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Islam and the Liberal State: a State of the Nation look at British Islam

Islam and the Liberal State: a State of the Nation look at British Islam

Simon Perfect reviews a major new book that charts ongoing, gradual transformation within the British Muslim communities. 12/11/2021

In February 2021, Glaswegian Zara Mohammed became the first woman to be elected Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the largest umbrella organisation of mosques and Muslim groups in the country.[1] At 29, she is also one of the youngest people to lead a national–level religion or belief group. With an agenda of empowering Muslim women and young people, tackling Islamophobia and encouraging greater Muslim participation in public life, her appointment was welcomed across the religious and political spectra and hailed as “a landmark moment” for British Islam.

But there was an odd response from the Conservative government. Penny Mordaunt, then Paymaster General, tweeted congratulations to Mohammed – before being criticized by government insiders for breaking the government’s long–standing policy of not engaging with the MCB. New Labour first stopped cooperation with it in 2009, following accusations of links to extremism and the MCB’s criticism of Labour’s foreign and counter–terrorism policy. Sporadic contact with departments and ministers resumed in 2010, but under the Conservatives there has been no formal ministerial engagement – something the MCB describes as a “quasi–boycott approach”.[2]

What’s the context behind this? And more widely, was Mohammed’s appointment mere window–dressing in one organisation, or did it reflect more substantive change going on among Muslim civil society?

Thankfully, to help us answer this we can now turn to an excellent new book by Dr Stephen H. Jones, a sociologist and lecturer at the University of Birmingham. Islam and the Liberal State: National Identity and the Future of Muslim Britain (2021) summarises in one place the latest research about British Islam, and makes use of Jones’ own access to Muslim organisations secured through his work, including his time as General Secretary of the Muslims in Britain Research Network in 2017–20. It is essential reading for anyone wanting an up–to–date ‘state of the nation’ look at the British Muslim communities.

Jones’ stated intention is to show that, contrary to popular assumptions, liberalism and Islam can be compatible. Through a detailed examination of the experiences of British Muslims in three contexts – Islamic education, Islamic law, and Muslim organisations’ relations with the state – he seeks to show that media and political talk about the need to build a ‘British’ Islam that is at home in the liberal state is well behind the times. In fact, over the last few decades, Islam in Britain has already shifted away from isolation to participation; it has “reorientated itself, reshaping around British public and institutional norms”.[3] Distinctly British forms of Islam that are actively engaged with wider society are already here, and are mainstream. But this development, he argues, has been consistently ignored by commentators, who prefer to insist simplistically that Muslims are failing to integrate, without clarifying what they actually mean by it.

This argument is particularly important following the terrible suspected jihadist murder of David Amess MP, and in the wider context of the ongoing inquiry into the Manchester Arena bombing. It cannot be repeated often enough that the vast majority of British Muslims abhor both the violence and the extreme views behind them.

Isolationist Islamic education?

Jones’ argument is primarily about shifts in institutional ethos. In the educational sector, for example, there is a common narrative that Islamic educational institutions are isolationist and failing to equip young Muslims (and future Islamic leaders) with the skills they need to succeed in modern Britain –leaving them alienated and vulnerable to extremists. This account has been a major driver of government educational policy for the last two decades and remains popular.

But how true is it today? Jones shows that while isolationism is still the case in some institutions, in others a gradual but significant process of reform is ongoing. His focus is primarily on Islamic higher learning, including seminaries for teenagers to young adults (known as dar al–ulums, hawzas or jamias depending on denomination), rather than on madrasa education for children. He highlights important examples of Islamic seminaries and colleges which have built bridges with secular universities and are offering modules on more wide–ranging religious and social science topics to complement their traditional curriculum.

Crucially, there are also signs of change among the Deobandi dar al–ulums. The Deobandis are one of the most significant Muslim groups in Britain, running a majority of mosques and educational establishments. Traditionally they have encouraged students (mostly males) to pursue a conservative scholastic piety and to limit interactions with wider society. As such their seminaries have sometimes been accused of being on a conveyor belt leading Muslims towards extremism. But drawing a simplistic link between religious conservatism and violence is too problematic. According to Jones, no graduate of a British Deobandi dar al–ulum has been convicted of involvement in terrorism, and most British jihadists are relatively religiously uninformed and outside of such institutions.

Moreover, research in the last few years suggests that while some Deobandi seminaries remain insular, others are becoming more outward–looking, actively seeking partnership with mainstream universities and encouraging engagement with civil society. Teaching methods, standards and assessment processes are also being reformed in response to student demand for courses with greater employment potential. And strikingly, a study of the burgeoning Muslim chaplaincy sector in 2013 found that about half of the two hundred Muslim chaplains in the UK were from Deobandi backgrounds; their traditional education did not preclude them from embracing an outward–facing, pastoral role with considerable interfaith activity.[4]

This change is slow and challenges persist. In particular, many of these educational institutions struggle to secure external accreditation for their courses from secular universities, meaning graduates with years of scholarly training struggle to get their qualifications recognised in the workplace. And there is still a significant gender gap in Islamic education, with most secondary–level educational institutions being for boys only (though most higher–level centres are mixed). Many of these learning centres remain traditional and socially conservative. But it is clear that the Islamic educational scene in Britain is moving on from its earlier inward–looking and oppositional position.

Extremist civil society?

This picture, of gradual change from hostility to critical engagement, is also a pattern among other Muslim organisations. In Chapter 5 Jones provides a detailed account of the shifting relations between Muslim civil society organisations and the state. These relations have often been fraught, shaped as they are by the swings in counter–terrorism policy after 9/11 – from New Labour’s attempts to promote more ‘moderate’ Muslim groups, to the Coalition and Conservative governments’ refusal to engage with groups deemed insufficiently vocal in their opposition to extremism. Many Muslim activist groups have found themselves blacklisted, accused of being fronts for Islamist extremists and terrorist–sympathisers.

In Jones’ view, many of these accusations are increasingly flimsy, particularly when made against the more mainstream organisations today, such as the MCB. The problem is that some of these organisations have roots in Islamist groups that emerged in Britain from the 1960s onwards (with links to such transnational Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat–i–Islami). Many of the original activist leaders held Islamist ideals, and some have undoubtedly made illiberal or offensive remarks. But, as Jones argues, focusing on the origins of a group (or on the past remarks of individuals) often masks real change going on among them. “[M]any of the members of these networks have shifted views as they have grown older, with some disavowing their former selves”,[5] and he provides several convincing examples of this. In a number of cases, organisations and leaders that were once antagonistic or wary of wider society have gradually turned towards engagement (including with the state and police) in order to address urgent challenges facing Muslims from poverty to Islamophobia.

These developments, Jones argues, make the government’s attitudes to particular Muslim organisations increasingly outdated – especially its refusal to engage with the MCB. Today its leadership and ethos is a far cry from its form in the early 2000s, when it was dominated by foreign–born male elders with most affiliate mosques aligned with Deobandi and reformist Islamist traditions. Its office–holders and national council are now more diverse in terms of gender, age, ethnicity and denominational background.[6] And it is undoubtedly a major force for transformation in the Muslim community: it is playing an important role in training women in mosque leadership, driving social action, and in encouraging hundreds of mosques to engage with their local communities through its annual ‘Visit My Mosque Day’. Undoubtedly the MCB has put up Conservative backs by its claim the party has inadequately tackled Islamophobia within its ranks (a claim confirmed by an independent report earlier this year),[7] and by its criticism of Boris Johnson himself for his ‘burqa’ comments in 2018. But continuing to hold the new MCB leadership at a distance on the basis of its history looks increasingly bizarre and unsustainable. Other umbrella religion or belief organisations criticize the government on various grounds but are not so shunned.

In these ways, Jones successfully shows that the narrative that British Muslims have failed to integrate is at best too simplistic, and at worst, deliberately divisive. The persistent social conservatism of many Muslim individuals and organisations should not mask the fact that, by and large, these communities see themselves as part of British society and want to contribute to it positively.

Crucially, Jones argues, this gradual reorientation has been driven both by Muslim communities themselves and by external action from the state. This point challenges both the claim that Muslims themselves do not want to integrate, and the claim that all state intervention in the Muslim communities has been negative. Jones is critical (in my view rightly) of many illiberal government policies regarding Muslims, including much counter–terrorism policy which has contributed to making Muslims a suspect community. But he is also right to resist a black and white condemnation of all state action – noting for example the positive outcomes of government initiatives to build greater training opportunities for Muslim leaders, and the promotion of Islamic Studies in secular universities. The downside, as he notes at the start of the book, is that such initiatives to alleviate Muslim socioeconomic troubles are ultimately valued by government as a means to thwart extremism, rather than as important ends in themselves.

British Islam as a source of democratic renewal?

Jones’ book is not just about how we think about British Muslims; it’s also about how we think about liberalism. Right at the start of the book, he makes the startling claim that “if done right, the incorporation of Muslim minorities might facilitate democratic renewal.”[8] By this, he means that seeing the reality of British Islam today could help us see the limits of our current system, and more positively, opportunities for its revival.

His point is about public reasoning, and the kind of language and ideas that are considered valid in political debate in liberalism. Religious public reasoning is routinely rejected by secular critics as having no right to space in “public deliberations”, but Jones sees Islamic–based reasoning as particularly “unfairly excluded”. “In theory, Muslims in Britain are as welcome as anyone else to try and effect change on the basis of what they believe, but as soon as it becomes apparent that Islam is being used as a resource to motivate change conversations are rapidly closed down”.[9] There is an implicit pressure on Muslims (as on other religious believers) to translate their political arguments into (supposedly neutral) secular language. An example is a recent briefing paper from the Centre for Muslim Policy Research, a new British Muslim think tank, which takes an entirely secular tone in its discussion of assisted dying; the authors presumably made the (reasonable) assumption that references to Islam would weaken their appeal.

Jones sees this pressure on Muslims is a litmus test for the wider pressure on religious activists more widely. He argues that a liberalism which insists religious reasoning has no serious place in public or political debate is exclusionary – since, unlike the non–religious, religious citizens face the asymmetric burden of translation and are discouraged from making arguments in their own terms. He also argues such liberalism is impoverished. By setting limits on the kind of language that is socially acceptable in public debate, it hinders the introduction of new ideas, stultifying its capacity for revitalisation. As Jonathan Chaplin argues in an essay for Theos:

“In a political culture characterised by clashing religious and secular world views, democratic debate will be stifled and left impoverished if we discourage the articulation of the deeper convictions leading people to take the conflicting policy stances they do. By contrast, the confident assertion of rival justifying reasons, religious and secular, leaves the door open to innovative, critical, indeed radical interventions that can challenge the tendency for liberal democracy to slide into conformism, complacency, even oppression.”[10]

Making more space in our political culture for lawful religious reasoning (for example, in parliamentary debate) would not at all mean those arguments need to be accepted by others. It would mean, however, that they are given air time, and that political debate would reflect more closely the diversity of moral lenses that people use in this country when thinking about key issues. In the case of Muslims, it would also mean that they feel able to participate on equal footing with non–religious citizens – as people who can contest the rules of the game, in their own terms, as well as play it.

***

In these ways, Jones’ book highlights the limitations of our current form of liberalism. But ultimately, despite the many challenges facing the British Muslim community, Jones’ book is surprisingly optimistic – both about the future of British Islam, and the future of liberalism itself. If, as he claims, the “narrative about Muslims’ lack of integration does not have purchase”, then neither does “the associated claim about the inadequacy of liberal politics to meet the challenge of increasing cultural, moral and religious diversity”.[11] In other words, acknowledging the reality of Muslim Britain – of gradual integration and increasing engagement – could actually renew confidence in what our own political system has achieved, and what it could achieve with greater imagination.

 

Islam in the Liberal State: National Identity and the Future of Muslim Britain (2021) by Stephen Jones is published by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.


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[1] The Muslim Council of Britain represents its 500+ member organisations. It does not, however, have any formal authority over them or individual Muslims, and not all Muslim groups affiliate with or feel represented by it.

[2] Harun Khan, Hassan Joudi and Zahraa Ahmed (2020) ‘The Muslim Council of Britain: Progressive Interlocutor or Redundant Gatekeeper?’, Religions, 11(9), 473, p. 9. https://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/11/9/473 . See also https://mcb.org.uk/about/facts-about-mcb/

[3] Stephen H. Jones (2021) Islam and the Liberal State: National Identity and the Future of Muslim Britain. London: I.B. Tauris, p. 2.

[4] Sophie Gilliat–Ray, Mansur Ali and Stephen Pattison (2013) Understanding Muslim Chaplaincy. Farnham: Ashgate.

[5] Jones (2021) Islam and the Liberal State, p. 134.

[6] According to the MCB in 2020, the twelve Executive Committee members included four women, three from a Shi’a background. Khan, Joudi and Ahmed (2020) ‘The Muslim Council of Britain’, p. 5.

It should be noted, though, that along with most Sunnis and Shi’a, the MCB does not acknowledge the Ahmadiyya community as Muslims. The MCB has however denounced anti–Ahmadi violence. https://mcb.org.uk/mcb-updates/position-statement-the-muslim-council-of-britain-and-ahmadis/

[7] The Singh Investigation (2021) Independent Investigation into Alleged Discrimination: Citing Protected Characteristics within the Conservative and Unionist Party in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

https://singhinvestigation.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Singh_Investigation_Report_for_download.pdf

[8] Jones (2021) Islam and the Liberal State, p. 1.

[9] Ibid, pp. 152–3.

[10] Jonathan Chaplin (2008) Talking God: The Legitimacy of Religious Public Reasoning. London: Theos, p. 51.

https://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/cmsfiles/archive/files/Reports/TalkingGod1.pdf

[11] Jones (2021) Islam and the Liberal State, p. 154.

Simon Perfect

Simon Perfect

Simon is a Researcher at Theos. He is also a researcher and tutor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where he leads distance–learning courses exploring Muslim communities in Britain and in other minority settings. He is co–author of the book ‘Freedom of Speech in Universities: Islam, Charities and Counter–terrorism’ (Routledge, 2021).

Posted 12 November 2021

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