MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS: "The Infidel Within." Muslims in Britain since 1800

By Schwanitz, Wolfgang G. | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS: "The Infidel Within." Muslims in Britain since 1800


Schwanitz, Wolfgang G., The Middle East Journal


MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS "The Infidel Within." Muslims in Britain since 1800, by Humayun Ansari. London, UK: C. Hurst & Co., 2004. xiv + 438 pages. Bibl. to p. 424. BP 14.95.

Among the first Muslims in the British islands were travellers, sailors, and settlers. During the Middle Ages, some of these had not gone there voluntarily; they were captured pirates who had practiced their trade off the shores of North Africa. The British subsequently got better acquainted with its Muslim neighbors, as the Empire lured additional numbers from the colonial peripheries into the center.

Humayun Ansari presents a well-written history of Islam in Great Britain, focusing on the periods before and after the Second World War. In it, Dr. Ansari, a professor at the University of London, raises this main question: has a British-Muslim identity developed? Indeed, he sheds light on this question by exploring the waves of Muslim arrivals to Britain. But one soon finds that there is no big common denominator among British Muslims, so colorful is the tapestry that the social fabric of these people forms.

British Muslims come from all over the world, speak many languages, and form social layers. Not only that, this mosaic has grown increasingly complex as a result of the patterns of immigration in the two phases before and after 1975. There are now two million Muslims in Britain, three-quarters of them under 25 years of age. They will influence the country for many decades to come.

The historical part of this inspiring book will definitely stimulate scholars to do comparative studies, for instance in Central Europe where a similar work is lacking. "The Crescent and the Brandenburg Gate: Muslims in Germany since 1731" is a study that has yet to be written. However, here I shed light only on Ansari's central question about British-Muslim identity. This scholar, whose own roots lie in Pakistan, starts with what Orientalists and Islamists have in common, that is stressing what separates Islam and the West in the light of their own homegrown minorities: the other, the opposite, or even the "infidel within."

For centuries, says Ansari, the secular West has stigmatized Islam as irrational, violent, and fanatical. Consequently, the conclusion drawn in the West is that Muslims must be controlled and held at bay. The pictures of the Islamic revolution in Iran, the burning of the Salman Rushdie novel Satanic Verses, the "hysteria" surrounding the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, have further deepened the British public's antipathy towards Muslims. As a result, explains Ansari, Muslims are exposed to hostility. Although Prime Minister Tony Blair said that this does not arise from Islam in itself, the press lumps Muslims and extremists together. But according to public opinion polls, maintains the author, the great majority of Muslims are loyal to Great Britain.

Humayun Ansari hits the nail on the head. However, there is much more to think about. The deep Western fear of Islam is rooted in contemporary, not just historical circumstances. To be sure, attacks by Muslims on Europe have run for 1,000 years; and the continent was a hair's breath away from being under Ottoman rule. But it is also true that in the contemporary era of mass tourism, many citizens of the West have journeyed to the East. Having done so, few indeed would afterwards exchange their lifestyle in the West for that of the East, given the sharp differences in terms of human rights, civil society, and the role of women. These are only some of the reasons for so much Western "opposition" to Islam. What Ansari calls "hysteria around the Iraqi raid of Kuwait" is based on the history of Europe: If the swallowing up of a neighboring country by the dictator of Baghdad had been permitted, it would have thrown the world back to the time after 1933, when the Nazis annexed one country after the other.

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