Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam by Innes Bowen, book review

Rich mosaic of British Muslims under the microscope

Burhan Wazir
Wednesday 11 June 2014 21:06
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Politics is not renowned for its subtlety. When British politicians speak of Muslims, they nod to their constituents in Little England. But Muslims living in the UK are as diverse, in ethnic and geographical terms, as any other religious group. Just as Ukip cannot claim to speak for every anti-European, pro-isolation voter, British Muslims rarely reach consensus on any subject.

In Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent Innes Bowen attempts to bring some focus to the groups that make up the UK's 2.7 million Muslims. In a country with over 1,600 mosques and innumerable Islamic schools, seminaries and foundations, Bowen has sought to separate Arabs from South Asians, Barelwis from Deobandis and Salafis from Wahhabis. The results, even to Muslims, will prove fascinating.

Underpinning the book are the changes in the British Muslim experience over the past 25 years when the priorities of immigrants from rural India and Pakistan conflicted with those of their urbanised children. In the late 1980s, many young mosque-goers became disillusioned with non-English speaking imams. Some discovered an alternate Islam which balanced tradition with modernity. Another group gravitated towards a political interpretation which addressed controversies such as Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

While the idea of a cohesive British Muslim unit was always simplistic, global tensions have played a role in making some distinctions more obvious. Bowen does an admirable job in explaining why some Muslims moved to Sufism, while others felt engaged by the sometimes incendiary lectures of radicalised Arabs returning from the wars of the Balkans and South Asia.

Bowen, a BBC radio editor, should be commended for refusing to cast her entire history of British Muslims against the force majeure of the wars on terror. Much of her book is academic in its explanation of complex and sometimes competing Muslim tenets. While another editor might have insisted on a more colourful depiction of the subject, Bowen's treatment of Deobandis, Tablighi Jamaat, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Ismailis is enriched by her research.

She is also unusual in being a non-Muslim addressing this subject. Her book is neither disillusioned agit-autobiography (Ed Husain's The Islamist), nor historical memoir (Ziauddin Sardar's Balti Britain), but it does mark the first serious excavation of the religious fault lines which embody the British Muslim experience.

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