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3 November 2003updated 24 Sep 2015 12:01pm

British Muslims are the new Irish

Government cash helped the first wave of immigrants from Ireland to become good British Catholics. N

By Jack O'Sullivan

Heard the one about Mullah Nasruddin? It goes like this. A neighbour asks Nasruddin if he can borrow his donkey. Wanting neither to lend the animal nor to offend his neighbour, Nasruddin says he is sorry, but a brother is already using it. The neighbour, disappointed, thanks Nasruddin. But as he walks away, he hears a loud bray. “Mullah Sahib,” protests the neighbour. “You told me your donkey was not here.” “My friend,” soothes Nasruddin. “Who are you going to believe? Me or the donkey?”

The story might not make top billing at the Comedy Store, but the tales of Mullah Nasruddin, a folkloric fool/wide man of the Muslim world, sound like the legendary Kerryman, staple of Irish jokes. Like the Irish, Muslims laugh at themselves. “Why are there no British Muslims in the Premiership?” a friend asked. “Because every time we’re given a corner, we open a shop.”

You might think the similarity between the Irish and Islam stops there. After all, the Irish are happy to give the Pope, St Peter and even Himself Upstairs a bit more of a ribbing than Mohammed is likely to receive from his followers. Nevertheless, British Muslims are the new Irish.

Consider a couple of images of the British Muslim. There is the stereotype of the devout individual, who perhaps owns a small business and strives to educate his children. And there is another, more fearful, notion of a Muslim as an inscrutable “fundamentalist”, so profoundly committed to his religious beliefs that he might sacrifice his life and those of others in its cause. The British mind veers between seeing Muslims as aspiring, model citizens and as a dangerous threat to British society. The second, paranoid image was given a boost in April this year when it emerged that British Muslims – one of them Asif Mohammed Hanif – had carried out the suicide bombing of a Tel Aviv bar. This, as well as the emergence of inflammatory Islamic figures such as Abu Hamza from London’s Finsbury Park mosque, fuels concern.

These conflicting views are remarkably similar to British attitudes to an earlier wave of immigration. The Irish who arrived in their millions in the 19th and 20th centuries were also considered to fit easily into the British way of life. They were largely indistinguishable from the natives. Most spoke English, and their Roman Catholic beliefs – though doctrinally at odds with Protestantism – grounded them in a disciplined regime of church-going. The stereotype of the Irish as friendly and jovial, if feckless and impoverished, did much to endear them to their new hosts. Yet, as with today’s British Muslims, there was a whiff of threat. Ireland in the 19th and 20th centuries was the focus of a nationalist struggle, and it was feared that Britain was importing fifth columnists. Nor was this concern groundless: there was nationalist political violence in “mainland” Britain in the 1860s and 1870s, and some immigrants played a part.

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But the most interesting aspect of these similar stories is how differently the state responded. In the Irish case, the state promoted and financially supported their religion as a means of settling immigrants into Britain. In contrast, the state has neglected Islam, losing the opportunity to help create an authentically British Islam. As a result, the community is poorly led and prey to hijack by Middle East conflicts and rabble-rousing leaders. Westminster’s long-running failure to recognise the enduring importance of Islam to many Britons is an extraordinary lapse.

Look again at the Irish. There are an estimated eight million people of Irish descent in Britain. Many have lived through the past 30 years of the Troubles. Yet this second-generation Irish immigrant community produced virtually no IRA recruits, the most notable exception being the late Sean MacStiofain, a former chief of staff for the Provisional IRA, who was born John Stephenson in London. This sense of British citizenship among the second generation was an extraordinary achievement for which home secretaries can thank, in particular, the Roman Catholic Church. The children of the Irish who took the boat to England were deracinated, depoliticised and absorbed into UK society as British Catholics, having been educated in state- sponsored Catholic schools. In an authoritative study of the Irish in Britain, Religion, Class and Identity, Mary Hickman describes how this second generation learnt to define itself as Catholic rather than Irish. Their public rituals – confession, catechism on Saturday, Mass on Sundays, a miniature wedding dress for the seven-year-old girl’s First Communion – distinguished them denominationally but not ethnically. Meanwhile, the state- supported Catholic Church stuck to its side of the unspoken bargain and condemned political violence.

State finance for Roman Catholic education began in the 1870s, when British politicians were at ease with religion and, as empire builders, keen to suppress national and ethnic identities. The same treatment was not offered to immigrants – many of them Muslims – in the second half of the 20th century.

In more secular times, British politicians had little time for religion. So Islamic beliefs were largely ignored. The antipathy towards religious identity was particularly true of Labour. While state-funded centres for ethnic groups sprang up throughout the land, mosques struggled in ramshackle converted terraces in Bradford. Muslim schools were frowned upon and denied state funding. Most important, imams from these impoverished communities suffered low pay and a lack of theological training in Britain. Imams with little knowledge of English or of Britain were brought over from the Indian subcontinent. They reinforced the isolation of their communities by bringing with them rural versions of Islam.

This picture has changed a little. A handful of Muslim schools receive state funding. Gordon Brown is keen to support a new system of Islamic interest-free mortgages giving devout Muslims an opportunity to buy homes. But there is still no vision recognising that the Muslim faith needs material support. Such neglect seems scandalous when you compare it with the vast endowment enjoyed by the Church of England. So British Islam flounders, with no clear hierarchy and a shortage of well-trained theologians equipped to take on those who would hijack Islam and drag British Muslims into Middle East battles.

Many Muslims recognise the problem. The chair of the Council of Imams and Mosques, Zaki Badawi, sees the progress of the Roman Catholic Church in Britain as a template for how Islam might develop. His hero is Cardinal Basil Hume, British Roman Catholicism’s most charismatic and influential leader. Before his death in 1999, Hume had led his immigrant community on the final steps to acceptance in Britain, so that now his successor can be found preaching to the Queen, the head of the Church of England. “Hume inserted Catholicism into the Establishment without compromise,” says Badawi.

Islam is highly adaptable to different cultures, which is why it has become established in many different societies. Its failure to be established in an adapted British form increases the likelihood that young British Muslims will take their lead on what it means to be Muslim from powerful TV images of the Middle East, where political struggle and faith have become interwoven and confused.

“The danger,” argues Fuad Nahdi, publisher of Q News, an international Muslim monthly magazine based in London, “is that there are a large number of Muslim leaders in Britain who come from the same school of Islam as the Taliban. They are not extremists, but they copy the style. Young Muslims saw Bin Laden turned by the BBC and others into a glamorous, Rambo figure. The fear is that they will now copy the bombers.”

Much of this comes down to money, spent in ways that today’s politicians unfortunately find unthinkable. Badawi wants public finance to train imams in the UK and cash to support poor communities that cannot afford to pay salaries likely to attract well-educated British-born spiritual leaders. It would be a huge step in an age when governments do not want to fund religion. Yet given the Irish Roman Catholic precedent, it is an obvious initiative to take alongside better support for Islamic schools.

One public figure recognises this. To Muslims, Prince Charles stands way above his contemporaries as Britain’s most respected Establishment figure, particularly for his opinion that he should be “defender of faiths” rather than “defender of the faith”. His attitude is surely the way forward if Britain is not to give rise to more men like Abu Hamza and Asif Mohammed Hanif.

Jack O’Sullivan writes on Islam and is a former columnist on the Catholic Herald

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