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The integration of Muslims in Britain - a historical perspective

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Segregation has been identified as a common denominator in the social problems associated with Muslim populations in Europe in the past decade. This was true of the Molenbeek terrorists who struck in Paris and Brussels; of the 2005 London bombers who were born and bred in West Yorkshire and of the Birmingham rioters of the same year.

Trevor Phillips’ recent documentary confirmed that very few Muslims believe that Islam supports terrorism. But many conservative Muslims do believe that Islam sanctions the division of Muslims from non-Muslims, whether through taboos on socializing where alcohol is served; mixing between men and women or even the explicit avoidance of friendship with non-Muslims. Certainly, most Muslims wish their children to marry Muslims, and this can inspire a dislike of strong ties ‘outside the community’.

To understand why this pattern exists, it is necessary to examine the historical experience of early Muslims. Modern commentators on ‘Islam’ often focus on the Qur’an and its seventh century context to assess claims to religious legitimacy. But it is important to remember that religions do not spring fully formed from the heads of prophets. What we now think of as ‘Islam’ had a slow gestation in the conquered lands of Iraq and Syria, in which the Qur’an was re-interpreted to fit new contexts. Here Muslims were a tiny ruling minority in a land with a large population of Christians and polytheists. Many other conquering peoples assimilated into their more numerous subjects within a few generations. But Arab Muslims did not only resist assimilation but also spread their religion and their ethnic identity to the defeated masses. This ability to resist assimilation has to be recognized as a key strand of early Islam.

Early Muslim sources reflect the attractions of the cosmopolitan environment of the ninth-century Middle East. Abbasid Baghdad saw the translation of Greek philosophy and Persian political theory. And the court of the caliphs provided employment for men of a wide variety of religious backgrounds, not only Muslim, but also Jewish and Christian.

Yet to some this cosmopolitanism was anathema. The Muslim jurist Ahmad ibn Hanbal warned his followers not to consort with non-Muslims. The Qur’an (5.5) already forbade Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims. Ibn Hanbal further underscored interreligious boundaries: Muslims, he said, should not even look at Christians (‘since they slandered God’) or accept invitations to visit the house of a non-Muslim. This practice, he insisted, mirrored the behavior of Muhammad in Medina, who, when he passed a Christian or a Jew in the street, would say ‘How are you Christian’, without using his name and without using the greeting ‘peace (salam)’, which was reserved for Muslims.

Ibn Hanbal’s career is important because he is regarded as the founder of one of the four law schools of Sunni Islam. Ibn Hanbal’s school (madhhab) is powerfully represented today in the hardline Wahhabi movement, the state religion of Saudi Arabia. This, in turn, is a major funder of the Deobandi movement in Pakistan, which controls the majority of Muslim seminaries in the UK and is strongly supported in the Pakistani diaspora. We can trace some of the same kind of segregationist ideas that are witnessed in the writings of Ibn Hanbal in contemporary curricula produced for institutions in the UK. For instance, one Saudi-produced textbook instructed students not to befriend or imitate non-Muslims and imagined an ‘eternal clash’ between Muslims and their Jewish and Christian opponents.

Philip Lewis has charted how Deobandi scholars have long resisted the influence of ‘the customs of the infidels’. In recent times this has encompassed such sins as Christmas cards, contraceptives and computer games. Of course, all religious movements have encountered difficulties in accommodating innovations in technology or broader social changes. But the religious sanctions that Lewis observes are rooted in a Manichaean view of history, where some Muslim teaching has emphasised that Muslims have always been oppressed by the powers of the day and have an obligation to defend the customs endorsed by God’s Prophet against the infidels (kufar).

It would, however, be an exaggeration to suggest that all Deobandis actively endorse the kind of cultural separation that sees Christmas cards as ‘unbelief’. Some of the part-time imams interviewed by Lewis endorsed a different vision, of ‘integrate but do not assimilate’, where better understanding of law, politics and economics, and the development of Islamic theology for a European context, would help to further the interests of a British Muslim ‘community’.

The political philosopher Tariq Modood has rightly warned against the demonization of conservative Muslims. We must certainly recognize that overwhelming numbers of Muslims, like their fellow citizens, do not approve of terrorism of any kind. But there is also among some a justification to be found in some ‘Islamic’ traditions for separation from wider society. And this may in part help to explain the puzzle of how a minority go on to find religious violence acceptable: Social polarization makes the understanding of ‘outsiders’ and of wider society very difficult.

The solution, I would argue, will lie in education. Specifically, we will need to encourage young people to think about the effects of all of their actions on the rest of their society. If our criteria for judging behavior is whether it helps to build a cohesive and efficient society, rather than on whether behavior can be labelled as ‘Islamic’, or ‘Christian’, ‘liberal’ or ‘British’, then the polarization of society through religion will be harder to justify.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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