LONDON—In the 1950s, when Britain had national service, my friends joked about the soldier who tried to get out of Sunday church service by professing Islam. But when his apparently acquiescent sergeant woke him up before dawn for prayers, followed by mosque drill five times a day, the man gladly scurried back to the Christian fold.
With Britain’s Defence Ministry about to appoint an official mullah for more than 300 Muslims in its armed forces, the tale is no longer funny. Like many other non-Islamic countries, Britain does not know quite how to handle its Muslims. There are 1.8 million of them, roughly 3 per cent of the population, and they are seen as both a political asset and a potential social liability.
Seven young British Muslims were charged two weeks ago with plotting terrorist attacks in Britain. Generally speaking, they are underprivileged with lower-than-average educational and income levels, and a higher unemployment rate. Most cluster in derelict inner cities with wretched housing and inadequate public services.
But unlike Indians, Afro-Caribbeans or even Bangladeshis who might be similarly disadvantaged, culturally militant Muslims, mainly from Pakistan, are convinced they are victimised because of their religion.
Prime Minister Tony Blair’s enthusiastic participation in the Iraq war reinforced paranoia: hostilities against an Islamic nation were seen as hostilities against all Muslims. ‘Religion and politics are one and the same in Islam,’ says a British Muslim Educational Trust publication. As acts of defiance or demonstrations of faith, some British Muslims joined the Taleban. Others are fighting for the Chechens and for Iraqi Shi’ite leader Moqtada Al-Sadr.
Matters have not gone as far as in Canada whose 600,000 Muslims, the largest minority after the French, seem bent on exclusive legal rights. Ontario’s Arbitration Act, passed to facilitate an alternative dispute resolution mechanism, has enabled them to set up an Islamic Institute of Civil Justice whose judicial tribunals will arbitrate in questions of personal law.
Apparently, the government agreed to incorporate syariah in the arbitration process until a public furore prompted an inquiry two months ago.
Similar pressures may be building up in Britain too, with Muslim repudiation of many national norms, recalling a Kolkata seminar where Muslim clerics rejected ordinary schools and part-time religious instruction because a Muslim child has to read the Quran first and last. Some British Muslims object to the nursery tale, The Three Little Pigs. Others demand Friday closing and halal meat.
The authorities are placatory. Reportedly, the army condoned a soldier’s refusal to fight against his co-religionists in Iraq by posting him elsewhere. When the Islamic Bank of Britain was set up to find a way round the Quranic objection to usury, HSBC established its own syariah board of Pakistani and Saudi scholars.
Political parties are wooing Muslim voters. Home Secretary David Blunkett’s proposal for a law prohibiting religious insult has aroused fears of fatal fatwas.
But expediency is not all. Traditional British sympathy for the underdog, and the appeal of the exotic, especially for liberals, explained Queen Victoria’s patronage of Abdul Karim, her Indian Muslim Urdu teacher whose influence was disliked so much that some courtiers called her ‘Mrs Karim’. The politically prescient queen demanded that Karim’s friend, Rafiuddin Ahmed, be made ambassador to Turkey and be used to collect intelligence from Muslims worldwide.
They were ideas before their time. Now, a Muslim Briton of Bangladeshi origin is the high commissioner to Bangladesh, officials chant the mantra of multiculturalism and politicians recommend positive discrimination.
It’s only when Muslims are in a minority that governments lean backwards like this to conciliate religious extremism. Muslim-majority countries like Egypt and Jordan have no qualms about modern reforms.
The other paradox is that while earlier waves of immigrants were anxious to lose their foreignness and merge with an enriched mainstream, many of today’s settlers cling to the identity of the country or society they abandoned to seek a better life in Britain.
Muslims being foremost in this trend, beards and burqas are more visible in Bradford and Leicester than bowler hats and rolled umbrellas, the traditional icons of English life.
There is a backlash too. A family I know has taken to writing ‘English’ for nationality instead of ‘British’ because they want to distance themselves from the dialect and demeanour of immigrants who are called ‘New British’. They are not alone in feeling that the England they knew is under siege.