Contemporary Britain is a fine example of a country which is proud of its multiculturalism. Nevertheless, within these religious and ethnic groups, questions arise over such things as equality, representation and much more. That said, the key question of how religious traditions within certain faith groups can potentially conflict with nationality is an interesting one.
This essay seeks to explore this issue further. By focussing on how religious affiliation could conflict with nationality in two faiths, Islam and Judaism, we will attempt to highlight what problems (if any) there are with the specific terms ‘British Muslim’ and ‘British Jew’.
As a starting point, it is useful to briefly cover the five pillars of Islam as a framework from which to make our further analysis of how religious traditions and practices may conflict with nationality. The first of the five pillars is that of Shahada, – the declaration of faith according to the formula ‘There is no God but God. Muhammad is the Messenger of God’. Second is Salat – translated as prayer which, particularly in Sunni Islam, is required to be performed five times a day – at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and evening. The Third is pillar is Zakat – that of alms giving/compulsory charity. This comes in the form of a tax, payable once a year by all adult Muslims. The recipients should be poor and needy and traditionally zakat should be collected by Muslim governments and distributed in pre-established patterns. However, nowadays giving is usually left to the believer’s conscience (Rippin 2001). The fourth pillar is Sawm – the fast during Ramadan which takes place during daylight hours of the ninth month of the lunar calendar and applies to eating, drinking, smoking and sexual activity – beginning at dawn and ending at sunset. This leads us to the fifth and final pillar which is Hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca, which comes in the form of an intense, and demanding religious obligation required of every adult Muslim at least once in his or her lifetime.
Judaism, on the other hand, is expressed in thirteen principles of the faith – all of which are more declarations and expressions of belief as opposed to a more practical approach as is with Islam – examples of principles being “The Creator is the first and the last of all beings” and “the dead will be resurrected” (Fishbone 1987). That said, there are still traditions adhered to. Two for instance are; the three main daily prayer services and the Shabbat – the Jewish day of rest, which is a Friday in the British calendar. During this, Jews are prohibited from partaking in any activity that falls under 39 categories of work (De Lange 2000). For example, writing, carrying items in public and lighting fires are considered to be work. Driving is traditionally forbidden (as burning fuel comes under the prohibition of lighting a fire).
For the purposes of this essay, however, we are specifically looking at how these religious traditions and beliefs can in any way act as an impediment to nationality or, be impeded somehow by Britishness. If we first look at Islam, we can see that of the five pillars; Shahada, Zakat and in principle Sawm can be carried out without interference. Salat – the prayer – has more potential for difficulty on the basis that as well as being Muslim, individuals are also functioning members of society, often with jobs that may not allow for prayer on any number of occasions during the period. For obvious financial and logistical reasons, Muslims in Britain, like other Muslims globally, may find Hajj difficult.
Overall, however, there seems no clear infringement to religious expression for ‘British Muslims’ in terms of ability to follow the traditions of Islam – out with the difficulties in prayer. Judaism is similar in that for many centuries Jews in Britain have generally found religious expression relatively trouble free. Again, however, particularly with the Shabbat, living within a society that does consider Friday its day of rest means an inability to guarantee tasks forbidden by the traditions of the faith, are not necessarily undertaken due to employment commitments.
That said, the question of whether the term “British Muslim” or “British Jew” can exist is far more complex than a simple analysis of the tenets of each faith and how easily or otherwise they can be expressed in Britain.
“British Muslims” do exist
The term ‘Muslim’ by definition means someone who surrenders him or herself to God. Nonetheless, it has a secondary meaning, which is linked to first – one with a more ethnic, as opposed to religious basis. According to Ruthven (1997) a Muslim is one born to a Muslim father who, as a result, takes on his or her parents’ confessional identity without necessarily subscribing to the beliefs and practices of the faith. There is a parallel in Judaism who may define themselves as Jewish without observing the Halakha (Soloman 2000).
This is important, as in predominantly non-Muslim societies such as Britain; such Muslims may subscribe to more secular identities. The Muslims of Bosnia for instance are not renowned for attending prayer, abstaining from alcohol or other social practices associated with practicing/believing Muslims in other parts of the world. In Britain, a similar parallel can be drawn.
As a result, the term ‘British Muslim’ can indicate one’s ethnicity and group allegiances, and not necessarily exclusively their religious beliefs or practices. In this context, there may be no necessary contradiction between being Muslim, atheist and British. Therefore, where Muslim identity can be seen as ethnic as well as religious one, we can argue that there is no conflict between the idea of Britishness and being Muslim and the term British Muslim itself is completely acceptable as a concept covering both nationality and ethnicity.
Nevertheless, there would be a body of argument that would reject this claim on the basis that being one of Britain’s two million or so Muslims means an adherence to the Shari’a, and that this in some way makes being Muslim and being British incompatible. However, this argument has its weaknesses; for example, it has been constant throughout history that Shari’a is used, not as an exclusive method of lawmaking, but supplementary to existing legal principles/practices (Husain 1995). Given the huge cultural and geographical differences between Muslim societies, this is unsurprising. Historically, Islam has shown enormous adaptability in accepting different cultural systems within its overarching framework. In fact, in modern times the sense of ‘inner commitment linking the believer to God in a personal relationship that may transcend the external imperatives of ritual and law’ have greatly assisted to the privatisation and secularisation of the religion in countries such as Britain (Ruthven 1997)
The crisis of compatibility could thus be said not to be down to a failure to adjust to the realities of the contemporary British society, but largely down to the multicultural society for which Britain is so proud.
Multiculturalism: making ‘British’ and ‘Muslim’ incompatible?
A central problem is that the multiculturalism has led to ethnic minority groups believing they are in need of special recognition. Paradoxically, by insisting on engaging Muslims as a separate group, there is scope for making them feel excluded.
The argument is highlighted excellently by Mirza et. al (2007) who argue that religion is not an obstacle to integration and is very often perfectly reconciled with being – and feeling – British, emphasising that while some younger Muslims embrace their religious identities, others adopt more secular habits such as drinking and pre-martial relationships.
This is a useful point, as it shows that internal divisions within the British Muslim community – between Secular and Religious groups – means that the term ‘British Muslim’ in itself is imprecise and does properly take into consideration the diversity within the British population. It could be argued that this multiculturalism has had a sizeable impact on Muslim populations with authorities looking to engage Muslims on the basis of their cultural difference – making the term ‘British Muslim’ in this instance, no more than an artificial construct within the framework of multicultural pigeon-holing.
Continuing on this line of argument, it could be said that there is, as a result, a kind of crisis of identity which exists today among young, Muslim Britons. Tanveer Ahmed, an Australian Muslim psychiatrist contends that Muslims growing up in the West may feel stuck between two cultural systems of competing values. He argues that the turn towards religious identity is partly linked to this emphasis on difference. As mentioned before, it is this ‘separation’ from the mainstream into ‘communities’ that gives a greater sense of belonging to a specific element of their existence, which Britain does not provide for (Ahmed 2005)
The resurgence of Islamic observance is linked to this. More British Muslims are attending mosques, undertaking Ramadan and there has been an increase in the proliferation of religious publications and organisations – as well as an emphasis on particularly Muslim issues (which shall be covered in coming sections) such as the wearing of the hijab. Furthermore, a reason why an identity crisis exists with British born Muslims is that the imams of the local communities or older Muslim parents themselves, have different identity constructs having grown up in a different country (Vertovec and Peach 1997). Muslim identity now is seemingly more incompatible with Britishness as, while before, a Muslim in the UK would claim to be Pakistani and Muslim, for instance, British-born Muslims now are basing identity along religious lines without that additional external identity construct (Mirza et. al 2007).
What has changed, why the debate?
One thing is clear – British Muslim identity is strong and draws upon historical memory. However, we should remind ourselves how relatively novel this identity is – it is only over the last two decades that the idea of a ‘British Muslim’ has appeared in the public sphere (Vertovec 2002).
For many it is the highlighting of explicitly ‘Muslim’ issues, which has caused some of the turmoil in terms of identity vs. religious conflict (Barnes 2006). As well as the highly publicised debates and arguments over the wearing of the hijab by Muslim women, the increased attention Muslims are getting, particularly since 9/11, has caused anxiety about their relationship to the West – all at a time when the next generation of British Muslims is maturing and starting to consider questions of personal identity.
Crucially, many are doing this within a context where they believe they are seen as Muslims, and little else – emphasised by the way the media, body politic and Muslim groups themselves talk about the ‘Muslim community’. Two examples are; firstly a religious Muslim aged 22 said that 9/11 and 7/7 made him think about the idea of a Muslim community more because ‘people started looking at me, at us, in a different way’. (Mirza et al, pg 28). However, it shows also that even less religious Muslims, those considering their Muslim heritage to be of a more ethnic and secular nature, are conscious of belonging to a group with one individual claiming she did not feel like belonging to any community apart from her local London community until the spotlight landed on the idea of being a ‘British Muslim’ which brought about feelings of ‘I have a Muslim background, what’s that all about?’ (Mirza et al, 2007, pg28).
Judaism: a similar phenomenon?
In terms of being a British Jew, De Lange (2000) argues that the Jewish community illustrates a fine example of an immigrant people who are able to retain their identity while also playing a full part in society. However, their very success in assimilation has appeared to be threatening their survival in Britain itself. This is borne out of the decline in overt expressions of Judaism, be it weddings or synagogue attendance. For Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, it is the rise in the number of Jews marrying out with the faith that poses the biggest risk to the community. In 1990, there were estimated to be about 340,000 Jews in Britain – today it is only 270,000 – with one in two marrying out with their faith (Wynne-Jones 2006)
That said, trends show that Orthodox British Jews are particularly having trouble with identity balance as opposed to other forms of the faith. While congregation at Progressive synagogues has stayed fairly steady, the Board of Deputies and Jews show how membership in Britain’s mainstream Orthodox synagogues fell by 12% between 1996 and 2001 (Wynne-Jones 2006).
Some British Jews have argued that the problem here is that Orthodox Jewry has made synagogues unwelcoming to those who, although marrying outwith their heritage, still identify with Judaism. In Sunderland for instance, the city’s synagogue was closed in 2006 and the number of Jews dwindled from 1000 at its peak to only 30 or so in 2006 (Wynne-Jones 2006).
Even in London where the arrival of Jews from British regions has stabilised the overall numbers, synagogue membership has dropped by 20% over the last 15 years. This had led Rabbi Julia Neuberger to insist that Jews in Britain are at a crossroads in their identity problems – either moving towards Ultra-Orthodox paths or risking becoming isolated.
Much like the Muslim situation in Britain, many claim that Jewish identity needs to again be considered cultural and ethnic rather than religious and that it is possible to be Jewish and an atheist at the same time, not being sure about the faith but still being at home in the community (Solomon 2000).
Stark facts show that emigration to Israel has been increasing rapidly and not for the old anti-Semitic violence related reasons, but because Jews feel that in Israel they can join a community confident in its identity.
Overall assessment: some figures
The report by the Policy Exchange entitled “Living Apart Together: British Muslims and the paradox of multiculturalism” asked two pertinent questions of Muslims in Britain which lend to the theory that being British and being Muslim is not necessarily incompatible. First, respondents were asked to give their reaction to the statement “I feel more in common with Muslims in other countries than I do with non-Muslims in Britain”. For this, 59% of those asked disagreed with the statement, with 31% agreeing (Mirza et al. 2007, p 38). Second, the respondents were asked to do similar to the statement “I feel that I have as much in common with non-Muslims as I do with Muslims”. Figures here showed that 66% agreed with the statement with only 29% disagreeing (Mirza et. al. 2007, p 39)
What these figures show, although with all statistics they need to be treated with the usual caution, is that while some Muslim Britons clearly see themselves as exclusively Muslim and that there is an incompatibility with being British and Muslim, a majority (in this case certainly) see there being no clear disconnect. That while they acknowledged their Muslim identity, they did not agree that it in anyway meant that religious affiliation in conflicted with their Britishness.
British Multiculturalism without doubt assists in the highlighting of specifically ‘Muslim’ issues and it is here that the artificial constructs of segregated communities lie. The term ‘British Muslim’ in itself is imprecise and does properly take into consideration the diversity within the British population. All in all, if one considers this alongside the evidence suggesting that Jews, outside those of Orthodox persuasion, are also having little trouble with the mix of identity constructs, we could say that there is not in fact a community of British Jews or British Muslims as such – only a group of Muslim Britons and Jewish Britons – be it either ethnic or religious in nature.