Al-Britannia, My Country by James Fergusson
Review published in Country Life, August 2nd, 2017 as "Reapprasing misconceptions: a timely portrait of Muslim Britain"
Published by Bantam Press, Penguin-Random House
James Fergusson is a war reporter whose books chronicle many of the flashpoints of our times - the military occupation of southern Afghanistan, the Taliban, Bosnia and the implosion of Somalia. Last year he turned his attention to his homeland and made a tour of cities that have large Muslim communities, such as Luton, Dewsbury, High Wycombe, Oldham and Bradford. There are now 3 million Muslims in Britain, some 5% of the population. Even without further migration that figure is set to grow to 5.5 million by 2030. Already 1 in 12 primary schoolboys is called Muhammad, which had become the most popular name for boys. Bradford now has 125 mosques while a quarter of the city identifies themselves as Muslim.
The first generation of Muslim migrants typically came to work while the second improved themselves by studying. Three children of Pakistani bus-drivers are now working at the very peak of Britain’s meritocratic society; Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, Baroness Warsi and cabinet minister Sajid Javid.
But side by side with these inspiring stories of personal achievement is the disturbing fact that three of the four suicide bombers of 7th July 2005 and the Glasgow airport attack share this background. And despite being brought up in leafy suburbs and companionable redbrick terraces, thousands of young third generation British Muslims have gone off to fight in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya from. Even more controversial are the criminal gangs who in dozens of cities have been prosecuted for grooming and sexually abusing thousands of vulnerable young white girls. What was once an asset to our society, the arrival of millions of diligent, sober, hard-working, family-minded workers, seems to have planted a number of cuckoo’s in the nest.
We all desperately need to understand what is happening in these emerging centres of Muslim Britain, as it is only the colourful, extrovert, show-man extremists - men such as Abu Hamza and the poppy-burning Anjem Choudary - who attract the attention of the media.
Fortunately James Fergusson has done this task for us, without using undercover camera teams but instead relying on hundreds of face-to -ace conversations over a cup of tea. His surveillance tools are his wit and tenacity, and his decades of experience of the Muslim world, chatting up Mujihadeen on the front line.
He has produced a very fine, detailed portrait of Al-Britannia. It is a nation within the nation, and one that does not share our love of dogs, pork and alcohol, or our recent pride in equality between gender and sexualities. The other essential fact to comprehend is that the Muslim community in Britain is overwhelmingly working class and South Asian in origin, coming from out of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh it is not an homogenous population. Fergusson takes us behind these country labels, to show that most of our mosques are affiliated to either the rival Barelwi or Deobandi networks. The latter was first formed in direct reaction to the failure of the Indian Mutiny/War of Independence and has an innate suspicion of British Imperialism. Fergusson points out the importance of Gujerati intellectuals and the solid middle class identity of a Punjabi family as opposed to migrant workers coming from the wilder political backgrounds of Sind, Baluchistan or the Pathan mountains. He also identifies the case history of the Mirpuri, who were transported en masse to Britain and still retain an extraordinary sense of a community apart.
Fergusson finds that the problem is never about too much Islamic education, but rather to little, leaving young people vulnerable to half-baked notions received in the gym, the prison or off the internet. In a sense the real issues faced by this community are the ones we all face in trying to achieve a proper, balanced, family life: absent or cruel fathers, mothers over pampering their sons and too much of childhood lived through a screen. The stories of young people smoking too much weed and then failing in exams or work are familiar in all cultures. But what the criminal and stupid invasion of Iraq by Blair and Bush did was to provide an instant solution to that loss of self-esteem - terrorism. This is all leavened by a whimsical and enchanting last chapter, where Fergusson becomes a Muslim for a month, during the testing time of Ramadan.
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by Barnaby Rogerson