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Britain: Muslims Assert Themselves In Multinational Society

Britain's Muslim community is one of the largest and most diverse in western Europe. RFE/RL correspondent Ben Partridge reports from London on the launching of a government drive to promote awareness of the community's contribution to Britain's national life.

London, 24 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The campaign began this month with release of a government-funded film celebrating the century-old presence of Muslims in Britain.

Islam in Britain, directed by David Akhtar, focuses on the story of Britain's Muslims and how they have adapted to their new home.

Britain's 1.5 million Muslims are a diverse multinational community who have come to the country from all parts of the world. Two-thirds have their roots in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Other sizable communities originated in Turkey, the Middle East, and Africa.

Journalist Fuad Nahdi says there are very few countries, even in the Muslim world, which have such a conglomeration of Muslim people of all races, cultures, and languages. He estimates that, in London alone, more than 56 Muslim cultures are represented.

Prime Minister Tony Blair says he greatly values the contribution of Britain's Muslims. He spoke at a recent reception for Muslim community leaders at the House of Commons (lower house), now an annual event coinciding with a major Muslim festival.

"I just came along because I wanted to express first of all my gratitude, my thanks, to the Muslim community in our country, for all the marvelous work that you do, for the way that you enrich our society and our culture. We value the Muslim community. We treasure your contribution to our society and long may it continue to grow and flourish (applause)."

Signs of the Muslim presence are everywhere in Britain: in the Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurants; in Middle Eastern cafes and food stores; in the number of South Asian and Middle Eastern students in schools and colleges. Today, there are more than 1,000 mosques in Britain compared with only a few dozen a generation ago.

One of the newest, the King Fahd mosque in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, has been hailed as a symbol of the presence and acceptance of Muslims in British society. It is also seen as a fine building that reflects both Scottish and Islamic architectural traditions.

The first Muslim settlers in Britain were Yemeni sailors who began to arrive in the 1870s. Mostly Sufis, they settled in port cities and married local British women who converted to Islam.

The biggest immigration happened after World War II when thousands of Muslims from the former British colonies of Pakistan and India arrived to help overcome a huge labor shortage. Mostly they were men who left families at home, hoping to stay only a few years while they made some money. Professor Akbar Ahmed of Cambridge University says they regarded Britain as an alien place:

"I was here in the 1960s at university. Many of the South Asians then had come with a clear idea of coming here, making some money, and going back home. Very few wanted to stay here. They continued to speak their own languages, usually the vernacular, they lived in their own ways, they ate their own food. And they really considered this land as a foreign land, an exotic, alien land."

In fact, many stayed permanently, attracted by greater economic opportunities, and bringing their wives and children to join them. While the elders in the community made efforts to preserve their traditions and culture, the children integrated into British culture once at school, usually adopting English as their first language.

Many of these children have grown up to regard themselves as British Muslims, as Professor Ahmed explains:

"I think there is a very interesting process taking place in the younger generation, in the young Muslims born in Britain. The process is one of self-awareness, self-identity and also the growth of this community as a Muslim community. Whereas previously you had a Pakistani Muslim who was very conscious of being a Pakistani, or a Bengali, or someone from India, today you have an awareness of Muslim-ness. So there is a shift from nationality or ethnicity to one of religion."

The desire of young Muslims to express their religious identity has led to problems. Two sisters from a Pakistani doctor's family, Aisha and Fatima Alvi, were at the center of a national controversy in 1990 when they were suspended from their Manchester school for wanting to wear the hijab, the traditional head scarf. The school said the hijab constituted a safety hazard in the science laboratory and gymnasium. Their family said the Islamic faith required them to cover their heads. In the end, the school backed down.

Today, many British schools do a lot to cater for the religious, cultural, and social needs of their young Muslim pupils.

The film does not gloss over the problems faced by the Muslim community -- of racial intolerance, harassment, ignorance.

The Muslim Council of Great Britain, an umbrella body which represents many Muslim organizations, is critical because the national media -- newspapers, radio, television -- often focuses on small Muslim extremist organizations with radical political agendas. Moreover, reporters often create an image of Islam that a majority of British Muslims see as "crude and negative stereotyping."

Muslim community leaders have begun to stage regular meetings for British journalists in a bid to better educate them about Islam in the hope media coverage will become more balanced and informed. Professor Ahmed says journalists need to be more sensitive about the problems and dilemmas facing the Islamic countries.

"The Western media need to see these problems as they exist in other societies, and not underline the Islamic dimension. These problems are taking place because these societies are changing. These societies are finding themselves, they are finding it very difficult to make a balance between central authority and citizenry, as it were, and it has very little to do with Islam."

A sign of the growing acceptance of Muslims in Britain came with the appointment of three Muslims to the upper parliamentary chamber, the House of Lords. One, Nazir Ahmed, who came to England from Pakistan aged 12, says until recently the Muslim community often felt Britain was closed to them. But he says Muslims, as Britons, now feel "part and parcel of British society."

Professor Ahmed takes a more equivocal view. He says he feels that Muslims in Britain and British society are at a crossroads. He says there is a tremendous opportunity for a better relationship, but this will not be easy, calm or smooth. But he says that with goodwill on both sides, there can be "peace and harmony."