Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge – the list goes on and on. And at the centre of it all lies Islam, a faith in turmoil. With attacks taking place faster than we can keep up, is there any solution in sight?
In our world today, extremism is spreading faster than ever before, the sway of radicalisation is fast becoming an impossible foe, and anti-Muslim bigotry is at an all-time high in Europe and around the world. The causes of extremism are complex and the solutions need to be equally sophisticated if we are to have any hope of returning to a middle path. But downright denying that a crisis exists in the first place instantly aborts the process of problem-solving, compelling the vicious cycle of extremism and bigotry to persist unhindered. As George Orwell put it, “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Are Western Muslim communities missing the wood for the trees?
Last year, the UK’s Channel 4 commissioned an exhaustive survey titled “What do British Muslims really think?” Although much of the extensive results confirm that British Muslim attitudes align, for the most part, with the rest of Britain’s populace, the few disparities were immensely significant in demonstrating the depths to which extremism and extremist thought is rooted in some communities in the British Muslim experience.
Among the more promising results, 86% of those polled feel a strong sense of belonging in Britain, 91% said the same for their area, and 78% showed interest in integrating into British life. Yet there were more worrying results. The ICM poll indicated that 39% of British Muslims believed wives should always obey their husbands, and nearly a third (31%) said that a British Muslim man having more than one wife would be acceptable. Such ideas may seem irrelevant in British society today where law rules supreme over religious ideology, yet it is beliefs such as these that, if unchecked and unchallenged, can plant the seeds of misogyny in generations to come.
So why have some Muslims in the UK had a harder time integrating with British society at large?
Perhaps the primary factor from which this difficulty stems is the stark lack of diversity within the community. At present, British Muslims make up 4.4% of the total population, that translates to around 2.8 million people. Out of this, 2.3 million identify as Sunni, and almost half (44%) of these identify as Deobandi. Further, British Pakistanis are the single largest group of Muslims in the UK at 1.2 million, most of which have ethnic roots in two distinct areas of Pakistan: Mirpur District and Punjab.
All of this demographical information points to the fact that the vast majority of British Muslims all identify with, and are shaped by, a very specific history and worldview. This, in turn, leads to this particular subculture’s disproportionate representation when we examine ‘British Muslims’ as a community. It also highlights the reactionary attitudes that are more likely to develop in the overall community when one specific ethnic group dominates the conversation.
When factors such as religious or ethnic views are too diverse to have substantial ideas in common, communities look for other platforms on which to unite. Let us look to the case of the United States as a comparison. American Muslims come from various backgrounds and, according to a 2009 Gallup poll, are one of the most racially diverse religious groups in the US. It appears that due to their vast ideological and racial differences, American Muslims have come together on the one common feature in their identity: being American. In accepting their diversity, American Muslims have actually enriched and solidified their community’s footprint.
American Muslims have been in the U.S. since its inception and are present in all walks of life including newspaper vendors, taxi drivers, homemakers, and accountants to name a few. They include notables such as white converts George Bethune English and Alexander Russell Webb. A large percentage of American Muslims are African Americans who are descendants of enslaved African Muslims, who made up to 30% of the slaves brought to colonial America. Thus, American Muslims have been integrated with, and rooted in, every aspect of American culture and society. The community’s history offers important lessons on resilience and provides perspectives that can serve as a model for their co-religionists throughout the world.
Following immigration from South Asian and Arab communities, the American Muslim community, according to the U.S. Department of State, now stands at 34% South Asian, 26% Arab, 25% African American, and 15% of other ethnicities. Immediately, this paints a much more balanced picture, with no single ethnic group appearing to dominate over the others.
According to a report by the United States Institute of Peace, the American Muslim community is “diverse in every conceivable way.” The diversity of American Muslim organizations “provides a vast number of voices addressing such issues as terrorism, democracy, peace-making, and human rights.” American Muslims “do not see contradictions between Islam and such ideals as democracy, pluralism, or political activism” and “emphasize the importance of self-scrutiny and education in relation to the larger Islamic heritage.” The report goes on to say that “Interfaith dialogue has taken the forefront on the agendas of many American Muslim organizations, demonstrating a belief that building trust, peace, and reconciliation will ultimately lead to harmonious interfaith relations in the United States.”
What the actual American Muslim community on the ground offers is a potential prototype of how communities and ideas can find common ground and bond on certain ideas, while simultaneously respecting and embracing their differences. The Muslim American story, though far from perfect, can provide vital lessons to British and European Muslims. Instead of viewing differences of opinion as a threat to the established status-quo, we should be inviting debate and dialogue into our mosques, our neighbourhoods, and our homes in order to strengthen our collective identity.
For many diverse Muslim communities living in the West, London, Birmingham, New York and Chicago is all they know, either arriving in their new lands by force as a result of trans-global slave trading or via immigration laws allowing entry into democracies as an escape from persecution or economic hardships. These communities must delegate to themselves the task of embracing their collective experiences and learning from one another to cultivate solutions that address their emergent realities, and in doing so, they must become their own saviours.
By Muhammad Fraser-Rahim, Executive Director, Quilliam North America and Muna Adil, Researcher, Quilliam UK