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The Infidel Within

Author: Humayun Ansari, published by Hurst & Company, London
Reviewed by: Soraiya Qadir

With the present world press focus on Muslims, especially in the West, this book is a timely and a historic insight of Muslims in Britain since 1800.

Ansari begins his book with a vital issue that is continually being brought into question – Is there a British Muslim Identity?  He analyses the sources of construction of the British Muslim identities – the changing context of British society, the changing global context, the changing profile of British Muslim communities and the dynamic interaction among them.

The book approaches several key issues by examining the Muslim presence in Britain within a historical perspective. Part I – ‘Arriving’ considers the 150 years up to 1945, during which Muslims came from many parts of the world. While not all stayed, they established a Muslim presence that laid the foundation of a large scale migration later. Part II – ‘Staying’ covers the period since 1945 when Muslims arrived in large numbers and decided to make Britain their permanent home. Migration, settlement, engagement with the wider society, the role of women and the family, attitudes to education, the changing role of the organisations – all are key elements of British Muslim identity as it had emerged and evolved by the start of the 21st century.

Ansari points out that there are an estimated 1.5 million British Muslims, who can trace their origins to diverse historical settings, with distinct language and cultures. While they have acquired a high profile in the media only recently, they have been a part of the British social and cultural landscape for almost a century and a half. Although South Asians are mainly associated with Muslim settlements, a Moroccan merchant community was already well-established by the end of the 19th century, while the Somalis and Yemenis had also begun to form their distinct Muslim enclaves in Cardiff and South Shields.

He further comments on the heterogeneous nature of Muslims living in Britain –  ethnicity, tribe, sectarian traditions, language – all play a part in separating these communities, the only common bond being religion. The existence of a wide range of voluntary associations provides ample testimony to the diversity among the Muslims. However, there have been occasions in the recent past, when Islam has been heavily criticised or attacked, that religion has become the sole identity for British Muslims.

The author goes on to say that Muslims from different backgrounds fill leading roles in diverse but influential and symbolically pivotal institutions, such as the Sharia’ Council, the Central Mosque at Regent’s Park, The Muslim Council of Britain, etc. However, the critical questions remain – such as the secularism, modernity, response to racism, etc. The varying perspectives among the Muslims have made it difficult to establish a unity of views. He points out that until the 1980s Muslims were subsumed within ethnic categories but structural changes within the British politics, which saw the emergence of The New Right unleashed an attack on multiculturalism, which led to the British Muslims to take refuge in religion. Then came the Rushdie affair and the Gulf War which led the then Conservative establishment to question whether one could be British and Muslim simultaneously…

The book discusses many more critical issues and is a must read for not only Muslims living in Britain, but all those who want to acquire a greater understanding of Britain and its Muslims.

About the Author
Humayun Ansari is the Director of the Centre for Ethnic Minorities & Equal Opportunities, and a Professor in the Department of History, at Royal Holloway, University of London. He has conducted extensive research into the history of Muslims in Britain, ethnic studies and race relations, the employment and career opportunities of ethnic minorities and racial discrimination and disadvantage in society. He is co-author of Managing Cultural Diversity at Work. In 2002, Dr. Ansari was awarded OBE for his work in race relations.

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