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Book review: Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam by Innes Bowen

In the book Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam, the author – a BBC radio producer (boo, hiss) – attempts to provide an overview of the various strands of Islam in the UK. Her aim is not to tell us what to think but simply to provide the facts – what are they called? how many of them are there? where so they come from? what do they believe? etc. It is up to us, the readers, to draw conclusions.

Along the way there are a number of surprises. One of them is how different Islam is from Christianity. You would expect them to be rather similar given that they are both book-based, mono-theistic religions that revere both Abraham and Christ. Not a bit of it.

For example, in Christianity there is usually a close relationship between denomination and building. In Islam (at least in the UK) it is far more vague. A sect might be said to be “in control” of a mosque, the implication being that that control is temporary and could be lost. Many influential Muslim organisations such as Tablighi Jamaat and Jamaat-e-Islami have no mosques at all or very few.

Another is that the largest two sects in the UK are the Deobandis and Barelwis. No, I’d never heard of them either. For the record they are both Sunni (one definitely Sufi the other arguably so) and both originated in British India. It is worth pointing out that for the most part Bowen focuses on Sunni Islam but that is hardly surprising given that Sunnis vastly outnumber Shi’ites both globally and in the UK.

Another is that interest in Islam seems to be a second-generation thing. The first generation brought their Islam with them but seem to have regarded it as something they did rather than thought about. The second generation are much more inclined to read the Koran, take it seriously and ask questions. Even so, the most influential Islamic thinkers still tend to be based abroad.

I said earlier that it is left up to the reader to draw his own conclusions. So what does this reader conclude? Well, my biggest takeaway was that despite there being many strands of Islam and many weird and wonderful doctrinal disputes within Islam, there is no “good” Islam. The best you get is “less awful” Islam.

We are all well aware of the religion’s major dos and don’ts: praying, fasting (which includes liquids in case you didn’t already know), pork, alcohol, Halal etc. But there are others. The Deobandis, for instance, deprecate watching TV and listening to music. Almost all sects oppose celebrating the birthday of Muhammed which I assume gets extended to birthdays in general. There isn’t even the avenue of creativity in the service of the religion. Christianity has inspired great art, great songs and great buildings. But Islam has nothing to show for itself – at least not recently. The fact is that to be Muslim is to be miserable.

Of course, people are free to be miserable in private. What we really want to know about is whether they are going to blow us up or not. The news is not good. Islamic thought – of whatever strand – has little time for infidels and their institutions. Almost all sects are inward looking and wish to isolate themselves from the surrounding society. In this, they are helped by the welfare state and an ideology of political correctness. There seems to be no inquiry as to why it is that the followers of the one true God have ended up so poor while the non-believers and wrong believers are so rich. At best infidels are to be tolerated. At worst, to be eliminated. As such, Islamic terrorism is a bit like a genetic disease. Millions of Muslims by their faith can carry the disease without ever showing the symptoms but every so often it becomes virulent and people die. Islam and violence are inseparable.

This even has an impact on language. In the West words like “scholar” and “pious” tend to have positive connotations. But when they are applied to Islam – as Bowen does from time to time – they imply something altogether more sinister.

The only real challenge to Islam and violence comes from Ismaili doctrine which allows women to go around unveiled and for alcohol to be drunk in moderation and whose adherents do not appear to have got mixed up in terrorism. Ismailis have never had political power (at least not recently) and have a long tradition of trading. It is a general rule that the more trading that goes on in an Islamic community the less likely it is to produce terrorists. Even so the very small amount of tolerance that the (Nazari) Ismailis permit is largely – if not entirely – due to the influence of the Aga Khan. A different Aga Khan could easily change things.

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31 comments to Book review: Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam by Innes Bowen

  • Thank you for the book review.

    It reminded me that it’s been a good dozen years since Findlay Dunachie died. I always quite enjoyed his book reviews, even if it was a subject where I wasn’t going to have any desire to read the book

  • AndrewWS

    I think I am going to read this book. I want to find out what the author has to say about the Ahmadis (the sect to which the unfortunate shopkeeper in Glasgow who got murdered by another sort of Muslim belonged). AFAIK, they don’t allow alcohol, but they are dead against blowing anyone up.

  • Another is that interest in Islam seems to be a second-generation thing. The first generation brought their Islam with them but seem to have regarded it as something they did rather than thought about.

    Almost all sects are inward looking and wish to isolate themselves from the surrounding society. In this, they are helped by the welfare state and an ideology of political correctness.

    I bet the “ideology of political correctness” helps explain the “second-generation” aspect of interest in Islam. When you’re raised by people who tell you that you can only be virtuous by being “authentic” or “true to your roots” (so long as they’re not Western roots) you’re probably more likely to be radical than people who actually know what those roots are like.

  • Laird

    “Islamic terrorism is a bit like a genetic disease.”

    That’s the takeaway line.

  • staghounds

    The welfare state, absolutely.

    Having to make a living forces us to do some challenging things- meet different people, make friends, be responsible, become trustworthy, and trust others.

    All those are deadly pathogens to bigotry.

    When you can just stay home and gripe about infidels all day, more people will do just that.

  • David Crawford

    Here’s one difference between Islam and the other religions from that region. In the USA, Catholics, Jews, and Protestants have all built hospitals throughout the country. Hell, I was born in the Jewish hospital in St. Louis, Missouri (my mother’s Catholic, my father’s Presbyterian). The Muslims? They’ve never built a single hospital in this country that I know of. It’s probably because they have no desire to spend their money building something that would help non-Muslims. They might build one if they could restrict access to Muslims only but that wouldn’t be allowed by law in the USA.

  • PapayaSF

    Good point, staghounds.

    I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of Islam: Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins by Robert Spencer.

    Islam is indeed different than Christianity in many important ways. Christianity was founded by a pacifist carpenter, and the Bible is a collection of writings by different people, “inspired” by God, and acknowledged to be edited and translated. That means there’s a lot of room for interpretation. But Muhammad was a caravan robber, warlord, mass murderer, and slaver. The Koran is said to be a perfect copy of Allah’s master copy in heaven. Muslims are expected to read it in the original. Not much room for interpretation! And not much room for church/state separation, either.

  • J.M. Heinrichs

    “The only real challenge to Islam and violence comes from Ismaili doctrine which allows women to go around unveiled and for alcohol to be drunk in moderation and whose adherents do not appear to have got mixed up in terrorism.”
    … possibly not correct.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isma%27ilism#Alamut

    Cheers

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker!) Gray

    Well, at least Britain doesn’t have 10% muslims, like France does. And with border controls in your own hands soon, you can keep the fanatics at a ‘tolerable’ level.

  • lucklucky

    “And with border controls in your own hands soon”

    Sarcasm.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker!) Gray

    Not sarcasm, just the hope that Brexit happens. May still talks up Brexit, so your borders may literally be yours to control.

  • Erik

    Another is that interest in Islam seems to be a second-generation thing. The first generation brought their Islam with them but seem to have regarded it as something they did rather than thought about. The second generation are much more inclined to read the Koran, take it seriously and ask questions. Even so, the most influential Islamic thinkers still tend to be based abroad.

    I bet the “ideology of political correctness” helps explain the “second-generation” aspect of interest in Islam. When you’re raised by people who tell you that you can only be virtuous by being “authentic” or “true to your roots” (so long as they’re not Western roots) you’re probably more likely to be radical than people who actually know what those roots are like.

    I think it’s also linked to the West’s aberrant culture of producing things like the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution. I can’t say exactly why, but I think there’s a definite what of the matter that the West has had a habit of taking ideas seriously at an unusually high rate. The standard across most of world and time (and not small parts of the West either) is that ideas are something you mouth when you turn up for community ritual, then you go back to living your life as before, largely unmoved by any argument or content of the ideas.

    Compare it to reading EULAs, perhaps – nobody I know reads them in full, most don’t even skim, they just click “I accept”. The West is this weird place where people are occasionally encouraged to actually read and abide by the confessions one’s name is on.

  • Runcie Balspune

    fasting (which includes liquids in case you didn’t already know),

    Actually another difference, “fasting” in most religions is going without, not saving it all up for one big binge at the end.

    At best infidels are to be tolerated

    Again, “tolerance” normally means to get along with, which is different to “do not kill immediately”.

    I didn’t see this, did it cover Ahmadiyya?

  • At best infidels are to be tolerated

    And frankly that is all I ask for. Why should anyone require more than tolerance? I do not give a damn if people dislike me, just as long as they tolerate me.

  • Slartibartfarst

    @David Crawford wrote:

    It’s probably because they have no desire to spend their money building something that would help non-Muslims. They might build one if they could restrict access to Muslims only but that wouldn’t be allowed by law in the USA.

    A reading of the Koran/Quran could perhaps enable one to gather an understanding of why there is no “probably” about it and why there are apparently no Islamic charities that offer succour to non-muslims. It is simply not permitted by the Islamic religio-political ideology.

    How the Muslims procreate, grow up, attain adulthood, prepare their food, marry, beat their wives, raise their families, go to war, do business, etc. are comprehensively described in a male-centric and prescriptive (rule or method) form, via a combination of the Koran (Allah’s direct commandments to Muslims) augmented by Shariah law – the two are pretty much dovetailed together. In the hands of those of the orthodox branches of Islam, the result is arguably one of the strongest religio-political and self-reinforcing ideologies on historical record, having remained largely unchanged for about 1,400 years and having apparently assisted Europe to enter the Dark Ages before being seemingly violently kicked back (“temporarily”) into the ME.

    For example, that history is what underlies the Muslim proposal to call the NY mosque at Ground Zero “Cordoba House” – i.e., as a symbol of Islam’s victoriously supreme hegemony as mandated by Allah (once a land has been assimilated by Islam and they have spilt blood on it, it remains forever Islam’s). Where a Muslim prays in a street or a carpark, that bit of land where they prayed is made forever Islam’s. Ring any bells? Mass prayers held on the streets of Paris, those seemingly harmless “prayer-rooms” mandated as PC for airports and colleges? Yeah, right. It’s all territory and, as such, is little different to what is happening in the Caliphate of Birmingham/Brent.

    Muslims are prohibited from acculturating into infidel (heathen/unbeliever) cultures, and are ordered (by Allah) to do business amongst themselves and make Islam dominant (supreme) in any society where they find themselves, becoming part of the expanding Caliphate. This is (quite correctly) taken very seriously by devout Muslims (that would be the majority of them) – and (correctly) violently acted upon in the prevailing Wahabist sects who don’t try to interpret but see the Koran as being Allah’s explicit instruction to kill, enslave, etc. They don’t necessarily want to go around killing infidels, or chopping off their heads, or beating them into submission to Islam – it is all necessary and they have to do it as a holy duty – holy jihad – you see, and emulating the exemplary Mohammed in these actions is entirely the right and holy thing to do, as is naming one’s boy children “Mohammed”. It is all done in praise of Allah, so don’t knock it – it can’t be wrong, and it’s deadly serious. Probably much more strongly-held than one’s own religio-political ideological beliefs.

    So it would seem to serve little useful purpose in generally slagging off Muslims per se or the mythical “extremist” Muslims. They are all good, honest and devout Muslims – or they had jolly well better be, anyway.
    I am amazed at the dissing comments – apparently made in ignorance – that one often sees made about Muslims, in this and other blogs. Sure, some of it might be considered proscribed “hate speech”, or “racism” (though Islam is not a race), or “islamaphobic” (a clever new virtue-signalling and reason-deflecting label reputedly invented by CAIR or other Muslim apologists) in those societies where freedom of speech is non-existent, or is open to being or has been eroded (e.g., in Sweden, the UK and increasingly, it seems, in the US), but however one labels the speech, it generally deflects one’s thought away from the point that it’s not the Muslims themselves but the religio-political ideology of Islam that is the root cause of the problem where honourable and devout Islamic jihadists are having to kill in the name of their religion, deliberately using methods of terror as cleverly practiced by Mohammed.

    That ideology is propagated via indoctrination with a remorseless and threateningly ruthless system of propaganda “education” – one that sets their paradigms, unchangeable, concrete-like, at a relatively early age. They believe it, no matter how daft it may seem to infidels, and just in case there are any Muslims having doubts or second thoughts, there is always the Islamic catch-all law that apostates will be hung or stoned to death. Better shut up then. No way out but death. And if you’re an infidel, then, if given the choice, you’d better convert and submit. If you’re a Christian you will also have to renounce the blasphemous Nicene Creed (invented some 300 years A.D.), otherwise you will have to be “struck at the neck” and beheaded, sorry ’bout that. Of course, if you’re a Jew, then you get killed regardless and without ceremony, per Allah’s command.

    And if anyone at this point suggests “First Amendment!” as some kind of magic defense of free speech, then I would respectfully suggest that one considers a certain individual’s recent remarks about imposing/enforcing “truthiness” rules in public/internet discourse. Watch that space. Ministry of Truth, here we come. Pretty soon, we may find that, increasingly, “Les Majeste”-type “truthiness” laws will apply to not only protecting the incumbent Thai Royal family from being dissed, but also protecting, for example, from (say) dissing the Establishment’s politically-correct proclamations of “truth” – e.g., catastrophic global warming – or punishment of offense to Islam (surprise!), or any other area where (say) “97% of scientists” or other “authorities” – e.g., like the mouthpiece of the Royal Society – “agree” (so it must be true – see?) about some otherwise seemingly fraudulent/moronic/dishonest proposal. So, you’d better believe it (the “truth”), or else, violence.
    Welcome to demokracy and have you just cast your vote for the correct presidential candidate comrade?

    If one has not already studied the Koran, then, as a good way to become informed about the foundation of the religio-political ideology of Islam, I would recommend the English translation of the Koran published in paperback form amongst The Penguin Classics, by N.J.Dawood – published 1956, 1959, 1961, 1964, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977 (twice).
    A Muslim himself, Dawood saw the Koran as a beautiful piece of early Islamic literature, and he helpfully put considerable effort into re-assembling the surah (verses) into a more sensible timeline (of writing) order, so that they might make more sense – usually, they are jumbled together in rather confusing conventional and seemingly arbitrary categories. Probably for that reason it is apparently not a translation that is officially recognised by Islamic clerics. It likely wouldn’t be allowed today, for example – which is possibly another good reason for reading it!

    One should not underestimate how very important these surah are, forming – as they do – strong ethical and behavioural guidelines for devout Muslims to follow. For example, the devout Muslim man who beheaded Lee Rigby spoke earnestly to camera about the “many, many surah” of the Koran that he apparently felt substantiated/justified his actions that day.

  • Paul Marks

    Of course the Aga Khan is a the leader of a branch of Shia Islam (not 12er Shia like Iran, or 5er Shia like the people in Yemen – although the militia in Yemen may really be 12ers pretending to be 5ers) – an important point as it limits his influence among the Sunni.

    As for the Sufi nature of most British Muslims – this is a good thing, the Sufi (harking back to pre Islamic and also Central Asian traditions) stress the mystical side of religion, not the the logical reading of the Koran and the Hadiths as instructional manuals.

    So the reading of the Koran and the logical questions and so on are NOT the good news that non Muslims might think it is. We want Muslims to be either “nominal” (“I was born a Muslim – so what?”) or mystical (“the words are not the meaning – the love of God you feel as you worship is the meaning”), NOT logical and Koran reading.

    In fact it is terrible news.

    The last thing we want is for Muslims to know the surah (the versus) of the Koran – and to follow them.

    And I agree with Slartibartfast about the Dawood translation – a charming man (by all accounts) so lost in the beauty of the language that he did not really seem to see what he was translating, although he helpfully puts it in a better order.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker!) Gray

    To any muslims- if the Sharia is a complete law, not needing revision or interpretation, then where are the instructions on how planes should fly, or where to put the Plimsoll line on boats, or the correct thickness of nuclear power plants?
    It is possible for muslims to live peacefully in non-muslim countries- and Indonesia, which has a majority of muslims, is also a peaceful country, though the odd preacher does make the news. The trouble, of course, is that they are encouraged to follow the life of Mohammed, and many details of his life are barbaric, such as slave-taking, camel-raiding, truce-breaking, etc.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker!) Gray

    Yes, we wouldn’t go that far, but it is an internal matter- when in Rome, do as the Romans do!( or get out!). That Iranian girl who wore a miniskirt in Iran, and was punished for it, should have known better, just as those Aussie idiots who wore budgie-smugglers in Malaysia should have.

  • Islamic immigrants are rooted in their philosophy (this is no different than any other immigrant group). They are comfortable with their worldview and are difficult to move off of their baseline philosophy. They choose to come to the West and in that choice is usually included a basic appreciation of the local system.

    Their children are another matter. They are not of the old country and not of the new, really. They have real choices to make and so they study and choose.

    Their parents were Islamic largely because that was the only safe arrangement to make and their islam is one that is integrated in the compromises and hypocrisy that attend trying to actually run a country along Islamic lines. But the children don’t have to run a country on Islamic lines so they do not feel the need to voluntarily inject all the compromises that the real world imposes on Islamic practice.

    Their Islam is an idealized one that is informed by theory and propaganda. There is the source of radicalization. The immigration process tore them loose from internalized knowledge of all of their faith’s dirty laundry and so they act as if that dirty laundry doesn’t exist because they don’t constantly get their noses rubbed in it.

    At the same time, all around them are forces that are telling them not to choose the West. The self-flagellation that the West indulges in is not attractive for immigrants to take part in. And honestly, they don’t have to. After all, they came in after most of that bad stuff stopped happening. Why should they take on the guilt?

    And so they remain with one foot in both camps with all the shame and hypocrisy of actual governance linked to the West and none of it to Islam. In that sort of contest, who is surprised that Islam wins so often?

  • Alisa

    That is an excellent point, TMLutas.

  • Laird

    @ Slartibartfarst: “[I]t’s not the Muslims themselves but the religio-political ideology of Islam that is the root cause of the problem.”

    But that ideology isn’t just floating around in the air; it doesn’t exist independent of the individuals who embody it. So while the statement is, in some sense, true, it is also meaningless and, indeed, counterproductive. One cannot constrain, let alone reverse, that ideology without dealing with those individuals. So unless you’re prepared to destroy every madrassa, deport or kill all the imams and burn all copies of the Koran, you’re not going to eradicate that poisonous ideology. This only leaves dealing with the individuals, and if the objective is to protect and preserve whatever is left of western culture it means excluding most Muslim immigrants and minimizing their corrosive effect on our society. They can foul their own nest, just not mine.

  • Alisa

    I was going to make a comment similar to Laird’s, but then I realized that Starti may had just forgotten to use the sarcasm tags 🙂

  • PapayaSF

    My suggestion for dealing with the ideology directly would be to promote the scholarly work that discredits much of the Koran. It’s easy to prove that it’s not “perfect” and that it’s been heavily edited by humans. See the Robert Spencer book I linked to above. If that can be made to happen, it undercuts the radical/fundamentalist interpretation, because it’s no longer Allah’s perfect and final word, and encourages Muslims to take a looser approach, the way most Christians do with the Bible, discarding the more problematic parts.

  • Alisa

    Not that I object, PapayaSF – but I doubt it will make much difference, other than preaching to the choir such as the one here.

  • PapayaSF

    I think meme warfare is essential when battling an ideology. You weaken enemies by raising doubts about their beliefs. The cultural Marxists have done it to the West, so there’s no reason we shouldn’t use the same tactics against Islam. Even getting imams to condemn the research would send the message to many Muslims that what they’ve been taught is not literally true.

  • Alisa

    Meme warfare is not the same as research – and yes, it can be very effective.

    The cultural Marxists are not winning with the help of research, they are winning by having taken over key institutions – such as education and the media, where they have been indoctrinating several generations with half-truths and outright lies (again, not the same as research).

    Again and FWIW, I am not against any such research – on the contrary, I wish anyone who may undertake such projects the best of luck and success. It’s just that my expectations regarding the prospective scope of its influence are very modest.

  • PapayaSF

    Yes, cultural Marxism is not based on research. I meant using the research as the basis for meme warfare, which would also have to be conducted in a different way. The propaganda has been quite deficient: the official Western stance on Islam is that it’s “just another religion,” and one “of peace.” That message needs to be countered one way or the other. It won’t come from the cultural Marxists or the establishment politicians, but it has to get out there so all Muslims (and potential converts) become aware of it.

  • Laird

    I agree with Alisa: good luck with that, but I doubt it will have much effect, especially in the (relatively) short term, which is where most of us live. But by all means, have at it. No reason not to fight on multiple fronts. Just don’t expect immediate results. The cultural Marxists have been at it for over a century. I don’t have that long!

  • Rich Rostrom

    I’d heard of the Deobandi, but not of the Barelvi. They seem more moderate in some respects (they vehemently denounced the Taliban), but not in others (it was a Barelvi who assassinated a Pakistani state governor for opposing a blasphemy law). I am surprised to hear that either group is Sufi.

    There isn’t even the avenue of creativity in the service of the religion. Christianity has inspired great art, great songs and great buildings. But Islam has nothing to show for itself – at least not recently.

    I think that’s a little strong. Strict Islam prohibits representational art, and Wahhabi puritanism rejects even abstract decoration. But there are many beautiful mosques, even some built recently, I think. (Though there is a problem in that the Saudis have become the chief funders of mosque construction around the world, and insist on bare structures.)

    That’s very thin compared to the temples of Greece and Rome, stained glass windows, the religious paintings of the Renaissance masters, the sacred music of Bach, the Daibutsu of Kamakura, the mandalas of Lamaistic Buddhism, or even the Moody and Sankey hymnbook. But it’s more than nothing.

  • Alisa

    That’s very thin compared to the temples of Greece and Rome, stained glass windows, the religious paintings of the Renaissance masters, the sacred music of Bach, the Daibutsu of Kamakura, the mandalas of Lamaistic Buddhism, or even the Moody and Sankey hymnbook. But it’s more than nothing.

    To be fair, modern visual art has been rather thin in the West as well, outside of the moving images.