Article: The Grand Myth of 'Muslim Community' in the UK

Published by Christian Today, 26 January 2014 

It is a common language. Many people in the UK, including some Muslims, use it. It saves time and energy in media conversations and most importantly helps to fit a thought into 140 characters of Twitter wisdom. Yet it is horribly misleading and potentially harmful.

It is misleading because there is no such thing as "the Muslim community" in the UK. There are Muslims for sure. Yes, Islam as a shared religion with its religious holidays and activities link Muslims, but they are not a single community. There are countless diaspora networks, some small neighbourhoods where people of similar ethnic origins live in close proximity, and a lot of different mosques and myriad Muslim organisations.

Migration patterns might give more numerical precedent or visibility to some groups, but substantial numbers of British Muslims are just like substantial numbers of British Christians. They dwell in multiple networks at work, school, personal life and religious involvement. They might or not be attending a local church (read mosque). They might be praying on their own, listening to sermons on line, and may be dropping in at a church for special days like Christmas and Easter (read Eid).

Some might be Anglicans (read Muslims that are in organised denominations with formal clerical structures), or like free Evangelicals (read mosques centred on a single minister). Some are like the Emergent Christians, (read Muslims who are on a spiritual journey and find it difficult to fit into a formal mosque). Some might cherish their ethnic heritage, go to family reunions, or it might be that they are a nuclear family and really have no enchanting large weddings but a civil registry and no 'exotic' migrant background.

 This poses some serious questions on people we see on our televisions as 'community leaders' and 'spokespersons' for Muslims, or our perceptions of an organised and organic block called 'the Muslim community'. In fact, we mostly see British Muslims with Pakistani and Bangladeshi origins put in such roles, but never British Muslims with Cypriot, Nigerian, Turkish, Somalian, Egyptian, Lebanese, Iraqi, or Syrian origins. There are rather a lot of them too. Not many of us know why someone calls themselves a sheikh, or why they are called a 'leader' and whom it is they are leading or who is following them.

We would not dare to think that a single Anglican vicar could speak for Anglicanism, let alone British Christianity. And rightfully, we would laugh if someone referred to a 'British Christian Community'. We Christians believe in the 'holy catholic church' with a small c, and being members of the Body of Christ. But we do know that the theological belief and aspiration in no way captures the reality. Christians come in all shapes and sizes, in all political and theological views, with many cultural backgrounds. Christianity becomes the umbrella for all of us to remain under, made possible by certain theological basics we share.

That is the same for Islam and Muslims. Yes, Islam speaks of an umma, and unity of Muslims. But while Muslims might see a global affinity with other Muslims, in reality, umma is only an elusive longing at best. In reality even though there is an umbrella of basic tenets of faith in common, Muslims are as fragmented and as disconnected from their co-religionists as anyone else in the world. Differences of language, politics, culture, theology and personal differences are very real.

When we apply to Muslims what we would never apply to ourselves, the issue goes beyond being simply an intellectual failure. We are effacing and dehumanising up to 3 million Brits who are Muslims, lumping them into a tiny box that is not there, burdening them with a responsibility for all other Muslims which we'd never place on ourselves for all other Christians out there.

We want the world to be simple. We want to be able to have clear lines. We want to be able to have a structure where we can go to engage. Thus, we burden British Muslims with our own shortcomings, demanding apologies from them for things they have nothing to do and asking them to "sort their community out" when the community they are part of is actually the British Community, which includes you and me, thus, ironically, burdening us with a lot of sorting out too.

UK and Turkey: A New Alternative European Alliance?

Last week's fall out between the UK and the EU caused divided opinions about the EU in Britain, as well as the deep political divides between other EU countries to surface once again. While neither Britain nor the EU is in a position to give up on the other, the UK will be looking to strengthen bilateral relations with strategic countries to ensure its economic and foreign policy interests in the likelihood of growing tensions with the EU machinery. At that point, recent investments made to enhance ties with Turkey will be proven to be much more important than previously thought.
At the most superficial level, growing economic relations between Turkey and the UK will be providing a hungry market for British investors and products. The signs of the lucrative Turkish market being noticed by British investors become clear when one considers that the trade volume between the two countries went from a humble $141 million in 2003 to $1.3 billion in 2008 and a whooping $11 billion in 2010! By 2015, we will see a doubling of the latest figures. As the Turkish economy continues to grow along with its consumer confidence and as the Turkish government remains keen to attract foreign direct investment to the country, Turkey is going to be an important trade partner at a time when the European market is facing major challenges.
At a deeper level, the fact that the UK has always been a keen supporter of Turkish accession into the EU and that the two countries are in agreement on almost all of the issues surrounding the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) means that the UK enjoys a good rapport with the country. Good relations with Turkey mean that the UK has a partner to enter places it cannot do on its own and can secure diplomatic and economic footholds in areas from which it has previously been excluded. Turkish engagement in MENA, the Balkans, Central Asia, and now increasingly in Africa, is providing opportunities for British diplomats and companies to work alongside and through Turkey and Turkish firms. This is especially important given that the UK's influence in those regions is limited and even, in some cases, absent.
However, a new level can be added to these obvious areas of vital importance for good relations between the two countries. Both are at the peripheries of the EU power, even though one is just outside and the other just inside of it. The centre stage is obviously dominated by the German and French alliance with increasing signs of cracks that the one with the bigger economic power (i.e. Germany) will not be playing the role of equal partner for much longer. The Franco-German partnership has tended to see the UK's stance as a nuisance all along. It is no surprise that the same alliance has been key in blocking Turkish accession into the EU, not least by quietly encouraging Cyprus to seek a vindication against Turkey at every possible turn.
Given that similar power games seek to push both Turkey and UK to the edges of Europe, and that closer economic and diplomatic relations between them will provide UK openings in MENA of a kind that the EU does not currently have; and given that Turkey is ready to give up on EU accession efforts but not on bilateral links with Europe generally; and given that the UK is seen increasingly as a trusted ally, we should expect to see a new power block emerging on the horizon. A strengthened and harmonious relationship between Turkey and the UK will have substantial economic and political muscle to play a major role in the EU's future, or even its survival, in the 21st century.
While the weaker coalition partner Nick Clegg believes that being at a more central point in EU gives Britain a larger influence and maintains the diplomatic and economic attractiveness of the UK for the US, he does not need to panic! The EU's political and economic ills -- to say nothing of its total lack of foreign policy vision and influence, and its tepid support for many US interests in its neighbourhood -- meant that a long time ago US administrations stopped seeing the EU as a key arena in which to assert influence.
On the contrary, Turkey is seen as sine qua non by the US for all of its regional goals. So, a closer link between the UK and Turkey, especially at a time when Euro-scepticism is at its highest globally, will not only have the blessing of the US but place the UK at a truly advantageous place ahead of most of the EU countries. It will also provide the many EU members with an important counterweight to the unhealthy German and French dominance.
Ten years ago, such prognostications might have seemed almost a joke, but it seems that an Anglo-Turkish alliance might be the best thing that happened to Europe in a long time and could be the key to ensure that the crucial vision behind the founding of the EU is actualised in the 21st century.