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28 March 2017

The battle for the soul of British Islam

Three new books reflect on the complexities, and challenges, faced by Muslims in Britain.

By Burhan Wazir

Fresh arrivals to any country feel blind and weakened: they seek jobs, housing and familiarity. Newcomers yearn for memories of their old nation state – Italian olive oil, south Indian dosas or Turkish kanafeh. Laws that appear foreign, and values that were never particularly strong at home, are slowly adopted through experience and navigation. Faith provides a shelter from tumultuous change.

In recent years, in no regard has the narrative about immigration and values proved more volcanic than in addressing the role of Muslims. Three new books attempt to cast a light on modern Islam’s contract with the West. Letters to a Young Muslim is a collection of missives written by the United Arab Emirates ambassador to Russia to his elder son, Saif, now aged 16. The author, Omar Saif Ghobash, was six years old when his own father, the UAE’s first foreign minister, was shot and killed by a teenage Palestinian assassin at Abu Dhabi International Airport in 1977. The intended target was the Syrian president Hafez al-Assad’s foreign minister, who was visiting the UAE; the 19-year-old gunman was later executed.

Ghobash’s book is part memoir and part instructional guide to the liberal values he would like to see flourish in conservative Islamic societies. He gives special prominence to educated imams, higher education and a greater tolerance of antithetical views. In the 40th-anniversary year of his father’s death, Letters to a Young Muslim is also a synthesis of grief and purpose. As he writes, “For me . . . it has been impossible to leave my father behind. I have carried his memory with me through the years, always imagining what he might have said to me, or done in my place.”

Like many formally educated religionists, Ghobash sees faith in all contexts. The book is informed by his experiences during the Gulf’s oil-led boom of the 1980s, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and the permanent wars after the 11 September 2001 attacks, including the regional turmoil caused by the Arab spring in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. His tone is patriarchal and diplomatic, occasionally hopeful, but also resigned to disappointment when he writes of the unfamiliar world before him and the challenges his children will inherit.

In the years since Ghobash’s childhood, the borders beyond Abu Dhabi’s golden shores have grown knotted and violent with failing regimes, joblessness and war. For much of the 1970s and 1980s, the newly independent United Arab Emirates existed in relatively uncomplicated isolation, relying on trade links with Asia for food and services. Emirati life was conservative but informal. Tribes moved between cities and the desert in summer and winter. Families spent weekends fishing and drinking sweet tea in the souk in the evenings. Men drove to Iraq and Jordan to practise falconry and enjoy camel racing.

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Much of the security and free movement enjoyed by Ghobash’s generation has disappeared in his lifetime. He offers some social statistics that are symptomatic of the decay. Seventy per cent of Muslims globally are illiterate and 8.6 million Arabs are not enrolled in primary or secondary school, including five million girls. The unemployment rate is equally dire: roughly 28 per cent of the 100 million Arabs who are between the ages of 15 and 29. Out of several hundred Arab universities in the Middle East, not one was included in the top 200 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2016-2017.

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While Ghobash presents Islam as a guiding set of principles, he concedes that its interpretation, put into the wrong hands, is open to abuse. The book is less revealing about the author’s own upbringing. He was raised in Abu Dhabi and the UK: but if any encounters with other ways of life or the rituals during his teenage years at a boarding school in Rugby left any marks of liberal culture, he doesn’t show them here.

As Ghobash explains it, Arabs and Muslims need to rethink their relationship with the West. He pays much attention to the role of women in Islam, interfaith dialogue and tolerance. Arabs, he suggests, would benefit from more self-critical thought:

Unfortunately in today’s Arab world, and in the Arabic language, the word falsafah, which means “philosophy”, is a dirty word. It is seen as a distraction from the importance of keeping the faith pure and unsullied by questions that will only serve to divide and separate the Muslims.

A more alarming set of ailments is diagnosed in the body politic of British Muslims in The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism by Sara Khan and Tony McMahon. Khan, who is from Bradford, is a long-time human rights activist who, from her home, co-founded Inspire, a non-governmental organisation that promotes counter-extremism, in 2009. Inspire works with the government’s problematic counterterrorism strategy, Prevent. Critics say Prevent’s monitoring of Muslims for any sign of controversial views by local authorities, community groups and schools is tantamount to spying.

Counterterrorism is a game of poker in which the players can take years to show their hand. But as we learned from decades of violence in Ireland, harsh counterterror measures are often hidden from view and politicians are quick to make political capital out of gains that few can judge. Prevent’s mission is opaque and its outcomes indeterminate, and it has cost the British taxpayer approximately £40m a year since 2011. It places enormous responsibility on ill-equipped teachers and community workers to be gatekeepers of national security.

Much of Khan’s work is done in public, in community groups and schools around the country, warning staff and students about the risks of extremism and groups such as Isis. And though Inspire is just one element of the Prevent strategy, Khan has been associated with its numerous failures around overzealous reporting.

In one incident last year, staff at a nursery in Luton threatened to refer a four-year-old boy to Prevent after he drew pictures of what was considered a cooker bomb. He had in fact drawn his father cutting a cucumber with a knife. In 2015, out of the nearly 4,000 referrals of named individuals to the programme, 1,319 reports came from the education sector. Paranoid reporting leads to profiling and classroom stigma. Prevent’s methodology also reiterates a neoconservative, Blairite world-view that the absence of terrorist attacks is a victory, no matter how egregious the damage to our liberty.

Khan is undoubtedly sincere in her mission, but too much of The Battle for British Islam reads as a self-defence. She seems oblivious to the difficulties of integration in poorer Muslim communities and overlooks just how long it takes – ask any second or third-generation offspring, and they will tell you that it’s at least a lifetime. She also fails to give context to how, although most of the UK’s three million Muslim citizens demonstrate largely the same successes and failures as any other faith group, for nearly 30 years since the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses they have also had their beliefs harshly scrutinised.

Some facts about British Muslims living in the British isles are well established. In surveys, they have shown themselves to be more patriotic than their fellow citizens. A 2013 report found that London had 13,400 Muslim-owned businesses, which had created more than 70,000 jobs. According to an ICM poll conducted that same year, Muslims also donate more to charity than any other faith group. (Organisations such as Muslim Aid and Islamic Relief – whose work is focused in south Asia and the Middle East – received most of this money, but Cancer Research and the British Heart Foundation also benefited.)

Most British Muslims living in cities such as Leeds, Manchester or Glasgow would not recognise the picture painted by Khan. She believes that a black cloud of Islamist terror hangs over Britain. “Ever since I was a teenager, I have witnessed how Islamist extremism has wreaked havoc on the lives of British Muslims,” she writes. In the course of 250 pages, she offers a roll-call of her detractors, mostly groups such as CAGE and the Salafist Muslim Research and Development Foundation. A more thorough look at the government’s counterterrorism ­strategy might have initiated a valuable debate.

A sharper view of the British Muslim ­diaspora can be found in The Enemy Within: a Tale of Muslim Britain, by the former Conservative Party chair Sayeeda Warsi. Born one of five sisters to immigrant Pakistani parents in Yorkshire, the former solicitor first ran for parliament in 2005 in Dewsbury. Unsuccessful in her election bid, she served as an adviser to Michael Howard before David Cameron appointed her vice-chair of the Conservative Party.

In cabinet, Warsi always seemed like an unwelcome guest whose outspokenness was being tolerated by her hosts. Veteran Tories such as Norman Tebbit viewed her with suspicion and she spoke too plainly for younger Conservatives who were in thrall to remaking “Brand Britain” after the recession. In The Enemy Within she writes fondly of her time in office, but given that her portfolio as minister of state for faith and communities wasn’t a priority of the coalition government, her legacy is symbolic (she was the first Muslim woman to attend cabinet) and a first draft for future generations.

Where Warsi might be considered a trailblazer is her shift from the conventional left-wing and working-class politics of most second-generation Asians to modern Conservatism. Her world-view coincides with much of Cameron’s: she dislikes interventionism. So does her style: she has a propensity for chatty phrase-making. Warsi writes about inviting the then prime minister to a community event at a mosque in Manchester in 2013 called “the Big Iftar”. Of Britain’s relationship with its Muslims, and vice versa, she says: “It’s time to use the restart button.” And on her first official visit to Pakistan she spoke out about the Islamic republic’s failure to live up to the founding principles of its architect, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. “It was what I termed Heineken diplomacy – reaching the parts other diplomacy cannot reach,” she writes.

In the many sections of the book where she turns away from front-line politics and focuses on British Muslim history and the pathways to integration, Warsi writes with conviction. As a child of the Thatcher years, she is at her most energetic when describing the West Yorkshire of her youth, her white neighbours the Goodlads and fruit-picking in the apple and pear orchards of Kent. She describes how, at that stage of Asian migration, working-class neighbours were respectful and polite to each other – common bonds had not yet been established, but her childhood was untainted by racism and Islamophobia. Equally vivid are her memories of the year she spent living in Pakistan as an expat immigrant. Many first- and second-generation Asians in the UK, who view themselves through the prism of their British identity, will nod in recognition at the reasons behind her return to the UK: “Once the challenges of everyday bureaucracy, corruption and family feuds kicked in, Britain once more beckoned.”

Appointed the minister of state for faith in September 2012, Warsi was expected to reach out to all religions in the UK, but focused on highlighting moderate Muslims as agents for change. She could have done more in government to highlight the endemic poverty that plagues areas of Bradford and the likes of Newham in London. The Enemy Within offers little insight into or criticism of the Casey review of 2016, which presented the challenges to integration in the UK and outlined recommendations for a new government strategy.

A more tactful politician might have pointed out gently that mosques built with donations (known as chunda among south Asian Britons) are – like other places of worship in poor communities – in need of rehabilitation. She could have appealed to local authorities and architects to help. Instead, she said in 2016, “A lot of mosques are quite ugly – but they don’t need to be,” and suggested new ones could be built without minarets in order to integrate with their surroundings. But Warsi was prescient when she observed in 2011 that Islamophobic chatter had “passed the dinner-table test” and become widely socially acceptable.

She resigned in 2014, describing the government’s unwillingness to condemn Israel for the conflict in Gaza as “morally indefensible”. She is critical of the Prevent strategy, arguing that it has alienated ordinary Muslims and Muslim community workers. “Let’s acknowledge that Prevent as a brand is ‘toxic’ and at the very least needs to be reworked and reworded,” she writes.

British secularists, Christians and Jews often wonder why some Muslims display a level of devotion to their faith that, to them, seems incomprehensible. Warsi is right to point out that three centuries after Muslims first arrived on this island, the questioning of their loyalty to the UK is largely attributable to a resurgent Islamophobia following the 9/11 attacks. Last year Demos, the British think tank, found over 215,000 instances of Islamophobic tweets in July alone. Amid the rancour over Brexit, and with Labour in disarray, which political party will overhaul the state’s contract with those “citizens of nowhere”, its isolated Muslims?

Burhan Wazir is an award-winning journalist and a former head of opinion at al-Jazeera

Letters to a Young Muslim by Omar Saif Ghobash is published by Picador (245pp, £16.99)
The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism by Sara Khan with Tony McMahon is published by Saqi Books (256pp, £14.99)
The Enemy Within: a Tale of Muslim Britain by Sayeeda Warsi is published by Allen Lane (416pp, £20 )

This article appears in the 22 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution