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CLINGING TO IDENTITY
- Britain cannot quite handle its cultural extremists

In the Fifties when Britain had National Service, my friends joked about the soldier who tried to get out of Sunday church service by professing Islam. But when his apparently acquiescent sergeant woke him up before dawn for namaz, followed by mosque drill five times a day, the man gladly scurried back to the Christian fold.

Now, with the British defence ministry about to appoint an official mullah for more than 300 Muslims in the armed forces, the tale is no longer funny. Like many other non-Muslim countries, Britain does not know quite how to handle its Muslims, or, rather, the cultural extremists among them who are usually of Pakistani origin. The 1.8 million British Muslims, roughly 3 per cent of the population, are seen as both a political asset and a potential social liability. Seven young British Muslims were charged this week with plotting terrorist attacks in Britain. Generally speaking, they are an underprivileged community with lower than average educational and income levels, and a higher unemployment rate. Many cluster in derelict inner cities with wretched housing and inadequate public services.

But unlike Indian Hindus, Afro-Caribbeans or even Bangladeshis who are similarly disadvantaged, Mirpur Kashmiri and Punjabi Muslims are dangerously convinced that they are victimized because of their religion. Tony Blair’s enthusiastic participation in the invasion and occupation of Iraq has reinforced paranoia: they see war against an Islamic nation as war against all Muslims, including those who live here. “Religion and politics are one and the same in Islam,” says a British Muslim Educational Trust publication.

Thanks to such doctrinaire attitudes, England is under siege. Any influx of people from an altogether different background always has a diluting effect on the mainstream. But the battering ram of militant Islam more specifically threatens the ramparts of English civilization. While officials genuflect to diversity and chant the mantra of multiculturalism, an otherwise amiable English family I know has taken to writing “English” for nationality instead of “British” because it wants to distance itself from the South Asians, Afro-Caribbeans, East Europeans and others whose very un-English dialect and demeanour define the “New British”.

Matters have not yet gone so far as in Canada where — shades of the infamous Shah Bano affair — 600,000 Muslims, the largest minority group after the French, are bent on claiming exclusive legal rights. They have seized on Ontario’s 13-year-old Arbitration Act, passed to facilitate an alternative dispute resolution mechanism, to set up an Islamic Institute of Civil Justice with judicial tribunals to arbitrate in questions of personal law. Apparently, the Ontario government agreed to incorporate sharia in the arbitration process and to enforce decisions based on it until a public furore prompted an inquiry two months ago. Some Canadians fear either the gradual Islamization of their institutions or the creation of a state within the state.

Similar pressures are building up in Britain too with a BBC commentator eulogizing Canada’s precedent as “an opportunity to show the world a modern face of Islam”. No Hindu has yet demanded a ban on cow slaughter. Nor do Jews object to shopping on Saturday which is their sabbath. But British Muslim repudiation of many national norms recalls a Calcutta seminar where a maulvi ruled out ordinary schools or even part-time religious instruction because a Muslim child has to read the Quran first and last. Some British Muslims object to the nursery tale, “The Three Little Pigs”. Others demand Friday closing or insist on halal meat. As acts of defiance or demonstrations of faith, a few joined the taliban. Other young British Muslims are fighting in Chechnya or for the Iraqi Shia leader, Hojatoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr.

Authority is placatory. Reportedly, the army condoned a soldier’s refusal to fight against his co-religionists in Iraq by posting him elsewhere. David Blunkett, the home secretary, wants a law to prohibit religious insult that could end up by legitimizing fatal fatwas or sanctioning Pakistan’s dire punishment for defiling the prophet’s name. Not to be outdone, when the Islamic Bank of Britain was set up to find a way round the Quranic objection to riba or usury, HSBC established its own sharia board of Deobandi scholars from Pakistan and Wahabi clerics from Saudi Arabia. Parliamentary democracy arms the most deprived Muslim with the same power that makes the poorest Dalit the focus of electoral wooing. No political party can afford to ignore Muslim votes in places like Bradford and Leicester, and Labour is especially worried at the alienation of its traditional Muslim supporters. But it is not all expediency. The conciliatory gestures that Lal Krishna Advani might dismiss as “minorityism” also speak of a certain sympathy for the underdog. The controllers of Britain’s forums of public dialogue belong to a liberal tradition that has always taken the exotic to its bosom, as Queen Victoria did Abdul Karim, the munshi who taught her Urdu and whose influence on the queen — whom they called “Mrs Karim” — was feared and disliked by everyone at court and in the government.

Victoria wrote, spelling and punctuation eccentric as always, “I agree with the Mohammedans that duty towards ones Parents...goes before every other but that is not taught as part of religion in Europe.” Politically prescient, she badgered Lord Salisbury, the prime minister, to appoint Rafiuddin Ahmed, a friend of the munshi’s, ambassador to the Ottoman empire. Rafiuddin had studied law at Gray’s Inn and wrote for a periodical called the Nineteenth Century. Balliol’s great master, Benjamin Jowett, recommended him to Arthur Godley, permanent under-secretary of state at the India Office. Victoria also thought her government could use him to collect intelligence from Muslims worldwide.

They were ideas before their time. Victoria’s advisers dismissed Rafiuddin as “a journalist and a meddler” and accused him of selling state secrets to the Afghans. The munshi was, by all accounts, a charlatan who abused his connections to speculate in property in his native Uttar Pradesh. “These Injuns” was how Sir Henry Ponsonby, the queen’s secretary, referred to Abdul Karim and his circle. Now, of course, Bangladesh-born Anwar Chowdhury represents Britain in Dhaka and the establishment bends backwards not to be unfair. A realm whose monarch glories in the title of Defender of the Faith parades its inclusive character. Of course, the honorific is a historical anachronism. The title, which the Pope bestowed on Henry VIII because of a tract he had written defending Catholicism, became meaningless when Henry broke with Rome, but he and his heirs kept it on, as head of the new Anglican church. Living up to her enlightened precedent, Victoria’s great-great-great-grandson, Prince Charles, once suggested it should be changed to Defender of Faiths in the plural to include all the religions professed by his mother’s subjects. Awarded the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah International Prize for the Promotion of Dialogue between Islamic and Western Civilisations, Charles is patron of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies which, he says, has the “potential to be an important and exciting vehicle for promoting and improving understanding of the Islamic world”.

But, of course, Islam does not need defence. Nor is it in any mood to compromise with Britain’s still prevailing ethic. Earlier waves of immigrants, whether French Huguenots, Flemish weavers or Jewish tailors, were only too anxious to lose their foreignness. The Bengali Bonarjees became as English as the Dutch Bentincks. Now, however, instead of flowing into and enriching the mainstream, each new group — Muslims more than others — insists on clinging to the identity of the country or society it abandoned to seek a better life in Britain. Beards and burqas are far more visible than traditional icons like bowlers and rolled umbrellas. So are salwars and slippers. One Muslim life peer expresses his individualism through fanatical tirades on Kashmir. Another makes a point of wandering about the House of Lords dressed like a Park Circus shopkeeper. It’s their way of making a point. Of underlining they are in Britain but not of it. Loyalty belongs to the ummah.

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