Can British Islam Change? Muslims Have Become the Country's Most Politically Aware Faith Group, but They Are Divided about What Must Happen Now

By Sardar, Ziauddin | New Statesman (1996), July 3, 2006 | Go to article overview

Can British Islam Change? Muslims Have Become the Country's Most Politically Aware Faith Group, but They Are Divided about What Must Happen Now


Sardar, Ziauddin, New Statesman (1996)


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.

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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.

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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 Mohammad 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. …

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