The Future(s) of Islam in Britain

With so many different currents affecting its direction, Dr. Sadek Hamid tries to map the possible trajectories British Islam might take in the years ahead.

The future belongs to those who prepare for it today.” – Malcolm X

Challenges within the British Muslim Present

For more than a decade, Muslims in Britain have been living under tremendous pressure. The daily news cycles perpetuate fear and hostility towards Muslims and their faith, as we are repeatedly told that they constitute an unprecedented security threat, failing to integrate, prone to misogyny and criminal perversion. No other minority is subjected to the same level of sustained public scrutiny. These narratives mask the more pressing actual everyday issues in which ‘Muslims suffer the greatest economic disadvantages of any group in society due to a mix of  discrimination and Islamophobia, stereotyping, pressure from traditional families, a lack of tailored advice around higher education choices and scarcity of role models across education and employment.’ One study conducted by the Social Mobility Commission noted that they are ‘more likely than non-Muslims to experience neighbourhood deprivation, housing, educational and health disadvantage, and unemployment.  It also noted that these factors impact most on women and young people with many feeling that they have ‘to work ‘‘ten times harder’ than their counterparts due to cultural differences and discrimination’ and deal with ‘teachers (who) have either stereotypical or overly low expectations of young Muslims’ and worryingly that ‘young Muslims feel a real challenge in maintaining their identity while seeking to succeed in Britain.’

Dealing with this array of structural challenges often has an overwhelming effect due to the sheer scale of negativity that Muslims encounter on a daily basis. It also can produce a reactionary defensiveness to the increasing number of difficult social problems that are affecting Muslims within their communities.  Changing family structures, rising divorce rates, inter-generational disconnects, educational under-achievement, substance addiction, disproportionate rates of incarceration, harmful cultural practices, sectarianism and socio-religious divides are among the many issues that aggravate the external pressures on communities. While some British Muslims are responding in creative ways, many are so exhausted from these challenges and  don’t have much time left to think about the future; or perhaps they feel they live in a world not of their own making which leaves them feeling powerless to make a difference. 

The Past and Present is Prologue

It is axiomatic that to understand the present, one must try to understand the past. We are all living through the effects of decisions that were made at various points of recent human history – some were planned and others were perhaps unintended consequences.  One obvious example is the case of European empire. Colonialists never expected that the descendants of the people that they conquered would one day be populating their continent in the tens of millions.  Today, western European countries contain a substantial number of settled Muslim citizens, a development which has created various social tensions and individual state responses. In recent years, Europe has experienced a large influx of refugees fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and other predominantly Muslim countries.  This increase of Muslim migrants has triggered tense public debate about immigration, identity, and Islam.

Various social changes have been taking place across these societies over the last twenty years and have impacted upon Muslim communities as people modify their values, attitudes and lifestyles. These include more women entering higher education and employment, young people marrying later, couples having fewer children and nuclear families replacing extended households. This has been accompanied by greater access to digital technologies which have changed young peoples’ attitudes towards their religion and culture, particularly on issues such as identity, gender, relationships, popular culture and consumerism.  

Muslim communities in Britain have also experienced huge changes and have become more diversified through an influx of economic migrants, political asylum seekers and spouses from transcontinental marriages. These new arrivals have visibly reconfigured the visual and spatial geography of established minority communities and have brought with them different ideas about religious practice and culture. This gradual transformation has sometimes created tensions between the newer and settled Muslim communities, as well as non-Muslims concerned about the latest cycle of immigration. As already indicated, attitudes have hardened against British Muslims and tensions have heightened after various failed and successful terrorist plots, continuous negative media coverage, rising Islamophobic sentiment, increasing anti-Muslim hate crimes and the pressure to comply with the latest government diktats. Understandably, many Muslims are preoccupied with battling social disadvantage, racism, Islamophobia, state surveillance policies or international crises that result in Muslim suffering.

In the next 15 years, the Muslims globally are expected to grow at about twice the rate of non-Muslims and if current trends continue, by 2030 they might make up 26 percent of the world’s total projected population.   In Europe this could increase to around 58 million with cities like London, Leicester, Bradford, Brussels, Paris and Marseille, possessing very large Muslim populations. For some hostile observers, this changing demographic could possibly reconfigure the makeup of western societies as young adult Muslims become political actors among ageing populations with relatively lower reproductive rates –causing an ‘Islamisation of Europe’.  However, will the growing numbers of European Muslims necessary result in more empowerment or will it feed more Islamophobia? What if certain British cities become majority ‘majority-Muslim’?  Perhaps life will continue in much the same way or will right-wing sentiments increase and adversely influence state policy?  Rephrasing the question posed, what are Muslims doing to prepare for the future?  

The Future is Tomorrow

It is often forgotten that Islam is a future-oriented religion. Indeed, numerous Muslim scholars from the past articulated their thoughts about the future such as al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Tufail and Ibn Rushd.  The historian Ibn Khaldun is well known for his work on the grand patterns of social change –so it seems reasonable to expect that the future should be taken seriously by contemporary Muslim intelligentsia. Unfortunately, today only a handful of Muslim thinkers have contemplated the future. Among them, Ziauddin Sardar is one of the few Muslims to have systematically thought through these matters in his books The Future of Muslim Civilization and Islamic Futures: the Shape of Ideas to Come.  In contrast, Tariq Ramadan, in his Western Muslims and the Future of Islam discusses how Muslims in the West can engage with and actively contribute in the fields of education, citizenship, politics, economics and interfaith dialogue.

While scholars have proposed their own ideas about how Muslims can move forward to better alternative futures, religious reform movements and activists within communities have counter-productively remained fixated on reforming matters of theology, spirituality or narrow political issues. To date none of them has articulated a holistic future vision to positively transform Muslim communities collectively. Beyond their ability to shape popular religious discourses, the actual influence of these groups in communities is limited. As a result, the medium and long term future is likely to be shaped by the continuation of social trends currently taking place outside and within Muslim communities.

Three Possibilities

Future studies is the systematic study of possible, probable and preferable futures. It is an inter-disciplinary area of study that functions upon key concepts such as probability and predictability, continuity and change and applies tools such as the Delphi method, Environmental Scanning Technique, Visioning and Backcasting. It analyses data from the past and emerging issues in the present to identify recognisable patterns and trends that help to predict future trajectories. Knowing what is likely to happen in the longer term if current trends continue, helps with the assessment of the likely impact of change.

The trends themselves may take different forms such as linear, exponential or cyclical. A simple application of the future scenario planning method can help anticipate what might happen in the next 15-20 years by extrapolating current social trends. British Muslims may face three broad possibilities – one represents a reimagining of positive developments that are currently taking place, the second anticipates a probable continuation of current negative trends, the third is an undesirable worst case scenario.

Mainstreaming

In the first, British Muslims become more culturally and economically confident.  Muslims in places such as Bradford, Birmingham and Leicester become a demographic majority and Muslims contribute significantly in the fields of business, education, science and medicine. The “halal industry” expands significantly and employs both Muslims and non-Muslims who influence mainstream social tastes in food, fashion, music and uptake of Islamic Finance products, which are increasingly purchased by non-Muslims. The sectarianism that prevented Muslims from working together in the past has been overcome. Significant numbers of public figures convert to Islam and carve a meaningful synthesis of British and Islamic culture. Muslim women are represented in most mosques and religious institutions and are at the forefront of creative social innovation.  Successive governments recognise the value of their Muslim communities and make the UK a more attractive place for rich Muslim countries to invest.  Islamophobic behaviour and attitudes become a thing of the past as Muslims become embedded in local and national government, positively influencing decision making processes and attain visible representation in the mainstream media.

Groundhog Day

In the second scenario, the more middle class Muslims move to different parts of the country  in what  might be called ‘Muslim flight’ in search of better employment, leaving a less well qualified, poorer, more disadvantaged core of Muslims left behind in the inner-city.  In addition, a brain-drain of professionals occurs as they leave the country to seek opportunities in the Gulf and South East Asia.  Less educated Muslims and university graduates in economically impoverished towns and cities continue to struggle to find work and remain stuck in the less skilled sectors, joining the grey economy or resorting to crime. Communities in multicultural cities and towns become social fragmented and Muslim and non-Muslims groups fight for limited resources, jobs and residential space. Muslims remain divided internally on the basis of religious differences, mosques fail to attract young people, exclude women and ambitious individuals and self-styled, moderate groups compete to secure government funding to fight extremism. The media and state continues to pursue policies that demonise Muslim communities and help sustain the divides between different Muslims and the rest of society.

Assimilation/Repatriation

A more extreme version of the second scenario as a more intolerant political climate ensues and economic decline results in the search for scapegoats and amplification of xenophobic and Islamophobic sentiments. Increased radicalisation of disgruntled white working classes and disenfranchised young people from Muslim and BAME communities become angry and increasingly engage in violent street level conflicts.  Increased demonisation and isolation of Muslims continues as more young men turn to crime and small groups perpetrate acts of terrorism.  Family breakdown increases mental health problems rise, substance addiction unravels communities.  Existing government security policies fail despite ever encroaching state surveillance and the policing and incarceration of Muslim communities intensifies.  Political pressure grows to match continental trends that have enforced draconian anti-immigration policies that deport Muslims, refugees and asylum seekers. Some politicians openly talk about concentration camps and genocide, citing the cases of Bosnia, Myanmar and China as effective examples of dealing with Muslims.

Each of these three represents future possibilities with the proviso that there are other unexpected scenarios that may materialise depending on choices are made in the here and now.

Starting with the End in Mind

In our globalised world, discussing the future of Islam in Britain cannot take place without considering the idea of the Muslim ummah. British Muslims are composed of diasporic communities that are globally networked and are in constant conversation and shaped by events all over the world. It is not possible to disconnect these ethnic, tribal and national linkages. Furthermore, British Muslims’ futures will be affected by ongoing American military interventions in Muslim majority states, the continued repercussions of the failed Arab Spring, sporadic terrorist attacks, worsening economic conditions which triggered a “turn to the Right” in many Western states.  Muslim communities in Britain, Europe and America stand at a historical turning point. They can choose to carry on business and usual and remain indifferent to what is taking place inside communities and remain passive to the rapidly changing political environments in which they live or they can actively shape more positive futures.

A starting point would necessitate a mapping of all of the diverse communities that make the British Muslim community and conducting an honest, critical self reflection of their collective condition.  Once these consultations and conversations have taken place and a broad consensus and agenda would need to be agreed. Thereafter, tools from Future Studies could help to identify possible, probable, and preferable futures.  This would allow Muslims to envision better futures and take practical steps needed to realise them in manageable ways. This of course is easier said than done  as it would require the transcending of sectarian, ideological and political differences, strategic leadership, increased inter-community alliances, development of a pro-active, problem solving mindset and creation of networks that coordinate more effective collaborative responses.

An initial list of priorities could include; maximising existing community institutions –particularly mosques and making them accessible to young people and women  and including  them in leadership and decision making positions. Supporting the struggling voluntary sector and creating new infrastructures and services to deal with social challenges and needs of the youth. Greater collaboration with other faiths and minority communities would increase peaceful co-existence and efforts to tackle social justice issues.  How British Muslims collectively respond to the challenges before them in the next few years will define how Islam is perceived and accommodated within British society. Ultimately, building   preferable futures will be shaped by both individual Muslims, community organisations and other stakeholders taking responsibility for the decisions that are made today.

Dr Sadek Hamid has written widely about Islam in Britain. He is the author of Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism, co-author of British Muslims: New Directions in Islamic Thought, Creativity and Activism and editor of Young British Muslims: Between Rhetoric & Realities