Sarah Khan. London
We must feel sorry for the Muslim woman, she can never catch a break. This, in a nutshell, appears to be one of the main themes arising from the findings of yesterday’s Casey Review into integration of minority communities within the UK. This review took a year to compile and during this process Dame Louise Casey and her team spoke to 800 people in areas of the UK with high concentrations of one ethnic or religious community. The review released a range of findings and also set out a series of recommendations. Although the review mentions other faiths, there is no denying that Muslims, and Muslim women in particular, are singled out as being unable to fully integrate into life in Britain.
Muslim women continue to be a symbol of lack of integration and they seem to be an easy target. Why? Well, firstly, many of them are easily identifiable, perhaps more so than almost any other religious demographic. The wearing of a headscarf immediately signals to anyone that the wearer is a Muslim. Whereas this would not have been the case 50 years ago. My own grandmother, a Christian English lady, always wore a scarf on her head Hilda Ogden style when she left the house however today such practices are less common amongst English women. So perhaps it is easy to point the finger of blame when your target is easy to spot.
Secondly, there can be no doubt that some Muslim women do not find it easy to integrate. They may come from abroad and face linguistic and cultural barriers on the path to meeting new people and forming connections. When you are young and newly married, it may well be easier to mix with your family members and people who live or worship in the same place as you. It may be embarrassing to try and speak English to an English person with your heavy accent and limited vocabulary. There are many hurdles in the way and the Casey Review aimed to understand these complexities. However, how different are these experiences to any other migrant to the UK? It is certainly not only the Muslim community which is beset by these issues. If you’ve ever visited New Malden on the edge of London you will see Korean shops, churches, weekend schools and tuition centres. There could be many parallels between some members of this community and some Muslim women. Moreover, across vast swathes of the Middle East there are enclaves of Little Britain where British people live together, attend British schools and rarely step foot inside the home of a local person. There seems nothing particularly unique about the Muslim woman’s British immigration experience.
Far more interesting than the critical, name-and-shame labelling of certain communities in the review are the recommendations for improvement. Perhaps these recommendations lack a certain originality and do not seem to address the problem. They include increasing access to English language and IT classes. However, this is not a new idea and EAL/ESOL classes have long been available, although in recent years’ numbers have dwindled under budget cuts. There is a call for safeguarding to be stepped up for children who are not in mainstream education. Again, surely this is already supposed to be done? It’s not a new idea – just a tightening of existing regulations. There is also a recommendation that new citizens and public office holders take an oath of allegiance to Britain. It seems to be business as usual with no new approach, just existing approaches re-emphasised.
The Casey Review unfortunately missed the chance to tackle the issue of extremism and radicalisation from a new angle. We didn’t need an independent review to inform us that some Muslims (and as a token we are told some people from other minority groups too) feel disenfranchised and excluded from British life. In some cases this leads to radicalisation which could pose a security threat to society as a whole. But what everyone is struggling to figure out is how to stop this. Muslim groups are expected to provide all the answers and to address their failings. However, integration is a two way street and we also need to look at the rest of the population! Within the UK, far-right groups are on the rise, emboldened by Brexit and inflamed by increasing immigration. Britain First and even UKIP do not hide their anti-Islamic policies. Even Zac Goldsmith resorted to Islamaphobic undertones in his unsuccessful mayoral campaign. When a Muslim family sits down to breakfast and in the morning post finds a leaflet of one of the candidates for Mayor of London containing policies against the building of mosques or proposals to ban the call to prayer, and notices that this leaflet is featured in the same booklet as the campaign materials of the mainstream parties then is it any wonder they feel alienated? Extremism exists in many forms and you cannot foster integration while allowing far right rhetoric into the mainstream. The two cannot co-exist.
The most radical proposal, and one which no Western government has so far embraced, is that Islam itself holds the key to ending extremism. Yes, while some Muslims are using Islam to violently overturn society, the reality is that knowledge of true Islamic teachings is the solution to both extremism and lack of integration. Even a cursory study of the life of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) reveals how he integrated faiths within his community. The Charter of Medina, 1400 years after it was written, has stood the test of time as a solid foundation for community cohesion and coexistence. Muslims are instructed to defend the places of worship of other faiths and to guard them against attack. The Holy Quran repeatedly instructs Muslims to care for the needy, the traveller, the orphan, the widows, the ill and neighbours. These responsibilities apply to all humanity, not just other Muslims. Violence and persecution are not to be started by any Muslim, nor can coercion be used to impose faith on anyone. These are not ‘modernised’ teachings or interpretations, they are the same Islam taught and practiced by the founder of Islam.
Nor are these teachings simply relics of a forgotten past. For example, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is a worldwide organisation of millions of members of different ethnicities and cultures. Our Khalifa, worldwide spiritual head, has today given his response following the publication of the Casey Review. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s members integrate into every society where they are found. Within the UK they have raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for the Poppy Appeal, undertaken door-to-door flood relief in Cumbria and other areas and on New Year’s Day they are seen across Britain cleaning up from the previous night’s revelries of others. They are doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, mothers, and much more beside. They are the neighbour with a smile on their face who sends food when you are unwell.
And also, coming back to the issue of Muslim women, ladies in the Ahmadiya Muslim Community have equal access to mosques, they run their own organisation, own their own property, educate their own members and provide guidance and skills for their members. They teach girls their rights as Muslim women; that they are emancipated, they should educate themselves, and that they have equal spiritual status with men. They are not oppressed or downtrodden, rather they too are at the forefront of serving mankind and the communities in which they live. Both men and women regularly take an oath of loyalty to the country in which they live as this in an important part of their faith. This is often done within the mosques themselves and has been the Community’s practice for many years.
So, while the Casey Review may have the best intentions in the world, it does not acknowledge the role Islam can play in dealing with extremism and isolation, thus completely passing over the best solution available to the issue it sets out to tackle.