Books: Journeys through contradictions

Written By: Paul Routledge
Published: July 31, 2017 Last modified: July 31, 2017

Al-Britannia, My Country: A Journey Through Muslim Britain
by James Fergusson
Bantam Press £20

The Battle For British Islam
by Sarah Khan
Saqi £14.99

Two random news items from recent days. Alan Chivers, 36, called a Muslim mother and daughter “Isil scum” before hitting the girl in the face with an open packet of bacon. He was jailed for 26 weeks after admitting racially or religiously aggravated common assault and causing racially or religious alarm at Highbury Corner on 6 June.

Imam Tarik Chadlioui, 43, a Moroccan living in Birmingham, appeared before Westminster magistrates to answer an extradition warrant brought by Spanish authorities who claim he is a “well-known” radical who has recruited youths for Isis. In a YouTube video, the preacher said: “Muslims should take up armed punishments in the secular lands.”

These brief glimpses into a world of hate offer little hope for multicultural Britain, but that’s not very surprising. Most people don’t know much about Islam, and what they do know is often wrong or tendentious, the product of Right-wing tabloid journalism.

Muslims are portrayed as “other.” They keep to themselves, they live in virtual ghettoes separated by language, dress, customs and religion. And the majority of terrorists who kill and maim come from their community – if a diverse population of more than three million can be so described.

There is some truth in all of these stereotypes, but it is an uninformed view. In different, conflicting ways, these two books aim to counter that illiteracy. James Fergusson, an award-winning journalist who has reported extensively from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, took his notebook on an extended tour of his own country to see for himself what the real picture looks like.

Al-Britannia is his vivid and serious report, which makes disturbing reading, though not always for the right reasons. He talks to local Muslims in Dewsbury, Luton, High Wycombe, west and north London, to “victims” of the so-called Trojan Horse school Islamisation campaign in Birmingham, to imams in charge of sharia councils (not “courts”) in Oldham, to kilted Asian SNP Muslims in Glasgow seeking a Scottish Islam, to women “doing it for themselves in Bradford”, to Deobandis in Leicester in a year-long safari into the heart of British Islam.

The more he saw, the more he liked what he saw, and the more he agreed with those to whom he spoke. He has an excuse, or at least an explanation, for all the awkward aspects: segregation in schools, the rise of Salafist hard-line religioisity, the wearing of the niqab, the sedulous campaign to get rid of the government’s Prevent anti-extremism policy. Indeed, his unapologetic intention was to give voice to Muslims, “to hear about what is good”.

And to convey that message to the widest possible audience. It is no fault of his that Al-Britannia was written before, but published soon after, the Westminster Bridge murders, the Manchester Arena killings and the knife-slayings on London Bridge, all the work of Islamist terrorists. Not to mention the revenge of white van man at Finsbury mosque – which Fergusson previously visited. There may never be a good time for sympathetic reportage, and this certainly isn’t it – which is a pity because such work is sorely needed to counter the rabid tabloid coverage.

Equally vital, however, is the clear-eyed denunciation of Salafist Islam and all its works by Sarah Khan, a British Muslim, founder of the activist women’s group Inspire. The sub-title of her book, Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism, tells you what’s coming: a hugely well-informed intellectual and political journey through the undergrowth every bit as extensive as Fergusson’s travels.

While acknowledging that Prevent and other government policies have their faults, Khan (derided by Fergusson’s friends as a moderate) insists: “We cannot simply stand by. Sometimes the hardest battle we fight is within. This is certainly the case for Muslims and the struggle within contemporary Islam … A responsibility lies on Muslims to define and shape British Islam.”

To achieve this, she argues, Islam must be rescued from the extremists, who have found gesture support on the political Left and in the education trade unions.

The evidence in these two books is wildly contradictory. Fergusson offers a rather happy-clappy version of British Islam, Khan an almost apocaplyptic vision of the future. Hers is more forensic than the rival Cobbett’s ride, and frankly more convincing.

I should say that I am no enemy of Islam. I have travelled to Iraq, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, the UAE, Tunisia, Morocco, Malaysia, Pakistan and the Muslim-heritage countries of Central Asia for work, study and pleasure. I have sat for a whole day breathing in the splendour of the Grand Mosque in Damascus, and even more in Isfahan, Samarkand, Khiva and Bokhara. There is Islamic art on the walls of my home, and books on my shelves. So please don’t call me Islamophobic, because then I’ll know for certain that Ms Khan is right.

About Paul Routledge

Paul Routledge is a political commentator for the Daily Mirror