When an Argument Breaks Down

By Muhammed Abdelmoteleb


“Anyone who lives in a city like mine and interests himself in the fate of the world cannot help wondering whether, deeper than [an] immediate cultural desperation there is anything intrinsic to Islam … that renders it unable to adapt itself comfortably to the modern world. … I think the answer is yes.”

This is the conclusion of the British doctor and social commentator Theodore Dalrymple in his article “When Islam Breaks Down” (City Journal Spring 2004), regarded as the best journal article of 2004 by David Brooks of the New York Times. Dalrymple tackles many issues in his article, taking swipes at Islam here and there such as mentioning Islam’s “intolerance and rigidity” and how Shakespeare is much “richer and more profound than the Qur’an”—which means Dalrymple must have mastered Arabic. However, I wish to focus on the cultural dimension of his arguments, which, as will be demonstrated, is of central concern and ultimately undermines his own conclusions.

One of the harsh realties Dalrymple points out is the high number of Muslim Pakistani girls he sees in his hospital who have attempted to commit suicide. These girls, he tells us, are forced into marriages in Pakistan, and end up feeling so desperate that they see death as the only means of escape. This is indeed a profoundly disturbing situation that needs to be looked at and resolved by the Muslim Pakistani community in the United Kingdom. However, Dalrymple lays the blame for this sickening situation at the door of Islam. He preemptively replies that people often point out that this is a cultural issue, not a religious one. However “Punjabi Sikhs also arrange marriages: they do not, however, force consanguineous marriages of the kind that take place from Madras to Morocco.” The same could be pointed out for Hindu marriages.

What cannot be asserted, however, is that the forced marriage that drives girls to suicidal despair is the fault of Islam. It is not a Muslim issue or even a Pakistani issue; it is a class issue. In order to understand this, one must look to the immigration patterns of Pakistanis in the United Kingdom and the United States. In the 1950s and 1960s, Britain invited unskilled manual workers from the Commonwealth to come and work. People came from Pakistan and Jamaica, among other countries, and worked as bus drivers and factory workers. Most of these people, especially from Pakistan, were uneducated and many were illiterate even in their own language. Obviously they brought their own customs, both positive and negative, and some 30 or 40 years later they remain so insulated that they speak only a few words of English, while some speak none at all.

Though the second and third generations do go on to study at university, educational research shows that the pupils that perform the worst in schools in the United Kingdom are of Pakistani and Bengali origin. In contrast, most Pakistanis that immigrated to the United States did so for academic reasons—to take up a post in a university or to pursue a PhD—so the community that has emerged there is very different.

Dalrymple also mentions a Muslim Pakistani girl who was prevented from going to university to study journalism as evidence of the backwardness of Muslims and Islam. If it was a Muslim or Pakistani issue, why is it that Muslim Pakistani girls in the United States are not in a similar predicament? Why is it that they are instead going to university in great numbers to study for a master’s degree or a doctorate?

As a teacher in the United Kingdom, I had to counter such arguments from my non-Muslim colleagues.

Judging Islam by the actions of Pakistani Muslims in Britain is like looking at a migrant community of white working-class people from the United Kingdom and judging Christianity by their actions.

Dalrymple applies the same logic to Pakistani boys in his city, complaining how they take and sell heroin (“a habit almost unknown amongst their Sikh and Hindu contemporaries”), fill the country’s prisons, take Muslim wives as “domestic slaves” and white working-class girls as “concubines.” Islam, therefore, has “no improving or inhibiting effect upon the behaviour of [the] city’s young Muslim men.” Because of this, according to Dalrymple, there is something inherently wrong with Islam. If only he would turn his eyes across the Atlantic to look at the condition of young Muslim men there. He would see that Islam does have a positive effect on them and they do pray, do read Qur’an and do eat halal meat, in contradistinction to what he cites about the British Muslim youth lining prisons throughout the United Kingdom.

However, the social alienation that Dalrymple analyzes, combined with a distorted interpretation of Islam, had murderous, terrible results with the terrorist attacks of July 7 in London, in which over 50 people were killed and over 200 injured. Three of the suicide bombers were young British Pakistani Muslims, one was a Jamaican convert. (British Jamaicans become Muslim, according to Dalrymple, to exact revenge upon British society: “It answers their need for an excuse to go straight, while not at the same time surrendering to the morality of a society they believe has wronged them deeply.” I wonder how many Jamaican converts Dalrymple interviewed before reaching that conclusion? What about white converts?)

Since this horrific atrocity, the newspapers have been filled with opinion pieces about the reasons that turned these young British men into terrorists. One writer went so far as to say that the “real suicide bomb is multiculturalism” (Mark Steyn, “A Victory for Multiculti Over Common Sense,” The Daily Telegraph 19 July 2005). The writer has a point—but the problem is not multiculturalism per se but its failure in the United Kingdom.

One week after the London bombings, I attended Friday prayer in Oxford’s newest, biggest mosque. I did not understand a word of what was being said, as the sermon was in Urdu.

Someone handed the imam a two-sentence denunciation of the attacks, which should have read something like, “We as Muslims condemn the terrorist attacks of July 7. Islam prohibits the killing of innocent civilians.” However, the imam’s English was so poor and his accent so thick that he gave up halfway through reading the statement. As I left the mosque, I saw young savvy British Muslims handing out leaflets from Hizb ut-Tahrir (a radical Islamist party). The problem was manifest right there. This was much the same choice I had growing up in my small town in the United Kingdom: the Urdu speaking mosque with its imam from a Pakistani village or British Muslim and English-speaking Arabs affiliated to Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Obviously there is more to the problem. Why, for example, have radicals like Omar Bakri Mohamed and Abu Hamza been allowed to openly glorify acts of terrorism? Why has someone as dangerous as Abu Qatada been released from Belmarsh High Security Prison? In its declared love for liberty and freedom of speech, the British government has given these voices a platform and has created a breeding ground for impressionable young people to be influenced. Only now, in the wake of the attacks is something being done about this problem. But the failure of imams and mosques, due to the British immigration pattern of mainly uneducated non-English-speakers, is part of the problem. I’m sure you would be hard pushed to find a Friday sermon in the United States that was not in English; sadly, the opposite is true in the United Kingdom.

I’ve experienced this situation intimately while teaching in the United Kingdom. Many of my students were Pakistani teenagers who were living in a “Pakistani village” at home and in a completely different world at school. Many of the young boys aspired to be like Ali G (ironically, Sacha Baron Cohen, the actor who plays Ali G, is a white Cambridge graduate who satirizes the Pakistani youths’ identity crisis) or 2 Pac. More worryingly, some students had OBL (Osama bin Laden) written on their textbooks. Pakistani girls in class were either painfully shy and inarticulate, or else loud and brash. One girl at the school went joy-riding in her boyfriend’s car with her friend and suffered a near-fatal crash; much to the surprise of the teachers, instead of showing concern for his daughter, the girl’s father disowned her. Leaving school does not usually provide new opportunities except unemployment for the boys and early motherhood in a marriage to someone from Pakistan for the girls.

So there has, as Theodore Dalrymple argues, been a breakdown. However, this breakdown has been located in the British Muslim community. Two generations on and the level of unemployment and the number of British Muslims leaving schools without qualifications remains high. A worryingly high percentage of British Muslim are involved in crime. There has yet to emerge a generalized British Muslim identity; in fact Hizb ut-Tahrir has spoken out against such a notion, arguing that we are Muslims who live in Britain, not British Muslims. This attitude does no more than create further confusion and alienation. Dalrymple believes the fault lies with Islam; a closer examination shows the reasons to be more complex.

**Muhammed Abdelmoteleb is the head of English at an international school in Cairo. He is a graduate of both the University of Wales, Cardiff, and Cambridge University, and has been a contributor to Q-News, the British Muslim magazine. He currently resides in Cairo with his wife. You can contact him on mabdelmoteleb@gmail.com.


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