A Long Jihad: The pursuit of social good in a society fearful of Muslim activism

A Long Jihad: The pursuit of social good in a society fearful of Muslim activism
Book Club: Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari's memoir offers a reflection of British Muslim engagement at the highest levels of British public life and should be widely read, writes Sadek Hamid.
5 min read
26 Sep, 2018
Muhammad Abdul Bari has built a reputation for community engagement [AFP]

The word jihad is rarely out of the headlines. Like other Islamic theological constructs, it has been understood differently in various historical and political contexts. Often translated into English as "holy war", but actually literally meaning to strive or struggle, it derives from the Arabic root jahada - which implies exertion, effort and diligence.  

In Western public discourse, the concept generates fear and is linked to the ideologies collectively referred to as Jihadism - associated with the likes of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group. 

Many Muslims believe that the idea of jihad has been hijacked by extremists who have converted it into a violent nihilistic ideology. Though the term does have a martial dimension bearing some resemblance to Christian "Just war" theory - critics of Islam and jihadists ignore more irenic connotations that include notions of personal struggle, striving for social justice and peaceful resistance that were originally associated with it.

This seemingly counterintitutively titled book offers a fascinating retrospective of a respected British Muslim leader. A Long Jihad: My Quest For The Middle Way adds to the growing list of British Muslim memoirs over the past decade, and blends personal narrative with political commentary of some of the key events to occur within British Muslim communities in the past twenty years.

The author, Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, is a former military pilot, research physicist and teacher who has written several texts on parenting. He is most noted for his community activism and was thrust into public prominence after the 7 July 2005 terrorist attacks for his work with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). 

A Long Jihad is published by Kube Books

The main thread that weaves together his personal journey and public service is his commitment to embodying what he calls "the Middle Way" - a Quranic ethic that suggests virtuous balance. This ideal was first taught to him by his parents growing up in rural Bangladesh and is a commitment which has shaped his life.

He argues that Muslim communities should not be judged by the extremism and violence committed by the few. At the same time, Muslims should reclaim "the other jihad" - of individual self improvement, that "personal self-purification through pure intention, patience and determination to achieve one's best ...[and] bring good to oneself, family and community" is a jihad that should be fought for.

Read more: The misinterpretation of 'Jihad'

The author illustrates his personal jihad by interspersing biographic fragments with social observation. His story begins with an account of his circular route to the UK as an Air Force Officer arriving in England from Bangladesh in the late 1970s to undergo training with the RAF, and his gradual involvement with Muslim community organisations in the Tower Hamlets area of London.

His foray into Islamic activism begins after he eventually settles in the UK in the mid-1980s and plays a pivotal role in the formation of the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE) based in the iconic East London Mosque complex. His accounts of the development of the mosque and the background to the creation of the MCB and the controversies that have accompanied it make interesting reading for researchers of these topics. 

Dr Bari experiences his steepest learning curve in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings which triggered feelings of despair after the joy felt the day before - when London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympics. 

Some of the victims of the Aldgate bombing were treated by medical professionals in the mosques, a factor which forced him to take a more public role and provide leadership to the MCB as British Muslims struggled to deal with the backlash after the attacks. 

His analysis of the sensitive issue of religious radicalisation and terrorism is particularly insightful. This is traced to the impact of 9/11 on British Muslims and moves on to explore how young people are drawn to violent extremism.

He does not evade difficult issues such as the controversy generated when the East London Mosque was found to have allowed extremists such as the US preacher Anwar al-Awlaki to use its premises.

He points out that those who are drawn to Jihadism begin their road to violent radicalisation through multiple routes that can vary from those who grow up in pious families to some who come from very secular backgrounds.

The threat of the far-right is also examined with anecdotes from his friendship with the MP Jo Cox who was murdered by a sympathiser of the "Britain First" group.

The author's experiences of community activism transcended those only concerned with Muslim issues as he went on to build bridges with other communities and social justice organisations. Prominent among them is The East London Citizens Organisation (TELCO) which is a founding chapter of the Citizens UK alliance and has more than 80 civil society institutions, faith groups and charities that advocate for various campaigns such as a living wage, improved mental health and challenging hate crime. All of these efforts, he says, are a jihad for the common good.

Dr Bari's contributions to institution building, inter-faith work and improving community relations are exemplary. His insights on building family, faith and community relations should be should be considered carefully. This book offers an interesting reflection of British Muslim engagement at the highest levels of public life and should be read widely by policymakers, media professionals, community work practitioners and activists within Muslim communities and beyond.

Dr Sadek Hamid is an academic who has written widely about British Muslims. He is the author of 'Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism' and is co-author of 'British Muslims: New Directions in Islamic Thought, Creativity and Activism'.

Follow him on Twitter: @sadekhamid

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.