Tensions in the growing Muslim population within Great Britain do not get much coverage in the United States, largely because the issues are different on the west side of the pond. Sometimes it’s hard as an American to understand just how much Islam is changing and challenging Britain, but this New York Times piece by Jane Perlez does a great job summarizing the issues.
Perlez hooks her story to a decision by a town to allow a building that used to be a Methodist church to become a mosque. The decision didn’t come easily or quickly. Many within the community vigorously opposed the decision, and police were to summoned to quell violence that people expected would follow the vote. (The violence did not occur.)
The battle underscored Britain’s unease with its Muslim minority, and particularly the infiltration of terrorist cells among the faithful, whose devotion has challenged an increasingly secular Britain’s sense of itself.
Britain may continue to regard itself as a Christian nation. But practicing Muslims are likely to outnumber church-attending Christians in several decades, according to a recent survey by Christian Research, a group that specializes in documenting the status of Christianity in Britain.
More conspicuous than ever in both the halls of power and in working-class neighborhoods, Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims, about 2.7 percent of the population, are at once alienated and increasingly assertive.
The headline reads like a story about Muslims and their growing presence, but the subplot is the shrinking presence of Christianity within British culture. Growing secularism creates a culture clash that offends many Muslims and doesn’t exactly encourage them to assimilate, while the same secularism makes Britons increasingly hostile to conservative Muslim traditions and viewpoints.
Other cities have already seen the change and can see through a demographic telescope that the changes are not going to reverse anytime soon:
In working-class neighborhoods, the differences are stark between white Britons and immigrant Muslim Asians, who began arriving in significant numbers from former British colonies in Pakistan and Bangladesh in the 1970s. The whites are less likely to marry, and they bear more children out of wedlock, trends many Muslims, who put stock in intact families, find disturbing.
The high rate of alcohol consumption among whites sets the groups apart, too. In Blackburn and Preston, increasing numbers of neighborhoods have become exclusively Muslim, and the growing influence of the conservative Wahhabi school of Islam is more and more apparent among women who wear black robes and cover all but their eyes.
In Blackburn, the constituency of Jack Straw, the leader of the House of Commons, there are 30,000 Muslims among a population of 80,000. But in a telltale sign for the future, the number of children 10 years and younger is evenly divided between Christian and Muslim.
It is those demographics, and the visibility of Blackburn’s 40 mosques alongside the ancient Christian church spires, that frightened the mosque opponents in Clitheroe.
The story line closely follows that of moderate Muslims (one character forms an interfaith scout group called the Beaver Scouts that honors all sorts of religious occasions, including the Taoist and Jewish new year celebrations). The reader is comforted to know that these people exist during a tense a time between non-Muslims in Britain and radical Muslims that became very well known in July 2005 during the London suicide bombings.
The contrast presented in the story is between backward non-Muslim British who unnecessarily fear the moderate Muslims who have stronger families and avoid alcohol. But what are the cultural and religious beliefs of the growing Muslim population in Britain?
For this story in particular, I would have liked to know the religious beliefs and practices of the Muslims who pushed to turn the Methodist church into a Mosque. What are their views on the role of women in society? What about the British legal system versus Islamic law? How should non-Muslims be treated in their society? Is legal abortion on demand legal? What about homosexuality?
Muslims will be changing more than just the church buildings in British society. The story hints at that issue by mentioning “an increasingly secular Britain’s sense of itself,” but that angle of the story could have been explored more.