Among the Mosques: A Journey Across Muslim Britain by Ed Husain
As your train pulls in to the station in a town you do not know well, you notice a new mosque, with minaret, standing in clear view of the tracks, and wonder what is going on inside, but reflect that you lack the knowledge of Islam, perhaps also the linguistic equipment, to make sense of what you would see and hear if you were to pay a visit.
And you reflect that you do not want to give offence. It is really much easier, and more tactful, to leave the worshippers at that mosque to their own devices, than to pester them with ignorant questions which might sound suspicious or even hostile.
For you, inhibited traveller, it would be a good idea to read Ed Husain’s book. For he has gone by train to nine towns and cities across the United Kingdom, and in each of these attended Friday prayers at the central mosque, entered many other mosques, Islamic schools and bookshops, questioned everyone from the imams and the faithful to chance passers-by in the streets, and created from these dialogues a portrait of some of the most unknown districts in Britain.
Husain is a Muslim who in his first book, The Islamist, described how he became, at the age of 16, a fundamentalist, and how he saw the error of his ways. His next work, The House of Islam: A Global History, reviewed on ConHome under the headline “How Islam and the West went wrong”,
“is animated by a burning sense of indignation at the way in which the Muslim faith has been narrowed and traduced by the rise of Salafi literalism, which as he says is ‘eerily similar’ to the puritanism which from the 16th century afflicted the Christian world.”
In his third book, he examines what has become of British Muslims, “the grandchildren of the British Empire”, in such centres as Dewsbury, Manchester, Blackburn, Bradford, Birmingham and London.
He has accumulated a mass of evidence, any one bit of which might be dismissed as inconsequential. But although his account is shot through with moments of hope, its general tendency is to warn that we have not being paying attention to a growing gulf within our own country.
In the “deeply divided” town of Blackburn, once represented in Parliament by Jack Straw, he finds:
“Much like Dewsbury, it is clear that a caliphist subculture thrives here, a separate world from the rest of British society.”
In Bradford, which has 103 mosques, he wonders how the city has become so segregated, and is appalled to find that the police are not allowed into mosques to speak to the congregants about not grooming white girls.
An imam tells him the groomers have nothing to do with Islam:
“There are two factors involved in those cases again and again: drugs and alcohol. Does Islam permit those things? Of course not. Yes, they have Muslim names and Pakistani backgrounds, but our mosques are not responsible for their criminality. These issues will be with us for a long time in Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, Keighley and other cities. But unless the police can prove it is not down to drugs and alcohol, we will not open the mosque doors to them…
“In 2010, they brought in laws to end corporal punishment. We as teachers in the mosque have no power over the children. They become teenagers and have no respect for us. The British limited us to the four walls of the mosque and then stopped our ability to control children.”
Husain argues for some time with this imam, but no meeting of minds takes place. He finds instead a closing of minds; a determination not to integrate:
“After travelling the length and breadth of Great Britain, meeting Muslims from every major denomination, it is clear to me that blind reliance on scripture and clerics is overwhelmingly strong within British Islam.”
But into what are British Muslims supposed to integrate? This is the question to which Husain works round at the end of his book. In his opinion,
“A fuzzy ‘integration’ whose success is judged by Muslims speaking English, baking cakes and playing cricket will not work. Caliphists are only successful in winning followers for their imagined utopia of an ‘Islamic State’ because the majority community is unable to tell a more compelling story of why Muslims should have a stake in maintaining Britain as a pluralistic, tolerant, secular democracy.”
Many at Westminster supposed that devolving power to Edinburgh would be a sufficient way to persuade the Scots to remain in the Union.
Only now is the realisation dawning that a positive idea of Britishness, as something more than the freedom to do one’s own thing, is required.
A similar misconception has underlain the failure of integration to which Husain draws attention.
The British idea of freedom includes a strong predisposition to respect other people’s privacy.
What one does in one’s own home is nobody else’s business. So too what one does in one’s church, temple, synagogue or mosque.
But this right to privacy does in fact have limits. It does not extend to the right in one’s own home to beat up one’s spouse, or in one’s place of worship to preach sedition.
Consider this passage from the Church of England’s Prayer Book:
“We beseech thee also to save and defend all Christian Kings, Princes, and Governors; and specially thy servant ELIZABETH our Queen; that under her we may be godly and quietly governed: And grant unto her whole Council, and to all that are put in authority under her, that they may truly and indifferently minister justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of thy true religion, and virtue.”
“In Britain’s synagogues on Saturday mornings, as in many of its churches on Sundays, a prayer is always said for the good health of the Queen. Historically, Muslims too have always prayed for the head of state’s wellbeing, as a symbol of thanksgiving for the security and stability of the lands in which they live. This prayer is more important now than ever to connect young Muslims to their country, monarch and government.”
When asked at a mosque in Rochdale to address an assembly of 120 children who are attending its Quran class, Husain tells them:
“never forget that you are children of this soil. You were born here and you belong here. Let nobody tell you otherwise. Muslims serve in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces and are present in every aspect of life here. Serve your country and your faith, and know that there is no contradiction between the two of them. Those who say we must choose between them, one or the other, are wrong. It’s like asking us to choose between our mum and our dad. Our religion tells us to serve our country, and our country gives us the freedom to be religious in a way that China or Russia does not.”
What a brave book this is. For as Husain says, for fear of giving offence, we often remain silent.