British Prime Minister Tony Blair will meet Tuesday with the Muslim Council of Britain, the broad representative body of the country’s estimated 1.6 million followers of the various forms of Islam. It is a big tent organization, designed to include some radical and semi-militant groups, in the hope of brining them into the political system and separating them from hard-line extremists. But this makes it all the more difficult for Blair to win their endorsement of his plans to license Islamic clerics, and regulate mosques and madrassas (Koranic schools).
Britain’s Home Office (rather like the Department of Justice in the United States) is drafting a system of accreditation and qualification for would-be Muslim clerics. They will have to be fluent in English and pass a test in British civic knowledge, and new applicants are expected to undergo a new state-sponsored training course that will promote moderate Islam. An estimated 1,800 of Britain’s 3,000 full-time Imams come from overseas, mainly from Pakistan, and many come with Saudi sponsorship and after some study in Saudi Arabia.
Many of the moderate elders of Britain’s Muslim community will go along with Blair’s plans, which also have the backing of the Muslim Members of Parliament. The mainstream of Muslim opinion is now prepared to admit that the four British-born bombers of the London transport system were influenced by extremists at their mosques in Yorkshire and Buckinghamshire, and during visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that this radicalization of some young Muslims is a problem that the community must address.
“The Muslim communities are not reaching those people who they need to engage with and win their hearts and minds,” says Sadiq Khan, the Muslim Labor MP for the London suburb of Tooting. “What leads someone to do this? The rewards they are told they will get in the hereafter – it is incumbent on Muslims to tell them that nowhere in Islam does it say this, and in fact what you will get is hellfire.”
But younger firebrands are less and less likely to listen to their elders, particularly in that sub-group of British Islam that comes from Pakistan – the group that seems to have spawned the most extremism. Indeed, the ethnic and linguistic divisions among British Muslims mean that in reality they form several distinct communities whose common language and common culture is English.
According to the 2001 census, 69 percent of Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims come from the Indian sub-continent, and just over half of them were born there. The rest, 46 percent, were born in Britain. The largest group, over half a million, stems from Pakistan, and of them almost half come from the poor district around Mirpur where the building of the Mangla dam in the late 1950s and early 1960s created a vast pool of homeless and landless peasants, who were then recruited to low-wage jobs in the textile industry of northern England. They clubbed together to bring over Imams from home to run mosques and teach the Koran, imported wives from Mirpur through arranged marriages, and created urban versions of their traditional Mirpuri villages under the grey English skies.
The textile industry itself then declined, locking this community of poor and ill-educated people in a grim cycle of unemployment, welfare, female illiteracy and low expectations. The rustbelt that stretches across Lancashire and Yorkshire is the region where the anti-immigration British National Party, a thuggish group with neo-Nazi links, gets up to 20 percent of the vote from an almost equally ill-educated and hopeless white working class. And yet this is also the area that produces most of the dozen of so ‘honor killings’ carried out each year by angry fathers or brothers, when a Pakistani girl falls in love with a British boy.
The next largest group, nearly 400,000, come from Bangladesh, mostly from the Sylhet region, and are very different. They speak Bengali rather than Urdu, eat rice rather than roti, dress differently and follow a notably more relaxed form of Islam, and are concentrated in East London rather than northern England. They tend also to be more entrepreneurial, and more open to education opportunities for their children, who have a better record of getting to university than the Pakistanis.
The third major group is the Muslims of Indian origin, many of whom came to Britain in the early 1970s as refugees from East Africa after Uganda’s President Idi Amin decided to expel them. They have become perhaps the most desirable and successful group of immigrants that Britain ever welcomed. They have produced more millionaires, more doctors and more college graduates, than any other ethnic group – the British included. One in 20 is a doctor.
The 31 percent of British Muslims from elsewhere are mainly from Somalia and Turkey, each with about 50,000. Another 100,000 come from Nigeria, Malaysia or Iran, and then students and refugees and the political exiles and Arab intellectuals who have given the British capital the nickname ‘Londonistan’ make up most of the rest.
So the reality behind the term ‘British Muslim’ includes a wealthy London surgeon, an unemployed and barely literate textile worker in Oldham, a Malaysian accountancy student who wants to go on to business school, a fiery newspaper columnist who dare not go home to Saudi Arabia, a female government clerk who lives with her English boyfriend and no longer sees her outraged family, and a prosperous restaurant owner in East London.
They have little in common – except for the sense of alarm that somehow they will share in the blame, or suffer the backlash, for the London bombings. But some of the things they do have in common are striking. Muslims are much more likely to be unemployed. Around 15 percent of Muslims, both male and female, are registered as unemployed, compared to 4 percent of the rest of the population. The British government’s Labor Force Survey found that Muslims are more likely than any other group to be ‘economically inactive’, those in long term unemployment or not even seeking work. In the same survey, 31% of Muslims in work had no qualifications.
Muslims are five times more likely to marry by the age of 24 than any other Briton. And Muslims have the youngest age profile of all religious groups: 34 percent are under the age of 16, compared with 25 percent of Sikhs, 2 percent of Hindus and 18 percent of Christians. And they tend to live together; two-thirds of the 600,000 Muslims who live in London reside in the two East End boroughs of Newham and Tower Hamlets. And more than any other ethnic or religious group, they tend to live in rented public housing.
These are the disparate groups and individuals that Tony Blair hopes to rally to the common identity of Britishness, by which he means a full-hearted commitment to democracy, and the freedom of speech and religion and lifestyles that it involves. And in these days of al-Qaida, Blair has to convince them that being British may have to include closed circuit TV cameras in the mosques and government licenses for Imams. What has yet to be addressed is what happens if some members of the Muslim Council Britain simply say no.