Muslims in Britain

The Development of a Radicalised Identity

It is especially the youth of Britain's 1.5 million Muslims that feels marginalised and caught between cultures. In trying to compensate for feeling weak, they increasingly turn to dogmatic schools of thought. An analysis by Tahir Abbas

photo: AP
According to Tahir Abbas, the Rushdie affair made clear that many of the South Asian communities in Britain are poor, isolated, disenfranchised

​​There has been a Muslim presence in Britain since the beginning of the nineteenth century, when seamen and traders from the Middle East began settling around the major British ports. The major growth of the Muslim population, however, dates from the post-war immigration of Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians who arrived to fill specific labour demands in certain declining industrial centres.

This economic migration of Muslims to Western Europe was found elsewhere, in particular France and Germany, although the sending regions were from other parts of the Muslim world, namely parts of North Africa and Turkey.

In the 1990s and more recently, there has been an increased intake of Eastern European and Middle Eastern Muslim refugees, emanating from such places as Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq.

British Muslims and their origins

According to the 2001 Census, the size of the ethnic minority population was 4.6 million (or 7.9 per cent of the total population of the UK). Asking the religion question for the first time, it was possible to determine a Muslim population of 1.6m.

Today, the vast majority of Britain's 1.6m Muslims originate from South Asia (around 1m: two-thirds are from Pakistan, under a third from Bangladesh and the remainder from India). The other half a million or so British Muslims are from North Africa, Eastern Europe and South East Asia. Around a third of all British Muslims are under the age of fourteen.

The Muslims of Britain, however, remain concentrated in older post-industrial cities and conurbations in the South East, the Midlands and the North.

Much of recent post-war former New Commonwealth immigration, settlement and contemporary community relations are punctuated by the experience of Muslims. Until the Salman Rushdie Affair of 1989, the South Asian Muslim community was perceived to be quiet, passive, peaceful, and law abiding (if 'somewhat backward-looking' too). The fuss made over the Rushdie novel made clear that many of the South Asian communities in Britain are poor, isolated, disenfranchised, marginalised and ostracised communities generally removed from civil society, and that the book had gravely offended them.

The media and the intellectual elite, however, viewed the Muslim community as illiberal and regressive reactionaries ill-adjusted to life in the Western world while omitting to concentrate on specific issues that impact on communities in relation to incitement to religious hatred and socio-economic disadvantage for example. It was the first time that the indigenous community looked closely at its religious minorities.

Muslim radicalisation and internationalization

At the same time the community began to feel that their religious sensibilities were not being considered. The experience radicalised some of the elderly but especially the youth, who looked more closely at their roles in society as Muslims, their rights and responsibilities as citizens but also the part played by the media and the nation-state in the 'manufacturing' of their social experience. Also in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down.

Throughout the 1990s, a series of global events, the first Gulf War (1990-1991), the genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1993-1996), The Oklahoma Bombing (1995), the Taliban in Afghanistan (1997-2002), Grozny and Kosovo (1999), the recent Palestinian Intifada (since September 2000) and the War on Iraq (2003-), have all played a part in creating a transnational Muslim solidarity: a genuine and conscious identification with others of the same religion.

Huntington's Clash of Civilisations thesis – positioning East and West, Islam and Christianity, as diametrically opposed and irreconcilable – has served only to build on growing anti-American sentiment and increased Orientalism through oversimplification and generalisation.

Today, the focus on Islam and Muslims, locally, nationally, and internationally, impacts significantly on how Muslims see themselves and how Islam is seen by others.

Islamic political radicalism and the youth

In the current climate, in Britain and more widely in Western Europe, there is the phenomenon of the indigenous-born Muslim youth who is a native-language speaker but has become increasingly politicised by a radical Islam. The patterns across Europe are remarkably similar. Post-war immigrant groups who were either invited or came searching for improved economic opportunities found their young Muslims growing up in disadvantaged, marginalised, and alienated communities.

Often a local education tends to be limited which affects their likelihood of securing effective university or labour market entry. There are inter-generational tensions as a result of language, culture, and attitudes towards majority communities.

Invariably there is a warming to majority society in subsequent generations of immigrant groups as the process of adaptation begins to evolve, sometimes however there is the experience of resistance and in the Muslim case it is largely a function of life in liberal, secular nation-states being regarded as antithetical to the life as 'a good Muslim' as well as reaction to direct discrimination and open hostility.

The experience of a complex, dislocated reality

Whereas most of the Muslim world is still facing up to the challenges of Islam and democracy, Muslim minorities in the West face a whole of host issues in relation to identity, religio-cultural practise, and their, roles, rights, and responsibilities as citizens that are everyday battles.

Therefore, in places such as Britain or the Netherlands for that matter indigenous-born Pakistanis or Moroccans experience a complex, dislocated reality. Low social class positions coupled with religious and cultural isolation place many young people outside of the spheres of civil society. Where there are inter-generational tensions in relation to tradition – for example in the insistence on consanguineous marriages – many young Muslims are attempting to return to a more literal interpretation of Islam.

They are endeavouring to find out about Islam themselves – whether it is in the college refectory or the university debating society. This is effectively where the problems begin to arise: parents cannot provide the knowledge as they lack the linguistic and cultural skills to communicate with their children. The Mosques for the most part provide an open learning environment but the information tends to be at the very basic level.

The Salafi school of thought

Most Imams, especially in the British case, do not have the power of the English language at their disposal or the cultural and social disposition to engage with Western-born Muslims. And, so, the young are encouraged to seek alternative forms of empowerment knowledge – whether it is via the Internet or through new Mosques or religious circles, and this knowledge, regrettably, is sometimes tainted with a radicalising message, which in reality promotes indifference, intolerance, antipathy, and the general disregard of all things Western (secular).

These messages stem outside of a traditional Sunni Islam and are more a function of Salafi thought (people wishing to return to the first four hundred years of Islam – based on very selective and at times dubious interpretations). Some of this thinking is violent, repressive, virulent, and dogmatic in general but it appeals to a number of young Muslims (for the most part men but not excluding women) who see it as a form of liberation – from the seemingly 'backward practices' of their own communities or from nation-states that seek to oppress Muslim minorities.

Indeed, there were instances of such organisations influencing susceptible minds throughout 1990s; groups such as Al-Muhajiroun, Supporters of Shariah, and Hizb ut-Tahrir had much success in 'infiltrating' Islamic societies in universities all over Britain before their actions were being viewed with suspicion.

Indeed, as much as the 9/11 hijackers were influenced by what was happening in the wider social world, young British Muslims have also been watching and feeling the events of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya, and so on.

Born on the 'wrong side of the tracks'

The 'Seven in Yemen' (1999), the 'Tipton Three' (2002) and the 'Dudley Two' (2003) were, for the most part, British-born South Asian Muslims (not all poor however, some actually attended elite universities, but all were, however, very much born on the 'wrong side of the tracks').

They experienced prejudice, racism, and discrimination throughout their lives, sustained themselves in education in spite of its failings in relation to Muslims, and succumbed to a hostile and reactionary media (educational underachievement is a combined function of low educational resources coupled with less-motivated teachers in schools and the lack of cultural, social, and economic capital on the part of specific Muslim communities).

But, ultimately, a number of young South Asian Muslims are misdirected by radicalising Islamists seeking to convert apparently integrated and educated but were 'once-decadent' young Muslims seeking the truth, or those heading towards a criminal underclass position in society, by giving them a sense of belonging, identity, association or a struggle that transcends their everyday boundaries and barriers.

Tightened grip on Muslim minorities

Overall, a significant reason for much of this experience is increasing isolation and marginalisation in society but also important are the radicalising forces from the outside. Since 9/11, throughout much of the Western world, developments to international finance, anti-terrorism legislation, and the combining of identity cards and citizenship debates have all seen the nation-state tighten its grip on Muslim minorities.

The 'war on terror' is generally considered to be an ideologically-spun construction, ultimately helping those in power to generate greater power, while Muslims are derided, misrepresented, incarcerated without charge, and, in general, made to feel and think they are unwanted. After 9/11, the world changed. Along too has been a strong shift towards seeing Muslim minorities in the West as the as an undifferentiated mass of 'Arab terrorists', as groups who are overly-demanding of their religious and cultural rights, as people unwilling to integrate into majority society, as the 'enemy-within',

The moves by majority communities to look into Islam and Muslims more sensitively has also intensified and these are genuinely positive developments. But they pale into insignificance in the face of mono-dimensional attempts to directly represent, portray, and engage with the Muslim other.

Conservative approach to religion

Many of the South Asian Muslims who dominate the landscape of Muslim Britain are from sending regions where there are high instances of both illiteracy and poverty. The practise of Islam among South Asians contains many cultural idiosyncrasies, and the general approach towards the religion tends to be conservative on the whole. The young, however, seek to challenge their positions as part of generational development but also because they see it as liberation from their ethno-cultural manacles at the micro-level and institutional racism in society at the macro-level.

It is apparent today that the world is still feeling the effects of 9/11 – and as the neo-conservative project in the USA develops further and the shift towards the New Right among Western European nation-states intensifies, Muslims will continue to believe they being ostracised from societies.

Where a significant majority will continue to work hard and abide by the laws of the of land as well as they can, without it affecting who they are as 'good Muslims' (and nowhere is this perhaps more possible than in Britain), a few young men will continue to be affected by radicalising forces that subsume vulnerable people as part of their own ideologically and theologically constructed (ir)rationality.

Recognition coupled with acceptance from the majority community is needed but greater confidence and appreciation of opportunities, however difficult they might seem to be to obtain, is required on the part of Muslim minorities.

Unequal distribution of power

The problem of a radicalising Islam impacting on young South Asian Muslims is a specific issue found in certain inner city areas where there is multiple disadvantages and severe social, economic and cultural alienation. For any of the current predicaments to be alleviated and matters to be moved forward it is important to realise the extent of inequity in the distribution of power, knowledge and resources.

Muslim minorities have been suffering at the hands of imperialism, colonialism, decolonisation, and subsequent immigration and settlement in the West for three hundred years. Much of what is going on today is a function of history but it is also based how post-industrial societies face up to the challenges of unity and diversity in an era of rapid globalisation, and how Muslim communities, given every fair opportunity to stake their claims, successfully react.

Tahir Abbas

© Tahir Abbas 2005

Dr. Tahir Abbas is Director of the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Culture, University of Birmingham, UK. He is author of, The Education of British South Asians: Ethnicity, Capital and Class Structure (Palgrave, 2004) and editor of Muslim Britain: Communities under Pressure (Zed, 2005). He currently sits on the editorial board of VISTA: Perspectives on Probation Criminal Justice and Civil Renewal; and is a regular commentator in the media.

This article was first published by the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

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