Over the last few months I have tried to learn more about Islam- with a focus of the religion in the UK. I have been listening (and then re-listening) to various, semi-related BBC radio documentaries about Islam in addition to reading various articles online. My perspective of Islam and in particular how it functions in Britain has changed quite significantly. If you have time, I’d recommend listening to at least a few of these programmes. There are two documentaries about Deobandi islam in the UK, one about conservative Muslims in liberal Britain, a look at multiculturalism in Leicester and Newham, a look at the Deobandis in India and in Pakistan, an analysis into how Saudi Arabia’s vast wealth has been used to spread its puritanical form of Islam– Wahhabism and there’s another more general analysis of Wahhabism which is also worth a listen. Then there are a few which I’ve usefully forgotten the names of the titles!
So how has my attitude changed? Essentially, where before I believed that tolerance should basically have no limits, now I believe there should be at least some boundaries of a liberal society’s tolerance of other religions.
But where should Britain’s tolerance stop in relation to British Muslims? Bluntly put: somewhere around the point where Islamic communities become extremely conservative. From my ‘new’ understanding, these communities (listen to the documentaries about Deobandi muslims) are extremely patriarchal, puritanical, authoritarian, intolerant, have major issues with extremism and most perhaps importantly, in the context of a liberal Western society- are misogynistic.
Women in these very conservative Islamic communities are effectively second-class citizens. For a start, many mosques don’t allow women to attend at all, Islamic scholars and preachers are practically all male and in family life it is the man who calls all the shots- just watch East is East. There is a widely held expectation that the women should stay at home and look after the children; for example in the 2011 census it was revealed that Arab, Bangladeshi and Pakistani women have the highest rates of economic inactivity in the UK (64%, 61% and 60% respectively)- i.e. women who don’t have jobs and stay at home, according to tradition. Additionally, the increasing prevalence of private sharia law courts in the country has been found to increase the discrimination against women living in Islamic communities. Oh and don’t forget homosexuals, 52% of British Muslims say that they disagree that homosexuality should be legal- compared with a mere 5% of the general population.
Problems arise from the fact that in Islam there is a huge range of extremely specific rules about how societal and family life should be conducted- and of course in conservative communities these rules are more strictly enforced. And if all the fatwas and rules are followed particularly faithfully, like the Wahhabis, Deobandis and other puritanical sects do, you end up with religious communities which are far more suited to an ancient desert-Arab society, than a modern, liberal and secular nation.
Then, there is the problem of Islamic extremism. Now, of course the West (not least the UK!) is responsible in large part for much of the Islamic terrorism experienced in recent years. Destructive military-interventions, invasions, occupations, the propping up of Dictators, the training and funding of armed extremists when we want to replace these Dictators, the drone attacks and our unwavering support for Israel have all contributed to a not completely irrational hatred of the West, among many Muslims in the middle-east and further afield. But nevertheless, Islamic extremism is still a problem that must be dealt with and the UK is no stranger to it. Episode 2 of The Deobandis goes into detail about the murky history of the spread of Jihadist thought in Britain and highlights that a large number of UK mosques have quietly supported or at least been sympathetic to extremist causes throughout previous decades.
So, what should the British government do about all this? How do we help the women living in these communities and prevent the spread of extremism? I’m not so sure, but after thinking about it at length I have a few personal suggestions so listen up Teresa May! Firstly I would support the banning of religious schools (Christian ones included incidentally), a ban of Sharia-courts and the closure of mosques which don’t open their doors to women. Additionally, foreign funding of Mosques should be banned. For example Saudi Arabia has poured perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars into the funding of puritanical religious schools and mosques around the world, including the UK. It is utterly insane that extremely backwards religious ideologies such as Wahhabism should be allowed to flourish in countries such as Britain from Saudi oil money and this needs to be stopped immediately.
The government needs to tread carefully, though. There is a thin line between curbing the excesses of super-conservative forms of Islam and religious persecution. Also, there is a risk that trying to do so will just exacerbate the issue of Islamic extremism by angering and alienating Islamic communities. But perhaps this is a price worth paying if it means that large numbers of women currently living in subjugation might be able to live freer lives.