What is the “British Islam” debate all about?

Abdul Wahid explains the numerous problems he identifies with the ongoing “British Islam” debate.

Around 30 years ago a work colleague told me assuredly that I was “British”. I was fairly indifferent to the comment, though recognised that my colleague was trying to be accepting and inclusive, indicating that skin colour wasn’t a criteria for Britishness.‎ But I’d heard similar comments before. I didn’t particularly see it as an “honour”, or something that made me feel more or less accepted. I learned it was much better to be accepted on my own terms, not as a member of an elite club that I could be ejected from at a later date!

I knew I ticked the boxes of being born in the UK, speaking English without an accent and being able to engage in British cultural discourse. I also know that the goodwill wouldn’t necessarily be extended to my parents – or to someone who ticked only two of the three boxes.

Decades later the “Britishness” debate has moved on. Some days ago, an entertainment TV show asked the question “Do we need a British Islam?” Commentators have highlighted the programme’s overt bias (it has a history of denigrating religious beliefs, portraying them as outdated and irrelevant – and its host appears unable to disguise his contempt for Islam), and the fact that this episode appeared to want to promote the profile of a particular extreme secularist panellist.

Is there a need for a “British Islam”?

“British Islam” confuses people. For some who face a sense of alienation, it hints at what one needs to change to be accepted. The discussion often sets orthodox Islamic legal opinions alongside superficial matters, such as whether or not mosques should have domes and minarets – or what style of clothing to wear.

British MuslimsThere are some who argue sincerely that Muslims need to put up fewer barriers to Islam being an accepted norm in the West. They wonder to what extent should Muslims in Britain be calling themselves “British”, or to what extent Muslims should be adopting western cultural norms – as opposed to maintaining eastern cultural norms of their forefathers who migrated to the UK, so as to reduce unnecessary obstacles that make Islam appear “foreign”. Others think it could be empowering for Muslims to claim they have a stake in Britain, whilst yet others see no problem with the geographic descriptive label of “Al Britani”.

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Whatever the merits of these views, such programmes and debates usually serve to reinforce the false idea that traditional Islamic thought is linked to some of today’s politically motivated violence, justifying the secularists call for a wholesale “cut and paste” of Islamic texts – that they call a “reformation”.

Hence, the matter is worthy of some discussion to try to produce clarity.

It’s not about terrorism 

First, we must be clear that the argument for an Islamic “reformation” isn’t about terrorism or extremism, but about competing values, geopolitics and European demographics.

Whilst the calls for a “Western-secular version of Islam” (Jack Straw called it “European Islam” and Ruth Kelly called it a “British version of Islam”) accelerated post-9/11, the agenda predates the 9/11 attacks in New York.

There were several factors preceding 2001 that highlighted the dilemma of Islam for western policy makers, which can be broadly divided into two categories: global and local.

Global Factors

Former colonial powers such as Britain and France had much to do with the mess that is the modern Muslim world. But for all their policies and their consequences – the division of Muslim lands under the Sykes-Picot agreement; the removal of the legitimate Islamic leadership; the installation of proxy-client leaders and secular systems thereafter; the usurpation and occupation of Palestine; the drive to introduce secular-liberal ideas within Muslim countries for over a century – the yearning for Islam amongst the people within the Muslim world has grown.

arabspring-640x480The attempts to foment division and suppress Islamic thought in the Muslim world failed – illustrated by the adoption of individual Islamic practice by younger generations and the Islamic sentiments in response to foreign invasions – whether Soviet/US invasions of Afghanistan, or the US-led invasions of Iraq.

Most recently the Arab Spring – in particular the very apparent Islamic sentiments in the Syria revolution – have given western-policy makers concern for the failure of their project for the Muslim world, even fearing a loss of control over a vital region in the world.

Local factors

Within Europe and Britain as a whole the Muslim population has grown – first by economic migration, later by a rising birth rate and refugees arriving from war zones.

This might not matter if the various models of assimilation had succeeded, where Muslims were expected to adopt the civilisational ideas of the west. But they did not succeed. Both the British multicultural model (which envisaged that the second and third generations would become secular if their parents were allowed to retain their traditional beliefs, traditions and cultures), or the more aggressive French citizenship model (which meant if you didn’t wholehearted embrace the French-secular ideals you were to be condemned to a second-class ghetto) – both models failed to prevent people questioning their identity and answering their questions through Islam.

The Muslim response to Salman Rushdie’s infamous book, the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the Gulf War 1991 and the on-going injustices in Palestine, Kashmir and elsewhere – all showed that Muslims retained some central Islamic values (such as reverence for Allah and His Messenger), and concerns for their Ummah that superseded whatever governments in the West had deemed in their “national interests”.

The response of supremacist secular states

Western governments responded to these global and local trends with political, military, security and ideological policies.

Globally incumbent illegitimate rulers were propped up, whilst simultaneously courting their opponents. There have been invasions, which some amongst politicians and the media explicitly said was to bring a change for “freedom and democracy” in the region. There have been “cultural and education” programmes that promote Western secular thought, backing of secular groups, and promotion of modernist/reformist Muslim thinkers.

Jack Straw said Muslims should accept Britain's Christian values.
Jack Straw said Muslims should accept Britain’s Christian values.

Locally, British governments were keen to establish a “Muslim board of deputies” with which they could engage pseudo-consult and influence. Later, they set-up and funding pseudo-“think-tanks” – artificial voices articulating the government’s agenda. They abandoned multiculturalism in the mid-nineties arguing it had led to the establishment of parallel communities. They continued to fund Orientalist academic institutions; introduced curriculum changes to promote secular liberal thinking; and tried to promote some project emphasising apolitical aspects of Islam.

These political and ideological measures – which were introduced from the mid 1980’s onwards – have given way to an aggressive security policy, that labels all Muslims who adhere to Islam in an orthodox manner (whether so-called political Islam or otherwise) as “extremists” on a conveyor-belt to “terrorism”.

All of this has included the desire to twist Islam to make it conform to secular liberal values. Such a scenario would mean it wouldn’t matter if there were large numbers of Muslims in the UK as long as they thought and acted like secular liberal elites.

Defining “British Islam” or “British Muslim”

I dislike using these terms. Aside from the fact they appear to make the “Islam” and “Muslim” conditional on the “Britishness”, policy makers have promoted them with a colonising mentality.

Moreover, they are terms with different meanings for different people. Whatever sincere Muslims want them to mean, in the contexts of these debates they mean forcing this deen to conform to dominant norms and dividing Muslims in Britain from the worldwide Ummah.

Islam is Islam. It needs no prefix. It is the deen that Allah is pleased with. He SWT says: “This day I have perfected for you your religion and completed My favour upon you and have approved for you Islam as religion” (Translated meaning of the Quran 5:3).

Within Islam there are some agreed upon matters, as well as many areas of difference of opinion to be respected. But difference of opinion is based upon different understanding of texts, not by geography, prevalent norms or by which passport one holds!

Those sincere Muslims who do use such terms need to make the above dangers clear when they engage in such discourse.

A “British” prefix doesn’t define how well you treat others

It is a false assumption that one needs a “British” prefix to get on with others in Britain. A Muslim who abides by the Shari’ah of Islam has duties to those around them, whether Muslim or non-Muslims, and should be concerned for their good – whether in terms of this life or the next i.e. for their guidance.

I’ve already said how some sincere Muslims want to own the label in a constructive way, but for others it is a “wannabe British” label – an unhealthy aspiration to be part of the club, rather than anything constructive and meaningful.

It’s ironic that in an age where English, Scots and Welsh are wondering what “Britishness” actually means, the label appears to be most comfortably worn by those with mixed or immigrant origins.

“Civilisation” versus “Culture”

We all need to understand with more clarity why “cultural” factors have varied from place to place in the Muslim world – food, fabrics, language – but the essence of Islamic beliefs, values and jurisprudence have remained the same.

When politicians like David Cameron talk about “British values” – they aren’t referring to design of clothing, food, architecture of masajid – all of which are aspects of material culture, which will vary from place to place whilst of course conforming to the fiqhi criteria.

They are talking about what can be termed “civilisational” ideas – which emerge from an entirely different creed from Islam and are very often in conflict.

What would a “British Islam” look like?

A “religion” that was twisted to conform to these civilisational ideas would mean Muslims mustn’t believe Islam is the truth – but one of a series of truths.

Islam would be confined to worship and expression to the private sphere alone.

It would twist every law and practice to fit with secular liberal values of today.

It would adopt all modern social norms – even if they are haram or harmful to societies.

It would embrace an interest-based banking system and free-market capitalism.

It would put local interests above the interests of the Muslim Ummah.

It would abandon the institution of Khilafah and the concept of Ummah in favour of democratic republics, constitutional monarchies and nation-state identities.


As a general rule, programmes that fuel anti-Islam propaganda, push the agenda to deform the deen of Allah and promote government-funded secularists who demean themselves almost every time they open their mouths, aren’t worthy of engagement.

But as to the debate about the terms, “British Islam” or “British Muslim” it seems to me the most empowering label, is that which Allah himself direct us towards: “And who is better in speech than one who invites to Allah and does righteousness and says, ‘Indeed, I am of the Muslims’.” (Translated meaning of Quran 41:33). A label that crosses skin colour, sex and geography – a label that if lived up to, is one that offers those around something distinct and honourable to aspire to.

Abdul Wahid is a commentator on Islam, current affairs and identity. He has been published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement and on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy, New Civilisation and Prospect magazine. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain.


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