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“I’m not trying to subvert Britishness, I’m just saying that it’s changed”: James Fergusson

Blog • ReligionLiterature • James Fergusson

Much of my career has been spent looked at troubled parts of the Muslim world, but I had only ever glimpsed Islam in Britain

That seemed to me to be an obvious gap. When I started Al-Britannia in 2015, the Muslim community in Britain was in real trouble because of ISIS. The recruitment phenomenon was at its peak and there was a lot of ill feeling towards Muslims. It was as though all three million of them were under suspicion, a response that still seems profoundly unfair, as well as potentially disastrous for the cause of social cohesion.

As a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan in the 1990s, I befriended an interpreter named Mir and later helped him seek asylum in the UK. I wrote my first book, Kandahar Cockney, about his experience of coming to East London, so I already had some insight into the Afghan community there. In a way, this book revisited that theme on a national level, trying to portray Islam as it is really practised here, as opposed to what too many non-Muslims glean from the media.

I’d seen real Islamic extremism reporting on the Taliban and Al-Shabaab

I wrote a history of the Taliban and another book on Al-Shabaab, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, so I was perhaps more relaxed than most about going to places that some non-Muslim people consider scary... for this book, I went straight to the places around the UK with the worst reputations, the so-called terrorism hot-spots. I never believed the media myth about ‘no go zones,’ but it was still astonishing to discover how completely different these places are from the way they are still being reported in the press. 

Islam has become another British religion

There persists this notion of Islam as something exotic, something ‘other’ that’s been imported. But Islam is a global religion, with a long track record of absorbing the cultural traits of whatever country its adherents are found in. A uniquely British Islam is still evolving – a work in progress, perhaps – but there should be no mistaking its fundamental Britishness. This can be quite a lonely argument for a non-Muslim like me to make. But I’m not trying to subvert Britishness, I’m just saying that it’s changed. It’s there in the cover design of the book – that’s still the Union Jack, it’s just a different way of looking at it – and there’s no threat implied in that.

It’s very poignant to see disused parish churches converted into mosques.

As a society, we’ve become so secular. Sunday church attendance has fallen to below a million, in a country that still calls itself Christian. You go into mosques and they’re booming with energy, they have young congregations and they’re often quite fun places to be. I remain a Christian, but when you compare, say, East London Mosque in Whitechapel to your average local parish church, you can see that the religious energy in the country has moved on. I remain a Christian, but the #moreincommon point that I’m trying to make is that the Muslim god and the Christian god are the same god, in the end.

If I can fast for a month and get something out of it, anybody can.

The last section of the book is my diary from the month I completed the Ramadan fast. It’s been seen as quite eccentric, but why not? I thought it would bring me closer to the subject of my book – ordinary British Muslims – and it certainly did that. But it also taught me much more than I expected about the inclusive spirit of Islam, wherever it is practised. Fasting used to be common practice in Christianity, and there are all sorts of health benefits. Actually, I’d recommend anyone try it.

Books go into issues with a level of detail and subtlety that no other medium can

You can’t understand complex international issues without studying them in detail. You might see a TV documentary, perhaps, but no media format can explore the nuances of opposing arguments in quite the way that a book can. You read a book at your own pace. You skim certain sections, dwell on others. Every response to a book is different, which makes it a uniquely rich interaction.

The only way to train as a journalist is to learn on the job

It does help to have an ear though, and that’s where a background in the humanities is valuable. Subjects like English Literature are valuable in teaching you what makes a good sentence and what doesn’t. Languages are vital as well, there’s nothing more impressive than fluency. When I was reporting on the Afghan war, you could literally count the number of Pashtun speakers at the American Department of Defence on one hand. The troops on the ground of course relied on a small army of local interpreters. The language barrier was, perhaps, always going to cause trouble.

We can’t afford a clash of civilisations

There may appear to be one, but there doesn’t need to be. There is a crying need for greater global understanding between the Abrahamic faiths. We British are no different. We are a historically tolerant people, but ignorance breeds suspicion and fear here, too – and there is, unfortunately, a lot of ignorance about Islam. We have to find a way to live better with Muslims than we do at the moment, if only because of simple demography. There are now about three million Muslims in Britain, about five per cent of the country, and that proportion is going up. It is already double what it was when I wrote my first book around 18 years ago. These are numbers that you can’t really ignore.

I would like people to come away from the book with their perception of Islam subtly altered

I’d like to think that anyone who read the book with an open mind would learn something. I certainly learnt a lot researching it. I want people to read it and think “I hadn’t thought of my country that way, but I see why he’s asking me to think about my country in this way, because we have to. It’s the way that we are.”


James Fergusson is a freelance journalist and foreign correspondent. His book Al-Britannia, My Country was shortlisted for the 2018 Al-Rodhan Prize. Find out more about how to nominate for the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize 2019.

Blog • ReligionLiterature • James Fergusson