The Shrinking Sphere

Malise Ruthven

  • Islamic Britain: Religion, Politics and Identity among British Muslims by Philip Lewis
    Tauris, 255 pp, £9.99, October 1994, ISBN 1 85043 861 7
  • The Failure of Political Islam by Olivier Roy, translated by Carol Volk
    Tauris, 238 pp, £14.95, October 1994, ISBN 1 85043 880 3

Are the Muslims of Bradford, ‘Britain’s Islamabad’, incurably militant? There have been troubles in other cities with Asian Muslim populations, but the Muslims of Bradford have shown a consistent pattern of refusing to ‘take insults lying down’. They first demonstrated their militancy during the Honeyford affair in 1984-5, when the headteacher of the Drummond Middle School, 90 per cent of whose pupils came from Muslim families, was forced into early retirement after publishing anti-Pakistani remarks in the Salisbury Review. The city became notorious in December 1988 for the public burning of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Although not the first group of Muslims to demonstrate their sense of outrage in this fashion (the first burning actually took place in Bolton) it was the Bradfordians who knew how to grab the headlines, by alerting the media and selling them videos of the event.

The recent Bradford riots, said to have caused more than one million pounds’ worth of damage, have been blamed on insensitive policing. The Police Complaints Authority is currently investigating 15 complaints, including one of alleged assault on a young mother carrying a baby. The wider causes to which the riots are attributed include a familiar litany of problems: high unemployment among a growing, unqualified, youth population, racial discrimination and harassment, drug dealing and prostitution. All these problems afflict Asian populations in other cities and do not usually lead to rioting. It may be, however, that the tolerance of Bradford Muslims had been stretched beyond breaking point by the issue of prostitution. Lumb Lane, a notorious red-light area in the Manningham district, has seen a growing confrontation between the pimps and prostitutes who used to own the streets and the Asian families in the area. Just when the police, aided by groups of local vigilantes clad in baggy jeans, trainers and bomber jackets, felt they had reclaimed the streets from prostitutes and kerb crawlers, an ITV drama series called Band of Gold came out, bringing in hordes of new customers from as far away as Germany. The same psychosocial ingredients – transgressive sexuality, community honour and religion – that exploded during the Rushdie affair seem to have been present. The rage may not have been religious in any strict sense of the term: the young British Asian men from Kashmir or Sylhet who vented their anger are not necessarily the same people who regularly attend the city’s mosques. During the anti-Rushdie demonstrations in Hyde Park in 1989 I noticed that those who carried the most blood-curdling slogans seemed least familiar with the forms of prayer and most reluctant to participate in communal worship. But in Britain, as in the rest of the world, the word Muslim (like the word Jew) can convey secular identity as well as religious faith. Tariq Modood, an astute commentator on British Muslim affairs, states that where ‘racism and cultural contempt are mixed with Islamophobia,’ a reactive assertiveness crystallises into what he terms ‘Muslim pride’ – an assertiveness that ‘may at times owe as little to religion as political blackness does to the idea of Africa’.

Philip Lewis, a resident of Bradford with firsthand knowledge of its complex and often divided Muslim communities, did not anticipate the latest round of troubles to afflict the city. Rather he offers a cautiously optimistic view of accommodation and change. He cites with approval the anthropologist Pnina Werbner’s contention that ‘stress on cultural independence’ can constitute ‘a protection from stigma and external domination ... The one-way deterministic approach which defines immigrants as victims is unable to account for the dialectic process which interaction between the immigrant group and the state generates.’ Despite the evidence of militancy, Lewis succeeds in dismantling ‘the myth of an undifferentiated “fundamentalist” Islam’. ‘Fundamentalism,’ he argues, ‘is a useless word for either description or analysis. Its pejorative overtones of religious fascism obscure the diversity of traditions within Islam’ ignoring in particular ‘the vitality, popularity and persistence of Islamic mysticism’ in Britain. In Bradford it was the largely non-political and mystically-inclined Barelwi sect (thought to control at least half Britain’s 1,000 mosques) which took the lead in the anti-Rushdie agitation, setting the agenda for the most forceful expression of Muslim feeling ever witnessed in Britain. Lewis shows how the Bradford Council of Mosques, a model of cooperation between different Muslim sects established on the initiative of Bradford City Council, tried to orchestrate the campaign against Rushdie and Penguin, his publishers, until the issue was hi-jacked by the Ayatollah Khomeini for very different purposes. His account, though without any new insights, is fair and judicious, locating the source of scandal not in the abstract domain of Muslim ‘fanaticism’ but in the specific concerns of a group of South Asian Muslims who saw the book as an attack on the honour of the Prophet Muhammad, their most revered religious symbol.

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