Is London's future Islamic?
Michael Hodges, Tue Jun 5, 2007
It's the capital's fastest growing religion, based on noble traditions and compassionate principles, yet Islam can still be tainted by mistrust and misunderstanding. Here Time Out argues that an Islamic London would be a better place
The noise from the expectant crowd hushed to a murmur as an open-backed lorry that had driven slowly up the Mall - known since the Islamic revolution of 2021 as The Way of the Martyrs - nudged its way through the thousands gathered in Mohammad Sidique Khan Square. On the lorry, two masked guards held a young man, black hood over his head; a quiver running through the material suggested he knew what was coming.
The lorry halted by the plinth that had once held Marc Quinn's sculpture 'Alison Lapper Pregnant' - long since removed as an insult to decency - and was now the place of public execution. A rope noose attached to a wire cable hung from a mechanised hoist. The main doors of what had been the National Gallery flung open and an Imam walked down the steps of the new Institute of Islamic Jurisprudence, opened only a week before by Sultan Charles, Prince of Islam and protector of the faithful in England.
The official executioner placed a stepladder against the plinth. The lorry pulled up and the young man was pushed out, then forced up the ladder. The noose was forced over the condemned man's head. The crowd chanted 'Allahu akbar' (God is greater than everything).The hoist driver put his finger on a green button … Okay, not really - that's a hysterical, right-wing nightmare of a future Muslim London: where an cruel alien creed is forced on a liberal city. A society where women are second-class citizens, same sex relationships a crime and Sharia law enforces terrible public disfigurement and death. But the reality is a long, long way from this dark vision.
For a start, Islam is not an alien religion to London. At the end of World War I the city sat at the heart of an Empire that had 160 million Muslim subjects, 80 million in India alone. London was the largest Islamic capital in the world. Forty years later and the end of the Empire, unrest and war and poverty in south Asia had lead to mass immigration to the mother country and London became a Muslim capital in another sense.
According to the 2001 census there are 607,083 Muslims living in London (310,477 men and 296,606 women). The majority of Muslims live in the east of the city and, by 2012, the Muslim Council of Britain estimates that the Muslim population of Tower Hamlets, Newham, Waltham Forest and Hackney will be 250,000. There are plans afoot (though no formal application has yet been submitted) to build the UKs biggest mosque - capable of welcoming 40,000 worshippers - near the 2012 Olympic site, a move which has prompted predictable outrage from some quarters. Consequently, Muslim disillionment with a reactionary and often ill-informed press is at an all time high.
But rather than fear the inevitable changes this will bring to London, or buy in to a racist representation of all Muslims as terrorists, we should recognise both what Islam has given this city already, and the advantages it would bring across a wide range of areas in the future.
On the surface, Islamic health doesn't look good: the 2001 census showed that 24 per cent of Muslim women and 21 per cent of Muslim men suffered long-term illness and disability. But these are factors of social conditions rather than religion. In fact, Islam offers Londoners potential health benefits: the Muslim act of prayer is designed to keep worshippers fit, their joints supple and, at five times a day, their stomachs trim. The regular washing of the feet and hands required before prayers promotes public hygiene and would reduce the transmission of superbugs in London's hospitals.
Alcohol is haram, or forbidden, to Muslims. As London is above the national average for alcohol-related deaths in males, with 17.6 per 100,000 people (Camden has 31.6 per 100,000 males), turning all the city's pubs into juice bars would have a massive positive effect on public health. Forbid alcohol throughout the country, and you'd avoid many of the 22,000 alcohol-related deaths and the £7.3 billion national bill for alcohol-related crime and disorder each year.
'The world is green and beautiful,' said the prophet Muhammad, 'and Allah has appointed you his guardian over it.' The Islamic concept of halifa or trusteeship obliges Muslims to look after the natural world and Muhammad was one of the first ever environmentalists, advocating hima - areas where wildlife and forestry are protected. So we could expect more public parks under Islam, but halifa also applies to recycling: in 2006, 12,000 Muslims attended a series of sermons at the East London Mosque explaining the theological evidence for a link between behaving in an environmentally sustainable way and the Islamic faith.
Presently, Muslim students perform less well than non-Muslim students. In inner London, 37 per cent of 16 to 24-year-old Muslims have no qualifications (the figure for the general population of the same age and location is 25 per cent). When it comes to university education the picture is equally gloomy: 16 to 24-year-old Muslims are half as likely to have degree level or above qualification than other inner London young people.
Again, social factors rather than religion have led to this state of affairs. Young Muslims in London are often of south Asian origin and therefore more likely to live in households where English is not the first language, more likely to encounter racism (both intentional and unintentional) during their education, and more likely to suffer from poverty and bad housing conditions.
But Tahir Alam, education spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, claims Muslim children do better in their own faith schools than in the mainstream state sector: 'Muslim schools have their own distinct ethos. They use the children's faith and heritage as primary motivators to provide the backdrop for their education and behaviour. This ethos is consistent with the messages that children are getting at home, so it is a very coherent operation between the home and the school.'
If Islam became the dominant religion in London the same ethos could be applied to schooling across swathes of underprivileged and deprived areas of the city. This could have a revolutionary effect on educational achievement and, perhaps just as importantly, general levels of discipline and self-respect among London's young people. While controversy rages over faith schools, there are 37 Muslim schools in London. As of 2004, only five were state schools, but there is growing pressure to bring more into the state sector which, according to Alam, will 'help raise achievement for many sectors of the Muslim community. Many private Muslim schools are under-resourced and if they can be brought into the state sector this valuable experience can be extended to more children.'
Application of halal (Arabic for 'permissable') dietary laws across London would free us at a stroke from our addiction to junk food, and the general adoption of a south Asian diet rich in fruit juice, rice and vegetables with occasional mutton or chicken would have a drastic effect on obesity, hyperactivity, attention deficit disorders and associated public health problems. As curry is already Londoners' and the nation's favourite food (see our Brick Lane food feature), it would be a relatively easy process to encourage the adoption of such a diet. Not eating would be important as well. The annual fasting month of Ramadan instils self-discipline, courtesy and social cohesion. And Londoners would benefit philosophically and physically from even a short period when we weren't constantly ramming food into our mouths.
In an Islamic London, Christians and Jews - with their allegiance to the Bible and the Talmud - would be protected as 'peoples of the book'. Hindus and Sikhs manage to live alongside a large Muslim population in India, so why not here? Although England has a long tradition of religious bigotry against, for instance, Roman Catholics, it is reasonable to assume that under the guiding hand of Islam a civilised accommodation could be made among faith groups in London. This welcoming stance already exists in the capital in the form of the City Circle (see Yahya Birt interview), which encourages inter-faith dialogue and open discussion.
Some of the finest art in London is already Islamic. The Jameel Gallery at the V&A houses 'ceramics, textiles, carpets, metalwork, glass and woodwork, which date from the great days of the Islamic caliphate of the eighth and ninth century' up until the turn of the last century. Or take a free daily tour of the Addis Gallery of Islamic art (at the British Museum). London-based Nasser David Khalili, an Iranian-born Jew, has amassed what is considered to be the world's largest private collection of Islamic art. Islamic influences have also flourished in other areas of the arts, with novelists, comedians (Birmingham-born Shazia Mirza was an instant hit on the London circuit), and music (from rappers Mecca2Medina on, to the less in-your-face Yusuf Islam).
Each Muslim is obliged to pay zakat, a welfare tax of 2.5 per cent of annual income, that is distributed to the poor and the needy. If the working population of London, 5.2 million, was predominantly Muslim this would produce approximately £3.2bn each year. More importantly, everyone would be obliged to consider those Londoners who haven't shared their good fortune. London would become a little less cruel.
Under Islam all ethnicities are equal. Once you have submitted to Allah you are a Muslim - it doesn't matter what colour you are. End of story.