the legal system under certain circumstances.
Major obstacles exist in this approach, however. The present reality is that while national courts from outside the UK are operational according to a viable standard, Shari’ah courts in the UK are not. In addition, in conflicts of laws cases, the other national court is chosen according to the nationality of the defendants, i.e., a Pakistani proves he/she is Pakistani and then the case moves forward. If this approach were applied vis-à-vis Shari’ah courts, the UK state would be responsible for deciding who is and who is not a Muslim and what sort of Muslim fiqh to apply, placing the British state in a position of theological authority that it is unlikely to desire.
Nevertheless, another course of action has been suggested by some within the legal community who are also Muslim, such as Ahmad Thomson of the Association of Muslim Lawyers, who notes the British legal system recognizes the principle of “alternative dispute resolution.” This is a method by which two parties voluntarily accept the rulings of a third party as binding in a particular dispute. The state would then be obligated to implement those rulings provided they did not directly contradict British law.
Thomson suggests that a Shari’ah court could thus take the place of a “third party” where two Muslim individuals could voluntarily take their cases with regards to their personal issues but notes a number of structural issues to be resolved:
- The training and selection of British Muslim judges (qadis) who are conversant in the legal schools (madhhabs) that apply to the defendants.
- The issue of voluntary acceptance. This solution would not mean, for example, that when a Muslim died, he or she would have his or her estate automatically divided according to Muslim fiqh unless he or she stated in his will to do exactly that. The only way for this to change is for the state to take responsibility for defining a Muslim; something that it is, as noted above, quite unlikely to do. Hence it should be clear that this would be an entirely voluntary system, but once voluntarily accepted, a binding one.
- Ensuring that these religious courts are of a high standard and fully functional, perhaps involving a registration system with the state.
- There are a number of instances where Muslim personal laws do conflict with British law, with or without the consent of the two parties. One main example is polygamy. Neither is polygamy obligatory on the Muslim, nor are the other dispensations within Muslim law that conflict with British law, perhaps meaning that a direct disagreement on these issues is not imminent.
Whether this would meet with the approval of the British legal establishment (despite Thomson’s suggestion that they might be grateful for the relief) as well as the Muslim community is open to question; as Pearl and Menski note: “Western ‘traditional model jurisprudence’ appears to leave no formally recognised space for a personal law system based on different religious and cultural traditions.”
Thomson’s scheme remains an imaginative course of action to investigate on an issue that has been of varying importance to the Muslim community in recent years. However, it would have little or no bearing on any incidence of religious discrimination in the wider society; an issue which has been rather sensitive in recent years vis-a-vis British Muslims.
The state of the law before the passage of the Human Rights Act in 1998 meant that domestic state law had no bar against religious discrimination, save three situations:
- The Race Relations Act (as amended in 2000) is concerned with direct discrimination on the basis of ‘ethnicity’ or ‘race.’ For the purpose of that act, Jews and Sikhs are considered ethnic groups, on the basis that each shares a common cultural tradition and history, and hence, discrimination against these two religious groups is illegal.
- Religious discrimination in employment in Northern Ireland is illegal; the relevant act pertains only to Northern Ireland, however, and does not cover fields other than employment.
- There is legislation that bans indirect discrimination on the basis of race, but could be used to defend Muslims who originate from predominantly Muslim societies. This thus does not cover converts or Muslims from countries where the majority is not Muslim.
Hence, for most of British legal history, Muslims as Muslims were not recognized or protected from discrimination by law in the UK Religious groups per se were not protected from discrimination, although racial and ethnic groups have been for some decades, and as discussed above, Jews and Sikhs have been identified as ethnic communities by case law (Mandla v Dowell Lee, 1983). The two essential criteria for recognition as an ethnic group were stated by the House of Lords as:
- A long shared history, which the group recognises as distinguishing itself as separate from other groups;
- A cultural tradition of its own, not necessarily associated with religious observance.
Four other non-essential characteristics were also identified:
- A common geographical origin, or common descent;
- A common language;
- A common religion (different from that of neighbouring groups);
- Being a minority or being an oppressed or a dominant group within a larger community.
Two cases (Nyazi v. Rymans Ltd in 1988, and Commission for Racial Equality v. Precision Engineering Ltd in 1991) established that the law did not consider that Muslims were an ethnic group under these criteria, and thus it was legal to discriminate against Muslims on the basis of their religion. As discussed above, there is a partial remedy to be found in the ban on indirect discrimination, but this is limited, and may result in inconsistencies. For example, if an Algerian was not given time off to pray, he might claim indirect discrimination on the basis that Algerians in general pray; an English convert in the same situation would not be able to pursue the same course.
The limits in using indirect discrimination as a way to redress religious discrimination were made clear in the case Safouane and Bouterfas (1996), where two Muslims were dismissed for praying on their breaks; the tribunal held that “this was not indirect discrimination as the applicants belonged to the same North African ethnic minority as the respondents and that they had a good record of employing staff from a diversity of backgrounds.” Attempts have also been made to use the Sex Discrimination Act to provide protection against religious discrimination; in the case of Sardar vs McDonalds (1998), a Muslim female complainant was successful in claiming indirect sexual discrimination after she was dismissed for covering her hair.
As this legal abnormality became an issue of discomfort, a number of British Muslim organizations, along with a number of more mainstream groups (such as the CRE), promoted measures to rectify the situation, as did the Runnymede Trust. The government continued to resist attempts to include religion or religious belief in a statute banning religious discrimination on the basis that religion/religious belief is not easily definable, and that existing legislation was sufficient. However, as John Austin, the member of parliament who proposed a Religious Discrimination and Remedies bill in 1998, pointed out, it remained the case that:
- In one part of the UK, religious discrimination was unlawful (Northern Ireland and employment)
- Employers could not discriminate on grounds of race, but could do so on the basis of religion
- The current regime protected Jews and Sikhs, but not Hindus or Muslims
This state of affairs changed in 1998 with the incorporation into British law of an enactment of the European Convention on Human Rights: the Human Rights Act, which theoretically gives members of faith groups a method by which they may take their grievances directly to the courts. Although some members of the Law Lords considered this act to be rather “modest” and relatively unimportant in scope, it represented a legal avenue for religious groups in the UK to have their concerns addressed.
Attempts were also made to extend the current race relations legislation to include religion, but were rejected by Home Office Minister Lord Bassam on the basis that there was not widespread anti-Muslim discrimination in the UK. Following this, the Home Office commissioned a report from the University of Derby on religious discrimination, which confirmed that such discrimination did exist, and in wide varieties. The government, however, despite increased calls for more legislation regarding religious discrimination in the aftermath of the 11th September 2001, has resisted attempts to address it to the present.
The most immediate pressure for reform came from the European Union, through several courses of action:
- The law of the European Community has traditionally provided protection against discrimination on the basis of sex and nationality (for EC citizens), although the European Court of Justice had stated previously that the right to non-discrimination on the basis of religion was a right to be protected by Community law. This changed with the Treaty of Amsterdam, which, in Article 13, provides a legal ban on discrimination based on ‘sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.’
- In June 2000, two directives regarding discrimination were adopted by the Council, one of which established a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation on the grounds of religion or belief. The United Kingdom responded to this directive on 2 December 2003 with relevant legislation that came into effect on that date; however, it is only concerned with employment, and not with other areas.
One important aspect of religious discrimination that will not be directly covered by the EU directive is the issue of “incitement to religious hatred,” an issue that became more topical (but probably not more relevant) after 11th September 2001. In its aftermath, the Home Secretary proposed legislation that would have made such incitement an offense, but in the final event, it was left out.
There have been several developments in the move to address the current regime of equality legislation, some of which have been inspired by obligations arising from the UK’s membership of the European Union, as discussed above, and others that have been articulated by domestic advocates for reform, particularly after the bombings in London in July 2005. One of the more high profile moves in this area has been the push for an “Equality Bill” to give effect to the Cambridge Centre for Public Law report on “Equality: a New Framework, The Report of the Independent Review of the Enforcement of UK Anti-Discrimination Legislation” that sought:
… to address the serious defects of current equality legislation, setting out a single framework for eliminating discrimination and promoting equality between different people, regardless of their racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, sex, marital or family status, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, age or disability.
It remains unlikely this bill will pass through on its own initiative, despite the efforts of a number of members in the House of Lords and the Commons. As discussed, the concepts of ‘religion’ and ‘religious belief have been left undefined by law and more definite descriptions are viewed warily by some sections of the British establishment. This was particularly highlighted in the aftermath of Lord Ahmed’s attempt to amend the Race Relations Act to incorporate religion into its ambit in 2000.
As with the legal regime on the EU level, the practice of Islam is not positively inhibited by British law, despite a number of structural issues; however, it should be noted that other groups not positively inhibited by British law, such as women, racial minorities and the disabled, have been provided certain positions within the current legal regime. Such groups received certain positive treatment or exemptions because either structural factors owed to history did not permit them equitable treatment, or because society itself needed to be limited by law in order for equitable treatment to occur. In any case, the British state has already committed itself to a variety of international and European treaties that insist on the freedom of religion, making it likely that further developments in this area will come, although from subsequent EU directives rather than from the British legal establishment per se.
More generally, the UK is no longer, if it ever was, a society with a ‘majority’ white and ‘minority’ non-white population. It is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society, in which there is a plurality of groups and communities, some enjoying more power and influence than others. Today there is a growing emphasis on cultural diversity and, at the same time, the need to bind together the constituent groups on the basis of shared values such as human rights and equality.
The above observation hints at something quite significant, namely the doubt that the UK was ever a monolithic society based on a monoculture. History, as discussed above, bears witness that in terms of religious diversity, this was never the case. From the Middle Ages until the beginning of the twentieth century, there is strong evidence to show that there was, at the least, British contact with Muslims. In Britain, just as all over Europe, Islam has a long lineage: “For British Muslims, the past does not have to be ‘another country.’”
This has not gone unnoticed by the British Muslim community of today. The spokesmen and spokeswomen of the community tend to emphasize their historical roots in the British Isles and do not envisage a widespread migration elsewhere. T. J. Winter goes further than this and argues, differently from Matar, that traditionally British national identity “lacks a history of self-construction against an Islamic rival” and thus the formation of a thoroughly British, yet Muslim, identity will not “be obstructed by a core constituent of traditional national identity,” unlike some European national identities.
However, there remains some reluctance to admit that the British Muslim community has ‘arrived’; i.e., that it is now integral to British society. An examination of the British Muslim community reveals that on a variety of levels, there is still much work to be done. In political, economic, social and educational terms, the community cannot be favorably compared to other demographic religious minority communities in the UK. Islamophobia, just as all over Europe,148 has been cited in the UK as one of the greatest challenges to a Muslim community seeking to make itself ‘integral’ to society, and the lack of organized representation has been identified as an obstacle to that process. There may be a plethora of vibrant and active Muslim organizations in the UK, but none has successfully claimed the respect of all sectors of the Muslim community, making their representative value suspect.
Despite these obstacles, however, evidence suggests that the British Muslim community is committed to a British identity. The media it has produced is concerned with the UK as its primary focus of activity. It has involved itself at many levels of political participation, created lasting institutions, and does not view itself as a temporary implant. This does not necessarily result in complete assimilation either, however:
Although ‘it is not easy to be British and Muslim at the same time,’ Muslims can seek some form of middle way. They might remain faithful to Islam while identifying fully with Britain. In that sense, integration means the adaptation of British structures to facilitate the practice of Islam within them.
In Yilmaz’s thought, therefore, the integration process means efforts not only from the Muslim community, but also from the British state. Legal efforts have been made in British law to accommodate the differences that emanate from being Muslim, although obviously within certain limits. In a pattern that reflects other EU states, sometimes progress is made independently of EU law, and sometimes progress would not have been accomplished without the impetus from EU membership commitments.
Without sensitivity, however, such efforts and processes result in unnecessary social discord, an example being the Home secretary’s insistence in 2002 that immigrants should learn English in order to integrate into British life. This is in itself a reasonable demand, but one that inspires resentment among the minority communities since, as a CRE Commissioner retorts: “I have never met a recent immigrant who is not desperate to learn English. The problem is not on the demand but the supply side.”
In essence, this may be a non-issue; the trend among the latest generation of British Muslims, particularly with the rise of Islam among the indigenous population, indicates that the Muslim community is keen to be integrated into British society, but as Muslims:
We want to create a British Islamic culture. By doing this we will be carrying on what our great forefathers achieved, who developed Islamic cultures wherever they went. It is our job to be innovative, creative, adventurous, bold, chivalrous and create a new British Islamic culture.