Aliyah Saleem, aged twenty was sitting in a public library when she opened a copy of ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins. Nothing has been the same for her since.
‘Until that moment I didn’t know that anyone could be an atheist,’ she says.
In the library and from the internet she discovered that there were many other things she knew nothing about. She’d been educated in an Islamic madrassa from age six to eleven, then in a private boarding-school. Aged seventeen she’d been publicly expelled from that school for owning a camera. She says the teachers were afraid that the girls might take photos of each other and show them to men.
During her six years there she’d been allowed no TV, radio, DVDs, and many books, such as Harry Potter were banned. Although the school pretended to follow the National Curriculum, she says few subjects were taught, no Geography, History was the life of the Prophet, no music, art or design technology. She found pages torn out of biology books if they referred to evolution or sexual reproduction.
‘We were supposed to model ourselves on the Prophet’s wives,’ she says. ‘Private Islamic schools are being used to control girls’ sexuality.’
This young woman, from a middle-class background, was kept deliberately ignorant of modern science and western thought while living in England at an expensive boarding school. She is British but also a Deobandi Muslim, a secretive almost invisible community of at least 600,000 in the UK. She gave her trenchant views to BBC journalist Owen Bennett-Jones, for his programme about the Deobandi, broadcast on Radio 4 on Tuesday April 5th. From her and others mostly living in the north of England, listeners gained glimpses into the strange bi-cameral world of many British Muslims who live mainly in the imagination, constrained and restricted by stringent laws which govern every aspect of their lives. One man was given instruction about how to ejaculate in a strict Islamic way on his wedding night. Their laws help to seal them off from the wider community and prevent any ‘contamination’ from the outside world.
Strange as it must seem, Bennett-Jones, the BBC’s Pakistan correspondent for twenty years, was exploring places such as Dewsbury in his search of the origins of Muslim extremism in the UK. He found it among the Deobandi and their Tabliki Jamaat (society for spreading faith) missionaries, who are strongly affiliated to the Taliban and armed jihadists groups in Pakistan.
He was astonished to discover ‘how the religious politics of South Asia are now mirrored in the politics of the UK’. And further amazed to discover how the Deobandi, Britain’s biggest Islamic group, has been happily hiding in plain sight in the UK for years; when thousands of Muslim men from all over the world turned up for the funeral of its leader, Hafiz Mohammed Patel, in Dewsbury last February, the British media were oblivious.Their new leader, Sheik Yusuf Motala, from Gujurat, who has spent his life founding Islamic schools, has never been interviewed. Until this programme probably no one attempted to do it.
Bennett-Jones had no luck getting him to speak and found breaking through the secrecy of the community very difficult. Dr Philip Lewis, who lives in Bradford, ‘Britain’s Islamabad’, and studies Islam in the UK, compared British Islam to an iceberg with most of it hidden beneath the surface.
Although the government, press and security forces are barely aware of them, the Deobandi run nearly half of the 1,500 registered UK mosques and seventeen of the twenty six known seminaries. These produce eighty per cent of all domestically trained Muslim clerics who educate an ethnic group which is now over five per cent of the English population, more than twenty per cent in London.
Founded in an Indian town called Deoband in 1856, in reaction to British colonial rule, it has spread throughout the world, with the UK as its hub. Migrants from India and Pakistan brought Deobandi Islam to the UK during the 1960s and 1970s, setting up mosques and schools in the old mill towns of Bury, Huddersfield and Dewsbury, from which a national network grew, intentionally isolationist, leaving vast numbers of people segregated from wider British society. The programme did not ask why people who are opposed to anything western chose to come and live here, but it did cast light upon some extraordinarily obscurantist thinking.
Mufti Mohammed Pandor, faith advisor to the Universities of Bradford and Huddersfield, arrived in Dewsbury from Gujarat in 1964 as a small child. His father only sent for him when he was sure that there was already a nascent Islamic culture with mosques available. Pandor has done well, to the world a civil servant who goes to work in a suit and tie, but at home he is a be-robed Muslim cleric. His wife is completely covered but he allows her to raise her veil in airports. She made the tea when Bennet-Jones arrived but he was not allowed to see her. If Pandor has to meet a woman in the course of his daily work, ‘this is the UK’ he says regretfully, he takes her to a room with a mirror so that he can look at himself rather than her. If the worst comes to the worst and he has to speak to her face to face, he tries to accept this as part of the world beyond Islam, which has nothing to do with him.
His family does not watch British TV. He referred to ‘Strictly’ as porn, says music is un-Islamic, and although closely associated with two British universities is ambivalent about Muslims (men) studying there. He says it is permissible if you are there strictly to study and pray, ‘not to look at women’.
He was strangely obsessed with stopping Muslims attending Bonfire Night parties. He believes that many people are killed at them every year, but his anxiety was really about the proximity of hell fire. He thinks partaking in western ceremonies of any kind might endanger Islamic purity. He condemns people for wearing the ‘Christian Dior’ label, he doesn’t like the name. He will not tolerate the idea of assimilation.
As he put it: ‘If Mahommed didn’t do it, we don’t do it.’
In Savile Town, Dewsbury, now almost exclusively Muslim, Bennett-Jones found men preoccupied by ‘Fitna,’ the danger of mixing with non-Muslims. Mubeen Azard, who was born there was once a Tabliki missionary but is now ambivalent to his past. He described how aged fifteen he persecuted his own parents to bring them to a stricter form of Islam. He has seen whole families change at the instigation of one member. He gave detailed descriptions of lives which have no relation whatever to British or European culture, where if a woman comes to the door a man is committing adultery if he accidentally looks at her.
Many old northern mill towns now full of people following these rules, believing as Azard put it, that they will get their reward in the after-life while contributing nothing to civil society in this one.
Aliyah Saleem who first discovered Evolution by chance at the age of twenty when she had broken away from her home community, now appears on her Twitter account as: ‘Ex-Muslim, atheist, feminist, co-founder of Faith to Faithless, secular education campaigner.’
Aliyah says she became an agnostic aged twelve, but repressed this for years and after feeling terribly humiliated when she was expelled from school, finally educated herself. She gained a first class degree and is now working on her Masters. She was just one of many children in the UK, including some with educated middle-class professional parents, who are being deliberately sent into a closed Islamic world. According to one witness in Dewsbury, if parents are challenged about this they say the child is ‘in God’s trust’.
Of all the British Asians interviewed in the programme, her anger about her experiences and the failure of the British state to protect her stood out.
‘This is Britain,’ she says, ‘how can these things happen?’
Many of us ponder that same thing. On the day the programme was broadcast came reports about horrific violence against women in Pakistan as religious groups fight against a new law introduced to protect women from domestic violence. A thousand victims of honour crimes were recorded last year, including a woman who was strangled and hacked to pieces by her brothers and two sisters shot for their ‘bad character.’
Two days later, 07/04/16, we heard that a Bangladeshi law student who criticized Islamic extremists on his Facebook page had been murdered. On that same day Tanveeer Ahmed, 32, appeared in court in Glasgow, accused of killing a local shop-keeper. He admitted murdering Asad Shah because he’d been rash enough to post ‘Happy Easter’ on his Facebook page, thereby ‘disrespecting’ Islam. Ahmed that if he hadn’t done it other devout British Muslims would have.
Mr Shah was particularly vulnerable as an Ahmadiyya Muslim, a peaceful sect who believe they have witnessed a second coming of the Prophet. They are persecuted in Pakistan where the constitution bans them from calling themselves Muslims. For Ahmed and the Deobandis, the UK is an Islamic state, part of the Umah, just like Pakistan. He could justify his actions because to him Islam is everywhere and knows no earthly boundaries.
Muslims such as Aliyah are betrayed by the weakness of the British state which has allowed the Deobandis to thrive secretly despite their damaging influence on the young through education and direct links to Jihadi terrorism.
‘There are certain things that happen in Islamic schools which are considered normal Muslim behaviour.’ Aliyah told Bennett. ‘People are told, this is normal Muslim belief and this is the way we are going to do it. But what has happened in this process is that young children have had basic things taken away from them, basic liberties; the right to choose whether to wear the hijab, to experience music, culture or art. But that is accepted by the state. Children have no say in their religious identities, the stress is put on preserving these by the religious character of the schools.
‘When the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham happened, I heard people say it was outrageous that conservative elements had leaked into secular schools. But my attitude is that it was outrageous anyway. Because schools are privately funded it doesn’t mean that those children don’t matter.’
In January this year David Cameron expressed his discontent with what he termed, ‘non-violent extremism’. He said he wants to stop segregated meetings and women being locked in their homes. Aliyah and others like her are waiting to see him act on his words.
Until he does young British Asians will go on suffering deprivation in their communities, cut off from wider society often with disastrous consequences for all of us. But we may all wait a long time for any real change. In liberal Britain no one is sure how to deal with this. As the programme made clear, Muslim communities from south London to Scotland go on behaving as they do because no one has told them not to.
Lewes Bonfire Night 2007. The burning crucifix’s relate to local Christian internecine strife. The seventeen crosses remember the seventeen Protestant (Christian) martyrs executed by the Catholic (Christian) Queen Mary (aka “Bloody Mary“) a long time ago. There are no racist connotations.
Part Two. April 12th Radio 4, 9am. Secret Deobandi Jihadist propaganda.