A reflection on the history of Muslims in Britain shows that while some struggles have remained constant, new and pressing challenges have also emerged alongside the growth of Muslim communities. We are at an important juncture that requires us to step back and chart a course that reflects a strategic vision for Muslims in Britain. Developing this vision requires the collective endeavour of Muslim communities of all ethno-sectarian backgrounds, through dialogue and exchange, in recognition of our shared challenges. It is this primary purpose of securing a better future that should frame the imperative to foster cooperation and collaboration between Muslim communities.
Muslims in Britain are a diverse collection of communities that have enjoyed and endured a varied set of lived experiences. For instance, the circumstances by which Muslims from Iraq settled in Britain differ to those of their counterparts from the Indian subcontinent. Likewise, the history of migration for Khoja communities from East Africa are distinct from those who came from Iran, Afghanistan and Arab countries. These differences are even more pronounced when considering Britain’s communities of reverts, be they from the British Isles, continental Europe, the Caribbean or elsewhere.
Some Muslim communities in Britain are significantly older than others. The first major wave of migration from the Indian subcontinent dates back to the 1960s and was spearheaded by economic migrants who had been impacted by the political turmoil that followed the partition of India. In contrast, Iraqi immigrants only began to arrive in Britain en masse in the 1980s, driven primarily by political and religious persecution back home.
These differences express themselves in the way communities perceive their respective challenges and priorities. In many ways, the struggles faced by first-generation immigrants in Britain are qualitatively different to those faced by the second and third generations. For many immigrants arriving on Britain’s shores through desperation, their primary goal in life was survival. In contrast, British-born Muslims today enjoy far greater social capital and economic resources, meaning that their priorities will invariably be different. Nevertheless, some challenges exist across the board and have remained constant, namely racial discrimination and Islamophobia, and the difficulties of preserving religious and cultural identities that are expressed through religious practices and languages.
The vast growth of British Muslim communities in recent decades calls for a strategic assessment of the state of Muslims in Britain and how best to nurture all facets of positive growth, be they educational, economic, political, or spiritual. What are our key priorities today and how can we articulate a forward-looking vision for how Muslims can meet the challenges of life in twenty-first century Britain?
Such an endeavour requires the pooling together of our diverse experiences as Muslims living in Britain while acknowledging that we now live in a different era compared to that of the twentieth century. The public discourse on multiculturalism and integration has moved on since the 1990s and early 2000s. Furthermore, there is far greater social interaction between Muslim communities, through schools and universities, the workplace and recreational interactions, and through the rise in intercommunal marriages.
Muslim communities today are in need of a roadmap for how we can thrive in British society, through academic distinction, professional excellence, moral and spiritual growth, and to be able to respond more effectively to the struggles associated with being a religious minority at home.
Cooperation and collaboration between Britain’s diverse Muslim communities dates back more than sixty years. We do not need to start from scratch. We can draw on the rich legacy of exchange and dialogue, in particular, that which was spearheaded by the imperative to establish commemoration ceremonies during Muharram, and the religious observance of Ramadhan. The goal of this exchange should not be to homogenise our practice of Islam. Communities do not need to negate their ethnocentric expressions of ritualistic practices, nor indeed their languages and customs. Instead, communities need to work together in recognition of our shared struggles and the necessity to develop a unified vision for how to overcome them.
Throughout the history of Muslims in Britain, Islamic centres have played pivotal roles in overcoming differences and promoting intra and intercommunal exchange. With Dar Al-Islam Centre’s reputation for openness and progressive Islamic values, the opportunity to confront the our future challenges as Muslims in Britain should be seized.
This is the Islamic injunction, as the Holy Qur’an states:
O mankind, indeed We created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Surely, the most noble of you before Allāh is the most righteous of you. [49:13]