Muslims in London
The female footballer, the heavyweight hip hopper, the Tory politician: Muslim Londoners are a diverse bunch, but how do their beliefs sit amid the myriad distractions of our often irreligious city?
Syed at Millbank
Time Out: Is the future of London Islamic?‘No, London’s present and future is diverse. But it’s true, we have seen a growth in Islam in the second and third generations of Muslims. Young people are moving away from ethnicity towards religion. My own identity is made up of a number of things: my parents were born in Guyana and I was brought up here as a practising Muslim – I try to pray every day. But it’s a personal thing, not something I need to make a big deal about. I’m also British and a Conservative.’
Would you like it to be Islamic?‘I’d like it to be as it is now. On the whole, people get on. It’s not like in some towns of Britain which are divided across ethnic and religious lines. I grew up in north London, and went to school with kids who were Jewish, Christian and from all kinds of backgrounds, but we were all united in the fact that we were from London.’
Is modern London compatible with Islam?‘Being a Muslim is compatible with living in a modern city. Your faith is a personal thing – whether you wear hijab for example, is an individual choice. If my friends want to go clubbing, it’s not for me to tell them how to live their lives. I don’t drink alcohol, but people should be able to drink if they want to.’
What can London learn from Islam?‘I’m not sure what London can learn. I’m proud of being a Londoner and of being part of a city that absorbs all faiths.’
Can we be confident that Muslim women in London have freedom of choice?‘It depends on the family they come from. It’s never been an issue in my family, where faith has been a matter of free will. I don’t know if pressure from other members of the community to wear hijab makes women feel ostracised if they don’t. I’d like to think that’s not true but I can’t say hand on heart that there are Muslim women living here who aren’t oppressed.’
Are you optimistic that London Muslims’ relations with the Met can progress?‘The appointment of Met Police Deputy Commissioner, Tariq Ghaffur [a practising Muslim] sends a powerful message to Muslim communities that there can be bonds but both the police and communities have to work harder to develop them. But an operation like Forest Gate made me wonder about the wisdom of those operations. They can seem a bit gung-ho. They could avoid dramatic interventions by just asking more questions to the community first. They could be more sensitive. Mosques could also do more; some are great but sometimes you go to a mosque and there’s no English spoken. You need a cohesion to live in London and that involves speaking English.’
Is there a big enough threat of terrorism in the Islamic community to justify the present levels of suspicion or are Muslims being victimised?‘My concern is not terrorism, but radicalisation of young men. Whether something is Islamaphobic depends on your sensitivity. I recently had a Muslim guy contact me who had a beard and carried a rucksack, and he said that at college someone had called him a terrorist and it was Islamaphobic. That could be an insult, but you could laugh it off. I personally haven’t experienced anti-Muslim feeling. All religions face the issue of how to have open and frank dialogue without feeling insulted.’ Syeed Kamall is a Conservative MEP for London (www.syedkamall.com).
M2M's Abdul-Karim Talib (left), pictured under the Westway with fellow member Rakin Fetuga
Do you think London’s future is Islamic?‘I think this city is as Islamic as it’s going to get without people feeling their country’s been overtaken. You’re allowed to go to a mosque five times a day to pray, you’re allowed to hear the azan [call to prayer] to practise your religion, to propagate your religion. The philosophy of Islam is to love for your brother what you want for yourself and I believe that’s the philosophy of this country. Not everybody practises it, but everyone knows that what we want to do is live in love and harmony.’
Do you think modern London is compatible with Islam?‘As you can see, a lot of Muslims are not deterred from coming to London. How many mosques are there in London? Last year Eid was celebrated in Trafalgar Square and the PM gave a speech congratulating everybody on Eid. London is the most cosmopolitan city in the world, and Islam has fitted into that atmosphere very well.’
Is there anything London could learn from Islam?‘I think it’s the same as what you can learn from other religions. As London changes, it does learn from Islam; naturally it does. As we’re becoming part of the EU, our lifestyles are changing. We adopt the best practices of other countries and other continental people. I’ve travelled around and I’m always happy to get back to London.’
Can we be confident that Muslim women have freedom of choice and movement?‘I think we can be confident, but we can’t take it for granted. After 7/7 we were lucky that people asked to hear a reasoned argument about why this was Islamic terrorism – but there was also a witch-hunt, and the first targets were women, because they could be identified with Islam because they wore the hijab [headscarf]. ‘My wife wears the hijab, but not the niqab [full face veil, leaving the eyes clear]. I think the niqab isolates you. People can’t get to know you, because they can’t see physical expressions. Even as a Muslim I go to events, and sisters in the niqab will come up and Salaam you, and you will Salaam them, but you could be Salaam-ing a poster. If a Muslim woman doesn’t wear the hijab, there’s nothing wrong with that. Some women don’t wear the hijab, some men don’t wear the kufi [skull cap]. It’s optional but if you don’t wear it you leave yourself open for people to feel superior. We [Mecca2Medina] perform rap and reggae, so we wouldn’t be asked to lead the prayer at the mosque, because we’re rappers. These are all just assumptions that people make. I like the fact that my wife wears the hijab, because I can see that she’s practising. And her strength makes me practise. You know the saying that behind every successful man there’s a successful woman? Well it’s kind of like that.’
What are the greatest misconceptions about Islam?‘That women are oppressed. It happens in some cultures; Afghani women are oppressed by their husbands, not by Islam. The Prophet taught his wife Aisha everything she knew, so after the Prophet, the most knowledgeable person in Islam was Aisha. And she used to teach the men.’
Do you think Muslims’ relations with the Metropolitan Police can progress?‘I’m optimistic. At the moment I’m working with different organisations to arrange events so we can talk to young people. We would like the National Black Police Association to come and speak as well. I believe that the police are performing a valuable service, because there is terror out there. We need the police, we need the secret service, and we need the intelligence. The police should get out into the community and explain why they’re doing what they’re doing.’
Are there exaggerated levels of suspicion over the threat of terror?‘Yes, definitely. I think it’s just to sell papers and push through policies. Of course there is a threat. But we should think about how the communities reacted to Nelson Mandela being in jail in South Africa, and the changes made. I don’t see how the government would think that if you are having a war in the Middle East, people won’t react as if that was an attack on their religion.’ Abdul-Karim Talib is a member of Mecca2Medina (www.mecca2medina.com).
Rimla Akhtar at Queen Mary's Hospital, Sidcup (image © Rogan Macdonald)
Is London’s future Islamic?‘London and Islamic are two totally different things. Islam’s a way of life that people choose; London is London, it’s multicultural and that’s the way it should always remain. That’s what everyone else in the world is jealous of, that’s why everyone wants to come here. Trying to equate London and Islam, that’s a no-goer really.’
Do you think that modern London is compatible with Islam?‘Modern London gives you a choice as a person, and that’s what Islam’s about as well. I don’t think that should affect anyone else – neither should what anyone else does in London affect a Muslim. I’ve been involved in sport pretty much from the moment I could walk, and in football since 2001. When I started university I got involved with the football team and the British Muslim Women’s futsal [five-a-side football] team – we participated in the Muslim Women’s games in Tehran.’
What do you think London could learn from Islam?‘It’s not about learning from Islam, it’s about learning from Muslims. You treat others as you’d like to be treated yourself, that’s what Islam’s about; it’s about being peaceful, about living in harmony, and that’s what London’s about anyway. There are instances when there’s not so much harmony but you have to deal with these things and try to bring the community forward.’
How do you think that women should dress for sport?‘I don’t think I should have an opinion on how everyone else should dress. I have an opinion on how I should dress. If I’m in an environment where there are men around, I’m happy to continue playing sport, as long as I’m wearing my hijab, my arms are covered, my legs are covered, my hips are covered. I feel confident in playing, and that’s what I’ve done historically. With the futsal team it’s easy for us – it’s in an all-female environment where there are no cameras, so the girls can take off their scarves and play in T-shirts and shorts, whatever they feel comfortable in. It depends on the environment you’re in.’
What is the most common misperception of Muslims?‘Generally speaking there is a great lack of understanding of Islam – people who don’t know the basic principles I live by. There’s a lot of manipulation in the media of historical practices and customs, and a lot of people equate culture with religion as well, so I think that’s the major issue when it comes to misperceptions of Islam. There is also a lack of role models out there for Muslims. Amir Khan the boxer or Sajid Mahmood the cricketer are the kind of people who should be out there and giving a good example of our faith. They portray a good image of our religion. Ultimately we can say that Islam’s a peaceful religion, but until we show it, no one’s going to believe us. And unfortunately the people that get the limelight are people who don’t show that side of Islam. I guess the media always wants a sensationalist story.’Rimla Akhtar is chair of the Muslim Women’s Sports Foundation (www.mwsf.org.uk).
Is London’s future Islamic?‘No, I hope to see its future as a global city, in which London’s Muslims play a constructive and creative part.’
Do you think modern London is compatible with Islam?‘I don’t see why it shouldn’t be compatible. Lots of Muslims like living in London and they feel that it’s totally compatible with their faith to do so. What London gets right for other people it gets right for Muslims: it’s cosmopolitan, it’s tolerant, it’s vibrant, it’s dynamic, it’s booming. All these things make it an attractive place to live and work for everyone.’
What do you think that London could learn from Muslim culture?‘I think there’s something in common between Muslim culture and continental European culture, which is the café culture, which is a nice antidote to the binge drinking. We can socialise and get to know people during the day and in the evenings without having to go to the pub. That’s not such a bad thing. Not as a replacement, but as an alternative.’
Could you ever see the capital under Sharia law?‘I think it’s a nonsensical question: I don’t think it’s going to happen, and I don’t think we should worry about it. I find it really really hard to believe,whatever the polls say, that Muslims are hankering after imposing harsh punishments. They just want to get on, have the same opportunity as everyone else. I think they’re probably getting quite fatigued at being portrayed as the fanatical Fifth Column.’
Can Muslim women in Britain be guaranteed freedom of choice and movement?‘I think that increasingly – loathe as I am to talk for them, they can talk about this very well for themselves – but it seems to me that British Muslim women are finding the chance to express their aspirations, be it for their careers, be it for who they want to marry, be it for what kind of Islam they want to practise, and balancing making choices with remaining to a greater or lesser extent loyal to family tradition. Most of them will say “It’s our choice”. Whether it’s wearing the hijab, wearing the niqab, or taking both off and wearing neither.’
Do you think London Muslims’ relationship with the police can improve?‘Undoubtedly some of the ways in which anti-terror powers have been exercised have caused a deal of alienation among some of London’s Muslim community: Stockwell, Forest Gate, stop-and- search. All those things create a feeling that we’re becoming a suspect community like the British Irish in the ’80s – some of these measures are broad-sweeping measures that pick up too many people. Believe me, it’s not an exaggeration to say the level of disillusionment in the Muslim community is at an all-time high.’
Do you think there is a ridiculous level of suspicion about the threat of terrorism among the Muslim community?‘I think it’s really difficult to know what the exact level of threat is, partly because it’s difficult for an ordinary member of the public to know exactly where the balance would lie between what government says, what the police say, what MI5 says publicly, how precisely you would assess the threat. I don’t think the public would know enough to answer that question.’
What’s the most common misperception of Muslims?‘The most common perception is that they don’t have a sense of fun. We’ve got an emerging comedy scene, we have a rich cultural life – with emerging rap artists, young novelists, and fantastic artists – which often passes under the radar, but I think that will improve.’ Yahya Birt is the director of City Circle (www.thecitycircle.com), and a Western convert to Islam. To read more personal views on the subject, and to join the debate online, visit www.timeout.com/islamiclondon
Nazenin Ansari, pictured outside Maida Vale tube station
Nazenin Ansari Diplomatic editor of the London edition of Kayhan, an Iranian newspaper
Is London’s future Islamic?‘I don’t think so. London is made up of so many different people, nationalities, cultures, religions; Islam is just one.’
Would you like it to be Islamic?‘No. Let’s put it this way – what would I like it to be like? Since Time Out put their questions to me, I’ve been asking a lot of Londoners – different age groups, from my daughters to people at the Foreign Press Association, and British people – and they all said first of all that they want to see a London which is more integrated, and which is more British. My daughter said we don’t know what British is any more. I would say that perhaps it would be a London that would have the same common values, and values that combine the best of all cultures, the best of all religions, the best of all thoughts, coming together. That would be based on respect for the universality of human rights, tolerance, liberalism, a pluralism.’ Advertisement
What could London learn from Islam?‘First of all, you have to have a definition of what Islam is. I come from a family of believers. But my parents – unlike me – perhaps would not define themselves as Muslims. But rather secularists. We’re Iranian. Iran, at the time that they were growing up, was in a period of development and progress, and Westernisation. Anything to do with the clerics was frowned upon, because the clerics were the uneducated. So the educated in Iran did not identify themselves with that image. Then we had the Revolution, and suddenly everything changed – [although the Revolution replaced the monarchy with an Islamic Republic] it wasn’t so much for Islam as against what was perceived as dictatorship. So now, after twenty-nine years, you see a social movement in Iran which has come up once again against the clerics, and for democracy, and for progress. If we can see that the 1979 revolution was against modernity and progress, now we see a revolution for progress and modernity.’
Do you think there’ll be another revolution?‘I don’t think so – I hope not. But there is a demand for change, and there is a movement that is socially based, and people are aspiring to more open systems, to more tolerant systems, to more pluralistic systems where there is more equality between genders, and religions, and ethnic minorities, human rights, and freedom of expression, freedom of thought, freedom of religion. Whether the regime itself will be able to change and allow these freedoms, that will define whether there will be a revolution.’
Could we be confident that Muslim women living in London have freedom of choice and movement?‘I find that as far as the British legal framework is concerned, yes they do. I think where the problem arises, perhaps, with women coming from some Muslim families, is to do more with the culture within their family. That is what is very different between the Muslim community here in the UK and the Muslim state – in Muslim countries it is the legal framework of the state that does not allow women such liberties. Here in Britain it is the perception and the values of the family. But I think through education that will change.’
So it’s not Islam, but different cultures that oppress women?‘Yes. I grew up in a family of believers. But my family were Dervishes. We had masks. Dervishes are like Sufis. For us in Islam – you would say that there is one God, and it’s Allah, Muhammad is his prophet, and Ali is his disciple. Then on top of that you had to pray five times a day, but I remember that even in Iran many people didn’t pray five times a day. Religion has to be private, it’s something for your beliefs and conscience, rather than you saying “I do this, or do that”. But to be a Muslim, first, you have to believe there is one God, and you have to believe Muhammad is his prophet. For us Shi’ites, Ali is his disciple, but the Ali that we grew up with was an Ali who was a kind one, who took care of the underdog, who would go out anonymously at night in the dark to feed the orphans, to take care of the orphans. It was not an Ali who would kill, it was not an Ali who would ask for martyrdom. Whereas after the revolution the whole concept of what Ali symbolised in Iran changed, he stopped being the guardian and patron of the underdog, caring for them and spreading community service, and became a man who had a sword that the blade could cut heads both ways. So you see, it’s all about symbolism. There are good things about Islam: family values, the importance of family, the importance of listening to wise men, to the old, being respectful of others. That’s something British culture could learn from it.’
What do you think the most common misperceptions are of Muslims in the media?The most common misperception is, number one, that Muslim women all cover their heads with the hijab. That it’s through the hijab that you are either seen as Muslim or not. No one is to blame for that. Number two, we have to look inside us – the Muslim community as well – and see why there is such a perception of violence, of anger, and of submission.
Can you talk to me a bit more about the issue of the hijab?One of the problems that we have in Iranian culture, and those who do not speak Arabic, is that we have had to depend on translations of the Koran. So you can find four different translations of the same verse in the Koran. They don’t talk about covering your head being mandatory: basically you have to be modest and cover your breasts. The problem is that why do they think women have to be modest? It’s because they say women arouse men. We shouldn’t blame the woman for the weakness of the man. What I would say is that men have to cover their eyes if they are so weak that the sight of hair arouses them, it’s their problem! If you ask any Iranian woman nowadays that’s what they say. On the streets of Iran, they had to stop 150,000 men and women in April for immoral behaviour. Most women say “Listen, it’s your problem, not mine, look elsewhere.” ’
Are you optimistic that London Muslims’ relationship with the police can develop beyond where they are?‘The Metropolitan Police have made mistakes, but I think they are learning from their mistakes. I think in the latest incident, where they went to arrest the wife of a 7/7 bomber, they went unarmed. You see, that’s one thing about democracies. Democracy is just like any other system – mistakes do happen. But I think what sets democracies apart from dictatorships, totalitarian systems, everything else, is how you learn. How you progress. And develop so that the same mistakes don’t happen. So when you look, for example, at how the Metropolitan Police is learning from its mistakes – 7/7 and the case of the Brazilian – it really was very sad what happened, but they’ve learned from that. There’s always an inquiry. Just compare how the police are handling the situation today in London and how the police in Tehran are dealing with people who are showing strands of hair. Then you can say “My God, there is a difference”.‘We Iranians have never had problems with the police. I think it is up to the leaders and the elders of the community to start paying more attention to why is it that their children feel so disenfranchised, not only from society but from the elders themselves. So they have to look within themselves for the solution. But I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem of religion. The British-Iranian community is made up of Iranian Muslims, Iranian Bahais, Iranian Jews, and Iranian Christians, and even Iranian atheists. We haven’t had problems with one another and we haven’t had problems with the British system. We have integrated.’
Do you think worries about the threat of terrorism within the Muslim community are ridiculous?‘No. I am concerned when my daughter leaves home every morning and takes the bus, I am worried for my children’s security in case another 7/7 happens. My daughter wrote her will after 7/7, and she was twelve at that time. I do expect my children to be secure. I do expect for me to be secure, mainly to take care of them. So safety and security should be our top priority, but at the same time there has to be an application of human rights and fairness.’
Arwa at the Spitz
Arwa Haider 31 Journalist and DJ
Is London's future Islamic? Would you like it to be?This is an incredibly bizarre question; it’s not something that’s ever occurred to me! Surely London’s future is for all kinds of attitudes and backgrounds to continue to co-exist – that’s what makes it the greatest city in the world. And that to me is essentially an Islamic ethos; it echoes my Muslim upbringing: conviction in your beliefs, respect for everybody else’s.
Is modern London compatible with Islam?Yes, totally; they’re not separate entities, and the idea that we’re all reeling from culture shock is misguided. I really became a practising Muslim in my teens – around the same time I became obsessed with music and clubbing. It’s given me an open mind and a non-alcoholic bar tab.
What can London learn from Islam?I don’t think it’s that didactic. Islam is obviously a monotheistic religion, directly related to Christianity and Judaism, but its crucial principles – respect, responsibility, conscious thought, charity and family ties – are key in most rationales; you don’t need to be religious for those to make sense.
Can we be confident that Muslim women in London have freedom of choice and movement?Yes, as much as any massively diverse cross-section of Londoners. We Muslim women can speak for ourselves, in a variety of languages – so why does the mainstream prefer the spectre of the oppressed female?
Are you optimistic that London Muslims’ relations with the Metropolitan Police can develop beyond their present perilous state?I don’t feel we’re presently in a perilous state; that smacks of scaremongering. However, I do think that issues including ‘stop and search’ and being judged on appearances have long compromised all of us as Londoners.
Is there a big enough threat of terrorism in the Islamic community to justify the present levels of suspicion or are Muslims being misrepresented and victimised?A perverse minority tries to twist religion to justify atrocity; bigotry comes in all shades. We’re not victims, but Muslims are often misrepresented and increasingly swamped with tacky labels, from ‘moderate’ to ‘Islamist’ – these say nothing to me about my life. Thank God, they’ll never detract from actually reading the Koran, or the universal Muslim greeting: ‘Salaam’. Peace.
Ansar Ahmed UllahDirector of the UK branch of the International Forum for Secular Bangladesh
Is London's future Islamic?‘I don’t know, but there is no denying that there is a large Muslim population in London.’
Is modern London compatible with Islam?‘Yes – look at the modern Muslim cities of the world.’
What can London learn from Islam?‘In the eye of God we are all his creation, though diverse in culture, language and nations. Islam believes in equality of all beings. There is no heirarchy, class or caste system in Islam. The majority of Muslims have lived side by side with other faith communities in harmony for centuries just as diverse London communities have.’
Can we be confident that Muslim women in London have freedom of choice and movement?‘There is nothing to suggest that Muslim women are being restricted in their movement.’
Are you optimistic that London Muslims’ relations with the Metropolitan Police can develop beyond their present perilous state?‘Historically there have been problems and difficulties between the police and certain sections of the community. In the ’70s and the ’80s we witnessed tension and violence between police and the black and Asian communities. The majority of UK’s Muslims belong to the same Asian community.’
Murad QureshiLondon Assembly member
Is the future of London Islamic?The future of London is London itself and what we make of it at the beginning of the 21st century. Hate crime went up straight after the July bombings but went back down again, I think that shows that it didn't succeed in turning Londoners against each other. I didn't realise I was a 'Muslim' until September 11th. By that I mean that no one had asked me before, they'd ask where I was from and about my ethnic ancestry. I don't see myself as representing the Muslim community particularly. Of course I represent their interests but like any good constituency politician I represent my whole community's interests. The clash of civilisations came to the forefront with 7/11 and Mr Bush talking about 'us' and 'them' didn't help. Protagonists on both sides like to see it like that and the media likes to portray it as black and white but most of us occupy the grey area in between and the media has to give space to that.
What in your view would be the most important elements of Islam for London to take on board?Their diversity, which reflects London anyway. The media likes to present Muslims as a homogenous mass but they're not, there are a multitude of ethnic groups and religious groups as well. Edgware Road, for example, has Sunni's at the top end, Shias at the Kilburn end and Iraqi dissidents, Kurds and others in between. The media always focuses on Brick Lane but that's a Bangladeshi street, not a Muslim street. In Edgware Road you get a much better cross section of Muslim society. There has always been the extreme element; before it was the Nation of Islam of Britain, perhaps that is one illustration of the diversity of London. The fact that Mohammad Sidique Khan targeted Edgware Road tube station shows how disconnected the bombers were with London Muslims and London communities, bombing a station in the most identifiable Middle Eastern street in the city.
Is modern London compatible with Islam?Modern London is home to all the great faiths, no less Islam. The best example I can give is the Brick Lane mosque. This started off as a Huguenot church, then became a synagogue and then a mosque and London was able to accommodate all of these. Who knows what it's next conversion will be, it probably won't be in my lifetime.
What can London learn from Islam?Modesty, the dress sense, and this is applicable to men as well as women. Also in the way you conduct yourself. Where it comes a cropper is in the interpretation. These are often cultural customs among the Arabs, not necessarily religious tenets. I grew up in a household where when it was required for the women to cover their heads they just used the end of their sari's, that was common practise and no big deal. My grandmother fought all this sort of stuff in the Indian sub continent, customs around the purdah like keeping women confined in the homes, which is just one element. They felt they made some breakthroughs in the 50's and 60's, if she came back now she'd be aghast, that you go abroad and see this. It's a new phenomenon. The thing I am mainly picking up though is that its young women reaffirming their faith. I think it's an issue with very young girls though seven and eight year olds.
Can we be confident that Muslim Women in London have freedom of choice and movement?The situation is much better in London than in other towns, they are more visible here. I think they should have better access to mosques. All new mosques built in the city should have 50 percent floor space for women. I think the female members of Muslim communities are generally more devout than the males and yet in many mosques in London they just have a back room and not the front area, When they go to Saudi Arabia for the annual Haj they get equal space. If need be you divide the floor space down the middle, which you see in the Sikh temples in Southall. That would be better than no space at all.
Are you optimistic that London's relations with the Metropolitan Police can develop beyond their present state?It's much better than people appreciate. I was a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority from 2004 to 2006. There were a lot of mechanisms in place for community liaison between the police and all the various elements of the Muslim communities which I think helped London get over the immediate effects of the bombings. These relationships were well established before the bombings themselves so they didn't actually get Londoners fighting Londoners. Levels of hate crimes are dropping in London and that suggests things are better here than in other parts of the UK and lets be thankful of that.Bizarrely, when we're repealing all the anti-terrorism legislation in Northern Ireland John Reid and Blair, both on their way out, think it's a good idea to put them in place here. You are only going to get intelligence if you have good community relations. Peter Clarke of the Anti-Terrorism Unit is suggesting that the balance is quite good at the moment so there seems to be no need for this. I saw the effects of the sus laws when I was growing up in the 70's and 80's and I don't think it would be helpful to bring them back today.
Catherine Hossain Member of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK
Is London's future Islamic?‘There is the potential for Muslim Londoners to make an increasingly valuable contribution to a thriving and diverse London. A generation of London-born Muslims is active in pretty much every sphere of London life – from doctors and teachers to political activists and entrepreneurs. We’re at a critical juncture – depending on the political climate, London’s Muslims could either become a marginalised minority, both feared and fearful, or flourishing citizens.’
Would you like it to be?‘There’s a lot of hysteria from commentators with a pro-Israel agenda like Melanie Phillips about the so-called “Islamification” of Britain. Muslims shouldn’t be seen as a threat. It is un-Islamic to impose your religion on others – the Koran teaches “let there be no compulsion in religion”. If we value and respect each other, Muslims could enrich our society, just like in another era Islamic influences contributed to the European Renaissance. London provides a model of community cohesion that contrasts positively with segregated northern towns.’
Is modern London compatible with Islam?‘Muslim Londoners have more freedom to practice our religion than many people around the world. It’s not compulsory for us to go drinking or clubbing to be part of modern London! A unique British Muslim identity is developing. You can see this fusion in the Islamic fashion on London’s streets – denim jilbabs and high-street clothes layered with pashmina scarves.’
What can London learn from Islam?‘It’s vital that as Muslims we take more responsibility for reaching out to our non-Muslim neighbours and take seriously our Islamic obligation to contribute to the whole of our society. The Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK (MPACUK) is promoting a 12-point plan for twentyfirst-century British mosques – where every mosque would offer services such as education, training and social support to the whole of the local community, both Muslims and non-Muslims. And given current concerns about binge drinking and anti-social behaviour maybe we can show that it’s not necessary to down a dozen alcopops, puke on the pavement and pick up an ASBO in order to have fun!’
Can we be confident that Muslim women in London have freedom of choice and movement?‘There are a lot of misconceptions that Muslim women wear headscarves because we are forced by our husbands, or that we’re all chained to the kitchen sink. Fourteen-hundred years ago Islam gave women our rights – but not all Muslim men always behave in accordance with Islam, often due to cultural distortions. The MPACUK’s campaigned for women’s rights in the mosque. And ultimately Muslim women in London are protected by the law just like all women.’
Are you optimistic that London Muslims’ relations with the Met can progress?‘Incidents such as those in Forest Gate have really undermined trust in the Met for a lot of Muslims. But organisations such as ours have made an effort to facilitate dialogue between the police and the Muslim community by inviting representatives from the force to speak and answer questions. We have always encouraged Muslims to join the police and make a positive contribution to the security of society as a whole.’
Do you think there are ridiculous levels of suspicion about the threat of terror?‘The threat of terrorism we face in London affects Muslims just as much as non-Muslims. Labelling the murderers who committed 7/7 as “Islamic terrorists” doesn’t help. When the IRA was bombing London we quite rightly never called it “Catholic terrorism”. And giving up our civil liberties is only handing victory to terrorism. We have to work together as citizens in order to tackle the threat.’