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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 10    Issue 02   01-15 June 2015

Professor A. R. MOMIN

Islam is Britain’s Fastest-Growing Religion

In 1900, almost 80% of the world’s Christians lived in Europe and North America. Today Christianity has declined in large parts of Europe, its traditional heartland, and is surging in Latin America, Africa and China. More than 60% of the world’s Christian population is now concentrated in Latin America, Africa and Asia. The share of Europe in the world’s Christian population has shrunk to about 26%.

The decline of Christianity in its European heartland is evidenced in the declining fertility rates and the fall in the Christian population, in the falling rates of church membership and attendance, in the diminishing recruitment of the clergy, in the growing loss of faith among European Christians, in the radical changes in codes of personal behaviour in respect of sexuality, birth control, abortion, marriage and living together without marrying. A series of Eurobarometer surveys since 1970 in five key European countries (France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy) show that regular church attendance has fallen from about 40% three or four decades ago to less than 15% today. In Germany, between 1965 and 1999, the percentage of church-goers dropped from 75% to less than 30% and has now fallen to less than 15%. In 1851 about 60% of the population of England and Wales attended church services. By the end of the 20th century, the figure fell to about 10%. According to the Church of England, 800,000 Christians attended a Sunday service in the UK in 2013, down from 160,000 in 1968. The available survey data suggest that there is a steady erosion of religious beliefs among Christians and a rapid decline in church membership and attendance. A number of surveys suggest an increasing loss of faith among Christians in several parts of Europe. Almost 40% of the French and 34% of Swedes deny the existence of God.

A rapid decline in church membership and attendance and the escalating costs of maintenance of churches have led to the closure of thousands of Protestant and Catholic churches across Europe. Thousands of churches in Germany, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and other European countries have been converted into restaurants, shopping centres, supermarkets, theatres, banks, offices, libraries, clubs and pubs. Dozens of churches have been sold to Muslims and Sikhs, who have converted them into their respective places of worship. Between 1990 and 2010, 340 Protestant churches were closed down in Germany, and of those 46 were demolished. In Hamburg, a Protestant church building has been bought by the local Muslim community. It is estimated that out of about 45,000 churches in Germany, some 15,000 will soon be out of use.

In the Netherlands, almost 60 churches are shut down, sold or demolished every year. There are about 47,000 churches in the UK and thousands of them have fallen into disrepair. Since 1960, nearly 10,000 churches have been closed down in the UK. Many of them have been converted into homes, offices and pubs or sold to Muslim worshippers. Methodist churches declined from 14,000 in 1932 to 6,000 today and closing down at the rate of 100 a year. The 18th century Huguenot church in the East End of London became a Methodist chapel in 1819, a synagogue at the end of the 19th century and a mosque in 1976.

In 2005, while lamenting the decline of churches in Europe and Australia, Pope Benedict said, “There is no longer evidence for a need for God, even less of Christ. The so-called traditional churches look like they are dying.” Lord William of Oystermouth, former Archbishop of Canterbury, said in 2013 that Britain was no longer a “nation of believers,” adding that it was now “a post-Christian country.”

The Church of England has been in decline for the past three decades. The proportion of Anglicans in the country was 40 per cent in 1983. According to a recent survey carried out by the NatCen’s British Social Attitudes Survey, a well-known poll of public opinion, the Church of England has lost nearly two million followers in the last two years. The percentage of people affiliated to the Church of England dropped from 21 per cent in 2012 to 17 per cent in 2014. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, has warned that unless urgent action is taken the Anglican Church is “just one generation away from extinction.” According to the NatCen’s survey, nearly half (49 per cent) of Britons (24.7 million people) said they have no religious beliefs, compared with 31 per cent in 1983.

Muslims in Britain

The global Muslim population is estimated to be around 1.85 billion today. According to the 2011 Pew Forum’s report, Europe is home to over 38 million Muslims, who make up more than 6 per cent of the continent’s population. The largest Muslim populations in Europe are found in France (over 6 million), Germany (over 4 million), UK (2.9 million) and Spain (1.6 million). The population of Muslims in the Russian Federation is over 20 million. Islam is spreading with amazing speed across several parts of Europe and the United States.

The 2011 census data showed that Islam was the fastest-growing religion in the UK and estimated the country’s Muslim population at 2.7 million (4.8 per cent of the population). The 2015 survey by NatCen shows that the number of Muslims in the UK during 2012-2014 grew by almost a million and that Muslims now make up over 5 per cent of Britain’s population.

A 2013 study by Faith Matters, an inter-faith think-tank, suggested that the number of Britons who have entered the fold of Islam is as high as 100,000, with 5,000 new conversions each year. A study carried out at Swansea University showed that in the past ten years, some 10,000 Britons have converted to Islam, and three-quarters of them were women. Of the 5,200 Britons who converted to Islam in 2010, more than half were white and nearly 75% of them were women. Despite the wide prevalence of the stereotype that Islam is oppressive to women, a quarter of female converts were attracted to Islam mainly because they felt it treated women with honour and dignity.

White Europeans who have converted to Islam include many prominent persons and intellectuals, including Martin Lings, a former Keeper of Oriental Manuscripts at the British Museum, Yusuf Islam, the former pop singer Kete Stevens, Timothy J. Winter, an Oxford scholar, Yahya Birt, the son of BBC’s former chief, Joe Ahmad Dobson, the son of a former cabinet minister in Britain, Lauren Booth, the sister-in-law of former British prime minister Tony Blair, Yuonne Ridley, a British journalist who embraced Islam in 2003 after being held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Angela Collins Telles, an American woman who travelled across Egypt and Syria and was impressed by the people’s generosity and kindness there.

Germany’s Highest Court Lifts Ban on Headscarves

In 2004 some states in Germany banned the wearing of headscarves for state school teachers on the grounds that headscarves could cause disruption in the classroom and also raised questions about a teacher’s neutrality. Curiously, the order exempted the wearing of Christian crucifixes and crosses in classrooms.

In a landmark judgment, Germany’s highest court, the Federal Constitutional Court, on March 13, 2015 struck down the ban on headscarves and ruled that the ban was discriminatory and violated religious freedom guaranteed by the constitution.

Laws and regulations related to the wearing of Islamic veils and headscarves vary across Europe. In 2004 France banned teachers and students from wearing the veil in public schools. Public servants were also barred from wearing headscarves. Though headscarves are banned in public schools, university students are exempted from the ban. In 2010 France prohibited the wearing of face-covering veils in public places. The ban on face-covering veils was challenged in the European Court of Human Rights, but in 2014 the court held the ban to be lawful. In 2011 Belgium also banned full-face veils in public places.

There is no legal ban on the wearing of veils in the UK. However, authorities have the right to restrict the wearing of headscarves in schools or at the work place.

Venice Church Temporarily Converted into Mosque

The Venice Biennale, an international art festival that is held in the city every two years, is being held from May 9 to November 22 this year.

Venice and its surrounding areas have a population of around 20,000 Muslims. However, Venice has no mosque. A historic Catholic church – the deconsecrated church of Santa Maria della Misercordia – was temporarily converted into a mosque for the convenience of visitors to the Venice Biennale as well as local worshippers. The installation, including a mihrab and a make-shift pulpit, was planned and executed by Chritp Buchel, a Swiss-Icelandic artist. The mosque became one of the most visited exhibitions outside of the main exhibition area of the Biennale. The people responsible for the move hoped that this would help in clearing misconceptions about Islam and Muslims and in building bridges of understanding and harmony between the predominantly white Christian visitors and the Muslim community. The make-shift mosque was meant to be in use for the duration of the Venice Biennale.

The installation of the make-shift mosque caused the ire of the civic authorities, who ordered the mosque to be closed down on the grounds that proper permission had not been obtained for using the church as a place of Muslim worship. What actually prompted the decision of the civic authorities were the deeply-entrenched prejudices and stereotypes about Islam and Muslims in Italy.

It is instructive to reflect on how some nations wilfully erase the memories of their historic and cultural legacy. Medieval Venice witnessed a remarkably cordial and long encounter -- panning nearly a thousand years, from the early 9th century to the late 18th -- with the Islamic world. Venice’s distinctive geographical location between East and West and her strong mercantile character gave her a definite advantage. The republic’s economic prosperity and political stability greatly depended on extensive commercial links with the Islamic world, especially with Granada, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Anatolia and Ottoman Turkey. Trade with Muslim countries accounted for more than half of the republic’s revenues. Venice was widely known as Europe’s principal supplier of oriental goods and spices. It imported a variety of luxury goods and commodities from Islamic lands, including silks, dyes, spices, aromatics, carpets, gems, cotton, sugar, alkali, glassware and metalware, which were then sold to European customers. On the other hand, it supplied to Muslim lands a wide variety of raw materials and commodities, including timber, metals (especially gold, silver, tin, iron and mercury), linen, wool, olive oil, dried fruits, furs and honey, which were obtained from southern Italy, Crete, Cyprus and other parts of Europe.

From the 11th to the 17th century, glassware and ceramics produced in Islamic lands were exported on an extensive scale to Venice, whence they were taken to other parts of Europe. Chinese porcelain reached Europe via Mamluk Egypt. In 1442, the sultan of Egypt presented to the Venetian doge Francesco Foscari 30 pieces of Ming porcelain. Muslim artists and craftsmen in Egypt and Syria for centuries had been undisputed leaders in glass technology, technique and artistic decoration. They particularly excelled in enamelled and gilded glass. For centuries artistic glassmaking in the Islamic world had no serious rival anywhere in Europe. Decorated and gilded glass objects made in Egypt and Syria began arriving in Venice around the 10th century, which soon caught the fancy of European princes and knights and members of the nobility. Venetian artists realised the commercial potential of decorated glass objects and began avidly copying the designs and motifs of Islamic glassware. Raw materials for glassmaking, including high-quality soda ash, cobalt mineral, high-grade alkali and broken glass, began to be imported from the Eastern Mediterranean. Soon glassmaking became a thriving industry and Venice emerged as a prime centre of glassmaking in Europe.

Apart from Spain and southern Italy, Venice was the only city in Europe that established substantial and direct channels of communication—through trade and commerce, diplomatic missions, exchange of gifts and intercultural dialogue—with the Islamic world. Venice was the only city in Europe that for centuries received a regular stream of Mamluk and Ottoman dignitaries and emissaries. The Venetians also developed a tradition of sending merchants to the Eastern Mediterranean to learn Arabic, book keeping and trading skills.

With the deepening of commercial, diplomatic and cultural exchanges between Venice and the Islamic world, Muslim artisans and craftsmen in Egypt and Syria in the early 14th century started producing art works and luxury articles in accordance with European tastes. Venetian merchants began custom-ordering luxury objects from Egypt and Syria. Inlaid metalware produced in Islamic lands and imported by Venetian merchants became so popular in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries that they came to be known as Veneto-Saracenic. Carpets produced in Cairo, Damascus and Anatolia and imported by Venetian merchants became extremely popular in Europe. Churches and other ecclesiastical institutions acquired oriental carpets, which were used to cover large tables around which meetings were held. Many Venetian paintings depict oriental carpets in religious settings. The treasury of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice contains numerous Islamic objects of great value, including a 16th century carpet that was donated by the Persian king Shah Abbas I with instructions that it be used to display the basilica’s holy relics during religious celebrations.

Venice’s cosmopolitan culture and her fascination with the Islamic world are conspicuously reflected in the republic’s architectural monuments, which represent a distinctive synthesis of Italian, Byzantine, Islamic and Renaissance styles. Monuments of Venetian architecture, such as St Mark’s Basilica, Doge’s Palace, Palazzo Ducale, Torre dell’Orologia and the Basilica of San Pietro Casletto, have Islamic-style windows, crenellations and courtyards. Venetian architecture prominently incorporated oriental designs and motifs, including colourful and elaborate ornamentation.

Around the middle of the 15th century, a remarkable reversal of roles between Venetian glassmakers and their counterparts in the Islamic world began to take place. While the glassmaking industry in Egypt and Syria began to decline, Venetian artists and craftsmen made rapid advances in the technique and decoration of glassmaking. In the 15th century, glass factories were established in Murano. Within a few decades Venice replaced Cairo and Damascus as the most prominent centre of glassmaking in the world. In the 16th century Venetian glass objects began to be exported to various parts of Europe as well as to Egypt, Syria and Ottoman Turkey. Venetian glassmakers adapted the shapes and designs of their glassware to the stylistic requirements of foreign markets.

The Venetians struck gold coins in 1284 -- perhaps the earliest gold coins in Europe -- which were known as zecchino, a term derived from Arabic, for the purpose of trade with the Islamic world. Coins of this type can be traced even in southern France as late as the end of the 13th century. These gold coins bore Islamic inscriptions and a date from the Islamic calendar.

In the 15th century, Venice became the most important centre of printing in Europe. The Latin translation of the complete works of Aristotle together with Averroes’s commentaries was printed in Venice in 1483. This was followed by the Latin translation of the works of Avicenna and Alfarabius. Avicenna’s classic Al-Qanun (or Canon) was first printed in its Latin translation in Venice in 1595, which served as the principal text for medical education in several European universities until the 18th century.

Plight of Rohingya Muslims Worsens

The Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar, who are mostly concentrated in the western Rakhine state and are estimated to number around 1.3 million, continue to face widespread discrimination, exclusion, stigmatization and persecution at the hands of the majority Buddhist population with the connivance and even support of the Burmese government. Though they have been living in the country for several decades, the authorities consider them illegal migrants and settlers from Bangladesh. Thousands of Rohingyas have fled on harrowing and perilous boat journeys to Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Myanmar’s first official census in 30 years was carried out with the assistance of the United Nations between 30 March and 10 April 2014 at a cost of $50 million. The census, which was released in May 2015, identifies and recognizes 135 ethnic groups in the country. Surprisingly, it excludes the Rohingya minority. Human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have criticized the Burmese government and the United Nations for excluding the Rohingya Muslims from the census. “The exclusion of the Rohingya from the census is an unacceptable capitulation by the international community to the starkly racist and repressive policies of the Burmese government,” said David Mathieson, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Despite the evident discrimination and persecution suffered by the Rohingyas, opposition leader, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi has not uttered a word on their plight. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly urged her to break her silence and to voice her opposition to the persecution of the hapless minority. Political commentators say that her studied silence in the matter should be seen in the context of the lead-up to the November 2015 elections. As a shrewd politician, she wants to avoid the risk of alienation the Buddhist majority.

Bigotry in the Sky

Sentiments of distrust, bias and hatred against Muslims are deeply entrenched in Western societies. They are often manifested in racial slurs, offensive and abusive remarks and aggressive posturing.

In the last week of May this year, Tahera Ahmad, Northwestern University associate chaplain, was travelling on a United Airlines flight. She requested a flight attendant for an unopened can of Diet Coke. The flight attendant told her, “We are unauthorized to give unopened cans to people, because they may use it as a weapon on the plane.” The same attendant gave a passenger sitting next to her an unopened can of beer. When she protested, she was subjected to racial slur and abusive rebukes by some passengers. Ms Ahmad wrote about the incident on her Facebook page, which prompted pledges to boycott the airline.

On June 3, after an investigation, United Airlines offered an apology to Ms Ahmad for the shameful behaviour of the flight attendant and said that the flight attendant would not be allowed to work on its flights.

Authorities in Washington Prohibit Prophet Cartoons on Metro

Pamela Geller, head of the American Freedom Defence Initiative who is known for her vituperative attacks on Islam and Muslims, organized an anti-Islam “Jihad Watch Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” on May 3 in Garland, Texas. The contest offered a $10,000 award for the best cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad. As the contest was underway, police say two men drove 1,000 miles from Phoenix and shot at a police car outside the venue. They were swiftly killed by one of the security men stationed at the venue.

The winning cartoon showed a sword-wielding Prophet saying “You can’t draw me.” Geller sought permission from the Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to have the cartoons displayed on buses and in five Metro stations. However, the authorities refused to give permission to display the provocative cartoons on Washington’s public transport system.

Meanwhile, Geert Wilders, the rabid anti-Islam Dutch politician, announced on May 3 that he planned to show the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad on Dutch television as part of his election campaign.

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