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Great Britain

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Great Britain

    Great Britain has a long and complex relationship with the Muslim world. British colonial policy has affected Islamic cultures in Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. In addition, Britain has attracted large numbers of Muslim immigrants. An ally of Israel and the United States, Britain also maintains close ties with Arab nations and other Islamic cultures. The country continues to play an important role in affairs central to Muslim interests.

    Contact With the Muslim World

    British contact with Muslim states began during the Middle Ages. The Crusades brought many Europeans to Jerusalem, a holy city for Muslims, Christians, and Jews. In 1189 the English king, Richard I (Richard the Lion-Hearted), led an army on the Third Crusade in an attempt to take control of Jerusalem. Although Richard failed to gain control of the holy city, the Muslim sultan Saladin admired him for his courage. According to legend, Saladin sent fruit to the English king when he lay sick with a fever.

    The British made contact with other Muslim empires as well. By the late Middle Ages, English merchant ships had established trade routes with Arab countries along the Mediterranean Sea. Muslim merchants controlled the flow of goods from Central Asia and southern Asia, supplying the British with textiles, glass, porcelain, and especially spices. Such items found markets throughout western Europe. Around the same time, European ships first sailed all the way around Africa, establishing a sea route to Asia. European trading companies established bases in Morocco and other African countries. In some places, these companies became so powerful that they actually collected taxes from the local people and acted as their rulers. During the 1750s, the British East India Company assumed control over Bengal, a section of India's vast Mughal Empire.

    Conquest and Partition of India.

    What began as a trading relationship between England and India soon developed into a commercial and political empire. By 1803 the British had moved north to Delhi, a city in northern India. They continued to expand their territory until they controlled most of the region that is present-day India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The sale of exports from these regions helped to support the Industrial Revolution in Britain and greatly increased British wealth. Indeed, the Indian subcontinent came to be known as the “Jewel in the Crown” of the British empire.

    Both Hindus and Muslims wanted political power, but often clashed among themselves. In 1905 the British government announced that it would divide the large state of Bengal into two new regions. The eastern state had a Muslim majority, and the western section remained largely Hindu. Although the division of Bengal provoked much controversy, it gave Muslims the opportunity to argue for increased political opportunities. The All-India Muslim League emerged in 1906 as the leading advocate for greater political power. When the British reunited Bengal in 1911 , the Muslim elite felt as if the British had taken away their hard-won rights. Muslims continued to press for reforms that would give them greater political influence.

    As Indians struggled for independence in the mid-1900s, the British government made plans to withdraw. Two world wars had crippled Britain's economy and depleted its military resources. Unable to maintain a peaceful rule in India, it decided to prepare the region for self-rule. British leaders accepted the Muslim League's argument that a single united India would not serve the interests of Muslims. In 1947 they once again divided the region into two parts. India became a secular state with a Hindu majority and the territories of Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) formed a Muslim-majority state. The partition created hardships for both Hindus and Muslims. Approximately 10 million people migrated between the countries, and conflicts led to massacres on both sides that killed as many as one million people.

    Dominion in Africa and the Gulf States.

    Britain also exerted considerable influence in the Persian Gulf and in North Africa. France and Egypt opened the Suez Canal in 1869 , a strategic waterway that provided easy passage to and from Egypt for trade ships. Egypt, however, fell into debt and sold its shares in the canal to Britain. When Egypt could not repay the remaining debt, France and Britain took joint financial control of the country. Claiming that civil disorder in Egypt required military intervention, Britain bombed Alexandria in 1882 and occupied the country. In 1914 Britain formalized the arrangement by declaring Egypt a British protectorate. Increased unrest and demands for independence, however, forced Britain to grant Egyptian independence in 1922 .

    Britain also claimed power in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf regions. Britain's interest in the Persian Gulf stemmed mainly from its desire to protect its trade route to India. By the end of the 1800s, British leaders had persuaded the rulers of several Gulf states, such as Kuwait and Qatar, to grant Britain control of their foreign relations. When the Ottoman Empire dissolved at the end of World War I, Britain also gained control of Iraq and Palestine. British rulers hoped to turn Iran, with its rich petroleum reserves, into a British protectorate. Although this goal was never achieved, Britain maintained a strong commercial presence in Iran based on oil export. British power in North Africa and the Middle East began to dissolve after World War II ( 1939 – 1945 ). Britain had incurred too much debt during the war to be able to maintain effective foreign rule, and the weakened British forces could not defend themselves against local resistance movements. Even so, Britain maintained a presence in the Gulf region until the early 1970s.

    Palestinian Conflict.

    After World War II, Britain faced a complex problem in Palestine. During the early 1900s, Jewish people had immigrated to the region from Europe to escape from persecution. They believed in Zionism, the idea that the Jewish people have a historical claim to a state in Palestine. In 1917 Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, which stated that it favored the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine, provided that this action did not interfere with the rights of others living in the region. After World War II, however, the British refused to increase the number of Jews who could immigrate to Palestine, even though many Holocaust survivors had nowhere else to go. Palestinian Jews rose up against the British, asking other nations for support. The Arabs also took up arms against their colonizers. The British government made plans to remove its forces from the region.

    Unable to present a partition plan acceptable to both the Arabs and the Jews, Britain set May 14, 1948, as the deadline for its withdrawal and asked the United Nations to help resolve the conflict. The U.N. mandated the partition of Palestine into two states—one for Jews and one for Arabs. Israel proclaimed its independence on the date of the British withdrawal, and Arab armies invaded the new Jewish nation. The two forces battled for several months, until the U.N. helped to create new borders for Israel. Jordan occupied the West Bank (of the Jordan River), which was supposed to be part of the Palestinian state called for by the U.N. Many Palestinian Arabs fled to surrounding areas as refugees. Many Muslims denounced Britain for aiding the Zionist cause. While Britain remains an ally of Israel, British leaders also support Palestinian rights and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

    Muslims in Great Britain

    In the early 1800s, the Muslim community in Britain consisted mainly of Bengali and Yemeni seamen recruited by the East India Company. These sailors found themselves without work when their ships docked in England and settled in the port cities of London, Cardiff, and Glasgow. In 1889 Britain's first known mosque appeared in Woking, a town in southern England. The Muslim population remained stable until after World War II, when Muslims began immigrating to Britain in greater numbers.

    Settlement Patterns.

    Devastated by World War II, the British needed to rebuild the nation's industries. The government welcomed unskilled and semiskilled workers from overseas, especially from countries that had been part of the British empire. During the 1950s and 1960s, South Asians flocked to industrial cities, such as Bradford, Leeds, and Manchester. Many settled in London as well. The majority of Muslim immigrants were men who planned to work and save money before returning to their homeland and families. Few mosques or religious services existed for them at this time. Muslims performed their daily prayers in private, often beside their factory machines at work.

    In the late 1960s and 1970s, the British economy stabilized, and new immigration laws limited the numbers of immigrants from South Asia. Many who had arrived earlier, however, had decided to stay. The existing laws allowed their families to join them in Britain, increasing the Muslim population and strengthening Islamic communities. At the same time, some East African nations, such as Uganda, underwent Africanization movements and expelled their Indian minority populations. Tens of thousands of these displaced Indians, many of them Muslims, settled in Britain. In 1963 Britain had only 13 registered mosques. By 1970 this number had increased to 49, and by 1990 it had grown to 452. By the early 2000s, there were more than 600 official mosques in Britain, as well as more than 200 unregistered mosques. In addition, the British government recognizes some 950 Muslim organizations operating in Great Britain. These serve a diverse Muslim population that is estimated at around 1.5 million.

    Social Issues.

    British Muslims have faced considerable discrimination and prejudice in recent years. Negative stereotypes have led to what some have called “Islamophobia,” or bias against Islam. Many factors contributed to the rise of anti-Islamic feelings, including the notorious Rushdie affair. In 1988 British author Salman Rushdie won a prestigious literary prize for his novel The Satanic Verses. Many Muslim groups objected to the book's content because they believed that it insulted Muhammad and Islam. They demanded that Rushdie and his publisher be prosecuted under Britain's blasphemy laws. British courts rejected this demand, and on January 14, 1989, a group of Muslims in Bradford publicly burned copies of the book. Later that year, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie's death. Many people began to associate Islam with intolerance. Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, various assaults on Western targets have linked Islam in the public mind with intolerance and terrorist activities.

    Because the British government considers Muslims a religious rather than an ethnic group, it does not include Muslims in the Race Relations Act, which protects ethnic minorities, such as Jews and Sikhs. Many Muslims have lobbied for laws protecting religious minorities. In 1996 the Runnymede Trust, an independent charity concerned with race and ethnicity, established the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia. It strongly urged the creation of legislation to protect Muslims against violence and discrimination based on religion. Other issues that concern British Muslims include the right to take time off from work to perform daily prayers; the right to have halal foods available in schools and the military; the right of Muslim men in the military to wear beards; the right of Muslim women to wear headscarves to work; and the right to follow Islamic laws regarding family matters, such as marriage, divorce, and burial.

    Other issues focus on education. Muslims have pressed for the right to send their children to single-sex schools when available. They have also demanded that girls be permitted to wear headscarves in school and to cover their bodies during physical education classes. Muslims also demand sensitivity to their religious values regarding sex education, religious education, and aspects of art and performance activities in public schools. Some Muslim organizations have called for public support for separate Islamic schools.

    The media have also made efforts to dispel negative stereotypes of Islam. The BBC World Service has instituted a policy to avoid linking the terms “extremist” or “terrorist” with Islam. In 1999 the Broadcasting Standards Commission released guidelines that urge producers to practice sensitivity in their choice of language and images when discussing religion. In addition, some Muslim-controlled media have emerged, including the monthly newspapers Q-News and The Muslim News. At least 15 radio stations have received licenses for limited Islamic broadcast. See also Arab-Israeli Conflict; Colonialism; Egypt; Europe; India; Jerusalem; Mughal Empire; Rushdie, Salman; Trade.

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