'Al-Britannia, My Country, A Journey through Muslim Britain' by James Fergusson (Bantam Press)
'Islamist terrorists made me write this book.' London born, Edinburgh-based James Fergusson, seasoned journalist and foreign correspondent, has form in this field, having already written books on Afghanistan, Somalia and the Taliban, but this latest book took him on a journey in 2016 into parts of Britain previously unfamiliar to him.
He wanted to find out why so many young British Muslims were choosing to leave their homes to fight for ISIS in Syria and what, if anything, their local communities could do to prevent them. His inquiry also considered why Islam is currently in such bad odour among all classes in Britain. It's an absorbing and timely narrative and what he found may not be what you expect.
Whenever 'Muslims' are headline news it's rarely good: domestic abuse, gang-grooming of vulnerable girls, honour killings, female genital mutilation, beheadings, floggings, sudden random massacres in major European cities whose repercussions reverberate for weeks. So what did he find?
There are some men behaving badly, like the white activists participating in a hostile Britain First march in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, and out of control Asians attending a cage fight in the Bradford Hilton. But mostly he found warmth and friendliness where he expected wariness and reserve. He even finds laughter and at least one 'Four Lions' fan among the strict Deobandis in Leicester.
At a sharia court in session in Oldham he is asked his opinion about a particularly distressing case of a woman trapped in an abusive marriage. 'Open and shut,' he said. They agreed. That was a revelation. Instead of promoting dire punishments and reinforcing the repression of women, sharia courts are often the only chance such women have of being released from appalling unions, since many Muslim marriages, as much as 60% in some communities, are not recognised under English law.
In London and Birmingham he has the opportunity to gauge Muslim reaction to government policies, such as Prevent, which seems to have become distanced from those it most needs to include. Also the government's attempts to monitor signs of radicalisation in schools has thrown up absurdities, as, for example, the alarm bells that rang over a child writing in an essay that he lived in a 'terrorist' house when he meant a 'terraced' one. Perhaps more attention to spelling at an early age would have been a better use of teacher time.
He also hears the Muslim version of the high profile so-called 'Trojan Horse' claims that Birmingham schools were promoting Islamic attitudes at odds with contemporary British society. A fake letter, malice and misrepresentation played a prominent part in the searing headlines. No surprises that Muslims resent the prejudice with which they are frequently tarnished.
A surprising find was that contrary to the government's prevailing view that ideology is key to tackling radicalisation, it appears that youngsters who are taught the correct tenets of Islam are not motivated to become terrorists. They know that killing anyone for no reason is forbidden. The story about the two Birmingham brothers who went off to Syria with their copies of 'Islam for Dummies' might be laughable, but it isn't remotely funny. Two naive young men grew disillusioned with the war and indicated that they wanted to come home. Their mother told the police who reassured her they would be leniently treated if she encouraged them to do so. Instead they were sentenced to more than 12 years in prison.
The majority of those who become terrorists therefore, it seems, are not generally secure in or knowledgeable about their faith. Most are young, many are recent converts, like Thomas Evans, who fought and died with Al-Shabaab in Somalia, and whose mother Fergusson interviewed in High Wycombe. There is usually some dysfunctional background, such as family breakdown, as in Evans's case, or they may be petty criminals, have served time in prison, be unemployed, be involved in drugs, subject to racist abuse, socially marginalised and insecure in their identities, vulnerable therefore to exploitation by those for whom they are mere pawns in a cynical but deadly game.
Inter-generational conflicts are an additional factor and in communities where the sexes are strictly segregated, banal as it may seem, even sexual frustration may play a part. Fergusson encountered one imam who was willing to advise young people with raging hormones to get hold of some condoms and get on with what comes naturally, but he seemed to be a lone voice. Most imams counselled self-discipline and abstinence, not the most popular advice for young people amid the liberal hedonism of contemporary Britain.
He is intrigued by the SNP's extraordinarily successful wooing of the local Asian community in Glasgow, despite the reservations of an older generation of Pakistani immigrants who remember the horrors of partition. Politics aside, the Scots seem to come out of this account rather well. Primark does a line in tartan hijabs and the present Scottish transport minister, Humza Yusaf, wore an 'Islamic' tartan for his parliamentary swearing in. It contains blue for the saltire, green for Islam, black for the Kaaba and five white lines for the five pillars of Islam.
Alex Salmond apparently wooed them by telling them they were 'a key coloured thread' in the 'great tartan' of the Scottish people. However, Scottish Muslims make up only 2% of the population as opposed to 5% elsewhere in the UK, and much higher in cities like Bradford and Leicester.
Fergusson concludes the book with a diary of his experience of observing the Ramadan fast during the summer of 2016, which incidentally gave rise to rumours that he was about to convert. Because Muslims keep to a lunar calendar their religious festivals come forward 10 or 11 days each year. So in 2016 Ramadan was particularly arduous in that it covered the summer solstice, which in Britain, especially Scotland, means a late sunset and an early sunrise. He continued to visit Muslim communities from Cardiff to Inverness where he was generally well received, but when it was over he felt thrown out of kilter with the non-Muslim world and required some readjustment.
The book traces a personal journey, which may incur criticism. From his experience of Muslim communities overseas Fergusson did not start with a negative view of Islam. Indeed he finds many aspects of it attractive, but he emphasises he was not tempted to convert. 'For all the undoubted good in Islam, I remained wary of its prescriptive nature, the accompanying rules and regulations that seemed to govern every aspect of daily life. I doubt I could embrace a fourteen-hundred-year-old moral code if it meant forfeiting the right to challenge it.'
This rigidity remains a significant barrier to integration, even in this fourth generation of Muslim immigration into Britain. For Muslims their religion remains a profoundly important eternal verity and that does not sit easily with our now predominantly secular and continually evolving society. The good news is that ISIS is a total perversion of their faith and the vast majority of British Muslims, for the time being anyway, do not actually wish to kill us.