A Jewish Muslim Coalition – David Cesarani, from our archive
No sooner was Communism defeated and peace declared between Israel and the Arabs than a new enemy of the Jews was apparently revealed: Muslim ‘fundamentalism’. During 1994, the anxiety level of British Jews was driven up by the publicity given to the thuggish antics of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an association of Islamist students recruiting for its cause on campuses throughout the country. The behaviour of Muslims in Britain and British Muslims (two distinct groups) was set against the background of a ‘tide’ of Muslim ‘fanaticism’ in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. But is there really a ‘threat’ posed to British Jews by ‘Muslim fundamentalists’ in the United Kingdom? Or is the rhetoric directed against Islam here and abroad serving other functions than to delineate a potential source of terrorism? Does the hue and cry after ‘militant Islam’ actually obscure a community of interest between British Jews and British Muslims that could, if acted upon, reshape British society and culture to their mutual benefit? Far from being a highly-organized and powerful force supporting a spearhead of militants, Muslims in Britain are fragmented, economically vulnerable and insecure. The size of the Muslim population is vague for the same reasons that no one knows exactly how many Jews live in Britain. Philip Lewis estimates that there are about one million Muslims in the UK, with 80 per cent originating in South Asia. Of these, 477,000 are of Pakistani origin, 163,000 are Bangladeshis and 134,000 are from India. Regional identities are no less significant, with sharp distinctions between Muslims hailing from Punjab, Gujerat, Mirpur or Sylhet. Fissured on national and ethnic lines, Muslims in Britain are also divided by sectarian allegiance between Deobandis, Barelwis, Islamic modernists and followers of jama’at-i Islami, Shi’a and the Ahmadiyya movement.
Muslim communities are heavily concentrated in just a few places. Half of all the Bangladeshis live in London, with no less than 25 per cent congregated in Tower Hamlets, the poorest borough in Britain. Only a quarter of the immigrants from Pakistan live outside London, and of these the majority are to be found in Birmingham and Bradford. The Muslim population, like the Jewish population at the turn of the century, has a different age profile to the British. Twice as many Muslims are under sixteen years of age; whereas 17 per cent of Whites are over sixty-five, this applies to only 2 per cent of Pakistanis. Pakistani and Bangladeshi families are almost twice as large as the average British family. The Muslim population is set to double in the space of a generation.
Contrary to popular stereotypes, the first Muslim immigrants from South Asia to Britain were not poor. They were mainly educated, middle-class people who left areas with a long tradition of emigration and strong ties to Britain. But they moved into badly paid sectors of the economy, notably textile manufacturing, that were about to be devastated by foreign competition. The Asian-owned corner shop is less a tribute to ingrained entrepreneurialism than a monument to the decline of Britain’s textile and manufacturing industries. Thousands of redundant Asian factory workers retreated into the retail trades, working long hours for marginal profits and relying on unpaid family labour to eke out a living. Extraordinary sacrifice and collective endeavour, a saga with which Jews should be familiar, has made possible the advance of many British-born Muslims into tertiary education and thence into the professions. However, a huge segment of the Muslim population is confined to the retail trades or is self-employed. In 1991 Asian Business calculated that there were 104,000 small shops in Britain, 70 per cent of which were Asian-owned, almost all by a single family. This is a precarious economic base, physically as well as economically exposed.
British Muslims bear the brunt of all forms of British racism. They have been the chief object of immigration restrictions which have stigmatized their presence in Britain. Since the mid-1960s it has been official doctrine that ‘good race relations’ are predicated on limiting the number of non-white settlers. Put another way, Black and Asian people are a problem which gets out of hand if their numbers grow too large. Asians are the target of racial violence which feeds off the official view that their presence is a ‘problem’. The assault on Quddas Ali in Stepney in September 1993 is only one attack that attracted publicity. (It is noteworthy that, a year later, a jury in Southwark acquitted the sole person accused of the attack on Quddas Ali and the police have not brought charges against anybody else.) The following month, a gang of white youths attacked Bangladeshis on the Regent’s Park Estate north of the Euston Road, throwing a petrol bomb into an occupied flat. In February 1994 Muktar Ahmed, a student in Tower Hamlets, was terribly beaten. The attack barely merited national news coverage. Racial violence directed against Asians is so much a part of everyday life that it has even found its way into an episode of ‘The Archers’.
And so it goes on. Britain-born Muslims now accept the daily threat of violence against their persons and property, denuded of faith in the forces of law and order to protect them. If attacks occurred on this scale against Muslims in Germany, there would be international outrage. If the targets were Jews, there would be mass demonstrations, questions in Parliament, and police on every street corner in Jewish districts. The violent rhetoric against Islam cannot be detached from this massive and sustained physical assault and accounts partly for what Akbar Ahmed in 1994 called the ‘sense of siege, of crisis, of the British Muslim community’.
Although Muslim settlers succeeded ‘in reproducing much of their traditional social and cultural world’, Philip Lewis observes that their religious and lay leadership is perplexed by how best to transmit Islam to British-born Muslims and safeguard its continuity. Islamic law has barely got to grips with the situation of Muslims living as a minority in non-Muslim societies. The tradition of oral learning is challenged by the linguistic chasm superimposed on the generational divide. Islam appears rigid, archaic and unintelligible to many British-born and educated Muslim youth. The religious leadership, mainly non-English-speaking and innocent of western culture, cannot offer them guidance. Muslim women, driven into the labour market by economic necessity, are increasingly exposed to secular influences and chafe at the requirements of purdah or wearing traditional dress such as the hijab (headscarf).
In this sense, the Muslim orthodoxy which is so frequently caricatured as ‘fundamentalism’ is an anti-assimilationist movement. Far from posing a ‘threat’ to anyone, ‘fundamentalism’ may be seen as a defensive measure, the vehemence and intractability of which stands in an inverse relationship to its hold over the hearts and minds of British-born Muslim youth. If Islam is retaining the affection of British Muslims and even winning back those tempted by secularism, that may be as much a reaction to the vacuity of youth culture, the viciousness of British society towards those constructed as ‘aliens’ and their economic insecurity. Hanif Kureishi, who has brilliantly explored the consciousness of first-generation British Muslims as defined against Britishness, remarks that ‘fundamentalism gave them a sense of place, of belonging. So many were unemployed, and had friends involved in drugs; religion kept them out of trouble.’
Despite its much-vaunted tolerance and liberalism, British society appears to most Muslims to be less than hospitable. The 1980s and 1990s witnessed a string of conflicts in which Muslims saw their interests and beliefs attacked and bowdlerized. The Muslims of Bradford have borne the brunt of what they see as militant secularism, anti-Islamic mania and simple racism, but their experience is typical. In 1983-84, a sensible decision by Bradford’s educational authorities to provide halal meat in schools with large Muslim intakes led to protests by animal rights campaigners. The decision was almost revoked and the row gave added impetus to the campaign for government funding for Muslim schools. Yet, ten years on and notwithstanding a series of high-quality applications, there is still not one state-aided Muslim school to match the seventeen serving the needs of a Jewish population a fraction of the size of the Muslim one.
In 1984-85, the country’s media was transfixed by the bitter struggle of Bradford’s Muslims against Ray Honeyford, the headmaster of a school with a majority of Muslims who took to the pages of the right- wing Salisbury Review to declare himself against a multi-racial society. One of his defenders, the Tory MP Marcus Fox, now Sir Marcus and chairman of the powerful 1922 Committee, charged that those who campaigned for Honeyford’s dismissal ‘strike at the very root of our democracy’. Muslims who wanted halal meat and separate-sex gym classes were, for the first time, accused of ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘religious fanaticism’. The defence of Muslim traditions and beliefs was thus equated with an attack on democracy and freedom of speech. Islam was construed as alien to the British way of life.
Media coverage of the Rushdie affair in 1988-90 powerfully reinforced these stereotypes and sharpened the dichotomy between Englishness and Islam. While the anger, distress and indignation of Muslims was genuine and plain for all to see, the representation of Muslim ‘fanaticism’ was anything but natural. The widespread condemnation of The Satanic Verses in India, not Iran, set the tone for British Muslims. The book was burnt, a foolish gesture and a hostage to fortune, before Ayatollah Khomeini’s Fatwa against its author. Yet thereafter British Muslims were tarred with the Iranian brush even though most Muslims in Britain rejected the Teheran theocracy and its brand ofIslam. Such subtleties did not detain the British media who proceeded to demonize Islam and to ascribe to British Muslims the most extreme of the vast array of possible Muslim views.
Hard on the heels of the furor over The Satanic Verses came the Gulf War in 1990-91. Muslims in Britain who followed the Barelwi sect were appalled at the assault on Iraq, home to many Barelwi holy sites. The Saudis, Wahhabi Muslims, were never terribly popular amongst Muslim groups in the United Kingdom and earned further obloquy for inviting Christians and even Jews in the anti-Iraq coalition force on to their territory. Calls by Barelwi leaders for the withdrawal of non-Muslim forces and evident sympathy for Saddam Hussein were interpreted bald- ly as treachery. On 19 January 1991, Sun colunmist Richard Littlejohn asserted: ‘In mosques all over Britain Muslims prayed for an Iraqi victory.’ He earnestly suggested to the paper’s nearly four million readers that pro-Iraqi British Muslims ‘should be interned for the duration while the Government seeks ways of revoking their citizenship.’ Those without the evidently fragile privilege of a British passport ‘must be deported without delay’.
In 1992 the pro-Iranian Muslim Parliament was the object of hostility and derision and, most recently, Hizb-ut-Tahrir has emerged as the latest Muslim bogey. It matters little that both emanations of ‘militant Islam’ are eschewed by the vast majority of British Muslims. Hizb-ut-Tahrir is a nasty outfit whose con- duct has worried even student union officials who are used to the hurley-burley of campus politics (and it is important to remember that rhetoric undergoes an inflationary process in student debate). Indeed, even Kalim Siddiqui, the erstwhile ‘fanatic’ who founded the Muslim Parliament, has distanced himself from their activities. He was accordingly dubbed a ‘moderate’ by media playing their customary role of constructing goodies and baddies. If little recognition is given to the isolation of militant Islamists, even less effort is made to see their activity through the optic of global Islam. Yet, from this point of view; Muslims are on the defensive and those groupings represent, at worst, a heroic rear-guard or, at best, a desperate counter-attack.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the Islamic world has seen its domain shrunken and pulverized. In their own eyes faithful Muslims are almost for that reason alone the victims of ruthless attack in Kashmir, Palestine, Kurdistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Algeria and, most lately, Chechnya. The world responds to their plight with silence. Whereas international opinion mobilized on behalf of Soviet Jews there is barely a squeak of indignation over the mass murder of Muslims in Bosnia and Chechnya. The military regime in Algeria is engaged in massive human rights violations in its war on the ‘Islamic militants’ who won the free national election in January 1992. The western powers, for whom democracy and human rights in a long list of countries have been a crunch issue, are blatantly unconcerned about Algeria. When Muslims attempt to mobilize opinion on behalf of Islam abroad, their efforts are fitted into the car- toon-like interpretation o f ‘fundamentalism’ and used to confirm the reasons for holding aloof. Is it any wonder that young Muslims in Britain are deeply cynical about ‘western values’ and see in Iranian rhetoric and the Islamist ideology of Hizb-ut-Tahrir an appropriate response to this litany of slaughter and persecution?
There is a terrorist element within ‘militant Islam’ which does not hesitate to slaughter and persecute on its own account. That terrorism, centred on and emanating from the Middle East, needs to be contextualized in terms of the persistent conflict between Palestinian Arabs and the State of Israel. Islam and reinforces a geo-political struggle that was underway long before the appearance of Ayatollah Khomeini or Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Apart from the real danger posed by Arab rejectionists fired-up by anti- Israeli and anti-Jewish interpretations of the Qu’ran, it suits Israel to characterize its current opponents as ‘Islamic fundamentalists’.
Since its inception Israeli foreign policy has been dictated by the search for powerful allies. In the 1950s and 1960s Israel aligned itself with France against Arab nationalism, a force challenging French rule in its North African possessions. In the 1970s and 1980s Israel located itself in the anti-Soviet camp, capitalizing on Soviet backing for its Arab enemies. With the demise of the Cold War, Israel must reposition itself globally. If it no longer has a function as a bulwark against Arab nationalism or Soviet influence, it can now claim to occupy a stretch of the front-line in the war against ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. In this capacity it gains the allies and influence it needs for its national security.
Israel exports its foreign policy to the Jewish diaspora. Zionist institutions in Buenos Aires and London are placed in the front-line, too. The results are tragically inevitable. British Jews have come to perceive Islam and its bearers as their enemy, a view amply confirmed when Jewish organizations and Jewish people here fall victim to terrorist acts carried out by extremist, anti-Israeli Islamist groups. At another level, anti-Muslim rhetoric becomes an affirmation of Britishness. When racism and national chauvinism are on the increase it is handy to have an ‘alien’ group to lambast in order to demonstrate one’s own loyalty. Muslims are consequently satanized, their communities lumped together and their disparate concerns homogenized. Ironically, this only suits the purposes of those whose hostility to Muslims and Islam is closely followed by their distaste for Jews and Judaism.
In a brilliant dissection of classic English liberalism, as represented by John Stuart Mill, Bhikhu Parekh observes:
“Although Millian liberalism stressed the value of diversity, it defined its nature and permissible range in narrow terms. Mill linked diversity to individuality and choice, and valued the former only in so far as it was grounded in the individualistic conception of many. This ruled out several forms of diversity. It ruled out traditional and customary ways of life, as well as those centred on the community. It also ruled out ethnically grounded ways of life, as well as those limited to a ‘narrow mental orbit’ or ‘not in tune’ with the dominant trend of the age.”
To Mill and his followers liberalism was a ‘fragile plant’ constantly endangered by the ignorant, the impassioned and the ‘uncivilized’. Islam is only the latest embodiment of this peril which serves conveniently to bolster the prejudices and predilections of western liberals. The alleged intolerance of Islam legitimates the intolerance and racism of liberals.
In fact, as we have seen, Muslims in Britain are highly fragmented: there are traditionalists and modernisers, separatists and assimilationists, and followers of virtually every secular ideology. Parekh goes beyond a critique of liberalism to conceive of a polity in which the reality ofMuslim life in Britain could be encompassed. Classic liberalism which gestated during the era ofEuropean imperialism and was shaped by conceptions of European superiority
“needs to become more open-minded, more self-critical and tolerant of its rivals and far more sensitive to the diversity and complexity of human existence than it has been hitherto, … A truly liberal society is characterised by diverse ways of life, both liberal and non-liberal, both secular and religious, both individualist and communitarian, and each nurturing its own diverse forms. A truly liberal state cherishes and gives public recognition to this diversity, provides such resources and conditions of growth as they need and cannot raise themselves, encourages a civil dialogue between them, and enforces norms that they have agreed upon and without which their peaceful coexistence is impossible.”
Translated into Jewish terms, Parekh is calling for a society which accepts hasidic enclaves without stereo- typing them as either hot-beds of homicidal fundamentalism or cosy evocations of the shtetl, does not cavil at the erection ofan eruv, funds strictly Orthodox Jewish schools such as Yesodeh HaTorah and empowers Jews to recover the diversity of their culture, so ending the drive towards mediocre uniformity that was encouraged in the name of anglicization over the last hundred years.
On their own, Jews lack the political muscle or the nerve to undertake such a project. An alliance with British Muslims would transform the balance of forces. Now is the moment for a partnership that builds on shared experiences of migration and settlement, assimilation and continuity. Muslims in this country are at a crucial junction, roughly where Jews stood between the wars. In the coming decades a burgeoning proportion of the Muslim population is destined to be British-born and its leaders are struggling to formulate a viable British Muslim identity and to secure the transmission of Islam in a modern and relevant form. British Jews failed to meet this challenge with respect to Jewish identity and Judaism. This was so partially because the majority in British society made it plain that, for all the impeccably liberal reasons set forth by Parekh, it would not accept the perpetuation of Jewish difference in anything more than a watery denominational sense. Jewish nationalism provided an interim solution by giving Jews what would today be called an ethnic identity, but it had a built-in obsolescence that became increasingly evident after 1948. Today, Jews have a second chance to create the conditions for Jewish life to flourish in all its plural forms.
The prospects for Jews and Judaism, as for Muslims and Islam, to prosper in Britain in the next century will depend on the nature of British society and, above all, the realization of ‘a truly liberal society and state’. That is a possibility which some Britons find unappetizing. It is in their interests that Jews and Muslims remain at loggerheads. While Jews continue to demonize ‘fundamentalism’, which is no more than an analogue for modern Orthodox Judaism, and conflate the struggle against Israel which, however unjustified and horrifying it may be, is a geo-political fact of life, with the assertion of a Muslim identity this co-operation will remain elusive. The tragedy in the making is that most Jews and most Muslims will not see that they have more uniting them than dividing them, that the extremism in the one camp inflames the other and that neither will win by perpetuating this antagonism. On the contrary, they will only justify the dogma of English liberals who find abhorrent the particularist agenda of both groups and who will lose no time in redoubling their efforts, long practised in the era of colonialism, to erase these apparently irascible cultures and traditions in the name of ‘toleration’.