Muslims in Britain: generations, experiences, futures

About the author
Maruf Khwaja is a journalist and author. Orginally born in India, he was raised in Pakistan and currently lives in London.

The image of British Muslims in the media and among the public is often coloured by prejudice, exaggeration or stereotype. The truth is that this group of around 1.6 million people is composed overwhelmingly of pretty ordinary people with the same sort of desires, ambitions, frustrations, failures and successes as members of any other community.

There are, as with other communities, a mixture of types: religious extremists, moderates, those who identify closely (perhaps too closely) with “Muslim brothers” in other countries, and those who want to get away from the brotherhood as far and as fast as they can; as well as a variety of racial and ethnic strands, speaking diverse languages and dialects.

A very British combination, then, of commonality and distinctiveness; but British Muslims also experience handicaps and shortcomings peculiar to our condition. This article outlines a few of these in the interests of mutual understanding.

British Muslims are more likely than people of other creeds to have identity crises, and tend towards insularity and alienation from the mainstream. One source of these crises is the yet unresolved issue of whether religious or national identity should take precedence in the Muslim’s acute sense of awareness.

Also by Maruf Khwaja in openDemocracy:

Terrorism, Islam, reform: thinking the unthinkable

For articles on related themes by Mohammed Sajid, Max Farrar, Amyn B Sajoo, Turi Munthe, Scilla Elworthy and Vinay Lal, click here

The problem is more acute than these simple polarities. There are around seventy-two religious sects within Islam; many provinces within each Muslim-majority nation; and many tribes, castes or clans within each province. But when British Muslims focus on practicing their religion in Britain, they face even more challenges than internal division - among them the devilish temptations of a permissive, increasingly hedonistic host society.

Islam is not an easy faith to practice. In terms of ritual time, physical sacrifice and commitment, it demands more of its followers than perhaps any other world religion. Its disciplines are harsher, more exacting and punishments (even in this life) more severe. It is also a very “public” or demonstrative religion, and both its divisions and contradictions are in the open.

This can lead to the impression, particularly among secular people, that Muslims are obsessed with their religion – and that the overflow of this obsession into the public domain makes them less amenable to coexistence than followers of other faiths. This attitude adds another layer of pressure onto a community already struggling to produce a coherent, attractive narrative of itself to the wider British society.

A chasm between generations

British Muslims’ relative socio-economic deprivation makes elements of the community more susceptible to drug-dealing, tax evasion and abuse of the social security system; Muslim society in Britain (as generally in Europe) is producing its share of prostitutes, stripteasers, table-dancers and glamour models.

Such behaviours, all fodder for Britain’s hostile, sensational tabloid press, may seem paradoxical for a people apparently obsessed with religious observance. But they are not entirely the result of the “corrupting influences” of permissiveness and the abandonment of “religious morality”. A large contribution arises from the widening generation gap within Muslim families – manifested in the loss of parental control and decline in the moral authority of the family elder, and in the imposition of draconian restrictions (particularly on female dependents).

The majority of the first wave of Muslim immigrants to Britain originated among the peasantry of south Asia and Africa. They were largely unlettered people, far below many of their new compatriots in social status and cultural awareness. The only factor that unified them was Karl Marx’s “opium of the people” – religious dogmatism. The effects on their children can be imagined: children of a Mirpuri textile worker in northwest England had to muddle through homework without any assistance or supervision from illiterate parents, who in turn were more concerned to indoctrinate their kids with the only thing they knew – the rudiments of their religion as taught to them by the village mullah at home.

The children might regularly be bundled off “home” for a season of Islamic indoctrination and to get the Britishness out of their system. The father, after thus completing his “Islamic duty”, would let his troubled conscience rest in peace, blissfully unaware of the irreparable damage he had caused his children’s schooling.

As a result, the children would be neither “here” nor “there”. Many would return (and still do) to the tattered threads of their British education – not indoctrinated in Islamic theology but in the culture of drugs, which are cheap and plentiful in Pakistan.

What filled the “culture gap” in the lives of such children were influences perceived by parents to be evil and immoral. This type of migrant produced the first Muslims to cut the throats of their daughters for even secretly lusting after the lads they met at school; and the “protective” older brother of the second generation who would doggedly chase after an eloping sister until she ended up dead and he in prison. The would-be protector might also “escort” another sister to a forced marriage with an elderly relative.

Qur’an by day, Bhagavad-Gita by night

It is difficult in this era of radical militancy and suicide-bombing to persuade Muslims in “moderate” Islamic countries to embark on a much-needed process of self-analysis. It is in principle easier for Muslim societies in Europe and North America to do so – because they are faced with the challenge of preserving some sort of identity against the combined impact of powerful inherited cultures and a hedonism-driven media.

Any such process of self-examination entails challenging old assumptions and making the practice of Islam more amenable to modernity; thus it can only be undertaken in places where rational debate is protected from death threats. It is a fact of Islamic life that these do not come merely from known fundamentalist extremists out to conquer the world. Excommunication followed by violent death can be the “official” fate decreed for any Muslim who challenges what an Islamic religious authority deems sacrosanct.

Yet in some, unannounced and quite private ways, this critical self-engagement has already been going on for many years, with results that should open Muslim eyes. Young Muslims in Britain are voting with their feet; mosques in areas with substantial Muslim populations are underused or lie deserted on all but festive occasions. (Mosques lie empty in Pakistan too, but they can legally be “martyred” only if a bigger one is to be built in its place). The reasons for the neglect are also “internal” to the faith. Islam is a full-time religion requiring a high level of sustained commitment from its adherents that often proves unmanageable.

Moreover, some of the busier mosques owe their popularity to earthly rather than higher reasons, being filled with children during, so to speak, “off-peak” hours – since the Qur’an learning session can offer a free babysitting alternative to a costly childminder.

For several years, some Hindu friends of ours in Warrington, northwest England, who couldn’t afford a childminder sent their two boys to the local morning madrasa, where an accommodating mullah (fondly believing he was gaining converts to the faith) would look after them all day. The Hindu boys would “learn the Qur’an” by rote while the parents would run their market stall in peace. Their early “Muslim” schooling did not prevent the boys’ embracing their parents’ Hindu fundamentalism in adult life.

The taboo of abuse

British Muslims encounter the unavoidable requirement for critical self-examination where school, college or working life brings them into constant contact with secular western culture. They may turn to Muslim clergy, their elders and community leaders for help with basic, logical questions; too often the responses they receive are evasive or unhelpful. If some, fearful of ostracism, react with silence, a small minority responds by seeking answers elsewhere – and may end by embracing a version of militant zealotry.

Meanwhile, a majority of young Muslims remain vulnerable to the seductive powers of a society with materialist (or at best humanist) obsessions. Their exposure to rational thought, forms of temporal knowledge and bitter life-experiences force many dissatisfied young adults seeking entry to mainstream society to question their inherited belief in an ideology they have come to find obstructive of their pursuit of normal living.

Muslim young people, after all, want to do what their secular friends do – have nights out, go clubbing, have boyfriends or girlfriends. Many, depressed by social isolation, attempt to escape by leaving their parents and their Islamic legacies behind; others do so in panic at the prospect of forced arranged marriage. But even some who choose to stay inwardly reject the rigorous disciplines of Islam – the repetitive prayer rituals (preceded by other rituals), the parrot-fashion chanting of verses they either do not fully understand or whose language they find archaic and dictatorial.

Many young British Muslims feel Islam demands too much of them – some even say everything, their entire being. Allah, it seems, is a jealous, possessive creator. No wonder some protest:

“It may be all right to pray all day in a place like Rub al-Khali (Arabia’s empty quarter) where there is nothing much to do, but in a competitive society all time is precious and career building demands all of it.”

The young resent the fact that in the traditional Muslim home all the things that attract them – music, dance, cinema, television, even many kinds of hobby and sport – are taboo, cardinal sins, regarded as Satanic. It is easier to be a nun or a Catholic priest than a practicing Muslim. The masochistic suppression of powerful basic instincts often leads to the same sort of priestly disasters. It isn’t just sexually frustrated Catholic priests who sodomise little boys and mark them for life. Sodomy is an ugly fact of daily life for men in strictly segregated Muslim societies. In the paradise of fundamentalist fantasy, if seventy-two virgins fail to meet his wildest dream, an endless supply of ghilmaan (pretty boys, or genderless cherubs) offers alternative pleasure.

As a small boy in Karachi, I experienced or witnessed varying degrees of molestation by people as diverse as barbers, teachers, neighbours and older boys. Every boy I knew at school had similar experiences. Perhaps that is why the most frequently used abusive terms in the Urdu language are derived from the words for sodomy and incest.

A life-cycle of faith and wisdom

If Pakistani society is tormented by ubiquitous thought-police, British Muslim society is not far from developing its own version. Almost no aspect of life escapes invigilation. The strictures on young women, especially severe, are both religious and cultural. It is immodest and therefore immoral for her to engage in sport that would entail exposure of the arms and legs; to have normal friendships with boys is unthinkable.

The suppression of the sexual instinct has catastrophic manifestations that Muslim societies are loath to acknowledge. Sexually-transmitted diseases (including HIV/Aids) reached epidemic proportions before Pakistani, Egyptian, and Indonesian public health officials set up elementary sex-education programmes. In areas of Pakistan where fundamentalists rule, a sex educationalist would enter only at the risk of his or her life – and would be murdered for even hinting at the perceived Pathan predilection for sodomy.

When Pakistanis began their mass migration to Britain, they carried more than their personal religious beliefs. Their baggage also held the sectarian conflicts inherent in those beliefs. Pakistan’s violently sect-ridden politics have a far reach. When a wahhabi bomb maims or kills dozens of Shi’a in Multan, the repercussions are felt in Bradford; an attack on a Barelvi mosque in Lahore invites reprisals in Birmingham.

In my childhood it was easy to define “Muslimhood”: a Muslim was someone who claimed to be one. Details of what that entailed became more complicated as I grew older. In mid-boyhood I learnt that only through the (Sunni) Hanafi school of fiqh could true Islam be practiced. In my early teens, I discovered that (Sufi-influenced) Barelvi are little better than pagan idolators and tomb worshippers, who are destined for hell.

In my late teens, I left for America secure in the knowledge that Shi’a are apostates and renegades and that Ismailis are infidels of the deepest dye. Consequently, I rearranged my mental universe, abandoned all the schools I was born into and indoctrinated with, and went all by myself happy and free into the land of the infidel.