A snapshot of Muslim Britain

By Ruth Gledhill
The Times
November 30, 2004


A new guide aims to dispel damaging myths

BRITAIN’S 1.6 million Muslims are forging a new identity by blending the colourful traditions of their parents with the majority culture, according to a new guide.

Muslims are raising the profile of their religion in the performing arts as singers, actors and comedians and they are also reaching the top in sport, politics and in all the leading professions, the guide shows.

In fashion, traditional loose-fitting and modest designs are being fused with Western styles, especially for women.

Muslims in Britain, published by the Muslim Council of Britain and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, was launched last night at a reception at the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre in West London to mark the fast-breaking festival of Eid-al Fitr.

The guide celebrates the achievements of British Muslims at a time when the community faces regular incidents of hostility and discrimination and is struggling to dissociate itself from extreme Islamists who have embraced terrorism in the name of their religion.

Faced with unprecedented levels of interest in Islam, the Muslim Council of Britain has launched a new information service, MCBDirect, in an attempt to dispel some of the more damaging myths and provide accurate details about the growing community.

The guide cites possible evidence that Muslims have been in Britain in some form since at least the 8th century, based on the discovery of coins of King Offa stamped with the Shahada, or Muslim declaration of faith.

In Ballycottin on the southeast coast of Ireland, a 9thcentury brooch was also found, stamped with the Islamic inscription of the Basmala, the words “In the name of God the most merciful, the most beneficent”.

But it was after the international routes of trade and commerce opened up in the 19th century that the community became properly established.

By 1842, about 3,000 Muslim seamen, known as lascars, were visiting Britain regularly and many married and settled here. The largest period of migration was in the 1950s, when Muslims came to Britain from rural areas of South Asia, mainly to ease Britain’s labour shortfall.

Although most of Britain’s Muslims, one million, live in London, there are large communities also in Birmingham, Bradford, Leicester, Scotland, and Wales. Nearly half of Britain’s Muslims are now British-born, with most of the remainder coming from Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Middle East.

The community has growing political muscle, with 13 marginal parliamentary seats, including Rochdale and Brent North, containing large numbers of Muslim voters.

In the past few years the community has also become highly organised, with its own newspaper, The Muslim News, and with 400 Muslim and related organisations affiliated to the Muslim Council of Britain and 1,200 mosques throughout the country.

Young musicians such as the composer Sami Yusuf, 24, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music and sportsmen such as the Sheffield boxer Prince Naseem Hamed and the badminton champion Aamir Ghaffer have gained international recognition.

Besides Mohammed Sarwar, who swore allegiance to the Queen on the Koran on being elected to Parliament, Muslims in politics include Khalid Mahmood, MP for Perry Barr and Lord Bhatia, a former trustee of Oxfam.

Iqbal Sacranie, secretary- general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: “The guide is to do with a vision of engaging and working alongside others to achieve the goals that we all share.” He added: “Through showcasing such positive contributions we aim to inspire confidence and promote creativity throughout the British Muslim community.”

He said that the Government’s undertaking, outlined in the Queen’s Speech last week, to outlaw religious discrimination “will go a long way towards addressing the serious and damaging effects of Islamophobia”.

Mr Sacranie said that the guide was not intended to be a political or campaigning document. It was simply a portrait of the strengths of the community, its increasing success in integrating into British society, and its history.

He said that, far from turning a blind eye to the problems in the community, the new guide would show the way ahead for disadvantaged Muslims.

“When we look at the issues of under-achievement in education, in health in terms of heart and smoking relating problems and other illnesses and the large number of Muslim prisoners, it is clear that there are still areas of major concern,” he said.

“These bring out serious problems on the ground. Muslims suffer from restricted opportunities, and there is religious discrimination too. These issues have to be tackled, there is no question about it, but they can be tackled in terms of the great strides made in other areas. ”


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