Can British Islam change?

Muslims have become the country's most politically aware faith group, but they are divided about wha

It has been a eventful, traumatic year. Britain's Muslims still feel the shock of the events of 7 July 2005, but they have never been more active, more engaged, more self-reflective. Almost every mosque in Britain has been galvanised by young Muslims furiously stoking debate, interrogating imams and community leaders, and raising questions of change, belonging and the reform of Islam. Nothing is off the agenda.

Young Muslims are now among the most politically conscious and active people in Britain. In the past, says Shamim Miah, an experienced youth worker in Oldham, politics was seen as boring. Now, Muslims as young as 12 years old see politics as integral to their lives, and are not afraid to air opinions on politicians, community leaders, or the government's efforts to engage with Muslims. "The average Muslim youth on the street, even if unemployed and with no qualifications, will quite easily give a sophisticated deconstruction of media bias, foreign policy, war on terror and policing," Miah says.

Moreover, Islam now plays an even more important part in shaping the identity of young Muslims. Proud to be Muslim, they do not hesitate to demonstrate that pride. At the same time, they have moved beyond the politics of identity. Miah has conducted an extensive survey of young Muslims in the Manchester area, where, she says, Islam is used as a springboard to political engagement. The conventional, inward-looking approach is giving way to greater engagement with civil society. Young Muslims have more confidence both in their Britishness and in their faith-based identity.

According to M A Qavi, a London-based social activist who spends most of his time attending meetings and listening to the young all over Britain, the new expression of dual identity "is a product of a certain self-consciousness of belonging to this country and growing awareness of the need to make their voices heard as Muslims". Young politicised Muslims deeply distrust professional Muslim leaders, or those identified with the government, and are drawn towards those who articulate what they consider to be injustices suffered by Muslims everywhere, says Qavi. The Respect leader George Galloway, "even after his shameful antics in Big Brother", remains their favourite politician.

The concern among a growing body of young Muslim trend-setters, such as those who lead City Circle, a network of Muslim professionals which organises weekly debates, is that community institutions are not changing fast enough. There are still a few imams and self-appointed sheikhs in Britain who project Islam as an ideology that is absolutely right, holy and totally good, and see everything else as an imminent danger to the community, says Andleen Razzaq of City Circle. "These imams come from a deeply entrenched patriarchal tradition. Most of them are uneducated or semi-literate, and foster a kind of pathology and paranoia that can easily lead our youth astray," she warns. Because young Muslims here have a strong sense of connection with Muslims around the world, identifying with suffering people in Palestine, Chechnya and elsewhere, and rejecting US and British foreign policy, the temptation to develop an "us and them" mentality is always there. As such, they can be easily manipulated by radical imams and charismatic leaders.

The other main concern is about the breakdown of confidence between the police and Muslim communities. Muslims fear nothing more than further terrorist attacks. These would have a double impact on them - as citizens they would be targets like everyone else, and as Muslims they would face a backlash - so they are particularly eager to help in any way. However, they are not convinced that the police are up to the job. The revelation that Moh ammad Sidique Khan was on the intelligence radar prior to 7/7 but never picked up, and the Forest Gate shooting, have made Muslims sceptical about police intelligence. This must be seen in the context of a troubled relationship between young Muslims and the police dating back to the 2001 riots in Oldham, Bradford and elsewhere. "They are increasingly feeling vulnerable and think they will be targeted because of their religion," Miah says. "For many, the question is not if the incident of Forest Gate will happen to them, but rather when it will happen."

Yahya Birt, a research fellow at the Islamic Foundation in Leicester, draws parallels with Ireland, the Troubles and the IRA. "The Muslims are the new Irish," he says. As in the early 1970s in Northern Ireland, widespread stop-and-search, the internment of political prisoners, shoot-to-kill, house raids and hostile press coverage might strengthen the radical fringe, he says. There are always people ready to exploit the heavy-handedness of the police, the paranoid ravings of the tabloid press, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There has also been a big shift in the debate in the Muslim community in the past year. Post-9/11 oppositional politics has given way to anxieties about integration and the reform of Islam. Here the government has played a leading role, and a paradoxical one, as the sponsor of a "roadshow" of leading scholars that has reached roughly 25,000 Muslims since last December. As with previous official attempts to engage with the Muslim community, this one had the unintended effect of promoting traditionalists and conservatives, even to the extent of importing closed-minded traditionalists from the United States. In turn, this has increased theological engagement with extremism, and with it, sectarian division among British Muslims.

Government own-goal

As a result, differences between conservatives and liberals are much more pronounced. Conservatives such as the intellectual Tariq Ramadan and the American preacher Hamza Yusuf Hanson insist the only people with the right to interpret Islam are the ulema (religious scholars), who must seek solutions to contemporary problems within a largely ossified tradition. While Ramadan has called for the hudood laws, the problematic crime-and-punishment aspects of Islamic law, to be suspended, he is a strong supporter of the sharia. Hanson rejects the whole idea of religious reform and presents a romanticised notion of tradition where the sheikh or the teacher knows all.

Liberals such as Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, director of the Muslim Institute, the academic and commentator Abdelwahab el-Affendi, and Taj Hargey, chairman of the newly established Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford, have a different agenda. They have little faith in the sharia, regard the religious scholars who uphold a closed sacred canon of commentary as part of the problem rather than the solution, and, on the whole, seek root-and-branch reform of Islam.

"Simply put, the liberals don't trust the conservatives on the integration agenda or on extremism," says Birt. The conservative solutions focus on theological engagement, where as for the liberals, extremism is the direct result of too much religious conservatism in the first place, he says.

Hargey sums up the liberal position. Liberals want to talk about "gender equality, sexual orientation, pluralistic notions of Islam, the nature of loyalty to the umma [global Muslim community], the accumulation of religious authority in the hands of a particular class, and the problematic nature of the sharia", he says - the very issues on which the conservatives on the whole are silent. The "litmus test" of a liberal Muslim, Hargey suggests, is that he or she is ready to discuss everything and does not accuse others of heresy or of being lesser Muslims. He is particularly scathing about the religious scholars and the sharia. "Blind following of the religious scholars is responsible for our current impasse," he declares. "And the sharia has no relevance to the 21st-century lives of the British Muslims."

The debate between liberals and conservatives is certain to intensify; simultaneously, Muslim youths are discovering a different way of expressing their Islamic identity. During the past year a new street genre has appeared in the inner cities of Britain. "Cool Islam" expresses its identity through hip-hop and rap, and is heavily influenced by an underground Muslim hip-hop movement in the US. Followers listen to British Muslim groups such as Mecca2Medina and American crews such as Native Deen. They wear urban-style Muslim clothing, their hooded tops and T-shirts sporting such slogans as "Property of Allah", "1 Umma" and "Islam 4 Real". Cool Islam uses hip-hop to convey a political and religious message: all Muslims are united; Islam is a pragmatic and rational faith; Muslims are not helpless victims, but have creative ways to resist and subvert imperialism. "It is important to realise that hip-hop refers only to the musical genre, not mainstream culture filled with sex, drugs and violence," says Miah. The message could not be further from the hip-hop mainstream.

The London bombings also had a marked impact on academic and scholarly activity. A whole new discipline, "British Muslim studies", has emerged, led by the Centre for the Study of Islam at Cardiff University. Headed by the energetic Sophie Gilliat-Ray, the centre was created after the events of last July to "promote scholarly and public understanding of Islam and the life of Muslim communities in the UK". Clearly, the concerns of Britain's Muslims are now everyone's concern. Everything the community does or thinks is under the spotlight. Like Britain itself, it will never be the same again.