The Challenge Of Muslim Assimilation In Britain

The challenge of Muslim assimilation in Britain.
Test Match
by Alex Massie
The New Republic
Only at TNR Online | Post date 08.11.06 Discuss this article (109)

There are few things more agreeably English than cricket. Time passes and times change, but cricket remains much the same. Like Shakespeare and P.G. Wodehouse, it is one of the great English gifts to civilization. This summer, however, cricket has also opened a window onto the vexed, troubling issue of how best to integrate and assimilate Great Britain's approximately two million Muslims into British society. The good news is that Muslims and other minorities have become sufficiently integrated as to grow up wanting to play cricket for England. The bad news is that many of their Muslim schoolmates consider them traitors for doing so.

This week, Sajid Mahmood, a 24-year-old fast bowler born in the northern town of Bolton, produced the finest performance of his career to lead England to a vital victory against the touring Pakistani cricket team. For his troubles, Mahmood was heckled and labeled a traitor by a section of the crowd. Mahmood took the abuse–hurled by a group of vocal British Muslims–in stride, but the moment offered a snapshot of two possible futures for British Muslims: welcome integration into the mainstream or a retreat into isolation, bigotry, and violence.

During the Thatcher years, the former Tory Party Chairman Norman Tebbit caused outrage in liberal circles when he proposed what came to be known as the cricket test. As Amartya Sen explained in TNR, Tebbit said that British immigrants from the Caribbean and the subcontinent should support England, not the lands of their ancestry. Only when that happened could the process of integration and assimilation be considered a success. If yesterday's foiled plot by British Muslims to down several commercial jets is any indicator, assimilation has not only failed to take root throughout the community, but it may never do so.

That the 24 suspects arrested on Thursday for their alleged part in the conspiracy to blow up as many as ten jumbo jets were British-born should come as no surprise. Last July's bombs on the London underground were also planted by British suicide bombers. The so-called flypaper strategy of fighting terrorism in Iraq to avoid fighting it at home is obviously moot if terrorists can be born and bred at home.

The challenge of assimilation in Great Britain is daunting. A recent opinion survey of Muslims carried out by Channel 4 News concluded that just 44 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds feel Britain is their country, and 51 percent of them believe September 11 was the result of an American-Israeli conspiracy. Furthermore, 30 percent of British Muslims would like to live under sharia law, and 28 percent would like Great Britain to become an Islamic state. These findings, alas, cannot be considered the result of a rogue poll. A Pew Research Center survey this year found that 81 percent of British Muslims consider themselves Muslim first and British second. As Timothy Garton Ash noted in a prescient piece in Thursday's Guardian, “This is a higher proportion than in Jordan, Egypt or Turkey, and exceeded only by that in Pakistan (87%).” No wonder the Channel 4 pollsters concluded that nearly one in ten British Muslims “can be classified as 'Hardcore Islamists' who are unconcerned by trifles like freedom of speech.”

This disdain for their homeland, it should be noted, comes despite Great Britain's record as a tolerant and liberal country–just as much, if not more, than any other European country. Britishness has always been a baggy concept, requiring little from immigrants. Unlike France or the United States, Britain has not, until now, required immigrants to make a covenant with their adoptive country, swearing allegiance to its flag and ideals even as they enrich its culture.

So British Muslims, despite enjoying greater opportunities than other European Muslims, actually feel less British than French Muslims feel French. Yet no government in Europe has done more to reach out to Muslims–at home and abroad–than Tony Blair has. As Sir Derek Plumbly, British ambassador to Egypt, wrote in 2005, “I … detect a tendency for us to be drawn towards engagement for its own sake; to confuse engaging with the Islamic world with engaging with Islamism. … I suspect that there will be relatively few contexts in which we are able significantly to influence the Islamists agenda.” Yet official British government policy has been to engage with Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood abroad while doing relatively little to counter the extremism of the most radical imams at home.

In the days to come, we will surely hear bleating that British support for the war in Iraq has increased the threat Great Britain faces. (Certainly, there is neat symmetry in targeting British and American aircraft leaving London for the United States.) But Iraq alone has not radicalized British Muslims. Nearly 5,000 British troops are garrisoned and fighting in Afghanistan, and the British youths who attended training camps in the Hindu Kush are unlikely to look too kindly upon them. In other words, Iraq may have exacerbated the threat, but it did not cause it. Anyway, to treat the Afghan invasion as a just cause for domestic terrorism is to argue that there should have been no military response to September 11.

The dilemma for the British government is simple: Can it really continue to engage radical Islam overseas and crack down upon radicals at home? And how much can it realistically do to change the attitudes of the angry, radical, terrorist-supporting elements of young Muslim Britain? How do you wins hearts and minds that are closed?

One instructive model is Sajid Mahmood, whose Pakistani-born father would ordinarily have supported the land of his birth against England. This summer, his son insisted that must change. “I think my dad had some split loyalties, but I told him he had to support England during this series.” The immigrants and their children who do manage to integrate with British society can bring their families with them. But, if assimilation comes only one heart and one mind at a time, the radical minority among Great Britian's Muslim community may never pass Tebbit's test.