SPIRES AND MINARETS - The reinvention of Oxford as the centre of Islamic piety

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By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
  • Published 20.05.06

Tony Brett?s defeat in Oxford?s council election was one of many small details that passed unnoticed in the excitement over the gains that the white supremacist British Nationalist Party made in a London suburb. But it could mark a turning point in the reinvention of the town of dreaming spires as a centre of Islamic piety.

The contrast between victor and vanquished is revealing of Cool Britannia?s transformation. Tony ? Antony Edwin St John Brett ? a Liberal Democratic councillor for the last six years, is a young graduate of Corpus Christi College, founded in 1517 ?to the honour of the most precious Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, of His most spotless Mother and of the Saints Patrons of the Cathedral Churches of Winchester, Durham, Bath and Wells and Exeter?. He is a churchwarden, sings in the choir, and is also a wizard with computers, which is how I first met him.

Mohammed Niaz Abbasi, the Labour candidate who unseated him, is a virtually unlettered bearded middle-aged taxi-driver from Pakistan whose rudimentary English is heavily accented. But he is a mosque leader and has the entr?e into the homes of Muslims who comprise 20 per cent of voters in their Cowley Marsh ward. The women don?t speak English at all. Three other ethnic Pakistanis (another taxi-driver and a postman among them) were also elected to the city council.

There were no Pakistanis in the Seventies when Ann Spokes Symonds was Lord Mayor of Oxford. Her witty and erudite husband, Richard Symonds, historian of Oxford and the Empire, enjoys startling bemused Pakistani taxi-drivers with delightful tales of his stint with refugees in Pakistan at the time of partition and experiences with the United Nations observers in Kashmir.

These simple folk are part of the national community of well over a million Muslims which overlaps with the wider Asian population. Leaving aside a handful of achievers like Sir Iqbal Sacramie, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, or Lord Nazir Ahmed, they are the poor relations of the Britasian world with its billionaire tycoons, globally acclaimed authors and distinguished personalities in all walks of life. Asian-run businesses in London alone have an annual turnover of ?60 billion.

Muslims have been the cause of concern ever since the July 7 explosions. Why do Hindus prosper while Muslims languish, people ask. Why are there no Hindu rebels? Concern and comparison help to explain the British government?s new solicitousness towards Pakistan and determination not to be seen as supporting India over Kashmir. Two of the four young Muslim suicide-bombers spent time in Pakistan: whether or not they established contact there with al Qaida operatives, Pakistan?s potential to influence British Muslims creates nervousness. ?The process of indoctrinating these men appears principally to have been through personal contact and group bonding? according to the parliamentary intelligence and security committee report, which stresses Pakistan?s vital role in the process. It?s a country that Tony Blair dare not offend.

One of his ministerial colleagues reiterated this week that Muslims must be given special instruction in ?core British values? like democracy, freedom of speech, fairness and responsibility. ?Taking the Muslim population as a whole, they face some of the most acute conditions of multiple deprivation,? says an official study. It found that 6 per cent of Muslims (nearly 100,000 people) approved of the bombings that killed 52 innocent people.

Some of that rage must also simmer below the surface in a town where the beard and burqa are becoming as relevant as cap and gown. There are many signs of this awakening consciousness. Kitty Datta, Amlan Datta?s scholarly wife, was outraged to pick up a pamphlet called ?How to go to Heaven? (through conversion to Islam) in the Cornmarket. Conversion is an important part of the agenda. One of the July 7 bombers, 19-year-old Germaine Lindsay, was a black Jamaican convert. Surfing the Net, I came upon Oxfordislam which calls itself ?a site for non-Muslims in Oxford and around to learn about Islam and hopefully convert to their beliefs and way of life for man?. If there isn?t a queue yet to seek salvation, it is not for want of trying.

Muslim organizations zealously promote causes that strike a sympathetic chord in others. Calcutta radicals may pretend to support Palestinians but it was in Oxford that 500 candles were lit last Sunday to recall the 58th anniversary of the Nakba ? catastrophe ? which is how Arabs describe the Zionist triumph of 1948. The Out of Beirut exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art recreates that city?s trauma. The public library?s newspaper section stocks the Daily Jang and Al Hayat. Its lending shelves display more books in Urdu than any other Asian language. Apart from the usual ?Indian? restaurants, any number of shops and eating places cater to tastes from Morocco and Turkey. Telling symbol of the new assertiveness, the young daughter of Farhan Ahmad Nizami, Indian-born director of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, has taken to wearing the hijab that her mother doesn?t.

Still swathed in scaffolding and builders? fencing, the centre?s new building by Magdalen?s playing fields is the most magnificent manifestation of this additional dimension to Oxford?s mellow personality. Its dome and minaret (picture) fully live up to the grandeur of the model I saw some years ago in Nizami?s old centre in George Street, which is a focus of Islamic intellectual life. Tariq Ramadhan, author of Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, was a recent speaker. Impressed by Nizami?s work, Prince Charles announced that the centre has ?the potential to be an important and exciting vehicle for promoting and improving understanding of the Islamic world?.

It is not alone in that endeavour. The new redbrick Victorian Saracenic Central Oxford Mosque and Islamic Centre commands Manzil Way only a few minutes walk away. Nearby are the Ahmadiya Muslim Association?s premises, the Madina Mosque and Muslim Welfare House and the Bangladesh Islamic Education Centre and Mosque. They are a mixed bag. If one of the imams strikes an austere note with his beard, cap and long black robe, another, the young Imam Mohammed Ata Ullah, is known to have fled Pakistan, leaving behind his wife and children, after fanatics killed his reformist father.

The university?s active interest in Islam probably began with Albert Hourani, the ethnic Lebanese Manchester-born academic, who pioneered Middle East studies at St Anthony?s. Wafic Said ? the Syrian magnate whose name will forever be linked to Margaret Thatcher?s $20 billion Al-Yamanah arms deal with Saudi Arabia, reportedly the biggest ever ? took up the torch. His ?40 million Said Business School (the benefactor provided half the money and Sainsbury the other half), a high airy structure with an abundance of glass, commands the landscape by Oxford railway station.

Even ? and paradoxically ? the Khalili Research Centre for the Arts and Material Culture of the Middle East should be included in that list. When I met the art collector, Nasser David Khalili, as Sir Tim Lankester?s guest at Corpus some years ago, and talked about the Iranian-origin Khalilis in Calcutta and Madras, I assumed he was a Muslim. Now, I discover he is a Jew. But as the Sultan of Brunei?s representative, he was instrumental in setting up the Brunei Gallery opposite the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Last year, he donated ?2.35 million from the family trust for Middle East studies in Oxford.

They are the august generals who inspire foot-soldiers like Abbasi on Oxford City Council. How far they will advance is the moot question. But, already, they have overcome one barrier. Gautam Malkani argues in his new novel, Londonstani, that ?Paki? can be a neutral or even affectionate word ? but never when used by goras. With four city-council seats, Oxford Pakistanis know they are not mere ?Pakis? any longer. They could even be the future.