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The Penetration of Islamist Ideology in Britain

Michael Whine

Public Islamist activity in Britain can be dated to the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in January, 1989. Its appearance was marked by public burnings of the book and wide demonstrations in Britain’s northern urban centers, starting in Bradford, a city to which large numbers of Pakistanis had migrated during the 1960s to man the cotton industry located there. Muslim community leaders subsequently sought a religious ruling on the book from Ayatollah Khomeini, and his fatwa, issued one month later, led to death threats against Rushdie that contributed to severely strained diplomatic relations between the European Union and Iran.

The effect of this episode on the British Muslim community was profound. Up until that point, British Muslims had largely been politically and religiously quiescent. But the common outrage toward what was perceived as an attack on Islam led over the course of the following months to the establishment of several Muslim advocacy groups. Out of these emerged the U.K. Action Committee on Islamic Affairs and several prominent leaders, some of whom went on to establish the Muslim Council of Britain, which is today regarded as the U.K.’s primary Muslim representative body.

Following the Rushdie Affair, foreign countries and organizations increased their investment in the British Muslim community, aiming to capitalize on new opportunities for Muslim political and communal organization, as well as to provide new financial support for religious services and mosques.As a result, new ideological influences from abroad began to have significant impact on the political and religious life of the British Muslim community.

British Islam

To analyze the nature and extent of Islamist ideological penetration in Britain, it is important to understand the demographic features of British Islam. Britain did not measure religion until the 2001 Census, and even then one’s religious affiliation was only a voluntary question. Britain did however measure migrants’ countries of origin and from these figures it is thought that the 1991 Muslim population was around 1.25 million. The 2001 Census indicated that 1.6 million people in England and Wales and just over 42,000 in Scotland identified themselves as Muslim. The voluntary nature of the question is likely to have led to a low figure and it is now thought that there are around 2 million.

The sudden rise in Muslim migration to Britain in the 1960s was caused by the prospect of legislation that would restrict entry. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 was a response to growing concern over large-scale immigration. The fear that Britain would close its doors resulted in a massive increase in immigration, and especially from the Indian subcontinent. Over two-thirds of Britain’s estimated two million Muslims are from the Indian subcontinent. Importantly, the settlers came only from a limited number of areas: Indian Muslims primarily from Gujarat; Pakistanis from the Mirpur district of southern Kashmir and the Cambellpur district of northeast Punjab; and Bangladeshis from Sylhet and Chittagong.

Successive waves of migrants have come from Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh after the Pakistani invasion of East Bengal. Other smaller waves of Indian subcontinent nationals came as refugees in the 1970s from Uganda and Kenya. Political disruption in East Africa in turn led to yet another wave of migrants from Somalia in the 1980s and 1990s, and again from North Africa, fleeing political tensions in the 1990s.1

Britain’s Arab communities are small and often transient, composed of students and businessmen who temporarily locate to Britain during the summer to escape the intense heat of the Middle East. However, the Lebanese civil war and political turmoil in some Arab states has led to the relocation of many Arab media outlets to London, which now serves as a major Arab language news publishing center.

Another discreet group of Muslim migrants were the Turkish Cypriots, who fled the civil war in Cyprus in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Finally, a small number of Muslims fleeing civil war in the former Yugoslavia came to Britain in the late 1990s.

The nature of Muslim migration, with young men coming to work and then women joining them later, has ensured that the Muslim population is both more youthful and growing faster than the norm. The 2001 Census showed that almost 55% of Pakistanis and over 46% of Bangladeshis were born in the U.K. Overall, the Muslim population is among the youngest in the country, with one-third aged 50 and under, and a further 20% aged between 16 and 24.

Settlement has been geographically uneven: almost half live in the London area and the West Midlands. Yorkshire and the greater Manchester area account for almost two-thirds of the rest. Within the West Midlands, three quarters live in the greater Birmingham area. Turkish Cypriot Muslims live almost exclusively in northeast and east London, where more than half the Bangladeshis are also concentrated. The Arab community also lives almost exclusively in the London area.

Conversion to Islam in Britain is almost negligible in comparison with other countries. One commentator suggests 10,000 persons as the upper limit with the majority of these coming from the Afro-Caribbean community.2

Save for the established Church of England, there is no legal framework for religious communities. The other traditional Christian communities and the Jewish community are recognized in law and have historical privileges but the status of legal recognition common in continental Europe does not exist in Britain. Technically therefore, a religious community can establish itself without any form of registration or legal recognition. If, however, it desires a not-for-profit status it must register as a charity, which provides tax exemption and reduced local property taxation. As a consequence, virtually all mosques and Muslim organizations in Britain are registered charities and this provides a measure of their growth. In 1963, 13 mosques were registered in Britain; from 1966 they began to register at an annual rate of nearly 7%; this increased to 18 from the mid-1970s. The last published list, for 1999, gives a total of 584 mosques in England and Wales.

Foreign Influences

Among the most active foreign ideological influences on British Islam is the Jamaat-e-Islami, the main Islamist opposition movement in Pakistan. In 1963 it established the U.K. Islamic Mission, in 1990 the Islamic Foundation in Leicester, and in 2000 the Markfield Institute as a seat of higher learning. These institutions have provided the basis for one of the ideological streams that have now emerged in British Islam. A second stream of Islamist ideology now in Britain originates within the Ikhwan al Islami or Muslim Brotherhood founded by Hasan Al Banna in 1928 in Egypt. In alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Muslim Brotherhood now provides a major influence on the Muslim community.

These streams of Islamist ideology have deeply penetrated the traditionalist and heretofore moderate Muslim communities of Britain, and are expressed in recruitment and fundraising activities for foreign Islamist projects. The major traditions within Britain’s Muslim communities are the Deobandi and Barelwi, which both originated in the Indian subcontinent. The revivalist Tablighi Jimaat, which originated in India in 1927, serves both communities. The Ahle Hadith (Followers of Hadith) also spans the Indian and Pakistani communities and propagates a policy of separation from non-Muslim society.

The Pakistani invasion of East Bengal exacerbated tensions between Britain’s two main Muslim communities, and in 1976 the Bangladeshi community established the Dawatul-Islam which, like the (Pakistani-centered) U.K.Islamic Mission, provides teaching facilities within state schools and links mosques. These two organizations exercise the most influence within British Islam at a religious level and are traditional rather than political or Islamist.

The Saudi-funded, and therefore Wahhabi-influenced, Muslim World League was also established in London during the 1970s and although its influence has grown since, it is still limited. The Muslim World League assisted in the establishment of the Council of Mosques U.K. and Eire in 1984, and Egyptian influence is reflected in the Council of Imams and Mosques, likewise established in 1984.

Arab Muslim in.uences are seen most strongly among a range of overlapping organizations. The Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) has a close association with the Muslim Brotherhood, and tends to be active among foreign national Arab students studying in Britain. Its penetration within British Muslim student circles has waxed and waned over the years, but its members have been active at recent National Union of Students annual conferences.

The Muslim Institute was established during the 1980s and reflected Iranian influence. It was out of this Institute that the Muslim Parliament, under the leadership of the late Kalim Siddiqui, grew. This more than any other entity represented Iranian interests in Britain. Although it gave the appearance of a democratically elected body, it was no such thing. Its leadership was bedeviled by accusations of financial impropriety, and in the end it ceased to function after Siddiqui died while on a visit to South Africa. Although it achieved considerable publicity and some notoriety it nevertheless failed to make much of an impression on the British Muslim community.

Sufi tradition is also strongly represented in Britain, and is seen as antipathetic to the Islamist groups. Sufism is particularly strong in the Indian subcontinent and therefore has been one of the important countervailing forces against Arab, and particularly Saudi, influences.

Islamist Campaigning Issues

A range of issues has confronted the British Muslim community since large-scale migration began in the 1960s. Some of these are national and internal and concern the nature, practices and development of the community; others concern Muslims abroad. Initially, among the early migrant communities, there was severe strife between the Bangladeshi community and the Pakistani community, which in some senses could be described as running counter to the present-day Islamist ethos of the unity of Islam. Thereafter, Kashmir, which has also been regarded as an India-Pakistan territorial issue, as well as a Muslim-Hindu religious one, has provided a major platform for Islamist campaigning that has worked to unify the nationally and ethnically disparate Muslim communities of Britain. Since many of the migrants come from the northwest provinces of India which abut the southeastern provinces of Pakistan, the situation in Kashmir provides a focus for campaigning along sectarian lines. Indeed, Britain has become a center for fundraising for Kashmiri Islamist groups.

The foreign jihadi-centered campaigns in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya have also provided a focus for Islamist recruitment in Britain and indeed it is around these issues that the most visible and highly publicized campaigning has been centered. Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Iraq have also provided the focus for Islamist campaigning and recruitment and are among those which have provided the most media coverage. Palestine provides another focal point for political agitation in Britain and although much of this campaigning has been by and on behalf of Palestinian secular groups, the Palestinian Islamist groups have a growing presence, which is evident through growing fundraising, propaganda activity and political agitation.

While foreign policy issues have attracted the most media attention, they are not necessarily the most important ones facilitating Islamist penetration. The most important of the internal issues concerns the nature of education for children within the Muslim community. This has assumed a paramount importance given that it is a comparatively youthful community.

Before the twentieth century the majority of Britain’s schools were Church-funded, and taught Christianity as a core value. Post-Second World War developments led to a national educational system which was multi-cultural, non-denominational and taught appreciation of all religions, but from a generally secular standpoint. Secondary schools, the majority of which were single-sex, also became co-educational.

These trends clashed with the views of traditionalist Muslim parents who wanted Islam taught within the school system, rather than as an after school add-on. Their growing political influence, particularly in northern cities, led to increasing demands for state provision of religious education. The private Muslim schools that had been established were seen as underperforming in comparison to state schools, and this gave added impetus to these demands.

Through the 1980s and 1990s Muslim educationalists campaigned for state funding for Muslim schools and this goal was only achieved when the Islamia Schools achieved this status. These schools were founded by Yusuf Islam, the former pop singer Cat Stevens, and have become noteworthy in recent years for the high academic achievements of their pupils.

An interesting by-product of this campaign has been that increasing numbers of Muslim parents send their children to the Jewish King David Schools in Birmingham and Liverpool, which had falling rolls as those cities’ Jewish communities declined.

However, separate education for Muslim children has now given rise to growing concern over Muslim separatism, a development that is encouraged by various Islamist ideological forces. As Britain enters the twenty-first century there are important voices calling for the return of a system which teaches British civic core-values. These include Trevor Philips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, the government agency dedicated to improving race relations, but due shortly to expand its remit to become the unitary human rights agency.

A linked issue concerning Muslim separatism is the recent demand by Muslim parents for their daughters to wear the hijab at school. Unlike France or Germany, where secularism is state policy, this has not previously been much of an issue in the U.K. However, a Muslim pupil lost her case to wear the full-length jilbab when she took it to the High Court in July 2004. Moreover, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, which has Britain’s largest concentration of Muslims, has recently ordered an exclusion policy in its schools for girls seeking to wear the jilbab.

A second major campaigning issue has been that of religious discrimination.The race relations legislation of 1964 and 1976 outlawed discrimination on racial grounds, and the Public Order Act of 1986 allowed for the prosecution of incitement to racial hatred. An Appeal Court case (Mandla v. Dowell-Lee, 1983) recognized that the Sikh and Jewish communities were to be regarded as racial groups, and therefore were protected by this legislation. However, Muslims, Hindus and others were unprotected by primary legislation, although cases settled by the courts had afforded them a measure of protection. The Muslim community has spearheaded demands for primary legislation that would ban discrimination on religious grounds as well as incitement. The current Labour government has sought to enact such legislation but failed, initially, to do so on the back of the anti-terrorism legislation in 2001. The government, however, has recognized the imbalance in its anti-discrimination policies and has reintroduced legislation, again within the framework of new police powers.

Islamist Influences

It is among the most overtly political organizations that one sees Islamist influences most clearly, for obvious reasons. Hizb ut-Tahrir (Islamic Liberation Party—HT), established in Britain around 1990, was the first of the groups to publicly adopt a confrontational and anti-Western perspective. Shaykh Taqi Uddin al-Nabahani, a Shariah court judge from what was then East Jerusalem, founded HT in the 1950s. He had been a devotee of Sayyid Qutb, the post-war Muslim Brotherhood leader, and of the late Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem. The founder of HT in Britain was Omar Bakri Mohammed, a Syrian émigré and former Muslim Brotherhood member who had fled his native Syria. In Britain, Bakri Mohammed tirelessly preached and recruited members in the manner of the Brotherhood by establishing small discussion groups under the leadership of an experienced member. HT originated in the colleges of London University, primarily at Imperial College and Queen Mary College, and fairly rapidly gained notoriety for its anti-Jewish, anti-Hindu, anti-Sikh and homophobic views.

The group’s confrontational style and Bakri Mohammed’s self-seeking publicity stunts rapidly led to the group being banned by the National Union of Students and by several universities. In 1996, Bakri Mohammed was removed from office by the Middle East-based HT leadership, who appeared to have preferred the traditional, rather more covert approach adopted in Arab societies. In turn, Bakri Mohammed founded Al-Muhajiroun (The Emigrants—AM). In establishing AM, Bakri Mohammed teamed up with Mohammed Al Mas’ari, a Saudi exile who had been a co-founder of the Committee for Defence of Legitimate Rights, a Saudi Islamist opposition group, and the translator into English of Osama bin Laden’s first declaration of war against the United States. A year before, Mas’ari had been the subject of an extradition attempt by the government, which failed to get him deported from Britain.

The ideology of AM differs little from that of HT. The ideology of both groups is extremely anti-Semitic, anti-Western, and separatist; and both focus on recruiting students and young people. Bakri Mohammed has, however, failed to move beyond a small group of devotees partly because the ideology of recreating the Caliphate has little appeal for British Muslims. However, AM has managed to radicalize numbers of disaffected Muslim youth who have gone on to jihadi terrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. The suicide bombers of the Mike’s Place Bar in Tel Aviv in 2002 are known to have attended both HT and AM meetings in Britain, although the extent of their involvement with the groups is unlikely now to be revealed. Omar Ahmed Shaikh, the British Muslim behind the murder of Daniel Pearl, is also thought to have been radicalized by HT before embarking on a humanitarian mission to Bosnia, from where he went on to Afghanistan and ultimately Pakistan.

In recent years, however, HT has reverted to traditional modes of activity by recruiting in a quieter manner. It has also changed its target audience to middle-class professionals and its current promotional literature and the nature of its meetings reflect this clearly. However, HT members in other countries almost certainly have a close involvement with terrorism, particularly in the central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union.

Iranian influences are now most clearly reflected in the Islamic Human Rights Commission led by Massoud Shadjareh, whose high profile campaigning on a range of issues has achieved much publicity. Again, this organization has failed to grow beyond the small founding group, despite its attractive title. Among its public activities is the organization of the annual Quds Day Parade in London, initiated internationally by the late Ayatollah Khomeini to mark Muslim claims on Al Quds (Jerusalem).

In opposition to AM and HT stands the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC), a small group with a more public profile than its actual size would warrant. Like AM and HT, MPAC promotes anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. But unlike them, MPAC campaigns for inclusion within the general political process, rather than separation from it. Its most active campaigns are focused on attacking Members of Parliament who they deem to be pro-Israel and/or anti-Muslim.

The emerging dominant Islamist ideological influence in Britain now is that of the Muslim Brotherhood, through the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). Although founded and led by former Hamas and Brotherhood leaders from Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, it promotes itself as a mainstream body.

MAB’s involvement with anti-Iraq war campaigning, defense of the right to wear the hijab, Palestine, and its close association with the revolutionary leftist Respect political party founded by former Labour MP George Galloway, provide it with opportunities to influence discourse within the Muslim community, particularly among the young. It has used this influence to exert a malign influence on what had been growing Muslim-Jewish contacts in Britain prior to 9/11.

Looking forward, it seems likely that Islamist ideological influences will grow as a consequence of, and a reaction to, growing anti-Muslim sympathies within the population as a whole. The violence that followed the Islamist murder of Theo Van Gogh in Holland and a reaction to Muslim demands for separatism on the one hand, and campaigns for greater inclusion on the other, has worried governments of those countries with large Muslim minorities.Similar concerns are also growing in Britain. While Britain has always pursued inclusionary social policies and is now doing much to ensure that legislation provides equal protection to all religious minorities, there are additional factors which may mitigate these moves and further alienate the Muslim community.

Political scientist Shamit Saggar recently noted that there were three factors causing isolation and potential radicalism amongst British Muslims. First, the Muslim communities are characterized by patterns of social and economic exclusion; earnings are lower among Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, and their children achieve less in school. Second, these communities experience high levels of social isolation, particularly in the northern industrial towns. These contribute to an inward-looking posture that is reluctant to promote interaction with the outside community. Third, British Muslims have begun to embrace the ideology of victimhood, and a clear oppositional culture can be discerned.

Professor Saggar notes that there is a lack of certainty about which levers can be pulled to counter these trends, and with what results. The government has backed initiatives to increase the training of British-born Imams, thereby promoting a home-grown version of Islam, but he notes that there is no evidence that younger religious leaders are likely to be less influenced by radical ideology than their older foreign-born peers. One option employed by the government has been to pressure Muslim leaders, and particularly the Muslim Council of Britain, to write to individual mosques reminding them of their responsibility to counter the teaching of violence or violent conspiracy.He suggests that centrally-directed efforts should lead to reducing intolerance and that combined with tackling the three sets of obstacles to achievement, should provide the pragmatic answer to dealing with a potential “clash of civilizations” in Britain.2

Keywords: Britain, Islam, radical ideology, Hizb ut-Tahrir, British Muslims, Pakistanis

1 Philip Lewis, Islamic Britain, London: I.B. Tauris, 1994, p. 14.
2 Jorgen Nielsen, Muslims in Western Europe, The New Edinburgh Islamic Surveys, Edinburgh University Press, 2003, p. 44.
3 Shamit Saggar, “Left Outside,” The Guardian, November 9, 2004.
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