Abdul-Azim Ahmed outlines the diversity within Muslim communities in Wales and laments the lack of nuance in the dominant media narratives
‘A venerable patriarchal gentleman wearing a green turban and white and green robe is a familiar figure as he walks about followed by a tall slim man clad in a white burnoose and white turban – the Sheikh and his secretary.’ This is how the eminent sociologist St Clair Drake described Sheikh Abdullah Ali al-Hakimi and his student, Sheikh Hasan Ismail, in his thesis that described the lively and multicultural life of Tiger Bay, Cardiff in the 1940s. Abdullah Ali al-Hakimi was a scholar and teacher who founded Cardiff’s first mosque in the 1930s, on Peel Street. He was instrumental in securing a Muslim cemetery in Ely, and often met with officials and politicians, putting the case forward for South Wales’ small but growing Muslim population. When, in 1941, during a horrific bombing campaign that saw many landmarks in Cardiff flattened, and many lives lost, the Peel Street mosque was decimated. It was Sheikh al-Hakimi who kept the morale of Cardiff’s Muslims high, setting about immediately to rebuild the lost place of worship.
There are a few important lessons we can glean from this short pen portrait. The first, and perhaps most important, is that Muslims are not newcomers to Wales, nor Britain. The second, is that the fortunes of Welsh Muslims are no different to that of the wider population. Whether Blitz or recession, Muslims are part of the fabric of Welsh society. Finally, it is possible to see through the example of Sheikh al-Hakimi how civic engagement has always been a relevant concern for Muslims.
The era of Sheikh al-Hakimi is far removed from today, in which Muslims are viewed primarily through the lense of security and terrorism. Perhaps ironically, the British government were much more concerned in the 1940s and 1950s about potential communist sympathies amongst the Muslims in the Docks than any form of religious extremism. The way in which Muslims are discussed in the media and amongst politicians today is often far removed from the day-to-day realities of Welsh Muslims. The community is not divided, as some suspect, between moderates and radicals. For the vast majority of British Muslims, the only extremists they know of are the ones the television tells them about. Nor are there latent sympathies for the so-called Islamic State in British mosques – it is, after all, easy to forget that the primary targets of Isis are Muslims, and those fighting Isis on the ground in Syria and Iraq are also Muslim.
So who are Wales’ Muslims? The 2011 census records 45,950 Muslims in Wales, the bulk of whom live in South Wales, spread between Cardiff (23,656), Newport (6,859) and Swansea (5,415) with smaller communities in the valleys and across rural and North Wales. Around half of Muslims in Britain are born in the UK rather than abroad, and just under half are also under the age of 25. A Welsh Government audit on Welsh Muslims found them both more likely to be low-waged than the wider population and more likely to be in professional employment than the wider population. What this tells us so far is that Welsh Muslims are a young, largely British-born demographic. Yet the social challenges they face in terms of employment and education are significant. Ethnically, the heritage of Muslims is perhaps unsurprising. Two-thirds of the population are South Asian, either Bangladeshi or Pakistani, having migrated (on invitation of the British government it should be remembered) during the post-war economic boom. Middle-Eastern and Arab populations account for an indeterminate figure, most likely around 10%, the bulk of whom are professional migrants. This should be put alongside significant and growing population of converts, both white and black British and Afro-Caribbean. Muslims in Wales are diverse, incredibly so, both in terms of ethnicity, migration history, and economic circumstances.
Theologically of course, Muslims present diversity too. Most Muslims in Wales (as globally) are Sunni, and in Wales, Shi’a Muslims represent perhaps 10% of the total population. However, despite simplistic descriptions of ‘sectarian war in the Middle-East’, the Sunni-Shi’a divide is not as wide as some would imagine. The doctrinal and practical differences are certainly less pronounced and less significant than the differences between Catholic and Protestant Christians. Amongst Sunni Muslims, one can trace differences in religious authority, worship, and different approaches to tradition. There is no equivalent of an Archbishop, there is no overarching Pope; rather, religious leaders (whether called Imam, Sheikh, Mufti or Pir) are leaders in a rather democratic, egalitarian way, each holding influence in their particular mosque or movement. The average Muslim is likely to be a worshipper at several mosques, not just one, and would take religious instructions from a variety of religious scholars and leaders. Those who know about chapel Christianity and Welsh nonconformism may find the fluid religious authority of Islam familiar.
In this brief sketch of religious, ethnic, and economic diversity of Welsh Muslims, you may wonder how there can exist any common ground or unity. It’s certainly a challenge, but no more a challenge than representing the diverse views of university students, or teachers, or any other group. In the Victorian era, an English gentleman convert to Islam, Abdullah Quilliam, was given the title of Sheikh-al-Islam of the British Isles by the Ottoman Caliphate. Within Sunni Islam, to be called a Sheikh-al-Islam of a particular area is perhaps the closest analogy to an Archbishop one will come across. However, Abdullah Quilliam was Britain’s first and only Sheikh-al-Islam, and though the title no doubt gave him a degree of influence, even amongst the early Muslims in Britain, it was unlikely to go unchallenged. In a survey of influential Muslims in the world, the Cambridge University Professor and Muslim, Tim Winters, is often ranked as the most influential British Muslim – and though he is one of the foremost British Muslim scholars, he himself concedes he prefers the life of a scholar than the life of a representative of British Muslims. It is unlikely there can, or will ever be, a single voice or individual who can represent all British Muslims.
Despite this, it isn’t uncommon to find people presented as a voice for Britain’s several million Muslims. This happened to me once. As Assistant Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Wales, I’m sometimes called upon to speak on television or radio. In one particular instance a few years ago, I was horrified to discover the caption below my name indicated I was a ‘community leader’. I received dozens of text messages afterwards from friends poking fun at the description. The notion of a ‘community leader’, self-appointed or otherwise, is an outdated one. It perhaps applied during the 1980s, when Muslims were first thrust into the spotlight of media attention and without appropriate representative structures, deferred to senior members of their communities to speak on their behalf. Since then, however, Muslims have developed structures of representation and organisations.
Indeed, some Muslims looked to a more established minority faith group for inspiration: following the model of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Muslim Council of Britain was formed. Rather than try and provide religious authority, however, it seeks consensual politics, and operates more like a union, with affiliates, members and elections and consultations. Following devolution, the Muslim Council of Wales was established, and works with the Welsh Government on devolved issues. The model used by the Muslim Council, much like similar organisations such as the National Union of Students, has its merits in participatory politics, but as a body formed through mosques, Muslim organisations and charities, it is designed to provide voices to communal groups rather than individuals.
Of course, much of this is almost irrelevant. The question of who speaks for Muslims is sometimes more about which Muslims are heard – and more often than not, it is the media which chooses who does or does not speak for Muslims, and the result is not always positive. The same month that Lee Rigby was killed, it was Anjem Choudary who was invited on to Newsnight on the BBC, Daybreak on ITV and Channel 4 News to speak. A dangerous radical, with a small following, was given prime-time opportunity to speak for Islam on three different channels. Not only does this leave an absence for those all important, and authoritative Muslim voices that condemn extremism, but it also gives him legitimacy and validity. There is not a single mosque in the country at which Anjem Choudary could speak, yet he is repeatedly given the type of prime-time coverage that would make the Archbishop of Canterbury green with envy.
In Wales, the picture is more nuanced in most cases, with a variety of Muslim voices included in the media and political circles. There is still however a tendency at times to fall victim to the idea that Muslims constitute a single, homogenous and uniform block, for which there can be a single view. That’s never the case. There is an old joke that if you have three Muslims in a room, you’ll have four opinions. It seems rather than seeking a single representative Muslim voice – a ‘community leader’ – it is healthier to view the issues of representation of Muslims in the same way as other groups. Before working with the Muslim Council of Wales, I was an elected officer at the National Union of Students Wales. The NUS Wales could never, of course, provide a single authoritative voice for all students, but it did work to provide a platform for engagement for students, via their students unions, and thus bring an important and largely consensual voice on issues that mattered to students. I like to think of the issues related to Muslim representation in the same way. There will never be a uniformity of Muslims views on a topic, but it is possible, working with a range of partners, to get the key messages out there.