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Bluestocking in Islamistan

Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent – Inside British Islam
by Innes Bowen, Hurst & Company, 2014

…The book aims to seek out ‘the more complicated truth’ rather than ‘the ‘them and us’ narrative’ and so make it ‘possible for interested outsiders to understand who British Muslims are and what they think’. It has been described as a ‘definitive guide’ (publisher’s blurb), ‘the essential guide to Muslim Britain’ (Evening Standard) and apparently required reading in establishment circles as the successor to Ed Hussain’s The Islamist for insights into British Islam. Innes Bowen has picked up much information and gossip, including from a source described as an undercover journalist… click here for full review.

Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam Book Cover Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam
Innes Bowen
Social Science
C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd (13 Jun 2014)
2013
288

bluestocking

Bluestocking in Islamistan

Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent - Inside British Islam
by Innes Bowen, Hurst & Company, 2014

The author of this account on British Muslims joined the BBC in 1994 after obtaining a first degree in political theory (University of Liverpool) and a spell at law school. In subsequent decades she specialised in politics and current affairs as an editor and producer, working on programmes such as File on Four and Analysis. She has a long-standing interest in British Muslim affairs, beginning in 2003. Her forensic and journalist skills are in evidence this work, which is based on over seventy interviews with a wide ranging and eclectic mix between 2007 and 2013, also drawing on visits to some mosques and community centres. She notes that ‘in the main, I have been treated with courtesy — and often with warmth.’[1] Many went out of their way to be helpful, for example a visit to Willesden High Road seemed to have been an experience, ‘with a local Shi’i to show me around’, […] every few minutes we pass a person or a place with impressive Shia connections.’ Similarly there were Salafi leaders, ‘who talked to me candidly’. She was also invited to Salafi and Dawudi Bohra homes. This publication is a measure of the friendliness and open-mindedness of British Muslims, albeit the interviews taking place after 7/7 (the first six in 2007), and some after Woolwich, when there has been a need for bridge-building and communication.

The book aims to seek out ‘the more complicated truth’ rather than ‘the ‘them and us’ narrative’ and so make it ‘possible for interested outsiders to understand who British Muslims are and what they think’. It has been described as a ‘definitive guide’ (publisher’s blurb), ‘the essential guide to Muslim Britain’ (Evening Standard) and apparently required reading in establishment circles as the successor to Ed Hussain’s The Islamist for insights into British Islam. Innes Bowen has picked up much information and gossip, including from a source described as an undercover journalist.

The author notes her heavy reliance on Mehmood Naqshbandi, ‘an English convert to Islam who works full time in IT’ for data ‘on the ideological affiliation of mosques’. She ought to have mentioned that Mr Naqshbandi – who has adopted the name of a famous sufi order – is author of an 80-page guide, ‘Islam and Muslims in Britain, A Guide for Non-Muslims’, published by the City of London Police in 2006. This booklet included a foreword by the former undercover officer and later member of Scotland Yard’s Muslim Contact Unit, Bob Lambert and provided a statistical table of mosques by various tendencies and schools of thought - Deobandi, Barelwi, Maududi masjids, Salafi masjids, Arab-speaking, Shia masjids. The unusual labelling of ‘Maududi masjids' - after Maulana Abul A’la Maududi (died 1979) - is akin to categorising those Roman Catholic churches active in community organising and Catholic Social Teaching (CST) as Manning churches, after the cardinal (died 1892) who provided the vision and thinking of CST. Bowen too is much preoccupied with Maududi.

Four of its eight chapters are based on the Mr Naqshbandi’s classification: ‘The Deobandi: The Market Leaders’; ‘The Barelwis: Sufis and Traditionalists’; ‘The Salafis: ‘Don’t call us Wahhabis!’; ‘The Shia Twelvers: Najaf in Brent’. Two further chapters do not depart from the schema, with chapters entitled ‘The Jamaat-e-Islami: British Islam’s Political Class’, read ‘Maududi masjids’; ‘The Muslim Brotherhood: The Arab Islamist Exiles’, read ‘Arab-speaking’. She breaks new ground in the chapters entitled ‘The Tablighi Jamaat: Missioneries and a Mega Mosque’ and ‘The Ismailis: The Dawoodi Bohras and the Followers of the Aga Khan’.

It should be noted that there are alternative classification schemes for mapping Muslim civil society. For example in an overview of ‘key Muslim activist groups’ in the Sunni tradition, Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari includes Hizb ut-Tahrir – only referred to in passing by Bowen - and combines the Jamaat and Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) into the combined group of ‘Islamic movement’. Significantly, he also has a category ‘Non-affiliated/broad-based’, absent in Bowen’s scheme:

These are networks and organisations that strive to be inclusive of all schools of thought and culture, open to all Muslims in order to tackle shared concerns and problems. The oldest of such groups is the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), founded in the early 1960s, and the most recent is perhaps the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB).[2]

Bowen seems to have a certain exotic notion of Muslims, and is much taken by an issue of attire:

[…] but the Suleman Nagdis will wear a suit to meet outsiders like me.
The UKACIA [UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs] had a much slicker strategy than those who burnt copies of the book [The Satanic Verses] on the streets: spokesmen in suits […]
On the whole they presented a modern, professional image: the MCB with its spokesmen in suits.

Bowen in Britain’s eight Islamistans can sound like Alice in Wonderland – there are one or two mad hatters amongst the names of interviewees listed at the back of her book.

Her narrative highlights the sectarian and ethnic differences. If an outsider’s first reaction about British Muslims is a pessimistic one – the bottle is half-empty - for an insider like Dr Bari, the sectarian divisions and other rivalries exist, but if Muslims could take the ‘bigger picture’, there is room for optimism and viewing the bottle as half-full. Dr Bari notes,

Doctrinal and political differences cannot be eliminated together, but for Muslims with one Islam there are more agreements than disagreements. […] In Islam, resolving differences between two Muslims, especially within a family or between families or groups, is a very rewarding task. “Surely the believers are none but brothers unto one another. Therefore make peace between your brothers and observe your duty to Allah that you may obtain mercy”.[3]

‘Unity within diversity’ is a feature of Muslim life which an insider like Dr Bari celebrates, hence the significance of his category 'non-affiliated/broad-based grouping’ to include umbrella bodies.  For Bowen, the convergences are an exception:

The Muslim Council of Britain is ‘an intra-faith body’, in which ‘the Shiah do not play an influential role’ […]. Yet at other times the Al-Khoei Foundation and the MCB have come together.’
‘Sheikh Tahir al Qadr reinforced the image of Sufi opposition to militancy […] However, it would be wrong to assume that he also opposed the Islamist ideology […].
The Nizari Ismailis have a ‘modernising leader’, yet operate ‘their equivalent of a shariah council’ .
Dr Saeed Shahabi, [described by Bowen as a member of the Dawa Party founded by Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir Al-Sadr] feels that ‘the [Muslim] Brothers were kindred spirits.’
‘The marja [Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani] declined the offer [of the keys to the offices of the Al-Khoei Foundation’s London offices] but renewed his blessings of the organisation.’
The Tablighi Jamaat shares with the overtly political Islamic groups the aim of establishing an Islamic state for Muslims. The only difference between the Tablighi Jamaat and these other groups concerns how such an Islamic state might be established.
Not all Sufi leaders oppose political activism as a means to establish an Islamic state.

Dr Bari has an explanation for the impetus for compartmentalising Muslims:

Ill-defined usage of terms such as Jihadist, Islamist, Wahhabist, etc. to depict Muslims or groups who are active in the social and political arena has been the vogue of the day in media and political life. Their often prejudiced ‘research findings’ are being swallowed by some governments for political or ideological purposes, for example, to devise patronising policies regarding which Muslim groups to support, work with or put on hold.[4]

While Innes Bowen’s motivation may well be an exception to this rule, her contact with the inter-ministerial unit RICU (Research, Information and Communications Unit) during an assignment in August 2008 is in the public record:

A BBC News executive has admitted that security correspondent Frank Gardner met officials from a Whitehall counter-terrorism unit accused of pushing propaganda to the media while preparing a recent Radio 4 Analysis documentary - but did not use the material they provided in the programme. Nicola Meyrick, the executive editor of BBC Radio current affairs, posted on the BBC editors' blog late yesterday saying that Gardner and Innes Bowen, a BBC expert on political Islam, had been in contact with the research, information and communications unit.[5]

Innes Bowen observes the convergences and overlaps, but has not grasped their significance as an ummatic phenomenon. Decades ago, when the French were engaged in their own efforts to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of Algerians in Paris, the orientalist-cum-intelligence officer Henri Massignon had a map of Paris in his office locating Kabyle settlements as distinct from the Arab ones – in the colonialist taxonomy of the times, the former were mountain people more likely to respond to ‘the call of civilisation’. Massignon’s efforts to find a compliant partner floundered because of the common ground which the Berbers and Arabs found in a pan-Islamic identity.

One can imagine an enthusiastic CLG or Prevent officer with Bowen’s book at hand desk, wrestling with her caveats and qualifications, and tearing his or her hair out trying to work out a Venn diagram of ‘Muslim belief systems’ for the office wall.
Massignon’s mapping of Muslims in Paris, 1929

paris-map
Source: H A R Gibb, Whither Islam? (Gollanz, 1932)

It is little surprise that Innes Bowen’s painstaking efforts, replete with caveats and qualifications,  are  eluding some readers. For example, the reviewer in the Evening Standard noted:

She is particularly good at depicting the growth of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, formed by a charismatic proponent of militant Islam in India, Sayyid Maududi. They have a main centre in Dewsbury, once visited by two of the London Tube bombers of July 2005.[6]

The irony is that Bowen had written something else:

Dewsbury became the location of TJ’s (Tablighi Jamaat’s) European headquarters […] the 7/7 bombers: at least three of the four bombers regularly attended Tablighi Jamaat mosques […] two of the 7 July bombers – Mohammed Siddique Khan – had strong ties with the Tablighi Jamaat’s European headquarters in Dewsbury.

Needless to say, such a misreading, combined with cavalier journalism has tainted one organisation in a widely-read paper (daily circulation 900,000). Moreover, there is no reason to associate the Tablighi Jamaat with a terrorism allegation, though wringing this from Bowen’s account is like extracting a painful tooth:

As for some of the former Tablighis who have been involved in terrorist plots, it may be that they too decided to look elsewhere for help in linking up with jihadist groups when they discovered that the Tablighi Jamaat is the non-violent group that it purports to be.
These environments, [small, informal groups] rather than that created by the Tablighi Jamaat, would have helped to develop [Mohammed Siddique] Khan’s belief that the 7/7 attack on civilian travellers could be justified.
London-based tablighi Omar was adamant that nothing in the teachings of Tablighi Jamaat could be construed as encouraging terrorism, but says he has to reflect on the possibility that some of those involved in terrorism might have used Tablighi Jamaat activities as a cover when travelling abroad to jihad training camps.

Notwithstanding the above, her work is more nuanced in her assessment of British Muslims than John Ware, the reporter in the notorious Panorama Special, ‘A Question of Leadership’, broadcast after 7/7, or Martin Bright – oddly described as ‘a centre-left journalist’ - but retains much of their ideological baggage. Firstly, there is a misrepresentation of the Muslim Council of Britain; secondly, the view that many groups in Muslim civil society are insincere and duplicitous ; thirdly, the search for ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ Muslims, with the hope for the emergence of a ‘British Islam’, better aligned to their own values and sensibilities.

Misrepresenting the Muslim Council of Britain

There would be no need to single out Innes Bowen's references to the MCB were it not for the numerous references that she makes to the body, always in a dismissive and disparaging way. She endorses the narrative put forward by John Ware and Martin Bright that the MCB does not, and has never, provided an authentic, independent and representative voice of British Muslims and is in thrall of an organisation based outside the UK. She notes, at various points:

From the late 1990s, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) was recognised by the government as the representative body of UK’s Muslims. But the truth was that the MCB was dominated by offshoots of a Pakistani political party – the Jamaat-e-Islami – with which only a minority of British Muslims identified.
Although they worked independently of each other, Bright and Ware reached the same startling conclusion, the MCB was controlled by a group which manages fewer than 4 per cent of Britain’s mosques and which had links to the Jamaat-e-Islami, a political party based in Pakistan and Bangladesh. […] It was a surprise to be told that the leaders of the group usually described as the voice of ‘moderate mainstream’ British Muslims might be dreaming of a theocratic state.
[In the aftermath of 7/7] a series of exposes in the mainstream media questioned not just how representative the MCB was but how moderate too. […] [Martin] Bright wrote that ‘far from being moderate the Muslim Council of Britain has its origins in …Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami, a radical party committed to the establishment of an Islamic state in Pakistan and ruled by Shariah law.
The Maududists’ greatest political coup was to take control of the Muslim Council of Britain, which for a while was recognised by the government as the representative body of Muslims in the UK. […] At its launch, the MCB was a broad alliance of diverse of diverse Muslim groups […] almost as soon as the organisation was established, a faction linked to the Jamaat-e-Islami took control.
The fact that the MCB was dominated by those aligned to the Jamaat-e-Islami was not obvious to non-Muslim outsiders, and for the first eight years of the MCB's existence few questions were asked how representative it really was or how apt the 'moderate' label was.

The sheer frequency of these insinuations is extraordinary. Little can be done about assertions that begin ‘…the truth is that…’, or ‘…might be dreaming of ….’. These are mere opinions and ought to have been declared as such. However, the allegation that can be tested objectively is whether the Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan had a controlling influence on the MCB. For Dr Konrad Pedziwiatr, an independent Polish academic:

One of the most important players of the Muslim non-governmental sector in Great Britain is the Muslim Council of Britain that strives to speak on behalf on all Muslims in the country. The organisation which was inaugurated after 3 years of wide-ranging consultation on November 23, 1997 at the Brent Town Hall in Wembley by representatives of more than 250 Muslim organisations from all parts of Britain including Northern Ireland is an example of mélange of the top-down and bottom-up initiative. The MCB was to a large extent a result of an effort carried out almost from the time of the Rushdie affair, when many Muslims who lobbied the government to ban the ‘Satanic Verses’ felt their voice was being ignored. This is evident in the statement of the former deputy to the secretary general Mahmud al-Rashid: ‘We felt that we need to organize otherwise nobody is going to listen to us’.[7]

There is no reference to any hegemonic role played by the Jamaat. More recently, Khadija ElShayyal, as part of doctoral research at Royal Holloway, University of London, has delved into the archives to construct a narrative of MCB’s formation.[8] She confirms Konrad Pedziwiatr’s findings, and also provides more detail on the precursor body to the MCB, the National Interim Committee for Muslim Unity (NICMU). This was a broad-based network including a variety of groupings: Barelvi, Salafi, those sympathising with the Islamic Movements, professional associations and independent mosques. No particular grouping had precedence and many talented individuals contributed to the discussions and preparatory work. The respondents to a NICMU survey of community needs and expectations was equally broad-based, including distinguished British Muslims of the time such as Hasan Gai Eaton, Sayyid Nadeem Abbas Kazmi, Asghar Ali Jaffer, and Akram-Khan Cheema. It is these responses that gave NICMU a mandate to plan the launch of the MCB. The Preparatory Committee for its inaugural meeting was led by Iqbal Sacranie, Maulana Sher Azam and Yusuf Islam, none of whom were, or are, associated with the Jamaat.

Innes Bowen could also have examined the results of MCB’s early annual general meetings. The MCB’s first set of office-bearers (1998-2000) comprised Secretary General Iqbal Sacranie; Deputy Secretary General Dr Basil Mustafa; Treasurer Misdaq Zaidi (replacing Yusuf Islam); Assistant Secretary General Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari. None of these individuals had any association with the Pakistan Jamaat, or the UK Islamic Mission, the British Muslim grouping most closely associated with it. The MCB’s second set of office-bearers (2000-2002) comprised Secretary General Yousuf Bhailok; Deputy Secretary General Mahmud al-Rashid; Treasurer Misdaq Zaidi, Assistant Secretary General Afzal Khan. The last-mentioned was the first MCB office-bearer also an activist in the UK Islamic Mission – hardly evidence of a plot to take-over. The MCB’s third set of office-bearers (2002-2004) saw Iqbal Sacranie returning as Secretary General with the following team: Deputy Secretary General Dr Abdul Bari; Treasurer: Dr Akber Mohamedali (after resignation of Ali Omer Ermes) and Assistant Secretary Generals Unaiza Malik, Daud Abdullah and Ahmed Shaikh Mohammed. Not one Jamaat activist in sight!

The MCB has carefully guarded its independence, democratic processes and transparency. Its constitution does not allow an MCB office-bearer to serve more than two consecutive two-year terms (at the outset this was one term only) and no grouping (i.e. a national affiliate with its branches, some of whom may also be MCB affiliates in their own right) is allowed to have more than five members amongst the 37  elected members (now 42) of its national council. All MCB elections have been conducted and supervised by an independent election commissioner, and every effort is made to ensure diversity, be it of gender, ethnicity or school of thought, at all levels of activity. Innes Bowen fails to find any good in the MCB and challenges its independence without factual backing, resorting to inferences and hearsay.

Charges of insincerity and duplicity

Innes Bowen also questions the intentions of several Muslim groups.

Thus Deobandis have a need ‘to be seen as law-abiding’. Why not accept they are law-abiding?

When considering the activities of the Islamic Foundation in Leicestershire, Bowen becomes a mind-reader: ‘[Its] publications talking of a desire to convert the non-Muslim population to Islam […] were perhaps intended to please their Saudi donors’. Why not accept the Islamic Foundation’s dawa activities are genuine and motivated by religious commitment rather than monetary considerations?

Similarly, she finds that ‘The [Muslim] Brothers, through MAB [Muslim Association of Britain], capitalised on the growing politicisation of Britain’s Muslim community in the run-up to the Iraq war’. Why not accept MAB was among those who took the initiative in the anti-war movement, not knowing at the time whether there would be wide-spread support?

Referring to Channel 4’s Underground Mosque documentary of January 2007 and Ed Hussain’s biographical The Islamist she finds that

What made these works of journalism particularly shocking was the fact that the portrayal of these groups was so starkly at odds with their [the MCB, the Islamic Foundation and the UKIM] public image.

The suggestion is that the MCB has a private face, different from its public image, because of the views collated from some of its affiliated institutions. However, even the most basic research into the way the MCB works would have indicated to Bowen that it does not police its affiliates, any more than the TUC exerts controls on its trade union members.

Is it implausible that so many Muslim groupings are not acting in good faith and altruistically? Clearly Innes Bowen’s seven years have not been a labour of love.

Moderate and Extremist Muslims

Bowen's heart goes out to two of the eight groupings - the Nizari Ismailis and Dawudi Bohras - that emerge in glowing terms:

If true faith and true integration for British Muslims are about feeling a love for Britain and its people, then the Ismailis have led the way.
Despite their strong, distinctive identity and international links, the Dawoodi Bohras resident in the UK feel themselves to be British and exhibit strong feelings of patriotism. According to Shabbir Abidali [of the Bohra community in Northolt], most members of his community have only British citizenship. He believes that England stands for fair play and he regards loyalty to one’s country of residence as important. […] The Bohras also regard the British royal family with respect and affection.
Bohras and the Nizaris are the most patriotic of Muslim groups in Britain – yet they could still be called Islamists: they look back with pride to the days when they ran an empire.
Both the Aga Khan and the Dai al-Mutlaq lack the sovereign territory or the mass following needed to realise the dream of an Islamic state.

The key words in these quotes are 'love', ‘loyalty’, and ‘patriotism’. The suggestion is that these types of commitment are less evident in the remaining six groupings. It would be an unfortunate inference for the book's readers. It is not clear whether all her respondents were given the opportunity to reflect on their sense of loyalty or patriotism towards Britain. A recent YouGov poll found that 63% of British Muslims were proud of being British.[9] A finding from the 2011 Census was that despite more than half of the Muslim population being born outside the UK, 73% of the Muslim population consider British to be their only national identity (for Hindus it was 66%).

Bowen also finds it commendable that 'the dream of an Islamic state' no longer features in the Ismaili perspective. It is bizarre for this to feature in a study of British Muslims, because the concept only has relevance where the majority of the population wish the shariah to be sovereign. Bowen is apparently unaware of this, because her relief is palbable when a UKIM activist gives her the mainstream Muslim view:

[AbdulHamid] Qureshim [presumably Qureshi] described himself to me as part of the ‘new school’ of UKIM. He explained that by this he meant that he thought promoting the idea of establishing an Islamic state is not appropriate in the Western context and that Muslims should play a full part in British society while retaining their Islamic values.

The concept of the Islamic state as a type of nation-state is mainly associated with Maulana Maududi, though in reality a number of European intellectuals, also writing in the 1930s and 40s, considered it a possibility for self-governance for Muslim lands as the end of the colonial era became a possibility.[10] Taking cue from John Ware, Martin Bright and the neo-cons, Bowen too conveys Maududi as a sinister and malevolent father-figure of contemporary political violence, to be disowned by British Muslims as a litmus test of their being 'moderate':

The fact that the MCB was dominated by those aligned to the Jamaat-e-Islami [founded by Maududi in 1941] was not obvious to non-Muslim outsiders, and for the first eight years of the MCB's existence few questions were asked how representative it really was or how apt the 'moderate' label was.

The UK Islamic Mission and Islamic Foundation, in her view, stand embarrassed by by their association with Maududi and the Jamaat, with the leadership of the former now 'coy' about this; while the latter has had a 'make-over'. While this may be the last thing on Bowen's mind, she has become a partner in a process of McCartyism and intimidation of those with different ideas. Iqbal Sacranie has his admiration of Maududi held against him by Bowen:

Both Martin Bright’s article and John Ware’s Panorama linked the MCB’s leadership to the ideology of Maududi. The MCB’s General Secretary Sir Iqbal Sacranie was in fact from a Deobandi background, but both he and the MCB’s media officer defended Maududi and spoke of his inspirational qualities.

Iqbal Sacranie is of course quite right to view Maududi as inspirational without having to be held to account. Maududi was a scholar-activist who built on the religious notion of a hukumat-e ilahi, or a polity governed by the Shariah, formulated by an earlier generation of savants. In addition to his writings on political and moral philosophy, Maududi laboured for forty years on a translation and commentary on the Qur’an, regarded as his magnum opus. He warrants being in a Muslim pantheon of heroes, not least for his non-sectarian stand in maintaining Sunni-Shia ties.

Perhaps Bowen feels justified to voice opprobrium because of some of her interviewees' views: she quotes, without qualification, Haras Rafiq: 'Maududi is negative and violent'. This is hardly responsible journalism. A little research in the archives relating to British Muslims in the British Library would have uncovered an interview in which Maulana Maududi, during a visit to London in 1969, explained his stand on political violence: :

Question: ‘Do you think that the Islamic State can be established by an armed revolt?’.
Answer I think that this is not the right road to pursue and such a policy may, instead of producing anything good, prove to be highly harmful. A lasting and perennial Islamic revolution cannot be brought about in any society unless the people amongst whom such a revolution is being achieved are generally prepared, intellectually and morally, to imbibe it and live up to it. In a nation where this preparation has not been done, efforts towards armed revolution can serve no purpose. The idea is not just to have a change, but a change for which the society has been prepared. There is no short-cut to it. [...] If you want to bring about an armed revolution, it is indispensable that you will have to organise your movement on the pattern of secret societies. Secret movements have a temperament of their own. They admit of no dissent or disagreement. The voice of criticism is silenced in them. Weaknesses and loopholes have a way of their own to appear and grow in such societies. Free, fair and frank discussions are conspicuous for their absence and there is no built-in mechanism to set the things right. Those who lead and run such movements become, through the internal logic of this method of work, cruel, intolerant and despotic. [...] The result is that by the time such persons succeed in bringing about revolutions, they themselves have turned into tyrants, sometimes even greater tyrants than the ones they have been trying to remove.[11]

Maududi has been done an injustice, and half-truths prevail, given currency in books such as these. Most likely drawing on the portrait of Sir Iqbal conveyed by Innes Bowen, The Times has passed recently passed its judgement:

Far from representing a moderate strand within the Muslim community, the MCB, founded in 1997, has extended affiliation to some highly dubious groups, with links to the radical Jamaat-e-Islami party in Pakistan.[12]

Reading Innes Bowen, it seems that for ‘British Islam’ to take root, it is not enough to curtail the imagination and censor one’s history. Her role model for Muslim women would be the newspaper columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who

personifies the more liberal approach to Islam that is possible for Nizari Ismailis [the Aga Khan tradition] in Britain. She identifies herself as a practicing Muslim, yet she is married to a non-Muslim (something still regarded as forbidden for Muslim women in most branches of Islam) and is not only unveiled herself but is a vocal critic of the mullahs who say all Muslim women have a duty to wear the hijab.

Her discomfort is not well-disguised when she recounts a visit to a Muslim home:

When I called at the home of Abu Khadeejah and his family in Birmingham, the door was opened but there was no one standing on the threshold to greet me. Instead, I heard his wife’s voice inviting me to come in and take my shoes off. Abu Khadeejah’s wife does not wish to risk being seen by the neighbours without her hijab.

Bowen captures the diversity within Muslim sisterhood, but is she hoping for a social engineering project that would transform the Umm Abdullahs to the Alibhai-Browns? Britain’s cultural diverse and plural society, with overseas links, needs to be celebrated and put to strategic advantage for the benefit of all. This is a point grasped by Mr Naqshbandi, but the message has not reached the pupil :

One of the most substantial untapped assets of the Muslim community in Britain is its fantastically rich network of contacts and influence across the Muslim world. It is the existence of this pattern of influence and feedback that causes so much distress among Muslims at badly thought-out foreign policy by the British government. For a very large part of the community, British government foreign policy is their own, unasked for, domestic policy. Properly integrated and properly consulted, Muslim contribution to British government could make Britain a much more influential and respected voice in the international community. Properly respected Properly respected and properly advised, the Muslim community could in turn channel much more considered and moderated opinions back into the wider Muslim world (20% of the whole world). That would give Muslims around the world a prize they would not discard lightly.[13]

What is missing Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent - Inside British Islam are any hints of the author’s personal journey in these seven years or anything that moved her heart and led her to ponder on issues of concern to the religiously-minded. She also does not address a white elephant in the room: why is it that so many British women are becoming Muslim? One more circle for the harassed Prevent officer to worry about.

Jamil Sherif, August 2014

[1] The Spectator, 14 June 2014.
[2] Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, Meet the Challenge, make the Change – A call to action for Muslim civil society, Cordoba Papers, Vol. 2, Issue 1, May 2013; p.11.
[3] Ibid. p. 28.
[4] Ibid. p. 19.
[5]Oliver Luft, Al-Qaida row: BBC admits security correspondent met anti-terror officials, The Guardian, 28 August 2008.
[6] Robert Fox, The Essential guide to Muslims in Britain, The Evening Standard, 31 July 2014.
[7] Konrad Pędziwiatr, Creating New Discursive Arenas and Influencing the Policies of the State: The Case of the Muslim Council of Britain, Social Compass, January 2007.
[8] Khadijah ElShayyal ,Muslim identity politics in the UK, 1960-2010: Development, challenges, and the future as illustrated by the fate of freedomof expression, PhD Thesis, 2014, Royal Holloway, University of London.
[9] YouGov poll conducted for Islamic Relief, June 2014.
[10] See for example the writings of Muhammad Asad (Leapold Weiss) and Aliya Izetbegovic, referred to in 'Why an Islamic State? The life projects of two great European Muslims', M A Sherif, Islamic Book Trust, Kuala Lumpur, 2009
[11] The Muslim, journal of the Federation of Students Islamic Students Societies of the UK & Eire, February 1969.
[12] The Times, 26 August 2014
[13] Mehmood Naqshbandi, Problems and practical solutions to tackle extremism; and Muslim youth and community issues, Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, The Shrivenham Papers, No. 1, August 2006

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