Author: Ehsan Masood
Publisher: The British Council
Release Date: 22 May 2006
Source: Website is not available
‘British Muslims’ is an easy read with a rich set of photographic images and up-to-date reference lists for further information. The subtitle of the book is ‘Media Guide’ and it is aimed at “those who write, and speak, about British Muslims”. It seeks to demonstrate that “those of us who are Muslims hold on to as many different opinions as do those who are not”. An underlying concern of the book is to dispel the notion that Muslims are a single, monolithic, homogenous entity. There is a tremendous diversity of ethnicity, schools of thought and outlook. ‘British Muslims’ succeeds in conveying this sense of variety and individuality.
Within this diversity there is also a strong desire for unity, though this seems to be played down. The book rarely uses the term ‘Muslim community’, more often preferring phrases like ‘Britain’s various Muslim communities’.
The author identifies various developments that have been “pivotal in shaping the political experience of Muslims in Britain. They are: the publication in 1989 of ‘The Satanic Verses’… the election of a Labour government in 1997; the rise of Al-Qaeeda, and the terrorist attacks on the USA on 11 September 2001, and subsequent attacks in London, Madrid and in other cities”. There is no mention of the Bosnian War (1992-1996), an episode which not only politicised a generation of Muslims in Britain but launched numerous charity and relief projects, as well as volunteers for the front. There was widespread disgust with the Conservative government’s policy of denying the supply of heavy artillery to the Bosnians while at the same time turning a blind eye to the involvement of the army of the Republic of Serbia in aiding the Serb rebels in the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. As much as Salman Rushdie, the Bosnian Crisis was a rallying moment that brought together individuals, local communities and organizations desperate for an informed and rational voice that could speak up on their behalf.
The author’s view is that it is ‘The Satanic Verses’ that had the most lasting impact, because “it led to the formation of the Muslim Council of Britain”, thanks to a helpful midwife : “The Conservative government of the time…did not want to ban a work of fiction…and they were also frustrated at having to deal with many (and often divided) community groups, which is why Michael Howard, when Home Secretary, suggested at one meeting that the many heads of community organizations that had come to see him might want to establish an umbrella representative body. This is one of the drivers to the setting up of the Muslim Council of Britain in 1997”.
For the sake of balance and even-handedness, the author ought to have presented the MCB’s own narrative of its genesis: “the MCB is the result of a long period of consultation within the community. For several years, there has been a keenly felt desire to have a greater degree of coordination among Muslims in Britain to deal with the many issues and problems that constantly face the community. Increasingly, coordination and unity is now seen as a question of the very survival of the community…on specific issues of common concern, various initiatives from time to time have shown the potential for a unified Muslim response. For example, events like the publication of grossly abusive and sacrilegious material have shown the need and the value of greater coordination within the Muslim community….it was this growing realization of the need for a greater degree of coordination among Muslims in the UK which led to a meeting in Birmingham on 30th April 1994. This meeting formed the National Interim Committee on Muslim Unity (NICMU) to find out the views and ideas of organizations and individuals on the problems facing the Muslim community and their role in wider society. A country-wide consultation followed….The Muslim Council of Britain is a practical outcome of this process of consultation” (‘An Invitation to form the Muslim Council of Britain’, 1997). The differences in narrative are important because they go to the heart of the question of whether there is such a thing as a ‘Muslim community’. The account that the MCB was government-inspired suggests an imposed and artificial unity; the MCB’s own narrative points to an organic and independent development.
‘British Muslims’ contains as many column inches on the British Muslim Forum, a relatively new and untested body as it does on the well-established MCB. Such attempts at a misplaced ‘even-handedness’ extends to other topics. For example the paragraph on the 2001 Census – which included a question on religion – is followed by a longer account noting that “not all Muslims welcomed the religion question”.
In terms of proportionality the overwhelming majority of Muslims were in favour of the religion question in the Census, and only a handful against, including the late Shaikh Zaki Badawi. The reviewer can state this with confidence because he chaired a meeting of the AMSS in September 2000 in which this matter was put to a vote, and he also had separate private conversations with Dr Badawi. The majority in the AMSS meeting supported the inclusion of the question, while Dr Badawi’s reservations were to do with fears that Muslims households might be targeted by racists. The census findings themselves confirmed support for the question: 94% of all Pakistanis and Bangladeshi’s chose to answer it, rather than make a null response. However ‘British Muslims’ gives the impression that both opinions had equal weight.
The references to the Danish Cartoons affair also convey an odd perspective: “There is a strong sense, and not only among Muslims that the repeated publication of these cartoons had had a strong element of bullying to it. But there is also a feeling that those Muslims who have reacted violently and threateningly have played into their antagonists’ hands”. The book’s foreword, by Lord Kinnock alludes to “ill-considered” reactions and offers the example of Britain “in which rights are defended and promoted, but in which restraint is also prized”. ‘British Muslims’ conveys a sense of apology or reservation that is not representative of the feeling on the ground. Muslims in Britain may put up with being demonized, but the portrayal of the Prophet as a terrorist causes deep,deep hurt.
Notwithstanding these observations, the British Council and its partners are to be commended for a publication that presents Muslims in Britain in a positive light. After the episode in which its employee writing under the pseudonym of one Mr Cummins was found to be the author of Islamophobic articles (which included the statement “All Muslims, like all dogs, share certain characteristics”), this book serves to clear the air and re-establish the credentials of a flagship British institution.
M. A. Sherif, 2006