The recent images of Muslim women using Union Jacks and poppy hijabs as head coverings has reignited discussion into what it means to be a British Muslim, and while many will justifiably be suspicious as to the intentions of the media and Muslim organisations behind these campaigns, the topic itself should be one that is of concern to all.
Both of the hijab campaigns had similar motives; Inspire’s #makingastand campaign was about condemning Isis, whilst the poppy hijab initiative, which was backed by the Islamic Society of Britain, was about challenging extremist groups that are against the armed forces. Whilst ‘tackling extremism’ seems to be the central theme behind both these campaigns, the imagery associated with them re-opens the broader discussion on British Islam.
The focus for the various groups of people interested in this discussion will be diverse: for the media, sensationalistic reports on British Muslims are a sure way to sell material. Politicians are keen to keep an eye on the community, particularly due to their potential to alter the political landscape in years to come. Furthermore, given that governmental advisors have suggested that a factor in the process of radicalisation is an aversion to Britishness, the discussion on British Muslim identity has never been more pertinent.
With the wider public interest, a number of Muslim organisations are wrestling to take the lead in speaking on behalf of Muslims in the UK – not as representatives but more as authorities who suggest what Muslims ought to be like. Inspire’s campaign depicted by a union jack hijab implies that their ethos encapsulates what British Islam is truly about. The Islamic Society of Britain and the Radical Middle Way have also provided their input over the years, the latter having received government funding to push their narrative of British Islam as a counter-radicalisation measure. Conversely, other Muslim groups that display antipathy towards any discussion on the topic mistakenly assume that a discussion around ‘Britishness’ or British Islam will always be one that is pro-establishment, pacifist, or an attempt to stifle orthodoxy. It may be argued that this view is justified in light ISB’s recent actions, from their poppy hijab campaign to their reticence in censuring Israeli actions during the recent conflict in Gaza (for which they were heavily criticized), or the support offered by Inspire and Radical Middle Way for initiatives such as the contentious Prevent and Channel programme, initiatives that have also been heavily criticised by academics and journalists alike.
What we have been witnessing as this debate unfolds is a classic case of organisation politics; a situation in which various organisations compete for the authoritative voice that emanates from the Muslim community. With generous public grants, private time with influential members of parliament, and a public platform on offer, the desire to appease policy makers and media personalities can be overwhelming.
The reality is that in playing this game, many organisations have regrettably been sidetracked from what should be the actual objective of developing a British-Muslim identity, and in doing so, have alienated the very people whom they would be trying to influence. The lack of Islamic learning is also evident; very rarely are we witness to actual scholarship: profound insights into the law or cogent representations of Islamic theology. Many groups have come to assume that being inspired by faith means to be inspired by universal values with an ethnic tangent rather than scripture itself.
It is with this in mind that we must go back to the beginning and ask: what should be the motivating factor that is perpetually discernible for organisations that wish to shape the British Muslim debate? Is it the desire for political power, the prospect of being viewed as reformers or being invited to 10 Downing Street to rub shoulders with the Prime Minister at an Eid gathering?
There should be no mistake that the British-Muslim debate is extremely relevant, however, if the driving force isn’t a deep sense of godliness with a commitment to the law and Abrahamic monotheism, then not only is participation in the discussion futile, the discussion itself is pointless. For the believer, having our own British culture shaped by godly ethics where it is judiciously reasoned from revelation is extremely important, not because politicians demand this from us but because this is what Allah, Lord of all, expects.
The prospect of attempting to evaluate classical understandings of Islamic scripture through a British lens is a challenge, and at its core requires the birth of classical Islamic scholarship that is inherently British. This of course eliminates those who endeavour to justify a secular narrative or those simply seeking to bolster their own profile. What is needed are those who are culturally British, and emanate piety, seek godly rectitude, and specialize in the various branches of Islamic scholarship.
The time has come for Muslims as a community to realise that change is needed, and it should be the deep desire to worship the Most High, fulfill his expectations, and win His favour that drive us towards seeking that change.