Louise Casey’s review emphasises the high levels of segregation of British Muslims. But communities in towns like Bradford and Oldham that she focuses on are often from rural Pakistan. The origins of these populations, and the changing nature of Pakistan, are better explanations for the problems Casey identifies, rather than highlighting the fact that they are Muslim.
Casey lists various behaviours of the Muslim population that are indicators of poor integration. She stresses the presence of ‘regressive’ practices that go undocumented and unchallenged (11.4) and residential segregation that undermines trust between communities (4.1). And, like David Cameron in 2015, she highlights the poor English language skills of Muslim women and their low levels of participation in the labour market. Thus she rightly laments the cutting of government funding for English language teaching (6.57) and the government’s willingness to handover ‘community issues’ to faith leaders (1.71).
I find her use of the term ‘Muslim’ to describe the groups she criticizes problematic. This is not because they are not Muslim, but because it foregrounds religion in explanations of behaviour. In many cases, we could substitute Sylheti or Mirpuri for ‘Muslim’: two county-sized territories in South Asia make up about 40 per cent of Britain’s Muslim population. We need to recognize that the changing politics of Pakistan and Bangladesh help drive the conservative behaviours that Casey condemns.
Three attitudes underlie the various social problems that Casey charts. Muslims stand out from other populations in their support for gender segregation. They seek to mark gender and religious divisions in dress. And they have little tolerance for outsiders who are seen to mock Muhammad. Sadiq Khan (who is quoted in the review) is right to observe that the first two of these sentiments are relatively novel. In the past, even in Pakistan (as in the Middle East), such boundary markers were observed rarely.
These transformations have to be understood against the background of the politics of Pakistan. Pakistan is not just a Muslim country but a ‘Muslimist country’: a territory created specifically for India’s Muslim population. Building on this legacy, the dictator Zia al-Haq declared Pakistan an Islamic republic, and ceded control over many educational institutions to the clergy. The results have been the persecution of minorities, such as Ahmadis and Christians, and the strengthening of ethnic and religious networks as dispensers of patronage.
Both of these phenomena have had knock-on effects in Britain. The Pakistani education system has promoted the uncritical study of Islamic sciences and left no space for the recognition of variety within Islam. These attitudes have a major impact in Britain because of Pakistan’s role in exporting curricula for use in madrasas and in supplying imams. This intolerance leads in turn to the persecution of religious minorities, exemplified in Britain in the murder of Asad Shah in Glasgow, an Ahmadi killed for ‘disrespecting Islam’.
By a similar token, the politics of the biraderi, clan-based patronage networks, are now a transnational phenomena. Biraderis in Bradford have played a role in organizing bloc voting, in the dispensing of political favours and in the facilitation of marriage and immigration for members. These same nepotistic networks are given a key role in Ishrat Husain’s analysis of Pakistan’s failure to develop. For Husain, biraderis inhibit the development of meritocracy or trust in wider society. We should not be surprised to see the same kind of hollowing out of effective democracy in places in Britain where they have been allowed to dominate politics.
The politics of a far away country in South Asia matter to Britain because rates of transnational marriage with Pakistan are so high. Angela Dale estimated that around half of all British-born Pakistanis had a spouse who had emigrated to Britain after the age of eighteen. We can rightly think of this phenomena as creating ‘a first generation in every generation’, especially where one spouse has poor command of English and is disadvantaged in the workplace.
The constant renewal of marriage ties to Pakistan also means the renewal of conservative attitudes towards female independence. Alison Shaw’s study of Oxford Pakistanis has stressed that boundaries between ‘pure’ Pakistanis and ‘impure’ whites are designed to display to an extended family ‘back home’ that British Pakistanis have not Anglicised and continue to have virtuous daughters. But this comes at a price for adolescent girls in these communities, whose ability to socialize outside religious and ethnic boundaries is often heavily restricted. And friendships are the stuff that integration is made of.
What I wish to stress, therefore, is that to speak simply of British Muslims may imply that Islam ‘causes’ segregation or regressive practices. Instead, religion is embedded in a host of other cultural and political legacies. We may do better to think of the problems that she highlights as, in part, a Mirpuri problem, rooted in patterns of nepotism, poverty and uncritical religiosity in rural Pakistan. We are used to thinking of integration in terms of the relationship between the British state and various ethnic and religious populations, but we also need to recognize a global context in which the behavior of foreign states also has an impact on integration in Britain.