Friday, 1 May 2009
Islam in Britain and South Asia - A Single Space
(So, here is something I've said from the very beginning - the words 'I told you so' ring to mind ;)
Apr 30th 2009
From The Economist print edition
Theologically as well as socially, Muslims in Britain and their countries of origin form a seamless whole
TWO government ministers, both practising Muslims, met in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, in April and agreed to co-ordinate their efforts to broaden the curriculum at religious schools. A set of teaching materials would be sent out to madrassas with the aim of enriching the diet. As well as learning the Koran, pupils would be taught how Islam was compatible with citizenship.
This approach, the ministers decided, would work well in their respective countries, Britain and Pakistan. Admittedly, the role played by madrassas in the two places is different. In England’s smokestack cities, they are frequented by Muslim children as a supplement to state schooling. In the slums and refugee camps of Pakistan, they offer a meal and an education of sorts to boys who would otherwise be illiterate.
But in both countries, the ministers agreed, madrassas at their most deficient can leave the young open to extremists. That is not just because of what they teach, more because of what they do not, such as how to live peaceably with those who follow a different faith or just another form of Islam. As the Pakistani official told his British counterpart, the cohesion minister, Sadiq Khan, inadequate theology and terrorism can be points on a single spectrum.
Not just for security types and sociologists, but also for theologians, Britain and its ex-dominions in South Asia are virtually a single entity. Schools of Islam that emerged in India as a reaction to the British raj are now vying for influence in the north of England. The passions generated by the Bangladeshi variety of Islamism are as lively in London as they are in Dhaka. Anybody who hopes for stability and social peace in the Muslim parts of South Asia has to keep an eye on the Islamic scene in Britain. The reverse also applies. The flow of South Asian imams to Britain has recently slowed, but in an internet age there are other ways for ideas to travel.
Whenever intra-Muslim tension flares in Pakistan—for example, with the trashing of a Sufi shrine or the takeover of a mosque—Britain’s authorities watch for tension in English cities. And the war now raging between the Pakistani government and Taliban rebels is affecting the mood among British Muslims. How exactly may depend on where they come from, geographically and theologically.
Life would be easier for students of Anglo-Asian Islam if one theological movement always produced moderates and another always led to extremism. But things are never that straightforward. As Philip Lewis, a Bradford-based writer on British Islam, puts it, “In all schools [of Islam], there are some individuals playing a constructive role.” And in virtually all schools there are some doing the opposite.
Still, in their Islamic scenes Britain and Pakistan do have one simple thing in common: religious education is dominated by purist teachers, who trace their roots to the Indian town of Deoband where an Islamic place of learning was founded in 1866. Designed to instil and spread a rigorous form of faith (robust enough to survive colonialism and the “corrupting” influences of other cultures), the Deobandi philosophy sets austere rules for personal behaviour. It sees the veneration of saints, and even excessive attention to the Prophet, as a distraction from God.
Among its offshoots are the Tablighi Jama’at, a huge, worldwide missionary movement (strong in Yorkshire and London), in which lay people help to propagate the idea of a pious life. And another offshoot of the Deobandis, as critics always note, is the Taliban, as they emerged in Afghanistan and then in Pakistan.
But that does not mean all Deobandis, either in Britain or South Asia, support violence. Just as well, given that at least 16 of Britain’s 22 Muslim “seminaries” (in other words, places that offer intensive, full-time Islamic instruction from the age of 12 upwards) are of the Deobandi persuasion. Their curriculum is modelled on Islamic learning under the Mogul empire.
Tim Winter, an influential British convert to Islam, believes that for all their narrow intensity, the British Deobandi seminaries won’t foster violence: their ethos is cautious and traditional. But some alumni of Britain’s Deobandi institutions do advocate self-segregation by Muslims, especially where local indigenous culture is dominated by alcohol and drugs.
Anyway, in Britain as in Pakistan, a plurality of ordinary South Asian Muslims follows a different form of the faith: the Barelvi tradition, which celebrates shrines, saints and music. One pioneer of Muslim education in Britain is of the Barelvi school: Musharraf Hussain, an imam who runs a school, mosque, radio station and magazine in Nottingham. He fears that among Britain’s Muslim establishment, sectarian splits are becoming “entrenched and fossilised”. Some Deobandis retain a deep sense of victimhood and grievance.
Clearly, some young British Muslims ignore the sectarian issues that gripped their parents. Sometimes this reflects secularisation. Sometimes it reflects the opposite: belief in a “global umma”, or community, that differentiates all Muslims from all non-believers. Still, the Nottingham imam has observed one unexpected side-effect from the turmoil engulfing Pakistan. Many British Muslims, he thinks, will “move on” in a healthy way. They will give up the dream of resettling in South Asia and put down firmer roots in Britain.
A harsher message is emerging from some mosques in the north of England, especially in places like Burnley where many have roots in the war zone on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. The plight of people fleeing the region is keenly felt. Many blame Pakistan’s government, not the rebels. “People think the Pakistani government is fighting not for itself, but for American interests,” says Abdul Hamid Qureshi, the chairman of the Lancashire Council of Mosques, which groups Muslims of all shades. People in an angry and defensive mood will hardly welcome Gordon Brown’s pledge, on April 29th, to work with the Pakistani army to fight terror. Neither will they take too seriously the prime minister’s vow to boost education and ease poverty on Pakistan’s border.
British Muslims, who number at least 2m, can amaze their cousins from South Asia with their religious conservatism. One reason is the high incidence of migration from poor, rural parts of South Asia, such as Mirpur in Kashmir and Sylhet in Bangladesh. In Bangladesh the fortunes of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party plummeted in last December’s election. But the movement can still attract second- and third-generation youths of Sylheti origin in London, who know little of the group’s record at home. Some British-based Bangladeshis are dismayed by the influence the Islamists enjoy in the diaspora.
Worry over radicalism made in Britain extends to Bangladesh, too. In March the Bangladeshi authorities raided a madrassa that was full of guns and ammunition. It emerged that this supposed school had been financed and run by a charity based in Britain. There are some institutions that no teaching material will correct.