The story of Britain’s Muslim youth is largely presented in the mainstream media through narratives of extremism. This is especially true for those living in Luton, a place that is indelibly associated with violence and division on all sides. On the one hand, it is the town where the 7/7 bombers gathered before launching their attacks on London in July 2005. On the other, it is the birthplace of Tommy Robinson and the English Defence League. Ashraf Hoque’s slim book is an attempt to look beyond this narrow discourse and understand what it is that male members of Luton’s Muslim community are really thinking.
Early on, we discover that this is not the book Hoque set out to write. Initially, he planned to research ‘the dissemination and flows of religious knowledge’ between Britain and Pakistan in order to ‘assess to what extent religious devotion and attitudes shifted or remained the same in the two contexts’. The Pakistani side of this, involving research at madrasas and seminaries, proved too dangerous, and consequently Hoque scaled back his project to encompass just Luton. This is a shame, as there has not been ample first-hand research into the links between British and Pakistani religious communities, and in particular on the extremist tendencies that sometimes tie them together.
The book draws mainly on a series of seemingly ad hoc interviews with members of Luton’s Muslim community. From his perch at an EU-funded, Salafi-run counter-radicalisation project in the city (which he calls the Minority Skills Project), Hoque moves among the city’s Muslims, guided by organisers whose credibility within the community stems from their deep religiosity and their own somewhat chequered pasts. As a result, his view is invariably affected by the Salafi window through which he is being shown things.
Luton, Hoque is told by a young Salafi Muslim called Kamal, ‘is second only to Saudi Arabia as a Mecca for the pious’. It is a place where the Muslim community appears to be comfortable with itself. Yet the city has also been home to a number of extremists, most notably Anjem Choudary and his Al-Muhajiroun movement. Hoque interviews at least one of their number, after approaching their dawa (missionary) stall in the high street. A boastful and opinionated 25-year-old named Hamed tells him, ‘People say America is the Great Satan. They’re wrong. Britain is the Greatest Satan.’
Fortunately, Hoque is able to see past this braggadocio. He speaks to others in the community who ridicule Al-Muhajiroun (and its predecessor organisation, Hizb ut-Tahrir), characterising its programme of establishing a caliphate as ‘idealistic and impractical’. One of the more entertaining vignettes captures how groups of Salafis regularly visit the Al-Muhajiroun stall to argue religious doctrine with the group’s members as they attempt to spread their message among passers-by. These confrontations, we are told, regularly descend into shouting matches. The purpose on both sides, Hoque concludes, is largely to present a display of piety for the watching crowd.
The most interesting parts of the book are the superficially more pedestrian interviews with idle young Lutonites who are struggling with their mixed identities as Muslims of South Asian origin brought up in Britain. Their religious identities are heavily shaped by the cultures of their parents’ homelands – there are stories of young men and women being taught Islam at madrasas, where they are beaten for failing to answer teachers talking to them about a religion they don’t understand in a language they barely speak. Such experiences leave them more interested in the purist forms of religious expression that Salafism and similar ideologies seem to provide. As Hoque sees it, young Muslims welcome the ‘existential security of a “back to basics” doctrine of certainty’ that the revivalist Islam of Salafism offers. This, alongside the camaraderie and sense of belonging that concepts such as the Ummah (the global community of Muslims) provide, gives a tidy explanation of why such ideologies are able to capture people’s imaginations. For those disconnected from both their native and their inherited identities, a system of belief that offers clarity and a connection to an international community is welcome.
This book has a somewhat dated feel. While Hoque has gone to great lengths to make his text seem fresh, the bulk of the interviews for it were carried out between 2008 and 2010. The world of Islam in the UK has moved on quite a bit since then, and while this snapshot of Luton life is enlightening and we get some sparks of colour from Hoque’s brief pen portraits of interviewees, one has to wonder if the landscape today is quite the same as the one he describes.
While ISIS looms in the background and is mentioned a few times, what is not explored is the impact of its attempts to establish a caliphate on Al-Muhajiroun and its followers in Luton. The group has spent its entire life shouting for the establishment of a caliphate. But when ISIS came along and created one, Al-Muhajiroun’s members found that their bluff had been called. To ignore this caliphate would amount to a renunciation of their life’s work, yet to acknowledge and engage with it would be a criminal act. For those most seriously drawn to it, it would also require moving to a very dangerous place. Some headed out to the Levant anyway; others hemmed and hawed. A few, such as Choudary, were arrested and sent to jail for trying to drum up support for it. Luton’s dense fundamentalist community will have had to wrestle with these problems and dilemmas, but this story is unfortunately missing from Hoque’s book.
Britain’s Muslim community is of course not made up solely of extremists. In Hoque’s text we meet young men working to support their families, building lives in modern Britain while tied to tribal communities in South Asia and ultimately liking nothing more than chicken and chips and holidays in Ibiza. We see some of them drawn into criminal fraternities, many of which have links to tribes, and justifying selling drugs as a way of providing for their families. We see others suffering from drug dependency and meet the Salafis trying to bring them back from the brink. These are fundamentally stories of young men in modern urban environments. The book’s most valuable work is to shed light on this reality. Hoque shows us a world of people who have been parodied in the press but are for the most part ordinary citizens trying to understand how they fit into modern life.