National Identity and the Future of Muslim Britain

Islam and the Liberal State: National Identity and the Future of Muslim Britain
6 min read
17 December, 2021
Book Club: This new book examines how, despite a rising tide of political paranoia shaping the mainstream perception of British Muslims, the community is able to thrive in a system where their allegiance to the state is constantly questioned.
Islam is all too readily used by mainstream British policy as the key determinant of societal friction [Bloomsbury Press]

Stephen Jones, author of Islam and the Liberal State: National Identity and the Future of Muslim Britain is concerned with three subjects; Islam, national identity and the liberal state – territory well-traversed by numerous academics and commentators considering the topic of whether Muslims and their faith can be accommodated in liberal democracies. 

This is not only a theoretical question, the frequently negative response in the real world negatively impacts their daily lives.

Over the last twenty years, anti-Muslim narratives have become normalised in sections of the media, political elite and have helped fuel Islamophobic sentiment across Europe and the United States. Muslims in Britain, like their counterparts elsewhere, are imagined as a singular, suspect community who often stand accused of being unable to sufficiently integrate and show loyalty to the state.

In public and policy discourse, they are reduced to a series of stereotypes that conflate migration, 'Otherness' and dangerous perceptions which appear to be vindicated by a steady stream of negative news stories, bestselling books and even some academic studies.

"This study demonstrates that British Muslim communities are not passive spectators but active agents shaping creative positive transformative change"

What makes Islam and the Liberal State: National Identity and the Future of Muslim Britain worth reading is the rich empirical evidence presented by the author, which was gained through his decade long engagement with Muslim communities. 

This book offers well-informed insights, balanced assessments of controversial issues and is able to demonstrate how British Muslim communities over the last twenty years have undergone major socio-religious transformations enabled by societal change and political participation.

The author makes a qualified defence of liberal approaches to minority inclusion and considers how Western governments could greater facilitate the incorporation of Muslim populations and institutions.

Jones challenges the popular view that liberal and Islamic traditions are incompatible and quite boldly argues that, if done effectively, the political incorporation of Muslim minorities might facilitate democratic renewal.

This study, however, is not a work of Islamophilia nor does it suggest that all Muslims have become good liberals and, does not shy away from exploring the difficult issues challenging Muslims in the UK.

Instead, it offers a critical but cautiously hopeful narrative about the emergence of a distinctive British Islam that is able to reconcile issues of religious authenticity, identity and loyalty in a non-minority context.

The author covers a large number of topics, but focuses on socio-political change with British Muslim organisations, their relations with the government, Islamic educational institutions, “shariah courts” and discusses these subjects within the context of the secular state.

In engaging these issues, Jones addresses the debates about liberal democracy, national identity, “fundamental British values,” individual liberty and challenges dated criticisms about Muslim organisations.

In doing so, he makes the case for a truly inclusive version of liberalism that accommodates the expression of faith-based arguments in the public sphere – the alternative prospect being the continued securitisation of Muslims and framing them as primarily as a ‘suspect community’ and security threat.

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By making this argument the author does not evade the sensitive issue of Muslim theo-political radicalisation and the extremist fringes that call for violence. He is careful to make distinctions between different Islamic groups and religious tendencies ignored by politicians and the media when referring to organisations inspired by international movements such as the Jamaat-i-Islami, Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb ut-Tahrir and Salafis.

Jones demonstrates that not only have they functioned within democratic norms, but some with strong ties to transnational movements are also now an integral part of the civic mainstream.

The author uses the UK’s biggest umbrella body – the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) – as a case in point, as it has advocated for the public recognition of Muslims for nearly a quarter of a century.

In its early years, the MCB was able to successfully lobby for a range of issues and secure the inclusion of a question on religious identity in the 2001 census and became the Labour government’s main institutional interface with British Muslim communities from the late 1990s to the early 2000s.

"Rather than viewing them as following static, anachronistic juridical traditions, the author encourages readers to see Islamic law as a dynamic language of moral reasoning that encompasses a range of normative perspectives"

The organisation fell out of favour for its anti-war stance in 2003 and became a victim of a form of ‘state excommunication’ in 2005, it was substituted with a government compliant ‘moderate Muslim’ entity.

This stance continued with the election of the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition in 2009 as the MCB was considered insufficiently vocal in its opposition to extremism. The current Conservative government still judges the group to be directed by a coterie of unreformed Islamists in spite of its founding members being replaced by a younger generation mostly in its thirties and being led by a Muslim woman.

Other instructive case studies in the fields of education and Muslim personal law also illustrate evolution and maturation in these different domains. The author acknowledges that while some institutions are slow to embrace change and continue to adopt isolationist positions – there are signs of gradual but significant reform.

In the field of higher education, some seminaries and colleges have developed partnerships with secular universities and a number have diversified their traditional curriculums. Among the most interesting are hybrid institutions such as the Al-Mahdi Institute, Ebrahim College and Cambridge Muslim College, which offers traditional Islamic Studies along with the study of the humanities and social sciences.

The existence of ‘sharia courts’ often conjures images of parallel legal systems dispensing harsh judgements that prejudice women and raises the question of whether the UK’s jurisdiction should recognise Islamic law. ‘Islamic dispute resolution institutions’ would be a  more accurate description of what these institutions do.

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Rather than viewing them as following static, anachronistic juridical traditions, the author encourages readers to see Islamic law as a dynamic language of moral reasoning that encompasses a range of normative perspectives. He points out that they do not constitute a separate system, vary in practices (some good, others not), acknowledges the difficulties experienced by some women in matters of marriage and divorce, but underlines the fact that they do not function outside of British legal system.

While Jones argues persuasively for the inclusion of religion in public reasoning as a feature of political liberalism, the current UK government is becoming increasingly illiberal and appears intent on continuing its dual strategy of ‘managing Muslims’ – externally through securitisation and migration control at the borders, and, internally on issues of integration, cohesion and citizenship.

This study demonstrates that British Muslim communities are not passive spectators but active agents shaping creative positive transformative change.

This is a slow, organic process as different Islamic orientations and organisations grapple with the intellectual and institutional traditions of Britain. This book is a must-read for policymakers, researchers and teachers interested in Islam in the UK.

Dr Sadek Hamid is an academic who has written widely about British Muslims. He is the author of  Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism.

Follow him on Twitter: @SadekHamid