The best place to be a Muslim

They are young, well-educated and at home with Western values. In the second of two reports, Paul Vallely and Andrew Brown meet the people building a new British Islam
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The Independent Online
Jamil Ali's parents expected him to touch their feet as a mark of respect when he returned home to Walsall. Then one day he refused. "I told them it was a Hindu custom. It was not something required by Islam," he says. "They got angry and said: `Who do you think you are, you so-and- so'. I said: `I'm acting on the authority of The Book'. They didn't like that. And if I raise my hands when I pray - which is something my father does not do - he gets really pissed off. He interprets it as a rebuke. A lot of children are becoming alienated from their parents."

The generation gap that is emerging between Asian immigrants and their British-born children is not necessarily measured by the young's attachment to increasingly secular Western values. For every child who drifts into the moral relativism of contemporary Western values, another returns home with a belief in a revitalised form of Islam. Many parents find the second just as difficult to come to terms with as the first.

Some 47 per cent of all South Asians in the UK were born here, according to the 1991 Census, and these British Muslims are now becoming clearer about their identity. There are several forces shaping this identity. The English education system has encouraged young Asians to analyse and to argue, to develop an ability to judge that is causing them to ask hard questions of both the elders of their own community and of the society in which they live. The impact of external events - from Iran and the Salman Rushdie affair, Saddam and the Gulf War, to the persecution of Muslims in Bosnia - has prompted an emotional identification with the idea of what it means to be a Muslim. Many of those so aroused have begun a more serious exploration of the faith and have begun to practise. The result is an Islamic revival.

But this is not a descent into some kind of fundamentalism. It is something all together different. A new type of Islam is beginning to manifest itself: a British form of Islam.

"Many young people now don't think of themselves as Asians at all but as Muslims," said Faisal Badi, who is news editor of Q-News, the weekly paper for young Muslims, for which the 23-year-old Jamil Ali writes. "I have more in common with a black or white convert to Islam than I do with a Hindu whose family came from the same part of the Indian sub-continent."

This new generation has none of the barriers to communication that isolated the previous generation. Educated here, often to university level, they all speak English and thus have a lingua franca not just with the majority population but also across the various Muslim groups - Bengali, Urdu, Gujarati, Punjabi, Arabic, Hausa and Yoruba - which divided their parents.

In the process, all manner of values have changed. They are less attached to their "country of origin". They are less likely to look to foreign Muslim governments for funding (cash from abroad has, in any case, fallen off in recent times). They have none of their elders' sense of deference to Britain.

The widening gap between the generations has been well-documented among secular Muslims. To the chagrin of their parents and imams, young Muslim men are seen drinking alcohol in public and teenage girls venture to discos - at the more outrageous extreme some even pose for a soft-porn magazine called Asian Babes, and a couple of middle-class Pakistani girls, insisting that it was a feminist statement, made an ill-starred attempt to become nightclub strippers. Attitudes to marriage have changed. That marriages based on love, rather than the arranged version, have become increasingly popular among secularised Muslims is now such a truism that even Asian Babes uses the scenario in its readers' fantasy letters: "My parents want me to marry a fat pervert ... but I plan to elope with a gorgeous Sunni boy who makes me feel like a tigress of lust. ..."

But the arranged marriage is also declining in popularity among the newly devout. "It is still a family affair rather than a simply personal one as in the West," says Zaki Badawi, principal of the Muslim College in London. "But the old way was a marriage fixed at the birth of the child - destiny was decided at birth. The new generation want choice; the family still sets the boundary, but the couple have some choice within it. This change is cultural, not religious."

Yet many of the new breed of young Muslims feel that choice is a religious issue. "A marriage without the woman's consent is invalid under Islam," says Sadia Irfan, the 22-year-old advertising manager at Q-News. She and the paper's features editor, Fozia Bora see not Islam but the cultural traditions of the Indian sub-continent as the problem under which their mothers laboured.

"Many young Muslim women who are feminists increasingly see no contradiction between Islam and feminism," Fozia says. "As young people get closer to the original sources of Islam - stripping away the cultural trappings which have been attached to it in South Asia - they see clearly that there is no contradiction."

"Western feminists are determined to make out that we are oppressed when we feel quite happy," Sadia says. "For us, Islam is not oppression. It is liberation. Muslim women who want to wear headscarves do so as a feminist statement because it says don't treat me like a pin-up. Islam is a feminist option and one which does not denigrate motherhood. Islam gives feminism a transcendental nature."

Islamic feminism isn't the only new mixture of Western and Muslim values emerging in Britain. Many Muslims ignore the Koranic proscription on shunning alcohol. Many off-licence owners are Muslims. So are many restaurant owners - some 90 per cent of "Indian" restaurants in Britain are run by Bangladeshis who are almost exclusively Muslim. "Drinking publicly is not common," says one expert, who prefers not to be named, "but privately there is said to be a not insignificant problem of alcoholism."

Yet alongside this interest in Western values there has been a religious revival. More than half of Britain's Muslims are now practising, according to Jorgen Nielsen, of the Centre for Muslim-Christian Relations - a significant increase on 10 years ago, when only around one-fifth did. The numbers of mosques are steadily growing, attendance is mounting.

This young and relatively religious community of British Muslims is almost certain to grow. The Asian community has twice the proportion of under- 16-year-olds the white population has. Only 2 per cent of the Asian population is over the age of 65, compared with 17 per cent of whites. The average British Asian family has about five members, compared with 2.4 among whites. Demographers predict, combining these trends, that the Asian community is set to double from around 1.5 per cent of the population. Most observers think that the practice of Islam will grow at least proportionately, if not more.

What created this religious revival? Why is religion so important to the identity of young British Asians and what does it hold for the rest of society? Undoubtedly, the rising Islamophobia generated by international events has had its impact. Bosnia, Algeria, Kashmir and violence in Europe against Muslims has provoked an emotional response in non-practising Muslims, and from this reinforced sense of Islam as a cultural if not a religious identity many have begun to explore their faith.

Around half of those returning to the mosque, according to Abdul Hadi, of the more puritanical Ahl-e-Hadith group, which draws its followers from across the range of Muslim racial groupings, are members of the first generation. "They have come back to practising because they have realised that their experiment in not practising went wrong, both in terms of family values and the relationships which have developed with wives and children - sons who are disobedient, daughters who have no contact with their parents after a love-marriage."

Many of those who are reviving their faith are those born in this country. Some have reacted against the rationalism of Western culture. Much of the revived interest is in the mystical Islam of South Asia, according to Pnina Werbner, a social anthropologist at Keele University. "A drift is occurring from the more puritanical sects (with their fiery fundamentalist rhetoric) to a more Sufi-oriented style." Others are immersing themselves in the writings of Islam and its scholarship - often far more deeply than did their poorly educated parents or religious elders, whose training was largely by rote.

The seriousness of many young people is a reaction against what they see as the nominalism of their parents' religious practice. "The first generation followed the letter of the law in Islam; the second generation is either searching for the spirit of the law or has abandoned Islam altogether. The tragedy of the older generation's approach is that they have created an image of Islam which it is easy for young people to reject," says Fozia Bora. "Why should I identify with Indian culture? It has given me nothing but problems. But Islam is a liberating force for women."

This new generation, according to Zaki Badawi, are "entering into the mainstream of British society while maintaining their Muslim identity". They accept Islamic prescriptions about modest dress but want that to be Western dress. They want to eat Italian food, but it must be halal pizza."

The first signs of this merger between British and Muslim culture are emerging, though to the Western eye they might seem of small significance. Youth leaders have been co-opted to sit alongside religious elders and Asian councillors on the police liaison committee in Bradford. Increasingly, Friday sermons are given in mosques in English, according to Faisal Badi of Q-News. Indeed, Q-News itself is another signal.

The paper's title was chosen to be deliberately neutral in an attempt to overcome factionalism. "We publish news from all groups - which in itself annoys some factions," says Fozia. By others' standards the paper's lonely hearts section is very prim: "Devout Muslimah seeks practising Muslim, for marriage." The breakthrough is that it is the potential spouses themselves, and not their families, who are advertising. Similarly, the paper's problem page offers orthodox advice from a conservative cleric, but it raises subjects like masturbation and homosexuality which remain undiscussed in most public Islamic forums.

What unites the Q-News staff with Zaki Badawi and Akram Khan-Cheema, who chairs the governing board of the Bradford school tipped to become the nation's first Muslim state school, is a sense that, as Dr Badawi puts it, "Britain is the best place in the world to be a Muslim - most Muslim states are tyrannies and things are harder elsewhere in Europe."

"We have a wonderful opportunity in a country like Britain," says Mr Cheema. "We have freedom of expression to develop our own thinking without oppression, in spite of the Islamophobia. And we have the opportunity to live with Muslims from many parts of the world in a multifarious Islamic cultural mix."

"Britain is a good place to be a Muslim," says Fozia Bora. "There is a tradition of religious and intellectual freedom. And tolerance. We were visited by a journalist from Le Figaro, the French newspaper, recently, who expressed surprise that we were `allowed' to have our own newspaper and say what we wanted."

It is from thinking like this that the new British Islamic identity is being slowly forged. "Before there were two choices: assimilate or remain in a South Asian identity," says Jamil Ali. "But we in the next generation didn't feel at home in either - either in the Western culture or in that of our parents' homeland, which, when we visited it, was not like the utopia, the golden land, that they had described. They never spoke of the bad sides - the corruption, the lack of hygiene. But now we have a third option. To be a British Muslim."

This will not be an easy option. Although the British Asian community has more than its share of millionaires, academics and even a Nobel-prizewinner, and although well-educated Muslims have higher rates of professional qualifications than their white counterparts, high levels of unemployment dog the Asian community.

In Bradford, around 50 per cent of Muslims under 25 have no formal work. Nationally, the figure among Asians is around 30 per cent on average, compared with 9 per cent among whites, according to the last census (even though the comparable rates among whites in a similar socio-economic class is much closer). What jobs are being created are largely part-time and for women. "Modern currents of economic change could not strike a community worse-adapted than one rooted in a rural, patriarchal Muslim culture. There are huge strains ahead," worries Philip Lewis, the Bishop of Bradford's adviser on inter-faith matters.

Jorgen Nielsen is more optimistic. "Greater Islamisation can be oppressive but sometimes can lead to greater liberalisation. My own suspicion is that the more culturally liberal trend is the one that is more likely to succeed. On the whole, Muslim families have tended to be from the bottom of the socio-economic scale. They have a greater need to bring money into the household, so the women will go out to work and change will flow from that."

Pnina Werbner's hunch is that if Muslims' economic position improves, "as the young settle down and marry, they are more than likely to revert to the mild religiosity - and probably a much milder `British' form of it - of their parents. ... The less threatened and rejected Muslims feel, the more likely it is that this process will occur."

The young British Muslims on whose shoulders the task will fall seem undaunted. "We have to learn a new tradition for ourselves," says Fozia Bora. "We're the transition generation."

"There was in Islam a tradition which painted the devil as being in the West," says Jamil Ali. "That won't do for us. We are the West."

Who's who in British Islam

Dr Zaki Badawi

Egyptian scholar; principal of the Muslim College; former imam at Regent's Park mosque. One of the few leaders who can bridge the worlds of traditional Islam and modern Western discipline, he lost some credibility among the South Asian community for his defence of Salman Rushdie's freedom of speech.

Sher Azam

Businessman and JP; chairman of the Bradford Council for Mosques. Respected across traditions, though himself a Deobandi; on the committee of Bradford's oldest mosque. A founder of UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs, formed in October 1988 to press for banning of The Satanic Verses, which united Muslims across sectarian boundaries.

Fuad Nahdi

Journalist of Yemeni stock, brought up in East Africa. Worked for BBC World Service. Founded Q-News to provide a voice for emergent British Islam, designed to appeal to all Muslim denominations, hence the meaningless title: "We could call it the Weekly Jihad, and perhaps up our circulation." Articulate and a leader for the future.

Kalim Siddiqui

Former sub-editor on the Guardian, with a gift for publicity. Founded the Muslim Parliament, to which he appointed the delegates, most of whom are marginal figures. Unrepresentative, but sets an extremist West vs Islam agenda to which others must respond.

Others include: Farid Kassim of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir group, which wants a theocratic state in Britain and whose hardline activists have been banned on several British campuses. Bashir Maan, JP, elder statesman of Scottish Muslims, who chairs Strathclyde Council for Racial Equality. Mohammed Ajeeb, the first Muslim to become Lord Mayor of Bradford, who had selections from a Barelwi devotional poem read at his inauguration. Dr Shabbir Akhtar, prominent member of Bradford Council of Mosques during the Rushdie affair, a philosopher of Islam in the postmodern age.

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