Britain’s indiscreet paradox of multiculturalism

January 6, 2010

WITH political and cultural chasms widening between Muslim communities in the UK and mainstream British society, there is increasing unease on both sides of the divide. Until about 18 months ago, few heads would have turned when Andleen Razzaq, a London secondary school teacher and member of the Muslim charitable organisation City Circle, walked past Trafalgar Square on her way to the House of Commons.

 Her eastern looks and colourful headscarf were the visible part of Britain’s relaxed celebration of multiculturalism.

 The young woman is, in fact, so pleased with Britain’s multiculturalism that upon hearing about the French banon the wearing of “conspicuous” religious signs, she observed that “this ban by the French government contrasts with the general trend in the UK to look upon different groups as a celebration of Britain’s diversity. I think we can draw strengths from the range of religions and ethnic groups which form our society rather than trying to push everyone towards a mundane sameness”.

 But now, Andleen, like millions of other Britons, feels that a highly perceptible changehas occurred, inexorably forced by pressing questions about the genuine merits of multiculturalism when it is used by radicals as a licence for secession and the status of Muslim communities in Britain.

 “Mind you, life for Muslims in Britain continues to be wonderful,” says Ahmad Al Dubayan, the director general of the Islamic Cultural Centre and the London Central Mosque. “I have been to, and lived in, several countries in Europe, and I can assure you that Britain is one of the best Western countries where Muslims can live. The laws are adequate, there is no pressure on Muslims to abide by a specific dress code and there are no restrictions on the practice of the religion,” he says.

 Feteha Begum agrees. “There are no ethnic or religious conflicts here and women are given a chance to contribute to social development,” says the assistant at the Sure start Longsight Centre in Manchester. The government is singularly compliant, and as part of its commitment to Muslim communities, regularly delivers new ideas and encourages them to improve their capacity to fight distortion of faith.

 “Muslims could build on these features to control damages resulting from the terrorist attacks and promote peaceful and constructive coexistence with other faiths,” Al Dubayan says.

 Narrowing the widening gap is not easy. Wary of the everpresent death threats looming over them even as they slowly recover from the physical and psychological effects of last year’s suicide attacks in London by Muslim youths, Britons have become uneasy about the increasing separateness of Muslims from mainstream British society.

 People today do not have to read newspapers or watch the news to appreciate how the shift in attitudes towards Muslims has turned into an everyday reality that could be felt on the streets, in public places and even in taxis.

 The discussion about the fissure between multiculturalism and introverted communities has now moved to the fore, with more people traditionally from the centre and the left of the political spectrum expressing alarm over the cultural and religious dissonance generated by the July 7 attacks and the 52 deaths it caused.

But the British authorities, conscious of the potentially explosive nature of the debate and the implications of the new reality, have been pondering the best way to thrust Muslims, especially the younger generation, into mainstream Britain.

Faithful to a long tradition of persuasion, the British, unlike some of their neighbours who forced a naked secularism that estranged Muslims, chose the carrot over the stick. They set up a secretary of communities to help narrow the gap from years of segregation and isolation.

Today, the Commission for Racial Equality runs outreach programmes from summer camps to urban-regeneration projects involving Christians and Muslims working side by side.

While the French banned the veil, the British celebrated it, until Jack Straw said in October this year that Britain’s multiculturalism had seemingly failed to propelMuslims into the mainstream and was becoming increasingly hazardous.

Multiculturalism, once celebrated by the British columnist John O’Sullivan as “freedom from irk some traditional moral customs and cultural restraints”, is today perceived to coddle terrorism.

But Muslims, Britain’s most politically aware faith group and favourite discussion topic today, are divided about what they should do and what must happen.

For Andleen and the young Muslim trend-setters who lead City Circle, the Muslim community organisations are partly to blame for being too slow in adopting and adapting to change.

“There are still leaders who see anything new as an imminent danger to the community. There are imams who come from a deeply entrenched patriarchal tradition. Most of them are not educated and foster a kind of pathology and paranoia that can easily lead our youth astray,” Andleen warns.

“Some of these imams were often raised in rural areas in Pakistanor Banglades hand have problems relating to people brought up in large cities in Britain,” says Fawzia Ahmad from Bristol University. Shahid Raza from the Muslim College Sharia Council in Ealing complains that most of the 3,000 imams in Britain were trained outside and had inadequate education.

“There are imams from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who have been here for 25 years, but speak no English. They cannot deal with the younger generation,” he says.

Al Dubayan blames reclusive but knowledgeable Muslims for the deterioration of the situation and says that they have to take on the responsibility of protecting the young from the message of radicalism.

“Muslims should do more to connect with society at large. There are efforts to promote inter-Muslim dialogue, butmore should be done to reach out to the society outside. The Muslim community should promote the integration of people, especially that of the younger generation,” he says.

He says the Muslim community as a whole needs to be more vigorously involved in the battle for the hearts and minds of young Muslims. “A robust drive by the Muslim community to engage more young people in social activities would help isolate radical elements and limit the possibilities for their messages of hatred,” says the scholar.

“Young Muslims who might feel vulnerable should be engaged in a wide range of group activities, including outdoor sports, to help them build stronger character and deepen their sense of togetherness. This will make it difficult for the preachers of hatred to move ahead with their plans.” According to the Saudi-born leader, young Muslims suffering from socio-economic problems are the principal targets of the extremists in Britain. “When you have someone in his late teens or early twenties who is unemployed, has no source of income and has serious social problems, then you have the ingredients for a potentially ‘recruitable’ extremist whowill be easy prey for lurking radicals.”

AbdullahAbdo, the mosque librarian, says that Arabs in particular are resisting greater involvement in social activities. “They have a tendency to limit their commitments and participation, and this does not really help. Their detachment causes a vacuum that is rather difficult to fill,” he said.

However, Al Dubayan adds Britain’s foreign policy to the list of factors contributing to the worsening of the situation. “In addition to the economic factors of unemployment and poverty, and the social factors of isolation and frustration, Britain’s foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan has exacerbated the situation. “The pictures of maimed Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are invariably used by radicals to link it with the foreign policy of Britain and to promote their destructive theories among the vulnerable Muslims,” he says.

FOR 34-year-old Zahid Hussain, the head of the Social Enterprise Development Centre in Manchester, the local media is to blame for giving radicals a voice that has denied them in other countries.

“Radicalisation happens everywhere, but here the media is giving the young radicals a stage. We all believe in freedom of expression, but when you have people who reject voting and any form of integration, then there is a serious problem that needs to be tackled,” says Zahid.

He says he believes the media can help confused young people to overcome the tensions, address common issues and build stronger links between Muslims and non-Muslims.

However, Zahid believes that media publicity is frustrating mainstream Muslims and helping radicals to promote their views and fuel tensions with other Muslims as well as with the authorities.

Andleen suggests that newspapers are more concerned about boosting sales and less about the social implications of their reports. “They are not interested in real people because they do not sell stories. Normal or non-sensational stories are mediocre,” Andleen says.

Zahid warns that this trend is not healthy for Britain because it pushes Muslims to dangerous shores. “Young politicised Muslims are drawn towards those who articulate what they consider to be injustices suffered by Muslims everywhere. They want solutions to contemporary problems within a largely ossified tradition. They are usually young people who are going through a phase of uncertainty and will soon grow out of it. But the real danger is that they become negatively influenced during this period of their lives,” he explains.

Zahid adds that the Internet has become a potent tool in influencing young people. “The Internet has effectively replaced the Muslim community as the means to communicate and to deepen the sense of belonging. Many young people feel that they can no longer connect with their community leaders and peers and prefer to engage with their brothers on the Internet. The real danger is here because they end up at the wrong gateway that takes them to radical groups who indoctrinate them and slowly begin to control their lives,” he says.

According to Zahid, the technology community “predators” use pictures of wounded or dead children and women in Iraq, Afghanistan and other regions in order to stir emotions and influence views.

They also exploited the paranoid ravings of the tabloid press, the hostile media coverage and the heavy-handedness of the police.

Zahid feels that for young Muslims in Britain with a strong sense of connection with Muslims around the world, identifying with Muslims suffering in other countries while rejecting US and British foreign policy, the temptation to develop an “us and them” mentality is always there. “As such, they can be easily manipulated by radical and charismatic leaders,” he says.

But one group that is increasingly asserting itself is British-born Muslim women. Proud to be Muslim, they do not hesitate to demonstrate that pride and use Islam as a springboard for political engagement with civil society.

As Islamic values are being intensely drawn into the debate over immigrant integration and radical Islam, more British-born women will be wearing the headscarf if the onslaught on Islamic values continues, female activists say.

But, according to Atiha Chaudry, Manchester Council for Community Relations member and director of Equal Access Consultancy, the reason for the life-shaping decision is not a religious reaction, but rather a political statement against perceived injustices to Islam. “We have noticed that many women have decided to wear the hijab (veil) after the 2001 attacks in the US and, more significantly, after the July 7 attacks in London. We realise that hundreds of young women wear the veil out of conviction and not because they are oppressed,” Chaudry says.

About 10,000 of Britain’s 800,000 Muslim women wear veils. But the headscarf is increasingly becoming a symbol of political identity rather than a religious statement, and this poses new challenges for feminists and activists who claim that it is worn by women who have no control over their bodies or destinies, according to Chaudry, a Muslim of Pakistani descent who was born in Kenya and brought up in Britain.

For Chaudry, this development calls for a higher quality in the debate over the merit of the veil and other related issues in order to overcome differences and work together to achieve common objectives.

“At the present level, the quality of the debate over the significance of the veil is so miserable that it might encourage women to put on the veil as a reaction, even though their own mothers do not,” she said.

 “We really need an intelligent debate about a specific dress code for certain jobs, but we must avoid discrimination because it is insensitive to suggest what people should wear. It is all about personal choices. I choose for instance not to wear the veil, like I choose not to swim topless or to wear a miniskirt,” says Chaudry.

Fawzia Ahmad who has been dealing with troubled Muslim women, says deepening the veil issue would eviscerate Britain’s traditions of personal freedom and great tolerance.

“Many women said that they would wear the veil because it would mean asserting themselves and making clear statements when their community is targeted. Problems do exist, but when there are verbal or physical assaults, there is less empathy leading to more explosive situations,” says the university expert.

But at the other end of the spectrum lies the idea that the consequence of wearing the veil in the West defeats its purpose and that it eventually reveals more than it conceals.

“Islam demands modesty in women’s looks so that they do not attract attention. Modesty can be achieved easily in the West by wearing simple trousers and conservative tops. But the veil arouses unwanted curiosity in the West,” says Emnat, a Muslim activist who does not wear the veil.

It is clear that in today’s Britain, everything Muslims do or say is under the spotlight. But it is also clear that Muslims have much more confidence both in their Britishness and in their faith-based identity.


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About the author

Born August 3, 1960 in Monastir, Tunisia
Media career:
  • ABC News (Tunisia)
  • Bahrain Tribune
  • Gulf News
  • Bahrain Television News
Teaching career:
  • Monastir (Tunisia)
  • University of Bahrain
  • MA  Mass Communications, University of Leicester
  • BA  in English & US literature and studies, University of Tunis

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