Are we losing the war for the soul of Islam?
As the proportion of Muslims rises in Britain and across the West, extremists are increasingly dominant. What is to be done?
Ten years on, the scorecard is far more mixed. Today, it seems to me that this will be a process of constantly winning and losing rather than outright victory or loss. But one thing is for sure: on current trends it will not just be the past but the future which will be a foreign country. They will, most certainly, do things differently there.
In the entire discussion on the meeting, absorption or integration of Islam in Britain several fundamental facts have to be accepted. The first is the undeniable importance of migration. Britain had no significant Muslim presence until the latter part of the last century. There was a negligible Muslim presence in Britain until postwar immigration brought waves of migration predominantly from the Indian subcontinent, and Islam played no important role in our history.
By the 2001 census, there were around 1.5 million Muslims in England and Wales. By the 2011 census, that number was 2.7 million. Over a single decade the Muslim population had doubled — and that is not including the hundreds of thousands of people who are here illegally. I
f anyone in power had wanted to alter the vast increase in Muslim immigration during the post-9/11 period, to work on absorbing the people who were already here before welcoming in any more, they could have done so. But they did not and no politician looks set to do so in the near future.
Even now it is deemed politically impossible to discuss such matters. And so — incapable of making a value judgment to limit Muslim immigration at the very moment that Muslim integration was becoming such an issue — we will be stuck with the reality of the growth of our Muslim population.
Today Britain's Muslim community is growing ten times faster than the rest of the population. Half of British Muslims are under the age of 25. And among young people under 25, one in ten are now Muslim. Conversions of Britons to Islam are also at an unprecedented high. In the decade since 9/11 more than 100,000 British people converted to Islam. Three-quarters of these were women.
These facts — along with the fact that for the first time a minority of young Britons now identify themselves as Christian — means that if current trends continue, in the next 20 years or so there will be more Muslims in Britain than Christians. Some demographic studies suggest that on current trends Britain could have a Muslim majority by the middle of this century.
Of course trends do not always continue. It is possible that there will be a resurgence of Christianity, or a swift increase in atheism and/or secularism among Muslims. Or it is possible that something wholly unforeseen will occur. But while conceding the variables it is important not to ignore current likelihoods. An increased number of Muslims will inevitably lead to increased influence of Islam in the country, with all the things that come in its wake.
Second, we must accept that there is no reason why the process of integrating these people will be any more straightforward in the future than it has been up until now. Across Western Europe official government responses even to public concern over immigration as a whole — let alone some immigrations in particular — have been to condemn such concern as "racist".
In the last couple of years the leaders of all three main political parties have conceded that it is not racist to have concerns about immigration. But they neither know what to do about the next step, nor can get beyond generalities about the need for "debate" or the sending around — as during this past summer — of occasional dog-whistles to pretend something is being done while the issue truly remains unaddressed.
The result is a public "debate" which not only avoids the main issues but skirts even the secondary issues, when it does anything at all. For instance, the public are able to discuss the issue of the veil or the burka on a regular basis. This has been the proxy debate about Islam in most European countries for at least a decade.
In September, Britain went through another such round. An 800-pupil state-funded girls' school in Blackburn turned out to have on its list of demands of students not only the wearing of the headscarf in school but the wearing of it at all times outside school. The school is the first of a network of 12 Muslim free schools to open under the Education Secretary's new schools scheme. Others such schools are due to open in East London and Hackney.
Meanwhile at another new free school in Derby it recently transpired that even non-Muslim staff were required to wear headscarves. The school has subsequently been closed and then reopened with slightly altered rules.
At the same time that this was going on, the row re-erupted over whether female doctors in the NHS should be allowed to wear full face-coverings. And then there was another entry in the perennial discussion over whether a full face covering (the niqab or burka) should be allowed to be worn in court.
For several days the nation's attention was focused on Blackfriars Crown Court in south London where a 22-year-old Muslim woman — on trial for allegedly intimidating a witness — insisted on her right not to have to reveal her face in a court in which there were men. All the main party leaders publicly wrung their hands. Rights were weighed up.
The campaign group Liberty weighed in on the side of the defendant's right not to show her face in court. The judge in the case was eventually applauded for his tough and rigorous stance in demanding that the woman remove her full face-covering while giving evidence, but allowing her to retain it while listening to the evidence of others. This was applauded on all sides as a notable victory for British common sense.
For comparatively old hands it is easy to be cynical. One Muslim friend who was telephoned by a national newspaper to comment on the recent round of face-covering stories told them to dig out what he'd told them last time round and churn it out again. In Britain the way in which such "controversial" issues are tackled is always the same.
There is a blockage of common sense or assertion of values. This looks like being temporarily relieved as some politician or public figure says something apparently "controversial", after which — the pressure valve having been briefly released — everything dies down again. All the time the underlying stories continue unaddressed.
Last year Mohammed was the second most popular name for newborn boys in England and Wales. In the country as a whole it was narrowly beaten to the top spot by Harry (which received a boost from the popular prince and a member of the pop group One Direction). But the figures also show that Mohammed is now easily the most popular name for baby boys in many areas of the country, including London and the West Midlands.
Every time this story comes up it gets the same silence or consensual brush-off if anyone tries to draw anything from it. "Of course, it's only that high because the variations of spelling are all included in the same entry," we are told. Or, "Muslims tend to call their male children Mohammed whereas other religions have more variety or names."
It would be more honest just to say, "Move along please, nothing to see here." And perhaps there is nothing whatsoever to worry about. Perhaps all those Mohammeds will become fully-fledged modern Brits. Or maybe they will not. But to think that there is not going to be a struggle for them, or to assume that the struggle can only go one way — and that way is forward — is to make a fatal mistake. It is also to ignore Islamic history.
One thing that must strike anyone in their study of Islam is how repeatedly the religion's extremists win out. You can go back a thousand years and study the moment when the Asharite were triumphed over the Mutazilites, when the "men of the sword" beat the "men of the pen".
Or you can marvel at Persian society in the early 20th century and at the daring of a scholar like Ali Dashti. And then you can wonder at the fact that he should end up dying in the torture prisons of Khomeini in the ninth decade of his life. Or you can take even the most cursory glance at recent history and consider the direction of Islam's trajectory in Muslim-majority countries around the world today.
If anybody was in any doubt that Islamic history can replay itself they should have had their doubts alleviated by the "Arab Spring". And while it was perfectly understandable that many of those watching events from the liberal West should have greeted the wobbling or overthrow of vicious dictators with enthusiasm (there was little reason to love Zine el Abidine Ben Ali or Hosni Mubarak, let alone Colonel Gaddafi or Assad junior), in the lack of awareness of what would come next lay a wilful blindness.
It should have been obvious — we should have known — that when strongmen totter in Muslim-majority countries it is not inevitable that the Islamists will come to power, but the odds are at least high that they will.
It is not a coincidence but par for an Islamic course that those with the most straightforward and hardline views are not only in a position to take charge when things free up, but in the best position of all. In part because they are the most organised and most committed, they also have the advantage that they are able to lay out an interpretation of their faith which, while sometimes becoming too hardline for the majority when imposed too quickly, has a theological authenticity which believing Muslims find very hard to refute.
The extremists may have a bad interpretation of Islam, they may have a wrong interpretation of Islam, but for very many people it is also a perfectly plausible interpretation of Islam. We do not acknowledge this because we do not want to.
In February 2011 America's Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, was asked about the Muslim Brotherhood at a House Intelligence Committee hearing. He declared the Brotherhood to be a "largely secular" organisation with "no overarching agenda".
Whatever his title, Mr Clapper is clearly a man of no curiosity or intelligence. Since its founding in 1928 the agenda of the Brotherhood has been absolutely clear. It desires to impose sharia and restore the caliphate.
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