Young, British and Imam-in-Training: Who we met and why

There were two things producer Georgia Catt and I tried to do with this half hour documentary for Radio 4. One: avoid random isolated Muslim voices claiming to speak for a majority saying  “That’s not Islam” about anything problematic, like terrorism.   It’s something you tend to hear most of the time in discussions about extremism and radicalism. And the other was to  try and contextualise the bigger picture, with a sense of which ideological movements are big players in Britain  – notably the conservative Deobandi and Barelvi seminaries that are educating the imams who tend to go into the big city mosques.

Imran and Shaima Suleman: freelance Imam and Islamic studies teacher

Imran and Shaima Suleman: freelance Imam and Islamic studies teacher (copyright  Samira Ahmed No re-use permitted)

But we also hear really interesting voices from young modern-thinking imams such as Imran Suleman who are trying to break down old barriers. Imran’s wife Shaima had such an interesting perspective having grown up in Egypt and found many British Muslim attitudes far more conservative. Together they currently run Quran classes from their front room, as they’ve found working in mosques so difficult.

There are also interviews with people involved in new fringe movements – the Inclusive Mosques Initiative which is working on breaking down gender segregation and welcoming gay people. Souad Talsi – a community worker in West London – where Mohammad Emwazi (the suspected masked IS hostage murderer)  grew up, gave the important immigrant female and feminist perspective. She’s seen how Islamic conservatism has strengthened on the estates and thinks it’s no coincidence that more and more young people get involved in radical Islam. What was striking over the course of our recordings was how conservative first generation immigrant elders and young British born social media savvy Imams can often seem to share key separatist attitudes.

Invited to meet staff and students at Jamia Al Karam seminary (Nottinghamshire)

Invited to meet staff and students at Jamia Al Karam seminary (Nottinghamshire) (copyright Samira Ahmed no re-use permitted)

We conducted interviews in a range of towns from Plymouth, London, Nottingham, Leicester to Bury with significant Muslim populations – mostly south Asian, which make up 60% of Britain’s Muslim population according to the last census. Not all material is in the final edit, but it did inform what you hear with a sense of a bigger picture.  I’d like to thank the Markfield Institute near Leicester and the Jamia Al Karam seminary (and former secondary boarding school) in Nottinghamshire featured in the programme for welcoming us in and giving us extensive time for frank interviews with teachers and students. The chai and biscuits, incidentally, were excellent. It’s apparent in our interviews that there’s a real gap between what some Muslim seminaries and what some listeners will think is modern Islam and compatible with British values. It’s important to acknowledge that both these institutes welcomed us in to debate the issue on the record. Other Darul Ulooms – or Islamic seminaries – didn’t let us in.

As someone who first covered the rise of radical Islam on British university campuses twenty years ago as a reporter on Newsnight, I welcomed the opportunity to try and gauge just how much conservative and separatist attitudes have grown among Britain’s Muslims. They undoubtedly have grown especially in  some Midlands and Northern English towns and neighbourhoods in cities such as East London. Have politicians really been honest about the connection between separatist attitudes and the hundreds of British born Muslims getting involved in violent extremism?  Most important is the need to acknowledge that many conservative religious groups including Christian and Jewish ones – share similar beliefs to conservative Muslims about homosexuality and the role of women. So there’s a practical challenge in how to tackle radicalism (as given attention in  the alleged Trojan Horse row) without discriminating, especially in a political system in which all main parties support faith schools.We haven’t answered all the questions we’ve raised, but I hope you’ll find this programme was an honest attempt to address some of the concerns.

Young British and Imam In Training is on Radio 4 at 130pm Sunday May 24th and again on Monday May 25th at 8pm and is on iplayer for a month after.

Discussing the programme with Nihal on the BBC Asian Network


About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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