Experts say the increase in the Muslim population in Britain is due to immigration, a higher birth rate among Muslims, and conversions to Islam.
According to the 2001 census, there are now 63,000 converts to Islam or descendants of converts in the UK. These include the famous pop singer Cat Stenvens or Yusuf Islam, who embraced Islam at the height of his fame in 1977, and Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist who was captured by the Taliban while crossing the Afghanistan border anonymously in a burqa in 2002. She was set free eleven days later. She later said that she had promised one of her captors that would read the Quran when she would be free. A few days after her release she began reading the Quran, which changed her life for ever. She converted to Islam in the summer of 2003.
Timothy Winter, or Shaykh Abd al-Hakim Murad, is a prominent British Muslim writer, translator, teacher and commentator on the relations between Muslims and Western societies and on inter-faith issues. He is at present the Shaykh Zayed Lecturer of Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University and Director of Studies in Islamic Theology at Wolfson College. He figures in a 2010 list of 500 most influential Muslims in the world, brought out by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, Amman.
Winter was born in Cambridge in 1960. His conversion to Islam in his teens took place in the context of the alienation and existential angst that overtook the younger generation in large parts of Europe and North America in the 1970s. This was the time when young people became disillusioned with the core values of Western societies, especially consumerism and hedonism, and experimented with all sorts of alternative lifestyles and worldviews, including Zen Buddhism, Hinduism and other Eastern cults. The 1970s witnessed the emergence of a powerful counter culture, manifested in the hippie movement and the Hare Krishna cult.
Quite early in his life, Winter became skeptical about the core doctrines of Christianity, including the trinity, incarnation, original sin and atonement. An incident in his teens proved to be a turning point and ultimately led to his conversion to Islam. He reminisces: “In my teens I was sent off by my parents to a cottage in Corsica, in France, on an exchange with a very vigorous French Jewish family with four daughters. They turned out to be enthusiastic nudists”. The sight of peach juice dripping from the chin of one of these nudist girls set him thinking about the ephemerality of worldly pleasures and prompted him to search for the real, deeper meaning of life. The search for an alternative worldview and philosophy of life took him to Egypt. What mesmerized him and drew him to Islam was the enchanting sound of the recitation of the Holy Quran that he heard in the streets of Cairo in the early morning. His spiritual quest culminated in his acceptance of the Islamic faith. He then enrolled as a student at Cairo’s famed Al Azhar University, where he learnt Arabic and acquired a proficiency in Islamic learning. Thereafter he travelled to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he came in close contact with an eminent Sufi Shaykh, Habib Ahmad Mashhur al-Haddad. In 1989 he returned to England and spent two years at the University of London, studying Persian and Turkish.
Winter has a penchant for writing and translation. He has written, edited or translated about a dozen books and numerous articles on a variety of subjects, including Islamic theology, Hadith, Islamic law, Sufism and inter-faith understanding and dialogue. His major works include The Cambridge Companion to Islamic Theology (2008), Understanding the Four Madhhabs: Facts About Ijtihad and Taqlid (1999), Understanding Islam and the Muslims (co-edited with John A. Williams), Muslim Songs of the British Isles (2005), and Abraham’s Children: Jews, Christians and Muslims in Conversation (co-edited with Bishop Richard Harries and Rabbi Norman Solomon). He has translated some of the major writings of classical Muslim writers, including Al-Ghazali, Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani and Al-Bayhaqi. He has also translated Imam al-Busiri’s famous panegyrical composition in praise of the Prophet, The Mantle Adorned (2009).
Winter is not a disinterested, ivory-tower academic, but is passionately committed to the Islamic cause and believes in engagement with society. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Cambridge mosque and is secretary of the Muslim Academic Trust. In 2009 he helped set up the Cambridge Muslim College, which offers a one-year diploma course in Islamic studies and community leadership and provides training to imams. In addition to occasionally writing for newspapers, he appears frequently on BBC Radio. The social networking site Facebook has his profile, while the video-sharing site YouTube features some of his lectures and discourses. His lectures are available on DVD and CD.V. S. Naipaul,
who is well-known for his vituperate writings against Islam and Muslims, has said that Islam has had a calamitous effect on converted peoples. If that was the case, Islam would not be the fastest-growing religion in the world today and thousands of European and American women and men would not have voluntarily and enthusiastically embraced the faith. In fact the perception and experience of Winter and thousands of others in Europe and the US who have embraced Islam tell an altogether different story. Winter emphasizes that conversion to Islam did not result in a radical rupture or alienation from his cultural roots. “I still love Jesus and Abraham, Moses, Jacob, Isaac, Ishmael; they’re revered in the Quran; they’re the great figures of my early childhood, and I still revere them to this day. So I don’t feel it’s an alienation”.
In Europe and the United States, Muslims are now under increasing pressure to give up their distinctive religious and cultural identities and to assimilate into the culture of the majority population. In many European countries, citizenship is now increasingly equated with assimilation and integration. The report of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia Muslims in the EU: Discrimination and Islamophobia (2006) notes that “Muslims feel that acceptance by society is increasingly premised on assimilation and the assumption that they should lose their Muslim identity”. In 2005 a Moroccan woman’s application for French citizenship was turned down on grounds of “insufficient assimilation”; it was argued that her “radical” practice of Islam was incompatible with basic French values such as equality of the sexes.
The said woman’s only fault was that she wore the Islamic veil, although she was married to a French national, had been living in Paris where her two children were born, and spoke good French. She appealed against the ruling, invoking the French constitutional right to religious freedom and saying that she had never sought to challenge the fundamental values of French society. But in July 2008 the Council of State, France’s highest administrative body, rejected her appeal and upheld the earlier ruling. In February 2006, the government of Baden-Wurttemberg in Germany introduced a set of new “discussion guidelines—consisting of 30 questions—for applicants for German citizenship. The tenor of the questions weighs heavily against Muslim applicants. One of the questions in the “discussion guidelines” says: “Imagine that your son comes to you and declares that he is a homosexual and would like to live with another man. How would you react?” Sweden’s far-right, anti-immigration party, Sweden Democrats, which did very well in the September 2010 elections, says that a multicultural society is doomed to failure and that those coming to Sweden have to adapt to the country’s culture unconditionally, in matters ranging from gender equality to food habits.
As an insider, Winter can speak with authority about the highly problematic question of the assimilation of Muslims and other minority groups into mainstream Western societies. He says: “Your average British Asian Muslim on the streets of Bradford or Small Heath in Birmingham is told he has to integrate more fully with the society around him. The society he tends to see around him is extreme spectacles of binge drinking on Saturday nights, scratchcards, and other forms of addiction apparently rampant, credit card debt crushing lives, collapsing relationships and mushrooming proportions of single lives, a drug epidemic. It doesn’t look very nice.”
There is a growing and understandable concern and anguish among Western governments and the general public, as well as among Muslim minorities living there, about the growing radicalization and extremism among a section of Muslim youth in those countries. Winter points out that the main reason for the increasing radicalization among Muslim youth living in Europe and the US is to be sought in the foreign policy of the US and its allies, such as the UK, towards Muslim countries, which is largely influenced by a mixture of geopolitical interests, a pronounced support for Israel’s expansionist and inhuman policies, and a resurgent evangelical Christianity in the US. “The West must realize it must stop being the world’s police,” he says. The 2007 Gallup data clearly suggest that the primary cause of anger and anti-Americanism in the Muslim world is not a clash of civilizations but the perceived effect of US foreign policy in the Muslim world.
The horrendous acts of violence and wanton killing by a small group of fanatics and militants on the fringes of Muslims societies have evidently widened the gulf between Muslims and the West in particular and the rest of the world in general. The terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid, London and other cities have increased the mistrust between Muslims and the wider society in Europe and the US. Studies show that the vast majority of the victims of al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks are Muslims, and that only 15 per cent of the victims of such attacks between 2004 and 2008 were Westerners. It is noteworthy that the vast majority of Muslims around the world have unequivocally denounced violence and terrorism. The 2007 Gallup data show that Muslims across the world denounce terrorist attacks on civilians as morally unjustified. Many of the former supporters of terrorist organisations have been dismayed by the wanton destruction of human lives. In 2007 one of Osama Bin Laden’s most prominent mentors, Salman al-Awdah, wrote an open letter criticizing him for “fostering a culture of suicide bombings that has caused bloodshed and suffering and brought ruin to entire Muslim communities and families”.
Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, one of al-Qaeda’s founders, who had described the 9/11 attacks on the US as “a catastrophe for Muslims,” said in 2007, “There is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property”. The Al Azhar University in Cairo and Darul Uloom Deoband in India as well as many prominent scholars and institutions of Islamic learning around the world have condemned reckless violence and terrorism in unequivocal terms. A leading Muslim scholar of Pakistani origin, Dr Tahir al Qadri, has recently issued a fatwa, backed by extensive references to Islamic legal principles and precedents and judicial pronouncements, condemning terrorists as the enemies of Islam and saying that suicide bombers will find their final abode in hell. “Terrorism is terrorism, violence is violence, and it has no place in Islamic teachings and no justification or excuse on its behalf can be acceptable,” he said. Winter has been a fierce critic of violence and terrorist bombings, which result in death and injury to innocent people and which have no justification in Islamic teachings.
The terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre not only altered Manhattan’s landscape but also bedeviled the relations between Muslims and mainstream American society. The proposed construction of a mosque a couple of blocks from Ground Zero has fuelled a surge of anti-Muslim protests in New York and other cities. A small section of Manhattan’s residents, including the relatives of those killed in the 9/11 attack, have raised objections to the mosque project. A far-right group called Stop the Islamization of America held a street protest against the mosque project on 6 June 2010. Sarah Palin, the former vice presidential candidate, has been a vocal opponent of the mosque project. The controversy is a reflection of, and is heightening, the tide of Islamophobia in the country.
The developers of the site unveiled the design of the centre on October 3, 2010, according to which the 15-storey building will be a multi-faith community centre, with a sports centre open to people of all faiths, an exhibition space, a restaurant, a memorial for 9/11 and an Islamic prayer area. The proposed centre is aimed at healing the divide between Muslims and mainstream American society. Winter emphasizes that the proposed Islamic centre in Manhattan should be seen as a symbol of reconciliation, and not of antagonism.
Muslims like Winter are playing a highly important role in clearing misconceptions and prejudices about Islam and Muslims in Western countries, in building bridges of understanding and reconciliation between Muslims and the West, in articulating the problems and obstacles faced by Muslims living in Western societies, in denouncing extremism and violence, and in highlighting the need for moderation and tolerance in our troubled times.