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Muslims in Britain: Aren’t We Forgetting Something? by Sarah Hackett

Published: February 27, 2015

Muslim communities and Islam receive a great deal of attention in twenty-first century-Britain. As is the case across Western Europe, and indeed much of the Western world, Muslims have regrettably been placed centre stage in debates regarding national identity, social cohesion, and the professed failure of multiculturalism, and they remain the key protagonists amidst fears and anxieties concerning cultural tensions and a breach of Western values. Indeed Muslim and non-Muslim academics, media pundits, policymakers and members of the general public are showing an ever-increasing interest in various aspects of Muslim minorities’ integration and accommodation in what is a progressively diverse British society.

More often than not, these deliberations are reactions to, and are both informed by and framed within, recent and on-going high-profile events and developments. These have included the Rushdie Affair, the headscarf and single-faith school debates, and allegations of “parallel societies”, as well as Islamic extremism abroad and home-grown terrorism as witnessed during 9/11 and 7/7 and, more recently, the ISIS hostage killings and the Charlie Hebdo attack. Partially as a result of today’s media landscape, it has been incidents and controversies like these that have shaped, and indeed transformed, the dominant view of Muslims in Britain. The 1980s enthusiastic pursuit of multiculturalism and the embracing of diversity during Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” often seem but distant memories.

Too frequently absent from contemporary discussions is the deep-rooted multi-layered and historical interchange between Britain and Muslims. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that some progress has been made of late. For example, recent years have witnessed a greater recognition amongst both academic and public circles of the Yemeni Muslim lascars who settled in British port cities and towns like Cardiff, Liverpool and South Shields during the nineteenth century.[1] The commemoration of the centenary of the First World War has gone some way towards honouring the otherwise largely forgotten 400,000 Muslim soldiers from pre-partition India who fought for Britain.[2] Furthermore, there is a small and sporadic, yet immensely valuable, number of scholarly works that explore post-1945 Muslim migration to Britain against the backdrop of what is a far more historically entrenched series of encounters between Britain and Muslims, which include the Crusades, the British Empire, and centuries of Muslim migration to and settlement in Britain.[3]

Despite these developments, there remains much work to be done. While Muslims have long had a presence in Britain, and indeed constitute an inherent part of British history, there still exists an all too prevalent perception that they are “outsiders” who “do not belong”. Fear and suspicion of the “the Muslim other”, Islamophobic attacks, and an almost continuous sense that Britain is on the brink of a full-scale anti-Muslim backlash all unfortunately seem to be here to stay for the time being. Far-right political parties and the Western media will ensure that this is the case.

History has a clear role to play as these frenzied deliberations continue to unfold. More needs to be done to expose not only the historical relationship that exists between Britain and Muslims, but also how Muslims have been present in Britain from as early as the sixteenth century and how Islam, the fastest growing religion in Britain today, has long been practised on these isles. An awareness of this history cannot continue to be confined to narrow, and largely academic, circles. Its wider recognition has the potential to promote an acceptance of Muslims as British and contest the regrettable notion that they pose a danger to British society. There is a clear need for additional historical inquiry that is better reflected in educational agendas and the public consciousness, as well as for additional cross-sector public-facing initiatives such as those being carried out by the Everyday Muslim project.[4] As Britain continues to find its way as a twenty-first century multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, it is clear that History has much to teach us.


Sarah Hackett is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at Bath Spa University, UK. She is author of Foreigners, Minorities and Integration: The Muslim Immigrant Experience in Britain and Germany (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013) and co-editor (with Geoffrey Nash and Kathleen Kerr-Koch) of Postcolonialism and Islam: Theory, Literature, Culture, Society and Film (London: Routledge, 2013). 



[1] See Mohammad Siddique Seddon, The Last of the Lascars: Yemeni Muslims in Britain, 1836-2012 (Markfield: Kube Publishing, 2014). Public-facing initiatives have included the 2008 Last of the Dictionary Men: Stories from the South Shields Yemeni Sailors exhibition at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead and Peter Fryer’s photographic project entitled The Arab Boarding House.

[2] For example, see Ben Quinn. “The Muslims who Fought for Britain in the First World War.” The Guardian, August 2, 2014.; and Radhika Sanghani. “Why British Muslims Need a ‘Poppy Hijab’ to Remember World War One.” The Telegraph, October 31, 2014.

[3] See Humayun Ansari, ‘The Infidel Within’: Muslims in Britain since 1800 (London: C. Hurst, 2004); and Sophie Gilliat-Ray, Muslims in Britain: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[4] See


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