BRITAN A a glorious tradition of writers who get on their bikes, real or metaphorical, and pedal to discover the country. Two of the best examples of the genre were published during the Great Depression, “English Journey” by JB Priestley (1934) and “The Road to Wigan Pier” by George Orwell (1937). Bill Bryson was so successful with “Notes from a Small Island” (1995), which sold over 2 million copies, that he decided to repeat the exercise with “The Road to Little Dribbling” 20 years more late.
Ed Husain’s new book, “Among the Mosques,” is a fascinating addition to this tradition, taking readers inside religious institutions that most non-Muslims only experience as domes on the horizon. . The country’s first two mosques were founded in Liverpool in 1887, in a terraced house, and in Woking in 1889, on a larger scale. Today there are nearly 2,000 serving a Muslim population of over 3 million. Some heavily Muslim areas such as the Bastwell neighborhood of Blackburn have several on the same street. But what’s going on inside? And what is their relationship with society at large?
Mr. Husain is the right man to answer these questions. The son of an Indian father and mother who emigrated from what is now Bangladesh, he won an award for reciting the Quran as a child and spent much of his 20s in the Middle East. to perfect his Arabic. He has written two books on Islam and has a vast intellectual hinterland. He wrote a Phre thesis under the supervision of conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton, and has worked for a number of think tanks, including the Council on Foreign Relations in America.
Mr. Husain has discovered something to celebrate. Britain absorbed a large Muslim population better than its former enemy, France. On May 6, London re-elected its first Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan of Labor. Several young politicians like Naz Shah, deputy for Bradford West, represent the modern face of religion.
There is also a darker story. The British establishment that presided over post-WWII immigration expected Islamic migrants to blend into mainstream society and relax their religious views. But in parts of the country, Muslim communities are distancing themselves from British society at large and embracing stricter versions of their faith.
This is especially true in the old mill towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire, which are now home to parallel societies, where devotees can live their day-to-day lives without mingling. Mosques run schools and rule on Islamic law. Restaurants offer gender segregation under the polite name of “family headquarters”.
These societies are dominated by a clerical class which extends its influence in secular society, for example by supporting candidates for parliament. Mr Husain visited mosque after mosque which taught a very literal interpretation of Islam, sometimes clinging to arguments that are being abandoned in the Middle East. He has seen stores displaying books that advocate stoning homosexuals or keeping women in purdah or engaging in jihad. Sayyid Qutb, Osama bin Laden’s favorite philosopher, often appeared.
Many of these clerics belong to religious groups with roots far from these shores. Saudi Wahhabis pour money into British mosques and offer all-expense paid scholarships to young British Muslims. More surprising is the importance of the Deobandis. Mr Husain says more than half of the country’s mosques are now owned by the movement, which started in India and seeks to rebuild the caliphate from scratch, convert by convert. Dewsbury, a historic Yorkshire market town, is the European capital of the world’s largest Muslim organization, the Tableeghi Jamaat, the evangelical arm of the movement.
Why is this important? Religious minorities have always huddled together to better preserve their faith. Look at the Quakers during the Industrial Revolution or the Orthodox Jews in Manchester or London today. Isn’t “a parallel society” just a derogatory name for a thriving subculture? And isn’t the Catholic Church also an example of foreign influence? It is not the business of the state to make windows in the souls of people.
There are good reasons to be concerned, however. One is the paradox of tolerance. There are limits to what liberal societies can tolerate people who call for homosexuals to be high or who denounce Ms. Shah as “a dog” for not wearing a hijab. The radicalized version of Islam preached by clerics not only promotes intolerance, but also encourages extremism.
The second is the paradox of diversity. The welfare state dear to liberals depends for its legitimacy on the feeling that people have a common identity. Robert Putnam, a Harvard sociologist, demonstrated that support for the provision of public goods declines sharply if people think the recipients are very different from them. It’s hard to be more different from the parallel communities of Dewsbury and Bradford.
The third is more practical. Britain is witnessing a struggle for the soul of Islam. But the state has repeatedly acted as if it were on the side of the forces of reaction rather than those of enlightenment. He bowed down to self-proclaimed community leaders, mistaking uncompromising beliefs with “authenticity.” He tolerated schools like Darul Uloom, in Rochdale, which combine GCSE instruction requiring students to memorize hadiths, including those on beating women and stoning homosexuals. And he failed to make a convincing argument for Britishness. Mr Husain points out that many Muslim children receive a full account of British history from their schools, while constantly hearing praise for Turkey and Saudi Arabia in their madrassas. The trauma of Brexit has created a palpable desire to redress many of the social and geographic divisions that threaten to divide the country into warring tribes. Mr Husain makes a compelling case that this quest should not ignore the world of the mosque. ■
This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the headline “Tolerance of Intolerance”