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The Future of Islam in the West  Episode 3

In recent years Ireland has been growing less and less religious yet the country now it finds itself  faced with accommodating the very different religious traditions of Islam. In adapting to these new demands can anything be learned from other Western countries that have seen both conflict and confusion in their dealings with their Islamic communities?

In London Q-News – the edgy and progressive Muslim magazine run by Fareena Alam and her husband Abdul-Rahman - is one of the most distinct Muslim voices in British journalism. Fareena and Abdul-Rahman are Western and Muslim in the very same breath - their identity is open, upwardly mobile and cosmopolitan and it’s defined by something more than immigration and grievance.

Mark Little

Nanu Miah came to Oldham from Bangladesh just as the town’s racial battlelines were being drawn. Nanu’s life was shaped by a cycle of confrontation and violence that would eventually lead to the Oldham riots of 2001. Nanu was jailed in 1993 and not long after his release he reached a crossroads in his life. Nanu now leads Oldham’s Young Muslim Organisation which tries to channel local energy away from crime and violence. Nanu’s vision of Islam makes sense on the streets of Oldham, but has limitations in the wider world, as some who have sought careers and college education have learned. As they move into the heart of British life, they find it hard to find common ground with others and they discover that integration is not so easy.

Hassan and Habibah, host a weekly advice show on the fledgling Islamic channel which applies the Quran to all manner of daily problems. To them, integration with British society is not a Muslim problem, but a Muslim opportunity, a chance to take Islam to the heart of western life.

Among the freedoms Western Muslims enjoy is the freedom to criticise the western way of life. But criticising Islam can get you in big trouble, especially if you were born a Muslim. Maryam Namanzie fled Iran with her family when the mullahs came to power in 1979. Now she fights for the separation of religion in politics. And she speaks out strongly against Western concessions to Islamic doctrine. For all the talk of freedom of speech in Europe, Maryam feels the need to live in hiding somewhere in London  
Is Europe still hopelessly divided by the challenge of Islam? One voice says we have to defend Western freedoms against religion. Another says the West needs to make Muslims feel at home. 

In the United States the experience of Islam is very different.
Asma Hasan Gul is a lawyer by training and a writer by choice; the very model of thoroughly liberated American Muslim. Asma and her extended family live in the outer suburbs of Los Angeles. Her uncle Johnny is the classic American success story - originally from Pakistan, he made his money out of a chain of 7-11 convenience stores. Her brother Ali is a budding film-maker and the founder of Muslims for Bush organisation. Beyond affluence and ambition, there are other reasons Islam seems more at home here than in Europe. It’s fair to say Americans are far more comfortable with religion as a fact of daily life. They are also part of an immigrant nation that has always been revived by the arrival of new cultures. All of this applies to Islam, or at least it did until 9/11.  

Now that the United States feels it is under siege, American Muslims find themselves carrying a huge burden. Azhar Usman is a member of the comedy group, Allah Made Me Funny, which tours the US with its unique insight into Muslim life. In Los Angeles Azhar is honoured at an annual awards ceremony staged by the Muslim Public Affairs Council. While there was plenty of devotion and patriotism evident at the cermony there was also a public challenge to America at large.

Islam in the west has blurred the lines that divide the different communities. Fidelma O’Leary was born in Cork into a devout Catholic family and moved to America almost twenty years ago. Today she lives in Austin,Texas and is professor of biology at St Edwards University. Most Friday mornings Fidelma hosts a prayer group at her home and in the group are two other Irish converts to Islam, Eileen and Michelle. Fidelma and her daughter Sara visit Cork during the Christmas holidays and this journey brings a meeting of modern Muslim life and Catholic tradition that is revealing, if also uncomfortable.

In world of uncertainty, Islamic values appear clear and certain. But it’s that certainty - some say inflexibility – which is deeply troubling for many in the West. To ignore the dangers ahead would be naive. But conflict is not inevitable and solutions  are evident in the lives of real people all around.