Behind The Myths about Muslims

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Review of 'The Infidel Within', Humayun Ansari, Hurst £15.95

Somewhere in the region of 1.6 to 2 million Muslims currently live in Britain, and Humayun Ansari explores their history over the past 200 years in this hefty volume.

Prior to 1945 the population was small, mainly consisting of seamen and students. The most important factor during this period was not religion or ethnicity, but class. Ansari provides evidence that the Indian Muslim elite had few problems engaging in British society, using their wealth to open closed doors. However, it was difficult to establish a community as few individuals were expecting to settle.

These embryonic communities created an important nucleus for post-war migration, which was fuelled by economic factors. By removing the right to come and go freely, racist immigration legislation then transformed what had been temporary movements into permanent settlements.

This work provides some useful sociological data which indicates a range of differences between the diverse ethnic Muslim communities settling in Britain. However, the main picture that emerges is one of poverty. Hindus and Sikhs from the Indian subcontinent have been much more successful owing to a number of factors such as class, educational background and whether migrants had rural or urban origins.

Ansari focuses on South Asians, as they are the largest Muslim ethnic group. He also highlights other ethnic groups and religious sects such as the Yemeni community, Turkish Cypriots, Sufi orders and the Ismailis. However, there is limited coverage of African communities other than Somalis, or those from the Middle East. Generalisations about Muslims have tended to rely heavily on the experience of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, even though in London alone there are Muslims from over 50 different ethnic backgrounds. What emerges is that Muslims are a diverse group and are neither ethnically or ideologically homogenous.

Muslims have adapted to their new circumstances, though institutions such as the family and practices such as arranged marriages remain relatively intact. Yet some of these traditions are being challenged by younger Muslims who are separating prohibitive cultural practices from actual religious requirements.

British Muslims have not generally viewed Islam as their sole form of social and political identification, and it is not usually their primary one - there are others such as class, ethnicity, gender, etc. However during periods when Muslims are attacked, self-identification with religion often increases. This has been the case for a number of young Muslims, particularly following the Rushdie affair, the Iranian Revolution and the Gulf wars. Prior to this, Muslims were generally viewed by their ethnic background and discriminated against on racial rather than religious grounds. This is an important change.

The process of identifying as Muslim and assertiveness of this identity has also been spurred on by the development of Islamic institutions. For example in 1963 there were 13 mosques in Britain. There are now over 1,000. However, Muslim identity in Britain is being constructed against a background of negative perceptions about Islam and increasing discrimination. There is a real sense of inequality whether in relation to criminal justice or state-funded faith schools.

This book contains some particularly interesting chapters such as those on political engagement, women and education. Others are weaker and there are some areas which are barely touched on, for example Muslim lesbians and gay men. There are also some factual inaccuracies. For example, Ansari states there have been no Muslim leaders of local councils, when there has been at least a handful, including the current leader of Tower Hamlets.

Leaving these gripes aside, this is an important new piece of research, which provides a useful addition to our knowledge of the history of Muslims in Britain. Islamic belief is developing and evolving and the issues are more wide-ranging than simply those of arranged marriages, the hijab and halal meat.