New Internationalist

Building bridges

Issue 345

There’s a long history of Muslim migration which has some important lessons for today, argues Ehsan Masood

The word ‘migration’ has acquired negative connotations. It is used to describe people fleeing wars, political turmoil, famine, poverty. Migrants are depicted in the popular press as taking jobs and housing from indigenous people in the countries they settle in. They are seen to enjoy welfare benefits, while contributing little in return. But there’s another side to the story, which has to do with those who leave sometimes secure homes and jobs for an uncertain life in foreign lands. They work hard, enrich the commercial and cultural life of their adopted countries, and promote better understanding of people of different races and different faiths. That’s certainly how Islam sees migration. And its importance is underlined by the fact that the Islamic calendar, the Hijra, begins with the migration of the Prophet Muhammad from Makkah to Madinah.

From Islam’s earliest days, Muslims travelled to distant lands bringing with them learning, scholarship, culture and cuisine. Earlier generations of my own family journeyed from what is now Saudi Arabia to Iran, onwards to India, where they stayed until 1947. The end of British rule brought them to Pakistan and a decade later they moved to Britain. There are today an estimated 12 million Muslims in Europe and a further six million in the US. At a time when the world’s spotlight is fixed firmly in the direction of Islam and Muslims, our presence in the West offers a real opportunity to build lasting bridges between Islam and the West.

Despite many obstacles, an increasing number of Muslims have begun to play just such a role. It does not help, for example, that in parts of western Europe, the majority of Muslim migrants have high levels of unemployment among adults and low levels of educational achievement among children. As a reporter for the British Muslim weekly, Q news, during the early 1990s, I was often shocked at the level of poverty I encountered. I lost count of the number of times I conducted interviews in small, damp or draughty and overcrowded houses. In Britain, at least, the unemployment rates for Muslim males is well above the national average, and the levels of achievement in schools is well below the norm. Yet, despite such obvious drawbacks, Muslim communities in Europe — and their more prosperous cousins in the US — are beginning to make inroads in public life and have started to play a bridge-building role. Muslims have begun to ascend the ladder in politics, business and the media. A plethora of community-based organizations exist that promote dialogue and better understanding. Muslim diasporas in Britain, US, Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand have fairly representative umbrella organizations that co-ordinate their policies and activities at the national level.

Effective lobbies have emerged that help to influence the decisions of Western governments — or at least help policy-makers to see issues from more than one perspective. Political parties of all colours have appointed full-time staff from within Muslim communities to advise them on Muslim affairs.

Muslims have begun to ascend the ladder in politics, business and the media

Just how effective these different initiatives are in promoting better understanding between of Islam and the West is still an open question. But we can say that most initiatives are having some impact; and some are more successful than others. Muslims in Western countries have been more successful in raising awareness in the media and in political circles of human-rights abuses and other injustices within Muslim countries. In Britain they have also succeeded in obtaining state funding for faith schools — putting them on a par with children from Christian and Jewish backgrounds. Muslims in Europe and the US have also been successful in raising awareness of the impacts of Western policies in countries such as Iraq. Muslim community groups in the US successfully lobbied the State Department to put pressure on the Turkish Government to stop harassing a Turkish member of parliament who wore a headscarf to work. But when it comes to changing Western policies, the results have been far less impressive, though even here it is too early to draw firm conclusions.

For example, the Bush administration sought the advice of Muslim organizations in framing its response to the events of 11 September. Essentially, the administration needed help with wording its response in language that Muslims would not find offensive. This put community organizations in a bind: assisting the President would be seen by Muslims across the globe as endorsing the administration’s policies. Refusing his request, on the other hand, would close the door on a rare opportunity to influence Bush in his dealings with the Muslim world. Similarly, Muslim groups have had little impact on the virtual absence of legal rights for Muslim detainees from Afghanistan currently being held in Cuba.

It’s a similar story in the UK. Muslims now sit in both chambers of parliament — the House of Commons and the House of Lords. And government departments, such as the Department for International Development work closely with Muslim charities when it comes to assisting Muslim countries with development policies. But Muslim parliamentarians are finding that the seat at the top table comes at a price: when it comes to UK foreign policy in Muslim countries, they are expected to endorse publicly the government line — even if this means going against their own conscience, or that of the wider Muslim community.

One promising development, however, is the belated realization among Muslim groups that they are part of a wider community; and that only by forging partnerships with like-minded groups can they begin to have real impact on the perception of their faith both at home and abroad — and also on policies that affect them. Thus, Muslims in Europe are now busy forging alliances with anti-globalization groups and organizations fighting against social exclusion; and are taking an active interest in local politics. In Britain, for example, Muslims playing an active role in the New Economic Foundation’s project of neighbourhood renewal.

Thus, Muslims are coming out of their shell and transcending the ghetto mentality of the first generation of immigrants. This is a reflection of the spirit of migration in Islamic history. When Muslims would travel to new places, they saw themselves as being mainstream, and not a minority community concerned with their own affairs. They did not restrict their activities to Muslims, but worked for the welfare of everyone. This is the real meaning of migration and the quicker we return to it, the better for all.

Ehsan Masood is Director of Communications at the NGO Leadership for Environment and Development International. Email: ehsan@lead.org

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