Al-Britannia, My Country by James Fergusson was shortlisted for our 2018 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize, along with five other non-fiction works that promote global cultural understanding. In this book, the author travels the length of Britain to explore our often misunderstood Muslim communities, and to experience life on both sides of our increasingly segregated society.
One Sunday morning in Bradford, towards the end of my year’s travels around Muslim Britain, I stopped by the cathedral, curious to see how the established church was doing in the middle of one of the most Muslim cities in the country. I arrived too late for the Sunday service, but the dean, Jerry Lepine, was still there in a side aisle, delivering a PowerPoint lecture in a snowy white surplice on the use of the word ‘Allelujah’ in the Book of Psalms.
I sat at the back and listened in, thinking how similar the word was to its Islamic equivalent, ‘Alhamdulillah’. One is Hebrew, the other Arabic, but both mean Praise the Lord. It was yet another #moreincommon moment, of a type that I had experienced so often over the previous months that I almost no longer registered them. If my immersion in British Islam had become a kind of catharsis, this was, I supposed, a sign that the process was nearly complete.
My travels through Al-Britannia had changed my perception in quite a fundamental way not just of Islam, but of what it meant to be British. The latter alteration was disorienting. Britishness was a part of me. It went to the core of my identity, my sense of self; it was not something I expected to find myself questioning when I started out on my project.
Gazing up at the gilded angels beneath the cathedral’s fine hammer-beam roof, I could understand why [the far-right organisation] Britain First had co-opted the crucifix as the symbol of their unpleasant campaign. The Anglican Church, with its centuries-old beliefs and traditions, was a rare fixed point for a society in flux, an anchor to cling to in an ever-changing world. According to Britain First, Christianity is the mainstay of Britishness; it follows, for them, that non-Christians are by definition not British and cannot belong. But the kilted Asians I had seen in Glasgow showed that it was possible to belong to a nation without the bonds of a common faith. Christianity was clearly not an identifier of the new Scottishness – and I no longer believed that it was an identifier of the new Britishness, either. The emptiness of Bradford Cathedral this morning seemed to prove it. Dean Jerry’s aged audience numbered precisely fourteen. Was this where I belonged?
What did it mean to be a Christian in the 21st century? Around Muslim Britain I had sometimes been asked if I believed in God, to which I usually mumbled something about the strong evidence of intelligent design in the universe. But the truth was that I didn’t know what I believed. At home, I felt compelled to attend a church from time to time without being fully able to explain why, beyond a conviction that a life without a spiritual dimension is a shallow life.
In contrast to the emptiness of Bradford Cathedral, I had visited dozens of mosques in the preceding months – including, tellingly, several that had been converted from old, unwanted parish churches – and invariably found them packed with worshippers on Fridays. It was impossible not to notice the youthful energy on display, the vibrant sense of belonging to something bigger than the sum of their selves. A strong community spirit was surely part of the definition of religion, a word said to come from the Latin religare, to bind fast, the verb the Romans used for the mooring up of a ship. Part of me still greatly envied the strength of that bond between Muslims, as well as the ease with which they seemed to connect to the spiritual through their many rituals and the unwavering certainties of their belief. These were aspects of Islam frequently ignored or overlooked in the furious public debate over extremism and immigration – though not by me.
I thought it was just my hard luck to belong to a culture that had so obviously lost its religious moorings. And yet there was really no reason, other than habit and loyalty to my heritage, why I should not embrace Islam for myself if I chose to. Islam, after all, professes itself constantly to be a faith open to anyone. White non-Muslims convert all the time: at the rate of about 5,000 a year, according to one survey, which estimated that there were 100,000 converts in the country, 70,000 of them white. A white English childhood friend of mine, Salih Brandt, converted many years ago to a Moroccan brand of Maliki Sufism. The suggestion that Islam was a foreign religion, and therefore somehow intrinsically ‘unBritish’, cut no ice with him at all.
‘Where do you think Jesus came from?’ he liked to say. ‘Bournemouth?’
From Al-Britannia, My Country, Transworld Publishers, copyright © James Fergusson 2017
James Fergusson is a freelance journalist and foreign correspondent who has written for publications including the Independent, The Times, the Daily Mail and The Economist. A regular television and radio commentator on Africa and the Middle East, he is the author of five previous books including the award-winning A Million Bullets.