James Fergusson: Al-Britannia, My Country

On Monday 7 October, the University of Edinburgh’s Islamic Society hosted James Fergusson to talk about his recent book, Al-Britannia, My Country.

Fergusson’s works were the product of his career as a journalist, and a foreign correspondent specialising in Islamic international affairs. His notable books include: A Million Bullets, which is about the history of Britain’s military activity in Afghanistan, that eventually became the British Army’s Military Book of the Year in 2009; and The World’s Most Dangerous Place, which analysed Somalia’s crisis, and consequent diaspora and displacement, and its effects on ‘The West.’ The World’s Most Dangerous Place was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize and the Paddy Power Political Book Awards International Affairs Book of the Year. 

Al-Britannia, My Country is one of Fergusson’s more personal works, where he, as a Scotland-based Londoner, deep-dived into the current state of Islam and approximately three million British Muslims, to investigate the complex and sensitive atmosphere surrounding them. He examined Muslim identity in relation to British identity, and the dynamic, rapidly changing, and intertwined social phenomenon of identity-establishment. 

Among other subjects, he talked about the niqab – the ultimate sign of male oppression in a non-Muslim person’s mind – and the various reasons behind wearing it, which can include girls wanting people to focus on their eye-makeup and making a political statement. 

He addressed: Similarities between values of British Muslim communities and ‘traditional’ Tory values, in terms of family, work orientation, and morality; possible reasons for conflict between these two groups; and the role that faith plays in identity and essence of a community, by talking about why Christianity, as a unified institutionalist religious community, loses its values, while Muslim communities remain stable. He spoke about the Muslim community’s parallel justice system that both aligns and conflicts with UK state legal systems. 

He highlighted that crimes and structural violence in the Muslim community are not specific to Muslims, and that they are embedded in a web of external factors. Mainstream media stories about crimes committed by Muslims increased hostility towards them, moulding the way non-Muslims and Muslims see themselves and each other, making it impossible to break free from a vicious cycle. Fergusson claimed that individual judgement is just as valid and required for Muslims as for non-Muslims, and that even if it might seem impossible to actually put into practice, if one were to consider alternatives, the natural conclusion would be that there is no better attitude somebody can own. He said that attitude is vital, because it will shape public narratives. 

The Q and A session at the end raised questions such as “what does being British mean?” and “what could Muslims as a community do to somehow combat stereotypes about themselves in the eyes of non-Muslims?’” Fergusson answered these questions while emphasising these were his own views, ending on the note that ‘Brislam’ is a “work-in-progress”, something not yet fully-formed but developing in the eyes of both British Muslims and non-Muslims, and this can be attested by increasingly eclectic mosques and English-speaking imams who offer relationship and sex advice to Muslims publicly. 

Despite the weight of the topic, the conversation seemed casual and light-hearted. It seemed also to be an honest space where both personal and community flaws were admitted to and spoken about.

 

Image: Mo’men Salah via pexels

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