Re-painting the face of British Islam

Michaela Singer
8 Min Read

CAIRO: On July 7, 2005, four British Muslims blew themselves up on the London public transport system. Fifty-two commuters, Muslims included, were tragically killed.

Two years later, and the fundamental question of why it was that four, seemingly middle class, educated young men took their own lives and others’, remains largely unanswered.

For Muslims on the other side of the globe, it would confirm perceptions that their Western brethren were subject to victimization and scapegoat-ism: so marginalized from their “host society they were prepared to murder fellow citizens.

But for the reality for the majority of UK’s Muslims, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Ed Hussein, author of the much acclaimed “The Islamist, and Usama Hassan, commuting science lecturer at Middlesex University and Imam in London’s Tawhid Mosque, are two of six British Muslims who made the trip to Cairo as part of a delegation seeking to slide open the shutters on UK’s Muslim population.

Although the delegation is sponsored by the foreign office, the representatives declare passionately that they have come to Egypt to represent themselves, and their communities rather than British political and diplomatic interests.

“Our aim is to illustrate to ordinary Egyptians, as well as to the media, life for what it is; our own backgrounds and our own upbringings, the diversity of British life, and that Britain, as a country, does not deliberately go out to insult and conspire against Muslims, said Ed Hussein, author and PhD student.

Lasting four vigorous days, the delegation’s trip will incorporate informal meetings with students and Non-Governmental Organizations, representatives from Amr Khaled’s Right Star Foundation and The Arab Women’s alliances, lecturers, influential Islamic scholars and press interviews.

Circumscribed by time, whether the representatives can begin to make a dent in Egyptian perceptions is testament to their conviction, and of course, the ability to withstand the relentless Cairo traffic.

The delegation arrived for a fly-by press interview at the British Embassy late Monday afternoon after a long battle with Kasr El-Aini Street. That morning they had met 120 Sharia students from Al-Azhar University, where it emerged just how nebulous visions of British Islam are among young Egyptians.

“Their perception of Britain and Europe was the Danish cartoons, Salman Rushdie, 9/11, 7/7 . The media perception, or the portrayal, rightly or wrongly, of those ugly bruises on the European landscape is what the people at Al-Azhar see, said Hussein

“Despite being the top brass from what is considered to be a leading Muslim seminary, the level of awareness vis-à-vis British Muslim life, was next to nothing, he added. “They had no idea that we have two million Muslim citizens, that numerically we have over 1,000 mosques, and that we were totally free to practice our religion as and how we wanted to.

Hussein, member of the progressive Islamic think-tank, the Quilliam Foundation, is both a fluent Arabic speaker and is well-versed in Quranic studies. His brush with fundamentalist Islam in his student years went on to form the basis of the, “The Islamist. Hence he was surprised, if not slightly amused, when he was asked to prove his Islamic credentials by students.

But as much as figures such as Hussein and Hassan feel it is their duty to represent British Islam on foreign lands, it is their home Isles that are calling out for their moderate views the most. With phrases such as “crisis point and “extreme tension being common favorites in British press, and the rift between the government and the Muslim Council of Britain widening, British government is calling out for the voices of moderate British Islam to take the reins of leadership and steer British Islam towards more harmonious horizons.

“The government has distanced itself from the Muslim Council of Britain, because it is dominated by political Muslims, says Hussein. “They were jettisoned by government post 7/7 because they refused to condemn the ideology behind terrorism, and they refuse to admit publicly that there is an ideology behind it. As a result, the government has looked for these good people.

Those good people include Kirstin Chambers, a white British professional who converted to Islam while living in Egypt with her Egyptian husband three years ago. With her blond, unveiled hair, it was difficult for the students to comprehend, or perhaps acknowledge her identity as a “legitimate Muslim.

Hassan, meanwhile, scientist and imam, believes problems in Britain stem from a lack of education of Islam. “I’ve been studying the Quran for over 30 years, and I’m passionate about that. I’m from a moderate Wahabi background, and there’s great strength in Wahabism.

But the varied composition of the delegation represents the heterogeneity of British Islam with regards not only to ethnicity but approach to the faith itself. As Hussein points out, “Why should the government have to deal with one group that sees itself as the monopolized leadership, when the leadership of the community is diverse? It speaks over 110 languages, and has over 140 different ethnic backgrounds, maybe more.

The struggle against a politicized Islam is something, according to Hussein, that Britain and Egypt share, but he praises the efforts of the Egyptian Grand Mufti in helping to transform the mindsets of imprisoned Islamists such as Ayman Zuhdi.

“Sheikh Ali Gomaa has been successful in at least injecting doubt in their rigidity, and helping turn out around their mindset is because he’s a scholar who is rooted in scripture, its diversity and its inherent pluralism, he says.

Meanwhile, Hassan explains that Imams need to teach the Quran and Sunna holistically using the Maqasid El-Sharia methodology, rather than teach the texts on an individual basis.

“The Maqasid El-Sharia looks at the universal value of Sharia, and I believe that they are very similar to Western law. In fact, Mohamed El-Ghazali arrived at that theory six centuries before John Locke.

As a former member of Hizbul Tahrir, Hussein is acutely aware that the mission on preempting home-grown fundamentalism begins in the mosques of countries of Egypt and Pakistan; there was element of government policy spokesman, an accusation he continues to face, on saying, “What we are trying to do is reach out to these people now, hoping that they’re the kind of people who speak to the ‘takfir and hijra’ people.

But as Hussein himself says, just because the government has endorsed a certain project, doesn’t make it wrong.

“No doubt there will be people who criticize this trip, some of us have already been painted as apostates when we started speaking out against terrorism, says Hassan, “But the people at the foreign office have a positive intention.

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