Can there be an 'English Islam'?

'Englishness' is often set at odds with Islam, but in reality both these identities are malleable and porous. We must follow in the footsteps of Muslims throughout history in embracing new cultural formations.

H.A. Hellyer
5 October 2016
Baroness Warsi, first Muslim woman to serve in a British cabinet, outside Downing Street.

Baroness Warsi, first Muslim woman to serve in a British cabinet, outside Downing Street. Photo: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis. All rights reserved.Each year, the pilgrimage to the Islamic holy city of Mecca takes place – millions of people from various nationalities descend, and perform the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage. As usual, thousands of Muslim Britons joined their co-religionists, and the UK Foreign Office has a consular office in Mecca that assists them. This year, the UK’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia accompanied them – as a pilgrim himself. Her Majesty’s representative, Simon Collis, happens to be a Muslim – an English one, which seemed to take the media thoroughly by surprise. But is it actually as unusual as it seems?

Britain has British Muslims, and Muslims are integrated into British society. Their loyalty might be contested by parts of the right (and the left), regrettably – but generally, it’s now longer controversial to make the argument that Britishness and Islam can be strongly related. After all, there is an established history in the UK around speaking of Britishness as a modern, civic, and less essentialised nationalism – and, as such, can easily incorporate a variety of identities under the rubric of multiculturalism, which often relates identity to institutions and language. In that regard, Britishness is far similar to an American style of civic nationalism – and it’s relatively easy for Muslim identity to exist in that kind of universe.

But, there’s another kind of relationship to explore, which was raised inadvertently by our ambassador’s pilgrimage, as well as two recent conferences held by ‘British Futures’ (‘A Very English Islam’) and in Cambridge, by Cambridge Muslim College. That is the relationship between Englishness and Islam – which, according to people such as the former chair of the Conservative Party, Sayeeda Warsi, and Cambridge University theologian, Dr Timothy Winter, is a very strong relationship indeed. Claiming a positive relationship between Englishness and Islam, rather than simply Britishness and Islam, is a far bolder statement – because traditionally speaking, Englishness hasn’t been conceived as a kind of civic citizen-based nationalism at all. It’s been interpreted far more as an essentialized identity – one that relates to race, and also religion. And in England post-Brexit referendum, particularly with the noticeable rise in anti-Muslim sentiment via right-wing nativist populists, suggesting that Muslims of England could not only be considered British, but English, could be ever more intriguing.

As far as the likes of Winter and Warsi are concerned, there is no intrinsic or philosophical quandary to speaking of an English-Muslim expression of culture. Historically, there were many English Muslims, who were either converts or descendants of them, similar to Christians and socially, they were deeply embedded in English culture. It is an interesting perspective – and one that becomes more pertinent in the UK post-Brexit, and the rise of even deeper identity politics among the English, and also the increasing of anti-Muslim sentiment in the UK and beyond.

The question then arises – can Islam be accepted in the UK only as part of and via that multiculturalist discussion and civic nationalism of Britishness? Or can Islam be more embedded and indigenous – can it become intrinsically connected to Englishness, for example, in the same way that English Jews and English Catholics are English? It is not simply a question pertaining to whether or not Islam has that capacity of openness – but whether England does as well.  

There is a cultural question to be considered here. The majority of British Muslims today were born in the UK – but they descend from either expatriates or are the grandchildren of expatriates. Those original migrants were not, by and large, expecting to stay in the UK – but that has already changed for that generation, let alone their children and grandchildren. Their children and grandchildren have no such doubt. They’re not ‘staying’ anywhere – this is their home. This is why so much cultural creativity is taking place already in Muslim communities around the UK, even if more can be done.

Nonetheless, those migrants came from a different ethnicity from the majority of Britons – and pluralism has not exactly had an easy time in Europe until the latter half of the 20th century. The upsurge of populist politics, and the mainstreaming of racist tropes, which we have seen across the continent, as well as across the Atlantic Ocean, is not something to be taken lightly.

That issue of pluralism remains pertinent – not simply in terms of rejecting racism in the context of our laws and policies in the UK. But also on a deeply internal, cultural level – are we, as English men and women, willing to conceive of Englishness as a more open construct that could not only incorporate Muslims as British citizens, but as English, and Islam as an English religion? It’s not a foregone conclusion – but it does have serious ramifications for how we consider identity in England, the UK and Europe today.

As for Muslims, there is also the question of not only ethnicity, but religion. Is Islam a barrier to this kind of ‘indigenous’ exercise? Or are there resources within the Islamic tradition to allow for the indigenization of religious expression in ‘new’ countries?

Where Islam’s adherents are a majority, cultural embeddedness is plainly not an issue – otherwise, for example, Nigerian Islam would look, culturally, like Moroccan Islam. It patently does not – even though, on a religious level, they are the same in terms of their approach to Sunni doctrine, law and spirituality. But what about in a minority context? Is it the same? Or is Islam impervious to becoming connected to the land, except where Muslims run the show?

Winter argues in his own writings that Islamic tradition isn’t a barrier to a minority cultural expression of Islam – indeed, he considers Islamic tradition to enforce an imperative behind forming an English Islamic cultural expression. There are certainly historical precedents for that - in China, for example, where Muslims have lived for more than a millennium, without political supremacy, and a profoundly Chinese expression of Islam is incredibly evident. The same can be said for South Africa, where Muslims, including the most deeply traditional and orthodox, are intrinsically South African. Other illustrations abound. If history is anything to go by, Muslims have proven culturally extremely malleable historically, while maintaining Islamic creedal and canonical traditions.

Far beyond England – in Wales, across the European continent – the issues of Islam and being indigenous is a poignant one. The resources and ingredient for organic, localized and culturally embedded forms of Muslim religious expressions in England are all there. The real question is whether we’ll prefer to see that kind of future in Europe – or one where we are far more separated from each other, or, as both the populist right and religious extremists would prefer, worse. The choice is really ours.

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