A few years ago, the New Statesman published an essay entitled ‘Who Speaks For British Jews’. The article offered a fascinating insight into the origins of the British Jewish community and the struggles it faced in establishing itself, both from outside the community and within it. There are some interesting parallels that can be drawn with British Muslims today: the hostility they faced from the political class alongside a forceful campaign of public defamation, to the in-house disagreements between Orthodox Jews and reformists, particularly on matters of political engagement that occurred later on in their history. Questions on representation, immigration and integration were all being asked of the Jewish community centuries ago just as they are of the Muslim community today. History indeed has an uncanny knack of repeating itself.
Defamation and hostility is certainly something most British Muslims can relate to. From Education Secretaries chasing Trojan Horses to Lords blaming the decline of the pub industry on tee-total Muslims, everyday there seems to be some sort of ludicrous story in the press blaming Muslims for a general problem within society. If 4% of the population are defamed through the portrayal of being the underlying cause for many of our problems, it would naturally follow that they will be the recipients of further hate and hostility – leading to a perpetual cycle.
An even more interesting parallel is the discussion on immigration and integration. Immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe who were escaping torrid living conditions were seen with contempt by the largely middle-class, Anglicised Jews of Britain. The influx resulted in mass calls for immigration control from members of Government, and whilst British Jews were keen to differentiate themselves from their immigrant brothers – perceived as being insular and culturally different, they feared that policies initially aimed at the immigrants might later be extended to include them, and consequently maintained a stance against immigration controls out of self interests. Of course, there were some Jews who supported the Government proposals, with some going as far as suggesting that Jews who could not make a living in Britain might be repatriated to their countries of origin.
Thus it seems, that the irrational concerns of ‘Kippers’ today with regards to immigration are certainly not new. In fact, perhaps someone should have reminded Mr Farage about this very point, when he was recently praising the British Jewish community for the success they have achieved: would the Jewish community have been as successful as it has been today, had these curbs on Jewish immigration been enforced in the muscular way in which Farage wishes he could today? Moreover, the parallels between the Jewish supporters of immigration controls and individuals like the UKIP MEP Amjad Bashir are also rather interesting. His staunch opposition to immigration is somewhat of an irony given that he himself is a first generation immigrant and his family was fined for hiring illegal immigrant workers in their restaurant.
The class divide between the Jews of those times is something we also see today within the Muslim community. Middle-class Muslims often look at their “ghettoised” brethren with much contempt, and rather than working hard to enable and promote social mobility within the community, it is perhaps much easier to simply point at working-class Muslims and blame them for the collective shortcomings of the Muslim community. Just as the Jews of the past, some Muslims of the middle-class will go to lengths in order to distance themselves from their supposedly ‘lower-class’ brethren, so as to maintain their image amongst their peers, and perhaps more importantly, those that fund their pretentious organisations.
However, perhaps due to the differing geopolitical contexts, the Jews of old did not have to encounter the problem of extremism; there were no questions about the concept of Milkhemet Mitzvah as there are now about Jihad, nor were there any individuals within their faith misappropriating the concept. For Muslims in Britain, the story is very different; widespread accusations of extremism are rife, and whilst some individuals do indeed hold highly questionable beliefs which need to be challenged, the barrage of policies against the wider Muslim community have achieved very little; in fact it could be argued that such policies have had a strongly negative effect on community cohesion.
What makes matters worse is when the overall approach to extremism is enacted in a one-sided manner. Recently, Theresa May announced a raft of measures aimed at tackling extremism which have been widely criticised, particularly the policies preventing universities from hosting speakers with ‘extreme’ views. Yet in the week that Theresa May unveiled her policies, Tommy Robinson (co-founder and former spokesman and leader of the English Defence League) was allowed to address the Oxford Union. Whilst it is vital that the views of individuals like Mr Robinson must be heard to illustrate his ignorance in all its glory, it’s somewhat hypocritical to allow the likes of Mr Robinson address the students of Oxford, whilst other Muslim speakers face bans across university campuses. Even if some of them do hold unpalatable views, having such views openly discussed and challenged in public is far more effective than blanket bans and relegating such views to internet forums where discussions are easily misinterpreted and are far more wide-reaching.
On the theme of ‘one rule for them’, a British soldier was sentenced to jail, who was obsessed with far-right extremism and made a viable nail bomb wishing to drag ‘every immigrant into the fires of Hell’ with him. Curiously however, he wasn’t charged with terrorism instead deemed to be an ‘immature teenager’. The well-known solicitor Imran Khan heavily criticised the verdict, citing that justice isn’t blind in the case of Muslims, and perhaps more relevantly, that “if the government, police and the courts wanted to send a message out to those British Muslims who have gone to Syria to come back then I fear that this has hampered that cause greatly.” By focusing on the problem of ‘Islamic extremism’ whilst completely ignoring the rise of far-right extremism, our society will only break further apart.
The challenges confronting the Muslim community in Britain today are not new, and in fact they mirror the challenges of minority communities of the past who struggled to establish themselves and be accepted by the societies they lived in. For all concerned, revising such histories would be a fruitful exercise; for Muslims, it should be about learning how to work with one another despite the differences we have, and above all, the need for having patience; it can sometimes take centuries for a community to really establish itself. For the political class who insist on having a muscular approach to the Muslim community, history shows that such a strategy has been tried with spectacular failure, and instead nurturing an environment where a community can confidently express itself is a better strategy which would likely benefit wider British society. After all, how can we possibly make the claims of being a ‘progressive nation’ if we continue to make the same mistakes as our predecessors?