Book Review: History of British Muslims through the eyes of Dr Abdul Bari

28th Sep 2018
Book Review: History of British Muslims through the eyes of Dr Abdul Bari

A Long Jihad: My Quest for the Middle Way. By Muhammad Abdul Bari. Kube Publishing, Markfield. Pp 312. PB. £11.99

Since the Satanic Verses affair in 1988, the British Muslim community has had its fair share of challenges, strains and opportunities. One individual who has had front row access through his own involvement for the past 30 years has been Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari.

Abdul Bari has played a significant role in the development and expansion of East London Mosque (ELM) into the London Muslim Centre.

His tenure (2006-10) as Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) came during the most challenging period in history as it coincided with the 7/7 terrorist bombings when the British Muslim community came under the spotlight.

Abdul Bari has also contributed to nationwide projects such an adequate living wage, tackling knife crime and creating urban community trusts through his support of Citizens UK through the partnership of ELM and the East London Citizens Organisation.

He has also served on the board of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG). The book is a personal biography of Abdul Bari but he uses the opportunity to highlight important issues of community, inclusion, radicalisation, family, activism and education from a personal perspective.

His memoirs are not just about community, faith and duty. The reader gets a glimpse of Abdul Bari who was a Bangladeshi air force officer and an educationalist working in special needs.

The renowned journalist Peter Oborne calls A Long Jihad: My Quest for the Middle Way as “a deeply moving personal story about how one British Muslim has dealt with courage and patience with very complex and sensitive issues for over three decades.” However, I found the book to be informative, yet, from my interpretations, there are at least four strands, which stand out in Abdul Bari’s memoirs.

Firstly, Abdul Bari gives us a historical understanding of the British Muslim community over the past three decades through his own experiences. One such experience is his insider perspective on the formation of the MCB in 1997.

He gives his own personal account of the challenges he himself faced as Secretary-General and dealing with events and circumstances. He explains in detail about the pressures from the Blair Government in the wake of the 7/7 attacks and how individuals went out to systematically discredit the MCB by creating Government backed organisations that lacked the legitimacy and support from the community and how in 2018 they are nowhere to be seen. Yet, despite the pressures the MCB were under during this period, it was an opportunity for Abdul Bari to engage with civic organisations, trade unions and connect with the wider British Muslim community.

Throughout the summer of 2006, Abdul Bari travelled across the British Isles which brought him in direct contact with mosques, organisations, youth clubs and women associations. This nationwide tour presented Abdul Bari not only an opportunity to introduce the MCB, but also a chance for the MCB to listen to people and learn from various grass-roots organisations on the challenges the community was facing.

Secondly, another strand in the book I picked up was Abdul Bari, through his various roles such as with Citizens UK and LOCOG, reaffirmed the belief that British Muslims can be British and Muslim, and strive to achieve the common good by working together as part of the mainstream society.

In the foreword to this book, Neil Jameson, Executive Director of Citizens UK, says the book is “a vision, or blueprint for ‘getting on’ and (of) ‘common good’, including both social and political as well as spiritual dimensions.”

Whether as a young officer in the Bangladesh Air Force training in the UK, to his post-doctoral research in Physics and as a teacher of students with special needs, Abdul Bari shows that as a British Muslim one can and should contribute to the wider society. His role as a board member of LOCOG demonstrated how he ensured the 2012 games was a celebration for all of London and went to great lengths to ensure the Muslim contribution was instrumental as part of the fabric of what the city of London had to offer.

Abdul Bari also highlights his own professional role as a teacher specialising in Special Educational Needs in Tower Hamlets had given him an insight into the day-to-day struggles of many lives. Abdul Bari strives to tell the message of how important it is for British Muslims to be active members of society whether at school, college, university or workplace and to look to achieve the common good.

Thirdly, Abdul Bari’s book is an opportunity to present his personal views on the concept of identity, on how to handle extremism, the need for education and inclusivity to name a few. Abdul Bari does not hold back and argues there is a need for the wider British society to deal with the Muslim community and how the community is here to stay and to play a positive role in society.

Yet, Abdul Bari quite rightly says the British Muslim community is under the microscope and scrutiny due to the rise in populism, Islamophobia and right-wing rhetoric. He is critical of the right-wing media, think tanks and politicians who have unfairly put the blame on the Muslim community and how Islamophobia is becoming normalised. He uses the example of the 2010 Channel 4 Dispatches programme, which depicted the Islamic Forum Europe (IFE) as some sinister cult trying to take over Tower Hamlets and turn it into ‘Londonistan’. The programme tried to prove Muslims were self-ghettoising, yet not taken the views of the people they were reporting on and how Channel 4 did not give the ELM and IFE adequate time to respond to the allegations they were accused of.

Abdul Bari also does not shy away from accepting that the community needs to find positive ways to empower young people, women and even the wider community, which it is currently not doing so. He is also critical on how British Muslims should internally and externally create stable homes; giving a greater emphasis on education and how mosques throughout the country should provide more than just access to the five daily prayers as only then can the British Muslim community be equipped to challenge the issues.

Finally in the title Long Jihad: My Quest for the Middle Way, the word ‘jihad’ is significant. Jihad is a term that has negative connotations; and in the eyes of many, the word is associated with war, violence and extremism, due to media and political narratives. Abdul Bari throughout the book uses the opportunity to highlight what is meant by jihad. Whether through his own life experience or views, Abdul Bari shows how his dedication to his religion, community, society and nation and staying on the middle path is a mandatory social and religious requirement. Abdul Bari in some ways is trying to reclaim the word ‘jihad’ by speaking out against extremism and how the believers are required to live a life of ‘middle way’ and adopt moderation. He refutes the argument that walking the middle way does not mean walking a thin line of ‘dos and don’ts’, but making an effort to remain around the centre and avoid the two extremes. Abdul Bari shows ‘jihad’ is a struggle to endeavour and change for the common good and also a commitment of self-purification through pure intention and a collective effort to fight against inequality, injustice and oppression in a civil way.

Abdul Bari’s memoirs are necessary for any young person (anybody under the age of 40) from the British Muslim community and beyond to understand the issues and the evolving of the British Muslim community over the past three decades.

I have seen for myself Abdul Bari’s commitment and contribution to achieving a ‘common good’ for all.
Abdul Bari is one of a handful of British Muslim individuals who has maintained a community role and influenced nationwide outcomes at the same time. In his retirement, he has dedicated his life to mentoring and advising the next generation of leaders in becoming model citizens. His memoir is a leadership manual on how to strive the middle way for any aspiring community servant in Britain.

Hasan Salim Patel works in communications.

He has also worked for Al Jazeera and the BBC in broadcast journalism and in PR.

 

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