A new book by Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Britain’s first female Muslim cabinet minister, bears the intriguing title The Enemy Within: A Tale of Muslim Britain.
Baroness Warsi, you may recall, is a Conservative peer and was in David Cameron’s first cabinet. You might also recall that she left the cabinet in 2014 over the government’s policy on Gaza, and that subsequently she was one of the people who criticised the Tory campaign against Sadiq Khan in the London Mayoral election last year, labelling it Islamophobic and offensive.
It had seemed a little unexpected to have a Muslim woman in the midst of a Conservative cabinet — mostly smug white men in suits — but Warsi held her own. Yet, when she eventually left the cabinet, many people thought that her speaking up about matters regarding the Muslim community had contributed significantly to her departure.
She famously commented in a speech on Islamophobia that it had gained a widespread acceptability, that it “had passed the dinner party test”. Of her situation as a British Yorkshire Muslim woman in public life, she said to a Sunday Times interviewer recently “I’ve found myself throughout life, and certainly throughout government, at moments feeling that I was ‘us’ and at moments feeling like I was ‘them’.”
So who are Britain’s Muslims — are they ‘us’ or ‘them’. Are they suffering from an identity crisis? How British do they feel? Have they integrated into British life? Are they all ripe for radicalisation?
These questions recur also in a recent television series called Extremely British Muslims screened earlier this month. Channel 4’s series of just three programmes was filmed over the course of one year in the Pakistani Muslim community in Birmingham. They produced mixed reviews of course. Some people thought there was a lot of stereotyping of British Muslims involved while others thought they actually humanised their subjects rather than stereotyped them.
The first programme (‘All the Single Muslims’) of the trio focused on marriage and featured a number of young Muslims in search of partners: 24year old Bella was trying to find a husband through the Birmingham Mosque’s matrimonial service and so we got to meet the middle aged men running the service and trying to find her a good candidate and set up a meeting for them. I have to say the matchmakers were rather endearing as they good-humouredly went through their records, phoned potential candidates and chatted with Bella. Meanwhile we see 32 year old engineer Nayyera as she meets potential candidates and grimaces through one such unsuccessful meeting where the young man tells her that he would expect his wife to cook and clean and be responsible for the children as “he does not want to be a man-dad” (whatever that means).
Meanwhile, we also get to see Ash (Ashraf), who goes from wanting a very traditional Muslim wife to wanting somebody who could be more of a companion to him.
The second programme (‘Boys to Men’) was about the difficulties and hopelessness afflicting young men in a particularly bleak part of Birmingham. It followed the stories of friends ‘Waz’ and ‘Nav’ who were trying to get ahead and find meaningful work despite various constraints. Interviews with other young Muslim men in the area revealed a real sense of aimlessness and despair as they felt themselves trapped in a limbo, without opportunity or aspiration.
The final programme (‘The Rules’) was extremely interesting as it featured young exuberant students speaking about what the rules of Islam are, and it also featured the story of Abdul a white English convert previously known as Sean.
The rules that many young Muslims might find restrictive are shown as being the very thing that has provided structure and purpose to Abdul’s life. Particularly interesting is Abdul’s interaction with his brother Lee, a young man who with past ties to the xenophobic and rightwing EDL.
Baroness Warsi’s book will throw light on many of the issues highlighted by the Channel 4 programme. One of her main criticisms is if the government’s Prevent programme which is often seen as a witch hunt of Muslims and of which she says that “as a brand, is broken … Is toxic”.
As Britain’s Muslim population reaches close to the 3 million mark, Warsi’s book and Extremely British Muslims both raise difficult questions about what really constitutes “the enemy within”.