Explore the history of the Council for Mosques.
Explore the history of the Council for Mosques.
It has been a long and fruitful journey, spanning multiple generations and influencing many.
The earliest Muslim communities in the United Kingdom were those of the Yemenis in Cardiff, South Shields and Liverpool. These communities began to form in the mid-nineteenth century. These groups were followed, by small communities formed during the latter part of the nineteenth century in Liverpool (around Abdullah Quilliam) and Woking.
The number of Muslims in Britain increased dramatically in the middle part of the twentieth century as Britain recruited thousands of workers to make up for the labour shortage after the Second World War.
Immigrant workers often found employment in industrial areas such as Birmingham, Manchester and Bradford. Muslim immigrants were predominantly men from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India who had left their families behind in search of a better life.
Bradford was known worldwide at the time as the centre for the wool and textile industry, and many migrant Muslims contributed to this trade by working in the textile mills.
The initial intention of many migrants was to return to their country of origin. However, a new immigration law was passed in the early seventies restricting migration to the UK. To beat the new immigration deadline, many dependent spouses traversed the globe, with their children in tow, and joined their partners in Britain.
The reunion of families helped form visible ethnic communities in many cities, including Bradford. As a result, religious and cultural needs came to the forefront and Mosques began to spring up in the seventies. These Mosques would become community hubs to Muslims from varying denominations within Islam, who would pray together every day.
In the seventies, racial discrimination and racial disadvantage were high. There were also severe inequalities in employment, housing, education and other services. The Race Relations Act 1976 was introduced by the British government to address these inequalities.
The eighties were the turning point for Muslims in Bradford. The children of the first generation were now growing up in Britain as part of a community which felt the need to preserve their culture, religion and language.
Bradford Council reported that they had no direct knowledge of Asian needs and requirements and were seeking new channels of communication between the Council and the communities. The increase in consultations and the persistence of some challenging issues led to the creation of a new body which would represent Muslim needs more effectively.
Bradford’s Council for Mosques was founded in 1981 by six local Muslims representing the various Islamic viewpoints in the city. Bradford Council had found the ‘new channel of communication’ it had sought. Other public bodies welcomed the creation of an organisation which they could consult on a range of issues.
Muslims in the city supported the creation of the Council as an advocacy group which would represent their concerns, especially in the area of education.
The first President of Bradford Council for Mosques was Mr Umar Warraich, a public health inspector. Mr Warraich identified three inter-related concerns which led him to propose the creation of such a Council:
Muslims required a common platform from which to negotiate with the local authority in the vexed area of educational provision, the focus of widely shared anxieties.
A Council for Mosques could manage and reduce sectarianism and create a forum for members of different mosques to meet.
Such an organisation would be in a strong position to elicit financial help from local and central government.
Mr Warraich, along with the members of the organisation, created a written constitution which formed the basis of Bradford Council for Mosques.
The local authority supported the Council for Mosques with a community programme grant of £13,000 enabling it to purchase a large semi-detached house to serve as its headquarters.
Bradford Council also adopted a series of educational measures, designed to assure minorities that they had an equal right to maintain their own identity, culture, language, religion and customs.
Local educational memoranda sought to respond to Muslim concerns about dress codes for girls, single-sex swimming, physical education and showed flexibility regarding extended visits to South Asia. Halal meat was also being considered by the local Council for Muslim children in schools as part of their dietary requirements.
In 1983, Bradford Council for Mosques was the centre for an ambitious MSC (Manpower Services Commission) scheme providing at its height some fifty workers serving a range of projects. Two centres for the elderly, a variety of advice workers (male and female) for the various mosques and Islamic centres, and a service for women in hospitals and clinics.
The local authority also agreed to provide halal meat to fourteen hundred children in September 1983, and the intention was to extend the service across the city.
The publicity surrounding the provision of halal food triggered a campaign led by animal rights activists who objected to the Islamic method of slaughter. The campaign created some controversy, and the local authority withdrew from the original halal meat agreement.
On 12th December 1983, the local newspaper published the article, Prejudice, worried that behind ‘the veil of respectability offered by the animal rights people; racists have relished the chance to criticise Muslims in our community’.
The Muslim community called for a debate on the Council’s decision and the Council finally agreed to a discussion on halal meat in full Council at the Bradford City Hall on 6th March.
Bradford Council for Mosques mobilised a boycott of schools, and this resulted in an estimated 10,000 children not attending school on the day of the debate. At the same time, some of the parents participated in a demonstration outside City Hall. The local Council voted 59 votes to 15 to retain halal meat in schools, and this led to the resolution of the debate.
Ray Honeyford, a Head Teacher of Drummond Middle School ignited a storm of controversy with a series of articles critical of multiculturalism which became a long-running dispute within Bradford.
Honeyford was critical of aspects of cultural and ethnic diversity at a time when 80% of pupils in some schools came from ethnic minorities.
In 1982 Honeyford wrote a letter to the Bradford Telegraph and Argus criticising Bradford Council. He objected to the funding of a West Indian Community Centre, and he thereafter received a verbal warning from the local authority.
Undeterred, Honeyford wrote several articles for the ‘Times Educational Supplement’ in which he criticised prevailing ideas about multiculturalism. In January 1984 he wrote an article, published in ‘The Salisbury Review’. The article was called ‘Education and Race – an Alternative View’. In the article, Honeyford questioned the desirability of multiracial cities. He described a child from his school as “half-educated and a volatile Sikh”. He also claimed the vast majority of West Indian homes lacked educational ambition and ‘Pakistan was an obstinate backward country’.
The article was later published in The Yorkshire Post, titled ‘The Sharp-Tongued Disobedient Headmaster’. This lead to an acrimonious dispute on his views, opinions and comments, which were perceived as racially prejudiced by the Asian community.
Muslim parents were deeply offended by Honeyford’s article and held protests asking Bradford Council to remove him as headmaster. The protests endured and Honeyford continued to publish further articles. Honeyford also refused to allow Urdu teaching and objected to putting signs up in the school in different languages. He was formally suspended by Bradford Council in April 1985.
Honeyford appealed his suspension and it was overturned. The High Court ruled that no further action was to be taken against him by the local Council and five months later he returned to school.
Demonstrations outside the school became more vigorous, and race relations in Bradford began to worsen as parents felt betrayed.
Bradford Council appealed the High Court’s decision. The Court of Appeal ruled the Council was entitled to suspend the headmaster. Honeyford was, in the end, offered an early retirement which he accepted.
It is important to emphasise that though Honeyford was calling for some form of Britishness, his opinions and expressions were clearly racist.
He referred to the Mirpuris motherland as a country which is corrupt at every level, which cannot cope with democracy and which since 1977 has been ruled by a military tyrant who, in the opinion of at least half his countrymen, had his predecessor judicially murdered. He dwelt on the Pakistani ill-treatment not only of criminals but of those who dare to question Islamic orthodoxy as interpreted by a despot. Also, he condemned Pakistan as ‘the heroin capital of the world’ and alleged this ‘fact’ is now reflected in the drug problems of English cities with Asian populations’. (Murphy, 1987: 111)
In 1986, Council for Mosques highlighted the importance of religious education that was sensitive to a multi-faith environment.
After discussions with the local education authority, Bradford produced the first multi-faith syllabus for religious education and this lead the way towards a national review of the religious educational syllabus.
‘The Satanic Verses’ written by Salman Rushdie was published in the UK. The book contained a chapter which was interpreted by many in the Muslim community as being sacrilegious. The book caused great offence, and a campaign was initiated to try and have the book banned.
In Bradford, a demonstration was organised in front of City Hall on 14th January 1989, and a copy of the book was burnt at this demonstration.
Muslim communities throughout Britain united, holding protests, rallies and demonstrations demanding the book be withdrawn from the public arena. This action resulted in many public libraries and bookshops refusing to stock the book.
The high point of the co-ordinated protest was the demonstration on 27th May 1989 in London, gathering an estimated 70,000 protestors. Hundreds of coaches took groups of Muslims down to the capital for the event.
More importantly, the controversy politicised and united the Muslim community giving rise to Muslim demands for legislation protecting them against blasphemy and religious discrimination.
The situation contributed to the formation of Muslim political identity in the UK. It also provided the foundation for future mobilisation of our community as Muslims. This change provided a differing standpoint from the racialised minority groups, such as; Blacks, Asians or Pakistanis.
The political climate of the time led, Kalim Siddiqui, founder and director of the Muslim Institute in London, to publish the ‘Muslim Manifesto’. This manifesto proposed a Council of British Muslims. Two years later he created the Muslim Parliament, arguing that Muslims needed to form a separate political system.
Siddiqui’s initiatives remained marginal and beyond the mainstream of British Muslim opinion. In fact, in March 1994 the then Home Secretary Michael Howard called on Muslim leaders to establish a representative body. This call eventually led to the creation of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) in 1997.
On 15th February 2003 demonstrations were held around the world to oppose the invasion of Iraq, a global event considered to be the ‘largest protest event in human history’ (Walgrave and Rucht 2010). The demonstration held in London attracted an estimated one million people, dwarfing previous mass rallies in British political history (Gillan et al 2008).
Indeed, while it is impossible to garner exact figures, it is certain that this was also the largest mobilisation of British Muslims. Many of them had travelled from all over the country, often on specially organised coaches, in order to make their voice heard in the capital. The involvement of Muslims in the British anti-war movement acted as a springboard to the development of what we might call ‘Muslim civil society’. It also created opportunities for a new generation of Muslim leaders to emerge from the shadows of the first generation.