Author Insight: Anthony McRoy on Muslims in Britain
Anthony McRoy, M.A., Ph.D., is a researcher and religious journalist who contributes to evangelical and Muslim periodicals and has appeared on Iranian television. A lecturer in Islamics at the Evangelical Theological College of Wales, McRoy has written a new book, From Rushdie to 7/7: The Radicalisation of Islam in Britain (The Social Affairs Unit, 2006). Stan Guthrie, a senior associate editor for Christianity Today, asked him about the book and recent trends with Muslims in Britain.
Why did you write this book?
I was actually invited to do so by the publishers, a secular institution. They wanted a book about British Muslims, more particularly about the radicalization of the community. They gave me complete literary freedom, which was important, as I had no intention of writing either a hagiography or a hatchet job.
The result was as I wanted it—an objective study of the radicalization of British Muslims, pitched at a level the layman could understand. The book examines the history of the United Kingdom Muslim community, explains issues such as the Qur’an, Shari’ah, Jihad, Islam and democracy, and Muslim mission. Judging by the responses I’ve had from Christians and Muslim leaders who’ve read the book, I appear to have succeeded in my intention.
What does Islam look like in Great Britain?
There are around 1.8 million Muslims with U.K. citizenship, plus an indeterminate number of “asylum seekers” who are not citizens, many—perhaps most—of them Muslims, out of a total U.K. population of roughly 60 million. Islam is not a monolith anywhere, including Britain. One of the points in my book is the great diversity among “radical” Muslims. For example, most British Muslims support Hamas—including its “martyrdom operations” against the Israeli occupiers, but simultaneously oppose Al-Qaeda actions such as 9/11 and 7/7 (though not Al-Qaeda actions against U.S. troops in Iraq). Most British Muslims—including offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups—believe in democratic participation; a small minority oppose it.
The younger, U.K.-born generation is confident in their British identity and rights, and are very missionary-minded—often on a Saturday in U.K. cities you’ll see young Muslims with literature tables trying to win converts. Simultaneously, the younger generation are alienated from government foreign policy on Iraq, Palestine, and now Iran, and exasperated with the inability of their community leaders to address this. It was this generation that was responsible for 7/7.
How is this different from Islam on the Continent?
British Muslims, apart from refugees, are U.K. citizens, whereas many Muslims in Germany, who are often Turkish and Bosnian guest workers, do not always have citizenship. This means that U.K. Muslims are more confident in political participation. On the other hand, you don’t find mainstream Muslims in Britain behaving like those in Belgium, where popular elements lauded 9/11 as payback for U.S. “humiliation” and “oppression” of Muslims.
However, one hears of many of the same features in both contexts—the older, immigrant generation characterised by deference to the authorities, often despised by the younger, radicalized generation born in the West for their ineptitude and unwillingness to confront their governments over foreign policy.
Where do most Muslims in the United Kingdom come from?
Most are of subcontinental origins—either directly from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India, or from South Asian communities in Africa. Increasingly, though, the community has become more ethnically diverse, with Arabs coming to the fore, especially through the Muslim Association of Britain, which is ideologically linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. There are also now large numbers of Somalis, Albanians, and African Muslims. It should be noted that over 50 percent of U.K. Muslims were born here.
How did the Rushdie affair radicalize Muslims in Britain?
It was the defining crisis in British Muslim history. Before 1989, politicians and media only ever spoke of undifferentiated “Asians.” Thereafter, Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs distinguished themselves from each other. The generation gap emerged, as exasperation with the Muslim leadership began. We also saw antagonism to “puppet” Muslim regimes such as the Saudis for doing nothing, unlike the Iranians, who threatened to kill Rushdie.
Events thereafter intensified this radicalization. Hatred of the Saudis is virtually universal, after they allowed U.S. troops in, violating the prophet’s command—they see it as equivalent to “the Abomination of Desolation.” Palestine is the central issue for British Muslims, and two of them took part in a “martyrdom operation” there. Iraq completed the alienation process, and now with Iran U.K. Muslims ask why Blair and Bush complain about Iran but ignore the Israeli nuclear arsenal? All these factors in some way are traceable to the Rushdie crisis.
Nearly a year after the London subway attacks, what has changed in your country regarding Muslims and the rest of society?
The government and the Royal Family did all they could to effect reconciliation, and we didn’t get politicians behaving like U.S. Congressman [Tom] Tancredo, who [suggested] Mecca … be nuked. Further, it must be remembered that the U.K. situation differs from America in two ways. Muslims are our biggest minority, and few of us live in places where they are absent—one should compare the Hispanic community for equivalence. Unlike in America, where there are no Muslim congressmen, we have Muslims in the Houses of Parliament. Secondly, most Britons opposed the Iraq war and support the Palestinians—also true of British evangelicals—and the government was also popularly blamed for the 7/7 attacks, because of the Iraq war.
Hence, antagonism is not so prevalent, because Muslims are our neighbors and friends. Nonetheless, there is some suspicion of Muslims, especially on the Tube! Remember, unlike 9/11, it was our own compatriots who attacked us.
Early on after the attacks, Christians seemed to rally to the defense of their Muslim neighbors. Is that still the case?
There are Islamophobic Christians in Britain, but they were Islamophobic before 7/7, so nothing changed with them. For most, however, they are concerned to reach out to Muslims, remembering what I said about them being our neighbors. After all, you can’t share Christ with people you avoid! So, “loving your neighbour” is still the practical response in Britain.
On the other hand, many Christians—like most Britons—want answers about jihad, and are exasperated with the claims of Muslim spokesmen about the “greater jihad” being that against evil impulses, which is not a canonical tradition among Sunnis. Usually British Christians can understand why Muslims are fighting—because of Iraq, Palestine, etc. British TV spends much time on overseas situations, so Britons understand these issues. What they cannot understand is how some British Muslims could callously kill so many innocent people on 7/7. The evasions of Muslim spokesmen do not help.
How have recent events affected the ministry of Christian apologists such as Jay Smith, who aggressively challenge Muslim beliefs in the public square?
Jay says that the entire debate since 7/7 has revolved around the peace and violence paradigm, enabling him to address Qur’anic passages on jihad. Now it is the central issue on campus and elsewhere when he debates Muslims, who are much more on the defensive. Jay always tried to define Islam from its sources—the Qur’an and the Hadith—and now everyone does this.
However, Jay found that Muslim reaction was like a “bounce”—initially he heard condemnation of 7/7, but after events in Guantanamo and so on, support for the bombers increased—a recent poll also demonstrated this. He says that he finds that there is a public and private reaction to 9/11 and 7/7—public condemnation by leaders, but in private, away from the cameras, the younger generation will often be supportive—as he finds when he speaks at Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner. Of course, Jay also gets attacked simply for being American!
Are Muslims in Britain pushing for Islamic law there, and, if so, what should the rest of the society do about it?
The leading organisations are not demanding Shari’ah, but simple provision for Muslims—such as interest-free banking. However, a recent poll showed that many U.K. Muslims would like territorial Shari’ah introduced in Muslim-intensive areas—a dangerous development. Actually, it is usually liberal-left politicians who are responsible for sinister developments, to please Muslim voters—such as renaming streets with “Saint” in the title, asking churches to remove crosses, trying to abolish Christmas celebrations. There have also been attacks on churches by Muslim youths.
Unfortunately, political correctness has inhibited church leaders from doing much about it. U.K. evangelicals until recently have not been organized as a political lobby in the way U.S. evangelicals are—and anyway, there are only one million of us. There are signs of change in this, but much more needs to be done or we’ll wake up one day to find evangelistic mission banned.
What's ahead for Britain and Muslims?
Except in the grace of God, more of the same. I suspect that many young Muslims now regard the 7/7 bombers as heroic martyrs. The looming crisis with Iran will complete this process. I foresee more 7/7s, because the issues that concern British Muslims—Iraq, Palestine and perceived Western oppression of the Middle East—are continuing. Moreover, I would not be surprised that America’s next 9/11—and I am sure there will be another—could be effected by British Muslims, possibly white or black converts with U.K. passports.
British evangelicals should take the opportunity now to establish better relations with our Muslim neighbors at all levels, but equally, we must resist calls for banning “insults” to religion, which could be used against us. We should also encourage Muslims to demand the same liberty for Christian minorities in Islamic lands that they demand here for themselves. It’s the British thing to do.