A timely portrait of Muslim Britain impresses Barnaby Rogerson
Social history Al-britannia, My Country James Fergusson (Bantam Press, £20)
JAmes fergusson is a war reporter whose books chronicle many of the flashpoints of our times: the military occupation of southern Afghanistan, the taliban, Bosnia and the implosion of somalia. Last year, he turned his attention to his homeland and made a tour of cities that have large Muslim communities, such as Luton, Dewsbury, High Wycombe, oldham and Bradford.
there are now three million Muslims in Britain, some 5% of the population, and, even without further migration, that figure is set to grow to 5.5 million by 2030. Muhammad has become the most popular name for boys in Britain. Bradford now has 125 mosques, with a quarter of the city identifying themselves as Muslim.
the first generation of Muslim migrants typically came to work; the second improved themselves by studying. three children of Pakistani bus drivers are now working at the very peak of Britain’s meritocratic society: Mayor of London sadiq Khan, Baroness Warsi and the Cabinet minister sajid Javid.
However, side by side with these inspiring stories is the disturbing fact that three of the four suicide bombers of July 7, 2005, and the Glasgow airport attack were also British born. And, despite being brought up in leafy suburbs and companionable red-brick terraces, approximately 850 young third-generation British Muslims have gone to fight in syria and iraq.
even more controversial are the criminal gangs that, in dozens of cities, have been prosecuted for grooming and sexually abusing vulnerable young girls. What was once an asset to our society —the arrival of millions of diligent and family-minded workers —seems to have planted a number of cuckoos in the nest.
We all desperately need to understand what’s happening in these emerging centres of Muslim Britain, particularly as only the colourful, extrovert extremists, such as Abu Hamza and the poppy-burning Anjem Choudary, attract the attention of the media. now, Mr fergusson has presented us with that opportunity. relying not on undercover camera teams, but on hundreds of faceto-face conversations over cups of tea, he has marshalled his surveillance tools of wit, tenacity and decades of experience of the Muslim world to produce a fine, detailed portrait of Al-britannia.
What he portrays is a nation within the nation, one that doesn’t share our love of dogs, pork and alcohol or our recent pride in equality between gender and sexualities. the Muslim community in Britain is overwhelmingly working class of south Asian origin, coming from india, Pakistan and Bangladesh. it is not a homogenous population. Mr fergusson takes us behind these country labels to show that most of our mosques are affiliated to either of the rival Barelwi or Deobandi networks. the latter was first formed in direct reaction to the failure of the indian Mutiny/war of independence and has an innate suspicion of British imperialism.
He stresses the importance of understanding background and its influences; the differences between Gujarati intellectuals, solid, middle-class Punjabi and migrant workers from the wilder political backgrounds of sind, Balochistan or the Pathan mountains. Among the groups he identifies is the Mirpuri, who were transported en masse to Britain from Kashmir and still retain a sense of a community apart.
the problems, Mr fergusson discovers, are never to do with there being too much islamic education, but rather too little, leaving young people vulnerable to half-baked notions received in the gym, the prison or off the internet. in a sense, the real issues faced by British Muslims are the ones we all face in trying to achieve a proper, balanced, family life: absent or cruel fathers, mothers over-pampering their sons and too much of childhood lived through a screen.
the stories of young people smoking too much weed and then failing in exams or work are familiar in all cultures, but what the invasion of iraq by tony Blair and George Bush did was to provide an instant solution to that loss of self-esteem: terrorism. All this is leavened by a whimsical and enchanting final chapter, in which the author describes becoming a Muslim himself for a month during the time of ramadan.
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