Book review: British Islam at a crossroad: challenges and opportunities

23rd Jun 2017
Book review: British Islam at a crossroad: challenges and opportunities

Al-Britannia, My Country: A Journey through Muslim Britain. By James Fergusson, London: Bantam Press, 2017, PB, pp376.

The author of this book is a noted journalist who has travelled to, and reported from, many parts of the Muslim world for prominent publications including the Independent, The Times and the Economist. He has published four books, based largely on his travels such as A Million Bullets (2009) and The World’s Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia (2014).

The book under review is the author’s latest publication wherein he chronicles his journeys across Britain’s Muslim communities. In his own words, ‘In Britain, as across the Atlantic, Islam remains widely misunderstood by the non-Muslim majority. I did not start out as a stranger to the religion…but I was also aware that I didn’t know as much as I perhaps should about Islam in my own country, and I looked forward to filling that gap and to finding out what it really means to be a Muslim in modern Britain. What compromises must a devout Muslim make in order to succeed as a citizen in a society as increasingly secular as ours?’ (p3)

Throughout 2016, the author travelled up and down Britain from Inverness to Cardiff and from Leicester to London, visiting Muslim communities and interacting with people of diverse background and religious persuasion. He was struck by the huge diversity of the Muslim communities as well as the challenges and difficulties facing them. According to the author: ‘What I found was a community boiling with resentment at the way they are being treated, above all, the way they are collectively blamed for the proportionally tiny number of violent Islamist extremists among them. The mood in too many places I visited, from Birmingham and Bradford to Luton and London, is tinged by fear, paranoia, anger and confusion. British Muslims feel under assault from multiple directions at once: from the tabloid (and not so tabloid) press, from Nigel Farage’s UKIP party, from a resurgent far right and, perhaps most worryingly of all, from the government.’ (p3)

Consisting of a short introduction and 11 chapters, as well as the author’s diary of his observation of fasting during the month of Ramadan, the first chapter covers his sojourn in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, which is the headquarters of British Tabligi Jama’at based at the Markaz. By comparison, chapters 2, 3 and 4 cover the author’s journeys in High Wycombe, Acton (West London) and Walthamstow (East London) where he engages Muslims of all shades and colours. The author’s understanding and assessment of the diversity of British Islam is impartial and refreshing but equally critical and accurate. That in itself is an important achievement considering the fact that Britain’s Muslim communities are probably someone of Europe’s most ethnically and culturally diverse. Credit to the author for identifying and acknowledging this throughout the book!

Chapters 5 and 6 cover the author’s sojourn in the British Midlands where he visited Birmingham and Leicester. The controversy surrounding the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal occupies the author’s attention there. He explores this issue with several people who, one way or another, became involved with this incident. The author’s attempts to separate facts from fiction is rather revealing. After visiting Luton (see chapter 9), he then moves to the north, visiting Bradford and Oldham before heading towards Glasgow (see chapter 10).

So, what did the author learn from his extensive journeys through British Islam? He wrote, ‘British Muslims have many peculiarities and problems. In Dewsbury, Wycombe and London, I had seen how Islamic ideology can be stolen and twisted into justification for violence. In Oldham, Bradford and Rotherham I had encountered the dark side of Asian culture…As if that was not enough, British Muslims deal every day with a hostile press, a resurgent far right, and an uptick in xenophobic crime following the vote for Brexit. In Birmingham, Luton and Leicester, they are grappling with a government strategy that mistakes religious conservatism for extremism, and community spirit for isolationism.’ (p278)

Despite the numerous challenges and difficulties facing British Muslims at the moment, the author concluded that, ‘Beneath the masking noise and fury of the debate over extremism, immigration and integration is quiet but unmistakable murmur of prayer, sustaining the faithful through the hardest of times. Muslims are always quoting the Koranic verse about holding fast to the rope of Allah, and there is something magnificent in the way that they actually do. I admire, too, the courage and determination of many political activists I encountered, their refusal to be bullied and their insistence that Muslims should be treated the same as anyone else. There is an emerging self-confidence about communities…that suggests British Islam will prevail…’ (pp278-9)

This is an interesting, insightful, timely, balanced and beautifully written book. Highly recommended reading for politicians, policymakers, academics, journalists, faith and community leaders, and of course the general readers.

Muhammad Khan. M Khan is author of Great Muslims of the West: Makers of Western Islam (Kube Publishing, forthcoming Sept 2017)




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