‘Gaza saw for the first time the mobilisation of young British Muslims, sometimes on behalf of Hamas’
In June 2001, I was elected to Parliament for Wycombe – and found myself representing more Muslims than any other Conservative MP. Three months later 9/11 happened. In May 2005, I was re-elected. Two months later came 7/7. During the summer of 2006, four of my constituents were held over the liquid explosives plot – which was allegedly aimed at blowing up planes. Two of them currently face trial. One has already been convicted of conspiracy to murder.
In short, the last eight years have drawn me with compulsive force to a great issue of our times: relations between Muslims and non-Muslims and the struggle taking place within Islam itself. The near-war between India and Pakistan in 2001, invasion and elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Lebanon crisis of 2006 and Israel’s action in Gaza a few months ago have come and gone. I want to make three points about where we are now.
But first, some background. My Muslim constituents come almost entirely from Kashmir and Pakistan. So do perhaps two in five of all Muslims in Britain. Their main Islamic tradition is Barelwi – a sufi movement within Sunni Islam. My constituents work, live, pray, gather to march in honour of their Prophet’s birthday, the mawlid – a custom viewed with horror as kufr, a “covering of the truth”, by some other Muslims – and meet to honour sufi saints such as Pir Shah Ghazi and to listen to the Saiful Malook, the great mystical poem of Mian Mohammed Baksh, “the Rumi of Kashmir”.
The overwhelming majority are far too busy earning a living and caring for their families to bother about a Sharia state. Their political views are emphatically moderate and community members serve on the local district council in growing numbers. Over eight years, I’ve developed a great respect and affection for Ahl as-Sunnat wa’al-Jama’at-the house of Sunni orthodoxy and consensus. But clouds are gathering. The Western powers and Pakistan built up Saudi-aligned groups to help topple the Soviets in Afghanistan. We live with the consequences today. I don’t know of a major terror plot in Britain whose trail hasn’t led back to Pakistan. The open wound of Kashmir is a source of pain and grievance. Extremists with slick websites, excellent English and a smattering of Arabic are targeting the children and grandchildren of the mainstream Muslim majority, who go to mosques where English may not be spoken at all.
There’s hope in abundance. Consider, for example, the letter published by prominent Muslims during the Gaza crisis, unreservedly condemning anti-Semitic assaults on British Jews and the attempted burning down of a synagogue. Mention of Gaza takes me to my three points. First, 9/11, 7/7, the Mumbai horror and last week’s assault on the Sri Lankan cricket team were executed by terrorists in the name of Islam. This should be a statement of the obvious. Unfortunately, it’s not obvious to the 9/11 “troofers” (conspiracy theorists) and to a minority of British Muslims. There’s a tendency to envelope plain fact in a fog of conspiracy – particularly where Pakistan is concerned.
The Mumbai horror drew suggestions that the massacres were a “false flag” operation masterminded by the Indian government. The same sort of allegation is now up and running in relation to the Lahore assault. To date, the main victims of this rubbish aren’t those who are libelled. Rather, they’re the people who fall for it, thereby absorbing the message that they’re passive victims of hidden powers.
Second, events on the streets of Lahore can have a bigger impact in some British cities than events in the surrounding English countryside. For Lahore, read Peshawar or Mirpur – the part of Kashmir whence perhaps as many as 600,000 Muslims in Britain originate. Mirpur is at the other end of Pakistan from the north-west province. But it’s relatively close to the Indian-held valley of Kashmir. And it is of course touched by the main strategic threat to the latter-namely, that Pakistan becomes engulfed in the Afghanistan conflict.
Third, for Lahore or Peshawar or Mirpur, read Gaza. I received more emails and letters from constituents about events earlier this year than about Iraq at the time of invasion. Most of these were from Muslims. Gaza saw for the first time the mobilisation of young British Muslims on behalf always of the Palestinians and sometimes of Hamas.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Britain is expanding its email list, knocking on the doors of ministers, and trying to elbow aside the pirs – the traditional spiritual leaders of those Muslims whose origins lie in the subcontinent. Will the winners of this struggle be the Brotherhood and its allies, or the pirs, or the majority of British Muslims who are forming their own future, getting on with their lives, and may not want to be led by anyone? Perhaps we’ll know in another eight years.