More than the mosque

Issue: 107

Hassan Mahamdallie

A review of Humayun Ansari, The Infidel Within: Muslims in Britain since 1800 (Hurst & Company, 2004), £16.50

Can history teach us anything about a political approach to Britain’s Muslims, and how we should regard them in terms of race and class? Ansari’s fascinating and wide-ranging book The Infidel Within has pointers to the answers we need.

The book, subtitled ‘Muslims in Britain since 1800’, is a historical, political and social survey of Muslims touching on many aspects, including the position of Muslim women in society, the founding of early mosques, Muslims and education, Muslim religious and political movements, and the vexed question of British Muslim identities.

The first point Ansari makes is important – the diversity of those who describe themselves as Muslims. Today there are maybe as many as 1.8 million Muslims in Britain. If you go to the big mosques, such as Regents Park Mosque, you will observe a simple truth: to be a Muslim is not a racial classification. There are Muslims in this country from up to 50 different ethnic backgrounds – from Arabs to Somalis to Bosnians to Indonesians to white English converts, North Africans and so on.

Some are rich migrants from the Gulf, but most are South Asian, working class and economically disadvantaged, with groups such as Bangladeshis very poor. (Government figures show one in eight of Pakistani male workers drive cabs, while 50 percent of Bangladeshi men work in the restaurant trade.)1

As Ansari writes:

‘Any presumptions of Muslim homogeneity and coherence which claim to override the differences between rural and urban, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, do not necessarily correspond to social reality. A Sylheti from Bangladesh, apart from some tenets of faith, is likely to have little in common with a Mirpuri from Pakistan, let alone a Somali or a Bosnian Muslim. Values, symbols and aspirations, approaches to issues of identity, strength of adherence to ritual and loyalty to kin networks, and the form and nature of institutions are likely to be extremely varied, making Muslims in Britain a very heterogeneous population’. (p3)

British Muslim Asian ethnic groupings are targeted both for their race and their religion. This duality is one that, for example, the BNP have sought to exploit. Ansari shows that historically hatred towards Muslims centred on racism has also been sometimes expressed as religious hatred and vice versa – often simultaneously. (In the BNP’s eyes you can be guilty of the dual ‘crime’ of being a ‘Paki’ and a ‘Muslim’.)

Islam came out of 7th century Arabia and as a highly successful social, political and economic formation spread its empire into Europe and Asia. At that time Britain was not important. The odd Arab sailor or pirate landed on the south coast to take provisions – or sometimes to snatch captives back to North Africa. One of the first recorded Muslim visitors was a traveller called Al Idrisi – a North African Arab patronised by Sicilian kings who toured the West of England in the early 1100s.

With the rise of the Ottoman Empire there began more formal links. In 1588 Elizabeth I offered a treaty to ally with Ottoman Sultan Murad III against Catholic Spain. Elizabeth considered Islam closer to Protestantism than the Catholics were, whom she considered idolaters (for worshipping statues). Under Elizabeth, Muslim traders were given protection in England, and in return English traders were given free passage in Muslim territories.

So the English were not unaccustomed to Muslims, and writings from the time, including Shakespeare, burst with both fascination and fear for these traders, soldiers and diplomats.

Thousands of English mercenaries served under rulers in North Africa and Turkey where they might convert to Islam. Muslims could be feared (for their armies), objects of curiosity (for their religion and cultural ways), admired (for their trading skills), and so on – but they were never regarded as inferior. In fact, if anything, they were resented because of their superiority.

Small groups of Muslims began to settle in Britain. We know that by 1627 there was a ‘community’ of poor Muslims living in central London. They mingled with poor whites and became tailors, shoemakers, pedlars and button makers. (p27)
The British Empire changed this fluid situation in two ways.

Firstly, it encouraged a larger flow of people across the globe. These included Muslims from the region around the Suez Canal, particularly Yemenis, Adenese, Sudanese and Somalis from the north of their country (which was then the British protectorate of Somaliland). Many began to settle in Britain.

By 1911 Cardiff was the ‘black’ capital of Britain with 700 African and Arab residents who were mostly Muslim. Muslims (Arabs and Indians) could also be found in Scotland, in areas such as Dundee, Ben Lomond, Aberdeen, Dumbarton and Clydebank. Many were ex-sailors turned door to door salesmen and small traders. The Scottish urban areas were ‘where these disciples of the prophet of Mecca wander’.

Brick Lane and Cable Street in London’s East End used to be the haunt of African Muslim sailors, with attendant coffee houses and boarding houses, as late as the 1950s. They were then joined by a new and larger wave of Muslim migration from Bangladesh.

Secondly, as the British Empire grew the ruling class shifted in the middle of the 19th century from propping up the fading 400 year old Ottoman Empire to challenging it and taking it over. This produced differing, changing and sometimes violent attitudes to Muslims from the establishment.

Imperialists began to consistently portray the fading Ottoman Empire as the enemy and its official religion as part of the problem. The only solution therefore was to take them over – colonise them and purge their religion. This bred at home a chauvinist reaction against Muslims and their identity became transformed into the ‘heathens in our midst’.

Where Islam was regarded as a challenge to Christian colonial rule it was denigrated and its followers abused. In 1835 Macaulay wrote his infamous ‘Minute on Education’ over British policy in India and demanded total assimilation of Muslims to English ‘taste, opinions, morals, and intellect’.

William Muir wrote his notorious diatribe against Islam, Life of Mohamet: ‘The sword of Mohamet and the Koran are the most fatal enemies of civilisation, liberty and the truth the world has ever known.’ Muir believed Islam a false religion that kept Muslims in ‘a backward and…barbarous state’. (p61)

British rulers used anti-Muslim prejudice to justify their imperial adventures. Later on in the 19th century – when Britain came into direct military conflict with Turkey over control of the Middle East – the Liberal prime minister, William Gladstone, deliberately stoked up anti-Muslim feeling to justify war. He called the Koran ‘that accursed book’ and branded Muslims as ‘anti-human specimens of humanity’. In the First World War the Turkish ruling class sided with Germany. Muslims in Britain were looked upon suspiciously as ‘un-British’, while the Liberal prime minister, Lloyd George, dubbed military operations in Palestine as ‘the British Crusade’(p80):

‘We are undertaking a great civilising duty – a mission which Providence had assigned our race, which we are discharging to people living under the shadow of great tyranny, trembling with fear, appealing with uplifted hands for our protection. Turkish misgovernment…shall come to an end now that Britain and the Allies have triumphed’. (p90)

One spin-off from the First World War was the 1919 ‘race riots’ against black sailors. The underlying condition that led to the riots was economic competition. Sailors discharged back into civilian life from the Royal Navy found black sailors, including Arabs and East Africans, employed in the merchant navy. The 1919 riots are commonly described as against ‘black’ people, but closer scrutiny shows that within that umbrella term there were many Muslim victims, including Somalis hunted down by mobs in Cardiff.2

After 1919 the National Union of Seamen (which was at this time very right wing) and the shipping bosses did a deal to keep out black sailors. The NUS had a ‘British First’ policy, stating that black sailors be picked last and that they go on a forced rota, which meant they had to take any job (most often the worst) offered them or lose all rights to a job and residency.

Arab and African sailors launched a campaign to smash the rota, saying that no one should sign up to it, and picketed shipping offices trying to get the union’s position changed, but their pickets were broken up and many arrested were deported. They were blocked in the union, despite the fact that their union subs kept the NUS afloat.

Some sailors began to search for political allies. They looked to radical forces in the union and British society and joined the Communist Party Seamen’s Minority Movement and the Colonial Defence Association (also CP-dominated). Ultimately the black sailors lost the battle after the NUS successfully lobbied that shipping bosses be given a government subsidy for every white sailor they hired. However, the Muslim sailors were so radicalised that one moderate anti-racist campaigner complained that Cardiff was full of black Communists! (p113)

The authorities went further on the attack on the very citizenship of the sailors – despite the fact that most of them were from the British Empire and ‘entitled’ to come to Britain. New laws demanded strict proof of identity. Sailors had to carry ID cards with a photo and a fingerprint on it (apparently a picture wasn’t good enough because the police said they couldn’t tell blacks apart!). (p109)

Even though they were herded into ghettos, that didn’t stop those hostile to them claiming that they were self-segregating (living in a comfort zone in today’s parlance), and it was their religion, Islam, with its rigid social code, that was at fault.

A Muslim youth leader, H Hasan, rightly protested, ‘We were born in this country and we expect to enjoy all the privileges afforded other British youth and are opposed to discrimination on account of colour or race.’

Ansari shows how these early struggles anticipated and prefigured later and larger movements and political interventions in the 1960 and 1970s, and today.

He shows us that Muslims have always made an impression on Britain; that they have been here a long time; that they carried their religion with them, but were prepared to enter the social and political arena to fight for their rights, despite being victims of racism and prejudice transferred from the world stage.

Muslims in Britain have always been very active, ready to form alliances, by and large integrated on a class-conscious basis. Today we see them organising themselves through the anti-war movement and subsequent political formations on a scale that the Somalis in Butetown could only dream of. Yet the struggle is the same.


1: See H Mahamdallie, ‘Racism: Myths and Realities’, International Socialism 95 (summer 2002).
2: See P Fryer, Staying Power: A History of Black People in Britain (London, 1984).